The historic site of Beit El-Sennari in the Sayeda Zeinab neighbourhood of Cairo received dozens of visitors on Monday 27 May for Arabic Manuscript Day. The idea for the day was sparked by the importance of Arabic manuscripts and their contributions to modern society through science, culture and heritage.
The site of the celebration, Beit El-Sennari, was built in 1794 by Ibrahim Katkhuda El-Sennari, one of Cairene society’s elite. The house also played an important role during the time of the French invasion of Egypt, when it served as a cultural hub for French expeditions in Cairo.
The celebration included an exhibition of different Arabic manuscripts and navigation tools, with a focus on the forgotten manuscripts of Upper Egypt. The day also provided workshops for all ages, including a how-to session on the astrolabe, a sophisticated inclinometer that was used by navigators and astronomers in the past. Although invented during the time of Ancient Greece, the tool was further developed during the Islamic medieval period.
The opening witnessed speeches by Dr Khaled Azab, head of the manuscript section at Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and Dr Abdallah Hamad Mohareb, head of Arab League Education, Culture and Science Organisation.
“If not for manuscripts and writing, our heritage would have been oral, which is impermanent and usually wastes away,” said Azab. During both their speeches, they called the manuscript a “creature”, characterising it as a living thing that evolves the more it is analysed.
Some of the first Arabic manuscripts have survived for as long as 15 centuries, with all their contents intact for future generations.
“Heritage has to be at the heart of culture,” Mohareb said, underlining the importance of modern analysis of manuscripts. He blamed Arab universities for not focusing on manuscripts in their curriculums, and not pushing scholars to further analyse them; usually, he says, they just copy the contents of the manuscripts for preservation, and leave it at that. He added that this is an act of ignorance given how “manuscripts connected modern societies with earlier ones”.
Mohareb added that modern culture should not be resisted, but rather incorporated into analysis of ancient manuscripts in order to put things in context. “Heritage refuses isolation,” he said. To bridge the gap, he also pressed for the inclusion of the public in the process – one of the main reasons, he said, for the founding of Arabic Manuscript Day. “Heritage should be the concern of all, not just the cultural elite,” he explained.