Built during Baghdad’s golden era under the Abbasid Caliphate, Bait Al Hikma – House of Wisdom – wasn’t merely a library, or a cultural institute; it was a beacon of enlightenment, a testament to civilization, and a celebration of intersectional knowledge and cross-cultural education. A translation institute, a library and an academy, Baghdad’s House of Wisdom embodied the spirit of its era within the Muslim world; and its rulers’ thirst for knowledge expanded to various disciplines including astronomy, science, philosophy, zoology, mathematics and literature.
Baghdad’s House of Wisdom, however, met a cruel end in an invasion that saw the brutal destruction of mosques, hospitals and libraries, with the river Tigris believed to be the resting place of the books and scholars.
To celebrate being dubbed Book Capital of the world by UNESCO in 2019, Sharjah’s newly constructed cultural hub proudly carries the same name and mantle. Sharjah’s House of Wisdom aims to revive the spirit of learning that was a focal point during Iraq’s golden age, and it plans to disseminate enlightenment across the region.
“Bait Al Hikma [Iraq’s House of Wisdom] became home to ancient and modern wisdom during the Islamic Golden Age,” Marwa Al Aqroubi, Director of Sharjah’s House of Wisdom tells Villa 88. “This center of learning was part of a major translation movement in the Arab region and helped preserve important scholarly works from across Europe and the Middle East. The original House of Wisdom was lost to us in the 13th century. However, we hope to revive the grand tradition with our new cultural hub destination.”
Kicking off the inauguration with American-Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal’s exhibition 168:01, House of Wisdom is part of the emirate’s efforts to establish itself as a “center for knowledge, literacy, scientific discovery and learning.”
The exhibition held a powerful significance, the aspects of which are twofold: to commemorate the loss of knowledge as a cultural manifestation of a people; and to serve as a commentary on the momentous weight of education and learning, as well as our responsibility in rebuilding what was once lost – a sort of cultural rebirth, if you will. In its recent history, much like its ancient one, Iraq suffered yet another loss when the college of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad was set on fire amidst the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. This resulted in the loss of 70,000 books, and years later inspired Wafaa Bilal’s poignant exhibition. For the exhibition, Marwa adds, “Bilal draws connections between the destruction of the art library at the University of Baghdad and Bait Al Hikma in 13th century Baghdad which was set on fire by an invading Mongol army, investigating the recurring violence against cultural institutions through photography and installation work.”
Making its way for the first time to the region with its inaugural debut at Sharjah’s House of Wisdom, Wafaa’s 168:01 has been shown globally since 2016, with the intention of inspiriting a movement “for the rebirth of such libraries in Iraq.” Knowledge is the beating heart of a civilization; without it, we perish. And Wafaa’s exhibition seeks to return to Iraq its beating heart by promoting a rebirth through the installation, which bestows upon its viewers the role of benefactors.
“With the goal of restocking the lost libraries of Iraqi universities and institutions, the interactive exhibition invited visitors to fill these shelves with books requested by Iraqi students and take one of the blank white books on the shelf in exchange,” explains Marwa about the intentions behind the exhibition. “As book donations accrued, these austere white bookshelves became saturated with knowledge and color; while the white takeaway books served as a reminder to their new owners that not everyone has the same access to knowledge. The 3,500 blank books on show at the House of Wisdom have been completely replaced with art books by visitors and government and private entities in the emirate.”
The tomes amassed throughout the exhibition are then sent to the University of Baghdad, the University of Mosul, the University of Babylon and the National Museum of Iraq, which had also been pillaged during the US invasion of 2003, resulting in international outcry against the US troops for failing to protect the museum.
Wisdom, knowledge and education are the pillars entrenched in the House of Wisdom’s vision. Its stronghold belief in the power held within these bastions of civilization drives much of the cultural hub’s work and activities as its builds a path to the future, aided with innovative and cutting-edge technology. It’s with this ethos at its core that the House of Wisdom is driving change and pushing towards the regional dissemination of “collaborative learning and extreme creativity.” And it’s doing so “with its modern design aesthetic, digital repositories, contemporary study spaces, and more,” adds Marwa.
