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A Vast Archive, Long Closed, Opens Its Doors Again In Jerusalem

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

In the heart of Jerusalem's Old City, a few yards away from the iconic Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall, stands the Khalidi library. The century-old private collection contains about 2000 manuscripts on Islamic theology, philosophy and more. But the library has been closed for nearly 50 years. Now it's finally set to reopen to the public. Dalia Hatuqa has more.

DALIA HATUQA, BYLINE: It's half past noon in the Old City of Jerusalem and the call to prayer is summoning worshipers to the al-Aqsa mosque, one of Islam's holiest sites.

To get to the mosque in time for midday prayers, a group of men hurries past the barricades set up just outside what looks like an old stone home. The two-story Khalidi library is named after a prominent Palestinian family from Jerusalem. Around the turn of the 20th century, Hajj Raghib al-Khalidi, an Islamic judge, established the library. Today, it's run by a handful of professional staff and three guardians, or mutawalis, from the Khalidi family. Raja Khalidi, a U.S.-born 58-year-old former economist who lives in Jerusalem, is one of them.

RAJA KHALIDI: The collection that was put together by Hajj Raghib 110 years ago - more than that, 115 years ago now - is today composed of approximately 1900 Arabic manuscripts on different themes, many of them are really religious - theology, Qurans. A lot of it are literature of various sorts - philosophy et cetera, the sort of things that people 500, 400 years ago were putting to paper. And it is the - today - the largest private manuscript collection in Jerusalem.

HATUQA: Those books and manuscripts were acquired and passed down by Khalidi judges, parliamentarians, civil servants and scholars throughout the centuries. Dr. John Woods teaches Middle Eastern history and languages at the University of Chicago. He says the library provides a window into the lives of Jerusalem's Palestinian elite before the establishment of Israel.

JOHN WOODS: It gives you a picture of what the culture of a very educated person would be like. It would be very - much more comprehensive than what we think of today, that people knew these languages and were able to read classics and Persian literature or important Ottoman texts or whatever in these original languages. And these books were valuable. These manuscripts were valuable to them, and they collected them.

HATUQA: The library's oldest manuscript is a volume on early Islamic history that dates back to the 10th century. Many of the books here are gilded with intricately-designed covers. Librarian Khader Salama says those who read the books often wrote notes in the pages' margins or corners.

KHADER SALAMA: (Through interpreter) From the notes they scribbled, one is able to gain insight into the cultural movement in Palestine throughout different centuries.

HATUQA: Salama reads a handwritten incantation.

SALAMA: (Through interpreter) Back then, they believed that such things warded off parasites from books. This shows us that people at the time believed in the power of such invocations.

HATUQA: In this case, it didn't work. The page on which that was written has been damaged by paper-eating parasites. The library itself closed in 1967, shortly after the Six-Day War, when Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem, taking over the entire Old City where the library's located. Now the Khalidis feel it's time to reopen.

The staff has started digitizing the collection for easy access to anyone interested. But reopening the library has not been an easy process, says Raja Khalidi.

KHALIDI: Turning in something which was designed for the late 19th century and making it more than just a monument is really, I think, the biggest challenge. And reaching out to the community - not only the specialist Islamic scholars community but also the Jerusalem community, the Old City community, will have to be a major element in the renewal of this institution and in reinventing it in many ways. How do you make something like this relevant to today's generation? And that's really a big problem.

HATUQA: And that's why the library will be holding workshops to teach bookbinding, calligraphy and manuscript restoration to encourage younger Palestinians to become more involved in preserving their centuries-old culture. For NPR News, I'm Dalia Hatuqa in Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.