Editorial Essay

The project

"Bringing together so many riches offers the promise and opportunity for research and discovery"

In March 2016, on the initiative of my predecessor, Bruno Racine, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and seven heritage and research libraries in Cairo, Alexandria, Beirut, Istanbul and Jerusalem (a ninth library, SALT, joined in 2017) decided to create this site, with the shared ambition to reveal the permanence and wealth of the scientific, intellectual and interreligious exchanges within the Near and Middle East and between this region and Europe.

“Libraries of the Middle East” is the result of this ambition, confirmed and backed up by the Scientific Avisory Board which it was decided to bring together in order to explore this subject in all its scope and complexity. Over twenty specialists associated with teams from the BnF and project partners have contributed to the creation of this digital library to make of it a source of knowledge and inspiration for all, particularly researchers, educators and students, whose use of it is part of the core founding missions and values of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. More generally, it is itended for all those who want to broaden their understanding of this region of the world, in its historic depth, so as better to grasp current events.

Besides the inherent interest in constituting coherent documentary and iconographic collections, bringing together so many riches offers the promise and opportunity for research and discovery, as described by Jacqueline Chabbi and Rémy Arcemisbéhère in the pages they have written for this site. The fact that, right from the moment of its creation, “Libraries of the Middle East” incited so many revelations and such a desire to establish rapprochements, comparisons and new analyses, is a great satisfaction for us, a motive for pride and an encouragement, communicated to us by the scholarly world, to continue along this road that has now been opened up.

With almost 7,000 documents from nine libraries available online at the date of its lauching, “Libraries of the Middle Rast” is the first step in the project. The geographical scope covers the Levant, Iraq and Arabia Petrea. The timeframe extends over a century and a half of history, from 1798, with the Expedition of Bonaparte to Egypt – standing as the first act in a direct European presence in the Ottoman Empire, if we exclude the “Capitulations” – until 1945.

Relationships with France, from the easiest to the most controversial, constitute the main backdrop, and are examined in over eighty contributions written by recognised specialists and doctoral students, all of them translated into Arabic and English. To make the whole more limpid, the site has been organised into seven themes. 

The first of them is “Crossroads”. Much room has been given to sites: cities, of course, such as Alexandria or Constantinople (Istanbul), but also crossing points, journeys, and "expositions universelles". The richness of “communities” is then illustrated by some exceptional albums and collections of oriental costumes conserved in the Department of Stamps and Photography of the BnF, which attracted the admiration of western travellers.

The discovery of ancient Egypt, the development of Oriental archaeology, and the acquaintance with Oriental languages and cultures are all essential themes, which are dealt with in the "Knowledge” section. “Imaginary” then completes this itinerary, with architecture, photographers, the Thousand and One Nights and writers.

The Orient, inseparable from the construction of the West, also became inseparable from the history of French literature. This notion is developed in “the writers’ Orient”, directed by Sophie Basch, which is illustrated by the narratives of Chateaubriand, Lamartine, Nerval, Gautier, Flaubert, Gobineau, Loti, Barrès and, by extension, the novels and poems of Balzac, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.

The Orient of “religions” on the other hand provides the opportunity to celebrate unique and rare foundational texts. In this section, the public will discover Hebrew manuscripts, recently digitized as part of a large-scale cooperation between the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the National Library of Israel, several Qurans, conserved in the Department of Manuscripts of the BnF, and originally from prestigious collections, or else works and objects illustrating the life of the Eastern Christians.

This rich series of digitized documents, as well as some of the works and objects that make it up, were displayed exceptionally during the exhibition "Chrétiens d’Orient, 2000 ans d’histoires" presented at the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) from 26 September 2017 to 14 January 2018, then at the MUba of Tourcoing, from 17 February to 5 June 2018. I should like to thank the President of the IMA, Jack Lang, and the Minister of the Budget and Public Accounts and Mayor of Tourcoing, Gérald Darmanin, as well as their teams, for the interest they have shown in this project.

The site “Libraries of the Middle East” will expand by adding new documents as of 2018 so as to deepen or develop certain themes which are currently under-represented. The collaborative aspect of this site also means that it is possible to envision new contributions, above all on political issues, a theme Henri Laurens has accepted to take charge of, so as to complete the material on the campaign to Egypt, the Franco-Syrian Treaty of 1936 and the rise of nationalisms.

At the same time, more documents will be digitized in the collections of our current partners, but also by new French and foreign partners who have shared with us their desire to join this great joint endeavour.

As a valorisation project and research tool, this site is also intended to display the solidarity of the BnF with heritage currently under threat. It guarantees the safeguarding of the documents digitized in the framework of the project by using quality standards identical to those used by the BnF for national collections. What is more, prior to digitization the BnF has also contributed to restoration work. Following works on the manuscripts of Timbuktu, in which the BnF has been involved since 2013 alongside UNESCO, this new project contributes to safeguarding religious heritage under threat in Iraq and Syria. Two Syriac liturgical volumes from the 11th and 7th centuries, as well as two Gospels from the 14th and 16th centuries, conserved in Lebanon, have also been restored and digitized with the financial support of our sponsors, the Fondation Total and Plastic Omnium, along with the participation of the Œuvre d’Orient.

With this project, the BnF and its partners are upkeeping their mission of cooperation, conservation and research, and contribute to implementing the Abu Dhabi Declaration (3 Decembre 2016) made during the Conference on Safeguarding Endangered Cultural Heritage: “As a mirror of mankind, a guardian of our collective memory and a witness to the extraordinary creative spirit of humanity, world cultural heritage represents the foundation of our common future.”

It is also in this spirit and with this conviction that the BnF has initiated its “Shared Heritages” programme. Safeguarding exceptional documents, making them accessible anywhere and to anyone, while understanding them better in the light of the most recent research, such is our ambition for “Libraries of the Middle East” as it was for the projects that we previously developed with Brazil, Japan and Poland. As a digital BnF collection, “Shared Heritages” was conceived to safeguard and disseminate these treasures. It is now offering its fourth opus with “Libraries of the Middle East”, which I am sure will provide one and all with a thousand and one del

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