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Secret Libraries Around the World

by on October 4, 2016

For either religious or political reasons, or in times of conflict, people of past centuries have felt the need to protect hundreds of texts by stashing them away. In a recent article on BBC Culture, Fiona Macdonald highlights some great examples of secret libraries from around the globe.[1] A few modern day examples have recently come to light. In Damascus, volunteers risk their lives to grow a secret library amid the Syrian civil war.[2] And who can forget the effort to save the manuscripts of Timbuktu? This desire to save the printed word proves its power and cultural significance, or at the very least, the fact that humans have had a connection to books for thousands of years.

One interesting example is a stash of manuscripts found in a cave shrine in Duhuang, China near the Gobi Desert. No one knows why they were hidden in the cave, but they include a unique array of manuscripts.[3] The manuscripts, discovered in 1900, date from the Fourth to Eleventh centuries and include the “earliest complete star chart in the world.”[4] It is amazing to think the trove survived in such harsh conditions.

In Egypt, 280,000 Jewish manuscript fragments were found in a synagogue wall; the collection is known as the Cairo Genizah. “According to Jewish law, no writings containing the name of God can be thrown away: those that have fallen out of use are stored in an area of a synagogue or cemetery until they can be buried.”[5] The importance of this trove of texts is that it shows how Jews lived in the medieval era Egypt alongside Christians and Muslims. Scholars note the manuscripts show these cultures were more tolerant of each other than previously thought.[6]

And finally, medieval era book expert Erik Kwakkel and his students discovered 132 recycled fragments from an “unidentified [medieval] court” in the bindings of a book from 1577.[7] Reusing old letters and other less important items was a common practice at the time, but what’s significant is that “words never intended for posterity can still be read today.”[8]  For historians, students, and hobbyists, this provides new insights into what medieval era life was like. In short, secret libraries can help sustain a community during war, and provide a window into life in distant centuries.



[1] Fiona Macdonald, “The secret libraries of history,” August 19, 2016, BBC Culture, http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20160819-the-secret-libraries-of-history?ocid=ww.social.link.twitter .

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

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