Comparing Digital Materials from Istanbul

A hands-on comparison of the quality of digital materials offered by the manuscript collections from Istanbul.

Digitization projects have been taken up by manuscript libraries around the world. The two pillars of such libraries -catalogues and the actual holdings- are undergoing a process in which they first become available digitally, usually for a fee, then they become available online for viewing, sometimes for a fee, then they become available for download, at which point the fee may be dropped and access is granted gratis. This process can only be encouraged and met with enthusiasm by us scholars and students, as it comes with obvious and overwhelming benefits for our studies.

But, of course, now is not the time to lean back and think that everything will turn out alright by itself. There is a huge difference in the actual end product, the pictures, that these institute offer to us. Let us take a closer look at the different qualities of these pictures to 1) better understand what we may expect and 2) see if we can come up with certain preferences.

In this post, I will sample pictures from the collections of Istanbul. If you like to see evaluated other collections or libraries, please contact me.

The collections I shall include are the following, which together, I think, give a reasonable impression of what one may expect from any digital copy of a manuscript from Istanbul:

  1. Topkapi Palace Museum Library
  2. Suleymaniye Library
    1. Atif Efendi
    2. Ayasofya
    3. Bagislar
    4. Fazil Ahmed Pasa
    5. Husnu Pasa
    6. Kemankes
    7. Laleli
    8. Nuruosmaniye
    9. Ragip Ali Pasa
    10. Sehid Ali Pasa

Though grammatically a valid construction let’s just refer to the first collection as ‘Topkapi’. It is singled out as it has its own administration, whereas all other collections can be accessed through Suleymaniye Library, located next to the Suleymaniye Mosque.

A summary overview of the digital materials these libraries offer is the following list, which is sorted according to file size of the original image. In between brackets is given the year as was found in the metadata of the file.

Laleli 2486 3b-4a inPDF Nazm Hayakil al-nur TRUE

Origin: Istanbul, Laleli

File Size Excerpt: 200kb

File Size Original: 2.3mb

Dimensions Original: 1212 x 908

Particular Folio: MS 2486, ff. 3b-4a: Naẓm Hayākil al-nūr

Evaluation: Seemingly slightly out of focus it remains readable, but the blueish hue is strangely discomforting. The paper must have been white and under the wrong camera settings turned into blue.


Topkapi 3377 219b-220a corrected al-Mashari DSCN3497 al-ilahiyat TRUE

Origin: Istanbul, Topkapi (2014)

File Size Excerpt: 174kb

File Size Original: 1.6mb

Dimensions Original: 3264 x 2448

Particular Folio: MS 3377, ff. 219b-220a: al-Mashāriʿ wa-al-Muṭāraḥāt

Evaluation: Very readable, though it should be noted that the paper is so soft it actually shows a reflective band close to the spine, as is also visible in the excerpt. This does not impede reading, but does give the image an irregular view which disturbs the reading process. The entire manuscript is visible including some space around it, except at the bottom. This, however, seems an anomaly as other pictures from Topkapi do show the bottom of the book (see below). Shot with Nikon COOLPIX 8400.

Topkapi 3251 47b-48a Sharh al-Lamahat DSCN5854 TRUE

Origin: Istanbul, Topkapi (2013)

File Size Excerpt: 171kb

File Size Original: 1.6mb

Dimensions Original: 3264 x 2448

Particular Folio: MS 3251, ff. 47b-48a: Sharḥ al-Lamaḥāt

Evaluation: Very readable. If only all photos of manuscripts could look like this! Granted, this particular case is helped by the larger than usual script which is further written in a highly regular hand. Nonetheless, the picture quality is outstanding allowing us to virtually count the specks in the paper. As will be described below, even here there is something to complain about, namely the lighting, which may vary from photo to photo. Shot with Nikon COOLPIX 8400.

FAZILAHMEDPS883 1b-2a Hawashi Hikmat al-ayn TRUE

Origin: Istanbul, Fazil Ahmed Pasa

File Size Excerpt: 158kb

File Size Original: 1.1mb

Dimensions Original: 3150 x 2262

Particular Folio: MS 883, ff. 1b-2a: Ḥawāshī Ḥikmat al-ʿayn

Evaluation: This image is pushing the limits – at the wrong side of the spectrum. Its focus is set exactly for the text, which makes it even possible to read the tiny marginalia at this quality. But you have to do your best and in problem cases there is a good chance you are lost. The images are cut exactly along the lines of the text block, which is very risky with a manuscript as rich with marginalia as this one. One would have really preferred to see a sliver of the book cover and support, just for peace of mind.

