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The oldest Koran

I lodged a plea with the Mufti which I feared would be refused. In his library, I knew, was reputedly the oldest Koran in the world. It had belonged to the caliph Othman, third of Mahomet's successors. In ad 655 he was murdered in Medinah, and it had fallen blood-stained from his hands at the aya: 'And if they believe even as ye believe, then are they rightly guided. But if they turn away, then are they in schism, and Allah will be thy protection against them.' Soon afterwards the adherents of the fourth caliph Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, were bloodily overthrown and the kinsmen of Othman succeeded him, and from that time there began the deep Sunni-Shia rift in Islam

An iron door opened in the wall, and we entered a tiny room. Behind us crept an old mullah from Urgench, whom I had befriended in the courtyard. The librarian backed away. In the wall before us hung a massive copper safe, fronted by thick glass. 'Our holiest book.'

And there it was. It resembled no other Koran that I had seen. It bore no illumination, nothing exquisite at all, but was strong and utilitarian, with the beauty of something primitive. It lay mounded on itself in separate pages: thick, deerskin leaves. The script flowed long and low over them, like a fleet of galleys going into battle. The strokes were broad and strong. They belonged to the harshness of history, not the embroideries of faith.

'Ali took it away to Kufa,' the librarian said, 'and when Tamerlane conquered Iraq he brought it here. It is stained with blood, but I cannot show you.'

We stared at it through the glass a long time, while I imagined its leaves slipping from the fingers of the eighty-two-year-old caliph as he fell, and schism fanning out into half the world. Over a century ago, a traveller claimed to have seen it lying on a lectern in the tomb of Tamerlane, where mullahs chanted from it day and night. But by the time the Russians conquered Samarkand there was not a native in the city able to decipher it. The imams of the mosque where it was kept, it is said, sold it to the Russians for 125 roubles, and it remained in the Imperial Public Library in St Petersburg until the Bolsheviks returned it.

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron