Book Hospital Works to Save Rare Arabic, Ottoman Manuscripts From Slow Death
In a small building nestled under the shadow of the Suleymaniye Mosque’s majestic dome, a group of women work to save decaying rare manuscripts written in Arabic and Ottoman Turkish.
Some of their patients are 1,000 years old. A cure may require months or years of painstaking work with tweezers, curved knives, brushes, chemicals and special paper.
Saadet Gazi, a chemical engineer who heads the nine-woman staff of the book hospital, said that they had been working for one year on a 7th-Century Koran--the Muslim holy book--and that the job was only half done.
The Koran is reputed to have been handwritten by Caliph Osman, the third caliph after the Prophet Mohammed. Only six Korans from that period still exist, Gazi said.
Antelope Skin Used
She is repairing the 800-page book with antelope skin, the original material used for the book’s pages. She obtained the skin from Rome’s Istituto Centrale per la Patologia del Libro, where she received her training in book pathology.
Another recent patient was a handwritten 14th-Century Arabic translation of a medical text by 1st-Century Greek scholar Pedanius Dioscorides, one of four copies left in the world.
The Kitabu’l Hasais--or book of medicinal plants--was in bad shape. Many pages were stuck together, and even though the book is now usable again, damage to its pictures was permanent.
The staff first measured the acidity level of the pages in case the book had to be treated for chemical disease. Then the pages were taken apart one by one and aired out before finally being placed between layers of special Japanese paper made of celluloid.
Some Need Disinfection
Some books have been attacked by bacteria and require disinfection by chemicals.
A third category have been damaged in natural disasters such as floods, the volumes turning into rock-hard forms with all of their pages stuck together. These books are first moistened to separate the pages before repair work begins with special knives and paste.
The book hospital is part of the Suleymaniye Library, built in 1557 as part of the Suleymaniye mosque complex.
The library has one of the world’s richest collections of books on Islamic art, science, literature and religion.
It contains 500,000 books, 125,000 of them handwritten manuscripts, according to Muammer Ulker, the library director.
The book hospital was opened in 1962. Since then, workers have gone through all of the volumes once a year to determine which ones need urgent care.
Deciding on priority for treatment is a crucial matter.
“We couldn’t restore all the damaged books in the library for a 100 years, given our small staff and lack of modern equipment,” Gazi said.