Short speech by Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands at the opening of the exhibition 'The Art of the Islamic Book from Leiden Collections – Eastern Beauty in Reproductions', Tunis

Ladies and gentlemen,

In 1796 a young Dutch army engineer named Jean Emile Humbert travelled to Tunisia. There, he was hired by the local ruler to help build the new port of Tunis. I’ve no doubt he did a fine job as a Dutch water expert, but that’s not how he secured his place in Tunisia’s history.

Humbert, you see, was not only an expert on water. He also developed a fascination for Tunisia’s past. Thanks to his adventurous spirit, enquiring mind and incredible determination, in 1817 he discovered the location of Punic Carthage. The ancient city had been totally destroyed by the Romans in the second century C.E., so its ruins had lain undiscovered for centuries. Like some early-nineteenth-century Indiana Jones, Jean Emile Humbert put ancient Carthage on the map, both literally and metaphorically. And in doing so, he more than earned his place in our common history.

The life of Jean Emile Humbert reads like an adventure story. But the exhibition I have the honour of opening today shows that he was part of a long tradition of Dutch fascination with the cultural heritage of the Arab world. Leiden University has had a chair of Arabic and Islamic Studies since 1613. More than four hundred years. And in those four centuries it has built a truly remarkable collection of over six thousand extraordinary – and sometimes unique – manuscripts. Some of its gems are on display in this photo exhibition.

This successful exhibition has now been running for four years. It has travelled from Amman to Khartoum and from Cairo to Ramallah. And now, we can enjoy it here in Tunis. I am delighted, both as a Leiden University alumnus and as prime minister of the Netherlands, to have the privilege of opening the exhibition.

There are many fascinating exhibits. Like the oldest existing illustrated Arabic copy of a famous first-century botanical work, and a double page from an eighth-century Koran. But perhaps even more valuable is something unseen. Because these cultural treasures also represent centuries of mutual respect and shared knowledge. Centuries of cultural and religious dialogue. And centuries of trade and valuable people-to-people contacts, as shown by the story of Jean Emile Humbert.

In today’s turbulent world, it’s good now and then to underline the value of those historical ties and the importance of this dialogue. And that’s why I’ve travelled to Tunisia with my counterparts from Belgium and Luxembourg. We want to deepen our relationship with your country. A relationship which has developed fast since 2011 and which we want to build on further.

I’d like to congratulate the Tunisian and Dutch organisers on this marvellous exhibition. And I’d like to thank them for this positive and inspirational contribution to our bilateral relations. I hope that many visitors will discover these splendid images.
And on that note, let me now declare the exhibition open. I wish it every success.

Thank you.