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Egypt requests French auction house stop sale of Quran manuscript

Egyptian leaders ask UN to help stop sale of rare Quran manuscript, which disappeared from Cairo's Al-Azhar library during French expedition to Egypt

Nevine El-Aref , Sunday 2 Jun 2013
quran manuscript
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Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayeb called on Egypt's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and several leaders of international organisations to stop the auction of a 19th century Quran manuscript at Paris Fontainebleau Osenat house, scheduled for sale on June 9.

El-Tayeb asked Egypt's Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohamed Kamil Ali Amr, United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) chairman Irina Bokova and Islamic Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (ISESCO) director general Abdel Aziz Altawaijri to take action against the sale of the rare manuscript that dates back to the Ottoman era.

According to the auction house catalogue, the manuscript shows the first three pages of the Quran connected to a brown leather notebook with a smooth spine and gilded decoration. The front consists of a net covering with ornaments to spandrels and a central mandorla decorated with interlacing handwritten European digits. The manuscript has a used binder with split back, old restorations, and detached guards, renewed in the early 19th century.

The manuscript shows the two first surah of the Quran: Al Fateha (the opening) and Souret Al-Bakara.

The calligraphy is written in brown ink with some signs and hyphenation written in red ink. The manuscript presents three illuminated pages, which the general title and incipit of the two surahs are in blue, red, green and golden ink.

The catalogue mentioned that the provenance of such a manuscript is from Cairo's Al-Azhar Mosque and mentioned that Jean Joseph Marcel, an owner of a library handwrote "This script was part of the books of the mosque at El-Azhar Kaire. It was saved from pillage and fire the days when this mosque was taken by the French on the revolts of the city who had their general neighbourhood ..."

Al-Azhar Mosque, cultural centre of the Arab world, and a symbol of the revolt against Bonaparte in Cairo. The tax measures, safety and hygiene taken by the French soon made the Muslim population feel belittled and aroused fitna (rebellion) on 21 October 1798.

No action was taken to stop the sale as the French auction house refused to not sell the manuscript since it was taken out of Egypt before 1970. According to a UNESCO convention on the protection of cultural property, no objects of cultural heritage could be excavated or exported from a source nation without elaborate permissions from the national government after 1970. It also prohibited and prevented the illicit Import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property in combat and conflict. Accordingly, the manuscript was out of Egypt legally.

Ossama El-Nahas, reporter at the ISESCO and director of the department of the repatriation of antiquities, called for the immediate return of such rare manuscript because it was taken from Egypt during the French expedition, which is against the UNESCO convention that stipulates the prevention and prohibition of illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property in a combat, conflict and colonised country. "The French expedition led by Napoleon Bonaparte was a colonisation," said El-Nahas.

He also asks UNESCO and ISESCO to issue an amendment of their 1970 convention in order to implement such regulation to antiquities, prohibiting the legal and illegal trading of items before 1970.

Until now, no concrete action has been taken, yet Egypt continues to take all steps to stop such auction and restitute the manuscript. 

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