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Süleymaniye Library retains place as center for Ottoman and Islamic research

ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News | 3/29/2011 12:00:00 AM | NIKI GAMM

The Süleymaniye library, repository to the largest collection of Islamic manuscripts in the world, underwent major changes in 1916 and has been a trendsetter for Turkish research libraries ever since. Although only a portion of the library’s 130,000 works have been put onto either microfilm or digitized, the location remains invaluable for researchers

In a country that suffers from a dearth of libraries, Istanbul’s Süleymaniye Library stands out as a rare gem with an astonishing array of manuscripts detailing Islamic and Ottoman history.

“Anyone engaged in Ottoman Turkish research at some time or another must pass through Süleymaniye,” said the institution’s director, Emir Eş.

The library is primarily devoted to the preservation of manuscripts, housing the largest collection of Islamic manuscripts in the world. It contains 130,325 works, including 67,152 manuscripts in Ottoman Turkish, Arabic and Persian. There are also nearly 50,000 printed Ottoman Turkish books as well as thousands of books in other languages, such as modern Turkish, English, French and German.

Furthermore, the library is the only one in the world that holds the manuscript copies of all the extant works of Avicenna (İbn Sina), the great physician, scientist and philosopher. Some of them date from as far back as the 11th century.

The library’s rich collection of works stands in stark contrast to the present state of libraries in Turkey; although the country is currently marking National Library Week, the occasion rings somewhat hollow with an estimate of only 1,450 public libraries across the country in 2006 – a faint cry of the 3,000 industrialist Andrew Carnegie reportedly established in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland before he died in 1919.

[HH] Süleymaniye a trendsetter

In 1950, Süleymaniye Library became the first library in Turkey to provide microfilm and photocopying services, but these were hampered both by a lack of money to purchase the necessary special paper and film and by the general difficulty of finding foreign exchange. Even into the 1970s, obtaining a copy of a manuscript once permission was given might mean having to provide a copy of a manuscript located in another library in Paris, London or New York.

Since then, 5,000 holdings have been transferred to microfilm, as well as damaged manuscripts and other unique ones that include calligraphy, illumination and miniatures.

In addition to the microfilm service, Süleymaniye has a digitization department and a restoration and research center. The Manuscripts and Rare Books Restoration and Research Center is an important section of the library where worm-eaten or worn-out books are repaired. The center occasionally offers courses on classical binding, book restoration and marbling.

In 2003, the sponsorship of the Evyap family, whose main field of business is the soap and cleaning products sector, enabled Süleymaniye to develop its technological infrastructure; accordingly, a digitization project was started for manuscripts and printed materials using the old Arabic-based alphabet. So far, 65,000 books have been digitized.

The library currently has five affiliate libraries, namely, the Atıf Efendi Library, the Haci Selim Ağa Library, the Köprülü Library, the Nuruosmaniye Library and the Ragıp Paşa Library. In addition, 15 libraries elsewhere in Istanbul, Ankara and the Central Anatolian province of Konya are now tied to Süleymaniye.

[HH] Libraries from private collections

After the Turks entered Anatolia around 1071, “libraries” generally consisted of the private collections of men who then founded foundations that would supply the space and upkeep necessary for such libraries.

Over the centuries these “foundation libraries” continued since, in Islamic law, foundations could not be altered or canceled. It provided employment and the manuscripts could be made available just for reading or perhaps even for copying.

Although Istanbul was the capital of the Ottoman Empire, not all of the foundation libraries were located there; very sizeable collections were found in all the larger cities, such as the northern province of Amasya, where Ottoman crown prince were often sent to learn statecraft and how to rule.

At other times, a wealthy man or scholar might have collected books that would then be bequeathed following his death.

Many of these collections found their way to Süleymaniye, which is part of the complex surrounding the great Mimar Sinan mosque in the old city. It was at that time a part of the madrassah, or school system, through which the administrative officials of the Ottoman Empire passed.

During the winter, the library had a small stove to heat the room, while the building’s stone walls would keep the library cool during the hot summer months. Each of the rooms borders a delightful small garden with trees and flowers and the occasional bench to sit on. What used to be open porticos where students could mingle are today enclosed in glass in order to keep the place warmer in winter.

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