Ajami, Jocelyn M. "A Hidden Treasure." Aramco World. 44 (6) 1993
A Hidden Treasure
Written by Jocelyn M. Ajami
Photographed by Dick Doughty
Saudi Aramco World
In the heart of Jerusalem's Old City, a stone's throw from the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, stands the Khalidi Library. Located on Tariq Bab al-Silsilah, or Chain Gate Street, the library might go totally unnoticed by a passerby, but it is the largest and finest private Palestinian library, and one of the largest private collections of Islamic manuscripts in the Arab world.
Housed in a 13th-century Mamluk building that recalls Jerusalem's medieval grandeur, the Khalidi family collections were officially organized into a library in 1900 under the terms of a private family trust, or waqf thurri, established by Hajj Raghib al-Khalidi, a Palestinian judge who lived from 1866 to 1952. The library contains some 1200 precious manuscripts: 18 in Persian, 36 in Turkish, the rest in Arabic; a catalogue, due to appear next year, is being prepared by Dr. Lawrence I. Conrad of the Wellcome Institute in London. The library also contains well over 5000 printed volumes not yet catalogued, and countless documents and letters. In all, its holdings reveal the concerns and interests of educated Palestinians during the Mamluk and Ottoman periods, and shed light on the intellectual heritage of Palestinians in Jerusalem from medieval times to the present.
Known by its abbreviated Arabic name, al-Khalidiyyah, the Khalidi Library is housed in the turbah, or burial site, of Amir Husam al-Din Barkah Khan and his two sons. Husam al-Din, who died in 1246, was a military chieftain of Khwarizmian origin whose soldiery operated in Syria and Palestine in the 1230's and 1240's. His daughter was married to the formidable Mamluk sultan Baybars (1260-1277), who relentlessly fought the crusaders; Husam al-Din's two sons, Badr al-Din and Husam al-Din Kara, were both military commanders under Baybars. It was most likely Badr al-Din who built the turbah. Although neither Husam al-Din nor his sons died in Jerusalem, their remains were brought there for burial because of Jerusalem's importance as the third holy city of Islam.
The tomb inscriptions in the courtyard of the turbah and on the facade of the library building are the most reliable sources for dating the site. The courtyard inscriptions place Husam al-Din Barkah Khan's death at AH 644, or AD 1240, documenting an initial stage of construction between 1265 and 1280. Another inscription on the street facade dates restoration work to 1390.
Architectural features also signpost the library's medieval history. A beautiful Romanesque door, now a window in the north facade of the reading room, typifies an early Mamluk phase, while the grilled window overlooking Chain Gate Street attests to a later period. Subsequent phases of construction or restoration are Ottoman in character and bring us up to the construction by the Khalidis of a family mosque in 1876, in what is presently the library's reading room.
Although the architectural features of the library summarize much of Jerusalem's history, it is its intellectual structure that comprises the real treasure. The Khalidi Library is an indigenous collection, built by Palestinians. It views history from the inside out: people looking at themselves and the world from a very specific place and period. Protected by the waqf thurri, it has survived intact as part of Jerusalem's history and—with the loss of so many public and private Palestinian libraries since 1948, and in light of the alleged paucity of intellectual material from Palestinian sources—it is significant evidence of the initiative and scholarship of generations of Palestinians.
The waqf thurri, functioning in much the same way as Western foundations do, protected the library's income and property in perpetuity, ensuring the survival and maintenance of the collection and the building. Luckily, the Khalidi family had always upheld a tradition of preserving the core of the collection. This was true of Sun 'Allah al-Khalidi, who held the position of Chief Secretary to the Religious Court of Jerusalem for 40 years, and died in 1726. He secured the various family collections, which were then consolidated in the late 19th century. But it was Khadijah al-Khalidi, great-grandmother of the family's present-day senior member, who endowed with her own money the waqf that her son Raghib established, and who persuaded other family members to contribute to it and to its future.
Consequently, the collections have preserved what is in effect a single voice: the voice of Palestinians. The great Western collections of Middle Eastern material all necessarily reflect the viewpoints and biases of the Western scholars who built them; the Eastern collections of Cairo, Damascus or Istanbul represent the merging of many histories, often distorted to fulfill imperial or national agendas. The Khalidi collection, uniquely, reveals its own vision, one that has neither been dissipated nor interpreted.
