The restoration of manuscripts in Morocco

Share this:

Mohamed Bencherifa

There is no doubt that the Muslims attained a high degree of versatility and mastery in the production of manuscripts, as is demonstrated in the diversity of works which they devoted to this fine and noble art. Throughout the history of Islam, Muslim scholars composed magnificent works concerning every aspect of the craft, including paper, ink, pens and calligraphy, binding, copying, collation and preservation, and storage.

We must be grateful that a considerable number of these works have been handed down to us, some printed and others still in manuscript form.

The art of the manuscript continued to exist throughout the Islamic world, thriving at times and dwindling at others, until the emergence of printing when the world moved from handwriting to the printed word. The Muslims had no choice but to enter into this new world.

The Muslims entered this new world with a vast heritage or legacy of manuscripts from the earliest Islamic writing to the beginning of the 14th century AH. This great legacy became a sizeable gain in terms of value, and a heavy burden in terms of responsibility. It happened, by the will of God, that non-Muslims shouldered some of the burden, a situation that has been described by the Glorious Qur͗ān: "For We shall charge thee with a work of weight" (Qur͗ān LXXIII: 5).

This Arab Islamic manuscript heritage is indeed now considered one of the burdens Arab Islamic countries must shoulder through preservation and conservation, microfilming and restoration, and investment. Foundations have been set up to meet these demands at many levels individual and national, Arab, Islamic, and international, and to share this burden, especially in the fields of cataloguing and microfilming and creating the facilities for these two activities. It will suffice here to indicate briefly what UNESCO, and ALESCO and ISESCO have set up.

Also, had Ma͑had al-Makhṭūṭāt al-͑Arabīya (the Institute of Arabic Manuscripts) continued with the same energy with which it started, the state of manuscripts in the Arab world would be far better. But there is a ray of hope for saving the manuscripts with the charitable institutions such as Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation in London, the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, and the Juma al-Majid Centre in Dubai. These institutions, and others, are currently making laudable efforts for the sake of the manuscript heritage through collecting, microfilming, restoring, editing, publishing, and training. The huge responsibility of saving the manuscript heritage lies first in the high quality photography of complete texts. The second task is to establish and equip suitable centres for manuscript restoration, before cataloguing uncatalogued materials, particularly those contained in constituent collections such as the Public Library of Rabat. All of this work is the responsibility of national libraries and the local authorities concerned. There is no doubt that the aim of these measures is to publish this heritage, prioritised by the relative importance of the work.

The libraries in the Islamic world generally, and in the Arab world in particular, are full of manuscripts including ones that are ancient, valuable and unique, and sometimes priceless. But often their condition is cause for alarm.

I should like to take the opportunity to speak about some of the libraries in Morocco, based on my modest experience of reading in them and of being in charge of them. Some of these libraries have evolved over a period of 1,000 years or so, such as the Qarawīyīn library in Fez and the Ibn Yūsuf library of Marrakesh. I became familiar with the latter when, as a student, I was studying the curriculum of Arab and Islamic sciences at the Ibn Yūsuf mosque. This library was stored in the mosque and I became more familiar with it when I came to Dār al-Bāshā. I spent a whole year at the Qarawīyīn library as director.

Before I speak about this experience, I would like to give a brief account of the historical origins of the two libraries, the Qarawīyīn and Ibn Yūsuf, as well as other Moroccan libraries. History books and the information available concerning these two libraries and others have enabled some scholars to write the history of the libraries in Morocco. These scholars include the late Muḥammad al-͑Ābid al-Fāsī the author of al-Khizanah al-͑Ilmīyah bi-l-Maghrib (1960), and Muḥammad al-Manūnī, the author of Dūr al-Kutub fī māḍī al-Maghrib, still in manuscript form. There are two dissertations published in French: the first by Laṭīfah Benjalloun al-͑Arwī, entitled, Les bibliothèques au Maroc (1990), and the second by Ahmed Chouqui Binebine entitled, Histoire des bibliothèques au Maroc (1992). In the catalogue of the Ibn Yūsuf Library there is an historical introduction to the library by al-Ṣādiq Bil͑arabī. There are also introductions to the Nāṣirīyah Library in Tamgrout and the library Ḥamzāwīyah Zāwīyah, both written in their respective catalogues by Muḥammad al-Manūnī. There is also the introduction which Muḥammad al-Fāsī wrote to his articles on the Sulṭānīyah Library, some of the precious contents of which were published in Majallat al-Baḥth al-͑Ilmī and what Muḥammad ͑Abd Allāh ͑Inān wrote in the introduction to the first volume of the catalogues of the Royal Library.

