Dutch Consul Cornelis Adriaanse (on the right, sitting against a tree) in Yemen with his hosts, early 1930s (UBL Or. 26.374)
by Arnoud Vrolijk, Curator of Middle Eastern Special Collections
The Yemeni manuscripts of Leiden University Libraries are now being digitised as part of The Zaydi Manuscript Tradition, a project coordinated by Professor Sabine Schmidtke (Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton).
For a number of years a war has been raging in Yemen, which not only devastates cities and villages, but also brings the population on the verge of famine. Only few people in the Netherlands are aware that Yemen has a rich culture which is now under heavy pressure. Historical buildings are being destroyed, but much less visible is the damage inflicted on the written heritage, the backbone of an ancient civilisation.
From times immemorial, Yemen has been the home country of the Zaydis, an early community in Shi’ite Islam. Until 1962 the imams, the religious leaders, were simultaneously the rulers of Yemen. Contrary to expectation, Zaydi Islam has never lived in isolation: there were extensive contacts with the Sunnis in the north and, for example, the Shi’ites of Iran. Their cultural treasures in the domains of religion, science and literature have been preserved in the Arabic manuscripts of Yemen. These handwritten books have an individual style that sets them off against the mainstream traditions of the Middle East.
Yemen has always had a rich library tradition. At present it is impossible to ascertain the current state of the collections. As a result, scholars from Yemen and abroad are now basically cut off from their source materials. In Europe and America, however, there are relatively small but important collections of Yemeni manuscripts. Most of these were collected in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by scholars, diplomats and travellers.
For the rest of this article, click here.