The Heritage Library is a unique contribution to Qatar’s cultural landscape. It was started by H.E. Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammed bin Ali Al Thani in the early 1980s. He wanted the wealth of historical sources about Qatar, including writings by travelers and explorers who visited the Arabian Gulf region, to be accessible to everyone. This vision developed to incorporate rare and valuable texts and manuscripts related to the Arab-Islamic civilization.
In 2000, the Library was transferred to the National Council for Culture, Arts and Heritage, and in 2006, it became a part of Qatar Foundation for Education, Science, and Community Development. In 2012, the Library became an integral part of the Qatar National Library.
This Heritage Library's growing collection includes precious and unique archival documents, books and periodicals in various European languages, early Arabic printed materials, such as books, journals, magazines and newspapers, Arabic manuscripts, maps, atlases, globes, a selection of early photography, and instruments and tools related to travel. A number of the printed materials date back to the 15th century when the printing process had recently been introduced in Europe, and these antiquarian books are among the rarest and most valuable features of the Heritage Library's collection.
The QNL Preservation and Conservation Center ensures that the materials in the Heritage Library are provided with the care needed to preserve them for future generations.
The Qatar National Library Archives, part of the Heritage Library, was established to help preserve some of the region's most valuable historical and cultural archival documents. This section is home to priceless collections of centuries-old original documents, letters, telegrams, certificates, invoices, and hundreds of multi-media and audio-visual archives that provide evidence of Qatar and the Arab world’s unique culture and heritage.
In addition, the Archives Section ensures that the creation, storage, classification, use, retention and disposition of QNL’s active records is effective and efficient and aligned with best international standards and best practices in archives and records management.
Books in European Languages
The Heritage Library contains a large number of books written in foreign languages, mostly in English, along with some in other European languages, including early books in Latin. Most of these works were published between the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 20th century. Some of these books, especially those on Arab-Islamic sciences written in Latin, were printed only a few years after Johannes Gutenberg introduced letter printing in central Europe in 1448. These early items that were printed in the 15th century are called incunabula.
This section also includes writings by European travelers and explorers who visited the Arabian Gulf, the rest of the Arab world, and the surrounding regions such as Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and India, over the centuries. Other well-established fields are the early European reception of Islamic and Arab sciences, early European translations, and editions of the Qur’ān, and early works of famous European scholars on the history, language, art and architecture, and religion of the Islamic world, establishing what later came to be known as Oriental studies.
Early Arabic Printing
The Early Arabic Printing section comprises of some rare examples of the earliest printed Arabic books, mainly produced in printing presses in Europe and the Arab World. These include the first Arabic books printed by the Medici Oriental Press in Italy, the Oxford University Press in London, those printed in Leipzig, Germany, in Leiden, Holand, and in Turkey. They also include early Arabic books printed by presses in Shweir (Lebanon), Aleppo, Mosul, Bulaq and the Hijaz.
This collection is notable for its diverse range of subjects including historical sources about the Arabian Gulf and the rest of the Arab world, as well as works on literature, religion, sociology, law and Islamic art. It is worth noting that this section comprises part of Sheikh Ali bin Abdullah Al-Thani’s private library, as well as a part of the library of Khayr al-Din al-Zerekly.
In addition to books, this section includes rare periodicals from the late 19th century which shed light on the history of the Arabic press. Some of these periodicals were irregular in their publication, while others only had a few issues published. It also contains some important materials such as the first newspapers published in the Arabian Gulf region, like al-Qibla, and various rare magazines, such as al-Muqtaṭaf.
The Heritage Library has over 20 historical globes manufactured from the 18th to the mid-20th centuries. The sizes of the globes vary from large floor globes of 76 cm in diameter to small tabletop globes and several pocket globes of only a couple centimeters in diameter.
The earliest globe in this collection dates back to 1728 and is by the famous German cartographer and globe maker Johann Gabriel Doppelmayr of Nuremberg. This collection also contains a terrestrial globe made for King George III of the United Kingdom in 1811 by Dudley Adams, ‘Globe and Instrument Maker to the King,’ as well as a pair of terrestrial and celestial globes by William Edward Newton and Miles Berry dated 1838, and an American Cosmosphere which consists of a terrestrial globe inside a revolving glass celestial sphere from 1867.
Qatari cities are sometimes mentioned on these globes, such as the globe made by James Wyld in 1859 as well as a large floor globe manufactured by W. & A.K. Johnston from the early 20th century (c. 1902).
The Heritage Library also has a couple of Islamic brass celestial spheres from the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Heritage Library houses a growing collection of early photography from the Arab and Islamic world, including vintage prints, photo albums and photographically illustrated publications from the second half of the nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century.
While the geographical focus is on Qatar, the Gulf, and the Arabian Peninsula, the photographs collection follows the path of the early travelers of the region, thus covering areas of North Africa, Egypt, the Levant (Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan), Iraq, Iran, Turkey and former Ottoman lands in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
The items offer a view of architectural and social history, depicting famous religious monuments and antiquities as well as portraits, scenes of everyday life, and crucial events. In particular, photographs related to Qatar and the Gulf represent a unique visual record of local history, documenting traditional activities such as trade and commerce, the discovery and early production of oil, important events, and the urban development of Doha up to the 1980s.
This collection also includes prints of famous early orientalist photographers, such as Paul Nadar, Francis Frith, Francis Bedford, Pascal Sébah, Félix Bonfils and Felice Beato.
