Preserving sacred texts

An estimated 60,000 hand-written Arabic manuscripts, some as much as 800 years old, are tucked away in private libraries in Yemen on the Arabian peninsula.

These texts contain the “bread and butter subjects” of classical Islam: law, tradition, history, theology, Arabic grammar and literature, said David Hollenberg, assistant professor of Arabic language and literature at the University of Oregon.David Hollenberg, assistant professor of Arabic language and literature

“Yemen is known for preserving extraordinary texts that don’t exist elsewhere,” he said.

But these fragile documents are also in peril. An estimated 10,000 manuscripts have been lost over the past decade in Yemen. Some were stored improperly. Some collections were split up by inheritance. Some were destroyed when libraries were burned to the ground by sectarian extremists, Hollenberg said.

Hollenberg is director of the Yemeni Manuscript Digitization Initiative, a collective of leading scholars of classical Islam, Middle Eastern history and Arabic literature.

Hollenberg and colleagues at Princeton University and the Free University in Berlin are collaborating with Yemeni scholars to digitize Arabic manuscripts and make them widely available on the Internet.

Making these texts widely available to scholars should generate a tremendous amount of new knowledge and provide new perspectives on the political, intellectual and literary history of Islamic civilization, Hollenberg said.

“If our work is not successful, it is quite possible a cultural heritage that is 1,200 years old will be lost,” he said.

The work of preservation was begun in the 1990s by a non-profit organization in Yemen called The Imam Zayd ibn Ali Cultural Foundation.

Earlier this year, YMDI’s partner institutions Princeton University Library and Free University, Berlin obtained a $330,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the German Research Foundation to pay for archive-quality photographic gear, hard drives and other equipment for the Yemeni group, to train their technicians in digitizing and cataloging according to North American standards, and to put them on the Web.  The first manuscripts from the project are now online at the Princeton University Digital Library.

The digitization process is taking place under extraordinarily challenging circumstances, Hollenberg said.

“With the uprising in Yemen, which is ongoing, things are quite chaotic in the capital,” he said.

Electrical power is sporadic at best, fuel and water are scarce and moving goods through the city is “exceedingly difficult,” he said. The center where the digitization work takes place is about a block from where protestors are camped out, he said.

“Despite all this, the work has gone on,” he said, crediting the “extraordinary dedication” of the chief technicians and scholars, ‘Abd al-Salam al-Wajih, AbdulRahman al-Neamy, Abdullah al-Wajih, and the director of the foundation, Ahmed Ishaq.

 “It’s astonishing to us.”

Tim Christie