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date: 02 December 2023

Libraries in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Science, and Technology in Islam
İsmail E. Erünsalİsmail E. Erünsal

Libraries in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey 

It is very likely that the first libraries in the Islamic world appeared in mosques during the era of the Umayyads. Here intense copying of the Qurʾān and aḥādīth was carried out. These institutions also provided education. Homes of some scholars also contained libraries. The first library in the Umayyad period open to both scholars and students was the bayt al-ḥikmah (House of Wisdom). This institution, which operated like a research center, was in Damascus and was established during the rule of Muʿāwiyah ibn Abū Sufyān (r. 661–680). According to what Masʿūdī tells us, officials were employed to guard the library, which contained books on ḥadīth, history, and biographies. Khalid ibn Yazid, one of Muʿāwiyah’s grandsons, took over and enriched the bayt al-ḥikmah library. Walid ibn ʿAbd al-Malik of the Umayyads institutionalized the library, appointing a scribe and a librarian.

The caliphate was transferred to the ʿAbbāsids in 750, during the era of Abū Jaʿfar al-Manṣūr (r. 754–775). In this era many works were translated from Greek, Latin, Syriac, Pahlavi, and Persian into Arabic, resulting in the creation of a rich library in Manṣūr’s palace. During the reign of Hārūn al-Rashīd the introduction of paper benefited the book trade and the enrichment of libraries. Hārūn al-Rashīd also established the bayt al-ḥikmah in Baghdad, which became a center of scientific activities and philosophical debates during the ʿAbbāsid era. This research center not only carried out translations from a number of languages, but also had a rich library. Because of this in some sources the bayt al-ḥikmah is referred to as hizanat al-ḥikmah or hizanatu kutub al-ḥikmah.

Important libraries were established by a large number of statesmen and scholars in the ʿAbbāsid era. However Niẓām al-Mulk, the vizier of the Seljuk sultan Malik Shah, was the first to establish a madrasah (college) with a library; this madrasah, known as the Niẓāmīyah, was built in Baghdad in 1067. After this date many colleges were established in different regions of the Islamic world; most of these included libraries. The most important college library to be established in Baghdad after the Niẓāmīyah was the Muṣtanṣiriyya College library, established by Caliph Muṣtanṣir bi-Lāh (1226–1242). In the Hizānat al-Kutub library there were more than eighty thousand volumes. The Muṣtanṣiriyya Library suffered great losses during the occupation of Baghdad by the Mongol hordes. The Mongol soldiers sold some of the books they had looted and removed the bindings of others to use for their equestrian equipment. Some of the books were taken to Maragha by Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, who served under Hülegü.

While the spread of Islam and Islamic culture had been taken up by the ʿAbbāsids in the east, in the west this duty was carried on by the Andalusian Umayyads. As a result of these activities, which ʿAbd al-Raḥmān I started as a political movement, a strong Islamic dynasty, which was to maintain its presence in Spain (Muslim Iberia) for three centuries, was established. When the Andalusian Umayyads started to establish their own cultural institutions, the transference of the ʿulamaʾ from the east to the west began; this took many years, and many manuscripts that had been procured from private libraries were transferred to their new owners in Anadalusia. When the customs exemptions, applicable to weapons, horses, and some other goods, started to be applied to books, an important commercial activity commenced. Merchants went to the east and purchased books, which they sold in cultural centers like Córdoba, Seville, and Toledo. As a result hundreds of libraries were established. It became a fashion, particularly among the wealthy, to possess a library.

The most important library established by Muslims in Spain was the palace library in Córdoba. This library, which developed slowly at first, was improved during the reigns of Caliph ʿAbd al-Raḥmān II (822–852) and ʿAbd al-Raḥmān III (912–961). During the reign of Ḥakam II (961–976) it became the largest library in the medieval Islamic world. When Ḥakam II came to power, he combined the library in the palace with the libraries that belonged to him and his brother Muḥammad, respectively, creating the famous palace library. Sources show that there were 400,000 works here. A new building was constructed to accommodate the books; it took six months to move the books to the new structure. In the palace library, in addition to librarians, there were copiers who copied books that could not be purchased, as well as illuminators and bookbinders.

