In July 2017, we launched a project entitled "Preserving Endangered Archives in Jerba, Tunisia: The al-Bāsī Family Library Pilot Project."1 Generously supported by the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) funded by the British Library and Arcadia,2 the project aims at the digital preservation of the private Arabic manuscript library of the al-Bāsī (fr. El Bessi) family in the town of Houmet Souk on the island of Jerba in southern Tunisia. This report offers a brief history of the collection and its contents as well as a description of the project's training efforts and aims.
History of the al-Bāsī Manuscript Library
The al-Bāsī library originated as the madrasa (religious school) of the al-Bāsī mosque, an Ibadi mosque in the district of Wāligh on the island of Jerba, [End Page 215] Tunisia. It is named after a family of traders active from the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries with commercial ties to the Muslim east. The construction of the mosque lasted from 27 Ramaḍān 1198 (23 July 1784 CE) to the end of Rabīʿ al-Thānī 1199 (February/March 1785 CE). The foundation of the mosque's library and the flourishing of its madrasa were the work of three brothers: Muḥammad, Sālim, and ʿUthmān, the sons of Ḥājj Yaḥyā al-Bāsī. According to an official endowment statement, the family endowed all books in the library as
an eternal endowment (ḥabasan muʾabbadan) to the al-Bāsī Mosque for as long as they exist. They are neither to be sold nor exchanged. … Visitors will not be denied access to them … in the aforementioned dome during the time when the Shaykh is teaching. If the Shaykh leaves and the students disperse, [the books] will be leftin their place. Whosoever violates this [rule] will be held accountable by God and revenge will be taken upon him—for He knows the transgressors!
Based on the original inventory list compiled by Ḥājj Sālim al-Bāsī (d. 1810), the library contained some 235 manuscript volumes, which were endowed to the mosque and its students. However, according to the second inventory compiled by Salīm al-Bāsī (d. 2011) in the late twentieth century, only about 170 titles remained. This amounts to a loss of some sixty-five titles.
Describing the library in his book on Arabic manuscript collections, Philippe de Tarrazi (d. 1956) wrote:
This Shaykh [Hājj Sālim] endowed for the students of knowledge many printed and manuscript books, which he stored in the library of the mosque attributed to him on the island of Jerba. In this library there are Quran manuscripts in elegant script, including one in which the exegesis [tafsīr] has been written below each verse in Turkish. The library is also distinguished by its books belonging to the Ibadi school [of Islam], including [works of] history, prominent [End Page 216] scholars, literary figures, and poets who belong to this school.3
Shaykh Sālim al-Bāsī, the founder of the library, had a long-term vision for the madrasa and an ambition to secure its reputation in the future. Thanks to this vision, the madrasa remained in operation for nearly a century and a half, from 1782 to 1927 Moreover, the al-Bāsī mosque continued its activities despite the changes to the political and economic landscapes in Djerba. When the endowment system in Tunisia began its decline, the mosque encountered numerous challenges.
The mosque remained open through the period of the French Protectorate (1881–1956) and into the era of independence (1956–present). However, mosque-based education was gradually replaced by that offered by secular schools. The manuscripts were removed from the mosque in the early 1980s by members of the El Bessi family. They describe its condition at the time as having been in complete disarray. After the manuscripts were relocated to the family estate in the city of Houmet Souk, the collection's owner, Salīm al-Bāsī (d. 2011), spent years reorganizing quires and drawing up the new inventory.