The ancient library of Kairouan and its methods of conservation

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Murād al-Rammāḥ

Article contents:
Kairouan and its contributions to culture
The ancient library of Kairouan and its treasures
The history of the ancient library of Kairouan
Methods of preservation in the ancient library of Kairouan

1. Cleaning
2. Parchment restoration and conservation
3. Paper restoration and conservation
4. Bookbinding
Courtyard and facade of the prayer hall in the Great Mosque of Kairouan, in Tunisia. The Great Mosque of Kairouan, also known as the Mosque of Uqba ibn Nafi, is one of the most important mosques in Tunisia. It covers an area of 9000 square meters and is considered one of the oldest places of worship in the Islamic world.

Kairouan and its contributions to culture

"Kairouan, mother of cities and capital of the land, is the greatest city in the Arab west, the most populated, prosperous and thriving with the most perfect buildings ... and the most lucrative in trading ..." It was thus that al-Idrīsī extolled Kairouan in Nuzhat al-Mushtāq. Its impact was even greater in terms of its diffusion of culture and knowledge, and the contribution made to that effect by its men of distinction and its jurists. For four consecutive centuries, Kairouan was able to maintain a school that specialised in many areas and whose renown and glory has been proudly preserved. During that time, the city was a forum of knowledge and a prominent centre of culture. At the end of the 3rd century AH, a Bayt al-Ḥikmah (‘House of Wisdom’) was established there, rivalling its counterpart in Baghdad in the study of medicine, astronomy, engineering, and translation. Thus, the components for intellectual and scientific revival were firmly embedded in the country. A distinguished school of medicine was established and flourished under the direction of Isḥāq b. ͑Imrān and matured under Aḥmad b. al-Jazzār, whose works were translated into Latin. Constantine the African (d. 1087 AD) brought many of these works to the Salerno School of Medicine by translating and reformulating them. His works mark the beginning of the first of the movements in which the Arab sciences were transferred to Europe. Moreover, Kairouan was renowned for its men of letters, its poets and critics. The most distinguished of these poets was Ibn Hāni͗, with his mature and forceful poetry, and al-Ḥuṣarī and Ibn Sharaf who were both notable exponents of the literature of emigration and anguish for the homeland, which was to influence the Andalusian poets later.

A vigorous movement of criticism grew up alongside this activity; including al-Nahshalī for his Mumti͑ and Ibn Rashīq for his ͑Umdah of which Ibn Khaldūn says: "This book is without parallel in the craft of poetry, to which it does true justice. No one, either before or since, has written anything like it."

Perhaps the most distinctive contribution Kairouan has made is the religious and spiritual role which it has played in rooting Islamic doctrine in the Maghreb. This began with ͑Umr b. ͑Abd al-Azīz who sent ten jurists to instruct the Muslims of Africa in jurisprudence and to help them understand the rituals of their religion. Then the number of mosque schools and teaching circles increased and religious knowledge spread accordingly, until the time of the Aghlabids, when a class emerged whose men distinguished themselves by their devotion to the sayings of earlier legal authorities. They collected fragmentary quotations and legal opinions, and arranged them systematically according to their subject matter.

Then, having matured through its exposure to the various confessional views and religious currents, Kairouan adopted the Mālikī doctrine. Although this school emerged in Madīnah, the people of Kairouan had the honour of codifying it through the writings of Asad b. al-Furāt, followed by Saḥnūn b. Sa͑īd (234 AH), the founder of the first school of Malikī jurisprudence in Africa and the most prominent figure in religious knowledge throughout the Islamic Maghreb. His students continued to develop this doctrine through the in-depth study of its topics and the interpretation of sayings of previous jurists. They clarified its precepts and attempted to make them universally accessible, in order to meet the needs of society. Examples of this development are the writings of Muḥammad b Saḥnūn on al-Buyū͑ (Sales) and those of Yaḥyá b. ͑Umar (289 AH) on Aḥkām al-Sūq (The Regulations of the Market) and those of Muḥammad b. ͑Abdūs (260 AH) on al-Tafāsīr (Interpretations) Despite the oppression that Mālikī scholars suffered at the hands of the Shi͑a, they were able to root African society firmly in its Sunni allegiance during the Fatimid period to deal exhaustively with the fundamental principles of their legal school and to develop its various branches. The most prominent personalities at this stage were ͑Abd Allāh b. Abī Zayd al-Qayrawānī (386 AH), author of al Risālah and al-Nawādir wa-al-ziyādāt ͑alá al-Mudawwanah, Abū al-Ḥasan al-Qābisī (403 AH), and Abū ͑Imrān al-Fāsī. Thus Credit goes to Kairouan for bringing to fruition Mālikī thought and for propagating it throughout the Maghreb. Mālikī thought was one of the basic elements which united and protected Maghrebi society from the ravages of internecine doctrinal strife.

