Thousand year-old books have settled in the most futuristic of homes, gently cooled and shielded from the sun in an underground chamber of Qatar’s National Library. Designed by Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Rem Koolhaas, the library was opened by Qatar’s emir and his parents, who started the project in 2012. The family rules the world’s richest people, and that wealth has its perks.
The Heritage Collection, six metres (19.7 feet) below the main floor, includes maps and letters tracing the history of Qatar, from the first mention of Catara by a second century Greco-Roman cartographer to documents demarcating its modern borders. It is also a repository of scientific texts and manuscripts from the golden ages of Arab and Persian civilisations.
Other treasures are from another era: a page from one of the first copies of the Koran from the 9th or 10th century, and the medical and mechanical engineering books of Arab and Persian scholars who carried knowledge forward during the Dark Ages from 500 to 1000 AD.
An open, triangular space serves as the library’s focal point. Shelves are made of the same white marble as the floors, and rise along the edges of the building. They include lighting, ventilation and a book return system. Computer stations, interactive displays, and other digital devices are intended to make it less of a museum and more functional for the community.
A day after the opening last week, both Qataris and foreigners were wandering the space, which is part of Qatar’s Education City, a complex of US university branches such as Georgetown, Cornell and Northwestern. Education City is intended to play a major role in giving the country the skills needed to wean itself from a dependence on oil and gas. Qatar’s wealth came from its position as the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas.
In keeping with the academic spirit, no books and information will be considered taboo or forbidden, Sohair Wastawy, the library’s executive director, said in an interview. “It’s an open platform for learning,” she said. “Hiding information, not learning about others, that doesn’t help anybody.” The library’s millionth book is an 843-year-old copy of Sahih Al Bukhari, one of the main books of sayings by Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
It also contains Nasr al-Din al-Tusi’s study of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, a manuscript map of the Euphrates, Tigris rivers and the Persian Gulf, brought to England by Sir William Trumbull, who served as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the late 17th century and a book on ophthalmology by the 9th century Iraqi Christian physician Hunayn ibn Ishaq.
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