Rare Books Library Turns Over an Old Leaf for the Modern Age

Tucked away in Jerusalem's Old City, between the entrance to the David Street market and the Armenian Quarter is one of Jerusalem's unsung treasures - a small room chock full of books, letters and documents in the historic Christ Church complex. Many of the documents are hand-written in the flowery style of the 19th century or earlier, written by Europeans, particularly the British, who lived and worked here. Coming to the documents' hopeful rescue is a recently initiated project that applies a combination of cutting edge technology and devotion to history to set them on their way toward digitalization as a means of preserving the stories they tell for future generations.

"Every time I turn a page or unfold an old letter, it's like opening a window into 19th century Palestine, a window that not many people have been able to look into," Niek Arentsen, a theologian and the volunteer librarian says of his work for the past two years.

The Conrad Schick Library, which was started in the 19th century by the missionaries of the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity Among the Jews, is located in a 6-by-15 meter room. The chamber is one of many in the complex whose thick stone walls and cruciform ceilings identify it as among the original rooms of Christ Church, the first Protestant church in the Middle East built in the mid-1800s.

The treasures and the mysteries begin to emerge when Arentsen opens the double glass doors of the rare documents cabinet built into an old stone arch. "Take a look at this," the young, lanky curly-haired Dutchman says, gingerly peeling back the cover of a guidebook to the Holy Land, by one "Thomas Tymme Minister," printed in London in 1595. The book, containing such Holy City highlights as "House of the Rich Glutton" and "House of the Forest of Lebanon," also included a numbered map.

To explain what the library is all about, Arentsen's supervisor and Christ Church's new rector, Rev. David Pileggi pulls out one of the thousands of glass slides the library also owns. He holds it up, illuminating it in the afternoon Jerusalem sunlight streaming though the windows from the Christ Church courtyard. This one depicts nurses standing next to the beds of patients on a ward of the first hospital in Jerusalem, founded by the missionaries. "Life is complicated," Pileggi says, using the slide to segue into what is obviously a pet subject of his--dispelling the notion that nineteenth-century European Christians "were only interested in converting Jews to hasten Jesus' second coming."

Pileggi, an affable and talkative Floridian who has lived in Israel for 28 years broaches an issue that raises hackles in Jewish and Israeli society. He concedes the hospital's missionary purpose, but seems intent on getting across that it was "mixed with a deep sympathy for the Jews that came from reading the Bible. When you read the Bible and immerse yourself in its culture, as they did in places like England, Holland, and parts of Germany, you begin to identify with the main characters. That's certainly part of what these people were doing."

But the sensitive issue of missionaries and their motives are only one aspect reflected by many of the approximately 3,500 books, 500 letters and 70 maps the library now holds. The collection is also a treasure trove of Christian, Jewish and Muslim daily life in nineteenth-century Jerusalem, providing an invaluable primary source for scholars of this fascinating era who, the 52-year-old Pileggi stresses, are the only ones allowed use of the library.

Pileggi says the library's niche is 19th-century Christian involvement in the Holy Land, the Christian contribution to Jewish and Palestinian nationalism, and to the Zionist enterprise. But how did the missionaries contribute to Zionism? The question brings Pileggi back to the old glass slide of the hospital ward, explaining that missionaries spurred "Jews to open their own hospital." He explains the irony thus: 19th-century Jerusalem Jews patronized the Christian hospital, which was the only one in the city when it opened in 1844. However, Jewish community leaders eventually forbade them from using the hospital for fear it would lead to their conversion to Christianity. But the crying need for medical care in the overcrowded Jewish Quarter of those days had to be met, and so 10 years later, the Rothschilds sponsored the first Jewish house of healing.

Going digital

The precious documents found in the rare holdings closet put the Conrad Schick Library on a list of over 50 priceless collections whose preservation and digitalization is the goal of the Historical Libraries and Archives Survey, a project under the wing of the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London. Along with the Conrad Schick Library, the survey aims to preserve and digitize collections throughout Jerusalem - from the Afeefi family's 43 Arabic manuscripts on astronomy and other science kept in their Jerusalem home to the library in the ancient Syriac Orthodox St Mark's church with at least 300 manuscripts, the Al Aqsa Mosque repository with about 1,000 manuscripts and hundreds of ancient Korans, and the collection of the Admor of Karlin with more than 800 manuscripts, some centuries old. Dr. Merav Mack, 35, a Cambridge University-educated medieval scholar and a fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, is a consultant on the project along with colleague Peter Jacobsen. "We think the project is important because the city's written treasures are of such enormous educational and cultural value to our global heritage."

