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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Discovering A Cultural Delight

by Julia Wheeler

Scholars and students of Arabic Culture can access any of the Center's books, manuscripts and documents for further study
Part of the comprehensive selection of books written in English about Arabia, including British Government records for the region

The Juma Al-Majid Centre for Culture and Heritage, must be one of Duba's best kept secrets. This center of Islamic and Arabic learning is unique, combining as it does, scholarship and preservation. It is truly one of the treasures of Dubai. 

Deira is hiding a secret. In fact, one particular building in Deira hides plenty of secrets. It is home to hundreds of thousands of items that offer clues to the past and the way our ancestors conducted their lives.

Altogether, there are around half a million individual documents, manuscripts, books and other items in the vaults of the Juma Al-Majid Centre for Culture and Heritage. Nestled just behind Salah-Al Din Al Ayoub Road, the Centre is a true treasure for anyone interested in finding out about the history of this part of the world - or further afield.

Collections of this caliber do not simply ‘appear’ overnight and Dubai is no exception. In fact it developed from the personal hobby of its founder, Juma Al-Majid. He began seeking out and collecting interesting books and documents on his travels. They were originally kept in his house, but as the collection became larger and larger in the early 1980’s it was moved into a formal library, taking up just a small part of what was later to become a huge resource for the city. From the early days, the collection has always centered around is Islamic heritage, civilization and history. Today all those can be found in abundance in the form of documents, newspapers, periodicals, manuscripts, microfiche, microfilm books and video footage. The language of most is Arabic, but there are also texts in English and Persian.

Some of these go back a thousand years. A number of originals are written on animal skin rather than paper. Many concern Islamic law and jurisprudence, others center on science, mathematics and medicine in the Arab world.

Ancient copies of the Holy Koran are kept secure in locked safes. Intricately inlaid with gold and cobalt blue script and patterns, some of these go back hundreds of years and they come from all over the Islamic world. One hexagonal-shaped copy is just a few centimeters long and originated in Persian another in Kashmiri, yet another is from Samarkand.

Over six thousand of the manuscripts are original documents. Some are rare in their own right, others can be found in libraries or museums around the world, but not in their entirety. Take the ‘Description d’ Egypt’ made during Napoleon’s journeys in the Arab world. Its volumes contain intricate and detailed drawings by an army of the French leader’s artists and cover all aspects of life in Egypt at the time. Published in 1823 and printed in Paris, these volumes document everything from dress and costume to the work of different craftsmen. Although libraries in other parts of the world may hold individual volumes, few have been able to acquire the complete set of 12 volume and accompanying descriptions. They are here in Dubai.

Teams from the Culture and Heritage Centre travel around the world to search out new records and resources for researches and enthusiasts here. The accent is always on quality rather than quantity. Many of the documents that the experts have the opportunity to procure, may not add greatly to the collection, because they have been interpreted in other works or they are repeated in a great many places. Others are one of a kind. It is these that make Dubai’s collection so special.

Many of the original manuscripts are transferred by the Juma Al-Majid teams onto microfilm and brought back. One of the most recent acquisitions of this kind came from St Petersburg. This group of manuscripts contains Arabic Islamic documents from the former Soviet Republics, many of which have a rich heritage of this kind.

The Centre has also acquired Islamic manuscripts from Sarejevo in Bosnia. Many such documents were lost during the war in the Balkans, but copies of others are now safe in the vaults of the Centre.

As well as making copies of precious documents for students and scholars to use, a large part of the work carried out concerns the reclamation of original manuscripts and books. Often they arrive in a state of disrepair, torn, damaged by water or nibbled by bookworms.

The room used for restoration resembles a scientific laboratory; highly trained specialists dressed in white coats are bent over backlit tables and concentrating hard. In their hands are the kinds of sharp instruments more commonly associated with a hospital operating theatre; they are repairing the often-tattered pages of ancient books and manuscripts.

On the wall of the laboratory are a series of ‘before and after’ pages from documents that have already been treated. The ‘before’ are tatty and holed and it is only when you see the process yourself that you realize that these examples are genuine comparisons.

The Juma Al-Majid Centre has built a special machine to repair holes in the manuscripts. It means that a process, which previously took many hours – perhaps as long as a day – is now accomplished in just eight minutes. The manuscripts are placed on silk over which a flat grid is placed, and then it is covered with water into which a liquefied form of paper is poured. Just minutes later (and really quite miraculously) the pages may be damp and soggy but they are no longer full of holes. After drying, they are then ready to be trimmed and bound – and they are back in a good state of repair and ready for reading.

The binding of these antiques is a profession in itself, as is the ‘marbling’, which is also carried out at the Centre. This process is used for both the inside and the outside covers of books, for protection and decoration. Using only natural pigment – no chemicals- so as to recreate the original coloring, and traditional tools made of rosewood and horsehair, unique pages of intricate swirling patterns are created. They later add the finishing touches to a text’s restored pages.

The continued accumulation and restoration of ancient and more recent documents, manuscripts and texts means the collection is growing all the time. The Centre is planning to move to purpose built premises within the next few years on the bur Dubai side of the Creek. The treasure may no longer be Diera’s hidden secret, but a treasure it remains.

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