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Sacred: The British Library's Exhibit on Jewish, Christian and Muslim Faith Books

abstract: For the first time the rarest and most exquisite examples of the sacred texts of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths are on display together at the British Library: Torahs, Bibles and Qur’ans. If you are in London this summer it is worth a visit. If not, browse the BL's interactive online exhibit for a look at what these texts have meant to "people of the book" all around the world for centuries. It includes videos with discussions by historians and religious experts, a chance to "flip through" the books that are on display, and more. In these troubled times, it behooves us to understand the similarities between world religions. Here is a taste of my visit...


August 02, 2007

Background on the British Library

As you step onto the expansive courtyard of the British Library, all about you is the red brick architecture of the largest structure in the UK built in the twentieth century. The modern recto-linear design is a stunning contrast to the elaborate Victorian building next door, whose decorative spires are visible from the courtyard rising above the flat roof lines of the library. That building is the Midland Grant Hotel (which was built in 1876 and is often confused as St. Pancras Station). Both structures are dramatic in proportion as well as style; they span a full city block each. It is all located near the British Museum in the center of London.

Inside the British Library is a grand open space with a four-story central vault of smoked glass displaying the 65,000 volumes of the library of King George III. This valuable donation became the foundation of the British Library's archive, which now has over 150 million books and artifacts. Every language in the world is represented. However, visitors cannot walk among the stacks. With the exception of specific books on display behind cases (like the original Magna Carta and the Beatles' song sheets), everything is kept in storage out of view, both on and off-site.

To examine a book, or map, or scroll, or music sheet, or collection of letters, you must first apply for a reader's card. Next you make an electronic search and submit a request list. The items (a maximum of ten per day) are then delivered to the secure reading room of your choice within the building. You can even designate which seat you are sitting at as they are all numbered. There are strict guidelines for the handling of materials and security people make regular rounds. Maps are viewed behind cellophane sheets, scrolls are provided with tiny sandbags to hold their position, padded book rests are provided to protect the spines of old books, which must be supported properly when opened, and you may even have to wear gloves. Some items require additional clearance procedures -- a letter of introduction, etc. No pens, phones, food or drink can be brought into the reading rooms. Your personal items must be transfered to a clear plastic bag provided at the cloak room, and you can only use a pencil to write, or use your laptop at designated stations.

It can take from seventy minutes to two days to receive your request from among the vast variety and exquisite collection. Items are not "borrowed," as in removed from the premises. You must return them to the desk that issued them when you are finished for the day. However, they do allow you to reserve your picks for the next day, and this speeds up the process as you simply present your reader card to the attendant to collect your saved items. Click here for a somewhat sassy article describing my research experience at this venerated institution.

The Sacred Exhibit

Today I am here to visit the Sacred exhibit, so I veer over to the left side where the special exhibit entrance is located. With my audio-guide headset on, and the recorder dialed to the tour introduction, I follow the signs down a darkening corridor. I am surrounded by sensory input, the sound of chanting and liturgies in foreign languages. Reaching a cool, darkened room my eyes adjust to see antique manuscripts illuminated and propped open in glass cases that line the walls. In the center is a square, block-like enclosure made of sheer floor-to-ceiling curtains. They are alive with projected soft images and patterns washing the area with movement and light. The enclosure is a representation of the sacred cloth that covers the shrine at Mecca in Medina each year, where Muslim pilgrams visit, at least once in their lifetime, in adherence to one of the five pillars of their faith.

Inside this tent is the first case displaying the earliest known examples of each sacred text, which are written in corresponding languages: Arabic, Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. The books are large, their pages exceptionally preserved, the script dramatic in its artful penmanship of the serif and sans serif characters, two of which are read from right to left. I stand beside people who appear to be able to read the texts; there are two bent-backed men wearing yarmulkas whose lips are moving in silent recitation; Muslim women in traditional head-to-toe black hooded garments, with a single band open to reveal their eyes, float about the room. Indeed there are people of many nationalities and faiths, as evidenced by the turbans and headscarves and various western dress and whispers of languages overheard.

At each stop where the audio tour of the exhibit highlights a particular text or artifact, there is a snippet of chanting in the appropriate faith, followed by the curator or another scholar's description of what we are looking at, its significance and historic implications. Here is a link to the details of the collection. Often the books of different religions are side-by-side, with each open to the passage describing the same story, told from that perspective. As 'the word' spread, so too did the translations of these texts. The first example of each of the three 'books' of a growing list of world languages -- some with incredibly ornate artwork and gold leaf -- are on view. There is a video demonstrating the calligraphy and gold leaf application techniques. There is a google map of the region with pin-points to sites for all three religions at different moments in history.

The British Library's examples of other world religions can be experienced here. Stories from Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Islamic, Jewish and Christianity.

In addition to the texts and other artifacts, there are architectural models of a church, a synagogue, and a mosque. Marriage is an occasion with distinct religious ceremonial practices. A video of three traditional marriage ceremonies and three traditional marriage gowns are on display. These are examples of how religion and culture become suffused.

London has one of the most diverse populations living together in one city on the planet. There are many examples of inter-faith practices going on here. Food, music, and art festivals of every kind abound. It is important to appreciate our differences, and recognize the similarities between us. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines religion as a human right: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief,..." (Article 18). Regardless of your belief or non-belief system, the Sacred exhibit is well worth a visit.



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