Arentsen had to fill out a digital questionnaire to join Mack's project and provide an example of his library's holdings. He says he chose journals of Danish pastor John Nicolayson because he "was the first Protestant allowed by the Turks to live in Jerusalem." Nicolayson came to Jerusalem in 1831, shortly after Mohammed Ali overthrew Turkish rule, recalls Arentsen. The writings, which include flowery English, also surprise readers with beautifully penned Hebrew phrases he recorded as he mused over biblical passages.

Only a small number of the library's holdings are in Jerusalem because employees took most of them back to England over the years. Some were used in exhibitions about the Holy Land, as were architectural models built by the prolific and colorful German architect Conrad Schick after whom the library is named. For lack of space, over the years the society transferred most of the holdings to the Bodleian Library of Oxford University. Those documents are to remain where they are, but a small library at the society's headquarters in St. Albans, north of London, is to be transferred to Jerusalem soon, quadrupling the Conrad Schick holdings. The treasures set to join the Jerusalem collection include letters written as far back as the 1830s by Christians who lobbied for a Jewish return to the land. Among them are letters by W.H. Heschler, a chaplain of the British embassy in Vienna whom Pileggi describes as Theodore Herzl's "Christian cheerleader." After reading Theodore Herzl's Der Judenstadt, Pileggi says Heschler presented Herzl's case to all who would listen, making him "the unofficial foreign minister of the Zionist movement."

Letters in Arabic are still waiting to be catalogued. Some of these seem prosaic, recording various business transactions in the 19th century. But Pileggi says they record the work the missionaries did in raising the education level of Arab Christians and in women's status.

What are they doing here?

Some of these tomes, like a geographical study of the Holy Land called "Tent Work in Palestine," published in 1879 by British explorer C.R. Conder for the Palestine Exploration Fund, is understandably in the collection. But how did a Hebrew ketuba (marriage document) dated "5099 of the creation of the world" - 1339 CE - come to be here? Arentsen admits he has no idea but turns over the fragile, flower-framed document to point out a single clue. On the back read an anonymous notation penciled in fading script and dated 1909: "a marriage contract from the library of a Jew from Tehran."

Another curiosity is a map from 1841, printed on linen by biblical geographer James Hanauer. It reminds us that if we were to travel in that year along today's traffic-clogged road from the Sultan's Pool to Mount Zion, we would pass "David's Castle," "Haret el Yehud (Jews' Quarter)," the "Mohamadan School" and the "Prickly Pears." Hannauer's daughter Emily happens to appears in what Pileggi says is the most popular book in the library, which records her teaching career in Damascus. Her name appears in a list of names of hundreds of people of all ages, skills and education needing help from, or offering it to, the missionary society - written in flourishing Arabic. "We have Israelis coming in here all the time telling us they think their great-grandfather or some other relative worked for the society," Pileggi says, adding that one of the rewards of his work is being able to put people in touch with their past and trade information.

One genealogical source is the leather-bound record of baptisms at Christ Church from 1839 to 2001. The first entry is "Wilson, Charles Simeon Rosenthal, Adult Israelite," who may be the Simeon Rosenthal identified by one historical source as the dragoman (interpreter) to mid-nineteenth-century British Consul James Finn, whose infant daughter Constance's name appears further down on that page.

Why is an Anglican Church library named after the German architect Conrad Schick? "Everybody knows him, it's a sexy name in historical circles," Pileggi says half-jokingly. But he goes on to explain that Schick, who worked in the compound's vocational school and drew up plans for its renovation (and also designed the neighborhood of Meah She'arim, among many famous Jerusalem buildings), sums up what he says the library is about. "He personified the type of person who came to Palestine out of genuine compassion, and this is our way of paying tribute."