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Sir William Jones

Sir William Jones

The Fourth Anniversary Discourse
delivered 15 February, 1787,
by the President


William Jones, źOn the Arabs. The Fourth Anniversary Discourse╗
(delivered 15 February, 1787, by the President, at the Asiatick Society of Bengal),
URL <testi/700/jones/Jones_Discourse_4.html>
Html edition for Eliohs by Guido Abbattista (July 2000)

[Editorial Note]


I had the honour last year of opening to you my intention, to discourse at our annual meetings on the   five principal nations, who have peopled the continent and islands of Asia; so as to trace, by an historical and philological analysis, the number of ancient stems, from which those five branches have severally sprung, and the central region, from which they appear to have proceeded: you may, therefore, expect, that, having submitted to you consideration a few general remarks on the old inhabitants of India, I should now offer my sentiments on some other nation, who, from a similarity of language, religion, arts, and manners, may be supposed to have had an early connection with the Hindus; but, since we find some Asiatick nations totally dissimilar to them in all or most of those particulars, and since the difference will strike  you more forcibly by an immediate and close comparison, [48] I design at present to give a short account of a wonderful people, who seem in every respect to strongly contrasted to the original natives of this country, that they must have been for ages a distinct and separate race.

For the purpose of these discourses, I considered India on its largest scale, describing it as lying between Persia and China, Tartary and Java; and, for the same purpose, I now apply the name of Arabia, as the Arabian Geographers often apply it, to that extensive Peninsula, which the Red Sea divides from Africa, the great Assyrian river from Iran, and of which the Erythrean Sea washes the base; without excluding any part of its western side, which would be completely maritime, if no isthmus intervened between the  Mediterranean, and the Sea of Kolzom: that country in short I call Arabia, in which the Arabick language and letters, or such as have a near affinity to them, have been immemorially current.

Arabia, thus divided from India by a vast ocean, or at least by a broad bay, could hardly have been connected in any degree with this country, until navigation and commerce had been considerably improved: yet, as the Hindus and the people of Yemen were both commercial nations in a very early age, they were probably the first instruments of conveying to the western [49] world the gold, ivory, and perfumes of India, as well as the fragrant wood, called Ólluwwa in Arabick and aguru in Sanscrit, which grows in the greatest perfection in Anam or Cochinchina. It is possible too, that a part of the Arabian Idolatry might have been derived from the same source with that of the Hindus; but such an intercourse may be considered as partial and accidental only; nor am I more convinced, than I was sixteen years ago, when I took the liberty to animadvert on a passage in the History of Prince KANTEMIR [0], that the Turks have any just reason for holding the coast of Yemen to be a part of India, and calling its inhabitants Yellow Indians.

The Arabs have never been entirely subdued; nor has any impression been made on them, except on their borders; where, indeed, the Phenicians, Persians, Ethiopians, Egyptians, and, in modern times, the Othman Tartars, have severally acquired settlements; but, with these exceptions, the natives of HejÓz and Yemen have preserved for ages the sole dominion of their deserts and pastures, their mountains and fertile valleys: thus, apart from the rest of mankind, this extraordinary people have retained their primitive manners and language, features and character, as long and as remarkably as the Hindus themselves. All the genuine Arabs of [50] Syria whom I knew in Europe, those of Yemen, whom I saw in the isle of HinzuÓn, whither many had come from Maskat for the purpose of trade, and those of HejÓz, whom I have met in Bengal, form a striking contrast to the Hindu inhabitants of these provinces: their eyes are full of vivacity, their speech voluble and articulate, their deportment manly and dignified, their apprehension quick, their minds always present and attentive; with a spirit of independence appearing in the countenances even of the lowest among them. Men will always differ in their ideas of civilization, each measuring it by the habits and prejudices of his own country; but, if courtesy and urbanity, a love of poetry and eloquence, and the practice of exalted virtues be a juster measure of perfect society, we have certain proof, that the people of Arabia, both on plains and in cities, in republican and monarchical states, were eminently civilized for many ages before their conquest of Persia.