The ancient library of Kairouan and its treasures

Kairouan has preserved some of the remnants of this intellectual heritage, as well as the memory of its scholars, through books and documents that they wrote in their own hand or that they assigned others to write. These books and folios were preserved in the Great Mosque, where they formed part of the curriculum; some are still preserved in their entirety. These documents were written, for the most part, between the 9th and 13th centuries AD. They include unique cultural data particularly concerned with the arts of calligraphy and binding, and the sciences of variant readings, the chains of transmitters of tradition, and the collation of texts.

The ancient library of Kairouan is distinct for having substantial part of its collection written on parchment. This collection of parchments is the largest and best known collection in the Arab Islamic world. It is made up of three integral sections: documents and legal instruments, books on the principles of jurisprudence (the earliest of which go back to 231 AH), and finally, splendid and elegant copies of the Qur͗ān written on parchment, whose combined folios number more than 39,000.

It is fortunate that the manuscripts of Kairouan are still preserved at a time when all the ancient libraries mentioned in history books have either burned down or been plundered, or whose books have been scattered or lost. The manuscripts of the Kairouan library represent a unique and priceless corpus which facilitates the study of important areas of intellectual and religious life when Kairouan was the capital of the Islamic West. And, as in the East, the Kairouan manuscripts were endowed to students of Islamic science's by those who sought Allāh's favour and his pleasure with them, as was recorded on many of them. Likewise, Information is given including the name of the donor, the date of the endowment, and sometimes the conditions and reasons behind it.

In reading some of the manuscripts, we can follow the course of a book's circulation and the chain of authority which lists who read it, taught it and checked it by audition, and how it was collated with an autograph copy. In this way, we may also discover the groups of students who had it melted to them and the scholars who witnessed this.

The ancient library of Kairouan abounds in information about some of the books on Ḥadīth and Mālikī jurisprudence, and how they were circulated in Africa. It contains scholarly works which form the core of Mālikī doctrine: such as al-Mudawwanah, al-Mukhtaliṭah, al-wāḍiḥ, al-Muwāzīah and al-Atabīyah. The library holds fragments of al-Jamī͑ by ͑Abd Allāh b. Wahb and al-Muwaṭṭa͗ transmitted by Saḥnūn from Ibn al-Qāsim, a section from the same work as transmitted by ͑Ali b. Ziyād al-Tūnisī, as well as numerous sections of the Tafsīr of Yaḥyá b. Sallam and from the Taṣārīf of Yaḥyá al-Ḥafīd. There are also fragments from al-Nawādir wa-al-Ziyādāt and a short excerpt from al­Mudawannah by ͑Abd Allāh b. Abī Zayd al-Qayrawānī and a small book by Ibn al-Labbād (b. 333 AH), Fī al-radd ͑alá al­Shāfi͑ī (on the refutation of al­Shāfi͑ī). There is a book Adab al-Qāḍī wa-l-Quḍāh by Haytham b. Sulaymān and the Amālī of Ibn al-Ḥaddād, Aḥkām al-Qur͗ān by al-Jahḍamī (d. 280 AH) as well as two volumes of al-Asadīyah.

The second section contains documents relating to dealings between people, or to endowments or alms; it is full of information about the society of Kairouan from the middle of the 5th century to the beginning of the 13th century AH. The scholars at that time often wrote out important texts themselves, making it possible to trace scripts and to learn who wrote them. It has been proven that a number of the books contain the script of the renowned historian and biographer, Abū al-͑Arab, just as the script of al-Ḥārith b. Marwān (who lived at the beginning of the 5th century AH) has been distinguished from other hands.