When Hishām II (1010–1013), son of Ḥakam II, succeeded his father at the age of fourteen, administration of the state was in the hands of Ibn Abū Amīr al-Manṣūr. In order to keep control Manṣūr tried to appease the canonists, who had become uneasy due to some of Ḥakam II’s actions and his support of freedom in thought. Manṣūr told the representatives of the canonists to take any books that were considered harmful from the library and burn them. As a result the palace library suffered great damage. The library suffered a second disaster after Manṣūr’s death. During the Berber siege of Córdoba, Vadih, the governor of the city, sold some books from the palace library to pay the soldiers. When the Berbers conquered the city, they raided the library again.

When the Andalusian cities, primarily Córdoba, were invaded by the Spaniards, some of the existing books in the libraries had already been looted and sold during internal strife and a significant portion had been taken to North Africa. Most of the remainder could not be saved from the Catholic Inquisition. In Granada, on the orders of Isabella and Ferdinand, thousands of books were burned in large city squares. The situation was no different in other cities. When the Spanish king Philip II wanted to bring together the manuscripts that remained in the country from Andalusia, he was only able to collect 2,500 books. These books formed the basis of the Escorial Library today.

Two important libraries were established during the era of the Hamdānīs. The first was established in Mosul by the poet and scholar Abū Qāsim Jaʿfar ibn Muḥammad ibn Hamdan al-Mawṣilī. Important works in every branch of science were included in this public library, but particularly in philosophy and astronomy. It is the first example of a dār al-ʿilm (research center) in the medieval Islamic world. The second library established in Aleppo contained ten thousand books that had been donated by the Hamdānī ruler, Sayf al-Dawlah (r. 945–967), as well as other benefactors.

The Būyid dynasty, which ruled over the southern and western regions of Iran and Iraq, were interested in cultural activities, particularly in Iraq. ʿAḍud al-Dawlah (r. 978–983), established a rich library in his palace in Shiraẓ Two other libraries, one in Basra and one in Ramhurmuz, were established by Ibn Suvar during the reign of ʿAḍud al-Dawlah.

The Fāṭimid dynasty, established in North Africa, quickly conquered Egypt. The Fāṭimids, fervid supporters of Shiism, sent dais (propagandists of their faith) throughout the Islamic world. They established scientific institutions in cities like Cairo to educate these dais. Some of these institutions included libraries. The most important of the libraries established in this era was the palace library. Sources contain different figures for the number of books in the collection, ranging from 200,000 to 2 million.

The dār al-ʿilm established by Caliph al-Ḥākim bīʾAmr Allāh in 1005 in Cairo, based on the dār al-ḥikmah, was first organized as a Sunnī research center; however this later became a center directed toward producing Ismāʿīlī propaganda. A rich library was established in the dār al-ʿilm. A large section of books was provided by the palace library. Not only was the dār al-ʿilm library open to the public, but paper, pens, ink, and inkwells for making copies were provided for free. Although the dār al-ʿilm was closed by Wazīr Afdal ibn Badr al-Jamālī in 1119, in 1123, thanks to the efforts of Wazīr Maʾmūn al-Bataihī it was reopened in another building. Until the Fāṭimid sultanate was brought to an end by the Ayyūbids, the dār al-ʿilm continued its activities both as a library and as a propaganda center.

The Ayyūbid ruler Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb put an end to the Fāṭimid sultanate by seizing Cairo in 1171; he destroyed some of the libraries that had become centers of Ismāʿīlī propaganda, including the palace library.

The richest library in the Ayyūbid era was established by Qāḍī al-Fāzil in his college in Cairo. Qāḍī al-Fāzil was the primary bibliophile in the medieval Islamic world. Safadī states that Qāḍī al-Fāzil’s personal library contained around 200,000 books. When Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn conquered Amid Qāḍī al-Fāzil also took seventy loads of books from the large library in this city. When Qāḍī al-Fāzil established the college commemorated with his name in 1184, he placed 100,000 books from his personal collection in the library.

During the Ayyūbid reign the number of colleges in Damascus increased. In the era of the Zengis new colleges were built and others completed. Libraries were established in most colleges, and set up in mosques and mausoleums. The colleges built in Cairo during the Ayyūbid era had additions made to them by the Mamlūks from the middle of the thirteenth century on; in many of these libraries were established. The most famous was the Maḥmūdīyah Library, which was established by Jamāl al-Dīn Maḥmud ibn ʿAlī al-Ustadar al-Ẓāhirī in 1395.

