By Lindsey Askin

The Library is celebrating the return of its ‘Oriental Studies’ collection, once the Kennett Memorial Library, also called in the past the Oriental Library. The Kennett Library was created in 1935 and housed on the top floor of the student library. In 1972 it was transferred on permanent loan to the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (the Faculty of Oriental Studies until 2004). Many of these books came from the Old Library itself and were previously owned by important scholars, fellows and presidents of Queens’ such as Cambridge Platonist John Smith (1618-1652), Lucasian Professor of Mathematics and president of Queens’ the Revd Dr Isaac Milner (1750-1820), and Queens’ Orientalists such as George Phillips (Queens’ president from 1857 to 1892), R.H. Kennett, William Wright (donated by his wife), Samuel Lee (1783-1852), and A.A. Bevan (donated by his brother Dr E.R. Bevan), and other donors such as Rev Dr G.E. Davis and Claude J.G. Montefiore (great-nephew of Sir Moses Montefiore).

The collection as a whole reflects the study of Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Sanskrit, Persian, philology, biblical criticism, and Comparative Semitics at Queens’ from the Renaissance up until the early twentieth century. The subjects covered include the disciplines of Biblical Studies, Egyptology, Semitics, Near Eastern studies or Assyriology, and Middle Eastern studies. Until recently, Jewish, Middle Eastern, and Asian studies were known collectively as Oriental Studies.

Close-up of Syriac text

The opening lines of George Phillips’ 1876 edition of the Syriac text, The Doctrine of Addai the Apostle, from our Oriental collection [Ken X.14].

The Old Library Office -- new shelves added to accommodate the return of the Oriental Library.

The Old Library Office — new shelves added going up to the ceiling to accommodate the return of the Kennett Memorial Library.


This summer, reinforced shelves were installed in the Old Library Office to house many of these books, going up to the ceiling. Online catalogue records which were made by the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies were subsequently made available so that they can stay an integral part of research accessible to scholars and researchers, and show the college’s heritage. The collection indicates to us that this college once had a great reputation for Arabic, Syriac, and Hebrew study from the Renaissance up until the 1930s, and we are delighted to be able to house this chapter in Queens’ heritage and history once more.

More shelves!

More shelves!


During the Renaissance, many Classical Greek manuscripts from the East and Arabic translations of Greek texts long thought lost began to resurface around Europe. Scholars in Europe became increasingly interested in discovering forgotten texts in libraries, and in reading texts in their original languages instead of in Latin translation. All this was the complex combined effect of the decline of the Byzantine Empire, increased trade with the East, the Humanist rejection of Scholasticism, the Protestant Reformation, economic prosperity, and—naturally—the printing press.

Euclid in Arabic

Text from an Arabic edition of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, printed in Rome in 1594. [Or U.II.13].

In the early sixteenth century, Erasmus and his associates had a strong positive effect on this college’s interest in languages. During his time at Queens’ from 1511 to 1514 as Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity, Erasmus lectured in Theology and Greek. From his rooms in ‘I’ staircase, Erasmus also may have made preparations for his Greek-Latin edition of the New Testament. The Library soon acquired many sixteenth and seventeenth century printed books in Hebrew and Arabic, including this beautiful edition of Euclid in Arabic, printed at Rome in 1594 (above).

Other works on/in Hebrew and Aramaic include early printed editions of the Mikraot Gedolot (the Rabbinic Bible), the Babylonian Talmud, the Jerusalem Talmud, works by Christian Hebraists, and countless medieval and early modern Jewish works on scripture and philosophy.

Bomberg Fifth Rabbinic Bible 1617

This fifth edition of the Rabbinic Bible was based on the edition of Daniel Bomberg, a notable printer of Hebrew books in sixteenth century Venice. The title page depicted here is from the first volume (Ḥamishah Ḥumshe Torah), the Five Books of Moses or the Torah. The whole edition was printed in four folio volumes in Venice by Pietro and Lorenzo Bradagin in 1617. [Ken III.1-4].

