This afternoon, I visited the British Library's Sacred exhibition, a wonderful collection of books from Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the three religions of the Abrahamic tradition, the members of which are collectively known to Moslems as 'the people of the book'.
A number of these items are extremely beautiful - some highly decorated, some extremely simple; some seem in a magical way to be both. But to a book lover, they are wonderful but slightly unreal - it's hard to believe that these texts were in daily use, some are too grand and rich, some are too small or too impractical, and some are in such excellent condition that they've never apparently been subject to any rough and tumble. But they are full of interest, even to someone like myself who is not a member of any of the religions represented. And although, being educated in England in a reasonably traditional way, I've a stronger background knowledge of Christianity than of the other two, I have just spent a year in a Moslem country.
Several points struck me immediately. First, our distance from all three original texts - in the first case of the exhibition, I could read none of the books, as I read no Greek, no Hebrew, and no Arabic; and even later Latin and English texts are extremely demanding; there was certainly no sense for me in which the Christian texts were accessible in ways the others were not. Second, there were a number of surprises - a Gospels in Arabic, for example, or a Hebrew marriage contract from Herat in Afghanistan - evidence that these three strands of history have intermingled freely throughout history.
It's almost impossible to make a selection from the riches - but I'll try, with three books just as examples of the many treasures there: beautiful naturalistic illustrations in the Golden Haggadah, a Jewish Genesis from about 1320; Sultan Baybar's Qur'an, made in Cairo in 1304-06, magnificent, rich and golden, yet clear, restrained and elegant at the same time; and the Lindisfarne Gospels, an Anglo-Saxon masterpiece from the late C7th or early C8th.
The pictures in this post are not from the exhibition; there are three general pictures, one from each tradition, and one frontispiece from my own oldest book, a King James Bible of 1611 - of no financial value, as it's very badly damaged, is missing several books, and is - as you can see - heavily graffitoed: but it is still a very fine book to own, which came to me through my father's family, although it only came into their possession in the C19th, I believe.
But back to the British Library exhibition: if you go (and it finishes soon) allow at least two hours - I did and I'm going back - and take a woolly, it's jolly cold! You can see a selection of eight of the marvellous works in their exhibition by visiting the British Library's Turning The Pages feature. It's really spectacular - you'll need to install Shockwave if you don't already have it - but you can literally turn the pages, see great reproductions, hear an audio commentary or read a textual one, or listen to a recitation (interestingly, 'bible' means 'book', but 'Qur'an' mean 'recitation'). It's quite the finest bookish use of the web I've seen so far!