Iraqi conservators try to protect historical manuscripts


In an annex of Iraq’s nationwide museum, a conservator pores over a 17th-century manuscript, finishing up delicate restoration work as a part of efforts to protect and digitise 47,000 valuable texts.

“Some manuscripts date back almost 1,000 years,” mentioned Ahmed al-Alyawi, who heads the House of Manuscripts physique.

“There are writings in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Hebrew and Kurdish,” he added, noting the texts’ “immense cultural diversity”.

In a rustic that bears the scars of many years of battle and has seen antiquities and cultural heritage usually plundered, the House of Manuscripts’ assortment has managed to outlive.

It was safely stashed away within the Baghdad suburbs, whereas the nationwide museum was ransacked within the turmoil following the 2003 US-led invasion. Employees and residents prevented subsequent looting makes an attempt on the “underground shelter” the place it was saved, Alyawi mentioned.

The assortment, now ensconced within the nationwide museum within the capital Baghdad, contains books, parchments and calligraphy boards, a few of them broken by humidity, pests and centuries of use.

Some manuscripts date from the early Abbasid period, whereas some seventh-century calligraphy boards in Kufic script have been written on parchment “even before the manufacture of paper”, Alyawi mentioned.

– ‘To stay longer’ –

A conservator carrying a white lab coat brushed mud from a gnarled board, as a colleague minimize positive paper to restore a 17th-century Persian textual content devoted to the Shiite non secular commemoration of Ashura.

Each intervention should “preserve the old appearance” of a piece, mentioned Tayba Ahmed, 30, who has been doing restoration for 3 years.

But it additionally should cut back any harm to the work “so that it can live longer”, she added.

A textual content “may not have a cover, the pages might be detached, you may have to sew and make a leather cover”, she mentioned.

“You can spend several months with the same book.”

Ahmed is one in every of seven Iraqi conservators who’re at the moment present process coaching, funded by the Italian embassy, to assist them perform their colossal restoration mission.

The programme includes working with Italian knowledgeable Marco Di Bella, whose nation has beforehand funded tools for the House of Manuscripts’ places of work, together with lighting.

Peering over an 18th-century Ottoman astronomy e-book, its pages full of elegant black ink calligraphy, Di Bella made feedback in English that have been translated into Arabic.

“The most complex process is… deciding what to do and how to intervene on the manuscript”, the Italian conservator instructed AFP.

“Every single manuscript is assessed… we describe the damage” and take a look at “to understand… the origin” of every piece, he added.

The programme additionally helps reintroduce conventional conservation supplies that are actually coming “back into fashion”, Di Bella mentioned, resembling starch as an adhesive.

– ‘Heritage of our nation’ –

While his group has simply 4 scanners to digitise your complete archive, Alyawi decried a scarcity of funding that prevented buying different specialised tools or hiring extra employees.

Despite the obstacles, Alyawi expressed optimism that his groups might restore as much as 100 works per yr — making a gradual dent within the probably hundreds of works requiring consideration.

The House of Manuscripts archive “is a leading collection in Iraq and the region”, mentioned Zakaria Haffar, Iraq venture supervisor on the National Library of France (BNF).

In October, the House of Manuscripts signed a partnership with the BNF, following monetary help from the Aliph Foundation, which works to guard cultural heritage in battle zones.

In addition to offering supplies — resembling specialist paper and leather-based — the cooperation will see an “exchange of skills” to help with digitisation, restoration and cataloguing, Haffar mentioned.

Mayassa Shehab, who has labored in restoration for half her life, mentioned the preservation and digitisation mission is of immense significance.

“It is the heritage of our country”, the 52-year-old mentioned. “As it has been handed down to us, we must pass it on to future generations.”