This section contains more than 2,400 manuscripts and captures an important part of the Heritage Library.
The majority of the manuscripts collection consists of Qur’ānic manuscripts and other texts dealing with religious topics. In the Islamic Jurisprudence collection of Ḥadīth and Fiqh, one can find several copies of the famous al-Bukhārī Ḥadīth collection, the most significant of which probably originated in Andalusia. Manuscripts discussing the Qur’ānic sciences vary from those on readings and elocution to many other minor topics.
Manuscripts on the Arabic language are also well represented in the Heritage Library. These address many topics including rhetoric, literature, grammar, and dictionaries. This part includes works of famous scholars and authors, such as Zamakhsharī, al-Jurjānī, Taftazānī, al-Ḥarīrī, al-Thaʻālibī, al-Ibshīhī and others.
In the Sciences, the manuscripts collection includes topics on medicine, pharmacology, astronomy, arithmetic, and engineering. Along with famous works produced by Ibn Sinā and al-Rāzī, this collection also holds one of the most highly regarded ophthalmological manuals written by ʻAlī ibn ʻIsā, entitled Tadhkirat al-kaḥālīn.
This collection also includes Christian-Arab manuscripts and non-Arabic manuscripts as well, written in Ottoman Turkish, Syriac, Persian, and Coptic.
Maps and Atlases
The Heritage Library includes a significant collection of maps, charts, and atlases comprising well over 1,200 sheet maps and numerous atlases that date from the end of the 15th century up to the mid-20th century.
This growing collection focuses on Arabia and the Gulf region, including Qatar and other Arab countries in the Middle East, and also contains many maps of Africa and Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the Ottoman Empire, as well as world maps and navigational charts. These are complemented by maps and views of historically important sites such as Mecca, Medina, Aden, Muscat, Tangier and others, many of which were originally included in important travel books.
This collection includes many maps and charts by famous mapmakers and cartographers from the 16th to the 19th century, such as Mercator, Ortelius, Waldseemüller, Hondius, Jansson, Blaeu, Sanson Delisle and many others.
The historical map collections at the Heritage Library provide a wealth of materials for studying the history of cartography, with special emphasis on the European encounter with the Arab and Islamic world and its increasing knowledge of the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf region, as well as the Islamic cartographic and geographic traditions. There is also a good cartographic reference library with cartobibliographies and histories of cartography for making use and study of the collection.
First mention of Qatar on a map
The Heritage Library includes a number of early printed maps based upon the Geographia of Claudius Ptolemy, a famous Greco-Egyptian polymath and the inventor of the global coordinate system for cartography who lived in Alexandria, in the second century CE (c.100 – c.180). The most important map in this part of the collection is the first printed map ever to mention Qatar, entitled “Tabula Asiae VI” (The Sixth Map of Asia); engraved by Conrad Swenheym, an apprentice of Guttenberg’s, it was printed in Rome in 1478. The existence of this map clearly demonstrates that Qatar, referred to on the map in Latin as ‘Catara,’ was known to Europe in the 15th century and to the Roman world of the 2nd century CE.
The Ottoman cartography is one of the Heritage Library's growing areas. It has a substantial collection of unique and rare items. Foremost among these is the 4.35 meters long Ottoman manuscript strip map from the mid-17th century depicting the course of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers from their origins in eastern Anatolia to their confluence in the Shatt al-Arab and their eventual emptying into the Arabian Gulf. The map shows many cities, including the holy city of Mecca, towns, forts, and the roads that connect them.
Other rare Ottoman highlights include a complete edition of the Cedid Atlas Tercümesi, an early 19th century Ottoman atlas published by Mahmud Raif Efendi that is one of the rarest atlases in the world and the striking heart-shaped world map printed in Venice and attributed to the mysterious Hajji Ahmad from 1559.
In addition to these and other rarities, this collection includes a number of 19th and early 20th Century Ottoman maps and atlases in its holdings.
European age of discovery cartography
Highlights of European cartography in this collection include a complete Latin first edition of Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Maior in 11 volumes from 1662, one of the finest examples of Dutch cartography from the Age of Discovery as well as an outstanding copy of the first true modern atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum by the 16th century Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius.
The Heritage Library also contains many 20th century topographic and tourist maps which provide a wealth of information for studying the dramatic changes the region has undergone in recent decades. These include modern topographic maps made by the mapping agencies of a number of countries in the Middle East. There are also 20th-century military maps of the Middle East and North Africa (UK GSGS, US Army Map Service, among others) and very good coverage of the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf in the collection of nautical charts and even some aeronautical charts of the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf region.
Traveler's Instruments and Tools
The Heritage Library has a fine array of instruments and tools used by travelers, explorers, navigators, surveyors and cartographers. The bulk of this collection dates from the 19th century, though some of the navigational tools are from the 18th century.
Traveling, navigation and surveying instruments include pocket compasses, a chronometer, parallel ruler, sundials, telescopes, barometers, protractors, theodolites, astrolabes, sextants, octants and quadrants. There are travel writing sets and a combination watch-penknife. This section also includes two 19th century medicine chests complete with their pharmaceutical contents, as well as a surgical kit with many specialized blades and saws used in performing amputations.
Some other highlights of this collection include a pocket sundial with the names of major cities inscribed on the circumference so that one can determine the time at those locations, which includes Mecca, qibla indicators used determining the correct direction for the Islamic prayer, some Ottoman quadrants and two astrolabes.