Süleymaniye Library, Istanbul


A review of the leymaniye Library, Istanbul, Turkey.

The Süleymaniye Library is the largest manuscript library in Turkey and preserves one of the world’s most extensive collections of Islamic manuscripts. Since its establishment in 1918, the library has served generations of scholars. Today, the library is undergoing a number of important changes which should be noted by researchers who plan to work in Istanbul in the near future. This review will detail these changes, as well as provide a basic overview of the library.

Ed. Note: Please see also Christopher Markiewcz’s brief update on the Ottoman Archives in Istanbul, dated March 15, 2013.

History of the Library. The library is located on the site of two of the medreses built in the mid-sixteenth century as part of the mosque complex commissioned by Sultan Süleyman and designed by the Ottoman architect Sinan. Since its establishment in 1557, libraries have always existed at Süleymaniye. Up until the early 20th century, these libraries consisted of the separate holdings of each of the eight medreses attached to the complex. The Süleymaniye Public Library was established in 1918 through the consolidation of these holdings in a single collection. With the closing of all traditional institutions of religious learning in 1924, the library’s collection was supplemented by the considerable holdings of various mosques, sufi lodges, and medreses in Istanbul. Since that time, the library’s collection has grown through the further consolidation of the manuscript libraries of Istanbul (and Turkey), as well as through the bequest of private collections to the library. Between 2001 and 2011 the library digitized its entire collection of manuscripts, which are now all accesible from computer stations in the reading room. Today this work continues with respect to the library’s printed works, of which approximately 10,000 remain to be digitized.

Collection. As a result of these consolidations and acquistions the library now contains an extensive and varied collection of manuscript material in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian (approximately 100,000 manuscripts in all), as well as printed material in pre-script-reform Turkish and several European languages (50,000 or so). The library’s holdings include all branches of religious knowledge, history, literature, geography, medicine, and the physical and occult sciences. In short, any sort of work composed within the broad tradition of Islamic letters can be found among Süleymaniye’s collection. While the majority of the manuscripts were produced within Ottoman territory between the 16th and 19th centuries, the collections include important manuscripts composed and copied in pre-Ottoman Anatolia, as well as other parts of the Islamic world.

The library’s holdings are organized according to the names of the original collections and shelf mark. For instance, while a work cataloged as Ayasofya 1994 is physically located at the library, its identification is still associated with the original library from which it came (the Ayasofya Mosque in Istanbul).

In addition to these collections, the library has a reference section in the reading room. The reference collection contains many of the most important encyclopedias, dictionaries, and bio-bibliographical works in the field of Islamic studies (notable lacunae in this regard include Storey’s Persian Literature: A Bio-bibliographical Survey). The reference material is more thorough with respect to works published in Turkey or related to Ottoman studies. For instance the reference material includes published copies of many of the most important biographical dictionaries of Ottoman scholars and poets; the same cannot be said of pre-Ottoman Arabic or Persian biographical dictionaries, of which there are none. Even so, the reference material in the reading room should be adequate for most scholars’ immediate needs.

Current State and Future Plans. These days the library is in the midst of a significant transition. Major renovations are underway to provide a modern book depot with automated shelving for the library’s collections. To accommodate these changes, the old reading room was closed in November 2012 and a temporary space was opened in the small primary education classroom (sıbyan mektebi) attached to one of the complex’s medreses. The current reading room is a little cramped and poorly lit, but can still accommodate twelve computer stations from which readers can access the library’s collections. The old reading room, which had been the classroom of one of the medreses of the mosque complex, is being converted into a depot for the current holdings of the library. As of writing this piece, the library has not yet decided where the permanent reading room will be constructed. In any event, it seems that the current temporary space will remain in use for at least the immediate future and likely the remainder of 2013.

Practical Matters. One of the library’s strong points is its ease of accessiblity. Researchers are granted access upon presentation of a passport or Turkish identification card; there is no need to obtain a research visa for entry to the library. Moreover, readers may access the reading room of the library every day of the year between 9 am and 11 pm. The library’s manuscript holdings are digitized and searchable by title, author, or shelf mark and can be viewed and read from one of the reading room’s twelve computer stations. In some ways, this situation has transformed the ways scholars can conduct reseearch; now it is possible to examine a much greater number of manuscripts in a single day then in the past, when each manuscript was manually retrieved from the shelf. The disadvantages to this system principally affect researchers interested in the codicological aspects of a manuscript, for whom examination of the physical characteristics of a codex is indispensible. Given the renovations and changes underway in the storage of the library’s collections, these days it is often difficult to obtain access to the original manuscripts. Access will be granted if the researcher makes a case for viewing the original material and the requested manuscript’s location can be accessed in the depot without too much disturbance.  The digital catalog and search system are organized in the Latin alphabet using modern Turkish transliteration principles. With some practice and diligence researchers will find what they are looking for (keep in mind alternative spellings, search Mehmed and Muhammed; Hüseyin and Hüseyn).

Library patrons may request digital copies of the library’s holdings which are distributed on CD. Turkish citizens or students enrolled at a Turkish university may obtain copies for 50 kuruş per photographic exposure (pdf page). The cost for foreigners is 1 TL per exposure. The library does not have free wireless internet service.

There are a number of places to eat lunch in the immediate vicinity. Down the hill towards Eminönü, there are a number of pide or kebab restaurants. In the other direction, towards the Istanbul University Arts and Sciences Faculty campus, there are a number of cheap student-oriented fast food places (dürüm, pide, döner, etc.). By far the best option for lunch is one of the kuru fasulye restaurants which face the mosque. Ali Baba Kanaat Lokantası serves one of the best stewed bean dishes in Istanbul.

Christopher Markiewicz
Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations
University of Chicago


Image: Arild Vågen, Süleymaniye Mosque seen from Süleymaniye Library. Wikimedia Commons.

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