Upon the death of the Fāṭimid governor of Tripoli (Trablus), Qāḍī Abū Ṭālib Ḥaṣan ibn Ammār declared independence and established a dār al-ʿilm which had a rich library; this was used to spread the doctrine of the Shīʿī sect, to which Ammārīs belonged, and to create propaganda. Other Ammārī amīrs, led by Abuʾl Ḥasan ʿAlī ibn Muḥammad ibn Ammār, enriched this library. The dār al-ʿilm gained such fame in the Islamic world that at one point Tripoli was known as Madinat dār al-ʿilm. However the library did not survive for long. When Tripoli was sacked by the Crusaders in 1109, the dār al-ʿilm was raided and then burned.

At the end of the tenth century the Seljuks were soldiers in the service of the forces that were fighting in Transoxiana. After being successful there they entered Baghdad and rescued the ʿAbbāsid caliphs from the control of the Shīʿī Buwayhis; they worked to establish the superiority of Sunnī thought over Shīʿī thought. In the Buwayhi and Fāṭimid periods the dār al-ʿilms had become Shiite propaganda centers; to combat this the college model was formed to propagate Sunnī ideas and beliefs. Although some institutions functioned as colleges before the arrival of the Seljuks, the first organized and regulated college was established by the Seljuk vizier Niẓām al-Mulk. Niẓām al-Mulk established a number of colleges in many cities of the Seljuk state, like Nishabur, Balh, Mosul, Herat, Marv, Basra, Isfahan, and Toharistan. The most famous of these was the Niẓāmīyah College in Baghdad. A library, known as a dār al-kutub, was included in the college, which was begun in 1065 and finished in 1067.

In the era of the Anatolian Seljuks, with the progress of the Seljuks into Asia Minor the establishment of libraries in colleges continued. In the library that was established in Konya by Shaykh Ṣadr al-Dīn Konawī, there were not only some books belonging to Ṣadr al-Dīn Konawī himself, but his own works and those of his stepfather, Muhyiddin ibn al-ʿArabī.

Unfortunately a number of these libraries, which embodied the rich cultural heritage of the Islamic world, were destroyed by the Crusaders, the Mongols, the barbarians of Sicily, and the Catholic sovereigns and religious men of Spain. Consequently very few of the works have survived.

The Ottoman Beylicate was established in a region far from the center of Islamic civilization. Contact with Islamic culture was minimal both in the region where the Ottomans first settled and in the territory they took from the Byzantines. Geography, the fact that the extant libraries consisted mainly of works in Arabic, and the lack of a common culture between the Ottomans and the Byzantines slowed advancements in this field. A natural result of the spread of the colleges throughout the territory taken from the Byzantines was that the number of small-collection libraries found in colleges increased. However there are no documents concerning the structure or the existence of such collections.

The lack of records concerning early Ottoman libraries for most of the fourteenth century can be explained by the fact that as the Ottomans were expanding into Christian territories, the energies of the fledgling state were directed mainly to the Holy War. While establishing mosques and colleges, the Ottomans did not inherit books or libraries from the newly conquered areas. Small libraries existed, but not until the accession of Murād II (r. 1421–1451) did Ottoman prestige reach a stage that could attract scholars from other Islamic lands who brought books with them. Foundation deeds for several mosque and college libraries established during the reign of Murād II are extant. According to the foundation deeds seventy-one volumes of books were in the collection, almost all of which were in Arabic, meaning that only the scholarly class benefited from this library.

Some libraries were established in the Balkans and Asia Minor during the reign of Murād II. The library of the İshak Bey College, built in 1445, was the first library established in the Balkans in the Ottoman period. The most interesting library in the era of Murād II was that built by ʿUmar Bey, one of the officials of the sultan, in the mosque in Bursa in April of 1440. At the first stage thirty-three volumes of Turkish books were donated for the congregation who came to the mosque to read.

The conquest of Constantinople in 1453 gave new impetus to cultural activity. One of the first buildings to be built, the Old Palace in Beyazid, included a library; the books that had been transferred from Manisa to the Edirne palace were brought here. According to a catalog from the reign of Bayezid II in 1502, there were 7,200 different works contained within a total of 5,700 volumes there. In subsequent years this library was a focus for foreigners seeking manuscripts that were thought to have been seized from the Byzantines.