However, what distinguishes the ancient library of Kairouan from others are the copies of the Qur͗ān written on parchment, a unique collection dating from between the 3rd and 7th centuries AH. The oldest one dates to 295 AH/908 AD and is known as the ‘Faḍl’ Qur͗ān. We are virtually sure that there are older copies, however, one of which dates to the latter part of the 2nd century AH and is written in the Hijāzī script.

The collection of Kairouan parchments includes the scattered remnants and fragments of Qur͗āns endowed to the Kairouan Mosque and some other mosques. It is estimated that there are about a hundred remaining in this collection. Perhaps the most important of these, and the one that most significantly demonstrates artistic skills and relationship to the place, is the large Qur͗ān commissioned by an official lady of the Ṣanhājī court, of Christian origins. Her name was Fāṭimah and she was the nursemaid of Prince Abū Manād Bādīs b. al-Mansūr. The financing of the codex and its progress were supervised by Fāṭimah's clerk, Durrah, while its production was entrusted to Aḥmad b. ͑Alī al-Warrāq.

Although we know that manuscript books were generally produced by the combined skills of specialists such as the gilder, illuminator, calligrapher, and binder, each of whom practised his particular craft in turn, this Kairouanī book craftsman wrote out the consonantal skeleton, vocalised it, and gilded and bound the book himself, completing his great work in 410 AH/1120 AD. It is an extremely important work artistically, especially since this huge work is written in a script derived from the Kufic script — a name we learned of for the first time in the old register to which we shall refer (p. 36 below). The characteristic of this script is that it is written with a wide-nibbed pen held firmly so that the hand moves to form the shape of the letters without changing the angle of the pen; thus the parts of the letters which are formed above the line are thick and geometrical in shape, and what falls below is fine, without affecting the beauty or balance of the script.

Among the treasures of the ancient library of Kairouan is a Qur͗ān written on blue parchment in beautifully gilded Kufic script, Preliminary research reveals that the gilded writing was find with egg-white used as an adhesive agent, after which the letters were outlined with brown to highlight and define them, The codex was then dyed with indigo, imported through the Indian market which flourished particularly in the filth century AH, The blue Qur͗ān of Kairouan is virtually unique; a number of its pages are distributed in museums of the world and are misattributed, either mistakenly Or deliberately, to Mashhad or some other city They all have the same origin which we can deduce through their measurements, word spacing, scripts, illuminations, line counts, and the materials used. The ancient library of Kairouan has also preserved one codex written with gold ink with five lines to a page, measuring 15 cm x 21 cm and which is distinguished by its Kufic writing and fine illumination in marvellous geometric forms.

Among this collection are also sonic specially commissioned copies of the Qur͗ān which the Ṣanhājīyah family endowed to the Kairouan Mosque. These include the Qur͗ān of al-Mu͑izz b. Bādīs’s in which he states his attitude toward the Fatimids alter the insurrection Was deelared, the Qur͗ān of Umm Malal, the aunt of al- al-Mu͑izz, and his sister Umm al-͑Ulū, and the Qur͗ān of Abū Manād Bādīs's nursemaid mentioned above.

The Kairouan collection of Qur͗āns allows us to follow die art and craft of writing, gilding, and binding across five centuries. It enables us to trace the development of writing in the Kufic script as well as the Qur͗anic textual readings that prevailed in Africa during this considerable stretch of time.

This library also contains a collection of relatively recent manuscripts written between the 15th and the end of the 19th centuries AD. They include, in particular, Qur͗āns written on paper and works on jurisprudence, principles of jurisprudence, grammar and rhetoric. Most of them were endowed to the Kairouan Mosque, and the Ṣaḥābīyah madrasahs and the Gharyāniyyah School. A considerable number of the manuscripts were donated by educated families such as the Būwrās, Ṣaddāmm, and ͑Aẓūm families. They number over 2,000 manuscripts.

