Old City’s Khalidi Library reopens after nearly a half century

Islamic legal texts are at the core of the collection. Other fields include medicine, history, geography, astronomy, Koranic exegesis, rhetoric, logic, philosophy and poetry.

Old City’s Khalidi Library (photo credit: KHALIDI LIBRARY)
Old City’s Khalidi Library
(photo credit: KHALIDI LIBRARY)
Nearly 49 years after the Khalidi Library in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City closed its doors during the Six Day War, the renowned private collection of Islamic manuscripts has been restored and reopened to the public.
The library is located on Tariq Bab as-Silsilah (Street of the Chain) in a two-story Mameluke-era building around the corner from the Western Wall. Its contents comprise 1,900 manuscripts – 18 in Farsi, 36 in Turkish, and the rest in Arabic – as well as more than 5,000 printed volumes, mostly on subjects in the realm of Islamic theology, law and philosophy. It also archives countless documents and letters, including the papers of Yousef Khalidi, who served as mayor of Jerusalem from 1899 to 1907.
Established in 1899 by Hajj Raghib al-Khalidi (1866-1952), an Islamic judge, the library was part of a larger parcel of family property given over to a wakf, or Islamic trust. The Khalidi family, one of Jerusalem’s best-known Muslim clans, has maintained it ever since. The literary treasure trove assembled over several centuries by al-Khalidi’s ancestors – many of whom were judges, Ottoman civil servants and scholars – is considered one of the most important private collections of Islamic manuscripts in the world.
Islamic legal texts are at the core of the collection. Other fields include medicine, history, geography, astronomy, Koranic exegesis, rhetoric, logic, philosophy and poetry. According to Lawrence Conrad, a British historian who catalogued the library’s holdings, members of the Khalidi clan built their manuscript collection by bargaining in the medieval and early modern literary markets of Cairo, Damascus and Istanbul.
One of the most beautiful manuscripts is a 16th-century Koran bound in leather and green silk. Particularly stunning are its colorful gilded hizbs or medallions placed in the margins of the pages to separate suras.
The 13th-century building in which the library is housed recalls Jerusalem’s medieval past. It includes the mausoleum of Amir Husam ad-Din Barka Khan and his two sons Badr al-Din and Husam al-Din Kara.
Husam al-Din, who died in 1246, was a military chieftain from Khwarezm, a region in Central Asia bordering the former Aral Sea. He fled to the Levant after his homeland was overrun by the Mongols. While in Syria and Palestine he fought against the Crusaders in the 1230s and 1240s.
His daughter married the Mameluke sultan Baybars (1223-1277) who repeatedly fought against the Franks and defeated the Mongol invaders at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260. His sons were both officers under Baybars.
Although neither Husam al-Din nor his sons died in Jerusalem, their remains were brought to the city for burial because of Jerusalem’s importance in Islam.
Today the turbah (tablet used during Islamic daily prayers) has been restored, though the library remains essentially unchanged. It consists of a reading room, refurbished attic where manuscripts are shelved, courtyard and vaulted chamber. The architects Rabih al-Masri and Jamal al-Araj planned and oversaw the renovation.
“The presence of the family in Jerusalem since the Islamic conquest has not been documented, but our presence since Saladin’s [12th-century] conquest has. From the moment Islamic Jerusalem was built, we were part of it,” explains Raja Khalidi, one of the library’s trustees.
Khalidi, a economist born in the US, worked for the UN Conference on Trade and Development from 1985 to 2013. Today, he runs the library with a handful of professional staff including librarian Khader Salama and two volunteer from his family. He considered himself “lucky” when his cousin approached him about running the library.
“You are talking about the chance of preserving part of Jerusalem’s Palestinian heritage,” he says. “There is a feeling of solidarity, service, pride and challenge. For those of us who want to do something for Jerusalem, what better thing could I be doing?” Joining Raja Khalidi as a trustee is Kamel Khalidi, a petroleum engineer who lives in Amman. His sister, Haifa Khalidi, oversaw the restoration of the turbah.
The Khalidi Library’s oldest manuscript dates from the 10th century and discusses Islamic history. Other holdings include original manuscripts referred to as “mother” scripts. There is also a gilded manuscript that pays tribute to Saladin, and a text on poisons and antidotes by an Indian physician to warn a ruler about an imminent assassination attempt.
The library symbolizes the tense relations between Jews and Palestinians.
Shortly after the Six Day War of 1967, its doors were closed. It took a lengthy legal battle to prevent the library from being seized by the IDF and other groups intent on transforming its premises.
Over the ensuing half century, the Khalidi Library remained closed to the general public. Foundation grants, private contributions and family donations kept it going for the benefit of scholars who pursued specific research projects, and helped in the mammoth task of digitizing its contents. But restoration proved costly when it was discovered that parasites and exposure to the elements had deteriorated some of the manuscripts.
Tony Bish of the Wellcome Institute in London led the conservation efforts.
Since 1989, the Boston-based Friends of the Khalidi Library has been raising funds for the institution’s restoration. The organization is currently headed by Harvard University historian Walid Khalidi.
“Turning something which was designed for the late 19th century into something that is more than a monument, I think, is the biggest challenge,” says Khalidi. “Restoring the collection and the buildings as much as possible to their original glory is a very important long-term preoccupation.”
Now the trustees have a new task: enhancing the library’s appeal to those other than scholars and academics.
With the library now reopened, the Khalidi cousins are planning workshops targeting young Jerusalemites in which they learn about bookbinding, calligraphy and manuscript restoration.
“The written word is not something you see these days except on screen,” says Khalidi, “so we are trying to make use of various new channels that reestablish people’s link to this place.”
For more information: www.khalidilibrary.org/indexe.html