HIGHLIGHTS OF BIRD LIBRARY: HISTORICAL ISLAMIC TREASURES


“One is always in awe, upon approaching the majority of the Egyptian ruins, that we do not find markings of wear that typically characterize such ancient edifices: their stones are not worn, blackened, or broken... and yet after such a long period of time, these monuments still retain an air of novelty” (Napoleon, Description de l’Egypte, 1809-1818).

Description of Egypt was published between 1809 and 1826, and an original copy is available at Syracuse University’s Bird Library. This work consists of eleven volumes of plates and nine text volumes, which contain detailed first-hand descriptions in French by around 150 scientists from the French army’s expedition to Egypt from 1798 to 1801. The savants, as the scientists were popularly known, made careful notes of their physical surroundings, including ecological and archeological accounts of the environment. Over 400 engravers also contributed to the numerous black-and-white and color plates. These records are known as one of the most elaborate and comprehensive inventories of ancient Egyptian history available.

At the time, this work was the largest publishing project in the world, according to the International School of Information Science of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. From Egypt’s flora and fauna to its obelisks and statues along the Nile, the work represents a comprehensive historical description of eighteenth-century Egypt.

The Bird Library also holds another historical Islamic treasure: an original narrative of modern-day Spain’s La Alhambra Palace. Plans, elevations, sections, and details of the Alhambra, from drawings taken on the spot in 1834, published in 1842, was authored by French architect Jules Goury and British architect Owen Jones. These authors traveled together throughout Egypt, Turkey, and Spain to pursue their passion for architectural design, and par- ticularly Islamic art. This work is known as one of the first British color-plate books printed by chromolithography, using six or seven colors, including gold. Its two volumes contain numerous black-and-white and hand-colored engravings detailing the artful arabesque architecture of the palace.

The Alhambra, which is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a palace and fortress which was constructed during the fourteenth century by the Moorish rulers of the Emirate of Granada in Al-Andalus. This was one of the last enclaves of the Muslim Emirs in Spain before the Catholic Monarchs encroached southward to claim the land for the Spanish kingdom. After the Spanish Reconquest, the Alhambra was left unmaintained. It was “rediscovered” by many European scholars in the nineteenth century as a site of horticultural and architectural splen- dor. This work is one such manifestation of the historical appreciation for Islamic art.