“The House of Wisdom also complements Sharjah’s and the UAE’s existing libraries by bringing to life new spaces that we have not seen before and takes the concept of a library above and beyond what we are traditionally used to,” emphasizes Marwa. The architectural design of the complex, which is open and inviting, echoes House of Wisdom’s commitment to knowledge. “It was important that the building and landscape were integrated,” Head of Studio, Foster + Partners, Gerard Evenden tells Villa 88. “For instance, the landscaped spaces and gardens have been designed to teach people about plant species, art and sculpture, also encouraging young children to learn through play.”
Designed with a heavily planted and shaded open courtyard at its center – that allows for natural light and ventilation – the complex’s external facades are made up of “a series of fixed aluminum screens to protect the building from the sun,” explains Gerard.
“The minimalist geometry arose from a desire to create a simple monumental form that would form a new landmark for the city,” he continues. “The shading strategy is a key part in the sustainability story. One of the first questions we asked ourselves was – how do we maintain good natural light and environment without allowing too much sun and heat into the building? We wanted to do this by passive means where possible, which inspired the idea of the large overhanging roof that shelters the building during the hottest parts of the day.”
He adds that, “The team visited libraries around the world to understand the best practices. We found that the most successful spaces allowed for people to use the building through an extended period – a 24/7 community space that belonged to them. Alongside the libraries, there were spaces for talks and lectures, larger social areas, cafes for food and drink, child-friendly spaces – all functions that encourage people to come together.”
The House of Wisdom was “born from a perceived need to make a giant leap forward from mere dissemination of knowledge and promoting an affinity for books and reading. It meant evolving – both in terms of design and availability of services and resources – to stay abreast of the changing needs of our communities, now and in the future.” This is reflected in the flexible format of its architecture, constructed from column-free floorplates to allow for a complete reconfiguration to meet the changing needs of the community.
“The cultural and library aspects are integrated to promote communication and cross-fertilization of ideas. In our experience, overlapping uses create a richer program that promotes learning – something we were keen to bring to the House of Wisdom,” continues Gerard of the architectural design that saw the creation of social spaces found in a traditional library. “This also creates a certain flexibility that will allow the building to meet future needs and changing patterns of learning. This is increasingly important from the point of view of sustainability.”
With simplicity at the heart of the design, “The House of Wisdom is a model of sustainable architecture that takes into account the fact that human health and well-being are intrinsically connected to and ensured by the built environment, and it embraces the concept of open access design,” elaborates Marwa. “The Wisdom Square, as the central courtyard is called, was inspired by the oasis at Al Ain, with its layered plant cover providing shade and cooling. The building itself reflects a modern interpretation of traditional Sharjah courtyard spaces and adopts the ancient principles of Barasti architecture, illustrating how the shade from the roof and lightweight screens can be used to protect the building from the harsh sun.”
A space usually speaks to the mission of its institution, where the structure mimics the ethos, vision and principles born at its conception, and of course, its role within society. Sharjah’s House of Wisdom is “reimagined as a library for the 21st century”; one that merges the achievements of the past with the progress of the present to birth the vision for the future. The foundation of House of Wisdom grew from the stories and the cultural accomplishments of the region’s forefathers, and lays the path for generations to come. According to Marwa, “House of Wisdom which provides an immersive space for learning, sharing, creating and accessing knowledge is in line with the emirate’s quest to develop a knowledge-based society. It’s a model of what large societies should be. It provides a place for socialising, reading, and a place for constructive dialogue, entertainment, learning new sciences and offers advanced technologies to access knowledge. Its multi-function spaces and halls are family-friendly and encourages interaction between different segments of the community, nationalities and cultures.”
Among the accomplishments that Sharjah’s House of Wisdom looks to celebrate is the translation movement taking place in Baghdad which was of significant importance in contributing to advancements, and the dissemination of sciences throughout the Arab world at the time. Scientific texts hailing from Greece and India, among other cultures, were translated into Arabic – which further sheds light on the power found within this amalgamation of studies and knowledge being transferred across cultures. Embodying the same ideological spirit of its predecessor, Sharjah’s “House of Wisdom has been envisioned as a flexible place of learning that would inspire people to come together and share ideas,” stresses Marwa. “Hence, it was important to integrate the physical building with its surrounding landscape and achieve a seamless flow between nature and the structure while designing the House of Wisdom. Our mission is to not only make multiple sources of knowledge easily accessible but also create culturally rich experiences for everybody.”
The cultural hub is made up of several spaces that nurture the easy flow of information-sharing, communication and knowledge-exchange among visitors and across cultures. Those include Al Rasheed Hall, Espresso Books, Knowledge Terrace, Wisdom Vault, Al Ma’moun Exhibition, and Wisdom Square.
