Conversations with Cornelis van Lit (Scholar)

Name : Cornelis van Lit | Country : The Netherlands | Years Active : 9 | Website: Cornelis van Lit  & Digital Orientalist 

Q – How do you describe your work to people who don’t know anything about your field? 

Did you know the vast majority of what people have written is in handwriting? Think about it; the vast majority of all ideas worth putting on paper, our collective memory, is to a very large part only available in manuscripts, many of these ideas surviving in only one copy. Of these manuscripts, again, the vast majority predates our own time. And this makes reading those ideas pretty difficult; accessing and deciphering ancient manuscripts is an actual skill. It is my job to roam back rooms of libraries, scouring shelves for manuscripts worth picking up. Sometimes there are centuries in between me and the last reader: I wipe the dust off and let the ideas come to life once more. I am particularly trained to do this for Arabic and Persian manuscripts from the Islamic world. And I am a pioneer in doing this in a digital environment, developing new tools (software) to do this type of work better, faster, and in ways unimagined before.

Q – What inspired you to become a curator?

I am a collector and curator of digitized manuscripts. When I studied at McGill (Montreal), I had a designated carrel in the library. I put all kinds of book on there, and one day I was reading a letter by the famous theologian Fakhr al-Dīn Rāzī to a friend, and in it he referred to a passage of a certain, lesser-known work by Ibn Sīnā. I looked up and saw exactly that book sitting on the shelf of my carrel, literally within hand’s reach. I suddenly felt so close to Rāzī, like he was talking directly to me. I want it to be like that always. Immersing myself among digitized manuscripts, I think I can get very close to it. 

And yet, there is another reason. I have seen manuscripts for which I would not be surprised that were I to drive over them with a tank, the tank would be damaged, not the manuscript. Not so with digitized manuscripts: one bit or byte switches and the whole file is corrupt. In the digital world, for something to be sustained, multiple copies need to exist. This is not forgery nor is there anything inauthentic about it, since every instance of the same file is equally the original. As a close observer of the digital ecosystem of manuscripts, I am worried that not enough copies exist. We cannot rely on institutions or government agencies only, but we need to take our responsibility in this as well. I am trying to do my part.

Daimyo Konishi Yukinaga (1555-1600) who led the initial forces under Toyotomi Hideyoshi to invade Korea in the Seven-Year War - more info on Digital Orientalist (link above)
Daimyo Konishi Yukinaga (1555-1600) who led the initial forces under Toyotomi Hideyoshi to invade Korea in the Seven-Year War – more info on Digital Orientalist (link above)

Q – Why did you choose this particular field of research?

One thing that has remained true for Islamic Studies, my field of expertise, is that behind every answer there is another question. Some of these questions that I have come up with over the years have become higher specific, requiring more and more unique source material, but the answer-question dynamic between me and the cultural heritage of the Islamic world has remained fresh and enticing up until today.

Nasir al-Din Tusi (1201-1274)’s 700th death anniversary, Iran, 1974 – Persian polymath, architect, philosopher, physician, scientist, and theologian.

Q – What is the most memorable object you’ve researched, or worked with?

This is only one of many fond memories, but I distinctly recall bringing a group of students to the Rare Books and Manuscript collection at Yale to look at a manuscript that is the closet physical artifact we have to the giant of Islamic theology, al-Ghazali, who died in 1111. You can imagine what kind of precious object this is. And yet, the librarians simply prepped a room for us and let us in unattended. I asked each student to hold the book in their hands for a moment. To feel it, weigh it. They were clearly impressed and rightly so. Here we were. The same library that would utterly refuse use to hold their copy of the Gutenberg bible (arguably replaceable) handed us this irreplaceable tome which a direct student of al-Ghazzali wrote by hand, all 460 pages. It was a good day.

Nicholas Roerich (Никола́й Константи́нович Ре́рих) 1874-1947, by his son Svetoslav Roerich, 1933

Q – Do you recall when was the first time you heard of the phrase “Silk Road”? What was your first impression of it?

The earliest memory I have is when I was reading a National Geographic special on Alexander the Great. I was amazed at how far the Greeks had come and not only to conquer but to settle as well. What ancient, complicated machinery that trading route must have been. I was very impressed by the melting pot of languages, cultures, and philosophies that must have occurred. 

