The Lost Archive
Key Excerpts from Article on Website of Wall Street Journal
Posted: January 20th, 2008
[In] 1944, British air force bombers hammered ... the Bavarian Academy of Science. Among the treasures lost, later lamented Anton Spitaler, an Arabic scholar at the academy, was a unique photo archive of ancient manuscripts of the Quran. The 450 rolls of film had been assembled before the war for a bold venture: a study of the evolution of the Quran. The wartime destruction made the project "outright impossible," Mr. Spitaler wrote in the 1970s. Mr. Spitaler was lying. The cache of photos survived, and he was sitting on it all along. "He pretended it disappeared," says Angelika Neuwirth, a former pupil and protge of the late Mr. Spitaler. Ms. Neuwirth, a professor of Arabic studies ... now is overseeing a revival of the research. The Quran is viewed by most Muslims as the unchanging word of God as transmitted to the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century. The text, they believe, didn't evolve or get edited. The earliest manuscripts of the Quran date from around 700 and use a skeletal version of the Arabic script that is difficult to decipher and can be open to divergent readings. Mystery and misfortune bedeviled the Munich archive from the start. The scholar who launched it perished in an odd climbing accident in 1933. An experienced climber ... his body was never given an autopsy; rumors spread of suicide or foul play. His successor died in a 1941 plane crash. Mr. Spitaler, who inherited the Quran collection and then hid it, fared better. He lived to age 93. The photos of the old manuscripts will form the foundation of a computer data base that Ms. Neuwirth's team believes will help tease out the history of Islam's founding text.