The Refaiya Library
The collection of approximately 3200 Oriental manuscripts at Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig also includes the
so-called "Refaiya" (Rifā‛īya), the private library of the Rifā‛ī family from Damascus. Carefully
preserved and handed down over several centuries until the 19th century, it is a unique example of a cohesive,
traditional Arabic-Islamic family library. The preservation in its historical form goes back to the direct
acquisition by the Prussian Consul and Arabist Johann Gottfried Wetzstein from its last owner, ʿUmar Efendi
al-Rifāʿī al-Ḥamawī, in 1853.
Refaiya Library comprises 488 manuscripts, including 89 composite manuscripts. In the course of the acquisition
process, some objects were sorted out, while others were added to the collection, so that the 432 volumes
initially catalogued under the shelfmark D.C. were augmented to 488 volumes during the years 1853 to 1855. For the
most part, the manuscripts are carefully written exemplars with Oriental leather bindings, or covers of cardboard,
coloured paper or marbled paper. Part of the collection are 16 ornamented and illuminated books, as well as,
according to the Orientalist Fleischer, twelve possible autographs. Concerning the works’ contents, Fleischer
pointed out that works on Qurʾanic science and religion, commentaries and meta-commentaries typical in Near
Eastern mosque and madrasa libraries are kept "within reasonable bounds" in this private library, and
that the formation of the Refaiya collection shows an apparent systematic character (cf. Fleischer, Heinrich
Leberecht: Die Refaiya. In:
1854, 573-588, p. 575). Refaiya Library is in fact representative of many traditional fields of Islamic knowledge
with a comparatively high share of poetry (44 objects) and mysticism (41 objects). Furthermore, Refaiya Library
also includes several texts from genres that are rarely or not at all found in public Islamic manuscript
libraries, such as historiographical works, biographies, belles lettres / adab literature, travelogues, hunting
literature, natural sciences, and last but not least, eroticism.
The oldest manuscript, the highly valuable Vollers No. 505 is a multiple text manuscript containing three works.
Two of them are dated 990 AD (380 H) and contain Diwans (a collection of poems) of the poets Abū Ṭālib ʿAbd Manāf
and Abū al-Aswad al-Duʾalī. The third work, the Diwan of Suḥaim ʿAbd Ban al-Ḥasḥās (Vollers 505c), is incomplete
and not dated, but can be attributed with high probability to the same century (or year?), since all three works
are written by the same copyist. The most recent dated manuscript originates from the year 1262/1846 (No. 758).
Although the Refaiya library preserves manuscripts from all centuries, there is a stronger focus on works from the
17th and 18th centuries.
The remarkably large number of secondary entries, such as ownership statements and reading annotations, in nearly
all manuscripts indicate that the library was actively used. These marginal notes, going beyond merely referring
to the content of the works, are proof of century-long intensive intellectual engagement connected to the Rifāʿī
family and previous owners.
The Refaiya bears the traces of its history, the history of its owners and users. It constitutes the cultural
archive of an Islamic scholarly tradition of knowledge and books which perished when it was sold. Thanks to its
material condition and the fact that it was put together on the basis of individual preferences, it provides
answers to cultural and intellectual historical questions and offers a glance into the intellectual and cultural
interests of its owners directly prior to the early stages of modernisation, the effects of which radically
changed all sectors of public and private life, to the point that the Refaiya lost its value and use as a
Database-supported cataloguing, research and digital presentation of the Refaiya (2008−2013)
Within the scope of a DFG-funded project, Refaiya Library was subject to academic research in addition to database
development and its digital presentation from 2008 to 2013. The comprehensive purpose of the project was to study
and catalogue the Refaiya in relation to its original historical-cultural context and inherent function and
The historical research perspective aimed at reconstructing the history of a pre-modern Arabic-Islamic private
library passed down through generations in addition to illustrating its roots within the Ottoman Syria social,
cultural and political context. The trilingual database (English, German and Arabic) and the digitisation
facilitated the presentation of the Damascene family library on the Internet and has made the manuscripts
accessible for further research at an international level, including the Islamic world.
to Refaiya Team page
Research on the manuscript notes in the Refaiya
Complementary to the historical research perspective, the codicological analysis concentrates on the individual
manuscript by examining the numerous secondary entries, colophons, marginal notes, collations, physical
characteristics etc. in order to obtain detailed information regarding the life cycle of the manuscripts and
consequently the library itself.
