After news emerged about an underground reading room in Damascus, Fiona Macdonald discovers the places where writing has been hidden for centuries.
|French sinologist Paul Pelliot in the Library Cave at Dunhuang in 1908 reading the manuscripts (Credit: The Musée Guimet)|
Beneath the streets of a suburb of Damascus, rows of shelves hold books that have been rescued from bombed-out buildings. Over the past four years, during the siege of Darayya, volunteers have collected 14,000 books from shell-damaged homes. They are held in a location kept secret amid fears that it would be targeted by government and pro-Assad forces, and visitors have to dodge shells and bullets to reach the underground reading space.
It’s been called Syria’s secret library, and many view it as a vital resource. “In a sense the library gave me back my life,” one regular user, Abdulbaset Alahmar, told the BBC. “I would say that just like the body needs food, the soul needs books.”
Religious or political pressures have meant that books have been hidden throughout history – whether in secret caches or private collections. One of those is now known as ‘the Library Cave’.