The Library also acquired many books written by Johannes Buxtorf (1564-1629), one of the most influential Christian Hebraists. Buxtorf, who was Professor of Hebrew at Basel, was called the ‘Master of the Rabbis’ because of his close positive relationships with Jewish society and his close study of the Targums and Talmud. He is best remembered for his monumental Hebrew dictionary (first printed in 1607), which remained in use for over two hundred years.

This copy of the eighth edition of Buxtorf’s Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon, in octavo, was owned by R.H. Kennett’s son Austin (B.L.A.) Kennett, as we can tell by an inscription. This copy was printed in Basil in 1676. [Ken A XIII 4] The Old Library has several editions of Buxtorf’s dictionary printed in 1621, 1676, and 1824.

The Language of Creation

More contact with Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, and Syriac languages and manuscripts from the early modern period enabled people to discover that these languages had common roots. For a long time (at least since the apocryphal text the Book of Jubilees written in the 160s BCE), Jews and Christians alike believed that Hebrew was the first primeval language (the language of the Tower of Babel in Genesis and of heaven), the ‘Language of Creation,’ and that other languages of the Near East such as Aramaic, Syriac, and Arabic were all derived from Hebrew. Hiob Ludolf was one of the first Christian scholars to recognize that Ethiopic (also called Amharic or Ge’ez) was also part of the same Semitic language family.

A royal family tree in Hiob Ludolf's Historia Aethiopica

An Ethiopic royal family tree written in Amharic in Hiob Ludolf’s Historia Aethiopica, printed in Frankfurt-am-Main in 1681. [Wri K.I.20.1]

Sefer ha-Kuzari by Judah ha-Levi, a significant 12th c Jewish poet and philosopher, printed in Venice in 1594. Sefer ha-Kuzari was an apologetic dialogue in defence of Judaism. [Or K II 16 1]

Sefer ha-Kuzari by Judah ha-Levi, a significant 12th century Jewish poet and philosopher, printed in Venice in 1594. Sefer ha-Kuzari is an apologetic dialogue in defence of Judaism. [Or K.II.16.1] The revised shelfmarks on many of the Oriental collection books is due to the creation of the Kennett Memorial Library in the 1930s which took many books from the Old Library itself (K books). Another plan in the creation of the Library according to archives from 1935 state a plan was to re-classify the books as KML, but evidently ‘Or’ was favoured instead.

In rediscovering this collection, we can see that in the early modern period Queens’ Library acquired many Hebrew and Aramaic texts, which is interesting since there were no Jews in England from 1290 to 1655. The same is true of early printed copies and translations of the Qur’an and Arabic literature, as Muslims did not begin to arrive in England on a large scale until the eighteenth century. Scholars such as one of the founding members of the Cambridge Platonists John Smith (1618-1652), was one of these early fellows who contributed to the collection with their bequests. It is interesting that fellows and students at Queens’ College in the sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth century would have studied Rabbinics without any access to Jewish teachers, and Arabic without access to native-speaking teachers—except by traveling to the continent or the East, which many Oriental scholars did.

Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

It was not until the eighteenth century that Albert Schultens first used Arabic to help explain some elements of Hebrew grammar (instead of the other way around). He was the first scholar to have touched on (in a modern way) what is today called Comparative Semitics. Schultens created a lot of backlash with his methods, but his successors eventually found that Hebrew did not have ‘primacy’ over other Semitic languages after all, and that Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Ethiopic, and Syriac (as well as Egyptian, Akkadian, and Sumerian) were all languages derived in common from Proto-Semitic roots.

Albert Schultens's Hebraeae Linguae

Albert Schultens’ Origines Hebraeae printed in 1761. [Wri H.II.35]

One eighteenth-century Oriental scholar at Queens’ was Joseph Dacre Carlyle (1759-1804), who was Sir Thomas Adams Professor of Arabic from 1795 to 1804. Carlyle produced an Arabic Bible and translations of Arabic poetry and the work of Yusuf ibn Taghri Birdi. He also served as chaplain and learned referee to Lord Elgin on his travels to Constantinople, during which time he collected many Greek and Syriac manuscripts.

