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Silent Witnesses to History

Silent Witnesses to History

Salaam Dear Reader,

Lasting just under four years, the Siege of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1996 was the longest siege of a capital city in modern history. The atrocities against a civilian population were matched only by the systematic targeting of mosques, madrasa, Sufi tekke, institutions, libraries, archives and even cemeteries. The goal was to annihilate any trace of Muslim existence on Bosnian soil. It was genocide.

Regarded as the Damascus of the North, Sarajevo was a centre of learning and had a long-standing book culture that stretched centuries. During the siege, the National and University Library was an early target. The library was housed in the iconic Vijećnica, completed in 1894 in the Moorish Islamic style, and located at the heart of the Ottoman city. The library was reduced to rubble in a matter of days in August 1992. Over 1.5 million books, manuscripts, maps, photographs and other cultural items were destroyed.

Another significant target was the Gazi Husrev-Beg Library, but thankfully much of its most valuable manuscripts had been hidden away in vaults just in time. Otherwise, the oldest manuscript of Imam al-Ghazali's Ihya ’ulum al-din, copied during the Imam's lifetime in 1105, would have been lost to the world. The Gazi Husrev-Beg Library was rebuilt in 2014 and its manuscript collection, consisting of over 10,000 pieces is now included in UNESCO's Memory of the World Register.

The knowledge we now are privileged to reference from books have been secured by unseen and unknown men and women of learning across millennia.

Were it not for books and historical record, it would be hard to fathom the lengths human beings have gone to eradicate not just the lives of individuals but whole ethnic and religious groups. And we have to know this because it keeps happening.

In the midst of the on-going cultural destruction in Xinjiang, a revised edition of James A. Millward's Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang has just been published. With the first edition in 2007, this revised edition published in February 2021 adds a new chapter that catches up with the events of recent years; events that both the United States and the United Kingdom have declared in 2021 to be genocide. Millward's work covers the complex politics, ecologies, cultures, languages, and religions (including Shamanism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, and Islam) of Xinjiang in northwest China from the Bronze Age to the present. 

The lives of books are measured in centuries, and because of this, they stand as silent witnesses to history. The knowledge we now are privileged to reference from books have been secured by unseen and unknown men and women of learning across millennia. 

May our legacy to the generations that follow be knowledge, not destruction.

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