Morning comes and evening goes and years and centuries follow in succession, leaving their negative mark on the manuscripts of the Moroccan libraries, or rather on what remains after the ravages of time and civil strife. The passing of time is only one of the many enemies of manuscripts. "After assembling them you must preserve the books. Books are plagued by evils: water floods them, fire burns them; the mouse nibbles them and the thief steals them." One of the most hostile enemies of the book and the most damaging is the bookworm. People in ancient times were at a loss to control it and resorted to charms to arrest the damage. The most famous of them is the talisman ‘Yākīkatj’. We can find this inscription in some of the early or later manuscripts. It was used more widely in the later centuries and is mentioned in Kitāb al-ifādāt wa-l-inshādāt by al-Shāṭibī (8th century AH) and in the supplement which ͑Abd Allāh Kannūn found in al-Ishbīlī's Kitāb al-taysīr. Those who speak about this inscription have held differing views about its spelling and meaning, and generally thought it to be a talisman to preserve the manuscript. Whatever their wondrous secret may be really amounts to what some have described as superstition.

Did the ancients know about preservation techniques and if they did what were they? The answer to the first question is that they did. The second question I will answer by referring to the Moroccan heritage and the Moroccan manuscript catalogues only.

The expression ‘tarmīm’ means Iṣlāḥ (reform, renovation restoration) and in this sense connotes binding. There are fain; allusions made to this primitive concept of restoration in the following Moroccan books:

  1. Kitāb al-taysīr fī ṣinā͑at al-tasfīr by al-Ishbīlī, who lived in Fez and Marrakesh during the era of Ya͑qūb al-Manṣūr al-Muwaḥḥidī, for whom the book was written.
  2. Kitāb al-tuḥfah by al-Qallūsī. This work focuses on black and coloured inks, their composition and characteristics, and their potential for combating insects. It was discussed by Ibrahim Chabbouh, during a previous conference at the Foundation.
  3. Kitāb ṣinā͑at al-tasfīr wa ḥall al-dhahab by Abū al-͑Abbās Aḥmad al-Sufyānī.
  4. Urjūzah (popular poem in the rajaz meter) by Aḥmad ͑Arḍūn on binding in which he says, in his section on lining book covers, "Take great care in making the lining!" In the rest of the poem he warns the binder against using paper on which the Qur͗ān is written. On a more practical level, there is a manuscript text on the voyage of Shaykh Khālid al-Balawī entitled Tāj al-mafriq which was restored by the scholar Ibn Ibrāhīm al-Mashnazā͗ī, who wrote at the end of the work: "The restoration of this copy has been completed after it had deteriorated and was on the verge of being ruined."

Some restoration involves replacing the ancient script destroyed in the manuscript with new writing. We find examples of this in the Qarawīyīn manuscripts in particular, including some in the hand of al-Bū͑azzāwī, curator of the library during the latter part of the last century. Al-͑Ābid al-Fāsī praised his knowledge and restoration work, which consisted of removing damaged pages and replacing them with copies. This system of patching, which was the only method known at the time, was used in a great many manuscripts in this library.

The process of copying ancient manuscripts in their entirety was known and used widely in libraries of the east such as the Egyptian National Library. These repeat copies played a role similar to that of the microfilm in the modern age, in that they were usually given out to readers. However, this copying trend was not widespread. Had it been so, many of the manuscripts which were lost or destroyed would have been saved. In addition, if the curators who came after al-Bū͑azzāwī had at least undertaken to do what he did, the Qarawīyīn manuscripts would not have reached their present state of deterioration.

In the four sections of the catalogue which he compiled for the Qarawīyīn library al-͑Ābid lamented this deterioration. He says, for instance, when describing a manuscript: "Its pages are torn to a regrettable degree" and speaking of another manuscript he says: "The book has been wiped out and is in such a bad state of decay that it is almost unusable." He describes parts of another important manuscript saying: "These parts have faded and deteriorated to an extreme degree." Finally he describes a priceless manuscript saying: "It has been ruined and is virtually useless and only God can save it now." Almost every manuscript is described in such terms; although we should applaud al-͑Ābid's attention to form and content in his detailed catalogue, we might also ask how this library got into such a state.