It is deplorable, that the ancient History of this majestick race should be as little known in detail before the time of Dh¨ Yezen, as that of the Hindus before VicramÓditya; for, although the vast historical work of Alnuwairý, and the Mur¨juldhahab, or Golden Meadows, of Almas¨¨dý, contain chapters on the kings of Himyar, GhasÓn, and Hýrah, with list of them and [51] sketches of their several reigns, and although Genealogical Tables, from which chronology might be better ascertained, are prefixed to many compositions of the old Arabian Poets, yet most manuscripts are so incorrect, and so many contradictions are sound in the best of them, that we can scarce lean upon tradition with security, and must have recourse to the same media for investigating the history of the Arabs, that I before adopted in regard to that of the Indians; namely, their language, letters and religion, their ancient monuments, and the certain remains of their arts; on each of which heads I shall touch very concisely, having premised, that my observations will in general be confined to the state of Arabia before that singular revolution, at the beginning of the seventh century, the effects of which we feel at this day from the Pyrenean mountains and the Danube, to the farthest parts of the Indian Empire, and even to the Eastern Islands.

I.  For the knowledge, which any European, who pleases, may attain of the Arabian language, we are principally by indebted to the university of Leyden; for, though several Italians have assiduously laboured in the same wide field, yet the fruit of their labours has been rendered almost useless by more commodious and more accurate works printed in Holland; and, though POCOCK [1] certainly accomplished much, and was able to [52] accomplish any thing, yet the Academical ease, which he enjoyed, and his theological pursuits, induced him to leave unfinished the valuable work of MaidÓni, which he had prepared for publication; nor, even if that rich mine of Arabian Philology had seen the light, would it have borne any comparison with the fifty dissertations of Harýrý, which the first ALBERT SCHULTENS [1bis] translated and explained, though he sent abroad but few of them, and has lest his worthy grandson, from whom perhaps MaidÓni also may be expected, the honour of publishing the rest: but the palm of glory in this branch of literature is due to GOLIUS [2], whose works are equally profound and elegant; so perspicuous in method, that they may always be consulted without fatigue, and read without languor, yet so abundant  in matter, that any man, who shall begin with his noble edition of Grammar compiled by his master ERPENIUS [3], and proceed, with the help of his incomparable dictionary, to study his History of Taim¨r by Ibni ArabshÓh, and shall make himself complete master of that sublime work, will understand the learned Arabick better than the deepest scholar at Constantinople or at Mecca. The Arabick language, therefore, is almost wholly in our power; and, as it is unquestionably one of the most ancient in the world, so it yields to none ever spoken by mortals in [53] the number of its words and the precision of its phrases; but it is equally true and wonderful, that it bears not the least resemblance, either in words or the structure of them, to the Sanscrit, or great parent of the Indian dialects; of which dissimilarity I will mention two remarkable instances: the Sanscrit, like the Greek, Persian, and German, delights in compounds, but, in a much higher degree, and indeed to such excess, that I could produce words of more than twenty syllables, not formed ludicrously, like that by which the buffoon in ARISTOPHANES describes a feast, but with perfect seriousness, on the most solemn occasions, and in the most elegant works; while the Arabick, on the other hand, and all its sister dialects, abhor the composition of words, and invariably express very complex ideas by circumlocution; so that, if a compound word be found in any genuine language of the  Arabian Peninsula, (zenmerdah for instance, which occurs in the HamÓsah) it may at once be pronounced an exotick. Again; it is the genius of the Sanscrit, and other languages of the same stock, that the roots of verbs be almost universally biliteral, so that five and twenty hundred such roots might be formed by the composition of the fifty Indian letters, but the Arabick roots are as universally triliteral, so that the composition of the twenty-eight Arabian letters would give near two and twenty thousand elements of the language: and this will demonstrate the surprising extent of it; for, although great numbers of its roots are confessedly loft, and some, perhaps, were never in use, yet, if we suppose ten thousand of them (without rekoning quadriliterals) to exist, and each of them to admit only five variations, one with another, in forming derivative nouns, even then a perfect Arabick dictionary ought to contain fifty thousand words, each of which may receive a multitude of changes by the rules of grammar. The derivatives in Sanscrit are considerably more numerous; but a farther comparison between the two languages is here unnecessary; since, in whatever light we view them, they seem totally distinct, and must have been invented by two different races of men; nor do I recollect a single word in common between them, except Suruj, the plural of SirÓj, meaning both a lamp and the sun, the Sanscrit name of which is, in Bengal, pronounced S¨rja; and even this resemblance may be purely accidental. We may easily believe with the Hindus, that not even INDRA himself and his heavenly bands, much less any mortal, ever comprehended in his mind such an ocean of words as their sacred language contains, and with the Arabs, that no man uninspired was ever a complete master of Arabick: in fact no [55] person, I believe, now living in Europe or Asia, can read without study an hundred couplets together in any collection of ancient Arabian poems; and we told, that the great author of the Kam¨s learned by accident from the mouth of a child, in a village of Arabia, the meaning of three words which he had long sought in vain from grammarians, and from books, of the highest reputation. It is by approximation alone, that a knowledge of these two venerable languages can be acquired; and, with moderate attention, enough of them both may be known, to delight and instruct us in an infinite degree: I conclude this head with remarking, that the nature of the Ethiopick dialect seems to prove an early establishment of the Arabs in part of Ethiopia, from which they were afterwards expelled, and attacked even in their own country by the Abissinians, who had been invited over as auxiliaries against the tyrant of Yemen about a century before the birth of MUHAMMED.

