The Riyadha Mosque on Lamu is one of the most influential in East-Africa. It is also home to one of the largest collections of manuscripts in the region. Hundreds of years in a damp and humid mosque have taken its toll on the fragile documents. Some of the books were literally falling to pieces, but meticulous work has now saved the material. Through a digitalization project, the young scholars at the Riyadha Mosque in cooperation with Anne Bang, senior researcher at Chr. Michelsen institute, have photographed every page of every book in the mosque. The result is more than 35 000 photos documenting the unique cultural heritage of the mosque on Lamu.

Testimonies to local religion and culture
More than 150 manuscripts are now fully digitalized. The manuscripts are important as religious testimonies, but also as an invaluable source to the region’s culture and history. Most of the manuscripts are about 150 years old.

-The majority is in Arabic, but there are exceptions. There are also manuscripts in Swahili, using Arabic letters. The collection includes Islamic texts of law, poetry and grammar. Many of the texts are testimony to the local religious tradition, which is leaning towards mysticism. To the staff in the mosque, it was extremely important to retain these distinct features of local religion, says Bang.

It was scholars from the mosque who originally initiated the digitalization process. They are very pleased to see the material preserved. However, they are not the only ones who benefit from the project. Researchers like Bang herself also have a lot to gain from the digitalization of the Riyadha Mosque’s cultural heritage. So does future researchers from the region, and from around the world.

-The manuscripts provide a complementary image of local Islamic traditions. They also give important insight into the region’s social history. Many of the books contain inscriptions, telling unique tales of their previous owners and their surroundings, says Bang.

When less is more
The digitalization project was carried out with support from the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme. In December last year, Anne Bang headed for Lamu with little more than a Mac Book, a camera, a tripod and two external hard discs in her luggage. In cooperation with staff from Kenya Museum, she trained some of the scholars working in the mosque in how to digitalize the written and visual material. A year later, and on schedule, the project has come to an end.

-The staff in the mosque has worked tirelessly throughout the project. They have taken great care in handling the manuscripts. Through this project they have contributed to make them available for future generations, says Bang.

The two terabytes of photographs are now safely stored not only on Lamu, but also at Chr. Michelsen Institute, the British Library and at Kenya Museum. Digitalization projects are to some extent controversial. There is always a risk of damaging the fragile manuscripts. However, a full restoration of the manuscripts was never an option. It is far too expensive.

-It is extremely hard to get funding for comprehensive restoration projects. At least the manuscripts have been preserved through this project, and future generations will benefit, says Bang.

From the Riyadha Mosque Library Final presentation of the project in the Riyadha Mosque Library. With Aydaroos Muhsin Badawi, staff from the Riyadha and Lamu Museum, Dr. Shamil Jeppie, University of Cape Town.
One of the treasures from the Riyadha Mosque An illuminated copy of the Quran.
When less is more Aydaroos Muhsin Badawi with the equipment that was used during the project.
Devotional poetry A 19th century manuscript of devotional poetry that bears the inscription:"This book, what is in it is in it. Whosoever who does not know what is in it, may the dog pee on him".
Poetry from the 16th century A 20th century manuscript copy of poetry by the 16th century Hadrami-Yemeni scholar Abu Bakr b. Abd Allah al-Adani. Date 1927.
The Riyadha Mosque Outisde the Riyadha Mosque. Anne K. Bang, Hassen Muhammad Kawo (Addis Abeba University), Aydaroos Muhsin Badawi (Riyadha), Ahmad Muhsin Badawi (Riyadha).