KEMANKES        266-_00016 Talhis al-tahafut TRUE

Origin: Istanbul, Kemankes (2005)

File Size Excerpt: 175kb

File Size Original: 796kb

Dimensions Original: 2295 x 1768

Particular Folio: MS 266, ff. 14b-15a: Talkhīṣ al-Tahāfut

Evaluation: Its readability is evidently fine. Color balance may be a bit off, with the paper almost turning green. For the marginalia one would wish to be able to zoom in just a bit more, but nonetheless it remains highly readable. The cut is again exactly around the borders of the text block.

SEHID ALI PASA  1583-_00106 Tahafut Hocazade TRUE

Origin: Istanbul, Sehid Ali Pasa

File Size Excerpt: 167kb

File Size Original: 762kb

Dimensions Original: 2592 x 1944

Particular Folio: MS 1583, ff. 104b-105a: Tahāfut al-falāsifah

Evaluation: Given the irregular hand, one is happy to be able to get up so close. There is a slight band of shine close to the spine. The cut leaves a tiny bit around the binding – which is great. Confusingly, there are two numberings on the top-left, one 95 the other 105. As the file itself is labelled 106, it shows that file naming should not be interpreted as folia numbers. This is a big issue with Istanbul manuscripts, see below.

Nuruosmaniye_2693_0159 Sharh Talwihat TRUE

Origin: Istanbul, Nuruosmaniye

File Size Excerpt: 162kb

File Size Original: 613kb

Dimensions Original: 2592 x 1944

Particular Folio: MS 2693, ff. 159b-160a: Sharḥ al-Talwīḥāt

Evaluation: Readable it is, but there are too many cons to this picture to appreciate that. The lighting is clearly coming from the left side as the left is much brighter than the right, causing uneven coloring throughout the picture. Further, the cut is so tight, that one gets the impression that not even the entire text block is in the picture. Shot with Nikon Coolpix 5400.

H HUSNU PASA    787-1_00007 Tahafut Karabagi TRUE

Origin: Istanbul, Huseyin Husnu Pasa (2008)

File Size Excerpt: 196kb

File Size Original: 611kb

Dimensions Original: 2272 x 1704

Particular Folio: MS 787, ff. 5b-6a: Tahāfut al-falāsifah

Evaluation: One would wish for a slightly more detailed picture but considering this particular handwriting it is passable. The entire picture has a greenish glow to it. More over, the manuscript is photographed at an angle, which slightly disturbs the reading process. Fortunately, the cut is generous, showing a bit around the entire binding.

YAZMA BAGISLAR  5587-_00043 Tahafut Kamal Pasha Zade TRUE

Origin: Istanbul, Bagislar (2006)

File Size Excerpt: 153kb

File Size Original: 564kb

Dimensions Original: 2592 x 1944

Particular Folio: MS 5587, ff. 40b-41a: Tahāfut al-falāsifah

Evaluation: It is a great picture. The only con is the cut, which is too tight.



ATIFEFENDI1587 40 Sharh Talwihat TRUE

Origin: Istanbul, Atif Efendi (2006)

File Size Excerpt: 136kb

File Size Original: 562kb

Dimensions Original: 2634 x 2040

Particular Folio: MS 1587, ff. 39b-40a: Sharḥ al-Talwīḥāt

Evaluation: One wonders about the color balance of this picture. Is the ink really this faint brown? And is the paper really this dark? With this MS, more than others, the text of the backside is seeping through in the photo, disturbing the reading process.


RAP854_123b-124a Hawashi HI Nayrizi TRUE

Origin: Istanbul, Ragip Ali Pasa

File Size Excerpt: 241kb

File Size Original: 512kb

Dimensions Original: 2275 x 1771

Particular Folio: MS 854, ff. 123b-124a: Ḥawāshī Ḥikmat al-ishrāq

Evaluation: Body text is, with practice, clearly legible. However, the quality is on the low side to make out the glosses, and it is exactly the glosses that makes this manuscript of interest.


Laleli2523_115b-116a Hawashi HI Nayrizi TRUE

Origin: Istanbul, Laleli

File Size Excerpt: 183kb

File Size Original: 434kb

Dimensions Original: 1993 x 1657

Particular Folio: MS 2523, ff. 115b-116a: Ḥawāshī Ḥikmat al-ishrāq

Evaluation: Compared with the other Laleli photo it goes to show that even within collections there are clearly different photographing techniques employed. It is the same text as MS Ragip Ali Pasa 854 and unfortunately the same comments apply: margins difficult to read. The color balance gives a greater contrast in this picture, which is helpful.

S Ali Ps 1739_040 Sharh Alwah li-Nayrizi TRUEOrigin: Istanbul, Sehid Ali Pasa (2005)

File Size Excerpt: 238kb

File Size Original: 249kb

Dimensions Original: 1559 x 1175

Particular Folio: MS 1739, ff. 39b-40a: Sharḥ al-Alwāḥ

Evaluation: Only in comparison with other manuscripts is this digital copy usable.



