BY ASYRAF ISYRAQI
ARTS NOV 10, 2021 11:54 AM GMT+3A general view of the Presidential Library, Ankara, Turkey, Feb. 21, 2020. (Photo by Ali Ekeyılmaz)
Turkey’s largest library in the capital Ankara disseminates knowledge to future generations with a collection of over 4 million books in 134 different languages and 120 million articles and reports
As the leaves started turning gold and scarlet, signaling the arrival of autumn, my family and I set out to explore the spectacular sights that Turkey has to offer. We visited the Turkish Presidential Library in the capital Ankara, which became the talk of the town when it first opened to the public.
The Presidential Library is by far the biggest library in Turkey and houses a rich collection of books. It was officially inaugurated by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Feb. 20, 2020.
Built on an area of 125,000 square meters (1.35 million square feet) inside the Presidential Complex, the library has a capacity of 5,000 visitors. But as a precautionary measure, it is hosting 1,500 bibliophiles and researchers at a given time.
The library recently announced that it would be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week after Turkey’s gradual easing of COVID-19 restrictions. It was a bold announcement at a time when there is a controversial debate taking place on the relevance of physical libraries.
Library in the medieval Muslim history
The entity of library in Islamic history eventuated from the perspective of the importance of writing, publishing, and collecting books among Muslims.
Books are a valuable source of knowledge and the culture of reading is also a part of Islamic teachings that contribute to the cultivation of a knowledgeable and educated human being.
Hence, a library existed as a place to collect and store various types of books with exclusive characteristics related to finance, management, organization, loans, buildings and so on.
There are six words associated with the library in Islamic history namely, bayt (room), khazanah (space), dar (house), hikmah (wisdom), ilm (knowledge) and kutub (books) which produce a combination of seven terms; bayt hikmah, dar hikmah, khazanah hikmah, dar ilm, dar kutub, khazanah kutub and bayt kutub, along with the other terms; bayt ilm and khazanah ilm.
The most glorious libraries in Islamic history were the Bayt al-Hikmah in Baghdad, also known as The House of Wisdom or the Grand Library of Baghdad, and the Dar al-Hikmah or Hall of Wisdom in Cairo. There were also other privately-owned libraries such as Khazanah al-Hikmah belonged to al-Fath ibn Khaqan, the library of Adud al-Dawla and the library of the Caliph al-Aziz Billah.
The libraries were, in the beginning, mostly built either in the homes of wealthy men, nobles, caliphate palaces, or the residences of dignitaries but eventually, the concept of funding libraries for public use took hold. It was based on the realization of the need to disseminate knowledge, in addition to sharing their wealth.
In fact, the library was considered as one of the places where teaching and learning took place before the emergence of madrassa as a specific institution for that purpose.
Therefore, the library in Islamic history does not only play a role as a collection center, storage and loan of books but also to support scientific activities, in addition to providing various facilities such as food, drinks, equipment, accommodation and so on to users in need.
Library as a healing place
In 1250 B.C., Pharaoh Ramesses II built a library on the Nile as the earliest authenticated library and there was an inscription over the door that read in translation as “Healing place for the soul.”
A place of words and texts can be acknowledged as a healing place, especially for the human intellectual soul. Turkish Presidential Library has been designed to cater not only as a healing place for the human spirit but also to fulfill physical needs.
President Erdoğan in his inauguration speech mentioned a very important point: “This is not just a place where books are stacked on the shelves. We imagined it as a place where people of sciences will meet, as a center for wisdom, knowledge and culture. We built a place where people will visit for gatherings of scholars.”
Nowadays, it is no doubt that in this age we live as lonely people, separated from each other in various ways with the integration of digital technology and social media in our daily life. A decent venue is needed where people can meet up, discuss, debate, teach and learn from each other.
As history unfolds, the library is no longer a place where books are merely kept and arranged. Instead, the library shall be where humans can build their thoughts and civilization dynamically
Library as a symbol of civilization
Inside the Presidential Library, the dome of the main and great Cihannuma (World Atlas) Hall is decorated with 16 columns representing the 16 Great Turkish Empires. It interestingly features an inscription of the Turkish version of verses four and five of Surah al-Alaq, the 96th chapter of the Quran. The inscription is translated as: “He is the one who taught how to write with a pen, taught the human being what he did not know.”
These are among the first verses that were revealed to Prophet Muhammad on the significance of reading and writing.
The Presidential Library is the largest single library investment in the history of the Turkish Republic and such investments will continue to be made around the world due to their contribution to society.
“We are the members of a civilization that considers every scholar to be a tree of heaven, whose shadow should be benefitted from, and books as the fruits of that tree. Our ancestors preferred a library, whose shelves were filled with books, to the most precious treasures,” President Erdoğan added.
Thousands of books owned by various civilizations were preserved and conserved for subsequent generations in past libraries such as Bayt al-Hikmah and Dar al-Hikmah, which had built the glory of the classical Muslim era. As a metaphorical fountain for the flow of time, the Turkish Presidential Library will also devolve the knowledge and culture to future generations with millions of resources to continue evolving the modern Muslim civilization.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Senior Lecturer at Malaysia’s University of Malaya, and visiting research fellow at Turkey’s Sakarya University