Q – What is your most memorable experience of travelling along the Silk Road?

Here I definitely want to say I have yet to make that experience. Although my life right now is not particularly suited for extended travels along the Silk Road, there definitely is some desire to do so. I am an avid reader of Nicholas Roerich’s philosophical diaries and look forward to follow his footsteps in one shape or form. 

Q – Which city or region along the Silk Road are you looking forward to visit, for the first time?

Put me down for Herat. Probably a tad dangerous for a European like myself, but the philosophical and philological heritage that this city produced over the centuries is astounding. And quite a lot of ancient architecture remains erect, functioning even.

Cornelis van Lit, The World of Image in Islamic Philosophy: Ibn Sīna, Suhrawardī, Shahrazūrī and Beyond, 2017

Q – What language(s) spoken along the Silk Road have you studied, or would wish to study? 

I have a decent command of Arabic, Persian and Greek, in so far as they apply to ancient sources. I once did a primer in Sogdian, one of the Silk Road languages par excellence, and thought it to be quite funny that every third or fourth sentence that the instructor uttered was “but what this word means we simply don’t know.”

Q – What is the hardest part of your work that people don’t realize?

There are plenty of things that I do, pursue for hours and days, that end up being a dead end and never make it in a publication. My main output is the written word: articles and books. And once it is in print it can look so simple and obvious. But if it looks simple it is because I did a good job in presenting the topic, by confidently cutting out all facts and tidbits that are in this case merely noise.

Q – What is your dream (or even fantasy) research project?

Free access to an uncatalogued manuscript library somewhere remote along the Silk Road, without any time or monetary constraint to publish or go home. Just days of free roaming, keeping an eye out for a copy of a text once deemed lost, slowly bringing organization to the collection. I just know that there are manuscripts, entire collections, just sitting on shelves, desperately looking forward to a reader.

Ancient Sogdiana, 312 or 313 CE, Ink on paper, H. 42 × W. 24.3 cm, Discovered in 1907 at Watchtower T.XII , west of Dunhuang 敦煌 , Gansu Province, China
Nasir al-Din Tusi (1201-1274)’s 700th death anniversary, Iran, 1974 – Persian polymath, architect, philosopher, physician, scientist, and theologian.


Q – If it were possible, what historic figure would you like to meet? Why?

I would be happy with anyone, of course. But I would be especially curious to meet 13th century’s Nasir al-Din Tusi, a true polymath if there ever was one. I would want to find out if he is the ill-tempered, arrogant grouch that I suspect he is, and whether that is because he is the smartest person in the Islamic world at that time and he knows it, or whether it’s just a case of awful personality. 

Q – What movie best depicts a historic or aesthetic aspect of the Silk Road?

I will have to skip this one. Not good with movies. After half an hour I get restless and want to get back to work.

Q – What music or soundtrack most embodies the sound of the Silk Road for you?

I never thought of that. I once heard a performance in Bursa, Turkey, of a musical piece that was composed in the 16th century, using instruments reconstructed to what they might have been at the time. It was enchanting, something really different from today’s music.  

Q – What fundamental change(s) in your work do you anticipate in the post-pandemic world?

We will have to see how the conference circuit picks up again and how crowded the job market will be, now that both are on hold for pretty much the entire year of 2020. With a shrinking economy, for sure we too will feel the pain, but only in the longer run. For example, my current project runs until 2022. Who knows what type of funding will be available then.

Q – What modern day cultural trend (sports, music, art, architecture) has its roots in the Silk Road – that majority do not know?

Ever heard of a little thing called… paper? Here we come back to Sogdian, the language I pointed out earlier. Already in the very first few centuries of our common era, people would write messages in Sogdian on paper, not parchment, to send with a mail man thousands of miles along the Silk Road, back and forth. What is so great about paper is that, essentially, the product has remained fairly stable since its invention and wherever it is introduced it is met with great enthusiasm. Today, despite rapid digitization, paper is omnipresent. In terms of lasting impact it is right up there with refined sugar (which, I believe, incidentally also first spread over the Silk Road).