I will confess to you that I wept when first I entered the Manṣūrīyah Dome, the centre for manuscript preservation. The history of this dome goes back to the era of its founder al-Manṣūr al-Sa͑dī. The shelves inside had perished, so my first task was to move the manuscripts to a secure and hygienic place where they were placed on sound new wooden shelves. I also removed files full of rubbish from the printed books' storeroom to an appropriate place.

Al-Fāsī has pointed to the interest the Kings of Morocco have taken in this library, and enumerated religious bequests of books which were made on behalf of them and their courtiers. He considered the concern shown by the Kings of the ͑Alawī period, especially the most recent of them, with regard to issues of restoration, renovation, renewing, and binding. He also mentioned the royal decrees which they issued on this subject and he named some of the books that were restored in the era of the Sulṭan al-Mawlá ͑Abd al-Raḥmān b. Hishām and his successors. However, periods of concern are sometimes followed by periods of neglect, which inevitably affects the manuscripts.

During the period of the French Protectorate a certain reorganisation took place in the two historical libraries, namely al­Qarawīyīn and Ibn Yūsuf. The manuscripts were collected, sorted and stored. Some were catalogued. Microfilming was unknown at that time. The public libraries of Rabat and Tetuan were founded during the same period, when a great number of manuscripts were collected and preserved.

After independence, manuscripts in Morocco underwent a distinctive change when, for the first time, at the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, a large number of them were microfilmed as part of a national plan, supervised by the Ministry of Education, and with the participation of UNESCO and the Arab League.

These microfilms are stored in the Public Library at Rabat and in Ma͑had al-Makhṭūṭāt al-͑Arabīya in Cairo, and a number of researchers have availed themselves of them. This initial microfilming project was followed by microfilming teams from Ma͑had al-Makhṭūṭāt al-͑Arabīya in Cairo, then from Kuwait, as well as teams from Saudi Arabia. The most recent large undertaking to microfilm manuscripts took place about a year ago with the co-operation of the Juma al-Majid Centre in Dubai.

While I was curator in the Public Library, I considered microfilming the entire corpus of manuscripts deposited in the libraries of Morocco. An agreement was reached on this matter with the Institute of Co-operation with the Arab World and the library took delivery of valuable new photographic and restoration equipment which was installed in a specially designed building. It was also anticipated that the Public Library would obtain a mobile microfilming unit, which might materialise in the future.

I have dwelt on the question of microfilming because I believe that it is the most effective means of saving manuscripts whose condition is deteriorating day by day.

I will end this presentation by pointing out the attempts that we have made in the field of modern preservation.

The first effort, in the early 1960s, involved covering the pages of damaged manuscripts with transparent plastic. This method, which was applied to a collection of valuable manuscripts, appeared to be satisfactory at first but then it became clear that it was harmful to the manuscript. This kind of restoration was undertaken by the binding department in the Public Library at Rabat, which restored almost 100 manuscripts in this way.

The second effort took place between 1982 and 1984 with the help of equipment and an expert from UNESCO. Methods of cleaning, fumigation, and sterilisation were applied. Towards this end, UNESCO provided portable apparatus and chemicals, which were used in the Qarawīyīn Library in Fez and elsewhere. Then this endeavour came to a halt. When I was appointed to the Public Library in 1988, I found the above-mentioned apparatus and containers full of chemicals used for spraying. I stopped their use on the advice of Schwartz and his colleague, two German experts.

The third endeavour, in 1994, was to use the expertise of countries with the most advanced restoration techniques. One such country was Spain, which provided us with the necessary equipment and assisted us with training restorers, either through courses held locally or by receiving delegates at the Instituto de Conservación y Restauración de Bienes Culturales (the Institute of Manuscript Restoration) in Madrid.

The library is still waiting to co-operate with the University of Göttingen, whose delegation paid us a visit three years ago and wrote a report on the subject.

Current efforts in restoration and conservation in some Arab countries are entirely inadequate, considering the huge quantity of manuscripts in need of repair.

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. 21-28.

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.
Back to Top