Walking in the old city of Jerusalem, there is a significant institution that might easily go unnoticed: the Khalidi Library. The organization is a hidden treasure housed in a thirteenth century Mamluk building in the heart of the city. It is the largest private library in Palestine, holding one of the largest collections of Arabic and Islamic manuscripts in the world. Faced with the constant threat of erasure by the Israeli government, the Khalidi Library stands as a physical and intellectual manifestation of Palestinian identity in the holy city.
Established in 1900 by the Khalidi family, the library is located in a politically and religiously sensitive area, standing between the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Western Wall, the most sacred sites in Jerusalem for Muslims and Jews, respectively. One of its greatest accomplishments is its more than 100 years of survival. Throughout Jerusalem, many public and private Palestinian libraries have disappeared since Israel’s creation in 1948, their contents seized by conquering Israeli forces and ferreted off to Israeli state archives.
Despite its endurance, the Khalidi library has been under threat since June 1967, when Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem began. Immediately following the Israeli conquest, the state began destroying parts of the neighborhood where the library was located, in order to create a large space for Jewish worshippers in front of the Western Wall. Israeli authorities confiscated Palestinian properties in the neighborhood and expelled their inhabitants.
Since 1967, the Israeli government has tried to consolidate its control over Palestinian East Jerusalem by transforming its physical and demographic landscape through a process called Judaization. To prevent East Jerusalem’s return to the Palestinians, the Israeli government has encouraged the expropriation and demolition of Palestinian homes and the construction of new Jewish settlements.
“Like many Arab institutions in the old city, the library has not had an easy life with the Israelis constantly trying to take control of the highest possible number of properties belonging to Palestinians,” explains Khader Salameh, the librarian and director of the Islamic Museum of Jerusalem. “After 1967, the library was forced to close to the public. The Israeli army then occupied the building adjacent to it, a Khalidi family property too, overlooking the library’s courtyard.”
A Talmud school, or yeshiva, was established there in 1967 and it still exists until this day. “A long legal battle was started, which luckily resulted in a decision preventing the library’s confiscation and the building expropriation,” Salameh recounts. Even after winning the case in 1993, the situation has remained difficult for the library.
The organization began restoring the library in the 1990s and only reopened its doors to visitors, researchers and scholars in 2012 on a restricted basis. The library fully reopened to the public in 2015.
A Rich History
The library was established and formally organized into a public institution in 1900 by Hajj Raghib al-Khalidi (1866-1952), a Palestinian judge. The Khalidi family is one of the oldest and most prominent in Jerusalem and has been present in the city since it was liberated by Saladin in 1187. Today, the library is part of the Khalidi family waqf (charitable endowment), which is comprised of around fifty residential and commercial properties in the Old City.
The library houses the Khalidis’ private collection. Over the centuries, the volumes contained in the library were collected by the family and passed on from one generation to the next. Today, the library holds more than 2,000 manuscripts and 6,000 printed works. While the texts are mostly written in Arabic, there are also Persian and Turkish works. The vast collection tackles a broad spectrum of subjects, including religion, medicine, history, geography, astronomy, philosophy, and poetry.
The oldest manuscript in the library is a unique volume on early Islamic history thought to have been written in the tenth century. The oldest dated manuscript is an eleventh century work on Sharia law from the Maliki school of thought. The printed works, many of which are first editions, are no less important. Most of them were published before 1900 and cover a wide range of topics.
The Library’s Challenges and Supporters
Despite the many difficulties and risks facing the library, those managing the institution remain devoted and steadfast. The staff, comprised mainly of volunteers, works hard to keep the library open and functioning.
“The institution is mainly maintained by grants, family donations and private contributions, but funds are never enough,” Salameh admits while showing one of the precious manuscripts with gold-embellished pages. “The restoration of the manuscripts is one of the most expensive undertakings. As there are few places in the world specializing in restoring old books, in the 1990s, the library had to send several manuscripts to London for urgent repair.”
Because of the cost of restoring damaged manuscripts, library staff try very hard to save the original texts from physical deterioration. This is a complicated task, as old pages are vulnerable to parasites. For their protection, manuscripts must be stored in a humidity-free environment and wrapped in special paper. Damaged books or fragments of manuscripts are never thrown away, and, instead, are stored in the attic until they can be repaired.
The Friends of the Khalidi Library, which is a non-profit organization based in the United States, acts as a conduit for financial support from the Khalidi family and other private donors. Over the past twenty-five years, different third-party donor organizations have also sponsored the conservation of manuscripts, the cataloguing of volumes, and the refurbishing of the library. Donors assisted in opening an annex in 2000 in another Mamluk building facing the library, for the vast collection of printed books. In 2013, library administrators themselves started restoring and digitizing the collection with funds obtained through the U.S.-based Hill Manuscript and Museum Library.
“A new renovation of the premises will begin soon thanks to the Arab Fund for Social and Economic Development, while the digitization, which is a very lengthy process, was recently completed and will help increase accessibility and encourage public engagement,” explains Raja Khalidi, one of the guardians of the library.
In January, the library was awarded an eighteen month grant from the UK Cultural Heritage Protection Programme, which will be used to fund a number of activities, including the installation of library management and catalogue software for 300,000 digital manuscript images. The grant will pay for the installation of a surveillance system and fire-fighting equipment, as well as the conservation of at least fifty of the most valuable and vulnerable manuscripts.
The library has hosted occasional public events and talks, since its reopening. An upcoming lecture entitled “Late Renaissance and Baroque Christian Engagement with the Qu’ran: A Tale of Four Translations” will examine several Latin translations of the holy text made between 1500 and 1750. Some of the rare Qurans held at the library will also be shown.
Despite the many challenges, the Khalidi library has raised awareness about the cultural heritage and identity of the Palestinian people. It has persisted in the face of Israeli erasure, preserving a rich heritage of Palestinian cultural production for future generations. If he were alive today, founder Hajj Raghib al-Khalidi would be proud of what the library has accomplished.