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 Abbès Zouache.

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 IFAO 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.


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