Yesterday we visited the King Faisal Foundation, a foundation established in 1976 by the sons of the late king in his honor. It is one of the largest philanthropic foundations in the world, and during our visit we were given a description of its purpose and a tour of its fantastic collection of historical manuscripts. These manuscripts are kept in the facility we visited, the King Faisal center for Research and Islamic Studies. Our visit to the foundation and the facility was very interesting, as it revealed the Saudi commitment to preserving its cultural and historic heritage as well as its leading role in providing charity work across the Islamic world.
Upon arriving, we were first given a description of the foundation’s charity work. The foundation presents an annual award, called the King Faisal International Prize, which honors individuals who make a positive contribution to human progress. The prizes are awarded in various categories, which include service to Islam, Islamic studies, Arabic language and literature, science, and literature. The people we talked to tried to reinforce the point that these awards, as well as this foundation, is intended to highlight the importance of Islamic culture and heritage while also showing that the Islamic world is committed to the further betterment of all of humankind. Seeing how committed the people working in the foundation were to awarding good works was refreshing, as it demonstrated how the people of the Kingdom are thinking about humanity at large and about the improvement of not only their own culture but the culture of the entire globe.
They also discussed the work the foundation does in preserving and making accessible historical manuscripts and the Islamic cultural heritage. The foundation works hard to locate, authenticate, acquire, and copy all of the known Islamic manuscripts in the world. Presently, there are more than 250,000 historical works in the foundation’s library. Working with other libraries and universities across the world, they share and trade the manuscripts and historical works so that they can be accessed and be known everywhere. They then hope to make these manuscripts available to researchers and students, and they discussed the process someone interested in accessing a manuscript would go through to do so. The library the foundation possesses is technologically advanced, so that one of the many manuscripts and works available can be quickly accessed and made available to the researcher. We were shown this library, and I was very impressed by the ease of access to the vast collection that their advanced library allows.
A major part of collecting and preserving these historical works, some of which are thousands of years old and come from fascinating periods of time such as the Abbasid and Mamluk periods of Islamic history, is working to restore them. We were shown this restoration process, which takes place inside the facility. It was exciting and fascinating to see this restoration process. I am very interested in old historical works, so seeing how they are kept in top quality peaked my curiosity. First, the manuscripts are put in a freezer which deep freezes them, killing any microorganisms which might damage or destroy the paper the manuscripts are written on. Then, the pieces of the manuscript which remain are glued onto acid-free paper, which will be able to last a very long time. These pages are then bound in a book, so that the manuscript is restored into its original book form. From there, the manuscripts are either put in the library or put into the showroom.
Our visit to the showroom was perhaps my favorite part of the trip. It showcased some of the most important, beautiful, and ancient cultural works of the Islamic world. Among what we saw was a thousand year old Koran and beautiful and intricate works of calligraphy. There were ancient works on astronomy and medicine which came from the Islamic “golden age.” One of the most fascinating artifacts they had was, in my opinion, a complete collection of Napoleon’s surveys of Egypt made during his campaign in Egypt. It was amazing looking at these pieces of work and knowing that they came from thousands of years ago, that some calligrapher or scientist living in a center of learning and knowledge many generations ago was putting the very same ink on the very same page that I was directly staring at. Looking at these cultural artifacts was literally looking directly into the past, which was amazing for someone who is as interested in history as me. The incredibly artistic quality of these manuscripts was mind-blowing as well. Each one of them was a beautiful work of art, and I was incredibly impressed by the fact that someone produced them. I would never be able to achieve the level of skill needed to produce these works of art, so it was amazing to know that someone in the distant past did.
Preserving humanity’s historical heritage is vitally important for our future development. Only by recognizing and admiring the past can we move into developing the future. Not only this, but acknowledging the incredible achievements of the distant past allows us to realize that humanity has always been achieving incredible things. For a culture like Arabian culture where tradition and Islamic heritage is a key part of society, keeping the memory of the past alive is necessary. For me, I think preserving the past is important if only because losing it means that we have lost the achievements and memory of the people who came before us. It is very reassuring to know that foundations such as this are dedicated to ensuring that the works of the past will not be destroyed, so that their memory can continue far into the future.