Preservation of the Manuscripts Collection of the Great Omari Mosque Library

Muneer Elbaz

University College of Applied Sciences (UCAS) in Gaza

University College of Applied Sciences in Gaza

P.O.Box 1415 Gaza Palestine

ICCROM-Sharjah Grand Prix 2020


Safeguarding the Hidden Cultural Heritage in Gaza




University College of Applied Sciences (UCAS) is a Palestinian academic institution of higher education in the Gaza Strip of Palestine. It was established in 1998. UCAS aims to develop a regional and international role as a leading research and innovation institution and to establish academic and cultural cooperation with various international educational-institutions and NGOs. UCAS won ICCROM-Sharjah Grand Prize 2020.

The library of the Great Omari Mosque was established by the famous Mamluk leader (Al-Zahir Baibars) in 1277 A.D. During subsequent centuries, Gaza suffered from wars and conflicts that led to the vandalism of the library. The vandalism happened several times, mainly after the French campaign in Palestine, after the First World War and after the direct Israeli Occupation of Gaza. Besides, three wars on Gaza from 2008-2014 and the Gaza siege caused bad economic conditions, which have had a negative impact on the environment of archival storage.
On 2nd February 2019, UCAS launched a project aiming to digitize and rescue the collection of 20,000 manuscript pages which were in need of urgent intervention. The project aims to achieve the following objectives through a number of main interventions: Capacity building for selected staff members to manage, promote and conserve cultural heritage, and digitizing the historic documents.

This project would help establish the first specialized center for manuscript conservation in Gaza, part of our longer term aim to preserve the cultural heritage of Palestine. According to the long history of crises and ongoing threats to Palestinian heritage, preserving such artifacts will help to support the positive expression of a Palestinian identity in the minds of the young Palestinian generations and the eyes of the international community.

The idea was started by UCAS and the Ministry of Waqif and Religious Affairs. Many institutions supported the project from inside and outside Palestine. Financial support was provided from the Funders (Prince Claus Fund and Whiting Foundation, British Library and Barakat Trust).

Technical consultation was offered from Bibliotheca Alexandrina-Egypt, Revival heritage and Islamic research Institution- Jerusalem, Al Khalidy Library- Jerusalem, Hill Museum Manuscripts Library (HMML)-USA.

The main conservation philosophy of the project is depending on preservation and urgent rescue for the physical body of the manuscript. According to this philosophy we put these main strategies to implement the project: Cleaning historical books; Understanding and caring for book bindings; Managing the library and archive environment; and Digitizing the historical books. As well as making the most of funding opportunities, the project team are looking for excellence in project implementation to achieve a successful pilot. This pilot project can encourage grant giving bodies (such as trusts and foundations) to invest in long term conservation activities.

Local community had been given the opportunity to visit the project. Image source Department of Manuscripts


The project reaches the intended target group (as participants or audience/users). Moreover, the project has benefitted underrepresented groups (on the basis of their age, gender, sexuality, disability, race, ethnicity, religion or economic or other status) within the context. For more explanation, the project reaches the intended target group through many activities such as: kick off meetings, training, opening ceremony and exhibition, website and available opportunities for volunteers. The project welcomed typically underrepresented groups to join the activities.

The Jury valued the efforts of this essential project which works to preserve Palestinian identity and its intangible heritage through modern scientific means of maintaining the Great Omari Mosque Library. The Committee also appreciated the hard work of the project under the difficult humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip.

This project highlighted the richness of cultural heritage of Palestine and in particular in Gaza. It made a nice combination between traditional and contemporary ways to safeguard cultural heritage. In spite of the limited budget and the various activities, the project succeeded in benefitting from the capacities of the volunteers to leverage the outputs and achievements. Those volunteers ranged from international experts to fresh graduates. We also felt sympathy from different international institutions about the humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip.

The project team consisted of the UCAS, the Department of Manuscripts staff and a cultural heritage NGO. A web designer from the Ministry of Education contributed by designing a web-page for the project.

An intensive capacity building program was divided into 4 months to clarify the international standards and criteria to manage, promote and conserve cultural heritage, urgent rescue for historic manuscripts, digitizing the historic documents, dissemination and public awareness.
It took a long time for the team coordinator and the supervisor to train the local staff to reach an acceptable level of work. This required repetition of the cleaning and digitizing work many times and reviewing the final work twice. Moreover, samples of scanned manuscripts were reviewed from the Hill Museum Manuscripts Library (HMML). HMML and the British Library agreed to publish the 20,000 Manuscript pages through their web site.


The project provided acid free boxes and humidity meters to improve environmental management. Image source Department of Manuscripts


The Prince Claus Fund followed up the activities and the outputs of the project through regular reports.

The long history of crises and conflicts in Gaza caused a negative impact on the manuscripts collection. The location of the Department of Manuscripts was attacked by air forces in 2008, 2012 and 2014.

In addition, The Gaza siege caused harsh economic conditions, which negatively impacted upon the cultural heritage sector in Gaza. Moreover, there are no trainers or colleges in the Gaza Strip that can provide the local staff with the needed skills.

The project team benefit from the internet to solve the problems that faced the project because of the Gaza siege and the high restrictions from the Israeli side. So, I feel the methodology that was used was the best available alternative.

Were it the case that Gaza was living in normal circumstances, I believe that the methodology selected would be completely different. This proposed methodology would focus on international training in the urgent rescue for historic manuscripts and digitizing the historic documents. I prefer to use the method of Camera-studio rather than the over-head scanner for digitizing activities.

I do not feel that there is a big mistake that happened during the project activities. Every step was organized with international experts from different institutions. The project succeeded in defining a clear methodology for urgent rescue for the manuscripts that were located in conflict zones.

I believe that the project succeeded because of the technical help from the technicians and colleagues in Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Egypt. So, I highly recommend a similar project to collaborate strongly with an institution that has a durable experience in this kind of project.


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