Hebraica and Semitica

Manuscripts and rare printed books in Hebrew and other Semitic languages, Coptic and Armenian.


Hebrew Bible, Gershom ben Moses Soncino, Brescia 1494 (UBL 1368 G 8)

Hebrew Bible, Gershom ben Moses Soncino, Brescia 1494 (UBL 1368 G 8)

The Library of Leiden University holds c. 550 manuscripts and an extensive collection of rare printed books in Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, the languages of Ethiopia, Old South Arabic, Coptic and Armenian.

In the sixteenth century the study of the Semitic languages was still regarded as an ancillary science for the study of the Bible, but soon afterwards it acquired the status of a separate discipline. Josephus Justus Scaliger, one of the first luminaries of Leiden University, left his collection of Semitica to the University at his death in 1609; this collections includes the sole surviving manuscript of the Jerusalem Talmud, Or. 4720. Levinus Warner (1619-1665), envoy of the Dutch Republic to the Sublime Porte at Istanbul and mainly known for his much larger collection of Islamic manuscripts at Leiden, also collected more than a hundred Hebrew manuscripts. For the greater part the Warner Hebraica are related with Qaraite Judaism. Many manuscripts in Syriac originate from the Christians on the Malabar coast, India, and were acquired through the trade channels of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). 

In the 18th and 19th centuries the acquisition of manuscripts came to an almost complete standstill, but at the beginning of the 20th century the British scholar J. Rendel Harris (1852-1941) donated a collection of 57 Armenian manuscripts to Leiden University Library. In the course of the 20th century the emphasis shifted to the acquisition of Ethiopian manuscripts. Late in the 20th century an interesting collection of several hundred wooden sticks with inscriptions in Old South Arabic was given in permanent loan by Stichting het Oosters Instituut.

Printed books

Rare printed books were acquired according to a much more regular pattern. For instance, the Scaliger collection contains early printed books in Semitic languages, such as a Hebrew Bible printed in Brescia in 5254/1494 and an early Ethiopian Psalter, published by Joannes Potken and printed in Rome in 1513. From the late sixteenth century every effort has been made to expand the collections with new important text editions and studies.

Access to the collections

  • All manuscripts in Semitic languages, Coptic and Armenian bear the classmark Or. + number, irrespective of language or material.
  • Only a small part of the manuscript collections is available online or searchable with the help of digital finding aids. For the greater part the collections are searchable through printed scholarly catalogues, usually arranged according to language.
  • A collection guide is available for a growing number of collections.
  • The collections of rare printed books and the products of Western Orientalist scholarship are searchable through the online public Catalogue. It is possible to refine your search with criteria like year of publication or language.

Modern printed collections

The modern collections of Hebraica, Semitica &c., containing publications from c. 1950 onwards, are part of the general collections of Leiden University Library.

Last Modified: 17-08-2015