The character of libraries established during the reigns of Mehmed II (r. 1451–1481), Bayezid II (r. 1481–1512), Selim I (r. 1512–1520) and Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520–1566), in Istanbul and throughout the provinces differed little from their pre-Ottoman and early Ottoman antecedents, but the collections became larger and their staffing began to be systematized. The posts of librarian, assistant librarian, and bookbinder, with appropriate salaries and conditions of employment, were established.

From the beginning of the seventeenth century on, in addition to the libraries in the major cities, the number of libraries established in other regions of the empire rose. The spread of libraries outside major cities can be explained not only by the need for books, but also in part by a rise in the public literacy rate. However, the establishment of library collections was intended to meet the needs of madrasah students, and the spread of the libraries to regions far from the center was influenced by the spread of madrasah education.

The most significant development in the history of Ottoman libraries came with the establishment of the first independent library in Istanbul by Köprülü Fazil Ahmed Pasha in 1678. This library, which was the forerunner of many similar establishments, had its own building, staff, and budget. Of the three important college libraries established at the end of the seventeenth century, two were established by members of the Köprülü family: Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha and Amca-zâde Hüseyin Pasha.

An important example of an independent library was established by the grand vizier, Shaheed ʿAli Pasha, in 1716 in the Vefa region of Istanbul. ʿAli Pasha was fascinated by books and is known to have even collected books while on campaign. His ban on the export of books from Istanbul is a reflection of his interest in books.

The Topkapı Palace library was established by Ahmed III (r. 1703–1730). By this time thousands of books had been collected in the palace from a number of different sources. Ahmed III did not think that the regulations that had been previously drawn up concerning the use and conservation of books in different sections of the palace were sufficient; in 1719 a large number of these books were collected in the library in the palace. Ahmed III also had a library built in Yeni Câmi, Eminönü, next to Turhan Valide Sultan’s mausoleum.

Mahmud I (r. 1730–1754), who came to the throne after Ahmed III, occupies an important place in the history of Ottoman libraries. During this era efforts were made to establish libraries in the most remote castles; statesmen, scholars, and people from other classes established a large number of libraries in Istanbul and other cities. The Ayasofya Library, established by Mahmud I, is remarkable among those built in Istanbul, not only for its architecture and rich collection, but also for its extensive staff. Mahmud I established the second library in Istanbul, adjacent to the qiblah wall of Fatih Mosque. In addition to the donated books, some collections in the mosque were transferred to the newly constructed building. The library was opened with a ceremony on 31 May 1742.

Mahmud I and his grand vizier Köse Mustafa Bâhir Pasha carried out a reorganization that was similar to that which had been implemented in the Fatih Mosque in the Süleymaniye Mosque; the works that had been donated to the mosque were collected and a library was formed on the right-hand side of the building, in a section that was separated from the mosque by railings. In 1754 Mahmud I built a library for the Palace school in Galatasaray. In addition to the libraries established in Istanbul by Mahmud I, a library was built in Belgrade (1743) and one in Fath al-Islām in Vidin (1748) and another in Cairo. Many independent libraries were also established in Istanbul, for example, the Āshir Efendi (1800), Ātif Efendi (1741), and Hekimoğlu ʿAli Pasha (1735) libraries were established by members of the administrative class. Hajji Bashir Aha, who held the post of darussaada agha in the era of Ahmed III and Mahmud I, established a number of libraries in the Ottoman territory. He had a library built in the complex in Cagaloğlu, as well as in Eyup, Medina, and Svishtov.

In the final years of Mahmud I’s reign, a large library in Nuruosmaniye was planned. However the sultan died in 1754 before the completion of the complex, and his brother Osman III (r. 1754–1757) had this charitable work completed. Ragip Mehmet Pasha, grand vizier during the reigns of Osman III and Muṣṭafa III, established an important independent library in 1762 in the Laleli region of Istanbul.

One of the independent libraries in Istanbul was established by Valiyuddin Efendi, who served twice as shaykhul Islām during the reign of Muṣṭafa III. In 1768 this library was housed in a structure that had been built on the right-hand side of Bayezid Mosque. In 1775 Damad-zâde Mehmed Murad Efendi had a library built in the Çarşamba region. The chief of the shipyard, Hajji Selim Aga, established a library in Üsküdar with a foundation deed dated 1782.

