A Riyadh exhibition showcased a priceless treasure trove of Arabic and Islamic texts


RIYADH: Ancient manuscripts held by the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh are a priceless treasure trove of religious, historical, scientific, and philosophical knowledge that has allowed scholars to unlock the region’s remarkable past.

Created long before the invention of the printing press in the 1400s, these writings have provided religious and academic authorities with rich insights into how Middle Eastern civilizations were born, flourished, and evolved and over many centuries.

These handwritten texts, many of them beautifully decorated by skilled calligraphers, with ornate illustrations and elaborate maps distinct to their era, are still pored over by librarians, scientists, archivists, and curators even to this day.

Everything from pre-Islamic hanging odes to the earliest editions of the Torah, the Bible, and the Qur’an were painstakingly compiled, often over many years and by multiple authors, all for the sake of preserving history.

KFCRIS has an extensive library of such artifacts, including more than 28,500 rare physical manuscripts and 120,000 photographed pieces.

Established in 1983, the center serves as a repository for the Faisal Family Archives and is today considered one of the foremost cultural collections in the Kingdom for its contribution to the humanities and social sciences.

“Asfar,” KFCRIS’ year-long exhibition which ends in February 2023, has featured some of the world’s rarest Arabic and Islamic texts, including 36 manuscripts and printed works carefully selected from 178,500 original and photographed pieces held in its archives.

The exhibition, named after the plural for sifr in Arabic, a Qur’anic word that means “large book” or “tome,” has put on display some of the world’s rarest texts and manuscripts dating back hundreds of years.

“The term ‘asfar’ could mean travels and voyages where the visitor can journey through the contents of a book,” Rasha Ibrahem Al-Fawaz, the center’s director of museums, told Arab News.

“The exhibition sheds light on the most distinct and unique of books and manuscripts at KFCRIS.

Divided into six sections, the first being the journey of knowledge, the exhibition tells the story of how science was transmitted across civilizations, while showcasing various manuscripts, one of which — “Kalila wa Dimna” — was owned by King Faisal.

The second section showcases three manuscripts that are more than a thousand years old, displayed as examples of Arabic calligraphy down the ages, including “Al-Bayan wa Al-Tabyin,” which translates as “Elegance of Expression and Clarity of Exposition,” by Al-Jahiz.

The next section showcases three works reflecting the contributions of women to their respective societies, including Bab Bashir, consort of Abbasid Caliph Al-Musta’sim, and Umm Al-Husayn bint Shihab Al-Din Al-Makki.

The fourth, “By the Author’s Hand,” exhibits nine works of copyists.

“The most distinct of the items showcased in this exhibition is a Mamluk Condex of the Qur’an, an endowment of Sitt Miska, the caretaker of Sultan Ahmed Qalawun,” said Al-Fawaz.

“One of the fourth section’s most unique manuscripts is ‘Kitab Al-Ibar wa Diwan Al-Mubtada wa Al-Khabar,’ by Ibn Khaldun.

“The fifth section, titled ‘Rare Manuscripts,’ showcases eight manuscripts, which are single copies in the world written by their authors, hence the title. 

“One of these manuscripts, ‘Women News’ by Usama ibn Munqidh, an equestrian and an Arab poet who lived to the age of 96 years during the Ayyubid dynasty, specifically during the reign of Salahuddin Ayubi, the sultan of Egypt.

“The manuscript is one of many from his biography ‘Al-Itebar,’ and in it he mentioned that he wrote the ‘Women News,’ which was believed to be missing for many years until we discovered it in the center, and is under investigation and research where we will soon print it and distribute it.”

The sixth and final section, titled “Gutenberg’s World,” showcases ten printed books from Germany’s first modern printing press in the mid-15th century. According to Al-Fawaz, the most famous of the earliest prints is the Hamburg Qur’an, the second oldest printed copy of the holy book after the Venice copy.

Source: Arab News