The library's treasure is distinguished by its medieval manuscripts. According to Conrad, who has been examining the manuscripts for seven years (and whose-expertise was indispensable to this article), the collection spans a very broad spectrum of subjects, with religious law at its center. Other fields include medicine, history, geography, astronomy, Qur'anic exegesis, rhetoric, logic, philosophy and poetry.
The Khalidi Library's oldest manuscript, judging by the style and structure of its archaic script, is a unique volume on early Islamic history dating from the 10th century of our era. The oldest dated manuscript, inscribed with hijri year 418, is an 11th-century work on shari’ah law of the Maliki school, one of the four schools of thought in Islamic law. This volume, like many others, indicates the high intellectual level of the Jerusalem collectors.
Even more precious than its one-of-a-kind manuscripts are the Khalidi Library's many autograph works. These are volumes that were written by the hand of the author and not by a copyist; because they are executed in the "hand of origin" or "mother script," they are called umm, or "mother," manuscripts in Arabic.
Before printing, books were copied by hand either by professional scribes or by the scholar or student studying them. Yet something was all too often lost in transcription: Spelling errors were made, earlier misreadings of the original were perpetuated, "improvements" might be added or deletions made by an overconfident copyist, earlier scholars' comments might be incorporated as part of the text, and all these errors accumulated and compounded themselves as copies were made of copies. Even without error, something of the author's spirit was lost, if only by the distancing of each successive transcription from the original. That is why such umm manuscripts are particularly valuable: They provide a direct, unrefracted and undimmed insight into the mind and the time of the author. To read through such a volume is to possess the experience of the moment.
Another category of Khalidi Library treasures is its collection of makrumahs, or presentation copies, some of which were originally made for royal libraries. These works are characterized by the craftsmanship involved in their production and the beauty of their decoration. They often feature intricate headings, gilded medallions, multicolored inks, and plenty of space between lines to emphasize the importance and beauty of each passage.
One very richly decorated makrumah is a panegyric to Saladin (Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub), hero of the crusades, who became a standard of chivalry even to his Christian adversaries. Dated 1201 and magniloquently titled The Spacious Lands of Commendations and the Garden of the Glorious and Praiseworthy Deeds Among the Merits of the Victorious King, the volume was presented to Saladin as a gift. This makrumah is also an umm, created by an artist who gilded the volume with floral and geometric motives, intricately rendered a horoscope and set down Saladin's family tree.
Another makrumah, translated through the Pahlavi and Syriac languages into Arabic, is a copy from the library of the Zengid ruler Nur al-Din Arslan Shah (1193-1211), written by the Indian physician Canakya. Titled Canakya's Book on Poisons and Antidotes, it was presented to the ruler as a warning and as a "recipe" book intended to protect him from assassination. One anecdote in it tells of a beautiful young maiden who was fed slowly increasing amounts of a poison that her system could resist but would retain, until she became so saturated with the deadly substance that any contact with her would be fatal. She was then presented to the king as a gift....
The Khalidi Library also contains several so-called "fair drafts"—drafts in the hand of the author which include commentaries, corrections and second thoughts that reveal the workings of his mind. In one case, there is a majmu'ah, or group of essays, in various stages of completion, by an author identified as Abd al-Kafi al-Subki, who worked between 1340 and 1348. The texts were found by one of his students, who bound the papers together after his death.
Probably the most beautiful manuscript is a 16th-century Ottoman copy of the Qur'an, certainly a museum piece. It is a very large volume bound in incised leather and green silk. Particularly stunning are its colorful gilded hizbs: medallions placed in the margins of the pages to separate the sections of the Qur'an for recitation.
The library collection also contains additional materials such as ijazahs, or licences—diploma-like documents that disclose some of the pedagogical practices of past times. The ijazah certifies that the person named in it has the authority to transmit a particular teaching because of his link to a specific scholar. If, for instance, Ahmad of Damascus studied with a teacher of renown, he would return home with a document attesting that he had done so, and that he had the right and the qualifications to transmit the matter he had learned. Like the diplomas and transcripts of the present day, the ijazah system, though sometimes corrupted, was designed to protect the continuity and legitimacy of scholarship.
