Treasures written on paper

An intellectual treasure, representing more than a thousand years of Turkish-Islamic culture, lies concealed in the manuscripts of Süleymaniye Library.

Heart and mind go hand in hand in the collective thought of the East. And one of the most outstanding examples of this is Istanbul’s Süleymaniye Library, which, with its peerless architecture and unrivalled collection of manuscripts, houses some ninety percent of the Turkish-Islamic world’s ‘thoughts transferred to paper’. From the ‘Seyahatname’ or Travel Book of Evliya Çelebi and medical books in Avicenna’s own hand to herbal remedies from the Kitab-ül Şifa (Book of Healing) and documents bearing the Sultan’s seal, the pages of our intellectual history are spread before us one by one in the library section of the Süleymaniye Mosque Complex.
The Süleymaniye Mosque Complex stands on Istanbul’s third hill, on a slope overlooking the Golden Horn. Its construction begun in 1549 at the behest of Süleyman the Magnificent and completed in 1557, this complex reflects the genius and nobility of heart of its architect, Mimar Sinan. As Nevzat Kaya, library director and veteran employee of 23 years, explains: “Have you ever wondered why Mimar Sinan’s own very modest tomb stands outside the Süleymaniye Mosque when the tombs of Süleyman the Magnificent and his wife Hürrem, whose walls are lined with Iznik tiles, are located right behind the wall of the mihrab? Mimar Sinan’s tomb is to his monument what a writer’s signature is to his work of two thousand pages. For writer and architect share a single thought: ‘I don’t exist, my work does. Let people look not at me but at it!’”

Süleymaniye Library includes a Sıbyan Mektebi or Primary School—used today as a children’s library--as well as the Evvel and Sani Medreses (First and Second Religious Colleges), which look out on the mosque’s southern wing. When the Ottoman government became unable to protect its independent libraries in 1918 owing to war, works from the libraries of Istanbul’s 114 pious foundations were collected together in one place. Later, with donations from various provinces and townships of Anatolia, the number of collections rose to 117. Now this treasure, representing more than a thousand years of Turkish-Islamic culture, consists of 117,022 works, including 67,350 manuscripts and 49,663 books printed in Arabic characters. “The primary sources of Turkish-Islamic civilization take two forms, depending on whether they are inscribed on stone or written on paper. Other examples are quite rare,” says Kaya, emphasizing the thousand-year-old past: “From the Balkans to Asia and Africa, from Morocco to India, from Tataristan to Yemen, ninety percent of the thoughts put down on paper over this vast geography for a thousand years are in the Süleymaniye Library.”
Two reading rooms, a microfilm service and the binding and pathology services are located in the medreses, which are joined together by a long, narrow passageway. Süleymaniye Library, which reflects the genius of Mimar Sinan in the refined features of its architectural solutions, all of which are on a human scale, is on the UNESCO ‘World Heritage List’. Nevzat Kaya tells us that one pathology expert each from France and Italy have come to Istanbul and are engaged in studies, in line with which UNESCO and IRCICA (The Research Center for Islamic History, Culture and Art) have undertaken a joint project on the subject of pathology. “The plan is to set up an international course, either six-month or one-year, in which foreign students will be trained in book repair and will then pass along what they have learned to their own countries. The school will serve as a sort of training center.”

Efforts got under way for the first time in 1950 to repair books that had become worn or damaged due either to time or to misuse. The first microfilm and book repair service ever set up in Turkey is here. Tens of books are examined daily by experts in the pathology service, following which a process begins that requires expertise. Books and documents that have been damaged by mildew or acid, that are worm-eaten or stained, or whose pages are stuck together or have become brittle are ‘diagnosed’ here and then ‘made well again’. When books are taken for treatment, the first task is to check their page numbers. If these are non-existent, the books are first assigned page numbers to preserve their order intact; if existing page numbers are wrong, they are corrected. Then, depending on the method of treatment, the book’s binding and headband are removed and the book is sent for repair. When the pathology process is complete, the book is re-sewn and its headband re-woven. Meanwhile in the binding service, leather, lacquered, marbled paper, and cloth bindings are expertly mended; if necessary, new bindings are created in keeping with the features of the period. This repair process can take anywhere from three days to a year.

In yet another section of Süleymaniye Library the digital archiving system continues day and night. Fifty thousand manuscripts and over half of the books printed in Arabic script have been entered on the computer so far using seven cameras. Researchers can access references to these works on the internet and request pages from them by either letter, fax, telephone or e-mail. Kaya, who says that this service is available all over the world from the day the books are photographed, emphasizes that by working in two shifts and taking 11,000 shots per day, they have completed the archiving of fifty thousands books and 71,125 manuscripts in three years. Another library ritual is the annual cleaning. Every year the 120,000 books and manuscripts are removed from the storage depot and cleaned in a process tantamount to a form of worship. Normal library services are suspended for the duration while the books and library are aired out. During this process a list is also made of all books that are damaged, worn or otherwise in need of repair. Süleymaniye Library, which is going to get a new research center and laboratories with UNESCO support, is a treasure trove of information that can shed light on the future of a vast geography.