On Thursday 15 March 2018 a remarkable event took place in Tashkent: the inauguration of the splendid new premises of the Beruni Library of the Institute of Oriental Studies. This gleaming white marble edifice, sited in the midst of green lawns, is a suitably impressive home for one of the world’s finest collections of manuscripts of the Islamic ‘Golden Age’. It also bears witness to the vision and magnanimity of an individual: His Majesty Qaboos bin Said, Sultan of Oman.
Modern diplomatic relations between Oman and Uzbekistan were established in 1992, but the two countries share deep historical bonds. In the distant past, they were nodal links in the vast transcontinental routes that connected Europe, Asia and Africa ‒ pathways for trade, but also for the transmission of ideas and cultures. Later, as part of the world of Islam, they came to share the same beliefs and values, the same artistic and scientific preoccupations. Thus, despite the geographic distance between the two countries, there was instinctive empathy. This was strengthened during the state visit of the late President of Uzbekistan, President Karimov, to Oman in 2009. An Omani Embassy was opened in Tashkent the following year.
Bilateral economic relations began to thrive, with an emphasis on trade and transport routes. This was marked by the signing of the Ashgabat Agreement in 2011, aimed at establishing a multimodal transport corridor from Central Asia to the Gulf. Oman and Uzbekistan were among the original signatories. The Agreement came into force in 2016, by which time several new members had begun to join the group, including India and Kazakhstan. Alongside the emerging strategic partnership, cultural contacts were also developing. Uzbekistan has a long tradition of science, philosophy and literature ‒ many illustrious scholars and writers have come from this region and over the centuries, major collections of books, stone inscriptions and other artefacts have been amassed. In 1943, a number of these collections were combined to form the basis of the newly established library of the Institute for Oriental Studies at the Uzbek Academy of Sciences in Tashkent.
It was named in honour of Beruni (known in Arabic as Rayḥān Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad Al-Bīrūnī), the pioneering tenth-century polymath whose probative scientific treatises included works on mathematics, ethnography, geography, history and philosophy. He was born near the Aral Sea, on the territory of modern Uzbekistan, and was one of the most distinguished figures among the pleiad of great Islamic scholars of this period. The library which bears Beruni’s name contains some 80,000 works, many of them unique and several of them extremely fragile, in Arabic, Persian and Turkish. Since its foundation it has been curated by generations of dedicated specialists. However, the collection gradually outgrew its original premises and in any case, the fabric of the building required a comprehensive overhaul. The technical equipment, too, needed to be upgraded. Enter His Majesty the Sultan ‒ a devoted student of Islamic culture and scholarship who has long sought to encourage the study of this magnificent heritage as a means to promote peace and international understanding.
When His Majesty learnt of the plight of the Beruni Library, he decided to take action: the result was a royal grant to fund the construction of a new building for the Library and to equip it with the most advanced technological tools (of French manufacture) for the conservation, restoration and preservation of the precious documents and objects. Modern systems of digitization, scanning and photography were also installed. The complex now occupies 7,227 square metres, with special research laboratories, offices, and rooms for working with archives. The interior decoration, which combines Omani and Uzbek elements, creates a harmonious work environment.
In mid-March, a high-ranking delegation of scholars, religious figures and government officials from Oman gathered in Tashkent for the opening of the new Library. It was led by His Highness Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, a member of the royal family and currently the Omani Minister of Heritage and Culture. The host delegation was headed by the Prime Minister of Uzbekistan, Abdulla Aripov. As the distinguished guests entered the lofty atrium they were unexpectedly and delightfully greeted by strains of English Baroque music: on one of the upper balconies of the Library, an all-women quartet of instrumentalists from the Omani royal orchestra played part of Henry Purcell’s music for the play ‘Abdelazer’, written in 1676 by Aphra Behn, England’s first female dramatist. It was an unexpected, but wonderfully apt confluence of ideas and cultures, symbolic of the tolerant, inclusive vision that inspired the Beruni Library project.
The significance of this Library as the repository for an outstanding collection of precious books and manuscripts is such that it has recently been listed in UNESCO’s Register of World Heritage sites. With its superb new facilities, the on-going support of friends and colleagues in Oman, and its own highly motivated academic and technical staff, the new Beruni Library is eager to work with international institutions, thereby to deepen and broaden its activities in research and the training of young scholars, also to engage in dialogue and constructive interaction with Muslims and non-Muslims, in the East and the West. This was demonstrated in the seminar that followed the inauguration ceremony, which included participants from Oman, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Britain, as well as Uzbekistan. Important collaborative initiatives with foreign partners are already underway, notably with the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, which likewise seeks to promote a more informed understanding of Islam in its many dimensions. Projects such as these have been reinvigorated by the launch of the new Library ‒ as intended by the generous benefactor.
Shirin Akiner, London, 2018