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The National Library of Israel Will Digitize 2,500 Rare Islamic Manuscripts

The cultural institution estimates that the process will take three years to complete

This 1484 copy of Tuhfat al-Ahrar was produced during the lifetime of Jāmī, considered Iran's last great mystical poet. (Courtesy of the National Library of Israel)
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The National Library of Israel is set to make more than 2,500 rare manuscripts from its Islam and Middle East Collection freely available online.

Spanning the ninth through 20th centuries, the texts feature items from royal Mamluk, Mughal and Ottoman libraries, according to a statement. The planned online portal will offer item descriptions in English, Hebrew and Arabic, as well as high-resolution manuscript scans accompanied by additional tools and content.

Digitization, which the library expects will take three years to complete, is supported by the Arcadia Fund. Experts will inspect each text ahead of scanning, undertaking preservation and conservation measures as necessary.

“We are privileged to open digital access to these treasures and hope that this project will contribute to greater understanding and shared inquiry related to Islamic civilization,” says curator Raquel Ukeles in the statement. “It is one of a number of initiatives connecting the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem with the global community.”

Among the thousands of manuscripts slated for digitization is a copy of Tuhfat al-Ahrar, which translates to Gift of the Free or Gift to the Noble. Persian scholar, mystic and poet Jāmī penned the poetry collection in 1481. Jāmī is widely considered Iran’s last great mystical poet; his scholarly work and prose discuss the Quran, philosophy and Sufi doctrine.

The library’s edition of Tuhfat al-Ahrar was produced in 1484—eight years before Jāmī’s death in 1492. The manuscript is illuminated with gold leaf, and its opening and closing pages boast double-sided miniatures added in the 17th and 18th centuries.

“It’s exquisite,” Ukeles tells the Guardian’s Dalya Alberge. “Each border is decorated in gold leaf [and] very delicate paintings. Every page is different. You’ll have pictures of gazelles, flowers or plants.”

Tuhfat al-Ahrar illustrations
Illustrations from the library's 1484 edition of Tuhfat al-Ahrar(Courtesy of the National Library of Israel)

The collection also includes a tenth-century protective amulet fashioned out of a miniature Quran, assorted editions of the Quran, and books decorated with gold leaf embroidery and semiprecious gemstone lapis lazuli.

As the Jerusalem Post reports, the library’s Islam and Middle East holdings cover all major Islamic disciplines and literary traditions. Linguist and writer Abraham Shalom Yahuda bequeathed many of these manuscripts to the Jerusalem cultural institution upon his death in 1951, according to a library blog post.

This week’s announcement follows another major digitization effort by the National Library of Israel. Last November, the library partnered with Google to digitize 120,000 out-of-copyright Jewish texts, the Associated Press’ Patty Nieberg reported at the time. Around half of the books are written in Hebrew, Yiddish or Ladino. The rest are in Latin, English, German, French, Arabic and Russian. The process is expected to take two years.

Ukeles tells the Guardian that the newly announced project will help the library engage audiences unable to see its rare manuscripts in person. The 1484 copy of Tuhfat al-Ahrar, for example, is too delicate to be displayed. Digitization also allows researchers to examine texts more closely than they could in person.

“What’s wonderful about digitization is that you can get in very close,” says Ukeles. “Only through digitization have we noticed unique and distinctive details. Even with a magnifying glass, you wouldn’t be able to get there.”

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