The special collection of Altaic Literature in the SUB Göttingen

The Göttingen State and University Library houses one of the largest collections of  Altaic literature in Europe. Recent publications from the Altaic world are bought continuously. But the library has also got many old collections of Oriental literature. One of these historic collections is the “v. Asch-Sammlung”.

Georg Thomas v. Asch was born on April 12th, 1729 in St. Petersburg. His father originally came from Silesia and became a director of the postal service in St. Petersburg. At the age of 15 he went to Germany to study medicine at the University of Tübingen. He obtained his bachelor degree three years later and moved to Göttingen where he continued his studies and obtained his Doctor’s degree within another three years. He returned to St. Petersburg where he later became a member of the Medical Council under Kathrine the Great. 
During the Russian-Turkic war from 1768 to 1774 he followed the Russian army as the leading medical officer. During this war the plague broke out and v. Asch managed to contain the outbreak by isolating the infected persons, burying the dead immediately and other measures. He received high honours for his services, though incurring the displeasure of the Empress Cathrine the Great, when without her consent he had a medal struck in silver and bronze to celebrate himself as “liberator a peste”. He died in 1807. (1)

During his life he maintained  close contacts to his alma mata in Göttingen. In 1771 during the war with the Turks he started sending large boxes with handwritten and printed material, ethnological objects and other items of interest, like minerals, costumes, coins, maps, tea, stuffed animals etc. to Göttingen. More than 120 letters to Christian Gottlieb Heyne and more to other professors in Göttingen accompanied his gifts. During over thirty years more than 2000 printed books and over 250 manuscripts reached Göttingen. The Museum of Ethnography (“Völkerkundliche Sammlung”) of the University in Göttingen houses, apart from the famous James Cook collection, a large collection of ethnological objects depicting the life of the arctic peoples of Siberia and Alaska based mainly on the numerous gifts by v. Asch (2), whereas the manuscripts and books are kept in the Göttingen State and University Library (3). 

The large bulk of the manuscripts was collected by v. Asch during the Russian-Turkic war. Most are in the Arabic and Turkic language, some in Tatar and Persian, many richly illuminated. Several manuscripts in the Mongolian and Oirat language should also be mentioned, many of which were obtained via the members of the Herrenhut mission amongst the Oirats or Calmuck at Serapta at the banks of the river Volga. Some of the missionaries there learned the Oirat language and script. Hence a manuscript notebook by Justus Friedrich Malsch, containing several poems and observations about the Oirat people and language (Asch 143) and notes by Johannes Jährig are preserved in the v.Asch collection. Jährig later travelled widely amongst the more eastern Mongolian peoples, collected manuscripts for v. Asch and became the chief informant for Peter Simon Pallas (1741-1809), the famous traveller through Siberia, whose book on the Mongols "Sammlungen historischer Nachrichten über die Mongolischen Völkerschaften" (St. Petersburg 1776-1801) is mainly based on Jährig. Many of the books by Pallas have been digitized. (4) (5) 

1. Glitsch, Silke and Mittler, Elmar (eds.) : 300 Jahre St.Petersburg – Rußland und die Göttingische Seele, Göttingen 2003, p.287-322
2. (The ethnological collection: ) Siberia and Russian America : culture and art from the 1700s ; the Asch collection, Göttingen = Sibirien und Russisch-Amerika : Kultur und Kunst des 18. Jahrhunderts ; die Sammlung von Asch, Göttingen / ed. by Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin, Gundolf Krüger, München 2007
3. The catalogue of the v.Asch Collection at the State- and University Library in Goettingen has been published: Verzeichnis der Handschriften im Preussischen Staate 1 (Hannover), Part 1 (Die Handschriften in Göttingen), vol. 3 (Universitäts-Bibliothek : Nachlässe von Gelehrten, Orientalische Handschriften. Handschriften im Besitz von Instituten und Behörden) (ed. Wilhelm Meyer), Berlin 1894, p.22-75.
4. The Mongolian and Oirat documents have a description in: Verzeichnis der orientalischen Handschriften in Deutschland, vol.1 : Mongolische Handschriften, Blockdrucke, Landkarten : mit 16 Lichtdrucktafeln / beschrieben von Walther Heissig. Stuttgart 1961
5. Karlheinz Schweitzer,  Johann Jährig und seine Zeit : ein Büdinger forscht bei den Mongolen ; Büdingen : Geschichtswerkstatt Büdingen, 2008