The Library of Ahmad Taymur

How is Ahmad Taymur, the Egyptian bibliophile and ‘gentleman scholar’ who received an obituary in the Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft upon his death in 1930, still awaiting his own study? Joseph Schacht praises in said obituary Taymur’s outstanding knowledge of Arabic literature, his altruistic support of “European scholarship”, and him as the “creator of the most important private library in the orient” (p. 255). The Russian Arabist Krachkovsky mentions similar qualities of Taymur in his autobiographical work Among Arabic Manuscripts. Nonetheless, when Taymur appears at all in more recent publications, he appears mostly as a side-character to someone else who is deemed worthy of a study.

Let me upfront about a few things first. Why are this library and its creator of interest to the “reading of historical Bilād al-Shām”? Well, Taymur collected manuscripts at a time when apparently large numbers of Damascene and other Syrian manuscripts were moved around and offered for sale on an international market. Taymur spent a considerable part of his income and wealth on such manuscripts as well as on the acquisition of reproductions made from Syrian manuscripts—both traditional manuscript copies and new photographic reproductions. The attentive reader of this blog might remember that several of Ibn Tulun’s manuscripts and copies thereof are today found in the Egyptian National Library under a “Taymur” shelf mark.

Next, we should agree that this post will not be able to fill this lacuna. It will not even try. This will, however, be the aim of at least two publications that I will work on in the coming year. My interest is rather in the library than in the person behind it, although reading Schacht’s and Krachkovsky’s descriptions, this distinction may not be all that easy to make. According to Schacht, Taymur had dedicated his entire life to extending and perfecting his library—and he even died there. As it remains to be seen to which extent one can get access to Taymur’s own private papers, much of my future research will rely on what his manuscripts can tell us. This entails research on their provenance as well as on the annotations Taymur made within these and the order to which they were subjected in his library. In short, unraveling the history of Taymur’s library is a longer project.

Finally, Taymur’s library is far from the only one whose history has been mostly neglected. The same can be said for the library of Murad and Iskandar al-Barudi in Beirut or the Bitar family library in Damascus. Among the contemporaneous Egyptian collectors, only Ahmad Zaki has recently received some attention (Ryad 2018). Perhaps one of these will profit from a recently advertised PhD fellowship.

So, what will I actually do in this post? First, I thought I would rant a little. Then I decided I could just point to some of the shortcomings in resources on Taymur’s library specifically and add a short bibliography on studies that mention him (it is not going to be comprehensive at all). From there, I will speak about one resource that is extremely helpful in case you do not know where to start looking for information on a person you are working on.

Why, oh why, is that information not available anywhere?

Admittedly, my project on Taymur’s library has not yet progressed far. I was lucky enough to secure a year’s funding in the framework of a Horizon 2020 Marie Sklodowska Curie action at the Long Room Hub, Trinity College Dublin. This will start in October 2019. In preparation, I have gathered what I could of Taymur’s manuscripts from diverse websites and repositories. I felt I was on a good way, doing a first survey even before the start of the program itself.

Imagine my surprise when, at a recent conference at Bonn University, someone showed a Taymur manuscript which was shelved under a category I had not even known existed. I knew there were gaps in my survey due to the unsystematic uploads of many ‘digital manuscripts’. But I certainly did not expect that, by my current count, I was missing so many entire classifications that had gone under my radar: akhlaq, sanaʿa, ziraʿa, hikma, adab, mūsīqā, alʿāb, balāgha, buldān, taṣawwuf, riyāḍiyyāt, ṭabīʿa, ṭabīʿiyyāt, ʿurūḍ, ʿaqāʾid, furūsiyya, ʿilm al-kalām, fahāris, lugha, maʿālim, manṭaq, naḥw, and perhaps even more.

Those 22 categories I found to the largest part because of the resource about which I will speak below. Next, I returned to the catalogue which was published in 1947-48 by the Egyptian National Library and which was based on Taymur’s own cataloguing work. It consists of four volumes: the first on Qurʾan and exegesis, the second on hadith and its transmission, the fourth on ʿaqaʾid and usul, and the third one being kind of an index volume of authors’ names. This selection is thus even more limited than the classification followed by websites such as where scans of Taymur’s manuscripts can be found.

This is the most problematic issue with the collection. There is simply no comprehensive catalogue dedicated to it. Sure, it is possible to gain that information from all the other catalogues that have been published about the collections at the Egyptian National Library in general. However, not even the online catalogue created by the al-Furqan foundation offers a search by collection. Going through the major catalogues of the National Library is a very tedious method to arrive at an understanding of what Taymūr’s collection contains. This should be the first step in any project on the collection, and it is a big investment to make that first step.

That might thus be a reasonable explanation as to why Taymur and his library (as well as other early 20th-century collectors/collections) have so far been mostly neglected as a subject of research (in contrast to it providing manuscripts for literally hundreds of studies). In the framework of current short-term to mid-term funding, this project simply seems unattainable. As things stand now, the best chance to get a full catalogue of the collection would through efforts of al-Furqan, which furthermore is in good standing with the Egyptian state to work in the National Library over an extended period of time.

Where to look for Ahmad Taymur?

