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Saving Indonesia’s Cultural Heritage: The Jakarta Globe

Source: The Jakarta Globe

Caption: Through his work with the Manassa organization, over 1,000 priceless historical texts have been photographed and added to an online database accessible by anyone.  (JG Photo/Dewi Pertiwi, courtesy of

Dr. Oman Fathurahman, a senior researcher at the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta, spends his days tracking down and deciphering Indonesia’s many ancient texts and manuscripts. He thinks it is a job that is not only critical to understanding the country’s cultural and historical past, but also where it is headed in the future.

Unfortunately, the lack of a proper centralized storage facility for these documents makes his job a difficult one, and leaves many of these priceless texts in danger of being lost or destroyed forever.

It’s critical that these texts should be stored in a secure place, like a museum or national library, said Oman, an expert on the study of ancient manuscripts, a science known as philology.

He is one of the few people in Indonesia fighting to acknowledge the significance the manuscripts have for society.

Oman believes that history repeats itself, explaining that many events that occurred in the past happen again hundreds of years later.

“Interpreting these manuscripts will give us that awareness so that, in the future, we can make better decisions for society,” Oman said.

“Every page tells a story that reflects a situation or event of the past. From these stories, we can observe how our ancestors handled domestic, social, religious, economic, even political issues hundreds of years ago,” Oman explained.

This information is priceless, it is evidence of our earliest communal existence, he said.

But unlike other, less fortunate countries, when it comes to ancient texts and manuscripts, Indonesia has a lot to lose.

“This country has a wealth of ancient manuscripts with different languages and letters — possibly millions,” said the 43-year-old researcher.

“In Sumatra alone, we have thousands of Malay and Islamic scripts that tell stories from as far back as four centuries ago.”

In addition to his work at the university, Oman also acts as chairman for the Indonesian Association for Nusantara Manuscripts (Manassa), an organization that works to preserve the nation’s cultural heritage.

Its mantra is guarding the past in order to brighten the future.

However, despite clearly doing important work for the nation, Manassa rarely gets assistance from the government.

“Most of our funding comes from abroad. Sadly, they have a higher appreciation for our historical manuscripts than our own government. I guess they think there are other issues that are more important than preserving a link to our past,” Oman said.

When it comes to protecting these manuscripts, it’s not all bad news. In 2005, Unesco suggested that every country in the world start preserving their written cultural heritage.

Last year in Paris, the institution launched the World Digital Library, a Web site that features unique cultural material from libraries and archives located around the world.

Visitors to have free access to manuscripts, maps, books, journals, prints, photos and sound recordings from all over the globe.

Dozens of countries have been involved in the project, which uses the Internet like a storage data bank, putting the world’s documented heritage at your fingertips.

Upon hearing of the project, Oman and Manassa launched a similar project of their own, which can be found at

They have started documenting all the texts in their possession using digital photographs which are then uploaded to the Internet.

“To date approximately 1,200 manuscripts have been digitized with thousands more waiting to be processed,” he said. Having it online allows people outside of Indonesia to also access these cultural riches.

But the problem of safeguarding the actual texts and manuscripts still remains.

In July, Manassa held their 13th biennial international symposium on national manuscripts at Sebelas Maret University Surakarta in West Java.

One of the key ideas put forth by attendees was a recommendation for the government to build a national manuscript preservation and research center.

“This would give us a safe place to store the manuscripts and coordinate research,” Oman said.

There has been no response yet to the request, but Oman said he will not stop trying.

He believes the manuscripts are part of the nation’s identity.

“If we let them get ruined, or sell them to a country trying to claim our history as their own, then we will have nothing left.

"As a researcher and teacher, I have a duty to raise the younger generation’s national identity and make them proud of their cultural heritage.

"They should have sense of ownership for these treasures and be willing to do something to keep them safe. It’s critical to understanding who we are as a people and where we are headed in the future,” Oman said.

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