Of the characters, in which the old compositions of Arabia were written, we know but little; except that the KorÓn originally appeared in those of C¨fah, from which the modern Arabian letters,   with all their elegant variations, were derived, and which unquestionably had a common origin with the Hebrew or Chaldaick; but, as to the Himyarick letters, or those which [56] we see mentioned by the name of Almusnad, we are still in total darkness; the traveller NIEBUHR [4] having been unfortunately prevented from visiting some ancient monuments in Yemen, which are said to have inscriptions on them: if those letters bear a strong resemblance to the NÓgarý, and if a story current in India he true, that some  Hindu merchants heard the Sanscrit language spoken in Arabia the Happy, we might be confirmed in our opinion, that an intercourse formerly subsisted between the two nations of opposite coasts, but should have no reason to believe, that they sprang from the same immediate stock. The first syllable of Hamyar, as many Europeans write it, might perhaps induce an Etymologist to derive the Arabs of Yemen from the great ancestor of the Indians; but we must observe, that Himyar is the proper appellation of those Arabs; and many reasons concur to prove, that the word is purely Arabick: the similarity of some proper names on the borders of India to those of Arabia, as the river Arabius, a place called Araba, a people named Aribes or Arabies, and another called Sabai, is indeed remarkable, and may hereafter furnish me with observations of some importance, but not al all inconsistent with my present ideas.

II.  It is generally asserted, that the old religion of the Arabs was entirely Sabian; but I can [57] offer so little accurate information concerning the Sabian faith, or even the meaning of the word, that I dare not yet speak on the subject with confidence. This at least is certain, that the people of Yemen very soon fell into the common, but fatal, errour of adoring the Sun and the Firmament; for even the third in descent from YOKTAN, who was consequently as old as NAHOR, took the surname of ABDUSHAMS, or Servant of the Sun, and his family, we are assured, paid particular honours to that luminary: other tribes worshipped the planets and fixed stars; but the religion of the poets at least seems to have been pure Theism; and this we know with certainty, because we have Arabian verses of unsuspected antiquity, which contain pious and elevated sentiments on the goodness and justice, the power and omnipresence, of ALLAH, or THE GOD. If an inscription, said to have been sound on marble in Yemen, be authentick, the ancient inhabitants of that country preserved the religion of EBER, and professed a belief in miracles and a future state.

