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Libraries as Victims of Global Conflict Through History: The sufferings of knowledge as a soft target of war and why we should protect it
According to the Arab Encyclopaedia, the world’s first libraries were discovered by the archaeological excavations in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. Historical studies indicate that the Sumerians established the world’s first library, called ‘The Big House of Tablets’ featuring a multitude of clay tablets, while libraries established in ancient Egypt were called ‘the place to nurture one’s soul’, and ‘The Hall of Writing’.
The early history of libraries unveils a strong relationship with the concept of civilization in ancient societies. The establishment of libraries meant that civilisations existed and left their legacies for future generations, setting the biggest milestone in human history, that is, marking the end of prehistory and the start of human history itself. Humanity is indebted to Sumerians for the invention of writing, and to ancient Egypt’s knowledge of science and other disciplines.
Libraries: Historical Biographies of Civilisations
The relationship between libraries and civilisations is manifested by the history of humanity’s oldest library. Historical findings point towards the fact that many libraries existed many millenniums BC, and others existed in the first and second century AD. The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal (668–627 BC) is named after Ashurbanipal, the last great emperor of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in Mesopotamia (now Iraq). It features a collection of thousands of clay tablets and fragments containing texts of all kinds from the 7th century BC, including the famous Epic of Gilgamesh.
Historians and scholars argued about the founder of The Ancient Library of Alexandria (285–247 BC). Some historians suggested that Alexander the Great made it part of his planning as he developed the city of Alexandria, so it was his idea. Others confirmed that it was established by Ptolemy I, while a few argued that it was Ptolemy II since he was the one who completed it, because while Ptolemy I ordered the construction of the library, it was opened during the reign of his successor Ptolemy II.
The Ancient Library of Pergamum (159–197 BC) was a significant library in the Hellenistic age. It tells the story of the city of Pergamos, also known as Pergamum, one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire. Located in Anatolia (now in Turkey), it had more than 200,000 volumes, and historians claim that it possessed a large main reading room with the statue of Athena standing in the middle, and was lined with many shelves with empty spaces left between the outer walls to allow air circulation and prevent high humidity.
Wars and Armed Conflicts: Libraries Pronounced Burnt
The strong connection between the advancement and superiority of a civilisation and its reservoir of knowledge led to libraries being often targeted in wars and armed conflict. Big wars were fought not to kill certain people, but to destroy rival civilisations and erase their legacy from the world’s history. The destruction of libraries, architectural landmarks, museums, castles and forts defined the scale of winning and losing, and a victory banner raised over the ruins.
Many massacres were committed against knowledge and libraries by demolishing and burning them. Studies and researches point out a long list of destroyed libraries in the old and modern ages alike because of wars. In 473 AD, the last big library in the ancient world was burnt with the beginning of Christian Europe. Christians were the new force in Europe and saw Hellenistic culture as pagan. As a result, they burnt the Imperial Library of Constantinople in the intellectual capital of the Byzantine Empire. The library lost 120,000 volumes of ancient Greek and Romans books preserved for a thousand years, and was destroyed by many fires and wars before falling to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 AD.
The House of Wisdom library was founded by Caliph Harun al-Rashid and was culminated in prominence under his son al-Ma’mun. Based in Baghdad, Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars studied in the House that featured humanities and sciences of medieval Islam, including chemistry, medicine, mathematics, philosophy, literature and translations of Greek, Syriac, Indian and Persian texts. It also had an astronomical observatory to check Claudius Ptolemy’s observations and studies, and many translators stayed in the house.
The House of Wisdom library was completely destroyed, along with 36 other public libraries, by the Mongols who invaded Baghdad. They threw more than 300,000 volumes into Tigris, a river whose currents ran black because of the books’ ink dissolving in its water. The Mongols wiped out some of the great literature of Arabs and Muslims.
History was seen repeating itself in the 20th century. The story of the National Library of Serbia can be safely termed a modern example of this historic act of destruction of knowledge. The German army destroyed the library during the First World War in 1941, bombing it with incendiary bombs. Hitler’s fire destroyed 350,000 volumes, a collection of Cyrillic and manuscripts, archives of Turkish documents, a collection of old maps, prints, items, journals, newspaper titles, printed since 1832. The overall loss was estimated at 2.6 million books.
History raises many questions about the future of the world’s largest libraries. Can these libraries be lost in a war or an armed struggle? How can we measure humanity’s loss if libraries such as the Library of Congress, the British Library or the Library of Stuttgart were destroyed? What are the solutions offered by international organisations to protect world’s libraries in time of war?
Fear of Loss of Knowledge: Protecting Cultural Property
After all the wars and fighting that the world went through, humanity seems to be more aware of the importance of cultural heritage and human knowledge. Today, we see international organisations holding global conferences that call for preserving the intellectual heritage of any civilisation as a World Heritage Site that should be protected by all means, while indicting anyone who tries to destroy it.
The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was signed on 14 May 1954. It marked the beginning of a new era as a consequence to the massive destruction of the cultural heritage in the Second World War. It comprised a number of protocols that oblige parties to respect, protect and maintain cultural heritage in times of peace, wars and occupation. The protocols form an invaluable opportunity to protect the history of humanity and human knowledge from perishing, and ensure that libraries will always be the inerasable memory of human development.