The integral nature of the Kairotian collections, which contain fine works spanning 1,000 years, entitles us, more than any other library, to set up a museum for the Arab Islamic Book.

The history of the ancient library of Kairouan

A lack of documentary evidence prevents us from dating the foundation of the library of the Great Mosque of Kairouan. Nor can we rely on the existence of a certificate of audition on one of as manuscripts which dates from 231 AH in order to be certain. It is likely that the origins of the library of the Great Mosque of Kairouan are linked to the development of the city and the growth of the intellectual movement. Perhaps this corresponds to the end of the 2nd century AH, with the library reaching its peak during the Aghlabī and Sanhājī eras. It was a miracle that the ancient library of Kairouan escaped the calamities of that time, such as the Hilālī advance that destroyed Kairouan, scattering its people Lind wiping out its civilisation This collection survived as a testimony to ILS time-honoured glory and the flourishing of its sciences Most of the manuscripts remained in the Kairouan Mosque; it seems that some books and copies of the Qur͗ān were brought in from outlying mosques after the sack of the city.

This library was known in the ancient records dating back seven c-enturics as 'Bayt al-Kutub', and was situated in an enclosure near the Mihrab of the mosque. The great traveller al­͑Abdarī visited this library in the year 688 AH and made the following reference to it: "We entered it (that is the mosque) Bayt al-Kutub and many manuscripts of various Qur͗āns were brought out for us written in eastern script, some of which were entirely written in gold and some ancient books which were endowments dating from the era of Saḥnūn and earlier, including the Muwaṭṭā of Ibn al-Qāsim and others. I saw a Qur͗ān, enclosed in two hard covers, all of which was without diacritical marking or vocalisation; its writing was in eastern script and very clear and beautiful, the book being two and a half hand-spans in length and one and a half in width. We were told that it was ͑Uthmān's, may Allāh be pleased with him, who sent it to the Maghreb and that it was in the writing of ͑Abd Allāh b. ͑Umar, may Allāh be pleased with both of them."

Fate ordained that the statistical record of this library's books and copies of the Qur͗ān should survive. This record, dated 693 AH, is written on parchment in Kairouan script; it is 11 pages long. The second and third pages are among those lost and destroyed in the library in later periods. Ibrahim Chabbouh edited and published this record, which includes a detailed description of the entire collection and the names of the scripts in which its works were written as well as a description of their colours, binding and the wooden boxes lined with leather and silk in which they were preserved.1

Among the papers of the library, Professor Chabbouh came across a second document, dated 809 AH, on a single folio of paper written in Maghribī script, but with traces of the eastern Kairouan script dealing with the number of Qur͗āns in the library. If we compare the contents of this document to the first doniment dated 693 AH, it is evident that a great number of Qur͗āns were lost or destroyed.

In 1896, Muḥammad Bayram Bey visited Kairouan. He went into its mosque and examined the manuscripts which remained in this ancient library and, in a lecture at the Egyptian Geographical Association and later published in Al-Muqaṭaf (April issue, 1897), he described its copies of the Qur͗ān and books which he examined as being lied with cord, their pages mixed up, covered with cobwebs and dust. When the cord was unfastened for him, he describes how he saw amazing folios from the Qur͗āns which surpassed anything he had seen in libraries and museums of the Islamic World. He expressed his immense sadness and profound distress as he witnessed the neglect that these precious and priceless works of art had suffered. He reported that his father, Bayram the fifth, had spoken about them and that he was determined to put them in order and preserve them.2

One of the results of this was that the French Protectorate took an interest in the ancient library of Kairouan when the Director General of the government, M. Roy, set up a committee to organise it and to put misplaced folios in order. Individual folders were made to fit each Qur͗ān.

In the period that followed, the Charities Administration (Awqāf) was in charge of the collection, and adopted a number of measures to improve the conditions in which the manuscripts were kept, and to re-arrange them. Shaykh Muḥammad Ṭarrād compiled a preliminary catalogue in 1933. The original of this catalogue has been lost but a copy was preserved in the Egyptian National Library in Cairo, and Ibrahim Chabbouh had a copy made and gave it to his sons.