We are also told, that a strong resemblance may be found between the religions of the pagan Arabs and the Hindus; but, though this may be true, yet an agreement in worshipping the sun and stars will not prove an affinity between the two nations: the power of God represented as female deities, the adoration of stones, and the name of the Idol WUDD, may lead us indeed to suspect, that some of the Hindu superstitions had sound their way into Arabia; and though we have no trace in Arabian History of such a conqueror or legislator as the great SESAC, who is said to have raised pillars in Yemen as well know, that SA’CYA is a title of BUDDHA, whom I suppose to be Woden, since BUDDHA was not a native of India, and since the age of SESAC perfectly agrees with that of SA’CYA, we may form a plausible conjecture, that they were in fact the same person, who travelled eastward from Ethiopia, either as a warriour or as a lawgiver, about a thousand years before CHRIST, and whose rites we now see extended as far as the country of Nison, or, as the Chinese call it, Japuen, both words signifying the Rising Sun. SA’CYA may be derived from a word meaning power, or from another denoting vegetable food; so that this epithet will not determine, whether he was a hero or a philosopher; but the title BUDDHA, or wife, may induce us to believe, that he was rather a benefactor, than a destroyer, of his species: if his religion, however, was really introduced into any part of Arabia, it could not have been general in that country; and we may safely pronounce, that before the Mohammedan [59] revolution, the noble and learned Arabs were Theists, but that a stupid idolatry prevailed among the lower orders of the people.

I find no trace among them, till their emigration, of any Philosophy but Ethicks; and even their system of morals, generous and enlarged as it seems to have been in the minds of a few illustrious chieftains, was on the whole miserably depraved for a century at least before MUHAMMED: the distinguishing virtues, which they boasted of inculcating and practising, were a contempt of riches and even of death; but, in the age of the Seven Poets, their liberality had deviated into mad profusion, their courage into ferocity, and their patience into an obstinate spirit of encountering fruitless dangers; but I forbear to expatiate on the manners of the Arabs in the age, because the poems, entitled AlmoÓllkÓt, which have appeared in our own language, exhibit an exact picture of their virtues and their vices, their wisdom and their folly; and show what may be constantly expected from men of open hearts and boiling passions, with no law to control, and little religion to restrain, them.

III.  Few monuments of antiquity are preserved in Arabia, and of those few the best accounts are very uncertain: but we are assured, that inscriptions on rocks and mountains are still seen in various parts of the Peninsula; [60]  which, if they are in any known language, and if correct copies of them can be procured, may be decyphered by easy and infallible rules.

The first ALBERT SCHULTENS has preserved in his Ancient Memorials of Arabia, the most pleasing of all his works, two little poems in an elegiack strain, which are said to have been sound, about the middle of the seventh century, on some fragments of ruined edifices in Hadram¨t near Aden, and are supposed to be of an indefinite, but very remote, age. It may naturally be asked: In what characters were they written? Who decyphered them? Why were not the original letters preserved in the book, where the verses are cited? What became of the marbles, which Abdurrahman, then governor of Yemen, most probably sent to the Khalýsah at Bagdad? If they be genuine, they prove the people of Yemen to have been “herdmen and warriours, inhabiting a fertile and well-watered country full of game, and near a fine sea abounding with fish, under a monarchical government, and dressed in green silk or vests of needlework”, either of their own manufacture or imported from India. The measure of these verses is perfectly regular, and the dialect undistinguishable, at least by me, from that of Kuraish; so that, if the Arabian writers were much addicted to literary impostures, I should strongly suspect [61] them to be modern compositions on the instability of human greatness, and the consequences of irreligion, illustrated by the example of the Himyarick princes; and the same may be suspected of the first poem quoted by SCHULTENS, which he ascribes to an Arab in the age of SOLOMON.

