After decades of neglect, one of Islam's most important libraries is about to reopen in Aleppo, offering scholars access to some 70,000 books and rare works of art, and shining a light on a centuries-old tradition of learning. Rasha Elass reports. Aleppo, Syria's second city, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, outdone only by Damascus. It has also been a centre of scholarship for millennia, especially for the three Abrahamic faiths. Islamic scholarship, in particular, thrived there during the Middle Ages. Aleppo survived the Crusades under the protection of the Muslim armies of the Turkish Zengid dynasty, prompting scholars to flock there, seeking refuge and contributing to the intellectual life of the city.
Among the most renowned scholars was the Iraqi-born 10th-century poet Abu Tayyib al Mutanabi, arguably the most profound poet in the Arabic language. Another was the polymath philosopher Abu Nasr Mohammed al Farabi, known in Latin as Alpharabius, whose work was known to the philosophers of the Italian Renaissance. It was not until the Mongols sacked Aleppo in the mid-13th century that it started losing its allure as a centre of learning. For the remaining centuries, scholarship would ebb and flow depending on the state of the Islamic world. Perhaps this may have created the environment in which, 80 years ago, one of Islam's most important libraries withered away almost unnoticed, closing its doors when its last keeper died.
Ignored but not forgotten, the Waqf Library of Aleppo will reopen on November 22 thanks to a renewed commitment by the religious authorities to preserve Islamic heritage. Aleppo was voted the Arab Capital of Islamic Culture for 2006 by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. Covering 1,500 square metres, the library will house more than 70,000 books, many of them rare and hard to find, along with an electronic database that "has all the PDF documents of ancient Islamic books and manuscripts available today", says Dr Mahmoud al Masri, who was chosen by the religious authorities to head the library restoration project in 2006. "We're offering something that is not available elsewhere."
Dr al Masri is a paediatrician, but also holds a doctorate in the history of science and medicine, as well as a masters degree in Sharia science. "The library may not be that large," he says, "but most of the books we have here cannot be found at any of the public libraries or the university libraries." The project is funded by Islamic endowments, or Waqf in Arabic. The collection includes ancient manuscripts and originals of rare books. Dr al Masri explains that because the library is so specialised, it will not be open to the public, only to students and researchers, though anyone who can show a link to research will be given access.
The Waqf Library is located under the Grand Mosque, in a space that operated as a car wash until the mid-Nineties, when a 10-year restoration project began on the mosque and its slightly leaning minaret. Crossing the outer courtyard of the mosque, visitors arrive at a small, elegant glasshouse. This is the part of the library that is open to the public, who can inspect the 100 or so books about Aleppo on display.
A staircase in the middle of the room leads down to the library proper. For the interior, Dr al Masri commissioned artisans to make furniture and archways. The chairs are made of carved wood with inlaid mother of pearl. The ceilings and doorways are decorated with carvings featuring Persian or Arabic designs, a specialty of Aleppo. Dr al Masri and his teams found many treasures in the old library. These include 300-year-old paintings - "we found them rolled up and stacked away" - and two rare globes. One is of Earth and the other of the heavens.
The Earth globe shows much of the world's map as we know it today, except for the United States and Central America. Modern Texas is called Mexicana, but Cuba, Mexico and Florida feature under their current names. What we now know as the rest of the Americas is depicted as blue ocean. But the jewel of Dr al Masri's finds is the 650-year-old large Quran from the Mamluk age, with some of its calligraphy written in liquid gold. It weighs 50kg and its pages measure 80cm by 50cm.
It was in relatively good condition but required delicate restoration. So Dr al Masri asked for help from one of the few places qualified to work on manuscripts of its size, the Dubai-based Jumaa Al Majid Centre for Culture and Heritage. Dr Bassam al Daghistani, the head of the centre's restoration department, first saw the Quran during a visit to Aleppo to examine the library's stock. "All the Arab countries have thousands of old manuscripts, so the Aleppo library's collection was not new to me," he says. "But it's very rare to find such an old Quran of that size and in such a good condition. I told them I would take it back with me to Dubai, before I even told the centre about it."
Ten specialists worked on it for two months. The work was particularly challenging because of its sheer size. "During restoration, the hand cannot touch the manuscript. So imagine restoring the details of a page almost one metre long while keeping your hands in mid-air." The size and quality of the Quran is an indication that it was made for a special occasion. "Back then, they did not make Qurans in that size and quality except for the Sultan, so that adds more significance to it," says Dr al Daghistani.
The resurrection of Aleppo's Waqf Library is still in its early stages. Thanks to the legacy of the city, many Allepan families acquired rare books in Islamic teachings, and Dr al Masri and his team know the Waqf Library will not be complete without these collections. "We're planning to acquire the private collections," he says. "We're looking for owners who want to donate it or leave it to us as an inheritance."