Another early Oriental scholar was Queens’ fellow Samuel Lee D.D. (1783-1852), linguist and who was a professor of Arabic and then Regius Professor of Hebrew. Lee was interested in many languages including Te Reo, the Maori language, and helped to create the first dictionary of Te Reo. He also wrote a Hebrew lexicon and grammar. Lee left to Queens’ a very large collection of Bibles many of which are in local languages of India as well as Eastern European languages.

During the Enlightenment, Adriaan Reland was one of the first scholars to write a more objective treatment of Islam for a Christian audience. He also traveled extensively in the East, and read Rabbinic literature to better understand the geography of the land of Israel.

Text from Carlyle's Specimens of Arabic Poetry.

Text from Carlyle’s translation of pre-Islamic poet Hatim al-Tai’s ‘On Avarice’. Joseph Dacre Carlyle, Specimens of Arabic Poetry (Cambridge 1796). [Or V.II.18]

Reland's Palestine.

A fold-out chronology from Reland’s guide the monuments of Palestine. Adrian Reland, Palestinia ex monumentis veteribus illustrata, 2 vols (Utrecht, 1714). [Or V.II.20-21]

In the nineteenth century, as Near Eastern studies and Egyptology developed as disciplines, biblical scholars became more interested in learning about how the books of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) were written, especially in light of Babylonian literature such as Gilgamesh and the Atrahasis Epic (the Babylonian Flood Story). Much of this scholarship came from Germany, but British scholars also played a role as Oriental scholarship became increasingly significant at Cambridge as well as other British universities. Some of these Orientalists were prominent Queens’ men.

Lenormant's Akkadian Grammar.

On Akkadian cuneiform. From Francois Lenormant’s Lettres Assyriologiques, Paris 1871. [Or Q.I.6]

William Wright (1830-1889)

Much of the Kennett Memorial Library collection is made up of the collections and donations of several nineteenth and early twentieth century Queens’ scholars who were very learned Orientalists and had major effects on their students and disciplines during their time. We know some of their collections by shelf-mark (Wri, Bev, Ken, Lee).

Queens’ fellow Professor William Wright LLD (1830-1889) was the Sir Thomas Adams Professor of Arabic at Cambridge from 1870 to 1889. Wright was highly respected abroad, and he loved all things German. He used his large network of friends on the continent (probably from his studies at Halle and Leiden in the 1850s after attending St Andrews) to obtain many pamphlets, articles, and books from outside England. G.J. Roper describes him as ‘one of the most active and eminent Semitic scholars of his day.’ Wright is thought to have been instrumental in the creation of a Semitic Languages tripos, allowing undergraduates to learn Syriac as well as Hebrew.

Inscription to William Wright

This is an inscription to William Wright from the librarian of Fort William’s College, from when Wright was a professor at Trinity College Dublin. The book is Robert Tytler’s Treatise concerning the Permutations of Letters in the Arabic Language, printed in Calcutta 1810. [Wri E.I.34]

Personally, Wright did not seem to have enjoyed teaching, although he produced his Grammar of the Arabic Language. He is better remembered for producing many descriptive catalogues of Hebrew, Syriac, Ethiopic, and Arabic manuscripts from collections in Britain. He also worked extensively on the Revised Version of the English Bible.

R.H. Kennett (1864-1932)

The books of Robert Hatch (‘R.H.’) Kennett (1864-1932), who was University Lecturer in Aramaic from 1893 to 1903 and Regius Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge from 1903 to his death in 1932, form a large proportion of his Library.  Kennett succeeded Wright as director of the Semitic Languages tripos. Over his life, Kennett amassed a large collection of early printed Hebrew books. Additional Oriental books were also contributed to the Library in honour of his father by Kennett’s son, B.L. Austin Kennett. Kennett was loved by his students and had daring views on the reconstruction of biblical history. Among his interests was Syriac literature. He was remembered as a man of genuine goodness and having the courage of his convictions (S.A. Cook, Introduction to Kennett’s The Church of Israel).