The supposed houses of the people called Tham¨d are also still to be seen in excavations of rocks; and, in the time of TABRIZI the Grammarian, a castle was extant in Yemen, which bore the name of ALADBAT, an old bard and warriour, who first, we are told, formed his army, thence called Ólkhamýs, in five parts, by which arrangement he defeated the troops of Himyar in an expedition against SanaÓ.

Of pillars erected by SESAC, after his invasion of Yemen, we find no mention in Arabian histories; and, perhaps, the story has no more foundation than another told by the Greeks and adopted by NEWTON, that the Arabs worshipped URANIA, and even BACCHUS by name, which, they say, means great in Arabick: but where they found such a word, we cannot discover: it is true, that Beccah signifies a great and tumultuous crowd, and, in this sense, is one name of the sacred city commonly called Meccah.

The Cabah, or quadrangular edifice at Meccah, is indisputably so ancient, that its original [62] use, and the name of its builder, are lost in a cloud of idle traditions. An Arab told me gravely, that it was raised by ABRAHAM, who, as I assured him, was never there: others ascribe it, with more probability, to ISMAIL, or one of his immediate descendants; but whether it was built as a place of divine worship, as a fortress, as a sepulchre, or as a monument of the treaty between the old possessors of Arabia and the sons of KIDAR, antiquaries may dispute, but no mortal can determine. It is thought by RELAND [5] to have been the mansion of some ancient Patriarch, and revered on that account by his posterity; but the room, in which we now are assembled, would contain the whole Arabian edifice; and, if it were large enough for the dwelling-house of a patriarchal family, it would seem ill adapted to the pastoral manners of the Kedarites: a Persian author insists, that the true name of Meccah is Mahcadah, or the Temple of the Moon; but, although we may smile at his etymology, we cannot but think it probable, that the Cabah was originally designed for religious purposes. Three couplets are cited in an Arabick History of this Building, which, from their extreme simplicity, have less appearance of imposture than other verses of the same kind: they are ascribed to ASAD, a Tobba, or kind by succession, who is generally allowed to have reigned [63] in Yemen an hundred and twenty-eight years before CHRIST’s birth, and they commemorate, without any poetical imagery, the magnificence of the prince in covering the holy temple with striped cloth and fine linen, and in making keys for its gate. This temple, however, the sanctity of which was restored by MUHAMMED, had been strangely profaned et the time of his birth, when it was usual to decorate its walls with poems on all subjects, and often on the triumphs of Arabian gallantry and the praises of Grecian wine, which the merchants of Syria brought for sale into the deserts.

From the want of materials on the subject of Arabian antiquity, we find it very difficult to fix the Chronology of the Ismailites with accuracy beyond the time of ADNAN, from whom the impostor was descended in the twenty-first degree; and, although we have genealogies of ALKAMAH and other Himyarick bards as high as the thirtieth degree, or for a period of nine hundred years at least, yet we can hardly depend on them so far, as to establish a complete chronological system: by reasoning downwards, how-ever, we may ascertain some points of considerable importance. The universal tradition of Yemen is, that YOKTAN, the son of EBER, first settled his family in that country; which settlement, by the computation admitted in Europe [64], must have been above three thousand six hundred years ago, and nearly at the time, when the Hindus, under the conduct of RAMA, were subduing the first inhabitants of these regions, and extending the Indian Empire from AyodhyÓ or Audh as far as the isle of Sinhal or Silan. According to this calculation, NUUMAN, king of Yemen in the ninth generation from EBER, was contemporary with JOSEPH; and, if a verse composed by that prince, and quoted by ABULFEDA, was really preserved, as it might easily have been, by oral tradition, it proves the great antiquity of the Arabian language and metre. This is a literal version of the couplet: “When thou, who art in power, conductest affairs with courtesy, thou attainest the high honours of those, who are most exalted, and whose mandates are obeyed”. Were are told, that, from an elegant verb in this distich, the royal poet acquired the surname of AlmuaÓfer, or the Courteous. Now the reasons for believing this verse genuine are its brevity, which made it easy to be remembered, and the good sense comprized in it, which made it become proverbial; to which we may add, that the dialect is apparently old, and differs in three words from the idiom of HejÓz: the reasons for doubting are, that sentences and verses of indefinite antiquity are sometimes ascribed by the Arabs to particular [65] persons of eminence; and they even go so far as to cite a pathetick elegy of ADAM himself on the death of ABEL, but in very good Arabick and correct measure. Such are the doubts, which necessarily must arise on such a subject; yet we have not need of ancient monuments or traditions to prove all that our analysis requires, namely, that the Arabs, both of HeiÓz and Yemen, sprang from a stock entirely different from that of the Hindus, and that their first establishments in the respective countries, where we now find them, were nearly coeval.

