Süleymaniye Library (Süleymaniye Kütüphanesi) is the largest manuscript library in Turkey and preserves one of the world’s most extensive collections of Islamic manuscripts. Since its establishment in 1918, the library’s vast collection of manuscripts has made it one of the most important centers for researchers working on all periods and regions of the Islamic world. The library is located within the Süleymaniye Mosque complex in the Fatih district of Istanbul.
The library is situated in two of the medreses built in the mid-sixteenth century as part of the mosque complex commissioned by Sultan Süleyman and designed by the Ottoman architect Sinan. The libraries of the mosque and medrese have existed since the complex’s establishment, but only in the early twentieth century did they become a public research library. The establishment of the Süleymaniye Umumi Kütüphanesi was an outgrowth of the First World War. Established in 1918, it consolidated the collections of the medrese and mosque along with manuscripts from the provinces that had been transferred to Istanbul for safekeeping for the duration of the war. With the closing of traditional institutions of religious learning in 1924, the library’s collection was supplemented by the considerable holdings of various mosques, Sufi lodges, and medreses in Istanbul. Since that time, the library’s collection has grown through the further consolidation of the manuscript libraries of Turkey and today the library continues to add new works primarily through private donations. Between 2002 and 2011 the library digitized its entire collection of manuscripts, which are now all accessible from computer stations in the reading room, but not online. Today this work continues with respect to the library’s printed works.
As one of the largest collections of Islamic manuscripts in the world, Süleymaniye Library provides researchers enough material to research for a lifetime. Currently, the collection consists of approximately 100,000 manuscript volumes and 50,000 printed books. It is impossible to describe thematically the extent of the collections, but one can say that they touch heavily upon topics such as law and jurisprudence, belle lettres, morality texts and sermons, sciences such as logic, rhetoric and grammar, as well as a wide array of other bodies of knowledge. In many ways, the books reflect the diverse and varied interests of the generations of scholars who spent their lives in the medreses, libraries, and palaces of Istanbul and beyond. It is a treasure trove not just for Ottomanists, but also for researchers working on all periods of Islamic history both within the Ottoman Empire and beyond. Manuscripts range in copy date from the eleventh century to the twentieth century, with the majority produced in the seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries. In terms of a rough estimate, we believe that perhaps sixty percent of the manuscripts are in Arabic, thirty percent in Turkish, ten percent in Persian and a smattering of manuscripts in other languages. Süleymaniye Library also holds an extensive collection of printed material in Ottoman Turkish, Arabic, and Persian as well as in European languages. In addition, the private notes and archives of some twentieth-century historians, like Süheyl Ünver, are also kept in the library. Finally, the collection contains significant examples of hat, levha, and ebru.
All of the manuscripts and many of the printed works are digitized. All books are viewed through the library’s computer terminals but one may request special permission in order to view the physical manuscript. Materials are organized according to the original collections to which they belonged, i.e. the mosque, dervish lodge or private library from which they came. The main catalog is electronic and only accessible at the library. However, the researchers can access a partial electronic catalog of Süleymaniye Library’s materials through the Türkiye Kütüphaneleri Veri Tabanı at ISAM. (See our review of ISAM.) Researchers can still consult the earlier card catalog, the Union Catalogue of Manuscripts in Turkey, and photocopies of the nineteenth-century catalogs, both printed and hand-written in rıka script—all available in the library’s reading room. While the electronic catalog is much more efficient, the older catalogs provide different information on the manuscripts often excluded in later catalogs. While such information is usually useful, it is not necessarily more or less reliable than later catalogs. For those who prefer reading in the Arabic alphabet, in 2010 a three-volume catalog in Arabic of the original Süleymaniye collection’s holdings was published. Of course, this Arabic-language catalog only covers a small portion of the library’s overall collection. The library’s computer catalog also includes the collections of other manuscript libraries in Istanbul. Some of these can be viewed electronically at Süleymaniye (Nuruosmaniye, etc.) while others must be consulted—whether digitally or physically—at their respective libraries (Beyazıt and Millet). For other collections, such as Kandilli Rasathane or Edirne Selimiye, the library provides an incomplete list of digitized manuscripts in the computer catalog.
Süleymaniye Library’s computer catalog is a wonderful resource on its own but requires some practice to master. First, users should know that they can only enter their queries using the conventions of modern Turkish transliteration rather than traditional Arabic transliteration or the original Arabic (e.g. şeyhülislam rather than shaykh al-islam or شيخ الاسلام). Researchers can search by author name, title, date, subject, etc. though one must keep in mind that the catalog is not entirely reliable. Titles and names are often transliterated in multiple ways, texts are routinely mislabeled, and many texts and marginal works are left out of the catalog if the cataloger decided that it was not important. Copy dates are usually accurate and present on perhaps one fourth of the texts in the catalog, though if one examines the undated texts, about half of those will actually have copy dates as well. Of course, readers, commentators, and copyists throughout the centuries did not give a text the exact same title and so researchers should be prepared for variant author names and titles. Finally, the vast majority of titles that are displayed in the search results are actually in mecmuas (compendia or miscellanies). Researchers must access these by first looking up the manuscript volume containing the text by the accession number (demirbaş) and then going to the first work in the mecmua to open the digital copy. While these obstacles might be discouraging, they also provide researchers opportunities to discover many unexpected treatises.