An interesting feature of the Khalidi collection is that it includes an element of pluralism that shows the wide-ranging interests of the collectors. Though the Khalidis, as adherents of the Shafi'i and Hanafi schools of Islamic law, represented the legal and religious mainstream in Jerusalem, they nevertheless collected the work of a Hanbali scholar, who belonged to a distinct minority. According to Conrad, there are other cases of thoughtful eclecticism within the manuscript collection.
In keeping with the great reverence for the written word that pervades the Muslim world, the Khalidi collectors never discarded damaged books or fragments of manuscripts. Instead, they stored them, and the attic of the library's reading room was full of boxes of detached or damaged pages. Documents and letters, however, were kept in linen bags that resemble pillow cases, a practice that was usual in many parts of the Arab world, and can still be encountered today.
Other practices were documented in the margins and blank pages of bound volumes, on which owners sometimes jotted down their experiences, ruminations or notes. One reader, for instance, wrote down a complete inventory of materials for building a house—with exact details, including the cost of labor and of the materials. Thanks to him, centuries later, we become privy to a slice of life in Jerusalem in the year 1785.
In another note, a member of the Khalidi family explained his wish to acquire a particular scholarly work: a commentary on the traditions of the Prophet. He describes his journey to Alexandria to have the copy made; it comprises five volumes and over 5000 pages. He then recounts how one of the volumes was tragically lost at sea during his trip home to Palestine, and he ponders how he is to replace the missing volume. Although we do not learn from this account whether or not its writer ever returned to Alexandria, the underlying message of the tale is clear: To the writer and others like him, it was worth spending vast effort and expense "just for a book."
This valuation is rooted deep in Islamic culture. Most importantly, there is the Qur'an itself, the word of God in the form of a book, the central miracle of Islam. And, as Islam expanded beyond the Arabian Peninsula (See Aramco World, November-December 1991), books became the carriers of a unifying cultural consciousness. Not only did they transmit the teachings of the faith itself, but they recorded the accomplishments of the now far-flung Muslim community and sustained the essence of a way of life. On a more local scale, the same is certainly true of the Khalidi Library.
Thus, as little-known as the library is to outsiders, it is a living landmark to Palestinians—as I discovered when I tried to find it.
Equipped with no address, no telephone number and absolutely no sense of direction, I ventured into the Old City's intricate maze. Assuming, out of ignorance, that the library would be difficult to find, I asked several shopkeepers to direct me. Each knew exactly where it was; each pointed me unerringly toward Chain Gate Street. One kind man, sensing my total disorientation and my inability to follow a straight line, finally escorted me to one of the Khalidi family homes, where the manuscripts were being stored temporarily until renovations to the library's building, now in progress, were complete.
The Khalidi family name is one to conjure with. Not only is it synonymous with scholarship and pedigree, it is also a source of collective pride and part of the fiber of Jerusalem and its history. The Khalidis are among the city's oldest families: They have been in continuous residence since Jerusalem was recaptured by Saladin in 1187. But their presence there goes back further. On his latest visit to the library,this year, Conrad identified a manuscript authored by Muhammad Abdul Rahman ibn Abdul Aziz, a Khalidi resident of Jerusalem. The manuscript, transcribed by a copyist, is dated AH 608, or AD 1208, but Conrad notes that its author seems "totally innocent of any knowledge of the Crusades"—from which he concludes that the original manuscript predates the crusades.
Given Jerusalem's great religious significance, it is not surprising that its Mamluk rulers in Cairo helped legitimize their power by selecting local scholars of repute for the position of qadi al qudat, or chief justice. Thus during the Mamluk period, at least three members of the Khalidi family were chosen for that post and took up their residence in Cairo as chief justice of the realm. For most of the Ottoman period, too, Khalidi scholars served in the judiciary, but in the decades preceding World War I they also served as administrators, diplomats and members of parliament. Many of their accomplishments are reflected in the library's holdings.
One of these parliamentarian-scholars, Yusuf Diya Pasha al-Khalidi (1842-1906) was president of the municipal council of Jerusalem and a member for Jerusalem of the first, short-lived Ottoman parliament of 1876. From 1877 to 1878, he was vice-consul at the Russian Black Sea port of Poti, and later governor of a Kurdish province. In his spare time in this letter capacity he wrote the first Kurdish-Arabic dictionary.