I cannot finish this article without observing, that, when the King of Denmark’s ministers instructed the Danish travellers to collect historical books in Arabick, but not to busy themselves with procuring Arabian poems, they certainly were ignorant, that the only monuments of old Arabian History are collections of poetical pieces and the commentaries on them; that all memorable transactions in Arabia were recorded in verse; and that more certain facts may be known by reading the HamÓsah, the DiwÓn of Hudhail, and the valuable work of Obaidullah, than by turning over a hundred volumes in prose, unless indeed those poems are cited by the historians as  their authori[ti]es.

IV.  The manners of the HejÓzi Arabs, which [66] have continued, we know, from the time of SOLOMON to the present age, were by no means favourable to the cultivation of arts; and, as to sciences, we have no reason to believe, that they were acquainted with any; for the mere amusement of giving names to stars, which were useful to them in their pastoral or predatory rambles through the deserts, and in their observations on the weather, can hardly be considered as a material part of astronomy. The only arts, in which they pretended to excellence (I except horsemanship and military accomplishments) were poetry and rhetorick: that we have none of their compositions in prose before the KorÓn, may be ascribed, perhaps, to the little skill, which they seem to have had, in writing; to their predilection in favour of poetical measure, and to the facility, with which verses are committed to memory; but all their stories prove, that they were eloquent in a high degree, and possessed wonderful powers of speaking without preparation inflowing and forcible periods. I have never been able to discover, what was meaned by their books, called Rawasim, but suppose, that they were collections of their common, or customary, law. Writing was so little practised among them, that their old poems, which are now accessible to us, may almost be considered [67] as originally unwritten; and I am inclined to think, that SAMUEL JOHNSON’s reasoning, on the extreme imperfection of unwritten languages, was too general; since a language, that is only spoken, may nevertheless be highly polished by a people, who, like the ancient Arabs, make the improvement of their idiom a national concern, appoint solemn assemblies for the purpose of displaying their poetical talents, and hold it a duty to exercise their children in getting by heart their most approved compositions.

The people of Yemen had possibly more mechanical arts, and, perhaps, more science; but, although their ports must have been the emporia of considerable commerce between Egypt and India or part of Persia, yet we have no certain proofs of their proficiency in navigation  or even in manufactures. That the Arabs of the desert had musical instruments, and names for the  different notes, and that they were greatly delighted with melody, we know from themselves; but their lutes and pipes were probably very simple, and their musick, I suspect, was little more than a natural and tuneful recitation of their elegiack verses and love-songs. The singular property of their language, in shunning compound words, may be urged, according to BACON’s idea, as a proof, that they had made [68] no progress in arts, “which require, says he, a variety of combinations to express the complex notions arising from them”; but the singularity may perhaps be imputed wholly to the genius of the language, and the taste of those, who spoke it; since the Germans, who knew no art, appear to have delighted in compound words, which poetry and oratory, one would conceive, might require as much as any meaner art whatsoever.

