Cloistered Gem

ABDALLA F. HASSAN | Egypt Today | November 2002

A little-known research library in Abbassiya expands its bridge between Islam and the West

The Dominican Fathers’ Priory, conceived as a sanctuary for friars of Saint Steven of Jerusalem, as it looked in the 1940s

PHOTO COURTESY OF IDEO

Inside a priory in the Cairo district of Abbassiya resides a quiet haven for scholarship. A unique collection of classic Arabic texts can be found at the 90,200-volume library of the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies. But even with 2.2 kilometers of shelving, with books stacked from floor to ceiling on three levels, the monastery’s library was quickly running out of space. To accommodate its growing collection, the library has just built an extension to host 50,000 more volumes. Around 1,600 titles are added annually (about half of them in Arabic), not counting more than 350 subscriptions to local and foreign periodicals. 

“With a research library, either you develop or you stop,” says Father Jean-Jacques Pérennês, secretary general of the Dominican Institute, which has evolved into one of the leading libraries of the Middle East in the field of classical Arabic and Islamic culture. The new edifice should be able to hold another 25 years’ worth of volumes, more or less, forecasts Pérennês. 

Funded by Christian philanthropic associations around the world along with companies and private donors, the library is extensive: high, vaulted ceilings, sunny reading rooms, and guest rooms to accommodate visiting scholars. It was has been constructed at a cost of $1 million. With its cupolas and arcs, the architecture of the new library complements that of the adjacent monastery, which was built in 1931–32 by Father Antonin J. Jaussen and initially conceived as a sanctuary for friars of the Dominican Priory of Saint Steven of Jerusalem (the home of the renowned French Biblical and Archeological School) to research Egyptology related to Bible study. “When the priory was built in the late 1930s, it was surrounded by desert and palm trees,” describes Pérennês. “Not far from here you have the ancient walls of Fatimid Cairo, and nearby you have the City of the Dead.”

At the end of World War II, Fathers Georges Chehata Anawati, Jacques Jomier and Serge de Beaurecueil founded within the priory the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies to study Islamic civilization, and to open a scholarly dialogue between Muslims and Christians. Throughout the ages, religion and conquest have been indelibly intertwined. “The dialogue now is difficult between the religions because there are a lot of fears on each side, and because of the past,” says Pérennês. “We have had violence; we have had centuries of misunderstanding. We now need a long time together, just working together, knowing each other, having a better mutual understanding.” 

Roughly every year and a half since 1954, the Institute has published a 400-plus-page scholarly journal in French, English and Arabic called MIDEO (Mélanges de l’Institut Dominicain d’Ètudes Orientales), which aims to bridge Islam and the West. All 24 published editions of MIDEO, totaling more than 10,000 pages, are cataloged in the library’s archives. “We all need the truth of the other,” says Father René du Grandlaunay, librarian and a resident friar, explaining the guiding principle behind the initiation of the library. “Let us not say, ‘I possess the truth and others do not.’ We want to know what others know, and let’s exchange and discuss, and together we will progress on the path of betterment, advancement, justice and peace.” 

A resource for researchers, academics and scholars, the Dominican Institute’s library holds a plethora of books on Islamic history, theology and jurisprudence, Quranic commentary, Arabic literature, linguistics, philosophy, mysticism, the sciences, and Oriental and Coptic Christianity. 

The library is currently in the process of computerizing the ancient texts, manuscripts, archives and volumes in its collection, which comprises works dating as far back as the 16th century, along with editions published in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Books can be found in 31 languages—mainly Arabic, English and French, but also including Greek, Hebrew, Russian and Japanese. So far, 30 percent of the collection has been cataloged. “It would take another five years to finish the work with three people working continuously,” calculates du Grandlaunay. Having the entire collection computerized would link the Institute’s library with a global network of other libraries specializing in Eastern thought. But until that task is complete, an archaic card catalog system keeps track of the Institute’s collection. 

Because of the rare and irreplaceable nature of its collection, it is not a lending library, and patrons do not have unrestricted access to the stacks. A Dominican friar or volunteer is on hand to assist students. Opening hours may be extended if resources permit. No fees are charged for the use of library. 

Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies in Cairo, Dominican Fathers’ Priory, 1 Masnaa El-Tarabish St., El-Geish Square, Abbassiya 11381, Cairo. Tel: (02) 482-5509, fax: (02) 682-0682, e-mail: ideo@link.net. Open Tuesday and Friday from 10am to 7pm.