Historic Saudi Arabian Room Revived

Illuminated Qur’an, 1864, A gift from Harry H. Snyder, whose daughter and granddaughter attended Middlebury College

Illuminated Qur’an, 1864, A gift from Harry H. Snyder, whose daughter and granddaughter attended Middlebury College

When Tillinghast Professor of Religion Shalom Goldman heard mention of a mysterious room that used to exist in Starr Library, he knew to turn to Special Collections. After a bit of research in the archives, Special Collections staff put together a comprehensive history of the Saudi Arabian Seminar Room, part of the $1.35 million renovations made to Starr Library completed in 1962.

It housed objects donated by Karl Twitchell and Harry Snyder – such as a handwritten illuminated Qur’an, a mosque lantern, prayer rug, and paintings of the Saudi family – until the early 1980s. Though the illuminated Qur’an and its wooden stand had made their way to Special Collections in the 1980s, the other objects had been moved into storage.

College archivist Danielle Rougeau scoured a College storage shed and retrieved a few precious objects from chicken-wire-enclosed shelves where they had been sitting for decades. The retrieved objects include a mosque lantern and dallah coffee pot, with even more yet to be rediscovered.

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Special Collections Preservation Manager Joseph Watson delicately polished the lamp to restore its brilliance, and Religion professor Ata Anzali identified the Arabic inscriptions. The silver and bronze inlay lamp displays the opening verse recited before each chapter of the Qur’an as well as the “Throne verse” from the second chapter of the Qur’an. Seven glass tubes suspended from the base held oil and wicks to illuminate the lamp, described as a “mosque lamp” in College records.

Photo of a student in the Starr Library Saudi Arabian Room from the Summer 1962 issue of the Middlebury College Newsletter

Photo of a student in the Starr Library Saudi Arabian Room from the Summer 1962 issue of the Middlebury College Newsletter

Professor Goldman used them – along with other Special Collections books – in his lectures to both his Winter Term Arabian Nights class as well as the College Board of Trustees during their annual February meeting. He spoke of orientalism and interpretations of Middle Eastern culture in the US, the history of tourism and travel accounts from the 1800s, and contextualized the materials in their journey to Vermont. The objects’ donors, Vermonter Karl Twitchell and Harry Snyder, had ties to the Saudi Arabian petroleum company Aramco and to the Saudi king Abdulaziz Ibn Saud. Twitchell likely met Middlebury’s eleventh president Samuel Stratton in Saudi Arabia during the president’s leave of absence from 1951-52, during which time he directed the U.S. Assistance Program in Saudi Arabia.

Now on display as a mini-exhibit in the Reading Room, come see them for yourself and learn more about the history of the Saudi Arabia Room.