The Awqāf entrusted the collection to the cam of Shaykh Maḥmūd b. Jrayū; after his death, ͑Uthmān Jarrād took responsibility for it.

In about 1949, the Directorate of Waqfs made funds available for photographing some of the contents of the books and documents; this was supervised by Muḥammad al-Bahlī al­Nayāl, and Muṣṭafá Būshūshah did the photography.

After independence, when the Waqf was disbanded, the Institute of Antiquities was revived under the direction of the late H. H. ͑Abd al-Wahhāb, and the collection in the Kairouan Mosque and its curator ͑Uthmān Jarrād were affiliated to the Institute It instigated the formation of small Islamic museums and removed quantities of beautiful fragments from Kairouan to form the museums of Dār al-Ḥusayn, Kairouan, Sfax, Monastir, and to enrich the Bardo Museum, without any control as to what went out or remained.

In September 1967, Order number 296 was issued concerning the collection of the manuscripts under Dār al-Kutub al-Waṭanīya (the National Library) of Tunis. The order was erroneously interpreted; it should have been possible to pass the administration of the manuscript collections to Dār al-Kutub, whilst keeping the manuscripts where they were in deference to the cultural concerns of the regions. Specialists could then have been sent out to the regions in order to catalogue the collections.

The director of the library at that time, Ḥammādī al-Rizqī, delegated the work to Muḥammad al-͑Annābā. He had worked in the 'Khulafā͗' organisation, but was dismissed after the war He resided in Kairouan and in the company of a departmental supervisor made reference to the Qur͗āns in the following way: "A copy on parchment, without beginning or end!" He would then move them in a transport van to Tunis and withdraw to work on them alone according to a procedure which is not clear. When he left the administration, two men took turns with the department of manuscripts, ͑Abd al-Ḥafīz Manṣūr and Jamāl Ḥamādah who later made them available to the readers.

When al-Shādhilī al-Qlībī was reinstated in the ministry, he appointed a committee to review the condition of the manuscripts immediately, as rumours had begun to circulate. The committee was composed of Rashīd b. Aḥmad (Head of Central Administration), Ibrahim Chabbouh, Sa͑d Ghurāb, ͑Abd al-Ḥāfīẓ Manṣūr and Jamāl Ḥamādah. This committee began to pool the results of their observations while at the same time verifying precisely the number of pages in the books and copies of the Qur͗ān as well as their measurements and number of lines.

While this work was being carried out, the Minister of Culture was replaced by Muḥammad al-Ya͑lāwī, who reopened the collection to the readers One of the advisers assured him that he need have no misgivings about the matter, and for this reason the matter was closed.

On 12th September 1982, decree number 1250 was passed to return the Kairouan collection to its place. A Comittee was set up to list and check the collection; it was composed of ͑Uthmān Jarrād, al-Bājī b. Māmī, Murād al-Rammāḥ, Jamāl Ḥamadah, ͑Abd al-Ḥafīẓ and Ḥamīdah b. Ṣamīda.

The collection was moved to Kairouan shortly afterwards, at the beginning of 1983, and was entrusted to the Raqqādah museum. After it had been displayed and examined the same year, the Assistant Director of the Centre for the Study of Civilisation and Islamic Arts, Ibrahim Chabbouh, began his task of preserving the collection. Starting in 1985, he established the basis of an advance restoration and preservation laboratory, in co­operation with Göttingen University in Germany.

All these stages culminated in the issuing of a presidential decree in May 1995 to establish a national laboratory in Raqqādah for the restoration and preservation of manuscripts.

These initiatives paved the way for the beginning of a unique experiment based on the need for a progressive look at the concept of manuscript preservation. This would he based on the recognition that the text is the component which interests and concerns researchers. As for the material aspect of the book and what it represents artistically, it is the document of a civilisation and must be dealt with according to different criteria. The manuscript is an artistic testimony to the past, evinced by the materials used in the production of the book, such as parchment, paper, or papyrus which make up the 'bearer' of the book, as well as materials for binding, illumination, script, ink, and text.

