Marriott Library home to rare papyri collection

By Blair Dee Hodges, Staff Writer

A collection of ancient Arabic papyri at the Marriott Library has been named among eight world-class archival treasures.

The collection of papyri, paper and parchment housed in the Rare Books section of Special Collections is the largest of its kind in North America, said Peter von Sivers, a history professor. It was recognized in the March issue of Smithsonian magazine among other world-renowned library collections.

“It’s a glorious thing to have here,” von Sivers said. “Of course, it doesn’t compare to the size of some collections in Europe. Nevertheless, since the collection was gathered relatively late in the ’60s, very few people know about it or have begun working on them, so it’s still a matter for much exploration.”

Von Sivers said the papyrus collection is especially interesting. About 770 pieces dated between 700 and 1000 C.E. hold significance for scholars studying the origins of Islamic civilization. The collection includes personal letters, poetry, tax documents, receipts and other non-public records from the first two centuries of Islamic rule in Egypt.

“In most other parts of the world like India, China, Europe, for this time period we don’t have much in terms of unofficial literature like this,” von Sivers said. “Records like this on papyri were limited to Egypt where the dry climate preserved them, which makes the papyri especially significant.”

Matt Malczycki, professor of Middle East studies at Auburn University in Alabama, used the collection while completing his doctorate degree in history from the U in 2006. He said the collection is one of the best-kept secrets in the field of Islamic studies.

“As is the case with all religions, Islam didn’t appear overnight8212;it is a process,” Malczycki said. “And these papyri provide some of the best evidence we can use to reconstruct how that process took place. That has implications for religion, the academy and global politics.”

Luise Poulton, curator of rare books at the library, praised professor Aziz Suriyal Atiya for his work in building both the Middle East Center and Middle East Library at the U from 1959 to 1988, which helped establish the collection.

“It wasn’t only the materials he donated but the time as well,” Poulton said. “So this collection is part of his legacy to the university, Islamic studies and the world.”

The fragile papyri are housed in a vault at the library where the light and temperature are constantly controlled. Each piece is placed between glass, inside foam pockets. The pockets are kept in hanging file folders in locked cabinets.

Poulton said scholars and students who wish to see or study the papyri are allowed to do so only in the reading room of Special Collections.

Special Collections is currently digitizing the collection so it can be viewed online by scholars throughout the world. Poulton said less than 10 percent of the collection has been digitalized so far and can be accessed on the U’s Special Collections Web site, She believes the entire collection will be completed in the next few years.

“There’s nothing like seeing the beauty of the real thing, and most serious scholars will find it necessary to come here to study them,” Poulton said. “However, there was a time when, unless you could come here, you couldn’t see them, and now you can.”

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