Front fencing 2: more psalms

Front fence in Bungendore

A long way from this front fence in Bungendore . . . 

Front fencing was introduced and explained in a  previous post. It’s time to raise the bar.

Psalm references leap out at the passer-by from a cluttered scenery when easily identified. When hidden in a different language and script it gets a little harder.

The example on the positive organ used last week was easy. German, Latin, French . . . the word for psalm is still easily recognisable in many Western languages.

Scripts inscrutable

Psalm in early ArabicWhen the text is in some language or script unknown, you get extra points. Psalms in Arabic, for example, occur quite frequently but are hidden to most of us. So the front fencing focus has to be refined.

Psalms in Arabic can be said to be frequent because of one of the fine features of psalmody; they are established, sung and loved in all the three major Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam. (Recent followers will probably not have read a previous post, David and Da’ud, on this topic but may find that interesting at this point.)

The manuscript shown above, according to an explanatory note in the Altes Museum, is an early transcription of an unidentified psalm of the Prophet. It’s truly lovely and makes one wish for greater expertise in reading, writing and understanding this beautiful flowing calligraphy.Coptic text

Before Arabic spread with Islam into Egypt centuries ago, the Coptic language and script were used, particularly in the Coptic churches. The illustration at right (click pics to enlarge) is also of ‘a Christian text’ from Exodus.

Greek codex, ExodusAnd since the associated lectionary readings have been from Exodus in recent weeks, much to RevR’s excitement, I may be permitted to include this early codex text of Exodus, two pages written in Greek about the 4th century CE in Byzantine times.

Room with a view

Amongst the impressive but wearying collections of ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian artefacts in the Pergamon and other nearby museums, front fencing on psalms is on the whole, despite finding the little treasures described above, an unproductive activity. Room in Aleppo

So it was with surprise that, when we walked into a reconstruction of a highly decorated room of a comfortable house from Aleppo and read the associated blurb, we discovered that the calligraphy above the windows and door panels is actually psalm quotes. Linking Islamic and Christian cultures again, the house was that of a prominent Christian trader.

Whatever views the windows originally revealed, the interior view was notable.

A broad tapestry

I am not sure that I could live with that degree of decoration first thing in the morning; but again, that calligraphy is certainly attractive.

Even more attractive is the hidden evidence of how important the psalms were, however written, sung or interpreted, across so many cultures, religious traditions and eras stretching back to the time of King David.

David and Da’ud

The singing of psalms, as mentioned at the home page, is a longstanding and wide-spread tradition.

The psalms, like the Torah or Tawrat, are recognised in many major religions besides Christianity (1):

  • As tehillim they appear, of course, in the Jewish scriptures.
  • In Islamic writings frequent reference may be found to the zabur.

PsalmArabicThe zabur are often referred to as those of the Prophet Da’ud, who was generally revered in Islam after Mohammed, Jesus and Moses. There’s a nice story of Sir James Lancaster as commander of the first English ship to reach the East Indies for trading in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He visited Aceh in Sumatra in 1602, Islam having spread through many parts of Asia by then. He met the Sultan several times discussing matters of state and, importantly, trade. During the ceremonies associated with Lancaster’s departure, the Sultan is reported to have asked him if they would sing a psalm of the Propher Da’ud. This they did and were rewarded similarly by Acinese singing their versions of a psalm.

Unfortunately, we cannot know what they sang, words or music, nor even if it was truly a psalm of David. However, from early times there are several recorded instances of use of the psalms in Islam.  According to David Vishanoff, texts were drawn from early sources, probably around 800CE, and rewritten. He provides an example of Psalm 2 we sang recently. The first verse is as follows:

Why do the nations surge forth and the peoples blaze up in their zeal to conquer what is rightly the Lord’s? The Lord says: what is rightly mine cannot be conquered, and my might cannot be brought low. (2)

NRSV says: Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?

In Sura, a chapter of the Qur’an, there are mentions of Da’ud, his instruments and the echo of praise from the mountains and birds around. Other records appear in disparate places and contexts, for example:

  • Mohd bin Abd al-Wahab Ghassani (d.1707) describes David accompanying himself with the harp


    Ali Ufki’s psalms. Image: The King’s Singers. Star, cross and crescent!

  • Evliya Çelebi (1611-82), an Ottoman Turk whose extensive travels resulted in ten-volume travelogue, describes the organ or blown pipes as associated with David’s song
  • François Pyrard de Laval in a report of his visit to the Maldives in 1602-07 says people were singing psalms all night long
  • Ali Ufki’s adaptations of the 1565 Genevan Psalter may be found in the British Library (3) and in modern recordings

On other pages and posts this web-site mentions synergies with Catholic, Orthodox and other traditions and their attention to sung psalms, often in the same or similar liturgical structures.

We can thus be assured that ours has proven to be a practice widely followed and valued around the world in various eras and various forms. Continue reading