A researcher should ideally work with a microfilm, thus keeping the manuscript out of circulation. However, withdrawing examples of amazing visual artistry prevents the enjoyment of their aesthetic beauty. This view accords with the decision of the 9th conference of antiquities held in Sana'a in 1981 on manuscripts. Preparations are under way to put into effect this resolution.

Methods of preservation in the ancient library of Kairouan

To carry out a plan for the preservation, recording, and photographing of manuscripts, three laboratories or departments were Set up:

  • A photographic and microfilming laboratory
  • A restoration, preservation, and bookbinding laboratory
  • A cataloguing and publishing department

The main task of the photographic and microfilm laboratory consisted of taking photographs of the most important and most beautiful specimens and commencing the work of recording the entire collection on microfilm. This plan was devised with the intention of capturing the parchment in a durable medium, and of providing researchers with working copies of scholarly works. After six years of work, the recording process has covered one quarter of the collection and we hope that, with some improvement in the facilities, the entire collection may be photographed within the next five years. The Arab Organisation of Education, Culture, and Sciences has supported the Centre's appeal for the preservation of the city of Kairouan by allowing it to purchase all the necessary photographic equipment from France. Similarly, the microfilming equipment was purchased as part of the co­operation programme which was concluded between the governments of Germany and Tunisia in 1985.


In the area of preservation, a project was set up within the framework of the same co-operation programme, following the example of the German-Yemeni project set up in 1977 in Sana'a. The agreement was drawn up with Göttingen Library, which is under the control of the Lower Saxony regional authority. Gunter Brannahl was appointed to look of the collection and to acquaint himself with its problems, to form and train a team of Tunisian restorers and to gather the necessary apparatus and equipment. Alter the death of Brannahl, Ketzer was appointed to oversee the operation and the project took off. Four of the Tunisian restorers were sent to the Göttingen Library to work on the problems of the manuscripts in the collections. They familiarised themselves with the types of damage most commonly affecting parchment and leather and the methods of treating them. The most important of these are listed below.

  1. Shrinkage of parchment due to dampness and its secretion of gelatinous substance causing the parchment to soften, turn brown, and then eventually to disintegrate.
  2. The corrosive effect of acidic inks on the written surface of parchment.
  3. Wrinkling of parchment and loss of suppleness.
  4. Drying out and blackening of leather bindings.
  5. Dulling of the silver ornamentation due to dampness.

Paper is affected in similar ways by insects, bacteria, and ink.


Five units were set up during a six month formative period, to perform the following tasks:

  1. cleaning;
  2. parchment restoration and preservation;
  3. paper restoration and preservation;
  4. binding;
  5. chemical analysis.

The Preservation Association of Kairouan, in co-operation with the National Heritage Institute, supervised the building of the necessary workshops to accommodate these units. Together with the previous buildings designated for the laboratories, the area amounted to mom than 500 square metres. The German side allocated a loan to the value of 200,000DM of which more than 120,000DM were for equipment, 40,000DM for materials, and 40,000DM for transportation.


The cleaning workshop was equipped with an advanced vacuum apparatus with a laser device to exterminate bacteria within a period of 15 days.

Before the manuscript is cleaned of dust, insects, and other blemishes, it is given a specification label which carries details of its binding, kind of paper, ink, and its general condition, including any blemishes.


The parchment restoration laboratory was equipped with a device invented by Brannahl, in which the sheet of parchment is placed until its humidity reaches 100 per cent. This gives it the necessary suppleness for the restoration to be carried out. It is then cleaned with water and alcohol. Accretions are cut off as necessary, avoiding the use of chemical substances. Then it is placed in a compressor between sheets of acid-free paper. If necessary, particularly important items may be repaired with parchment which has been manufactured in the same traditional way, so as to match the original. The restoration of parchments is done in autumn, winter, and the beginning of spring when there is still a degree of humidity in the air before it is lost in the summer season, when it is difficult to treat parchment.

To date, it has been possible to restore 4.000 folios or fragments of parchment out of a collection of 10,000 folios from parchment Qur͗āns meriting conservation, and from an unspecified number of books on jurisprudence of at least 20,000 folios. Thus the work, if carried out according to the present system, will require at least 30 years to complete. The officials in the laboratory have undertaken to make new storage boxes, as the old boxes did not meet conservation standards in that they were poorly designed and were not constructed with acid-free cardboard.


