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Reconstructing the Palembang royal library

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Before it was looted by the British in 1812 and then again by the Dutch in 1821, the library of the Sultanate of Palembang, on the southeast coast of Sumatra, was one of the richest in maritime Southeast Asia. My presentation will revisit the remnants of the Palembang royal library, now dispersed across institutions in Europe and Asia, to examine what it may reveal about the court’s vibrant, multilingual literary culture. I will discuss one manuscript in particular, a Malay translation of an 8th-c Arabic historical text, the Futūḥ al-Shām, describing the conquest of Syria. While translations of Arabic religious works are ubiquitous in Malay manuscript collections, this is perhaps the only known Malay translation of an Arabic historiographical text. Commissioned in 1769 by a senior noble, Pangeran Ratu bin Paduka Seri Sultan Ahmad Najmuddin, from a local scholar, Kiai Mas Fakhruddin, and extant in manuscript in this single exemplar, this text is suggestive of the preoccupations of the late 18th-century Palembang court. It seems that the court was actively involved in commissioning translations, and that this intellectual endeavour was connected to the intensifying European political and military pressure the court was facing. As I will show, this text, and an inventory of what remains of the library, also indicate the scholarly and literary networks that connected Southeast Asia with the Islamic lands to the west.

This talk is part of the Centre of South Asian Studies Seminars series.

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