The Zaydi literary tradition is among the richest and most variegated traditions within Islamic civilization and at the same time one of the least studied. The literary production by Zaydi scholars stretched over more than one thousand years covering a wide spectrum of traditional disciplines, such as law and legal theory, exegesis, Qur'anic sciences and traditions, geography and encyclopedias, medicine and mathematics, history and biography, grammar and philology, theology and literature (prose as well as poetry). Moreover, Zaydis were at all times intimately familiar with the relevant intellectual strands beyond the confines of Zaydism and actively engaged in them, and the typical library of a Zaydi scholar would comprise not only works belonging to his own religious tradition but also an array of titles of authors from other communities (Sunni, Twelver Shii, Ismaili).
It is fortunate that the majority of Zaydi literature is still extant, mostly in the form of manuscripts. On the downside, the Zaydi manuscript tradition is widely dispersed. The most significant and by far largest collections of Zaydi manuscripts are housed by the many public and private libraries of Yemen (estimates range between 40,000 to 100,000 manuscripts). In addition to this, several European libraries own considerable numbers of Zaydi manuscripts (about 10,000 manuscripts), as is also the case with North American libraries (less than 1,000 manuscripts). Of great importance are also the many libraries of the Middle East, especially in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Iraq, and other places. In view of the poor state of scholarship in the area of Zaydi studies, the challenges that result from the significant dispersal of the material, and the disastrous situation in present-day Yemen, the tasks at hand are threefold, namely “preserving” and “studying” the Zaydi manuscript tradition, and “democratizing” the access to these materials. To varying degrees, the Zaydi Manuscript Tradition (ZMT): A Digital Portal address all three of them.
An Endangered Cultural Heritage
The Zaydi community is a branch of Shii Islam that has flourished mainly in two regions, namely the mountainous Northern Highlands of Yemen and the Caspian regions of Northern Iran. In the early twelfth century, however, the political and cultural center of Zaydism eventually shifted from Iran to Yemen, with Iranian Zaydism gradually falling into oblivion. Most of the community's literary and religious legacy is preserved in public and private libraries in Yemen (many of which date back to the thirteenth century), and neighboring countries. In addition, Iranian libraries also hold some remnants of the literary traditions of Iranian Zaydism.
Towards the end of the 19th century, a number of European explorers and merchants sojourned in Yemen where they brought together considerable collections of manuscripts which they later sold to European libraries. The Austrian Eduard Glaser (1855-1908) visited Yemen on four occasions, and he sold manuscripts to the Königliche Bibliothek zu Berlin (nowadays Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin) (265 manuscripts), the British Museum in London (328 manuscripts), and the Austrian National Library in Vienna (282 manuscripts). The collections of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, established in 1609 by Cardinal Federico Borromeo (1564-1631), were significantly augmented when the library acquired in 1909 the collection of Arabic manuscripts that had been brought together by the Italian merchant Giuseppe Caprotti (1862-1919). Caprotti had spent 34 years in Yemen and had collected more than 1,700 manuscripts during his sojourn in South Arabia. In 1914, Luca Beltrami (1854-1933) donated another 180 manuscripts from Yemen to the collection. The Caprotti and the Beltrami collections are called the “Nuovo Fondo”—this being the most significant collection of Yemeni manuscript existing outside of Yemen (1,792 manuscripts). In addition, important collections of Zaydi manuscripts from Yemen are owned by Leiden University Library (about 200 manuscripts), the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich (157 manuscripts), and the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (about 150 manuscripts). Several European libraries continued to purchase considerable amounts of manuscripts of Yemeni provenance throughout the 20th century (Berlin, Leiden).
Over the course of the second half of the 20th century and during the early 21st century, various microfilming and digitization projects have been carried out by teams from Egypt, Kuwait, Iran, Germany and the US in an attempt to facilitate access to the manuscript holdings of the libraries in Yemen. In some cases, the original codices have been destroyed in the meantime, so that the microfilms and images are all that is left of them. The most recent initiatives include the various digitization efforts funded by the German Foreign Office (“Preserving Yemen’s Cultural Heritage: The Yemen Manuscript Digitization Project” (YMDP), 2010) and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft in conjunction with the National Endowment for the Humanities (“The Yemen Manuscript Digitization Initiative” (YMDI), 2010 through 2013). They aimed at digitizing a select number of private collections in their entirety.
With very few exceptions, none of the duplicated manuscripts is easily accessible. While ordering digital images of holdings in European libraries (provided the costs are affordable) is usually possible, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible to get hold of reproductions of any of the duplicates that are held by Egyptian, Kuwaiti or Iranian entities. Moreover, in some cases there is not even a publicly accessible list of the material that has been digitized. Establishing the current whereabouts of an original manuscript on the basis of an undocumented digital copy involves considerable detective work.
Scholars of Yemen are for all practical reasons unable to access any of the Zaydi manuscripts housed by European or North American libraries—the costs for digital images render them unaffordable, and only a fraction of the close to 11,000 manuscripts have so far been digitized.
Towards an Open and Democratic Research Culture
The purpose of the ZMT in its initial phase is threefold. In an attempt to provide documentation of the various collections and libraries, public and private, it serves as a comprehensive research guide to relevant collections of Zaydi manuscripts, providing accurate information on the location of each collection with a full list of its holdings (shelf marks) and the relevant bibliography for every single codex. While the portal does not contain any additional metadata on the individual manuscripts, each entry is linked to a corresponding entry in the virtual reading room of Hill Museum and Manuscript Library in Minnesota, our partner in the current project (through a stable HMML Project Number and a permanent link). In a second phase of the project, full metadata will be produced for the manuscripts included in the project through HMML's database. Moreover, whenever available, there will also be a link in the Digital Portal to any digital catalogue entry in the repository that owns the original if the repository in question provides a PURL.
In addition to this, the Digital Portal functions as a gateway to manuscripts within the confines of the ZMT that have already been digitized by a variety of institutions and libraries around the globe. Provided a repository has already uploaded digital images of its own holdings, the ZMT Digital Portal directs the user directly to those repositories. In other cases it directs the user to images that have been uploaded to the digital reading room of vHMML.