The paper restoration workshop includes apparatus for purifying water of salts and mineral deposits. It has a capacity of 200 litres and filters over 110 litres an hour. It can filter 99 per cent of the salts and between 90 and 95 per cent of organic and bacterial matter. It comprises four filters and is attached to a tank with a capacity of 36.000 litres, which means being able to do without low pressure public tap water.

The paper is placed in a bath of filtered water, where it is cleaned of foreign matter, insects, and bacterial accretions. Any perforations in the fibre are erased with a special apparatus, after which the paper is placed on special racks to be dried. If the paper has been written on with thinned ink, the perforations are plugged with fragments of Japanese paper reinforced with boric. This method is considered extremely laborious. However, laboratory experts have improved on it after many attempts, resulting in a new method of making paste as follows:

Cotton sheets are cut into small pieces and soaked in water for 24 hours, before being mixed with fibres taken from old sheets. The paste is squeezed and the water extracted from it; each 100g is treated with 500ml of a two per cent concentration of ‘Klussel G’ substance which facilitates the cohesiveness of the fibers. Each treatment is mixed fresh, in order to ensure maximum absorption.

We have tested two methods of procedure: the first is to spread the paste over the margins of the sheet then to block the small and larger perforations; the second is to place the paste in a plastic syringe and to inject each perforation.

A feature of these two experiments is the amazing speed and ease with which the paste can be removed if the need should arise.

However, we observed that the first method gave rise to some stretching in the paper because of thickening caused by spreading the paste over all the edges thus we settled on the second method.


The binding workshop was furnished with all the necessary equipment and materials to ensure successful conservation using traditional methods. Contact was made with specialist workshops in many countries to obtain appropriate acid-free leather, as new methods have been developed in leather preparation that were not known in Tunisia To date, 60 books have been rebound; more than 1,000 need similar treatment. Thus it would take more than 50 years to complete the work at the present rate. As a preliminary step the manuscripts were bound or encased in acid-free cardboard until they could be bound.

The laboratory contains instruments for measuring acid content. The laboratory can take precise photographs of the manuscript using infra-red and ultra-violet microscopes.

The manuscripts have been placed in a storage room in which humidity and heat can be monitored over a long period The humidity in Kairouan varies between 25 and 85 per cent, whilst the average temperature ranges between 7 and 35°C, reaching 45 degrees in August and dropping to two degrees in winter. It is possible to adjust this according to outside temperature and humidity, thus maintaining a good level of humidity, between 55 and 60 per cent, seldom going above 70 per cent, with the temperature ranging between 18 and 25°C. These ranges are in keeping with those approved by specialists in manuscript conservation and preservation.

Regulating humidity and temperature in the storage room is a most delicate operation as it directly affects the expansion and stretching of manuscripts. To prevent this, an experiment was undertaken in which the manuscript was placed in two boxes securely scaled against any exposure to changes in temperature or moisture that would substantially affect its well-being. The experiment proved that this method can be adopted in the Kairouan collection during the summer season only, when it is effective in reducing the temperature by 2°C, thus saving us from resorting to air-conditioning on a large scale and avoiding the detrimental effect this has on the manuscripts In addition, in an attempt to combat all kinds of insects and bacteria, the shelves and all the contents are cleaned every six months.

The Kairouan manuscripts' conservation project is just over seven years old and is still considered one of the pioneering projects of its kind in our country and has achieved lasting results.

Our foundation is the only one in the Maghreb that has succeeded in establishing a conservation laboratory of the highest technical specification. The young experts who have been trained in Germany are considered to be among the best practising in the specialised field of Qur͗ān conservation and restoration, a view endorsed by European experts and others. However, because the amount of material is so large, we must redouble our efforts to save our manuscript heritage from being lost. Because the team which has been formed is small, it will be difficult to conserve the considerable amount of material within 50 years, despite the hopes of the centre to treat all the significant manuscripts in Tunisia, whether in private or public collections. This is a problem which affects many Arab Islamic centres specialising in manuscript conservation.