The quality of the digitized manuscripts varies widely. Süleymaniye was one of the first libraries in the world to begin a systematic digitization of its collections and therefore many of the electronic copies have significant quality problems. In the initial stage of digitalization, the library digitized manuscripts in an ad hoc manner, using researchers’ cameras and whatever equipment that was available at hand. Most of the problems in the digital copies are the result of poor lighting or image quality and affect a researcher’s ability to comfortably read the text, such as: poor resolution and image quality that make it impossible to read small text and notes; text on the margins and spine being cut off or poorly photographed; pages being blurred due to movement. Other problems, such as the exclusion of a manuscript’s bindings, sides, and blank pages within the volume render the digital copies of a manuscript of limited value to researchers interested in the codicological aspects of the volume. Those manuscripts that were digitized at a later date are of much higher quality and include photographs of the binding, etc. Since Süleymaniye houses such a large collection of manuscripts, it is often possible to see other copies of the same work. Researchers who need to consult the physical manuscript can request access from the director.
The library’s current reading room is a bit underwhelming as it consists only of twelve computers and a few books on the shelves of a poorly lit room. The computers are a bit buggy and tend to start displaying portions of the screen in black after a while. Researchers can fix this by logging out and reopening the catalog, though they will most likely lose any open documents in the process. If one’s computer does not work or refuses to log-in, try using another one first. Given the small number of computers, the reading room can become crowded, especially in the afternoon, but is generally empty during the mornings and evenings. Turkish students also tend to use the library desks to study for their standardized exams at certain times of the year. The librarians are helpful and are happy to show researchers how to use the catalog, but only read and speak Turkish. Turkish tourists often come in and start pulling books from the shelves in the mistaken belief that the reference books are the manuscripts and groups of Arab tourists also wander in to try to conduct genealogical research or read random works. Most researchers only stay for a few hours, so the long-term users often befriend each other.
The library also has a rather extensive reference collection on the shelves. This consists of the most important bio-bibliographcial works, encyclopedias, and dictionaries for conducting research. The reference section’s collection of bio-bibliographical works is relatively extensive and includes copies of Haji Khalifa/Katip Çelebi, Brockelman, and Sezgin; a notable lacunae in this regard is the absence of any bio-bibliographical work of Persian literature, such as Storey or Munzavi. Arabic, Ottoman, and Persian dictionaries as well as catalogs of other manuscript libraries and topical catalogs. Sets of the Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd ed.; Diyanet Vakfı Islam Ansiklopedisi; and Islam Ansiklopedisi (Milli Eǧitim Basımevi) are also available for consultation. Biographical dictionaries for the Ottoman period are on the shelves along with other classic reference works on the Ottoman period (in Turkish mostly). Some of the books may be in the depository and therefore need to be specially requested.
The great advantage to researching at Süleymaniye Library is its working hours. While the library’s official hours are Monday-Friday 9:00 – 17:00 excluding holidays, researchers may make free use of all of the resources of the library’s reading room between 9:00 – 23:00 every day of the year, including all holidays. Copies can only be obtained during official hours, however. Researchers in wheelchairs might have trouble accessing the current reading room as there are some steep marble stairs at the entry. If they can get into the reading room, they should be able to use the computer terminals without any issues.
Researchers must provide an official government ID in order to enter the reading room. For Turks, this means their national identity card and for foreigners their passport or residency permit (ikamet tezkeresi). Researchers do not need to register in order to conduct research and the library is the most open and friendly research institution in Istanbul.
Transport and Food
Süleymaniye Library is most easily reached by tramway, bus, or foot. If you take the tramway, get off at the Beyazıt stop and then walk to Beyazıt Square. Take the street that is to the left of the monumental Istanbul Üniversitesi gate and follow it until it ends. Bear right, walk 30 meters and the library is on one’s left. Coming from Taksim Square, one can take any bus that passes through Aksaray. Make sure to get off at the Müze stop (the one next to the aqueduct, before Aksaray) and make your way through Unkapanı until you reach Süleymaniye Library from behind. (This route is poorly lit and may not be safe for women walking alone at night.) You can also walk up to Süleymaniye from Eminönü by following the signs after the bazaar ends. Needless to say, the library is directly across from the mosque.
There are a number of eating options around Süleymaniye Library. The most famous are the kuru fasulye restaurants in front of the library building, though one can also find pide, mantı, and other options close by. There are a variety of tea gardens nearby, including one in a historic courtyard. Dostan provides homemade mantı and pizzas and such.
All reproductions are provided as PDFs on a CD. The cost per exposure (i.e. a photograph of two pages) is fifty kuruş for Turkish citizens and one lira for non-citizens as of October 2013. The librarians can provide CDs within a few minutes or an hour, depending on the number of reproduction requests they are processing. Librarians take time off for lunch and Friday prayers, so researchers should wait patiently if the librarians are not present. Researchers should check the contents of the CDs and load them onto more secure devices as soon as possible. Occasionally the CDs are written with corrupt data which prohibit their transfer to other devices. If this happens, ask the staff for a new copy on a different CD.
Süleymaniye Library also offers classes on traditional Islamic subjects, like calligraphy, tafsir, etc.
Future Plans and Rumors
The Süleymaniye Library is currently undergoing a major renovation. When completed sometime in 2014, the reading room will be greatly expanded and modern offices installed in many of the old buildings. Plans for the renovation also include a new exhibition space, which should minimize the interruptions of tourists in the reading room.
Süleymaniye Yazma Eser Kütüphanesi
Ayşe Kadın Hamam Sok. No:35 Fatih İstanbul
Telephone: 212 520 64 60
Süleymaniye Library does not have an official website. The collections are not listed on the official Yazmalar website but a partial catalog can be accessed through the İSAM Türkiye Kütüphaneleri Veri Tabanı. It is best to simply show up in person if you need to conduct business with the library.
10 October 2013
Cite this: Nir Shafir and Christopher Markiewicz, “Süleymaniye Library”, HAZİNE, 10 October 2013, http://hazine.info/2013/10/10/suleymaniye-library/