The world of Turkic peoples epitomized in books held in Mainz

23 January 2014

There is almost no other university that can boast such a treasure: The library for Turkic Studies of the Department of Oriental Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) has an enormous variety of works covering the languages and cultures of the Turkic peoples; some 50,000 volumes are available. Junior Professor László Károly knows it well. He guides through the labyrinth of bookcases to where some remarkable volumes are kept.

In order to get to the library for Turkic Studies, you have to leave the JGU campus. The walk to the tower block in the nearby Hegelstraße erected during the later years of Germany's postwar economic miracle takes about ten minutes. The building holds a treasure trove found nowhere else in Germany, amazing even scholars from Turkey.

"I could show you some really wonderful, valuable old books," says Junior Professor László Károly. "Volumes with wooden covers and what not – we have it all." The Executive Director of the Department of Oriental Studies points to the somber gray metal shelves that spill out into the corridor. "But in a library like this, it is not the showpieces that are important. It has another purpose, because here we can find everything that we need for research." And it is this aspect that Károly wants to emphasize.

From basement to high-rise

Born in Hungary, Károly came to Mainz in 2008 as a Humboldt scholarship holder. Two years ago he was appointed to a junior professorship. He experienced the move of the library for Turkic Studies to its present site at first-hand. "On campus, our books were spread over several floors, some were even kept in two basement rooms. When anybody wanted anything, they needed to search through all the various locations."

Now it's different. There is a librarian looking after the holdings. The rooms are basic but practical. "It doesn't matter which Turkic language you are interested in, whether Yakut, Uighur, or South Siberian, you'll find something relevant here," says Károly, as he steers us towards the periodical room.

Sovjetskaja Tjurkologija, Baku University News, Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft – just a brief glance at the bound volumes of journals is enough to indicate their diversity. "When Turks from Istanbul or Ankara come here, they are amazed by this section of the library, as even they lack some of these periodicals."

Károly moves towards a series of volumes to which he wants to draw our particular attention. Turkic Language is the name of the journal. "It's world-renowned." It was founded by Lars Johanson, once Professor of Turkish Studies at Mainz University. "I have also been published in this journal," says Károly with a modicum of pride.

Medicine of the Turkic Peoples of Central Asia

The library contains approximately 50,000 volumes. The books are primarily linguistic works covering more than 20 Turkic languages. Arabic, Cyrillic, and Latin characters are placed harmoniously next to one another and bear witness to the variety and spread of the language group. "We also have several volumes that deal with Islam. You need to know your way around the religion as roughly half the Turkic world is somehow linked to Islam."

In another room, Károly points to some thick green books. "This is a wonderful multivolume Persian dictionary. But to use it you need to have a good knowledge of the Persian language." Next to it is a plain volume exhibiting signs of heavy use. This book, a simple single volume Persian-German dictionary, has clearly been much in demand.

However, the room holds more than dictionaries. One corner is filled with volumes on medicine in the Islamic world. Károly is currently researching the subject. "Nobody has ever translated Middle-Turkish medical texts, so nobody really knew very much about how medicine was practiced among the Islamicized Turkic peoples of Central Asia. Does it have any Turkish origins, for example? And has it been influenced by other cultures?"

School textbooks from the old Soviet Union

We wander from room to room. Károly finds something interesting in each case. "What else can I show you? There is so much to see." Then he stops in front of a few slim unassuming volumes. "These are old textbooks dating back to the Soviet era. This one is in Yakut for the fourth grade." Even if you don't know the language, some of the content seems fairly apparent: Lenin peers loftily from a yellowed page. His life is described concisely but, one assumes, with considerable gravitas. "This one is in Kalmyk, a Mongolian language, again for the fourth grade, and this is in Uzbek for the ninth and tenth grades."

Of course Russian was the official language and lingua franca of the Soviet Union. "They even took it so far that some peoples almost completely forgot their native languages, although others managed to hang on to their traditions. The Yakut, for example, were able to preserve their own language relatively well."

A lot happened with the Turkic languages in the former Soviet Union. Some were initially written down using Arabic characters, then switched to the Latin alphabet, and even later used Cyrillic. "The Kumyks, for example, started writing with the Latin alphabet in 1922 and then used Cyrillic from 1938."

Buddhist poetry of the Uighurs

Károly keeps pointing out unique special items, one of which is Peter Zieme's monograph on Uighur Buddhist alliterative poetry. "He translated Buddhist sources dating to the 9th to 12th centuries." Back then, the influence of Islam was not omnipresent but Buddhist and Manichean ideas dominated the Turkic intellectual world.

"There is so much more I could show you," says Károly once again. But we have to stop at some point. The Junior Professor briefly touches on the financial situation with regard to the Department of Oriental Studies in general and the library in particular. "We have a general budget from which we need to find the money to finance the library." The teaching appointments swallow a lot of this funding, even though Károly and his colleagues have been very successful in finding sponsors in the form of the Iranian and Turkish embassies.

"We are always thankful for donations for maintaining and expanding our library," he explains at the end. "However, we don't want the money to buy treasures. We want books for our students so that they can learn and undertake research."