The following classification according to types of manuscript notes applies:
- collation annotation
- birth annotation
- death annotation
Systematically recorded in a database, these often short and seemingly inconspicuous notes, usually consisting
only of names and devotional formulas, can nevertheless answer an astonishing number of questions. Which social
classes had access to books? What material value did the manuscripts have? Which titles were met with particular
interest? Which genres and books were also read by a Christian and Jewish readership? In addition, the entries
also provide information on the age and transmission of individual manuscripts or, as in the case of the Refaiya,
the development of entire libraries.
Bindings in the Refaiya collection (exemplary selection)
The Refaiya binding-database is a pilot project that for the first time systematically presents and catalogues
Islamic book bindings online. Overall, the database serves as a comparative basis for the ornamentation of Islamic
book bindings which will in the future facilitate the chronological and local classification of bindings. The
classification and description of the ornaments is based on the standard work by Max Weisweiler (1962). Each
dataset is divided into a general and a detailed s. The general description provides information on the complete
binding, whereas the detailed descriptions are dedicated to specific parts and ornaments of the binding (front and
back cover, fore-edge flap, envelope flap). True-to-scale-representations of rubbings of the complete binding as
well as its single ornaments serve as images. The advantage of rubbings over digitised images is that they allow
for a more precise and high-contrast display of the binding. By linking the binding descriptions with the
catalogue entry of the relevant manuscript, both the rubbings and the scans of the book bindings can be viewed.
Despite its relevance to cultural history, the study of watermarks on European paper imported into Islamic
countries for manuscript production has so far received little attention in Islamic codicology. The systematic
cataloguing and analysis of the watermarks in the Refaiya Library aims at contributing to the provision of new
evidence in this field from which interdisciplinary research on the impact of paper in terms of economic, social
and cultural structures will benefit as well. Initially, the project examined the following questions on the basis
of a few dated manuscript and a preliminary review of the motifs:
- motif groups and number of motifs in the manuscripts
- proportion of dated and undated manuscripts on watermark paper
- proportion of the mixture of different types of paper in the manuscripts
- European production sites that exported paper to the Middle East
- watermarks as a means of dating undated manuscripts
Publications of the Refaiya project
- Wiesmüller, Beate: Die Rifā‘īya (Refaiya). Katalog einer Privatbibliothek aus dem osmanischen Damaskus in der
Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig. Bearbeitet von Beate Wiesmüller unter Mitarbeit von Sebastian Hanstein. Hrsg.
von Verena Klemm (Katalog der Handschriften der Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig. Neue Folge 4). Wiesbaden 2016.
- Wiesmüller, Beate: Die Wasserzeichen der Refaiya-Bibliothek. In: Writings and Writing. Investigations in
Islamic Text and Script in Honour of Dr Januarius Justus Witkam. Ed. By Robert M. Kerr and Thomas Milo.
Cambridge 2011, 449-483.
The Watermarks from the Refaiya Library
by Steven Black)
- Wiesmüller, Beate, in Zusammenarbeit mit Güler Doğan Averbek: Tables of Contents in Arabic Manuscripts as
Exemplified by Works from the Refaïya Library from Damascus. In: manuscript cultures 18 (2022), 103-132.
- Wiesmüller, Beate: Ledereinbände der Refaiya-Handschriften. In: Refaiya 1853. Buchkultur in Damaskus. Hrsg.
von Verena Klemm (Schriften aus der Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig; 29). Leipzig 2013.
- Liebrenz, Boris: Die Rifā῾īya aus Damaskus. Eine Privatbibliothek in osmanischer Zeit und ihr kulturelles
Umfeld (The Rifāʽiyya from Damascus: A Private Ottoman-Era Library and Its Cultural Context), Leiden, Brill,
- Liebrenz, Boris: Lese- und Besitzvermerke in der Leipziger Rifā῾īya-Bibliothek. In: Manuscript Notes as
Documentary Sources, eds. Andreas Görke and Konrad Hirschler. Beirut, Orient-Institut Beirut, 2011, 141-162.
