Thursday, January 10, 2019

Re-opening the archives - Al Ahram Weekly

Re-opening the archives

After four years of closure for restoration work, Egypt's National Library and Archives will be re-opened in February, reports Nevine El-Aref


Egyptian National Library and Archives (NLA)
Among the Islamic monuments in the busy Cairo district of Bab Al-Khalq stands the 19th-century edifice of the Egyptian National Library and Archives (NLA) built in 1904 and the first to be built in the Arab world.

For four years this splendid Islamic building has been hidden under scaffolding to repair the structural damage that occurred after a car bomb exploded outside the adjacent Cairo Security Directorate building.

The blast destroyed the NLA's decorative façade in several Islamic architectural styles, a number of showcases and furniture inside the building, seven manuscripts and three rare scientific papyri, as well as the ventilation and lighting system of the building.

With a grant of some LE50 million from Sharjah ruler Sultan bin Mohamed Al-Qasimi, the NLA has now been restored to its original glory so that it can continue its role of welcoming visitors and researchers and preserving much of the nation's intangible heritage.

Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli along with Sultan bin Mohamed Al-Qasimi and Minister of Culture Ines Abdel-Dayem are scheduled to re-open the NLA after its restoration and refurbishment in early February.

Egyptian National Library and Archives (NLA)

On Sunday, Abdel-Dayem embarked on a tour around the different sections of the NLA to inspect the work being achieved before the opening. She thanked the Sharjah ruler for what he had done for the restoration of the NLA and promised that several inspection tours would be made before the re-opening in February.

During the tour she announced Egypt's success in recovering a Mameluke manuscript put on auction at the auctioneers Sotheby's in London after it had been proved it belonged to the NLA (see box).

"The building is a remarkable edifice that integrates historical architecture with modernity," Abdel-Dayem said of the NLA, adding that it would now be able to continue its major role and meet the needs of researchers, especially the young researchers that frequent its library.

Supervisor of the restoration project Aida Ahmed described the NLA as a "cultural and scientific beacon for research" as well as a panorama of the country's rare manuscript collections. She told Al-Ahram Weekly that January 2014 had turned into a nightmare when an explosion near the adjacent Cairo Security Directorate led to severe structural damage to the building's façade, furniture and a few of its manuscripts.

The Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), which shares the same building, was restored, rehabilitated and re-inaugurated in 2017. The restoration and rehabilitation work on the NLA was put on hold and started in January 2016 after the approval of the grant offered by Sultan bin Mohamed Al-Qasimi.

However, "the NLA never closed its doors to visitors during the restoration work," Ahmed pointed out.

She said that in collaboration with NLA staff, the Thesaurus Islamic Foundation (TIF) had assisted with the preservation, conservation and redesign of the display of the NLA's manuscript collection on show at the MIA. It also provided 3D digital screens to display digital copies of some of the NLA's manuscripts, documents and papyri. A new lighting system was installed as well as the display themes and the location of the showcases.

In addition, Ahmed said, all the widows of the MIA were covered with a special material to prevent dust and sunlight from penetrating inside the building and negatively affecting the collections. A new visitor route inside the museum was also developed.

The TIF helped in an earlier restoration project in 2007 that included the re-design and re-equipping of the NLA's two preservation and conservation laboratories, including imaging facilities, designing and equipping a new conservation laboratory, redesigning and re-equipping the manuscript storage exhibition areas, helping with the professional development of the NLA's preservation, conservation and exhibition staff, cataloguing selected areas of the manuscript collection, and preparing publications and promotional materials.

Islamic manuscript

THE COLLECTIONS: The NLA is the largest manuscript collection in the Arab world and one of the most important collections of Islamic manuscripts worldwide.

Among the manuscripts on display are the Canon of Medicine by Ibn Sina (980-1037 CE), the 10th-century Book of Songs by Al-Isfahani, a copy of the 10th-century Persian epic Shahnameh by Ferdowsi, and Ten Treatises on Ophthalmology by Hunayn Ibn Ishak (809-873 CE), which provides treatments for eye diseases along with drawings of the eyes and descriptions of their different parts.

A collection of distinguished copies of the Quran from different periods, especially the Mameluke period, is also in the NLA, along with a 150kg silver cover of the Quran gifted by an Indian ruler to former king Farouk in 1950.

In the distinguished collection on display at the MIA, there is a model of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem decorated with precious stones and inside it an octagonal copy of the Quran considered as the smallest ever made. Also on display is a collection of coins showing visitors both sides of every coin. Photographs of some of these are on show on the digital screens provided.

The displays in the NLA have been developed, among them of books belonging to former minister of culture Tharwat Okasha, Islamic reformer Mohamed Abdou, and from the library of Abdine Palace in Cairo.

