The Mediterranean on a boat

Sailing through libraries from Beirut to Tangiers
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Apart from the sea, there is perhaps nothing more Mediterranean than a book, than a library, than languages, than languages lending each other words, than translation. From Beirut to Tangiers via Alexandria, libraries and books sail the Mediterranean. The well-deserved success of Irene Vallejo's El infinito en un junco has to do with this universal condition of the invention that emerged from the papyrus of a Nile reed. As Borges said, the ingenuity of the book lies in the fact that it is a quasi-infinite extension of memory and imagination. In works such as Librerías or Contra Amazon, the writer Jorge Carrión has explored the resilience of the invention and of the spaces that treasure and classify them. This same Borgesian idea, so present in Carrión, was also formulated by Herman Melville in Moby Dick: "I have swum across libraries and crossed oceans".

There are libraries that are symbols, not only because of what they contain, but also because of the continent. There are libraries that have become powerful national icons. There are libraries that are a single book and others that are the name they have been given. The great enemy of libraries is fire, accidental or intentional. And the Mediterranean has also been a sea of conflicts, of religions, of diasporas, of the burning of books and the destruction of libraries. There are libraries that succumb to wars and libraries that survive them. And there are libraries with which we have a special connection because we have read in their rooms.

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There are libraries that are symbolically reborn from the ashes, like the one in Alexandria. In 2002 the pharaonic Bibliotheca Alexandrina was inaugurated. The imposing marble wall of the building is decorated with letters from all the alphabets created by mankind. A decade later, in Cairo, the library of the Scientific Academy, founded during the Napoleonic invasion, burned with many of its treasures during the Arab Spring in 2011.

In Beirut, at the entrance to the Bibliothèque Orientale is inscribed the Latin quotation from the Gospel of St John In principio erat verbum. Inaugurated in 1875 by the Jesuits, it is the memory of the Maronite community in Lebanon, with authentic gems of Christian Arabic manuscripts. The new Lebanese National Library project, although it largely survived the Lebanese civil war, comes from many ashes, like the Great Library of Beirut, founded in 1922 by the Lebanese Arab press historian and humanist Philippe de Tarrazi, its first director. Although younger, the Orient-Institut library is another of the many gems of Beirut, a city made of books, printing presses and translations.

The Khalidi Library in Jerusalem was established in 1900. After several political upheavals, it was reopened in 2018. It is the most important private Palestinian collection, with thousands of manuscripts including a gold leaf makruma offered to Saladin dated 1201, with the classically resonant title The Spacious Lands of Commendations and the Garden of the Glorious and Praiseworthy Deeds Among the Merits of the Victorious King.

In Athens, the more than 750,000 volumes of the National Library of Greece, whose origins date back to 1829, have left their home in a neoclassical building and are now housed in a modernist complex of the Stávros Niarchos Foundation designed by architect Renzo Piano. The Bibliothèque Nationale d'Algérie, whose origins date back to colonial times, partially burned down in 1962 during the war for independence, was moved in 1998 to a functional headquarters.



El Escorial Monastery, Spain

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Under Al-Hakam II, Umayyad Cordoba became one of the most flourishing and splendid cultural centres in the world, and its library housed some 400,000 volumes. The Laurentian Library of the monastery of El Escorial, founded in the 16th century, is notable not only for the building that houses it, but also for its 40,000 volumes and 600 incunabula, including manuscripts in Spanish, Latin, Greek, Arabic and Hebrew. Some 2,500 manuscripts were lost in a fire in 1671. The Quran of Muley Zaydan, captured in 1612 by the Spanish on a French ship carrying a collection of manuscripts stolen from the Sultan of Morocco, is worth mentioning. The Félix María Pareja Islamic Library was inaugurated as part of the Spanish-Arab Institute of Culture in 1954. The oldest printed book it houses is Liber theoricae necnon practicae Alsaharavii in prisco Arabum Medicorum conuentu facili principis by al-Zahrawi from 1519. Another Mediterranean library without a sea is that of the reborn Toledo School of Translators at the University of Castilla-La Mancha, an institution that since 1994 has been dedicated to fostering Mediterranean cultural relations and translation.

In 1992, the Sarajevo library was destroyed by firebombs fired by Serb militias during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. An attack intended to erase the impurity of Sarajevo, where Bosnian Muslims and Croatian Catholics were in the majority, which the writer Juan Goytisolo called memoricide. The library was reopened in 2014.

In Tangiers, today the library of the Instituto Cervantes, one of the most important outside Spain, created in 1941, is called Juan Goytisolo in honour of the most impure, most Mediterranean Spanish writer, who wrote in Tangiers La reivindicación del conde don Julián, where he settles accounts with the most rancid of Spanish culture from the volumes of the library. Its shelves house the almost complete collection of the Tangiers newspaper España, a memoir from the other side of Spain's turbulent history. The Hebrew collection also stands out, with a commentary on Genesis from 1600, testimony to the continuous diaspora of people and books between the shores of the Mediterranean.