Traces of a mosque library in Ottoman Greece

The manuscript collection in Dresden is among the oldest ones in Germany. It also stands out due to the provenance of many of its manuscripts being connected to the wars with the Ottomans, particularly during the 17th century. Several manuscripts came to the Royal Library in Dresden from participants in the siege of Vienna. In this post, however, I will focus on five manuscripts connected to a different military encounter which has not received as much attention in the historiography as the siege of Vienna. This is the 1685 siege and sack of the Ottoman-Greek town of Koroni and the looting of the library kept in its central mosque.

Setting the Stage: Koroni

Koroni is situated in the very South West of the Peloponnes, and its strategic importance is attested since Late Antiquity. In the 6th and 7th centuries, the East Roman Empire built a fortress there, and the Venetians and Ottomans after them would also incorporate the fortress into their own defensive systems.

Koroni did not serve only as a stronghold in times of war, however, but also as a way station in routes of commerce and pilgrimage. Koroni benefitted from its prime position also because it produced cochineal for crimson dyes. Through its position in trade networks, it was probably easier to sell larger quantities of these to passing traders.

Location of Koroni (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koroni#/media/File:Greece_location_map.svg)

The Venetians held Koroni for almost three hundred years from the early 13th to the end of the 15th century. The fortress surrendered after the Ottoman conquest of Methoni (August 1500) in the Second Ottoman-Venetian War (1499-1503). Following further military conflicts in the 1530s, Koroni became Ottoman until the Morean War (1684-99) and again from 1715 until 1828, when it became part of the newly founded Greek State.

I am not a fan of listing wars, battles, and sieges in lieu of presenting history. However, I have done so here because of two reasons. On the one hand, my main interest is in the book endowment about which I will say more below. On the other hand, this list serves as a shorthand to demonstrate that Koroni was an important place for over a millennium, although many, and I include myself in this group, may not have ever heard of it.

In fact, in the Morean War it was the first target the Venetian campaign, falling after a siege that lasted from 25 June to 7 August 1685. The fortress also received mentions by 17th-century travellers like the Ottoman Evliya Çelebi or the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Tavernier.

The Mosque Library of Koroni

As in other formerly Venetian colonies like e.g. Cyprus, the Ottomans repurposed the Venetian church of Koroni as their central (in fact, only) mosque. In contrast, the local Greek Orthodox church remained. This fits a larger pattern of appropriating towns and cities elsewhere, and with the Venetians leaving it is doubtful whether their church would have been much in use. Today, it is known as Agios Charambolos church. The minaret used to be where now the bell tower is standing, and it looks like the base is still the same.

Moreover, the structure is situated within the fortress itself. Apart from the garrison and officials, most inhabitants of Koroni were either Christian or Jewish.{1} From this and Çelebi’s visit mentioned above, the question arises who made book endowments to this mosque? Members of the garrison or officials stationed there? Traveling merchants or pilgrims? Or was it muslim locals, after all?

This question is all the more difficult to answer as the library was dissolved shortly after the Venetian occupation of Koroni in August 1685. Any identification of manuscripts once housed there has to rely on paratexts found within manuscripts. And as those were scattered, sold off or, perhaps, destroyed after the occupation, this would be research project in itself.

What I can offer here, is the identification and some information on the provenance before and after the Venetian occupation of Koroni for five manuscripts that ended up in the Saxonian Royal Library in Dresden. The interesting part is that, although some of them took separate routes to Dresden, two of them are connected by a book endowment to the mosque in Koroni, which helps identify at least one patron of the mosque library.

Manuscript Trajectories: From Koroni to Dresden

The the Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek (SLUB) in Dresden holds five Koroni manuscripts. I refer to them by their current reference numbers.

Three of the manuscripts contain exclusively Arabic text, whereas number 273 contains texts in Arabic and Persian. Number 265 covers a wide range of subjects, including ḥadīth and fiqh. Number 273 is more narrow in subject, being basically a reader on Rūmī’s famous poetic collection Maṯnawī, to which a commentary and biographical background information about the author are added. All in all, this combination of texts is not surprising in a 17th-century Ottoman context.

