2018 in Retrospect / Perspectives 2019

2018 was easily the most successful year of this outlet yet. New pieces have been published at at a very stable rate of at least two per month. Almost by accident Sunday has been established as the regular day of publication. Some of them, such as “Let’s talk survival bias“, have received considerable attention (by my standards) on twitter. And for the first time, the number of monthly visitors reached four digits. The main reason for this summarizing post is therefore my own joy over this great response.

During 2018, I tried to familiarize myself with the many functions hypotheses has to offer. And I hope the choices I made do indeed allow for better browsing and presentation of ideas. Citations have been introduced for most posts. On the landing page, posts are now only teased so older posts can be found easier.

Furthermore, specific themes have taken shape over this year or over the entire life-time of Damascus Anecdotes. And while they might seem disconnected (sometimes), I would obviously argue against this false accusation. The themes do not always correspond to the categories I use. Therefore, let me briefly present them here.

Network Approaches

This is probably the strongest theme on Damascus Anecdotes. Four posts describe network visualizations directly. The focus is mostly on the browser environment Palladio, simply because it is easy and quick to use. I have applied it to connections between texts, manuscripts, and collections; to female networks of hadith transmission; and to the connections between Ibn Tulun’s teachers and the subjects he learned from them. My first attempt at moving to more serious network analysis environments has not gotten far yet.

Network as an analytical perspective was also at the core of recent articles on late Mamluk social competition over income from religious institutions and on notions of ‘family’. And since these posts offer themselves for a presentation beyond the written word, they will certainly remain a staple in the future.

Manuscript Collections

Now, this is obvious. This topic is at the heart of the Ibn Tulun project and was the initiator of this whole enterprise. Several posts discuss specific manuscripts of interest from Cairo, Paris, and Istanbul. Those are also the subject of several conference talks and publications announced on the blog.


More importantly, I address the history of the Leiden and Cairo manuscripts, the role of online catalogues, and the issue of ‘survival bias’ in individual posts.Still, much remains to be done in this respect, and I hope there will be time to cover more collectors and collections in the near future. For now, let me redirect you to this thread on American Olympic athlete turned manuscript collector Robert Garrett.

Text editions

Open Access and source sharing are dear to me and I am endlessly grateful to the person whose generosity in sharing digital manuscripts has set me on the path for the current project. Since Arabic script still poses considerable difficulties to text retrieval from digital images, other ways to access the information they hold are necessary (for repositories of digital texts in Arabic script see here).

One of the earliest posts presented one work-around by presenting an annotated ToC for a large biographical dictionary. Since, several transcriptions of smaller transmission certificates have followed and uploaded to github (find the first one here). One possible way of using such transcripts for computer-based analysis has been discussed earlier this year. Along these lines, hypotheses offers windows into a host of inspiring projects.

Reception of Damascus Anecdotes

Overview of visitors 2018

For the first three months of 2018, more than 1,000 people visited the blog each month, before numbers declined until after the summer, when September witnessed a comparable count once again (November is not yet over, when I am writing this which accounts for the low numbers in the final two months). 

One explanation for the ups and downs in visitor numbers might be that I was more active in promoting new posts in some months than others, particularly on twitter. Another explanation is obviously that some posts were more interesting to a general audience than others. But why did the three January posts about manuscript from Paris, Leiden, and Cairo respectively raise such an interest? Their appeal is more of a mystery to me than that of the February posts whose theme was expressly linked to the US American Black History Month (see the final post here).

At the heart of these musings remains the question who actually reads these words? As readers—to some little dismay—do not frequently comment on what is being written here, I can only deduce my audience from what the hypotheses statistics offer. For instance, it classifies visits by country of access, displaying how many objects were opened from those locations. Let’s look at January and September. And no, I did not choose them because they were among the busiest months!

Visitor count by country, January 2018

The jump to more than 1,000 visitors in January was tied to an unprecedented increase in interest from France. In addition to the three manuscript discussions mentioned above, interest was also high in a short list of digital humanities blogs. Yet, I speculate that the French interest, in particular, was connected to the first post about a Paris manuscript so far. Interest from the US has been significant from the start of Damascus Anecdotes in 2016. I guess, blogs are a more accepted format of publication than in, let’s say, Germany? A surprise was that the blog has reached a South Korean audience comparable to those in primarily English-speaking countries. 

Visitor count by country, September 2018

This surprise grew when, in September, the largest interest seemed to come from Bulgaria. I would love to get to know you, Bulgarian readers. Please do reach out! The same goes actually for every reader.  

Perspectives 2019

One of the benefits of engaging is that you can direct where this blog will be going in the coming year and beyond that. As of now, I can already say that some current topics will receive less attention than they have so far, and others will be emphasized more. At the moment, I am making these decisions by myself. I will accept propositions as well. That being said, what will change in 2019?

First of all, I will be leaving my current position in February and Beirut shortly afterwards. This change of environment will bring with it a shift in perspective, for sure. Several topics that were treated this year were intricately tied to my everyday-life in Beirut (e.g. those on garbage and bicycles). At the moment, the next destination is yet unclear as is how it will influence the thematic direction of Damascus Anecdotes.

Many other topics were connected to my current research project and this is supposed to draw to a close as well. Thus, with time, Ibn Ṭūlūn will go out of focus, albeit not necessarily completely. Rather, the focus will move forward in time, with a stronger focus on manuscript circulation during later centuries. In particular, more space will be dedicated to collectors and libraries during the 19th and 20th centuries. Ever heard of ʿAbd al-Salām al-Shaṭṭī? You will have by February. 

Practices of collecting, marking manuscripts as property, and new technologies of reproduction will make up another thematic focus in 2019. While these topics initially connect to Ibn Ṭūlūn manuscripts, they will develop far beyond this restricted corpus.

Finally, my wish is to move the theme further away from the anecdotal. On one hand, I plan to include more reviews on secondary studies. On the other, guest entries shall be featured where other authors can address intersecting topics in a semi-casual way. (If you have a topic in mind, do contact me via email or twitter dm.) To emphasize these new themes, they will receive their own categories. As of now, two new categories have been added: “Surveying the Field” addresses secondary literature and sometimes gaps therein, whereas “Ex Libris” will be dedicated specifically to historical libraries.

With that being said, have a happy 2019!

Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "2018 in Retrospect / Perspectives 2019", in Damascus Anecdotes, December 16, 2018, https://thecamel.hypotheses.org/1245.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.