It is owing to Kennett’s legacy as a teacher and scholar that his eponymous Library came into being. Kennett counted among his pupils Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, and Herbert Loewe. Loewe, Reader in Rabbinics 1931-1940, catalogued the collection upon its creation, and his card catalogue remains part of the Kennett Library.

The Psalms in Syriac.

Psalm 23 in Syriac. Psalmi Davidis, edited by Thomas van Erpe (Leiden 1625). [Or T.I.17]

George Phillips (1804-1892)

Syriac was studied at Queens’ for many years not least because of Wright, Carlyle, and Kennett, but also because the president of Queens’ from 1857 to 1892 was Syriac scholar and Queens’ president Dr George Phillips. Phillips is best known for his influential Elements of Syriac Grammar (1837), later revised as A Syriac Grammar (1866). Phillips believed strongly that knowledge of a language such as Hebrew was enhanced by the study of cognate Semitic languages such as Syriac, and furthermore that Syriac should be studied in its own right, a change from previous attitudes which had relegated Syriac to being a supplementary aide to understanding Hebrew.

Phillips' Syriac Grammar

An edition of Phillips’ Syriac Grammar printed in Cambridge in 1866 [Or N.II.12]

A.A. Bevan (1859-1933)

Another Queens’ fellow whose books formed part of the Kennett Library is Professor Anthony Ashley Bevan (1859-1933), who was learned in many languages and was Lord Almoner’s Professor of Arabic from 1894 to 1933. He was also taught by William Wright and Solomon Schiller-Szinessy.

Bevan never visited any Arabic countries during his life, but Burkitt calls him ‘one of the dozen most learned Arabists, not of England and Europe only, but of the whole world. He was almost equally distinguished for his knowledge of Hebrew and Old Testament literature. He knew Syriac thoroughly and other Semitic languages as well, and he had an excellent acquaintance with Persian language and literature.’ A former student thought that his pronunciation of Arabic was ‘weird.’ His main interest seems to have been in teaching Hebrew, and enjoyed teaching in general. Nevertheless, he was very well-liked by his students, and scrupulous in his work. Bevan was modest and polite by reputation, generous in helping his colleagues, and his brother Dr. E.R. Bevan donated a considerable quantity of Bevan’s books to be part of the Kennett Library.


Arabic text from Joseph Dacre Carlyle’s edition of ibn Taghribirdi’s History of Egypt. Printed at Cambridge in 1792. [Or V.I.15]

Herbert Loewe (1882-1940)

One Queens’ man with a profound impact on Hebrew study at Queens’ was Herbert James Martin Loewe (1882-1940), who studied Semitic Languages and Theology at Queens’ from 1901 to 1905, taught by R.H. Kennett. After a year in Egypt teaching English, Loewe returned to Queens’ to be a lecturer in Hebrew and Curator of Oriental Literature in the University Library. Cecil Roth wrote of Loewe that ‘for a generation he was regarded in English academic circles as the prime representative of Jewish scholarship.’ In 1914 Loewe went to teach at Exeter College, Oxford until 1931 when he was appointed Reader in Rabbinics at Cambridge, following in the footsteps of Solomon Schechter and his own favourite teacher Israel Abrahams. Loewe died of Hodgkin’s disease in 1940. Queens’ Kennett Library owes much to Herbert Loewe as he was instrumental in helping the collection take shape in honour of his late teacher, cataloguing much of it (see Clifford W. Dugmore, ‘Two Samaritan MSS in the Library of Queens’ College Cambridge,’ Journal of Theological Studies 36 (1935)). Loewe also catalogued many other Hebrew collections in Cambridge such as Girton. He left behind a very large collection of Jewish pamphlets now part of the Muller Library at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, at the University of Oxford. Loewe donated many books to the Oriental collection, and many of his own publications are represented in it.

The Library contains a suitcase that might have once belonged to Herbert Loewe sometime during his many years at Cambridge, perhaps while he was Reader in Rabbinics.

