Lost LibrariesWinter/Spring 2004
The Fall 2002 issue of The Patrons Post carried my article on a wonderful book, The Great Libraries, recently acquired for the Pollak Library by the Patrons. In that article I deplored (easy to do) the destruction of libraries by various causes through history, and recalled some familiar examples like the fabled fate of the Alexandrian Library, the crusaders’ sack of Constantinople, and book burning in Nazi Germany. But two extreme cases were not mentioned because one was in progress and the other had not yet occurred. Those cases were Afghanistan and Iraq.
Swept for centuries by Asian conquerors, riddled by ethnic rivalries and civil wars, disrupted by successive British, Russian, and finally American invasions, victimized by commercial exploitation and religious repression, Afghanistan has not been hospitable to libraries. Regional languages were mutually incomprehensible and literacy was unusual. Indigenous printing dates only to the later 19th century, and a government printing monopoly controlled the subjects and numbers of books. Libraries were few, but Kabul had four important repositories of books, manuscripts, and antiquities.
As a result of the Russian invasion of 1980 and internecine wars among rival resistance groups, Kabul was repeatedly bombarded. Materials in the Kabul University Library were partly dispersed for safekeeping, partly looted, and partly burned. Similarly, the National Archives and the National Museum, smashed by rockets, lost much to fire and theft. The Northern Alliance burned thousands of books in the Kabul Public Library when it seized the city. Worse still, when the Taliban took over in 1996, they systematically destroyed every remaining book they deemed “un-Islamic,” including all foreign language books and all books with pictures—and, incidentally, all statues in the country. This was a “culture war” fought to the death.
The American defeat of the Taliban in the beginning of 2002 and the creation of an interim government opened the way for reconstructng Afghanistan’s libraries. The initiative came in April 2003, not from the United States government or the United Nations, but from New York University, which established the Afghanistan Digital Library. The first phase of the project is to locate (in private collections and libraries outside Afghanistan) surviving copies of the 43 Afghan books published in Persian and in Pashto from 1871 to 1930 and reproduce them in high resolution digital form (preserving calligraphy and illustratons) which could then be printed out from the computer screen to create as many copies as needed. The next phase will do the same for the many more books published between 1930 and 1978. With the addition of digitally-reproduced modern books in other languages, and selected periodicals, magazines, and newspapers, the lost libraries of Afghanistan can begin to be restored.
Unlike Afghanistan’s prolonged cycles of destruction, Iraq’s convulsions (as they affected libraries) were sudden, and the circumstances quite different. Libraries were not in jeopardy under Saddam Hussein’s rule, though they suffered the same deprivations as the Iraqi nation after the Gulf War. Vastly larger and more cosmopolitan than the libraries of Afghanistan, they were valued (along with museums and archaeological sites) as a source of national pride and as unique repositories of ancient, Arabic, and Islamic culture.
The American air and ground assault on Iraq in March and April 2003 caused little direct damage to these cultural institutions. But it soon became obvious that nothing had been planned or done by the U.S. Army and Marines to protect them from looters and arsonists after the attacks. A storm of outrage from cultural and scholarly organizations around the world followed the news that the National Library in Baghdad had been destroyed by fire and that the Iraq Museum in Baghdad had been looted while U.S. forces stood by. The American Schools of Oriental Research deplored this as “the most severe single blow to cultural heritage in modern history, comparable to the sack of Constantinople, the burning of the library at Alexandria, the Vandal and Mongol invasions, and the ravages of the conquistadors.” Libraries and museums in Basra, Mosul and other cities suffered similarly.
A graduate student and a professor of Mesopotamian archaeology, both at the University of Chicago, systematically photographed several ruined libraries in May 2003, and these documents are displayed on the internet under the title (using Google) “Pictures of Damaged Libraries in Iraq.” We see gutted courtyards and rooms, smoke-streaked walls and windows, smashed bookcases and shelving, heaps of incinerated periodicals, jumbled piles of damaged books. Warnings to the Pentagon by scholars about the possibility of vandalism and theft in case of war had gone unheeded.
A plethora of accusations, regrets, explanations, proposals, and promises concerning cultural losses from libraries and museums in Iraq has filtered through the internet and the press in the last six months of 2003. A belated statement by Secretary of State Colin Powell deplored these events, urged return of stolen goods by the looters, and claimed that what remained would now be protected. Antiquities dealers in the Middle East have been warned about the penalties of traffic in stolen cultural artifacts.
What are the prospects of restoring and rebuilding the lost libraries of Iraq? Whose responsibility is it? Whose is the blame? Who can be punished, or even caught? Who can judge crimes and enforce penalties if there is still no working legal system? How can the costs be measured? Who will pay, and how much, considering the more urgent needs of rebuilding Iraq? So far, New York University’s plan for digitally recreating the most precious books of the lost libraries of Afghanistan has had no parallel in Iraq. The task here is far larger, costlier, and more complicated because of the competing losses of museum antiquities.
Yet Iraq may well have a long-term advantage over Afghanistan in obtaining assistance. It is part of an Arab, not merely an Islamic, cultural world. When once again it has a government and more settled conditions, wealthy Arab nations like Saudi Arabia will need to restore relations and demonstrate leadership through pan-Arab enterprises. They, more than the United States, may be ready to contribute to Iraq’s cultural restoration. By that time, the library rebuilding experiment in Afghanistan will hopefully have demonstrated one good way to go about it.
Albert R. Vogeler