Concern for the complete and accurate reconstruction of the history of nations generates a particular interest in ancient and medieval manuscripts, in which this history is recorded. The proclamation of the value of knowledge and written monuments, the establishment of norms of languages and graphics and their high prestige, the presence of a wide reading environment, a large number of patrons, customers, collectors, copyists and booksellers led to the creation of a huge number of writings and manuscripts that have been accumulated in numerous collections and libraries of the West and the East. However, if European libraries were considered rich, owning 500 volumes of books, then libraries of Eastern countries could have 10,000 or more funds. The number of books processed and the reputation of teachers were the measure of education and authority of a scientist (Khalidov, 1985).
Turkey, as a country with the richest cultural traditions, located in special historical and geographical conditions, plays an important role in preserving the world’s written heritage. In this regard, the state considers one of its main responsibilities to care of funds and repositories of manuscripts. The history of the manuscript and book fund formation in Turkey is extremely interesting. In addition to the works of local scientists and copyists, the influx of manuscripts came from such ancient cultural centers as Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Arabia. This could be done through capture in the form of booty during conquest, offerings to the sultan and government officials, travel of scientists and officials with books, book trading, waqf funds, which were a form of Muslim donation by donors during their lifetime or by will after their death. Manuscripts were transferred to mosques, khanakas (tekke in Turkish), and mausoleums for public use.
Thus, Istanbul libraries have combined in their repositories more than a hundred different collections, known by the names of their previous owners or original storage places. Today, in addition to the Istanbul and Ankara repositories, private collections and libraries of manuscripts could be found in Akhisar, Konya, Izmir, Burdur, Bursa, Diyarbakir, Kastamonu, Manisa, and Edirne. According to experts, not only the largest number of manuscripts, but also the most valuable ones are concentrated in the libraries of Turkey (Khalidov, 1985).
For example, the Millet library owns the last remaining original manuscript of Dīwān Lughāt al-Turk, written by Mahmud Kashgari, which is considered the most important linguistic relic of the Turkic languages after the Orkhon inscriptions. The building of this ancient library was built in 1700 by Mufti Sayyid Feyzullah Efendi and has a rich collection of manuscripts, including more than 3,500 in Arabic, more than 500 in Persian and about 2,500 in Turkish (Jones, 2017).
However, the most famous among medieval scholars of the whole world is the Suleymaniye Public Library, located in two madrassas built in the 1550s as part of the Suleymaniye mosque complex. The building was designed and built by the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan on the order of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. At the beginning of the 20th century, the library was separated from the mosque and became a public scientific library. The Suleymaniye is the largest library of manuscripts in Turkey and holds one of the most extensive collections of manuscripts in the world.
This collection has made Suleymaniye an important center for researchers studying all aspects of the history and culture of the Islamic world. It contains 100,000 volumes of manuscripts and 50,000 volumes of printed documents in Arabic. They cover the areas of law and jurisprudence, artistic texts and sermons, logic, rhetoric and grammar, as well as a wide range of other issues and branches of knowledge. The composers and compilers of these old books were numerous generations of scholars who spent their lives in madrassas, libraries and palaces in Istanbul and beyond. This is a treasure not only for Ottoman historians, but also for researchers working in the field of Islamic history, both within the Ottoman Empire and beyond. The dating of manuscripts varies from the eleventh to the twentieth century, with the majority made in the seventeenth – early nineteenth centuries. Experts estimate the language composition of the collection in such a proportion – 60% of the manuscripts in Arabic, 30% in Turkish, 10% in Persian, and a small number of manuscripts in other languages.
The Suleymaniye Library also contains an extensive collection of printed materials in Ottoman Turkish, Arabic and Persian, as well as in European languages. In addition, personal notes and archives of some famous scientists of the twentieth century are stored in the library. After digitizing manuscripts, which was actively conducted from 2002 to 2011, readers can access the entire library collection from computers in the reading room (Shafir et al., 2013). Based on the personal experience of the author it should be added, however, that without knowledge of the Turkish language and the transliteration rules of foreign names, working with an electronic catalog is quite difficult. Therefore, researchers who want to work in local repositories need to expand their language repertoire and include Turkish in it. The important thing is that you can order copies of rare books and manuscripts, for foreign guests this service is paid, but absolutely free of charge for teachers and researchers from Turkish universities. This fair approach definitely testifies to the special respect of Turkish society for national science and domestic scientists and educators.