So great, on the whole, was the strength of parts or capacity, either natural or acquired from habit, for which the Arabs were ever distinguished, that we cannot be surprized, when we see that blaze of genius, which they displayed, as far as their arms extended, when they burst, like their own dyke of Arim, through their ancient limits, and spread, like an inundation, over the great empire of IrÓn. That a race of TÓzis, or Coursers as the Persians call them, “who drank the milk of camels and fed on lizards, should entertain a thought of subduing the kingdom of FERIDUN” was considered by General of YEZDEGIRD’s army as the strongest instance of fortune’s levity and mutability; but FIRDAUSI, a complete master of Asiatick  manners, and singularly impartial, represents the Arabs, even in the age of FERIDUN, as “disclaiming [69] any kind of dependence on that monarch, exulting in their liberty, delighting in eloquence, acts of liberality, and martial achievements, and thus making the whole earth, says the poet, red as wine with the blood of their foes, and the air like a forest of canes with their tall spears”. With such a character they were likely to country, that they could invade; and, if ALEXANDER had invaded their dominions, they would unquestionably have made an obstinate, and probably a successful, resistance.

But I have detained you too long, gentlemen, with a nation, who have ever been my favourites, and hope at our next anniversary meeting to travel with you over a part of Asia, which exhibits a race of men distinct both from the Hindus and from the Arabs. In the mean time it shall be my care to superintend the publication of your transactions, in which, if the learned in Europe have not raised their expectations too high, they will not, I believe, be disappointed: my own imperfect essays I always except; but, though my other engagements have prevented my attendance on your society for the greatest part of last year, and I have set an example of that freedom from restraint, without which no society can flourish, yet, as my hours of leisure [70] will now be devoted to Sanscrit literature, I cannot but hope, though my chief object be a knowledge of Hindu Law, to make some discovery in other sciences, which I shall impart with humility, and which you will, I doubt not, receive with indulgence.


Editorial note

This text is taken from: The Works of Sir William Jones. With a Life of the Author, by Lord Teignmouth [John Shore], London, printed for John Stockdale and John Walker, 1807, 13 vols. in-8░, vol. III, pp. 47-70 [copy preserved in the Library of the Accademia delle Scienze di Torino, shelfmark: 138.407-419].

We have retained the original ortographical and typographycal conventions, use of capitals, italics, accents in transilttered proper names, punctuation and pagination. The edition of this text is part of a project for producing a large electronic publication of the most important works by the eminent English orientalist and lawyer sir William Jones (1746-1794), founder of the Asiatick Society of Bengal (1784). It springs from the wish to propose some of the outstanding documents of the European reflection on non-European civilisations as impelled by XVIIth-XVIIIth century commercial, colonial and imperial expansion in Asia.

HTML edition by Guido Abbattista for Eliohs (July 2000). Further revisions and corrections of this edition will be acknowledged and dated.

[0] Jones is here making reference to the manuscript work by Prince Dimitrie Cantemir (1673-1723) Incrementa atque Decrementa Aulae Othomanicae (1714-1716), first printed edition in English transation, The History of the Growth and Decay of the Othman Empire ... Written originally in Latin ... Translated into English, from the author's own manuscript, by N. Tindal, London, James, John, and Paul Knapton1734, 35. fol.; London, A. Millar, 1756.

[1] See the article in the Dictionary of National Biography.

[1bis] Albert Schultens (1686-1750), Duth orientalist who has been defined by the Biographie universelle (t. XLI, p. 250) as the "restorer of Oriental  literature in the XVIIIth century". He started as a student of theology and hebraic language in Gr÷ningen, but soon he learnt also the syriac, chaldaic and arabic languages, using Erpenius's Arabic grammar. He visited Leiden and Utrecht where he met Reeland (see below). Back in Gr÷ningen he was nominated minister of the church of Wassenaar in 1711, but he soon afterwards decided for the literary career and accepted the chair of Oriental languages at the academy of Franeker. Here he engaged in an important dispute against the system of Gousset, maintaining that the hebraic language of the sacred writings was not the divine language taught by God to men and that that language had to be considered together with the arabic, syriac and chaldaic ones as all derived idioms of the same primitive language of divine origin. He became in 1729 librarian at Leiden, charged with the conservation of Oriental manuscripts, and afterwards was professor of Oriental languages. Among his most important works there are editions of Erpenius's Grammar of the Arabic Language, studies on the Hebraic and Arabic languages, and most of all Monumenta Vetustiora Arabiae, sive specimina quaedam illustria antiquae historiae at linguae exvariis mss. excerpta, Leiden, 1740. He left in manuscript version a History of the Arabs.