- Liebrenz, Boris: Die Rifā῾īya. Neue Forschungen zur Geschichte einer Familienbibliothek aus dem osmanischen
Damaskus. In: Das Buch in Antike, Mittelalter und Neuzeit. Sonderbestände der Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig,
eds. Thomas Fuchs, Christoph Mackert, and Reinhold Scholl. Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz, 2012, 265-279.
- Liebrenz Boris: The library of Aḥmad al-Rabbāṭ. Books and their audience in 12th to 13th / 18th to 19th
century Syria. In: Marginal Perspectives on Early Modern Ottoman Culture. Missionaries, Travelers, Booksellers,
eds. Ralf Elger and Ute Pietruschka (Halle [Saale]: Zentrum für Interdisziplinäre Regionalstudien, 2013), 17-59.
- Liebrenz, Boris: Mit Gold nicht aufzuwiegen. Der Wert von Büchern im osmanischen Syrien (11.-13./17.-19.
Jahrhundert). In: Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 164 (2014), 653-686.
- Liebrenz, Boris: The Sciences in Two Ottoman Private Libraries from Syria. In: Science in the Islamicate
World, ed. Sonja Brentjes. London: Routledge, 2022.
- Klemm, Verena (Hg.): Refaiya 1853. Buchkultur in Damaskus. Mit Beiträgen von Verena Klemm, Boris Liebrenz,
Philipp Moosdorf, Anke Scharrahs und Beate Wiesmüller. Katalog zur Ausstellung vom 18. April – 14. Juli 2013 in
der Bibliotheca Albertina (Schriften aus der Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig, 29). Leipzig, 2013.
- Liebrenz, Boris: Arabische, Persische und Türkische Handschriften in Leipzig. Geschichte ihrer Sammlung und
Erschließung von den Anfängen bis zu Karl Vollers (Schriften aus der Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig, 13).
Arabic, Persian and Turkish Manuscripts in the University Library Leipzig. Being an abridged translation of H.
O. Fleischer: Codices Orientalium Linguarum Qui in Bibliotheca Senatoria Civitatis Lipsiensis Asservantur
- Liebrenz, Boris: Die arabischen, persischen und türkischen Handschriften der ehemaligen Ratsbibliothek
Leipzig. Geschichte ihrer Sammlung und Erschließung. In: Wolfenbütteler Notizen zur Buchgeschichte 32 (2007),
- Liebrenz, Boris: Troubled History of a Masterpiece. Notes on the creation and peregrinations of Öljeytü’s
monumental Baghdad Qur’ān. In: Journal of Islamic Manuscripts 7 (2016), 217-238.
- Klemm, Verena: Ein Garten im Ärmel. Islamische Buchkultur. Mit Beiträgen von Stefanie Brinkmann, Verena Klemm,
Boris Liebrenz, Beate Wiesmüller u.a. Katalog zur Ausstellung vom 10. Juli – 27. September 2008 in der
Bibliotheca Albertina. Hrsg. von Verena Klemm (Schriften aus der Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig, 12). Leipzig
- Brinkmann Stefanie, Wiesmüller Beate (eds.): From Codicology to Technology. Islamic Manuscripts and their
Place in Scholarship. Mit Beiträgen von Stefanie Brinkmann, Thoralf Hanstein, Verena Klemm, Jens Kupferschmidt
u.a. Berlin 2009.
- Wiesmüller, Beate: Von Istanbul nach Palembang. Die unerschlossenen islamischen Handschriften der
Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig. In: Das Buch in Antike, Mittelalter und Neuzeit. Die Sonderbestände der
Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig. Hrsg. von Thomas Fuchs, Christoph Mackert, Reinhold Scholl (Schriften und
Zeugnisse zur Buchgeschichte Band 20). Wiesbaden 2012, 281-303.
- Wiesmüller, Beate: in Zusammenarbeit mit Güler Doğan Averbek: The Islamic Manuscripts Oskar Rescher sold to
the Leipzig University Library 1925-1934. In: Journal of Islamic Review 12,1 (2022) 157-185.