Often brushed aside by locals and largely ignored by tourists, the city of Gotha—population 45,000 in the heart of central Germany—might not look like much today, but in the 17th century, it was arguably at the center of the world. Or at least it was aspiring to be.
When Europe’s Thirty Years’ War over dynastic and territorial rivalries ended in 1648, the region’s top aristocrat, Duke Ernst I, wanted to build an official residence atop the rubble of a castle razed during the conflict, which had stood on Gotha’s highest hill. The result was Friedenstein Palace, a sprawling, royal residence that today is considered one of the best-preserved examples of early Baroque architecture in Europe. In naming the new palace “Stone of Peace,” Ernst signaled his hope that his reign over the duchies of Saxe-Gotha and Saxe-Altenburg would be a time of tranquility.
As a testament to this intention, Ernst filled his new palace’s western tower with books, thus establishing the Gotha Court Library in 1647. It was, says the library’s current director, Kathrin Paasch, “a place of princely representation and collecting pleasure.”
Today the Gotha Research Library holds about 1 million objects, including nearly 362,000 books, manuscripts and print materials. Among them are 800 years of Islamicate scholarship, comprised of 3,500 manuscripts in Arabic, Turkish and Persian, including manuscripts taken as booty during the looting of Tunis in 1535 by the Habsburg Empire of Charles V and its allies. The collection features reams of legal, literary, grammatical, philosophical, geographic, theological and other texts. These sit side-by-side on floor-to-ceiling shelves with works by paragons from the history of Europe, including a 1520 first edition of Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther’s On the Freedom of a Christian.
Each text tells a story: from a collection of hadith (sayings and acts of the Prophet Muhammad) reputed to have been pulled out from under a corpse during the siege of Buda in 1684 to a Turkish account of the life and exploits of Alexander the Great that depict in rich colors the Greek conqueror’s mythical “flying machine”—a set of gryphons chained to a throne with rods of meat above. With such oddities and orientalia on offer, scholars across the globe travel to Gotha to explore its treasures.
One of the first scholars to be drawn to the collection was Ulrich Jasper Seetzen, who came in 1802. A physician from northern Germany, Seetzen was attracted to Gotha by the reign of Duke Ernst II, who fashioned himself an Enlightenment ruler, expanding the library’s scientific holdings and building a cutting-edge astronomical observatory with the finest instruments of the day.
Driven by their mutual interest, Ernst II commissioned Seetzen to travel to Africa via the Ottoman Empire in search of new specimens, artifacts and books to add to his ever-expanding library and—as what later became museums were called in the day—his Wunderkammer (“cabinet of curiosities”). Having studied medicine and natural history at the University of Goettingen, Seetzen was no adventurer. But according to Achim Lichtenberger, professor of archeology at the University of Muenster, he was insatiably curious. “He was a classic polymath,” says Lichtenberger. “During his studies, Seetzen branched beyond the natural sciences to learn from explorers, anthropologists, and famous writers,” such as the world-renowned Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), who counted among Seetzen’s friends.
With the duke’s support, Seetzen set out in 1802. He made his way through Leipzig, Prague and Vienna before taking a ship down the Danube through the Balkans to Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman Empire, where he arrived in 1803. He then journeyed by caravan to Izmir in western Turkey and south to Aleppo in Syria. In his 2002 book about Seetzen, Among Monks and Bedouins: Voyage in Palestine and Adjoining Countries, 1805-1807, Lichtenberger wrote that Seetzen spent nearly two years in Aleppo, where he learned Arabic before continuing through the Levant and the wider Middle East. Like no European before him, Seetzen explored Syria, Lebanon and Palestine in detail, getting to know Maronite and Druze minorities and identifying biblical sites like Gadara, Philadelphia and Jerash—the latter of which he wrote, “it is impossible to explain how this place, formerly of such manifest celebrity, can have so long escaped the notice of all lovers of antiquity.” Seetzen continued through the Sinai and Egypt, and crossed the Red Sea to Jiddah, Makkah and Madinah in 1810. In Jiddah, Lichtenberger says Seetzen became a Muslim so that he could make the Hajj, or pilgrimage, to Islam’s holy cities and there make measurements and sketch plans of the sacred precincts, which had never been done before.
Reading the letters and journal entries Seetzen recorded along the way, it is clear he was not an adventure-seeker but a scientist, Lichtenberger says. Seetzen’s detailed records describe what the weather was like, what the soil conditions were, what time he woke and when he went to sleep, as well as his unlucky encounters with camels, lice and fleas. A German-Lutheran by birth, Seetzen dressed in traditional Arab clothes, ingratiating himself to Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim hosts. “He wanted to adapt to the people and the country he was traveling in,” Lichtenberger says, “to make himself as similar as possible to the people in his company.” Accordingly, Seetzen also wrote quasi-ethnographic accounts of conversations, collaborations and disappointments with locals he encountered. He spoke highly of Bedouins’ fierce sense of honor and loyalty, and he noted similarities among the people of southern Syria and northern Jordan and Bavarians back home.