[2] Jakob Golius (La Haye, 1596-Leyden, 1667), a renowned Dutch orientalist,  studied for twenty years at Leyden university. Among several subjects (theology, classical languages, philosophy, medicine, mathematics)  he was a pupil of Erpenius, who taught him the Arabic language. After a period of stay in France, at La Rochelle, where he lectured in Greek, he went back to Holland in 1622. Here, his abilities with the Oriental languages were put to profit by the States General, for whom he serviced as interpreter, living in Maroc with a diplomatic role for some years, during which he acquired many important manuscripts, afterwards deposited at the Leyden university library. He travelled in Syria, Mesopotamia, Arabia and visited Costantinople, where his learning was appreciated, allowing him to have access to many local libraries. His most important works were: Lexicon Arabico-Latinum (Leyden, 1653), and several translations, Proverbia quaedam lis, imperatori muslemici  (Leyden, 1629), Ahmedis Arabsiadae Vira et Rerum Gestarum Timuri (Leyden, 1636), Muhammedis, filii Ketiri Ferganensis Elementa astronomica arabice et latine (Amsterdam, 1669).

[3] Thomas van Erpen (1584-1624, latin Erpenius, was a famous Dutch orientalist. He lectured theology in Leiden and had extensive European acquaintances, among whom Isaac Causaubon, whom he visited in Paris. He studied Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Ethiopian in Venice. After a four year travel across Europe, in 1613 he went back to Leiden, where he was charged with the teaching of Arabic and was appointed official interpret of the States General for oriental languages. Thanks to his huge linguistic knowledge he may be considered the father of the Dutch orientalist school of the XVIIth century: his important Arabic grammar was a standard text till the beginning of the XIXth century. One of his field of activity was the establishment – with the assistance of the States General – of a printing press for the printing of  Oriental works, especially in the Arabic language. The Arabic fonts that were prepared for Erpen  were distinguished for their beauty and precision and were employed for printing such works as a collection of Arab proverbs (1614), an Arabic translation of the Pentateuch (1622) and several editions of Elmacin, History of the Saracens (first edition, 1625). Erpen's main works were: Rudimenta Linguae Arabicae, Leyden, 1620; Grammatica Araba, quinque libris methodice explicata (Leyden, 1631), Grammatica Ebraea Generalis (Amsterdam, 1621), Grammatica Chaldaica et Syria (Amsterdam, 1628), Orationes tres de Linguarum Ebraeae atque Arabicae dignitate (Leyden, 1621).

[4] Carsten Niebhur (1733-1815), German traveller, took part in a Danish expedition to Yemen from 1761 and 1767 of which he was the sole survivor. His reports represent an important and accurate account of Arabia, that was published as Beschreibung von Arabien (1772), translated in French as Decription de l'Arabie, Copenhaguen, 1773, and Voyage en Arabie, Amsterdam-Copenhaguen, 1773-1780, 4 vols. in quarto.

[5] Adriaan Reeland (1676-1718) was another celebrated Dutch orientalist. He studied Oriental languages and Arabic in particular at Utrecht and then at Leyden. In 1699 was appointed professor of Oriental languages at Harderwyck; in 1701 he passed to Utrecht as professor of Oriental languages and of ecclesiastical antiquities. He distinguished himself for his great erudition, whose fruits were limited by his relatively short life. Among his numerous works: De religione mohammedica libri duo (Utrecht, 1705), a work  reprinted several times and translated in many European languages, Palestina ex monumentis veteribus illustrata (Utrecht, 1714) , Analecta rabbinica  (Utrecht, 1705).