A Cornucopia of Historic Delights

By Smith, Pamela Ann | The Middle East, March 2001 | Go to article overview

A Cornucopia of Historic Delights


Smith, Pamela Ann, The Middle East


Decades after the first rush of oil wealth, the days when many people in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar or the Emirates rushed to accept all that was new without question are drawing to a close. Today the need to marry technological progress with a reverence for the cultural past is widely accepted, a realisation that has fostered the development of new preservation schemes throughout the Gulf.

The newly opened Bait Al-Zubair Museum in Muscat, which houses a splendid collection of traditional Omani weapons, jewellery, cosmetics and costumes, as well as documents, photographs and paintings, is one example. So, too, is the sensitive restoration of the late King Faisal's adobe-built farm at Al Udhaibat, northwest of Riyadh, and the painstaking work of recording and preserving the 17th and 18th century boat carvings at Jebel Al Jusasiyah on the Qatari coast.

Significantly, the last two projects have been documented in books published recently in Britain by The London Centre for Arab Studies and Stacey International, respectively. Both have found a very welcome audience not just in Europe but also among other English-speaking readers in the Gulf and elsewhere in the Arab world. They demonstrate that readers in the Middle East -- nationals as well as expatriates -- are more ready to look abroad for the material needed to assess and value the region's own rich heritage.

One of the sources that is only now being fully appreciated is the wealth of rare and antiquarian books, maps, prints and photographs available in Europe from leading specialist dealers and auction houses. For those interested in the Islamic world, from the Levant and North Africa to the Gulf states, Iran and Central Asia, one of the most innovative and useful starting points is the London, based Stocklight Ltd, a partnership of an Italian businessman, Tommaso Zanzotto, and Bernard Shapero, a leading specialist British dealer who has been operating in the field since 1979.

Stocklight owns and operates the Shapero Rare Books Gallery situated in a five-storey Georgian house in the heart of London's Mayfair; the Gallery Downstairs and Shapero Gallery, which specialise in antiquarian prints, maps and original works on paper; The Travellers' Bookshop -- a leading dealer in travel guides; Bloomsbury Book Auctions and Alimset Ltd., a firm which values and acquires private collections.

Significantly, Stocklight has recently developed dedicated websites for each of its areas of business, making its activities and unique reference information easily accessible from anywhere in the Middle East. Books, prints and maps can be purchased on line, and a new auction site is due to open in the next few months. The firm is already featured as the official link for rare books and auctions on eBay.com, but its own beautifully printed and lavishly illustrated catalogues are well worth ordering as well.

"The increased disposable income" in the region "is marked by an increase in social awareness and by an increasing interest in antiquities and in rare books," observes Zanzotto. "Petra in Jordan is now more than just a jewel to the Jordanians, it is appreciated by people from Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha." Content is now more important, he adds, hence the interest in libraries and books. "Rather than being inward looking, people are becoming outward looking and are accepting other tastes and fashions without denying their own."

Historical travel books by British writers are a unique source of information, as well as rare prints and maps, on the Islamic world, notes Shapero. "Ninety per cent of the travel books on the Middle East and Islamic countries are by Western or Turkish writers. There really are not that many travel books in Arabic from the 17th, 18th, 19th or 20th centuries." Arab writers have tended, he adds, to prefer subjects such as religion, science and medicine, or stories and poetry.

A first edition of Richard Burton's Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El Medina and Mecca, he says, "is quite rare," and, like all of the famed adventurer's books, "heavily collected. …

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