Saving the fragments of history

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ANNA CZAJKA empties the contents of an envelope over the table, and out tinkle small shards of metal. One is snub-nosed and silvery, another a thin curl of steel like a broken thimble.

All have shredded their way through Lebanon's heritage, cut through the oil paintings of its elder statesmen or burrowed through the leather covers and soft paper of hand-written 14th-century Korans and works of Arab astrology. Anna Czajka is trying to repair the country's history and its heritage, nine years after the war that almost destroyed it.

"Look at this," she says, holding up a fragment of steel which winks at us in the sunshine that streams into her laboratory. "It enters the book with such a small hole through the cover, but then it gets bigger as it tears its way through, damaging the paper with the shock of its entry, so that the edges of the paper inside are burnt, and then it exits with such a big hole on the other side. So, you see, I can imagine the effect this has on a human body."

A work in the Syriac language has a bullet hole through every page. A painting entitled "View of the Port of Beirut" - a generous oil of the French-built harbour executed in 1867 - has been torn apart at the top by a bullet.

By chance or on purpose? Nabil Saidi, the documents expert who has been researching what is left of the Lebanese national library - now the National Archives - is uncertain. "During the war, the books and paintings were stored beside the parliament building downtown," he remembers. "The militias came in and there was a lot of fighting. It was the front line. I think some of the paintings were used as target practice."

What the researchers found after the war was pitiful. Professional thieves took the catalogues so that there is no way to find out what has been lost - Mr Saidi suspects up to 500 precious works may have been stolen out of a collection of 2,000. Books had decayed in damp rooms or been rained on through shattered roofs.

Water had cascaded over a valuable self-portrait by the elemental Lebanese poet and artist Kahlil Gibran, washing away all but his troubled face, chest and half an arm holding a brush. Displayed today in the Sursock Museum in Beirut, its damage is painful to look at, the canvas veined with Japanese paper and tape to hold it together. But it will be repaired, along with most of the treasures that survived Lebanon's 1975-1990 war. The work of the National Archives has become one of the country's most symbolic acts of post-war reconstruction.

Mr Saidi has helped to identify the rarest works in greatest need of restoration and Ms Czajka - herself on loan from the National Library of Warsaw - sighs as she gently pulls a leather-bound 13th-century manuscript of Arab literature, Makamat al-Hariri, from an envelope.

"I am constantly struck by how advanced Arab civilisation was in those early centuries," Ms Czajka says. "The Europeans came here to read their works on astronomy and astrology. I am amazed at the skill they had in writing - to write a book with such perfect movement of the hand."

As she opens the pages of magnificent Arabic script - written by a scholar in Iraq or Syria only 200 years after the Battle of Hastings - I am confronted by beauty and horror. Over the centuries, worms have eaten their way through this great treatise on Arab literature; a decade and a half of war in which it remained untreated has left each page as thin and fragile as a butterfly's wing.

"We use Japanese paper to join the damaged parts, but we do not restore ink," Ms Czajka says. "We try to indicate where another text is available. We throw nothing away. At least in those early days, the paper was good quality. The older a book is, the more resistant it is."

Ms Czajka believes in restoration as others believe in religion. "Some people say that it's easier to scan what's left and store it, rather than do all this work. But we are putting worth into material existence. If we use only photographs, our history will be made from images rather than from the real thing. Do we want to have our past only as images?"