When they burn libraries

This picture shows the catastrophe of the destruction of the National Library of Sarajevo in 1992, in which some 1.2 million books went up in flames due to sustained shelling by Serb nationalist forces.

The destruction of the library was a metonym1 for the wider eradication of Muslim culture from the Balkans. ‘By 1993, one thousand mosques had been damaged or destroyed’ in Bosnia and countless Muslim cemeteries, burial monuments and mausoleums ‘bulldozed and covered over by parks and parking lots’. When Fisk wrote at the time, ‘They are murdering the dead as well as the living’, he could just as well have said this about the wilful targeting of libraries with rare manuscripts in Ottoman Turkish, Bosnian, Arabic and Persian. Among these was Sarajevo’s Oriental Institute, about which Rebecca Knuth writes, ‘By shelling Sarajevo’s Oriental Institute in 1992, the Serbs destroyed the largest collection of Islamic and Jewish manuscripts and Ottoman documents in Southeast Europe’. She quotes one writer as saying that over the four years from 1992 to 1995 the number of documents destroyed in historical archives and local registry offices would have filled a row of document storage boxes more than 300 miles long! 2The National Library itself included collections in South Slavonic languages, in Church Slavonic, in Latin, Hebrew, Spanish, Russian, German, Italian, Turkish, Arabic and Persian. To top it all, Radovan Karadzic claimed the Muslims had burned down their own library because ‘They never liked that library building…It is a Christian building’.

But of course it cannot be said that the fascists of any single nationality have a monopoly over the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of libraries. In 1943 the Nazis had ‘soaked each room of the Royal Society Library in Naples with gasoline and ignited them by throwing in hand grenades’, destroying about 200,000 books and manuscripts, ostensibly in retaliation for the shooting of a German soldier (Knuth, Libricide, p.53). More recently, in 2013, Islamist insurgents retreating from Timbuktu in Mali ‘set fire to a library containing thousands of priceless historic manuscripts’, according to the mayor of the town. The vast majority of those were in Arabic, others in Songhai, Tamashek and Bambara, showing just how much the self-styled protagonists of Islam (in this case, AQIM, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) care for the heritage of Islam itself.

While we’re at it, here’s a clarification of the historical record on the destruction of libraries. In the late 12th century it began to be said that the ancient library of Alexandria was destroyed by the Arabs during the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the early 640s. But this is pure fiction. Both the great libraries that made up the famous Alexandria library had disappeared centuries before the Islamic conquests. The Royal Library (founded by Ptolemy I Soter early in the third century BC) was destroyed by fire in 48 BC, in the war between Caesar and Ptolemy XIII, while the Serapeum library, built later to accommodate the overflow of books from there, disappeared in a fit of communal frenzy unleashed by Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria, in 391, when his mobs attacked the temple, which, it is reported, was ‘destroyed to its foundations’ along with the famous library it housed. The Serapeum or temple library had been described (by the late fourth century Greek sophist Aphthonius) as containing study-rooms ‘open to those who devoted their life to the cause of learning’, because of which Alexandria had built its reputation as the leading philosophical centre in the Roman empire. Between them the two libraries are thought to have contained something in the region of over half a million books or rolls.

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Jairus Banaji Written by:

Jairus Banaji is a well-known historian and Marxist intellectual

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