Ayasofya_4851_0017 Masudi Shukuk Isharat TRUE

Origin: Istanbul, Ayasofya (2006)

File Size Excerpt: 142kb

File Size Original: 210kb

Dimensions Original: 1600 x 1200

Particular Folio: MS 4851, ff. 88b-89a: Shukūk al-Ishārāt

Evaluation: The lighting is a joke and the photo seems to be out of focus. The cut is too tight. Luckily, the text is written in a reasonably large script and there are no marginalia, so the pictures remain useful.



Cutting a photo

The diversity among these pictures speaks for itself. One aspect is what I have called the cut, which may be illustrated by comparing the following two photos:

   Topkapi 3251 47b-48a Sharh al-Lamahat DSCN5854

On the left we have Atif Efendi 1587, of which barely the entire text block has been cut. Possibly, the entire object was photographed and then later the borders of the photos were cut to reveal only the text block (i.e. that part of the object which contains text). On the right we have Topkapi 3251, which shows not only the text block but also the binding and even a bit of the support (i.e. the table on which it rests).

The two photos are a good illustration of the point I want to make: for manuscripts for which the concern is only about the body of the text, a deeper cut showing only the text block is fine. But for those manuscripts which contain marginalia, you cannot do this as you run the risk of cutting away text. This is actually what happened in the case of this photo from Atif Efendi 1587, in which the line at the bottom-left margin is abruptly broken off by the cut of the photo. The cut is more generous in the case of Topkapi 3251, but ironically this is exactly a manuscript for which this is of less importance.

Stability among photos

Reading through the individual descriptions, you may have noticed my complaints about color balance. It is rather curious how this can fluctuate. Take for example these two photos of Topkapi 3251, which are of successive folia:

Topkapi 3251 48b-49a Sharh al-Lamahat DSCN5855 Topkapi 3251 47b-48a Sharh al-Lamahat DSCN5854

Clearly, the color balance is much different between the two, which makes one wonder what kind of procedure is in place to shoot these photos.

It may be worth noting that mistakes are hard to find. I am only aware of one, a photo in which the page moves about. As can be seen, this was immediately taken care of by simply shooting the page again.

Topkapi 3377 219b-220a blurred al-Mashari DSCN3496 Topkapi 3377 219b-220a corrected al-Mashari DSCN3497 al-ilahiyat


As I noted earlier, sometimes pages are shot with a slight angle and this seems to have been acceptable.

H HUSNU PASA    787-1_-7 27.10.2008

A typical photo shoot

Only rarely do we find hints about the procedure. On this one picture we see in the bottom-right corner a finger.

Laleli 2486 3b-4a inPDF Nazm Hayakil al-nur


On the next photo we see that foam cushions were used to support the manuscript.

Topkapi 3271 Suhrawardi majmuah shows support DSCN0151

I am assuming that no glass plate was used to flatten the pages, as we never see any reflection. I only know of one exception, in which I think the binding had such shiny leather we can actually make out the camera:

SEHID ALI PASA  1583-_-1 17.01.2006




This brief survey has shown us that most digital photos of manuscripts in Istanbul were shot from as early as 2005, with a great variation in quality. Even the low quality photos are usable, but not always to the extent we would like to. Color balance and cut are also present in a great variety. They may impede reading marginalia and could also hinder the flow of reading.

One would hope that the bad ones will be redone at some point. Especially when a manuscript contains marginalia, the file size must meet a certain lower limit. As storage space is becoming less of an issue, and internet bandwidth allows even ordinary users to send and receive large quantities of data in a short time, I would suggest that photos need be at minimum one megabyte (1000kb) when glosses are present. Further, it is always advisable to cut around the binding, showing the entire manuscript. This is again most pertinent to manuscripts containing marginalia.

All in all we may be very thankful to the Turks for such an outstanding job. Let us hope they will soon grant us free online access to these treasures.

Disclaimer: Please note that all rights to these photos are reserved for their respective owners. Usage of photos in this blogpost is strictly for educational use in compliance with Fair Use as defined under the U.S. Copyright Law, section 107.

3 thoughts on “Comparing Digital Materials from Istanbul

  1. Most digitisation in Turkey uses a system that squashes the pages flat, with a page opening of 180 degrees, with a unit modelled on the early DigiBook machines. Manuscripts should never be opened to that extent, as it stresses the spine and sewing. A better system safely handles a manuscript by placing it in a v-shaped cradle opening between 90 to no more than 120 degrees, and shooting individual images of each page with 2 cameras.

    1. Makes sense given that the pages always look extraordinarily flat. Surely anyone who has been even only close to manuscripts will understand your concern. Thanks for your input.

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