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The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Wine bar on 2200 Penn opens doors
By Ella Mitchell, Contributing News Editor • June 14, 2024

Arabian nights and adventures in Gelman

In a locked room on the second floor of Gelman Library sit hundreds of rare Middle Eastern books in brilliant jeweled colors of red, green and gold, with hand-sewn and individually stamped covers. Some are nearly 400 years old, filled with history, legends, adventure and some mystery. With titles like “Tomb of Senebtisi” and “Picturesque Egypt,” these books are a portal into a different world.

Gelman Library’s staff recently finished cataloging the Middle East Institute Rare Book Collection, which features more than 700 volumes of literature from western, eastern and central Asia.

The acquisition of this collection was made possible by a grant from Kuwait that GW received last year. The money was used to purchase books from the George Camp Kaiser Library of the Middle East Institute in March 2008, said Marc Lynch, the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies in the Elliott School of International Affairs.

The collection consists of texts printed all over the Islamic world, found in places as diverse as the former Ottoman Empire, the Horn of Africa, Central Asia and India.

Lynch said he was eager to see how the collection could further Middle Eastern studies at GW.

“We see it as a part of our growing investment in the Middle East Collection at Gelman and as part of the growing commitment to the Institute for Middle East Studies,” he said in an e-mail.

Many of the volumes are English translations of sacred or classical texts, while others are written in their original languages such as French, German, Turkish, Arabic and Farsi. Most of the collection consists of geography books or travelogues, and covers topics on architecture, religion, politics, literature, history and culture. There are more than 120 authors represented in the collection.

The oldest book in the group is the 1638 Spanish translation of Moses Almosnino’s “Extremos y Grandezas de Constantinopla.” Perhaps the most famous is Edward Lane’s English version of “The Thousand and One Nights,” better known as “Arabian Nights.”

“I think it has a lot of potential for a lot of different departments. Definitely, those early translations and early editions of books would be interesting to an early studies department,” said Jenny Kinniff, the public services and outreach librarian for special collections. “Any kind of class that’s studying that area, it could be a history class, it could be Middle East studies, even American studies.”

Kinniff said classes are already taking advantage of this series. Students in a course on American involvement in the Middle East are scheduled to see some of the English-language books so that they can analyze the authors’ perspectives on the Middle East.

The Special Collections department is different from the rest of the library in that it is open to the public, and students from American, Georgetown and other D.C. area schools also have access to the collection. Kinniff said she is optimistic that this collection will garner outside attention, and that it will attract others in the academic world.

“Any researchers in the D.C. area and even farther, if they want to travel here to look at the stuff, are able to come. So I think that it will attract researchers from all sorts of different colleges and institutes,” Kinniff said.

The books in the collection are not the only such rare pieces in Gelman. Similar volumes held by the University include the “Samuel Halperin and Henry Epstein Maps of the Holy Land” collection and “Arabic History of the Rulers of the East and Morocco,” a manuscript donated in 1968 by H.R.H. Muhammad V, former king of Morocco.

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