Preserving treasures in Cairo’s National Library and Archives

Update 23 Feb 2014: Thankfully the conservation staff at the National Library and Archives and the team at Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation have managed to save all the manuscripts that were on display, though the building itself has suffered some damage. Elena Chardakliyska from the Foundation has written an excellent and comprehensive article about the library and its history at which is well worth a vist. 

In the wake of the Cairo bombings of last Friday, the 24th January, Dar-Al-Kutub (Egypt’s national library and archives)

Dar-Al-Kutub after Friday's bombings

Dar-Al-Kutub after Friday’s bombings

has suffered extensive damage. The historical building was recently refurbished with a new display of the most dazzling collection of manuscripts, bindings and scientific instruments you could hope to see – some of the finest pieces from the vast archives of material held by Egypt’s national library.

A crack team of local and international conservators, archivists and academics have been labouring for years to catalogue and preserve this priceless collection, and the historic Dar-Al-Kutub building in old Cairo was re-opened in 2006, showcasing some of the finest. Now they have been working round the clock to assess the damage and try to save the pieces that were on display. You can follow their twitter feeds on  (The Dar-Al-Kutub Project)

Scholars and specialists from all over the world are regularly invited to contribute to the body of research associated with the material in the library, which includes royal quality illuminated Qur’ans and religious texts, literature, and seminal scientific texts, such as the medical treatises of Avicenna (Ibn-Sina). My featured image is a detail from an opening page of a  monumental Mamluk Qur’an, (correction – it is an Ilkhanid manuscript – see Jake Benson’s comment below) exquisitely illuminated in characteristic geometrical design in a sparse but lavish palette of gold, black and lapis lazuli.

No less impressive are the people devoted to this project, and I was privileged to be invited to work with them in 2012 for the lauch of the new display, running workshops and contributing to the educational resources.

Dar al Kutub workshop 2012

A public illumination workshop at Dar-Al-Kutub

making shell gold

The tradigital team making shell-gold

Adel Mohammed

Work by Adel Mohammed

Besides working with the public, I also worked with the conservators and the design staff of an associated publishing organization, Tradigital, where beautiful replicas of historic illuminations are produced. Under the inspiring direction of artist Daud Sutton, a team of digital artists and a calligrapher create contemporary counterparts to the historic manuscripts in the collection. The artists are well versed in the form and structure of illuminated pages – particularly in Mamluk style, but had never painted them by hand….so I had the pleasure of inducting some of the most receptive and gifted participants ever in the art of preparing shell gold  and in techniques of  illumination.

And I made some wonderful friends.

Anna and me

Ana and me

In effect, the bombings destroyed years of dedicated work. And centuries of cultural artefacts. Such is history – this is not the first time that a famous library has been damaged by political upheaval, and it will not be the last. The work goes on – The Islamic Manuscript Association, another related institution, holds its tenth annual conference at Magdalene College, Cambridge this summer,  and the theme is “Manuscripts and Conflict”