The real manuscripts of Dar al-Kutub

In December 2017, I attended a workshop on Arabic codicology at the French Archaeological Institute in Cairo (IFAO). It was taught by Elise Franssen and co-organized by Mathieu Eychenne and Abbas Zaouche.

In this context, we also paid a visit to the Dar al-Kutub, the Egyptian National Library, which holds one of the largest collections of Arabic manuscripts in the world. I also visited its department for manuscript on two more days during my stay. Noah Gardiner has written an exhaustive guide to research and especially the manuscript catalogues of the Dar al-Kutub.

It was my second visit to this institution, after I had spent a week there in November 2016. Before this first visit I had heard from friends and colleagues that with such little time it would not make sense to even try to get access to the physical manuscripts, and thus I restricted my research to the microfilm section, which is situated in a different part of the city (Bab al-Khalq).

To be sure, this visit paid other dividends but it made it apparent to me several questions that could not be answered without consulting the manuscripts themselves. And research at the Nile branch where the manuscripts are kept turned out to be much more pleasant than anticipated. The staff is in general very forthcoming and the head of the section is knowledgeable in manuscripts and himself an experienced editor (muḥaqqiq).

Some things should, however, be considered prior to one’s visit. These are not always congruent with the procedure at the Bab al-Khalq branch, and actually less strict. For instance, computers are allowed. The first thing you should prepare is a list of manuscripts you want to see with call numbers, titles and author names. Secondly, bring your passport or another kind of ID. You will have to leave it at the entrance.

You will need your institution to provide you with a letter of recommendation in Arabic. Best, if it already lists the manuscripts you aim to see. If your institution is not able to do that, one alternative option is to ask at the IFPO if they provide a letter.

The other thing you will need is time. There is the issue of finding and bringing the manuscripts. You can only have one on your desk so these intervals appear repeatedly. And on the first day you might be invited for a review of your letter of recommendation as well. The best time to arrive is around 10:00 a.m. Although the section opens at 9:00, the staff often arrives later than that.

With a closing time at 2:30 p.m., you might need at least a week if you are interested in the content of a longer work. Time is also required if you prefer to get images of the manuscript. In my experience, they will usually be made within the day but not long before closing time. And if you don’t want the full manuscript, calculate an extra day to get also those pages photographed that were missed on the first try (Do not make the mistake I made!).

Finally, the images are of a good quality albeit not of a resolution as high as those you get from, let’s say, Chester Beatty Library. But then you pay a pittance compared to that library. The only downside is the watermark that all images from Dar al-Kutub carry. Unfortunately, that leads to some annotations being not as legible as in the manuscript itself.

During my admittedly short stay, the other visitors could be counted on one hand. So if you need manuscripts from the Dar al-Kutub, the time to get them is now.