One of the oldest and largest libraries in Istanbul, Beyazıt State Library (“Kütüphane-i Umum-i Osmanî”), opened in 1884, was also part of the Suleymaniye Mosque complex in the past. In accordance with the governmental decision, in 1953 it became a large library complex, which was renovated and restored on behalf of public expense. The library contains more than 800,000 books and about 1,000,000 documents. It should be mentioned that highly qualified specialists work in the library’s research center, and they are not only library experts but also scholars in history, manuscript descriptions, and linguistics. Scientists from Kazakhstan, who visited a number of Istanbul repositories in December last year, found here not only a large amount of handwritten material but also professional advice from Turkish colleagues. They discussed the prospects for research in the field of Turkic languages and cultures of the Middle Ages, opportunities for joint projects on Kipchak history and literature. The entire manuscript fund is also digitized, and therefore it became possible to be acquainted with even the rarest manuscripts and get their copies (Tabanlıoğlu Architects, 2018).
The Library of the Center for Islamic Studies in Istanbul holds a special place in the study of Islamic heritage. The library began its activities in 1988 in the same building as the General Administration of the Encyclopedia of Islam at the Foundation for Turkish Religious Affairs -Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı (TDV). The largest project of the waqf was the release of the 44-volume “Encyclopedia of Islam” in Turkish, published on the Internet. In 1993, the two organizations merged to form the TDV Center for Islamic Studies – ISAM.
In addition to a rich collection of more than 250,000 books and more than 17,000 other documents, there are sources not only on Islamic culture, history and civilization, but also on other branches of social sciences, including Turkish history, culture and literature. It holds many private collections with significant rare archival documents (ISAM, 2008).
Another distinctive feature of this center is that, thanks to a program of special grants, it enables young researchers from foreign countries to plunge into the fruitful and friendly atmosphere of science and academic communication within their walls. Many young scientists of Kazakhstan remember with gratitude the time spent in this treasury of world culture.
The tradition of generous donations continues in our time. The library of historical and artistic literature and arts of the Kadikoy municipality, located in a building considered an outstanding example of modern Istanbul’s architecture, received from the daughter of former Turkish President Celal Bayar a collection of 30,000 books of her late father, as well as a number of other valuable works (Tarih Edebiyat Sanat Kütüphanesi, 2014).
The first library stock of the Aptullah Kuran Library also consisted of 200 books donated by Harvard University; to date it has reached approximately 500,000, while donations have increased significantly. It also houses a rare collection of books from the 16th century (Boğaziçi University, 2008).
The fate of the peoples evolved differently. Some were sedentary, carefully and scrupulously recording the events of their past and present, in order to leave to their descendants a chronicle of history that they could be proud of. Others roamed, overcoming huge spaces, choosing a life that was not burdened with material values, and retaining their version of history in oral form rather than in handwritten scrolls. So it was for the time being. However, there comes a time when, in order to restore a complete picture of the past, we have to turn to all available sources, which contain necessary and little-known materials about previous events, facts, and people. This is the cycle of history and it is remarkable that there is the possibility of restoring historical memory thanks to the great cultural repositories of written monuments. This applies to both peoples with a rich written heritage, and those whose details were recorded by representatives of other cultures and in other languages. The Kazakh history today is being restored from non-existence and is being written anew, as is evident in all nations gaining independence and getting rid of foreign and often arbitrary interpretations of their past. In this situation, it is especially important to have reliable sources, free from ideological attitudes and patterns of old and recent rulers. That is what we find in the written treasures of the Istanbul libraries.
Khalidov, A. (1985) Arabic manuscripts and Arabic handwritten tradition. – “Science” Publishing House. – Moscow. – P.303.
Jones, M. K. (2017). Feyzullah Efendi Madrasa. Retrieved from http://culturecityistanbul.blogspot.com/2017/04/feyzullah-efendi-madrasa.html. Accessed on 13.01.2019.
Shafir, N., Markiewicz, C. (2013), Süleymaniye Library. Retrieved from HAZİNE, 10 October, http://hazine.info/2013/10/10/suleymaniye-library/ Accessed on 13.01.2019.
Tabanlıoğlu Architects. (2018). Retrieved from http://www.tabanlioglu.com/project/beyazit-state-library/. Accessed on 13.01.2019.
ISAM. (2008). Retrieved from http://english.isam.org.tr/index.cfm?fuseaction=objects2.detail_content&cid=282&cat_id=18&chid=41 Accessed on 13.01.2019.
Tarih Edebiyat Sanat Kütüphanesi. (2014). Retrieved from http://www.kbtesak.org/ Accessed on 13.01.2019.
Boğaziçi University. (2008). Retrieved from http://www.library.boun.edu.tr/en/kutuphane_hakkinda.php. Accessed on 13.01.2019.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Nadirova Gulnar Ermuratovna graduated from the Oriental Faculty of Leningrad State University, in 1990 she defended her thesis on the Algerian literature at the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies, in 2006 doctoral thesis - on modern Tunisian literature at the Tashkent Institute of Oriental Studies, Professor.