I believe we should consider focusing on creating three or four specialised institutes in different Islamic countries to train young people to become rigorous experts in a particular specialist field instead of setting up lightweight training courses.


The Kairouan Library has not had sufficient attention in the area of cataloguing and publishing because of the confused nature of some of as material, as well as its inherent difficulty Likewise, the Kairouan Library is distinguished more by its value as cultural heritage than its scholarly value. It is most regrettable that throughout an entire century no catalogue of the Kairouan Library has been printed. However, the Centre for the Study of Civilisation and Islamic Arts has now addressed the matter and has appointed specialists in three different areas: (1) documents, (2) early works on jurisprudence written on parchment, and (3) relatively modern manuscript books. A standard cataloguing form has been prepared for this purpose.

This team was disbanded after two years, as we were unable to renew the affiliation of the specialists of the Centre We could only keep the best-qualified and most experienced of them, al-Ṣādiq al-Ghariyānī, who had worked in the National Library during the 1950s. Our aim has been to catalogue the collection selectively, emphasising the documentary significance of the extant copies Technical features of binding, as well as information relating to the quality of script, waqf dedications and marks of ownership are also given, all of which are of use to art historians and other researchers in pinpointing the dates at which particular centres of writing flourished. Thus, the cultural history of our country will be preserved. This is something which has been ignored up to now, as the names of ancient collections and libraries have disappeared as part of an unjust campaign to falsify history and to sever our cultural roots.

Despite these difficulties, all the documents have been catalogued, as well as 90 per cent of the old library and 1,920 titles out of a collection of 2,350 in the other libraries. We intend to sign an agreement with the German Research Association, in co-operation with the University of Berlin, to complete and publish the work.

A predominantly antiquarian interest in the ancient library of Kairouan has not prevented the examination of some of its treasures and the publication of studies in this field; the following unique3 manuscripts have been edited:

Adab al-Qāḍī wa-l-QuḍāhAl-Haytham b. Sulaymān d. 310 AH.Farḥāt al-Nashrawāwī
Al-Radd ͑alá al-Imām al-Shāfi͑īMuḥammad bin Muḥ. B. … al-Labbād 333 AH/944 AD͑Abd al-Majīd b. Ḥamdah
Al-TaṣārīfYaḥyá b. SallāmHind Shalabī
Sijill Qadīm li maktabat Jāmi͑ al-Kairouan Ibrahim Chabbouh
Muwaṭṭa͗ Mālik(Related by) ͑Alī b. Ziyād d.183 AH/828 ADMuḥammad al-Shādhilī al-Nayfar
Kitāb al-Muḥārabah min al-Muwaṭṭa͗͑Abd Allah b. WahbMiklos Mūrānī
Al-Jāmi͑ fī ͑ilm al-Qur͗ān͑Abd Allah b. WahbMiklos Mūrānī

There are also studies which have been published related to the Kairouan Library including one by Miklos Mūrānī concerning the sources of Mālikī jurisprudence and Ibn al­Mājishūn, based on the parchments in the Kairouan Library.

The Arab manuscript heritage is a direct and continuing expression of our essential cultural identity. As such, it is more than a record of established historical fact. It is 'the past' with its history and civilisation and its doctrinal content. It is the root of 'the present' with its principles, concepts, and its spiritual warmth. And with all the knowledge and creativity and values which it embraces, it is a field that reflects the movement and impact of time and experiences, because it is, quite simply, a human accomplishment. This formidable written heritage also records the history of the development of thought, and in this sense, it is a true indication of the relationship of thought to the present needs of our society. This thought has alternated between opposites throughout its long journey, going from clarity, illumination, precision and perspicacity, to inaccessibility and alienation. This is due to the changing nature of intellectual systems and concepts, and to the varying extent to which different societies grasp the aim of knowledge.

Source note:
This article was published in the following book:
The Conservation and Preservation of Islamic Manuscripts, Proceedings of the third conference of Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, 18th-19th November 1995 - English version, 1995, Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, UK, pp. 29-47.

Please note that some of the images used in this online version of this article might not be part of the published version of this article within the respective book.

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