I find the Dutch very pragmatic and therefore easy to work with: What You See Is What You Get. So when the International Institute of Asian Studies (a fabulous research institute I have been affiliated to since 2007) offered me a place to work for two months, I accepted readily.
This country is also a very picturesque part of the world; Amsterdam offers picture-perfect views of soaring spires and ancient churches at almost every turn of a canal. However, a large number of these churches are no longer houses for worship, but event spaces.
Last week, when I was in Maastricht to catch up with a writer buddy, we stopped at the world’s finest bookstore located inside – what else? – a fabulous old church. This bookstore, inside a 13th century Dominican church, is a branch of the popular Dutch bookstore chain Selexyz. Built in 1294, the cathedral now soars above the three-storied bookstore, with plenty of open spaces for readers to browse. There is a café in the corner, but despite this being a weekday afternoon, we could not get a seat.
Converting this rarely-used Church into a bookstore may have seemed heretical to some, but it now seems such a sensible idea. When Maastricht was invaded by Napoleon in 1794 and the Dominicans forced out of the country, the church had been briefly used as a parish, but then fell into neglect as a warehouse, an archive, and finally a giant parking lot for bicycles. The bookstore’s thoughtful renovation of an ancient space is ongoing, and has certainly given the awe-inspiring 14th century ceiling frescoes a new lease of life.
On September 14th, the new Asian Library at the University of Leiden had an official opening in the iconic Pieterskerk of Leiden. Queen Máxima, as the patroness of the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV), presided over the opening ceremony at this late-Gothic church in Leiden dedicated to Saint Peter. The history of this church can be traced back to 1100 and Pieterskerk is also known as the church of the Pilgrim Fathers (the pastor John Robinson was buried here). The early European settlers of what is now Plymouth, in Massachusetts, had fled England for the relative tolerance of 16th–17th century Holland, and then continued to North America, where they established a colony in 1620.
However, Pieterskerk wears its long history lightly and now largely functions as a space for university and community events.
Leiden University was founded in 1575 and has several ancient buildings within its own campus, but choosing this ancient church for the inaugural event gave the occasion an added gravitas. Within Pieterskerk, in this grand space dating back to 1100, under the vaulted ceilings and lush lighting, the Queen and the audience listened to speeches about the importance of libraries and international collaborative research, from the time of the Silk Routes and beyond.
I was delighted to see, during a visit to the Amsterdam University Press offices in Amsterdam, stained-glass windows celebrating reading and music in the way that churches once deified saints and messiahs.
Many ancient civilizations -- including the Chinese, Indian, Norse, Japanese, Persian, Armenian, Mongols, Egyptians -- had Deities of Knowledge. Perhaps we should all venerate the search for knowledge in the same way we venerate our religious convictions.
The world may even become a kinder, wiser place.