Saudi archiving center restores millions of ancient documents

Specialists within the kingdom carefully preserve key historical and religious texts dating back more than 900 years.

al-monitor A view of the ruins of the city of Diriyah, which are being restored, 20 kilometers (12 miles) west of Riyadh, Sept. 20, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed.

Topics covered

saudi arabia, ottoman empire, history, gulf, education

Dec 12, 2014

Since its establishment 10 years ago, the Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Center for Restoration and Preservation of Historical Materials at the King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives (Darah) has restored, sterilized and photocopied more than 10 million old documents, manuscripts and historical materials, some dating back more than 900 years. The center has been working to save the documents from damage that they may have sustained over the centuries and in order to re-use them for longer periods in the future.

According to the Saudi Press Agency, the center handles documents and manuscripts received from government agencies and individuals alike, in a professional and accurate manner. The treatment is carried out by a group of young Saudis who specialize in the field of preservation of historical materials. This is done over six stages, starting with sterilization, processing, restoration, preservation, microfilming and digital imaging, until reaching the binding stage.

Individuals give the center rare documents, manuscripts, books and historical materials for restoration. The individuals then in return pay a token amount that covers the cost of raw materials only, while King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives covers the rest of the cost.

The Darah Center has been able to restore and sterilize more than 21,000 documents and historical materials, as well as more than 200,000 books for numerous citizens. In addition, within the scope of the research project, the center has restored, sterilized and photocopied hundreds of thousands of documents obtained by the team in regions throughout the kingdom, using two vehicles equipped with the most advanced devices for the preservation of historical materials.

Darah’s director Sultan al-Awirdi explained on Dec. 6 that the center’s staff have received specialized training courses in this field outside Saudi Arabia to master the method used to treat historical materials without damaging their value. Awirdi reviewed the stages of restoration of historical materials at the center’s laboratories and factories, including 80 technical departments.

“The preservation and restoration processes start with specialized sterilization to eliminate pests and fungi inside documents, papers manuscripts and their leather covers. The sterilization department staff use two ozone gas devices and chemicals to sterilize historical materials from pests, whose survival may fully destroy the materials over time, in addition to the possibility of contaminating intact nearby manuscripts and other documents,” Awirdi said.

“The materials are then subjected to a chemical treatment process to be restored to their ordinary state and cleaned of dust and dirt, including acidic substances. The department has the necessary chemicals for the preparation of the required formulas, as well as a device that detects counterfeiting, which determines with high accuracy that the document has not been subject to any tampering. In addition [the team uses] paper adhesion removing devices and water distillation and gas withdrawal devices,” he said.

“When the sterilization and chemical treatment of the document and manuscript is over, the restoration department starts to partly or entirely restore these materials, depending on the size and extent of the damage sustained to the document or manuscript, and to make the necessary restoration by filling the holes, completing the missing parts and strengthening the sheets.

“After that, the restored materials are transferred to the microfilm department, which allows them to be preserved for nearly a hundred years, by placing them in specialized cabinets of 21-23 degrees Celsius. Through modern devices, the microfilm is converted into digital copies and is saved on a CD. After being processed, the restored materials reach the binding department, which is tasked with re-binding them with natural or synthetic leather, ornamenting them with gilded inscriptions, and developing boxes with certain specifications to preserve historical and important documents,” Awirdi continued.

He stressed that the center implemented several projects with a number of government agencies, including the completion of a project with the Ministry of Culture and Information. The project is designed to restore old issues of the Umm al-Qura newspaper. It included 54 volumes, consisting of the 2,679 issues of 10,716 pages. The work on this project was completed in 24 months.

The restoration of documents from the Ottoman era

The center's director said the Prince Salman Center received 300 ancient volumes from the Shura Council in 2012 to be restored, and divided the work into four batches over two years. The work has been divided into two batches, comprising 53 volumes. Work is underway on the remaining volumes and it will be completed by the end of next year.

Awirdi added that the center has restored 76 records from the Court of Mecca, which consist of Ottoman records, most of which date back more than 900 years, and coordination is underway with the ministry to receive Sharia court records and other judicial documents in the kingdom.

He noted that the Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Center for Restoration and Preservation of Historical Materials has replaced more than 1,992 ancient files from the Ministry of Education, which was formerly known as the "Ministry of Knowledge." The new files provide a convenient way of preserving old sheets, by photocopying more than 1,821 files and preserving them in 283 16 mm films, consisting of nearly 712 microfilm snapshots. Their conversion into digital copies is currently underway.

The center has also cooperated with the General Presidency for the affairs of the Grand Mosque and the Prophet's Mosque, represented in the Haram al-Sharif library, and succeeded in restoring, photocopying and binding of more than 21 rare manuscripts.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from