E.J.W. Gibb and the History of Ottoman Poetry

from Sp Coll Mu Add. q120

from Sp Coll Mu Add. q120


Special Collections has been pleased to host a recent visit by Dr Nagihan Gür, who is an assistant professor at the Department of Turkish Language and Literature of the Social Sciences University of Ankara in Turkey. In 2016, Dr Gür spent time at the History Department of Cambridge University as a visiting scholar to conduct research on her book project on Scottish orientalist Elias John Wilkinson Gibb and his private papers. In this project, Dr Gür focuses on Gibb’s works, his original papers and marginal notes (book drafts, correspondence etc.) and the books that are in his own library to understand his translation practices and the writing process of his works, especially his monumental work “A History of Ottoman Poetry”. Dr Gür is currently working on a series of articles and writing a biography on E. J. W. Gibb and to this end is still analysing his original materials.

Gibb was born in Glasgow where his father was a wine merchant. He was descended from a distinguished academic family which enjoyed a long association with the University of Glasgow: family members included Robert Boyd (1615-1622),  Principal of the University of Glasgow, Zachary Boyd (1590-1654), a significant benefactor to the University, the poet  Mark Boyd, whose book of Latin verse was published in 1592, and Gavin Gibb, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1917 and Professor of Oriental languages at the University from 1820 to  1831, who was a cousin of his grandfather. Gibb attended Park School, and then Glasgow University from 1873 to 1875 but did not graduate. He had a gift for languages and an early enthusiasm for eastern tales such as the “Thousand and One Nights” led him to the study of Arabic, Persian and especially the Ottoman Turkish languages and literature. In this he was perhaps also influenced by his family connection with Gavin Gibb.

A dedicated and able scholar of independent means, Gibb soon became a distinguished and highly regarded Ottomanist. In 1879, whilst still a young man of only twenty-two, he published his translation into English of the Ottoman capture of Constantinople, originally written by the historian Sadettin Hoca in his Taj-ut-tevarikh, which narrates the history of  the Ottoman Empire from its foundation until the end of the reign of Selim I.

Title-page of Sp Coll Mu11-c.30

Title-page of Sp Coll Mu11-c.30

Sadettin’s style is ornate and embellished with similes and metaphors. It includes numerous quotations from the Koran and Turkish, Persian and Arabic poetry. Gibb chose to translate the section dealing with the capture of Constantinople because he considered it to be the pivotal moment in Ottoman history, and also a key moment in Europe’s history as it marked the last stages in the long decline of the Roman Empire and the transition from the medieval to the modern period.

In addition to his published text, Special Collections also holds three bound volumes  (MS Gen 1022-1024)  and a box of papers (MS Gen 1044) containing Gibb’s manuscript translations and notes. These manuscripts are an important resource for researchers since they shed light on the translation process and the original sources  which Gibb used.

Title page from MS Gen 1044

Title page from MS Gen 1044


Extract from MS Gen 1044

Extract from MS Gen 1044


There are also several manuscripts within the Hunterian Collection which have been annotated by Gibb, indicating how much his interest and knowledge were developing whilst at the University of Glasgow.

Other publications soon followed, including  Ottoman Poems Translated into English Verse in the Original Forms (1882), a translation of the The Story of Jewad by Ali Aziz,  and a translation of the History of the Forty Vezirs by Sheyhzade in 1886. He also wrote an entry on Turkish Literature for the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Following his marriage to Ida Wilmot Eyre Rodriguez in 1889, Gibb moved to London, where he collected a fine library of oriental manuscripts and printed books and lived a fairly secluded life focused on his research. Surprisingly, he never travelled to Turkey or any part of the Ottoman empire, although he spoke and wrote Turkish with a high degree of fluency. He also developed  a deep knowledge and understanding of Islamic mysticism.

Gibb’s major work was A History of Ottoman Poetry (in 6 volumes, first published between 1900-1909). In November 1901, whilst in the final stages of the second volume, Gibb contracted scarlet fever and tragically died on 5 December. The remainder of the History of Ottoman Poetry was published under the editorship of his friend and associate, the distinguished orientalist Edward Granville Browne (1862-1926).

Extract from MS Gen 1044

Extract from MS Gen 1044

This work was an important achievement, being the first, and so far it seems the only, study in English of such a wide range of Ottoman poetry, and it remains a standard reference text.

Following his death Gibb’s personal library was dispersed among the libraries at the British Museum, Cambridge University and the British Embassy at Constantinople (Istanbul). However there are two volumes in the Farmer collection at Special Collections which were previously owned by Gibb (Sp Coll Farmer 513 and Sp Coll Farmer 582).

Gibb’s contribution to eastern literature continues to be commemorated through the Gibb Memorial Trust, which was founded in 1902 through a bequest from his mother: this supports the publication of texts, translations and studies in Arabic and Persian as well as Turkish literature.


Gibb c. 1900 (from Mu Add. q120)


Whilst researching the University’s resources relating to Gibb, I  found that a photograph of him taken in 1900 had a strong resemblance to a painting in the Hunterian’s Art Collections entitled “Portrait of an Unknown Academic”(GLAHA 44351). Following consultation with the curator of British Art, this identification has now been confirmed and the portrait re-named, acknowledging Gibb as the sitter. It seems fitting that such an erudite but also generous and unassuming scholar has received this recognition from his alma mater.



Sources used:

Woodhead, Christine : Gibb, Elias John Wilkinson (1857-1901), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 (online edition)

[http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.lib.gla.ac.uk/view/article/33382, page accessed 31 Oct 2016]

Alexander, Elizabeth H., A History of Ottoman Poetry by E.J.W. Gibb, 1931  Sp Coll Mu Add q120




Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library, Reflections

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