Monday 14 January 2013

Afghans connected to World Digital Library

Illuminated frontispiece from Herat c1500
When I visited Kabul in January 2002 I saw with my own eyes the terrible cultural destruction wreaked by the Taliban. The National Museum was a burnt out shell, its priceless statues from the Gandhara period lying in pieces on the floor. The National Art Museum was also wrecked; staff had only been able to save some works of art by painting over human figures or hiding them from sight. 
Saddest of all was the National Library. I remember walking between rows of glass-topped display cases where the only exhibits were photocopied title pages of books that had either been destroyed or hidden from sight.
Ever since then, Afghanistan has struggled to recover and protect its cultural heritage. One of the richest countries on earth in terms of historical artefacts had to start again, almost from scratch.
Of course, there were some surprises. The magnificent golden Oxus Treasures were hidden away under the Presidential palace where they remained safe from the Taliban iconoclasts. And curators of Afghanistan's small, but hugely significant film archive took enormous risks to hide and preserve their prized footage.
It is thus heart-warming to hear that during his visit to the United States last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was presented with a collection of digitized treasures from the US Library of Congress relating to the culture and history of Afghanistan.
The collection, created by the Carnegie Corporation-sponsored World Digital Library, is only the first tranche of what will become a major resource for universities and museums in Afghanistan, including the National Library of Afghanistan, the American University of Afghanistan and other universities in Badakhshan, Balkh, Bamiyan, Herat, Kabul, Kandahar and Nangahar.
It includes digital copies of manuscripts, rare books, maps and photographs. Amongst the first 30 or so items that will now be available to Afghans are: one of the earliest detailed maps of the country, printed by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in London in 1841; The History of the Afghans, first published in 1829 and the first history of the Afghan people translated from a non-Western language (Persian) to appear in a European language; The Divan of Sultan Husayn Mirza, a folio of poems written in nasta'liq script the late 15th century; The Medical Formulary of Al-Samarqandi, which dates to the 13th century; and A Treatise on Drawing Chords in a Circle by Abu al-Rayhan al-Biruni, who lived from 973-1048AD.
Many more items will eventually be added to the online collection.

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