By Kaamil Ahmed
The gold-embellished pages of an Ottoman-era Quran and an illustrated book of poetry about the 12th century Muslim conqueror of Jerusalem Salahuddin Ayyubi, written just years after his death, are some of the most cherished possessions on the shelves of the Khalidi family's library.
Nestled in a corner of Jerusalem’s Old City along a centuries-old artery leading to both the Muslim and Jewish holy sites -- and a stone's throw from a checkpoint once manned by the British and now by Israeli police -- the library houses thousands of rare manuscripts that have spent the last 50 years locked away.
The family is now trying to revive a century-old commitment to sharing the literary treasures with the public by taking part in a project to digitize all 2,000 titles.
"Generation after generation, the custodians of the library have done their best to preserve the collection," Raja Khalidi, a Palestinian economist and one of the library's custodians, tells Anadolu Agency.
"There was a librarian here all the time. It had regular opening hours, the sheikhs of Al-Aqsa and other scholars would come to consult this or that manuscript, so it was a functioning public library as it was intended by its founders. But since 1967, obviously, it's been under threat," says Khalidi.
The library opened to the public in 1900 after family members bequeathed their private collections to a public trust, but its doors have been locked since Israel occupied East Jerusalem during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
The building lies on the south side of the Chain Gate Road, which essentially forms the boundary between the Old City's Muslim and Jewish quarters.
Khalidi says that, apart from the fear of books being confiscated, there was also worry that its location could lead to the building itself being expropriated after 1967 -- especially after the floor above the library was converted into a Jewish religious school.
But with all the contents now in digitized format, the family is more confident about preserving the manuscripts and raising their profile by sharing them online with the general public.
The work was done by Shaima Budeiri, a lifetime Old City resident who has also revived her own family's library and a smaller collection belonging to the Bukhari family, the descendants of Sufi pilgrims from Uzbekistan.
Both libraries are situated close to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, hinting at the prominence their founders enjoyed to have quarters so close Islam's third holiest site.
Altogether, Budeiri has scanned 2 million pages from the weathered collections -- an invigorating departure for someone who studied accounting at university.
"When I work with the manuscripts, I feel energized because they belonged to my great-grandfather," she says.
The worn, discolored turban worn by the man behind the collection, Jerusalemite noble Sheikh Muhammad bin Budeir, crowns his tomb, which lies proudly on the periphery of the Al-Aqsa courtyards.
Near the tomb is a family tree that traces the family’s roots back to Sheikh Budeir, who was originally from North Africa but who settled in Jerusalem after studying at Cairo's famed Al-Azhar university.
It was her family that dragged Budeiri, unwillingly at first, into working with manuscripts. She only took on the task because she thought she would enjoy working with her cousins.
Initially, the manuscripts were of little interest to anyone -- a part of the family's legacy that they protected but kept boxed up and locked away.
"I would go to the room, look at a couple of boxes of manuscripts and then just lock the door and go upstairs," she recalls.
That changed after Budeiri went to a workshop run by the West Bank’s Al-Quds University on handling archived material. She returned intrigued about what exactly her family had been guarding for two centuries.
"I started with one box; I started work on them. I took the books and tried to read them, going through each page. Immediately, I was interested," she says.
Budeiri shows no hesitation when pointing out the library's most precious item -- a study in Islamic jurisprudence written by 11th-century Persian scholar Imam Ghazali, who famously left his life of respectability in Baghdad for seclusion in Al-Aqsa.
It is a book of Islamic science, rather than spirituality, but its texts are artfully draped in the same kinds of gold ink and rich blues as the Ottoman-era Quran in the Khalidiyyah library.
The revival has been supported by the U.S.-based Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML), which had already started work on manuscripts kept in St. Mark’s Syriac Orthodox Monastery in the Old City's Armenian Quarter.
HMML Executive Director Father Columba Stewart says putting the manuscripts online will have a major impact on how historians document Jerusalem by brining Christian and Islamic material together, thus allowing a comprehensive overview of the city's intellectual history.
"The traditional users of these libraries were Palestinians from the West Bank who are no longer permitted to visit Jerusalem because of the Israeli separation barrier," Stewart tells Anadolu Agency.
"The manuscripts have been cut off from their readers, even if they are not separated by a significant distance," he adds. "Now, experts at universities in the West Bank -- and around the world -- will have instant access to these historic collections.”
Khalidi says he has already seen a Harvard professor "falling over himself" in excitement when viewing the collections, which -- alongside rare manuscripts -- also include official Ottoman-era correspondences and family archives.
By next year, he says, they hope to finally reopen the library building itself as an exhibition space to "tell the story of the written word in Jerusalem; how it's been developed and how it's being preserved”.