Did Ibn Ṭūlūn read Ibn Iyās? A manuscript from Paris

One obvious course in establishing a scholar’s importance as well as his intellectual biography is the search for manuscript copies of his works. Whereas this step of my project is mostly finished, a recent attendance at a codicology workshop at the IFAO in Cairo did bring up this topic once more.
I am grateful to IFAO’s own Robin Seignobos who pointed me to MS Paris, BnF, Or. 3973, which contains a text on Nile tides ascribed to one Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad al-Dimashqī al-Ḥanafī (fols. 170-189). He also made me aware of David Wasserstein’s article “Tradition manuscrite, authenticité, chronologie et développement de l’oeuvre littéraire d’Ibn Iyās” (Journal Asiatique 280 [1993]: 81-114) which provides a more detailed description of the manuscript and the text.
Finally, Robin speculates that this text, “Nuzhat al-khāṭir wa-bahjat al-nāẓir fī ziyādat al-nīl wa-nuquṣānuhu wa-muntahā ziyādatihi wa-awānihi“, was authored by Ibn Ṭūlūn.  If this is the case, this would be the second Ibn Ṭūlūn text in the Bibliotheque nationale de France. The other one is a short prayer likewise included in a composite manuscript (MS ar. 1945, fols. 67b-68a) which references itself as “ṣalāt Ibn Ṭūlūn” (fol. 68a).
Yet, in both cases the question remains whether the author really was “our” Muḥammad Ibn Ṭūlūn. Both manuscripts are later copies of an original according to their colophons. It is interesting that the given author name, in MS 3973, lacks the most distinct part of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s writerly identity, whereas in MS 1945 it is the only element of appellation.
Here, however, I will rather talk about the topic of the text on the Nile to substantiate Robin’s suggestion. Ibn Ṭūlūn wrote texts on Egypt (al-Ajwiba al-jalliyya ʿan al-asʾila al-miṣriyya, Ḥawar al-ʿuyūn fī tārīkh Aḥmad Ibn Ṭūlūn, ʿAjab al-dahr fī tadhyīl min malik Maṣr) and he wrote texts on recurring natural phenomena (e.g. in his Nukat al-tārīkhiyya, nos. 19, 22 or his works on animals or plants) but there is no evidence in his work list nor his autograph manuscripts that he ever combined both.
Moreover, as far as we know he never traveled to Egypt to see the Nile with his own two eyes. (In turn, this might help explain why his name is given as it is in a compilation that is clearly Egyptian. For an Egyptian audience, he was simply a Ḥanafī and Damascene.)
I should mention that the Nuzha is vocalized throughout. While this can be attributed to the manuscript being a later copy, it might point to a very different readership that Ibn Ṭūlūn’s autographs originally had.
That being said, the Nuzhat al-khāṭir shares some characteristics with Ibn Ṭūlūn’s known writings. But in some ways it stands out amongst them: The basmallah is followed by an exceptionally short Tamḥīd: “al-ḥamdu li-llāh”. Elsewhere, this section often covers several lines of texts. Instead, it is followed here by several lines of rhymed prose.
Then, the text starts in earnest after the ubiquitous “wa-baʿd”. In general, Ibn Ṭūlūn would almost instantly follow this with the title of the work and often an indicator towards its genre (most often “taʿlīq”). This element is missing in this text, which could discredit it immediately as a false ascription or possibly the work of another Damascene Ḥanafī scholar by the name of Muḥammad. However, the following introduction sounds very much like something that Ibn Ṭūlūn could have written:
فقد وقفت على كراريس مخرومة الاوائل متعلقة باخبار المبارك الاعلام جامعها و يمكن الوقوف على اسمه من ديباجة تاريخ له و سماه بدايع الزهور في وقايع الدهور وجدتها محتوية على لطائف و حوادث و غرائب و تواريخ في زيادة النيل و نقصانه
fa-qad waqaftu ʿalā karārīs makhrūma al-awāʾil mutaʿlliqa bi-akhbār al-mubārak lā aʿlam jāmiʿahā wa-yumkin al-wuqūf ʿalā ismihi min dībājat tārīkh lahu samāhu “Badāʾiʿ al-zuhūr fī waqāʾiʿ al-duhūr” wajadtuhā muḥtawiyyatan ʿalā laṭāʾif wa-ḥawādith wa-gharāʾib wa-tawārīkh fī ziyādat al-Nīl wa-nuqaṣṣānihi
I have come upon some incomplete quires attached to “Akhbār al-Mubārak”.*  I do not know whether the work is complete. It is possible to gather the ism (the author’s name or the work’s title?) from the poem on history (or date?). He called it “Badāʾiʿ al-zuhūr fī waqāʾiʿ al-duhūr”. I found it comprises subtleties, events, oddities, and dates of the Nile’s high and low tides. 
* I am not sure whether this is a title; the name Mubārak could relate to one of several traditionaries (e.g. ID: 14138, 3960, 14173, 14212, 14292, 14410, 14457, or 14081 in the onomasticon arabicum).
The name of the excerpted work will be well-known to most people familiar with the later Mamluk period. It is none other than the great chronicle of Abū al-Barakāt Muḥammad Ibn Iyās al-Jarkasī al-Ḥanafī (1448-1524), which is perhaps the most important Egyptian source on the Ottoman conquests.
According to Brinner’s article in the Encyclopaedia of Islam 2, his oeuvre remained relatively unimportant in his own time, which is supported by the state in which it was found by the author of the present treatise. If this indeed was the case, the work’s reception seems more probable in the first decades after his death than much later.
As far as I know, no connection between him and his Damascene counterpart Ibn Ṭūlūn has so far been known. Yet, Ibn Ṭūlūn would have been the person to acknowledge the value of an obscure fragment he found in the back of a manuscript.
The way the text is introduced further points to Ibn Ṭūlūn as the author: Instead of an author or abstract text, the author refers to a distinct manuscript, apparently a majmūʿa containing at least two texts. What follows, is in form and content quite similar to many of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s works, namely commented excerpts of another author’s text, which he extracted and compiled around a specific topic.
The text is structured by source and thereby to a certain extent also by theme.  It begins with legends or sayings about the Nile and its springs that is followed by a description of its geography (one of the sources there is al-Masʿūdī). Then the text addresses the measurement of the nile floods (starting fol. 176b). A strict annalistic order begins only on fol. 181b and seems to be taken from a work by Ibn al-Jawzī. From there to the end, nile floods from 208 through 922 AH are described.
Unfortunately, I must admit that I do not know Ibn Iyās’ Badāʾiʿ well enough to say how much of this treatment of the Nile is taken from his work. Yet, to me it seems that such an argument would not be found in a chronicle of a basically political-social nature.
However, the structure is reminiscent of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s bio-topographical work on a cemetery in Damascus, Ghāyat al-bayān fī tarjamat al-shaykh Arslān. The biography as such is followed by a description of the cemetery and concluded with several biographies and events in which it played a role. Therefore, I would say that it is probable that this work on the Nile be added to Ibn Ṭūlūn’s established corpus.
That leaves the question why this text does not carry the characteristic description as a taʿlīq. One tentative answer could be that it was not written in a scholarly or educational context. That might also explain why it is not mentioned in Ibn Ṭūlūn’s work list.