Shortly after the turn of the century, Ruhi Khalidi (1864-1913) also served as a member of parliament for Jerusalem, and as consul-general in Bordeaux. He lectured at the Sorbonne and wrote a book on Victor Hugo—recently reprinted with an introduction that identifies it as the first work in Arabic on comparative literature. The Khalidiyyah contains the correspondence, private papers and the unpublished works of Yusuf Diya, Ruhi and other Khalidis who distinguished themselves under Ottoman rule.
The library's printed works, like its manuscripts, cover a broad range of subjects, with religious law and history most strongly represented. The vast majority of these works were published before 1900, and many are first editions. The collection also demonstrates its builders' keen interest in the various intellectual trends of the day, including the work of European orientalists of the 19th century. There are also chemistry texts, archeological surveys and sheets of maps of Palestine.
The family tradition of scholarship in the context of Palestine continues today, and it continues to be bound up with the library and the city. The family's senior member, Professor Walid Khalidi, was born in Jerusalem and educated at Oxford. He has taught at Oxford, the American University of Beirut, and Harvard, and is now a senior fellow at Harvard's Center for Middle East Studies. A leading Palestinian intellectual reputed for his knowledge of Palestinian affairs, he served as senior member of the Palestinian-Jordanian delegation to the 1992 peace talks. His most recent book is the 700-page volume All That Remains, which painfully and painstakingly documents the disappearance of 416 Palestinian villages during the 1948 war.
Professor Rashid Khalidi, Walid's younger cousin, was born in New York and teaches modern Middle East history at the University of Chicago, where he also directs the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. As a historian and scholar with an independent voice, he gained access to PLO chairman Yassir Arafat's archives while researching material for his book Under Siege: PLO Decisionmaking During the 1982 War. He is a member of the Palestinian Advisory Committee to the peace talks. Like Walid, he is an American citizen, but his roots in Jerusalem go very deep. It is Rashid who is working on the private papers of the Khalidi Library.
Today in the final stages of renovation, the library remains basically unchanged, comprising the reading room, the refurbished attic where the manuscripts will be shelved, the courtyard—now covered by a sloping glass roof—and a vaulted chamber across the courtyard. Architects Rabih al-Masri and Jamal al-Araj are responsible for the design and execution of the renovation—but it could not have taken place without the unrelenting diligence of Haifa Khalidi, a young woman deputizing for her brother Kamel, a petroleum engineer resident in Amman, as the current mutawalli, or guardian, of the Khalidi family waqf.
The library is maintained by grants, family donations and private contributions. The Friends of The Khalidi Library, a non-profit organization registered in Massachusetts, acts as a conduit for this support. The government of the Netherlands has generously sponsored the conservation of the manuscripts, the cataloguing of the collection and the refurbishing of the Library itself; a smaller grant from UNESCO contributed to the installation of climate-control devices to combat humidity.
The monumental task of conservation, led by Tony Bish of the Wellcome Institute in London, will make the library's manuscript treasures available for research. Each manuscript must be taken apart, examined, cleaned of surface debris, treated page by page and then rebound. To date, 350 of the more badly damaged manuscripts have been stored in tailor-made acid-free boxes designed to protect them from insects, dust and the effects of light. The time-consuming task will not be completed until after 1995.
There are now plans to restore a neighboring Mamluk building, with a beautiful dome, as an annex to the Khalidi Library. This structure would house all the printed materials. Its 10 rooms could also allow display of some of the manuscripts and documents, and could accommodate visiting scholars. Thus the library will continue to provide future generations with an incomparable literary and historical resource.
The Khalidi family's eponym is said to be the brilliant seventh-century military commander Khalid ibn al-Walid, victor over the Byzantine forces, whose courage and clever military tactics earned him the title "the Unsheathed Sword of God" (See Aramco World, November-December 1991). If true, the association seems to miss the point. The Khalidi legacy, as evidenced by the library, lies not with the sword but with the pen.
Jocelyn M. Ajami is a painter and independent producer in Boston. Her video "Jihad," on the Qur'anic meaning of the term, was published by Carousel Film and Video in New York.
This article appeared on pages 2-9 of the November/December 1993 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.