Since the khedive Ismail took the initiative to build Egypt's NLA, modelled on the National Library in Paris, in the 19th century, it has been a treasure house of manuscripts, rare books and ancient Egyptian papyri. Opened in 1870 at the suggestion of writer Refaa Al-Tahtawi (1801-1872) to build a national library in Egypt, it was first under the supervision of writer and politician Ali Mubarak.

Valuable collections of books and manuscripts were gathered from different sources, as were geometrical instruments and maps. The new library, dubbed the Dar Al-Kotob, was inaugurated on 24 September 1870, reflecting the role of culture in enhancing the development of society as a whole.

The khedive Ismail offered all manner of support and assistance to his minister of education to fulfil his ambitions. One of modern Egypt's greatest rulers, he supported the international role of Egyptian culture with its cultural and literary outpourings, history and heritage. The library made a huge contribution to Arab and Islamic culture, and since its opening it has nurtured and inspired thousands of thinkers and scientists.

In 1886, a law was issued stipulating the deposit of all publication published in Egypt in the library. By 1898, the palace of prince Mustafa Fadel, used as the library premises, had become full of books, leading the Ministry of Public Works to choose a new plot of land in Bab Al-Khalq for a new building.

In 1899, the khedive Abbas Helmi II laid the foundation stone of the library and devoted its first floor to the Antique Khana, now the Museum of Islamic Art. The library was inaugurated in 1904, and since then its priceless assets and important collection of books have attracted the attention of scholars and intellectuals in Egypt and abroad.

After the 1952 Revolution, the library continued to be Egypt's most important library and archive, but it became so overwhelmed with books that in 1971 a new building overlooking the Nile was chosen as the new premises of Egypt's National Library. The building at Bab Al-Khalq then fell into disrepair.

In the mid-1990s, a restoration project was launched to not only restore the building in Bab Al-Khalq, but also to upgrade the 1971 building, re-opening it in 2007. The latter is now Egypt's NLA serving researchers and students in various areas of knowledge while keeping the Bab Al-Khalq building for manuscripts, rare books, papyri, old maps and periodicals.

A museum displaying historical items was established inside the library in order to show Egypt's contribution to Arab and Islamic culture. The interior design was adapted and redesigned, and walls inserted during the former expansion were removed.

In collaboration with the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, all the books in the old NLA have been technologically documented and can be accessed via the Internet.

The building consists of one main floor and two mezzanines. The main floor includes reading rooms and the manuscripts museum established during the 1990s restoration project. The first mezzanine has microfilm and Internet facilities, while the second has a research hall, a restoration lab and a hall of papyri. The basement and roof spaces are also being used.

On display are a number of historical maps of the Nile, the decrees of early sultans, ancient Egyptian papyri, gilded copies of the Quran, and the first publication of the Egyptian Radio magazine, now the Radio and Television magazine. A collection of gold and silver coins dating from the Abbasid era are also on show.

THE MANUSCRIPTS: The manuscripts collection in the NLA is a national treasure and reflects the splendours of Arab and Islamic culture.

The collection was founded in 1870 by collecting manuscripts of the Quran and various Arabic, Persian and Turkish manuscripts from mosques, government offices and endowment treasuries. Later on, the NLA received large collections from private libraries, the most important being the Al-Khazana Al-Zakeya and the Al-Taymureya.

The NLA's collection of manuscripts is kept in the libraries of Al-Azhar University and Cairo University and in Alexandria, Mansoura, Tanta, Damietta, Sinai, and the cities of Upper Egypt. It consists of around 100,000 volumes.

Within the framework of the UNESCO "Memory of the World" Programme, Egypt's Regional Information Technology and Software Engineering Centre (RITSEC) has developed a CD-Rom entitled "The Dar Al-Kotob Manuscripts: Arab Contributions to the World's Scientific Heritage."

It introduces the sciences the Arabs have excelled in, including mathematics, astronomy, medicine, engineering, pharmacology, chemistry and mechanics. It also presents a bibliography of the most distinguished Arab scientists as well as their contributions and manuscripts.

Islamic manuscript

Manuscript returns

AN IMPORTANT Islamic manuscript was scheduled for auction at Sotheby's in London in October 2018 for some 10,000 pounds sterling. After negotiations, Sotheby's stopped the sale of the manuscript and returned it to its homeland.

The recovered manuscript has a gilded white leather cover with 28 pages written in black ink outlined in a red frame. It shows verses from the Aaly Omran (Omran Family) and Al-Nesaa (Women) surahs from the Quran. The manuscript dates to the reign of the last Mameluke ruler of Egypt, Qansuh Al-Ghuri. It bears the stamp and register number of the NLA, and it was last seen in the library at the end of the 19th century in 1892.

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