Ancient texts of Leiden University on the World Heritage List

Magellan’s Manuscript. (Photo: Leiden University Library)

Two centuries old handwritten manuscripts from the Leiden University Library have been granted World Heritage status by UNESCO. This is important for Leiden University because it brings two well-known stories from history back to the attention of historians. “And I hope it will lead to new insights,” says university librarian Mart van Duijn.

It concerns Ferdinand Magellan’s (1480-1521) first circumnavigation of the globe and a handwritten history of Aceh on the island of Sumatra. A total of fifteen manuscripts have been registered in the UNESCO World Register worldwide.

This list contains a documentary heritage of exceptional importance and must be preserved for future generations. One of the handwritten texts now included is a report on one of the most famous voyages ever discovered from the 16th century.

The Strait of Magellan at the tip of South America is named after its discoverer, Ferdinand Magellan. It was a voyage of discovery that existed in public memory in the sixteenth century, but was never actually written down. “Fernão de Oliveira, the Portuguese author of the manuscript,” explains van Duijn. “He spoke to the crew members who survived the voyage. You could say he served as a kind of reporter. Out of curiosity and hunger for knowledge, but of course also for economic reasons. They wanted to know the shortest route to the Far East for the spice trade.

In 1519, Magellan sailed from Spain with five ships to the Moluccas for a lucrative spice trade. He took the western route. A year later he discovered a strait between Tierra del Fuego and mainland South America, now known as the Strait of Magellan. Magellan did not complete his journey: he was killed in a battle in the Philippines in 1522. Captain Sebastian Elcano was the only one to complete the journey.

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Hikayat Aceh, The History of Aceh, is now on the World Heritage List. Two manuscripts are held by the Leiden University Library and the third by the National Library of Indonesia. According to Leiden University, this is a very rare text.
Hikayat Aceh is an important resource for people interested in Islam, international relations, and the history of Aceh. It is written in Malay with Arabic script and contains many stories about the life and customs of Aceh. Among others, relations with Portugal, China and Turkey are described.

Van Duijn thinks it’s ‘fantastic’ that the handwritten documents are now on the UNESCO list. “It’s very exciting for us now, because the works are suddenly more widely known. The original source of Magellan’s famous voyage is now more accessible to a larger audience. So he expects renewed interest in manuscripts from Spain, Portugal or South America.

Two of the three Hikayat Aceh manuscripts have been digitized by the Leiden University Library and are freely available, and Olivera’s report can also be viewed digitally.

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