It was Ireland right enough—Dublin, in fact—and the grass by the library was as green as it's supposed to be. Inside, though, one would wonder. At a table, his head bowed in scholarly absorption, an elderly, robed Arab studied a roll of parchment alive with the cursive strokes of classical calligraphy. Beyond him another man studied a '10th-century manuscript entitled A Treatise on Falconry. In the gallery a group of hushed schoolchildren stared reverently at the rich coiling colors of an ancient Koran.
The locale ought really to have been Damascus or Medina, not Dublin. Calligraphic inscriptions, after all, and the techniques of falconry are much more appropriate to the sands of Arabia than to the lawns of Ireland. But it was not Damascus nor Medina—nor was it Mecca or Baghdad or Jerusalem. It was Dublin. To be exact it was No,. 20 Shrewsbury Road, in the Ballsbridge section of Dublin, the site of the Chester Beatty Library.
There are many persons who have not heard of the Chester Beatty Library. However, to those who have—certain scholars and connoisseurs of rare and beautiful' things—it is a very special institution, drawing to its quiet rooms scholars and students from throughout Europe, North America and the entire Arab world. The very name, in fact, suggests the quality, distinction and beauty of the rare, extraordinarily handsome manuscripts, tablets, texts and other objects of art that have been gathered in the cluster of brick buildings on Shrewsbury Road by the 90-year-old American copper millionnaire whose name the library bears: Sir Chester Beatty.
The amiable, approachable Sir Chester (who won his knighthood for contributions to Britain's war effort) was born just plain Alfred Chester Beatty in 1875 in New York City. He attended and graduated from the Columbia School of Mines at Columbia University, headed west, by train and stage coach, to Montana, Utah and the. Rocky Mountains and launched what was to be a spectacular career in mining. He pursued that career in Mexico, Southern Rhodesia, the Congo and Russia, becoming, while still a young man, a multimillionnaire of international prestige. In moving about the world, Sir Chester began to develop an interest in old manuscripts. Although he emphatically denies being a connoisseur ("I'm not a scholar, you know; I'm just a mining engineer with, a wheezy lung to prove it."), he had, even as early as 1913, purchased a number of rare manuscripts for his modest library. Then he and his wife made a visit to the Middle East and, while wandering in the bazaars, were attracted by the beauty of the many Arabic parchments, particularly by the illuminated Korans. He purchased several and, without knowing it, began the collection of Middle East manuscripts that was to become world famous.
It is believed that the Beatty collection is the largest private collection of manuscripts anywhere. In monetary terms, its 13,000 volumes and other objects of art are worth roughly $3,500,000. In artistic terms they are priceless. The texts, tablets and other objects illustrate the entire history of civilization. Items in the collection go back to 2500 B.C., yet include work done in the 20th century, too. In geographical origins they explore the globe from Ireland on the fringe of Western Europe all the way to Sumatra and Japan.
The oldest items are some Babylonian clay tablets once known as the "Berens Collection." There are more than 100 of these, some dating from about 2500 B.C. Several of them are impressed with interesting cylinder seals which indicate the scribes employed to write them. The next oldest records in the library are the Egyptian and Greek papyri, and the earliest of these is the hieratic papyrus, known as "Chester Beatty Papyrus No. 1," written in 1160 B.C. in Thebes during the reign of Ramses V. This long, mythological narrative includes what many experts say are the most intelligible, poetic love songs which have come down to us from ancient Egypt. The papyrus is in an excellent state of preservation, and the black and red script is still brilliant and vital. Another Egyptian papyrus roll of interest is The Book of the Dead of the Lady Neskhons, which can be placed about 300 B.C.
The Arabic texts—some 3,000 of them—form what is by far the largest group of manuscripts in the library, and Sir Chester, who makes no secret of his particular pride in them, has engaged A.T. Arberry, professor of Arabic at Cambridge University, to manage the gigantic task of cataloguing them. Six volumes have already been published as part of this enterprise, and more are to follow. The criteria in operation when these texts were being considered for the library were 1) exceptional age, 2) unusual rarity and 3) the presence of an author's autograph and/or annotations by especially famous theologians or scholars. This selectivity has been fruitful; today, one in three of them is said to be unique, and together the texts cover a vast range of religious and secular literature, as well as such unconventional works as a treatise on poisons and their antidotes, another on the magical properties of letters and numbers, astrology manuals, instructions on the employment of amulets, a study of ophthalmology, and a compendium of Aristotle on logic dated, 1045.
Among the loveliest texts in the library are the 250 illuminated copies of the Koran. The art in which Islam achieved its richest artistic expression, book illustration, was at first an art of geometric ornament, with vegetal patterns as secondary motifs separating the verses. Later, with calligraphic inscriptions, integrated designs were arranged to separate chapters, to embellish margins and to point to passages where ritual prostration was required. In the end, elaborate full-page frontispieces were added.
Sir Chester's Korans span about 1,000 years and represent most countries of the Islamic world. Perhaps the most exquisite were made in Persia where miniaturists achieved a delicate perfection of drawing, sumptuous coloring and meticulous binding and enamel-work, all disclosing a deep dedication and reverence. Among the more memorable Korans is a magnificent 9th-century fragment written in gold on blue vellum. There are some decorated pages from a Persian Koran of about 1400 A.D. and sections of a text in a peculiar, sophisticated and very rare Persian kufic script. There is a series of notable Egyptian Korans and decorated pages of the Mameluke period (the 13th to the 16th century), some so large one might presume they might have been intended for use in mosques. There are also numerous bindings remarkable for their engravings.
To those who hear of the Chester Beatty Library for the first time, it somehow seems incongruous; Ireland simply doesn't seem to be the proper location for a great collection of Islamic art. Yet for all the apparent differences between the Celtic world and the Arab world, the great manuscripts are not altogether on foreign soil. Ireland, after all, has its own tradition of book illumination brought to stunning perfection in the Book of Kells, and behind that tradition was the same spiritual drive. The Gaelic scribes played no small role in the preservation of northern civilization's vital records during the Dark Ages and their role was not unlike that of the Arabs, who preserved so much of Western philosophy and science in their manuscripts. The incongruity of Arab texts in Ireland is more illusory than real, and although there are no jabals, no minarets, no dhows visible from the library windows, one would hope, even expect that the brilliant craftsmen who created the beauties of the texts would not be unhappy to find their treasures on Shrewsbury Road.
Peggy McCarthy is a free lance writer who spent many years in Saudi Arabia. She now lives in Ireland's County Kildare and contributes to newspapers and magazines.