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The Library

With over 42,000 volumes, Oppenheim’s library numbered among the largest specialist libraries of his era. Not only does its scope today reflect a collector’s passion for acquiring books spanning decades, but also Oppenheim’s ambition to cover individual thematic areas as comprehensively as possible with monographs, academic periodicals, cartographical works, newspapers, and even magazines.

Photo: Max von Oppenheim’s bookplate


Thanks to Oppenheim’s well endowed financial situation in the early days of building his library, he was able to acquire rarities and valuable manuscripts. Photographs of his Cairo residence at the turn of the century showing small labels on shelves in the library provide evidence for a simple system of organization. During the 1920s, professional help came from the staff of Berlin’s State Library.

The collection focused on books dealing with the Near East and Islam. After Oppenheim resolved to begin his own excavations at Tell Halaf, he prepared himself for his new role with intensive study on his own. Only a few months after the excavations began, Oppenheim wrote: “Thank God, my books now enable me follow the results of prior excavations in a serious academic manner.” Oppenheim’s specialized library, together with his collections of objects and photographs, provided a solid foundation for the Institute for Oriental Research which he established in 1922. Four years later, its value was estimated at one million gold marks.

Max von Oppenheim in oriental dress, Cairo 1896
Oppenheim‘s library, Cairo 1898

“Much to my regret, I suffer only from a shortage of books.”

When in 1943 bombing rendered the foundation’s quarters in Oppenheim’s apartment uninhabitable, some thousands of books could be rescued from the ruins – among them, reference works which Oppenheim had acquired specifically for preparing the publication of the sculptures from Tell Halaf. Even in the final year of his life, he sought to purchase books to redress the losses of 1943. In 1949, Werner Caskel (1896–1970), Oppenheim’s long-standing colleague, arranged for the transfer of the last of the Foundation’s holdings, including some 1,250 books and manuscripts, to the Department of Oriental Studies at Cologne University. (Caskel had been appointed the first chair of the department which was founded in 1948; today it bears the name Department of Middle Eastern and South East Asian Studies.)

New acquisitions, funded by the Foundation, have continually supplemented the Oppenheim library’s holdings in the areas of archaeology, geography, art, travel, and ethnology. When in 1996 the working group “Near Eastern Archaeology” was founded in Mainz, the trustees of the Foundation agreed to loan the new institute there the literature with specific reference to archaeology. Some 3500 books and the Islamic manuscripts of the Foundation are today in the “Universität zu Köln.