Several studies on intellectual life around 1900 do mention Ahmad Taymur but rarely do they go beyond that. Nevertheless, these studies are helpful in that they illuminate the circles within which Taymur engaged, and thereby draw a sharper picture on the man himself. The first studies have been mentioned above. Schacht’s obituary and Krachkovsky’s reminiscences illustrate Taymur’s ‘global’ connections:

  • Schacht, Joseph. “Aḥmed Pascha Taimūr. Ein Nachruf.” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 84 (1930): 255-258.
  • Kratchkovsky, Ignatiy Yulianovich. Among Arabic Manuscripts. Memories of Libraries and Men. Translated by Tatiana Minorsky. Leiden: Brill, 2016.

In addition, Umar Ryad’s article on Ahmad Zaki as well as several other earlier studies point to Taymur’s relationships with other Egyptian and Syrian scholars, educators, publishers—in short, other intellectuals with a vested interest in Arabic heritage. Among them, the connections to Muhammad Kurd ʿAli, a founder of the Arab Academy in Damascus, and Tahir al-Jazaʾiri, first director of the Damascus Public Library, seem central, not only because Kurd ʿAli and other members of the Academy themselves wrote about Taymur’s library:

  • Escovitz, Joseph H. ” ‘He Was the Muhammad Abduh of Syria’. A Study of Tahir Al-Jazairi and his influence.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 18, no. 3 (1986): 293-310.
  • Ryad, Umar. ” ‘An Oriental Orientalist’: Aḥmad Zakī Pasha (1868-1934), Egyptian Statesman and Philologist in the Colonial Age.” Philological Encounters 3 (2018): 129-166.
  • Maʿlūf, ʿĪsā Iskandar al-. “Khazāʾin al-kutub al-ʿarabiyya: 1) al-Khizāna al-Taymūriyya.” Majallat al-Majmaʿ al-ʿilmī al-ʿarabī 3, no. 8 (1923): 225-230.
  • Kurd ʿAlī, Muḥammad. “الخزانة التيمورية / al-Khizāna al-Taymūriyya.” al-Muqtabas 7 (1912): 437-458. (see Till Grallert’s digital edition)

Finally, Taymur was part of an illustrious family. His grandfather and father both held high state offices in Khedivial Egypt, whose fruits allowed him to dedicate himself fully to his research. His sister was the famous poet ʿAʾisha al-Taymuriyya (1840-1902) and both his sons somehow followed in her footsteps, becoming novelists in their own right (see Schacht 1930, 255). In fact, much more has been written on those three published writers than on Taymur himself. However, little information is given about him in those studies:

  • Hatem, Mervat F. Literature, Gender, and Nation-Building in Nineteenth-Century Egypt: The Life and Works of ‘A’isha Taymur. New York: Palgrave, 2016.
  • Wielandt, Rotraud. Das erzählerische Frühwerk Maḥmūd Taymūrs : Beitrag zu einem Archiv der modernen arabischen Literatur. Beirut: Orient-Institut Beirut, 1983.
  • Donoghue, John and Tramontini, Leslie (eds.). Crosshatching in global culture : a dictionary of modern Arab writers ; an updated English version of R. B. Campbell’s “Contemporary Arab writers”. 2 vols. Beirut: Orient-Institut Beirut, 2004: Mahmud Taymur: vol. 2: 1108-1115.

This reveals a second possible reason why Ahmad Taymur did not receive much scholarly attention: He himself did not publish very much but rather communicated his extensive knowledge in personal conversations and correspondences. Both his relatives and contemporaries (like Ahmad Zaki) who did publish have been subjects of their own studies. He also dedicated much time to the improvement of his library, for instance by writing its catalogues or by annotating them in a way that eased access and information retrieval for other scholars who would publish.

The question is thus, would Taymur have been the subject of more research had he lived only a century earlier? This question is not moot, as the current focus on manuscript based research stops around the year 1850, at which point the interest of secondary literature shifts decisively to printed books and periodicals. While it is certainly important to explore the changes these new media brought about, this division of labor does obscure the continuities across this more or less arbitrary historical threshold. As Taymur exemplifies, manuscripts remained important sources of (not only) historical knowledge and were essential in the reassertion of one’s own history and heritage. But does Taymur’s obscurity point towards a contemporary shift in communicating heritage towards print and other mass media? Or does it only reflect a self-reinforcing trend in scholarship about this period? I certainly have an opinion about these questions but everyone should make up their own mind.

Where to start when looking for obscure things?

Concluding this already rather long sermon, I would like to advertise a very helpful resource. In fact, I have used it at several points in composing this sermon. The website is most certainly known to most people who read this far. It hosts a large number of older and more recent scholarly publications with an understandable focus on German scholarship (meaning written, conceived of or funded at German institutions).

Besides offering full versions of a host of secondary literature—and with a recent novelization of the contract between the Orient-Institut Beirut and its publisher, the volumes of the series Beiruter Texte und Studien will go online within a year after publication!—the website’s full text search function is one of the most valuable resources if you are looking for an obscure person or term or what have you. Depending on the time and place you are working on, it can be more helpful than or the Onomasticon Arabicum—or even Brockelmann himself.

Two final helpful recommendations: First, the full-text search works on the website but not necessarily in the downloaded PDFs. Second, and more importantly, transliterations of Arabic terms are not uniform. As the collection holds works at least as far back as the 18th century, the way words are transliterated is volatile. Thus, you should try out several ways to find all results. I have used in my searches for Taymur the variants: Teimur, Taimur, Tejmur. And that is basically it.

Cite this blog post
Torsten Wollina (2019, July 14). The Library of Ahmad Taymur. Damascus Anecdotes. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from

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