The Al Ma’moun exhibition is home to the best-sellers, award winning titles, new and recent books, and the collection of Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah, among others. It’s also equipped with self-service stations wherein visitors can explore, find and borrow books.
“The Wisdom Vaults, as the name suggests, are repositories for books, and together have the capacity of stocking up to 11,000 books,” enthuses Marwa. “We are currently using one of the vaults as part of the normal collection. We have great plans for the other vault which will be used to host special collections as well as rare books that we are trying to source. To complement the mission of House of Wisdom and align with its philosophy, this collection will be carefully selected and curated to attract and cater to a niche audience.”
Marwa’s favorite spot is Wisdom Square: “The courtyard has always been an integral element in traditional Arabian houses but here, it connects us to the outdoors. Being open to the sky and filled with plants, a fully-grown tree and calming water features, the Wisdom Square helps bring nature into this very modern structure, bathing it in natural light. As it is in the line of sight from every part of the House of Wisdom, the Wisdom Square lends an aura of natural green and calm to the bustling social space. Definitely my favorite spot!”
Loaded with innovative and interactive activities for all ages, Sharjah’s House of Wisdom “was conceived with the idea of developing into the go-to destination for curious minds, dreamers, and learners. Our programming aims to bring people together to enhance cultural understanding, tolerance, and cross-cultural communication between nations, while taking forward Sharjah’s legacy of offering continuous opportunities for learning and gaining knowledge,” promises Marwa. With a roster of projects that promote critical thinking and creativity, the cultural hub has set up “interactive sessions, workshops and inspiring discussions featuring famous authors and well-known personalities.”
Marwa gives an example of such a space by pointing out to the “Al Jazri Lab, or the Fabrication Lab – a makerspace equipped with cutting-edge technologies including state-of-the-art 3-D printers, laser and vinyl cutting machines, and Computer Numerical Control tools – recently presented a wide variety of advanced workshops designed to assist patrons in developing skills in 3-D printing, coding, furniture and jewelry designing, silk-screen printing, wood engraving, and more. And The Little Reader section organizes fun activities including book-reading sessions for children.”
A scroll, standing at 36.5 meters, and created by British sculptor Gerry Judah, further reminds curious explorers of the purpose of the modern complex. “Scrolls,” explains Marwa, “which represent some of the earliest form of the written word, are essentially an Arabic invention, dating back to ancient Egypt. Gerry Judah, who is internationally renowned for designing sculptures, theatres, museums and public places in the UK and around the world, was commissioned to realise The Scroll as a contemporary interpretation of the ancient Arabic scroll.” Marwa adds, “He created a visually striking artwork representing the eternal flame of knowledge, constantly lit and reaching upwards to the skies. The 36.5-meter-tall monocoque sculpture is made of 72 tons of steel plates and 240 tons of concrete foundations. This astounding work of art celebrates Sharjah’s achievement as the UNESCO World Book Capital 2019.”
Cemented in the cultural accomplishments of the emirate, Sharjah’s House of Wisdom, plans to revolutionize the methods through which people interact with knowledge, by experimenting and leading the way to the future. And it will do so by encouraging intercultural exchanges, offering learning opportunities and sowing an insatiable desire for knowledge within its communities. “By integrating traditional and digital knowledge sources, and the way in which intellectual creativity is harnessed through diverse modes and forms,” explains Marwa. “The House of Wisdom brings a new ethos to libraries. With an emphasis on shared spaces for collaborative learning and social gathering, it has been thoughtfully designed as a place where people grow through learning and are positively transformed by knowledge.”
When it comes to curating exhibitions, Marwa explains that the main goal “is to boost the non-academic learning of its users. We aim to offer something beneficial to the community while delivering an innovative educational experience to our visitors. Our exhibitions seek to fulfil the essential role of exhibitions in stimulating efforts to comprehend and understand the world we inhabit. Like 168:01 that just concluded, our hosted exhibitions will not only be critical and thought-provoking but also deliver a positive message. They will not only support the mission and objectives of our institution but also the interests of our visitors. The House of Wisdom reinforces Sharjah’s status as a melting pot of world cultures,” concludes Marwa. And much like its namesake in Baghdad, Sharjah’s newly established institution looks to revive the thirst for knowledge and cross-culture exchange that was present long ago.