The largest Ibn Tulun majmuʿa in Cairo (and everywhere else)

Rummaging through the catalogues of the Egyptian National Library (Dar al-Kutub), one finds a large number of entries for Ibn Tulun. And a large share of those do point to a manuscript from the collection of Ahmad Taymur: MS Majamiʿ Taymur 759 is said to contain a staggering 33 different texts. Even for Ibn Tulun’s MTMs this is far from ordinary.
In December 2017, I finally had a chance to see the physical Ibn Tulun autograph manuscripts at Dar al-Kutub. In this context, I’d like to thank Konrad Hirschler for letting me tag along, the organizers of a codicology workshop at the IFAO for the invitation to Cairo, and the friendly staff at the Manuscripts Section at Dar al-Kutub, especially the exceptionally helpful and friendly Hamdia Mohamed Mohamed ʿUmar.
MS 759 is real, I mean it is really there in Dar al-Kutub. That is not true for all of the Ibn Tulun multiple-text manuscripts that exist in the catalogue, as I have said before [link]. For example, the MSS Majamiʿ Taymur 373, 374 and Ḥadīth Taymur 546 only exist as microfilms. And once we look at the contents of those four manuscripts (see table), it becomes evident that it could be no other way. Those latter three manuscripts simply do not exist anymore in a physical form.
Distribution of works between manuscripts
As the table shows, there is ample overlap between MS 759 on one hand, and MSS 373, 374, and 546 on the other. And that is because the latter three manuscripts were destroyed at one point after they were photographed in the 1920s. “Destroyed” means here that the individual texts or sometimes quires were extracted from their original codicological context and recompiled into what is now MS 759.
None of these manuscripts was an original compilation by the author, so they do not contain a contents statement at the beginning. However, scrutinizing scholars (or bureaucrats) the creators of the microfilms were, each microfilm carries a date and a numbered list of works included in each of those “Damascene manuscripts”. Together they add up almost completely to the contents of MS 759.
Most probably, the newly formed majmuʿa was offered to the Taymur library at a later point. Whether the owner or librarian knew what exactly was on offer or whether the recompilation was intended to confuse them about exactly that is difficult to say.
In any case, the fragmentary titles from MS 373 (Jawāb al-suʾāl ʿan ḥukm al-dajjāl) and MS 546 (twice Risālat nāqisat al-awwal) might be in that state since they originally were first titles of a bound volume. Together with the contents statement, the first page of these works was lost or binned.
Taking this into account, we can finally make a guess as to which of Ibn Tulun’s works they might actually be. This is difficult if not impossible about the one which relates to hadith. The corpus is simply too large with over one hundred individual titles. It is also difficult since my copy of the text is bad and less than two pages of text remain, much of which is filled with isnad.
For the second text, already the index of the microfilm states “it appears that it deals with the legality of the rulers’ disposal of state revenues (amwāl bayt al-māl)”. The title that comes closest to this is Ibn Tulun’s Tawḍīḥ al-maqāl fī masʾalat al-waqf min bayt al-māl. No copy of this text is recorded.
In some catalogues this text is also titled Risāla fī al-fiqh al-shāfiʿī. While there are several references to al-Shāfiʿī on the first two extant pages, the creator of the microfilm seems to be more informed, since in the following much of the discussion revolves around several wakīls, that of the bayt al-māl, that of the sultan, and others.
Thus, while none of the four manuscripts discussed here can be considered an original compilation, at least it could be established that one more work from Ibn Tulun’s work list can be identified as having survived in part.

