Fragments of Arabic poetry on papyrus: questions of textual genesis, attribution, and representation.

Author:Muehlhaeusler, Mark
Position::Critical essay


Among the treasures of the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah are the Middle Eastern manuscripts in its Department of Special Collections. Unbeknownst to most, this library houses the largest collection of Arabic papyri and paper documents in the United States. These artifacts were brought to Utah by the first curator of the Middle East Library, Egyptian historian Aziz Suriyal Atiya, who assembled and preserved some 770 Arabic papyri, and well over one thousand paper documents. This collection has now been digitized and is publicly available. (1) It deserves considerable scholarly attention because it includes a large number of well-preserved, early documentary texts, as well as several literary papyri, a fascinating array of talismans and magical incantations, and block prints.

Below I present an edition of one papyrus fragment, P.Utah 280, which contains several lines of Arabic poetry. (2) An examination of variant readings and attributions of the texts in the papyrus will lead to a discussion of the place of this artifact within the literary tradition as a whole. Finally, I will give some consideration to the work of editors in interpreting and representing texts and their variants. First, let me begin with a material description.

P.Utah 280

Dark brown papyrus, 38.3 x 16.9 cm, with writing on both sides: on the recto is the fragment of a letter--probably the bottom left-hand section of a very large sheet; the present piece was evidently cut from that larger sheet and its margins have remained partly intact on all sides. Looking at the verso, the edge on the left is entirely preserved. The horizontal layer is missing in a strip across the very top of the sheet. There is a large lacuna around the middle of the right-hand margin of the papyrus, resulting in the loss of two words in 1. 4, and there are smaller lacunae at the top and bottom, resulting in the loss of some eight letters in 11. 7-8 (but these can restituted on the basis of parallels in later sources). Their symmetrical placement indicates that the sheet was folded in half along the horizontal axis when the damage occurred. The text that was written on the sheet of papyrus before it was cut up is obviously earlier, and that side will therefore be designated as recto. The text on the recto is written in black ink in a fluid, elegantly rounded hand. Upper strokes of kaf and diacritical dots are absent throughout (except in 1. 3, as noted below).

The text on the verso is written carefully in black ink. The letter forms are rounded, but still bear some resemblance to kufic, particularly in the shape of kaf, medial/final alif extends below the line (in qala, 1. 1; qassan, 1. 3; tali', 1. 4; ijtama'a, 1. 8); final ya' in fi (1. 3) curves to the right; vertical forms are elongated dramatically; diacritical dots are used throughout, unless otherwise indicated in the apparatus; kasra is given for hina in the penultimate line. A circle and a dotted circle are used to demarcate ends of verses in the second set of lines only.


  1. [...] my letter to you

  2. [...] the estate known as [....]

  3. [...] and Manuf ibn al-Rayyan

  4. [...] for a hundred dinars and were released

  5. [...] of the area, it is

  6. [...] Muhammad ibn 'Amr ibn 'Amir

  7. [...] of your sheep (?), who shepherds them

  8. [...].... who takes

  9. [...] him in Fustat


  10. Says Abu Dulaf al-Ijli:

  11. My head has become ablaze [with grey hair) so I concealed it / and my scissors have become blunt, so I set them aside //

  12. For much as I try to cut it, / saying to myself: "I have annihilated it" //

  13. The next day it reappears before me / as if I'd grown it yesterday //

  14. Turning grey is something that none can avert / greyness has gotten the better of me, and I let it be //

  15. Treat me with indulgence, so as to be sure of my affection always / and do not talk back at me

  16. when I am angry // For I have seen love in the heart of men, and hurt /

  17. when the two meet, love will soon depart //

    Notes: 1. 1, al-'Ijli: added in a different hand, in brown ink, now very faded; the final damma is clearly discernible; there is also a very faint trace of writing to the right of this line, slightly above; 1. 2, ishta'ala: the top part of only the initial alif remains; its lower part, as well as the initial two hooks of the following shin, are lost to a lacuna that extends from the right-hand margin; 1. 2, miqradi: a z-shaped line appears above the text between the final ya' and the initial fa' of the following word--I take this to be a (redundant) disambiguation sign; 1. 3, ana: the top halves of both alifs remain; 1. 4, min ghadihi: the upper part of ghadihi and a trace of the preceding nun remain, while the first part of the line is lost; 1. 5, al-shayb: one dot on shin is clearly visible; 1. 5, shay': the dots on shin are lost due to the large lacuna on the right-hand side; 11. 7-8, fa-inni ... yalbath al-hubbu: party lost to lacunae: of fa-inni only the -ni remains, while in 1. 8 the upper half only of lam and alif are visible. The end of the verses is marked with a circle, and a dotted circle, respectively.