In the second half of the eighteenth century independent libraries with rich collections and extensive staff began to exist outside Istanbul. Such libraries increased in number and spread throughout the empire, beginning with the ascension of Abdülhamid I (r. 1774–1789) to the throne and continuing with Selim III (r. 1789–1807) and Mahmud II (1808–1839). The Yūsuf Aga Library was established in Konya (1795), the Rodosî Ahmed Aga Library in Rhodes (1793), the Râsid Efendi Library in Kayseri (1796), the Pazvantoglu Library in Vidin (1802), the Vahid Pasha Library in Kütahya (1811), the Derviş Mehmed Pasha Library in Burdur (1818), the Zeynelzâde Library in Akhisar (1798), the Yūsuf Ziya Pasha Library in Keban (1797), the Tekeli-oğlu Library in Antalya (1796), the Necip Pasha Library in Tire (1826), and the Kavalalı Mehmed Ali Pasha in Kavala (1813).

In the era of Mahmud II (1808–1839) reforms were made not only to the military arena, but also to administrative functions, particularly concerning foundation institutions. These changes naturally affected the libraries. Rather than making efforts to establish new libraries in Istanbul, work was intensified on carrying out stocktaking of these libraries and preparing catalogs. At the beginning of the nineteenth century there was a library next to or inside every mosque in Istanbul as well as in many tekkes (dervish lodges). The number of libraries established in other cities, towns, and even villages increased.

In the era of Mahmud II, two important tekke libraries were established in Istanbul. The library established by Mehmed Said Hâlet Efendi in the Galata Mevlevihâne is remarkable for the large number of historical and literary works, particularly works on taṣawwuf. In 1836 the minister of the interior, Mehmed Said Pertev Pasha, added dervish cells, a refectory, and a library with a rich collection to the Selimiye Nakshibendi dergâh in Çiçekçi, Üsküdar.

Endowment libraries, which served Ottoman society and educational institutions over the centuries, were unable to preserve their position in the education system, particularly after the Tanzimat. At the beginning of the nineteenth century endowment libraries were incapable of meeting the needs of the newly established educational institutions; a need for a new type of library was perceived and many school libraries that consisted of works on basic sciences and technology in foreign languages were established. Moreover, due to the developing relationship with the West some of the Ottoman intellectuals started to take actions toward establishing public libraries. Thus engineering, medical, and law school libraries were established. Public libraries were established in the cities. Both gradually took the place of endowment libraries.

In the eras of Abdülmecid (r. 1839–1861) and Abdülaziz (r. 1861–1876), libraries were established in educational institutions like the Darülfünun (university) and the Mekteb‑i Tıbbiye (medical school) and some efforts were made toward reforming the foundation libraries. Abdülhamid II (1876–1909) applied a conciliatory policy to the matter of madrasah-mektep; he implemented this also in librarianship. While making efforts to carry out reforms in the foundation libraries, to prepare catalogs, and to provide regular service, libraries acquired collections in foreign languages. Efforts were made to bring books in Balkan cities, which were no longer under Ottoman rule, to Istanbul. The idea of establishing a public library in Istanbul and Damascus was developed during the reign of Abdülhamid II and libraries were set up in a number of educational institutions in Balıkesir, Eskişehir, Manastır, and Bursa by the sultan. The establishment of the Kütüphane-i Umumi (public library) was carried out according to an edict dated 27 September 1882; this was the forerunner of the Beyazid Public Library and was opened to the public on 24 June 1884. Other than the small collection in the Shaikh Zāfir Efendi mausoleum, no other important foundation library was established by Abdülhamid II. Abdülhamid II reformed rather than established foundation libraries.

At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, libraries were established both in Istanbul and outside the capital. Four independent libraries were established in Istanbul around the turn of the century: the Esʾad Efendi Library in Sultanahmet (1846), the Hüsrev Pasha Library (1854) and the Hasan Hüsnü Pasha Library in Eyüp (1896), and the Aziz Mahmud Hüdâyî Library (1916) in Üsküdar. The Hüsrev Pasha, Hasan Hüsnü Pasha, and Aziz Mahmud Hüdâyî libraries were independent in structure; these had collections of about a thousand books each. However the Esʾad Efendi Library was different, both in the number of books and their concentration on history and literature. Esʾad Efendi was a well-known bibliophile, and for this reason a large section of the approximately five thousand works in the library consisted of manuscripts.


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İsmail E. Erünsal