Ibn Ṭūlūn’s Autograph Corpus: Online Catalogues

Making sense of a manuscript corpus as large as that of Ibn Ṭūlūn can be tiresome. In particular, since his autographs are today dispersed in libraries in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Germany, England, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United States, and the relevant institutions offer very diverse degrees of information about the manuscripts in their catalogues. Yet, these catalogues are obviously a central source in establishing any manuscript corpus.

Things get especially irksome when one wants to make sense of the collections of the Dār al-Kutub (for guidance to its collections, see this review) and the manuscript center of the Arab League (GAD) in Cairo. Access to microfilms at Dār al-Kutub is comparatively easy if rather slow (due to the limit of three items one may order each day); access to the physical manuscripts themselves, however, requires good connections and a lengthy stay. One might circumvent the Dār al-Kutub altogether by turning to the GAD, which offers an online catalogue to browse the selection even beforehand and allows to collect digital copies within the same day.

The GAD offers access to the (partial) holdings of several important manuscript collections of the Arab World. Yet, therein lies a danger as well as new possibilities. The catalogue was apparently created on the basis of the individual library catalogues but their holdings were not compared to each other. What I mean by that: Several collections hold microfilms of manuscripts belonging to another institution. In the GAD catalogue, the same material artifact may thus appear several times. In some cases, doublets might be visible through an allusion to the original collection in the “subject” section but often enough it is not.

How Digitization Has Changed the Cataloging of Islamic Books

This is, however, not a new problem. With the spread of microfilm and microfiche in the early 20th century, collectors and scholars alike made ample use of these technologies, and, among others, the Taymūriyya Library (today in Cairo) and the Arab Academy in Damascus supplemented their manuscript collections by acquiring microfilms from other institutions around the world.

These microfilms received their own call numbers, being treated somewhat similarly to manuscripts physically present in the respective collections. Even though this process is clearly important to the constitution of the corpora which ground our understanding of Arabic literature and book culture, to my knowledge no study has yet been dedicated to this important chapter in the transition from a living manuscript to a print culture (and hence to digitization). Yet, in the face of the ubiquity of the medium, we need a new “codicology” for  microfilms.

To conclude with just one basic example, the integrity of a text in a physical manuscript is partly assured by the use of catchwords on the verso page of each folio. The text is bound to the materiality of the two-sided leaf of paper. In contrast, microfilm images present a surface to the viewer, which usually covers the verso page together with the recto of the following leaf. In order to assure that the following image actually refers to the following double page in the physical manuscript, it would require a catchword on the recto page.

While this might seem a theoretical issue at first sight, the microfilm of the Ibn Ṭūlūn autograph manuscript Majāmīʿ Taymūr 759 is only one case where the addition of such catchwords would be really necessary. For about the first half of the files I bought from Dār al-Kutub, the slides only seem to be in the opposite order (fol. 100 comes before fol. 99 before fol. 98 etc.). Yet, around the middle, the confusion increases even more and it is painstaking to find out which image belongs to which work. Finally, about half of the texts ascribed to this manuscript by the latest print catalogue is completely missing from the microfilm.