    It was a common practice to reuse sheets for different purposes. In this case, we see that an earlier letter carrying business correspondence was cut up into smaller parts and its empty side used to write down poetry. Unfortunately, the text of the letter is too fragmentary to allow us to identify the person to whom it was addressed and who, therefore, might have written down the verses on the verso. It is clear, however, that the papyrus hails from Egypt, since the name of Fustat appears in the last line of the recto. Nothing more is known of its provenance; Atiya acquired his collection from dealers in Cairo and there are no surviving records that indicate where the individual artifacts were found.

    The date of the papyrus remains uncertain, too. On the one hand, the script of the verso is quite angular, and certain letter-forms--such as that of kaf-- are reminiscent of the forms used in papyri of the first half of the second century AH. On the other hand, the appearance of the text is overall much more refined that than of documents of such an early period. Indeed, the script of the recto, which I suppose to be earlier, bears a resemblance to the polished scribal hands of the third century AH. (3) What is more, the verso refers to a poet who died around the end of the first quarter of the third/ninth century, confirming a later date. Of course, the text could have been written during the poet's lifetime, or long thereafter. One can therefore only give a rough dating for the fragment, that is, between the third or fourth centuries AH (ninth or tenth centuries CE).

    Let us now turn to a discussion of the poems on the verso of the fragment.


    Abu Dulaf of 1. 1 is, of course, al-Qasim b. 'Isa b. Idris, the military commander, poet, and musician, who died at Baghdad between 225/840 and 228/843.4 The nisba al-'Ijli in this document appears to have been added at a later date, probably in order to distinguish this Abu Dulaf from the later Miscar b. Muhalhil al-Khazraji al-Yanbu'i, the notorious poet-globetrotter, author of the famed Qasida sasaniyya, and protege of al-Sahib Isma'il b. 'Abbad (326-85/938-95). (5)

    A diwan of the former Abu Dulaf is not available, (6) but the first four couplets are attested--entirely or in part--in a variety of later sources. The earliest of these is Kitab al-Muhibb wa-l-mahbub wa-l-mashmun wa-l-mashrub by Abu l-Hasan b. Ahmad Sari al-Raffa' (d. ca. 362/972-3), (7) where only the first three abydt are presented immediately after four lines of verse in -ri quoted from Abu Dulaf by Di'bil al-Khuzai. (8) In this text, the two pieces of poetry on a similar theme are separated by a simple akhar ("and another"). (9)

    The verses are also found in Muhadarat al-udabcd by al-Raghib al-Isfahani (d. early in the fifth/eleventh century), where they are attributed explicitly to Abu Dulaf, albeit without the citation of a source. (10)

    The author of the last anthology may never have left Isfahan, but the verses certainly traveled widely because they made their way into one of the more famous Andalusian adab anthologies, Bahjat al-majalis wa-uns al-mujalis by Yusuf b. 'Abd Allah Ibn 'Abd al-Barr al-Namari (d. 463/1070), (11) who never traveled to the East and must therefore have collected poetry by Eastern authors from his contemporaries or from books. Ibn 'Abd al-Barr attributes the verses to Mahmud al-Warraq (d. ca. 230/845), (12) and arranges them under the heading Bab khidab al-shayb wa-natfih. (13) Elsewhere he quotes verses on a similar theme (shayb) that he attributes to Abu Dulaf--or Dicbil al-Khuza'i. (14) In other words, Ibn 'Abd al-Barr must have been familiar with some of the poetry by Abu Dulaf, but did not use any of the works cited above as a source.

    The same is true of his contemporary al-Zawzani (d. 431/1039), who attributes the above verses to 'Abd Allah b. Tahir (d. 230/844), (15) in his Hamasat al-zurafa' min ash'ar al-muhdathin wa-l-qudama'. (16)

    The youngest source that I have been able to identify is the biographical dictionary al-Tadwin fi akhbar Qazwin by 'Abd al-Karim b. Muhammad al-Qazwini al-Rafi'i (d. 623/1226), (17) a work that was composed almost two full centuries after al-Raghib al-Isfahani's Muhadarat al-udaba'. Somewhat unexpectedly, the author reverts to the attribution to Abu Dulaf, and indeed the verses are quoted in the context of the latter's biography, together with other verses by the same poet. What is more, al-Qazwini cites his source as Ibn al-Muthanna al-Astarabadhi's Kitab al-Da'i ila l-tafakkur fi l-dunya.

    Given the wide geographical distribution of later authors who quoted the verse in their works, and the varying attributions therein, it is hardly surprising to find that there is considerable variation in the text of the poem itself. I will present each bayt in turn (S. = Sari al-Raffa'; R. =...

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