ManuscriptContents
Mscr.Dresd.Ea.155Quran
Mscr.Dresd.Ea.247Quran
Mscr.Dresd.Ea.265Majmūʿa: Excerpts from Kitāb al-Maṣābīḥ, Mašāriq al-anwār, Kitāb ǧawāhir al-biḥār, Tanbīh al-ġāfilīn, ʿUddat ḥiṣn al-ḥaṣīn min kalām saiyid al-mursalīn
Mscr.Dresd.Ea.273Majmūʿa: contains parts of Rūmī’s Maṯnawī, ʿAlī ʿIlmī Dede’s commentary, and a genealogy of Rūmī
Mscr.Dresd.Ea.305Quran
The five Koroni manuscripts in the Dresden collection with summaries of their contents.

What is more surprising, at least for me, is that these manuscripts came to be reunited in Dresden, although they were separated after the Venetian occupation of Koroni. Mscr.Dresd.Ea.155, 247 und 305 were allotted to the military chaplain Johann Gottfried Jentsch who, upon his return to Saxony, gifted it to the Royal Library. Mscr.Dresd.Ea.265 and 273 initially went to Italy and were purchased by Johann Christian Götze (1692-1749) in Rome in 1739.

This implies that the library was divided between different participants of the Venetian campaign in Morea, and that those spoils were traded within European networks over the following decades if not more. It also suggests that the library at Koroni was larger than we know. Where are those other Koroni manuscripts today? Was it accidental that Jentsch only took Quran manuscripts? Moreover, I would be curious to know whether the Koroni provenance played a role in Götze’s decision to buy these manuscripts for the Royal Library.

What makes them Koroni manuscripts?

Obviously, those five manuscripts were all endowed and, one assumes, used in Koroni. However, I want to return to the above questions about the identity of those who endowed books in Koroni.

To reiterate, Koroni was a node in wider networks of trade and defense. It saw a large turnover in people because merchants would make a stop there on their travels; soldiers and officials would be stationed there on rotation. How is that reflected in the book endowments?

Whereas two of the Quran manuscripts do not really leave any clues as to who had them made where, their more or less lavish design suggests that they had been produced for an affluent and, one would assume, important client. Mscr.Dresd.Ea.247 displays golden illuminations both within the text and framing it.

Mscr.Dresd.Ea.305 goes even further, with the use of red, blue and golden ink for the text, a blue-and-gold frame as well as golden illuminations in the margins, and both illuminations and illustrations on the first pages. In contrast to Mscr.Dresd.Ea.155 whose design is much simpler, those manuscripts suggest they were endowed by a commander or high official.

At least for Mscr.Dresd.Ea.247, we know more about its background. It was, in fact, produced only five years before Koroni fell to the Venetians in Anapoli, today Nafplion/Nauplion, on the other side of the Peloponnes. I don’t know enough about how Ottoman soldiers and officers were assigned their stations to say anything substantial about the relevance of this information.

The case is different for the two majmuʿas which Götze had bought in Rome. Those contain endowment notes and, while undated, they give us the name of the person who endowed them to the mosque in Koroni. Judging by his name, Muḥammad Ibn al-Ḥājj ʿAlī al-Qūrūnī was indeed a local.

Al-Qūrūnī was not only the owner but also the scribe of Mscr.Dresd.Ea.265, dated his copy of excerpts from Kitāb jawāhir al-biḥār and Tanbīh al-ghāfilīn to 956/1549. Since the dated parts of Mscr.Dresd. Ea.273 were penned between 960/1553 and 968/1560-61, we can assume he endowed both manuscripts later than that. In the end, jis books remained in the mosque of Koroni for about a century. We thus see that the mosque library in Koroni benefitted from a diverse set of endowers, some of them local, some only there for a certain period of time.

For those who are interested in the manuscripts themselves, the project “Orient-Digital” (Twitter: @od_portal / Blog: https://od-portal.hypotheses.org) will publish their catalogue entries by late 2021 or early 2022, and the two majmuʿas are currently awaiting digitization by the SLUB in Dresden.

Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "Traces of a mosque library in Ottoman Greece", in Damascus Anecdotes, February 6, 2021, https://thecamel.hypotheses.org/2175.
  1. At least this is suggested by numbers from the late 16th century; Heywood, C. J. (1986). “Ḳoron”The Encyclopedia of Islam, New Edition, Volume V: Khe–Mahi. Leiden and New York: BRILL. pp. 270–271. []

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