“H.L.” on this suitcase might refer to Herbert Loewe.


Inside the suitcase are Hebrew exercise books, a manuscript edition of a Hebrew text, and a postcard addressed to Edward S. Browne concerning a Samaritan manuscript from Nablus, all about 100 years old. In the past, the Library might have put these items in the suitcase to keep these Oriental-related archives together.


The present Reader in Rabbinics at Cambridge, Professor Nicholas de Lange, writes that nineteenth century Cambridge had a great appetite for Rabbinic studies. The first Readership in Rabbinics was established in 1866, notably appointing the eminent Jewish scholar Solomon Schiller-Szinessy. Only professed Anglicans who swore a declaration of faith were allowed to attend Cambridge until the University Act of 1856 removed this requirement for students, and finally the University Tests Act of 1871 allowed fellows of any or no religious background.

Wri H I 33

The Annals of Eutychius (Patriarch of Alexandria 877-940 CE). Printed in London in 1642. Eutychius was one of the first Christian Egyptian authors who wrote in Arabic. [Wri H.I.33.2]

This same copy of the Annals of Eutychius has been heavily annotated by a previous owner. [OL: Wri H I 33 2]

This same copy of the Annals of Eutychius has been heavily annotated by a previous owner. [Wri H.I.33.2]

Queens’ Role in the Study of Semitic Languages

Queens’ Kennett Memorial Library, its Asian and Middle Eastern collection, is one of the most thorough and traceable journeys through every major milestone in the study of Semitic languages in England from the fifteenth century to the Second World War. Nearly every major scholar and significant work – from Bomberg Rabbinic Bibles to Buxtorf and Wellhausen to the Zohar – can be found represented here. Like the Old Library, the Kennett Library reflects what was studied here at Queens’. Queens’ therefore owes a great debt to the legacy and collections of its scholars such as Wright, Loewe, Bevan, Lee, and Kennett. The collection tells us how central and vital the study of Semitic languages was at Queens’ for much of its past.

Animals from Ludolf's Historia Aethiopica.

Animals from Ludolf’s Historia Aethiopica.


University of Cambridge, ‘Kennett, Robert Hatch (KNT882RH),’ A Cambridge Alumni Database (Venn),

J.F. Coakley, ‘The Teaching of Syriac at Cambridge,’ in A Man of Many Parts: Essays in Honor of John Westerdale Bowker on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2015), 15-29.

S.A. Cook, ‘Introduction’ in R.H. Kennett’s The Church of Israel: Studies and Essays
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

S.A. Cook, rev. John Gurney, ‘Bevan, Anthony Ashley (1859–1933), orientalist and biblical scholar,’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,,31869.

S.A. Cook, rev. Gerald Law, ‘Kennett, Robert Hatch (1864–1932), biblical and Semitic scholar,’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,

Clifford W. Dugmore, ‘Two Samaritan MSS in the Library of Queens’ College Cambridge,’ Journal of Theological Studies 36 (1935), 131-146.

Nicholas de Lange, ‘Books and Bookmen: The Cambridge teachers of Rabbinics 1866-1971,’ Jewish Historical Studies 44 (2012), 139-163.

Leslie J. McLoughlin, In a Sea of Knowledge: British Arabists in the Twentieth Century (Reading: Ithaca, 2002), 64.

Letters and archives related to the creation and loan of the Kennett Memorial Library. Queens’ College Library, Cambridge.

Muller Library, Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, ‘Loewe Pamphlets Collection,’

Muller Library, Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, ‘Raphael Loewe Archives,’

G.J. Roper, ‘Wright, William (1830–1889), Semitist,’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,

Cecil Roth, ‘Loewe, Herbert James Martin,’ Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 11 (Jerusalem: Keter, 1971), 447.

John Twigg, A History of Queens’ College, Cambridge (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1987).

Another illustration of animals from Ludolf's Historia Aethiopica.

Another illustration of animals from Ludolf’s Historia Aethiopica.