January 23, 2014

A new library in Sarajevo houses thousands of rescued books


The entrance of the Gazi Husrev Bey Library in Sarajevo / © Photo: Islamic Arts Magazine

The entrance of the Gazi Husrev Bey Library in Sarajevo / © Photo: Islamic Arts Magazine

Last Wednesday in Sarajevo, a new library opened its doors: the Gazi Husrev-bey Library, which holds tens of thousands of books and manuscripts which were rescued by volunteers from the chaos of the siege of the city in 1992-95.

The library actually dates back to 1527, when it was founded with money left in his will by Gazi Husrev-bey, the Ottoman governor and generally considered the greatest builder of Sarajevo, who directed that the money be used to purchase books for the Kuršumli madrassa.

Over the centuries, it grew to house an extraordinary collection, including masterpieces of calligraphy, books printed at the first Islamic printing press in Istanbul, the oldest Bosnian newspapers, and Sarajevo’s judicial records of the city. Its collection also reflects the historic diversity of the area, containing texts in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Bosnian.

In the ‘90s, as the city was under siege and the Sarajevo National Library and Oriental Institute went up in flames, the curator of the library Mustafa Jahic decided to take precautionary action. With a group of volunteers, he smuggled the collection to a series of secure locations. It was an intrepid and incredibly dangerous rescue operation—a recent Ahram article about the re-opening of the library describes “book lovers braving sniper fire to smuggle them in banana crates from one safe house to another.” They also microfilmed large amounts of material, using “equipment brought in through a tunnel beneath the city airport.” (This story was the subject of a BBC documentary in 2012, and the Guardian ran a slideshow of images from the film—surely, its Hollywood treatment is not far off.)

Jahic and his team managed to preserve the collection, and now, some twenty years after, it has been brought together again in a new building near the site of the original library. The new Gazi Husrev-bey Library (some beautiful pics here) was substantially supported by the Qatari government, who donated $9 million for its construction. It also contains a laboratory for the preservation of books and manuscripts, and a website with digitized versions of the holdings is planned for the future.

When Jahic spoke about the rescue operation, he said “A unique book that is destroyed can never be restored again… So for me to save a single book became tantamount to saving a human life. It steered me through the war.”

His sentiments are familiar (even if astonishing)—the response to the burning of the Tripoli Library that Kirsten Reach blogged about here last week, the volunteers who emerged to help salvage the Institute of Egypt in Cairo when it caught fire last year, the “Mud Angels” who came out in 1966 after the flooding of the Arno River in Florence damaged millions of books in the National Library—these are all testament to the strange, powerful, even outsized place that books in danger occupy: as a rallying point, a fragile object for which people rush to take responsibility, as if for children, the expression of individual and collective lives.

On the occasion of the library’s opening, Jahic’s niece, Sumeja Tulic, wrote a blogpost, “Lost & Found: The Rescue of Sarajevo’s Oldest Library,” about the experience of writing letters back and forth with her uncle during the war, hearing about his efforts to save the books, at the same time as his wife, a doctor, tried to save lives. She imagines her uncle the day the National Library was shelled:

On that hot August day in 1992, printed pages were flying around in flames, crossing the Miljacka river and landing as ash in people’s gardens. I believe it was on that day that my uncle, a sweet and funny man who dressed impeccably even when gardening, really got scared.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.