Over the course of nine years, Seetzen also gathered an extensive collection of manuscripts and objects for the duke’s collection. Mostly through mass purchases from personal collections in Aleppo and Cairo, Seetzen acquired some 2,700 Arabic, Persian and Turkish manuscripts. The sheer magnitude and variety of these acquisitions made the ducal collection one of the most important of its kind and helped give rise to the field of “Orientalism” in the German-speaking world, which still influences studies of the Middle East in Germany, Austria and beyond. Had Seetzen made his planned, further journeys in Africa, and returned to write the book he envisioned, Lichtenberger says Seetzen could have very well become globally celebrated alongside others such as Humboldt.
But it was not to be. Seetzen died in 1811 under mysterious circumstances, possibly poisoned on the command of Sana’a’s imam near Taizz, Yemen. It was back in Gotha, where news of his death did not arrive for two years, that Seetzen’s legacy would live on, surviving alongside the library and its many lives over the next two—often violent—centuries.
After Ernst II’s reign, the Gotha Library remained one of the largest and most important collections in Europe, says Paasch, even if its universal aspirations dimmed. Through the 20th century, however, the library and its Oriental Collection barely survived. After World War I and the dissolution of Germany’s formal aristocracy, Paasch says the library sold off books in the 1930s and 1940s, during the cash-strapped years of Nazi rule and World War II. After the war, some 350,000 volumes were looted as war spoils by the Soviet Union. For 10 years, the library existed in exile. Once the bulk of the plundered holdings were relocated to Gotha in 1956, Paasch says the authorities of the East German Republic (DDR) gave it little regard, and researchers outside the country were only granted limited access.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the library was integrated into the University of Erfurt in 1999, a city some 34 kilometers east of Gotha, and in 2005 it came under Paasch’s directorship. Today she says it supports a globally networked research community using its manuscripts, books, maps and archival materials to better understand worlds past and present. Paasch says she is proud the library “has survived in its original location, is part of Gotha’s cultural heritage, and is of European standing as an international center of exchange and encounter.”
Boris Liebrenz, who works with the Biblioteca Arabica project in Leipzig and conducted research at the library in 2012 and 2013, says that while there are other libraries in Berlin and Munich with larger collections, Gotha’s is unique because it is a small library with an idiosyncratic selection. “Seetzen’s collection continues to surprise us,” Liebrenz says. “He saw as worthy of acquisition what others in his day and age would not. He brought us things that maybe would not have survived without his purchase and collection.” These include rare finds like a book with intricate, hand-painted illustrations of flowers pasted into the manuscript, reflecting the importance of flora in Ottoman court culture, and a travelogue from a French missionary complaining of heretics and beseeching the Vatican for help in reaching people in Baghdad, Basra and Isfahan. There is even a copy of Seetzen’s own notebook from when he was learning Arabic, with locals’ handwritten lines on the left and Seetzen’s detailed, German translations on the right.
“We are asking questions about these documents’ provenance and pedigree, tracing the routes they took to end up here.”
One of the scholars who made the trek to Gotha for research was Feras Krimsti, who was born and educated in Aleppo. He came to Germany in 2005 to continue his studies in the cultural and intellectual history of the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces. The following year, he came across the Oriental Collection’s three-volume compendium of the Arabic, Persian, and Turkish works on its shelves. Krimsti was hooked. “I just knew there was so much to discover,” he says. After conducting his own doctoral research at the library, Krimsti was appointed as the collection’s curator in 2020.
Over the last 20 years, scholars like Krimsti have been at the cutting edge of a renaissance in the study of Middle Eastern manuscripts. “Across the world, scholars are bringing new questions to old sources, not only studying the manuscripts themselves, but their lives and histories—the people who wrote them, held them, bought them and sold them,” Krimsti says. “We are asking questions about these documents’ provenance and pedigree, tracing the routes they took to end up here.” By doing so, he says they are learning more about how places like Gotha, Europe and the Orient are connected, “as well as the different cultures of writing and knowledge that existed between them.” In his own research, Krimsti came across two Maronite brothers from Aleppo, Arsaniyus Shukri and Hanna al-Tabib, who traveled through the Ottoman Empire and Catholic Europe in the 18th century for the purposes of archeological tourism and to solicit alms for the Maronite order in Lebanon. Both travelogues are among Gotha’s holdings.
For her part, Leonie Rau, a doctoral student at the University of Tübingen, hopes to dive into some of the collection’s cookbooks. Enthralled by a 13th-century Syrian cookbook with recipes for apricot drinks, pistachio chicken, and melon crepes alongside preparatory perfumes and after-meal hand soaps, Rau was euphoric when she actually saw the layout of its pages and took in the 600-year-old materials with her own eyes. “It may sound silly, but it was surreal to travel on the train through a bunch of villages I couldn’t place on a map, walk up through the palace park, come into the castle, and find a treasure trove of Middle Eastern gems,” Rau says. “It makes you question how these documents wound up in such a place.”
Therein lies Gotha’s particular power, Krimsti says. He believes the collection “can spark conversations about how places like Gotha and Aleppo were not only connected in the past, but remain bound to one another today,” through immigration, politics and joint scientific inquiry. So, when Gotha’s residents look up the hill and catch sight of the castle from the market square below, Krimsti says he hopes they might rethink their relationship to other parts of the world.
“Like every other library, we are working hard at not only preserving the treasures we have but making them more accessible and using them to connect people across the globe,” he says. “It’s an ongoing project.”