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Religious and Cultural Diversity Featured in New AMED Reading Room Collection Display

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(The following is a post by Anchi Hoh, Program Specialist; Sharon Horowitz, Hebraic Reference Librarian; Edward Miner, Head of the African Section; and Joan Weeks, Head of the Near East Section.)

A new collection display, “Religious and Cultural Diversity in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia,” is open to the public in the African and Middle Eastern Division (AMED) Reading Room, from March 13, 2023 through May 31, 2023.

Drawing upon AMED’s unparalleled research resources on international studies, this display offers a taste of diversity reflected in the religions and cultures of these regions. Specifically, the Hebraic Section showcases an assortment of its unique Passover Haggadot collection. The Near East Section features items that address the advent of major spring holidays such as Easter, Nowruz and Ramadan. In an effort to focus on Sub-Saharan Africa’s pre-colonial religious and cultural traditions in their own right, the African Section exhibits an array of rarely seen items about the Bamum Kingdom, which existed from the end of the 14th century to early 20th century in present today northwest Cameroon.

Click on “Spring Display: Religious and Cultural Diversity in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia” (bibliography) to view the list of display items.

The following is each section’s display description.

African Section

A man in traditional African custom standing next two a sculpture of men and animals.
7. Art Indigene: Un trone historique sculpte d’un seul bloc de bois. Mission des Pretres du Sacre-Coeur de St.-Quentin, photographer. Nantes : M. Brochard, c.1900-1933.

African societies are both deeply religious and deeply pluralistic, and historically African people have simultaneously, and non-exclusively, embraced multiple religious traditions available in their cultural environments. To manage political relations with neighboring Fulani sultanates, as well as the successive German and French colonial governments, King Ibrahim Njoya (1869-1933) converted to Islam, then to Christianity, then back to Islam, all the while never abandoning the traditional Bamum religion in which ancestral spirits play a key role. Here, he is pictured in typical Fulani/Muslim garb standing beside the Bamum throne, which is replete with ritual connections to the traditional Bamum religion. The throne is adorned with glass beads and cowrie shells. Two-head serpents symbolize royal power, and a backrest of two human figures ritually protect the sovereign.

Hebraic Section

Two opened book pages with Hebrew and Amharic on two respective pages.
Hagadah shel Pesaḥ = Hāgādā shél Pésāh. Yerushalayim : Hotsaʼat Ḳoren, 2010.
Two opened pages with Hebrew and colorful illustrations.
Haggadah. English & Hebrew. The Schechter Haggadah, art, history, and commentary. 2009. Jerusalem. The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

Passover Haggadah in Hebrew and Amharic. 2010. (#2 in the bibliography)

Because the Passover dinner meal, or seder, is one of the most widely practiced Jewish customs, Passover Haggadot (plural) (printed text of the evening’s liturgy) are published in Hebrew and many different languages on facing pages. Due to the large number of immigrants from Ethiopia to Israel, this Haggadah was published in Hebrew and Amharic. In addition to the full traditional text of the Haggadah, it also includes illustrations, reproductions from ancient Haggadah manuscripts.

The Schechter Haggadah. 2009 (#4 in the bibliography) This Haggadah supplies the traditional Hebrew text and a new English translation. In addition, 115 illustrations are included. These beautiful illustrations have been selected from both manuscripts and more modern sources. This Haggadah also supplies in depth commentary essays on the Passover evening customs and liturgy, including topics such as: The Four Sons; significance of the 4 cups of wine; and (of course) Matza.

Near East Section

A color photo featuring illustrated books in a display case.
Persian and Turkish items on display.
A color photo featuring illustrated books in a display case.
Arabic and Armenian items on display.

The Arabic exhibit focuses on the holy month of Ramadan, which starts on the evening of March 22, 2023 and ends on the evening of April 21, 2023. The display items depict fasting, prayer, reflection and the foods prepared for breaking the fast, such as dates in all their varieties.

The Armenian books showcase the rites, rituals, traditions, sayings, songs, games, and cuisine that commemorate the celebration of Easter in Armenia.

Nowruz on Mar. 20-21st celebrates the spring equinox throughout Central Asia. The photos included in the display depict the Haft-sin table with seven symbolic items: Sabzeh (wheat, barley or lentil sprouts grown in a dish), Samanu (a sweet pudding), Senjed (oleaster, or grapes that will be turned into serkeh), Serkeh (vinegar), Seeb (apple), Seer (garlic), and Somagh (sumac), all on a Haft-sin cloth.

A major public holiday in Turkey is Çocuk Bayramı (Children’s Holiday) on April 23rd.  It is celebrated with young children participating in a series of ceremonies such as performing patriotic songs and dances. On this day as part of the celebration, some older children send their elected representatives to the offices of high-ranking government officials and parliamentarians to play their roles or to hold discussions on children’s issues, all for ceremonial purposes.

For reference assistance, contact the AMED Reading Room via Ask a Librarian or (202) 707-4188.

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