One step further into Ahmad Taymūr’s library

Last year, I spoke about some of the difficulties in researching the private library of Aḥmad Taymūr, which has been housed in the Egyptian National Library for almost ninety years now. Since October, I have been working on this collection more systematically, particularly during an archival visit in Cairo. What follows results mostly from my findings there.

As I said in the last post on the subject, Taymūr’s collection puts challenges before us usually encountered in historical collections which have been dispersed since then (see e.g. that of ʿAbd al-Salām al-Shaṭṭī). Modern library collections might pose obstacles due to a specific philosophy of cataloguing that has been applied to them. For instance, the catalogue might give you an overview of the works to be found in the collection but not the physical books, or it might lack information on their physicality.

The Taymūr collection does not have its own comprehensive catalogue, at all. The four volumes published as their catalogue only cover a very limited number of the collection’s class marks, as I pointed out in the last post. And whereas I have then complained that 22 class marks were unaccounted for, that number is indeed even higher. The classmarks that are treated in this catalogue are tafsīr (including Qurʾān manuscripts), ḥadīth and muṣtalaḥ ḥadīth, uṣūl and ʿaqāʾid, and those impose these categories on the pre-existing call numbers. For instance, the volume on ḥadīth and muṣtalaḥ ḥadīth also includes works from fiqh, tafsīr, and majāmīʿ manuscripts. Al-Furqān has relatively recently published a catalogue of the majāmīʿ in the collection (which progresses by work, not manuscript). That still leaves the most substantial classifications, tārīkh and shiʿr, without their own catalogues.

However, the Fihris al-kihzāna al-Taymūriyya, as the original 4 volume print catalogue is entitled, does provide valuable information about the size of the collection and its history in the preface to the first volume.{1} The library was established in 1319/1901, and the ledgers which formed the basis for that catalogue were progressively created by Taymūr himself between 1912 and 1926. From these ledgers, the growth of the collection over time becomes apparent, even though it refers to the library as a whole most of the time and to the manuscript collection only infrequently:

  • by 22 June 1912: 5548 vols.
  • by 6 January 1913: 5899 vols.
  • by April 1913: 6148 vols.
  • by 1 May 1913: 6223 vols. [including 3045 MSS]
  • by September 1913: 7068 vols. [includ. 3505 MSS]
  • by July 1923: 11816 vols. [includ. 919 old books, of which 573 are dated and 346 undated; of those 274 in “the hands of the ʿulamāʾ” or bearing those [in the margins], ALSO 167 autographs
  • by August 1926: 12773 vols.
  • by 1932 when the Dār al-Kutub obtained the collection, it contained another 7,000 vols.

Thus, Taymūr’s collection did come close 20,000 volumes at the time of its owner’s death. More information on the manuscript collection, which by then exceeded by far those 4,500 volumes accounted for in this list. A second list which immediately follows this one gives the distribution of books by subject:

  • Lugha: 2390 vols.
  • Adab: 2675 vols.
  • Dīn, Akhlāq, ʿUlūm al-sharʿiyya: 4956 vols.
  • Lughāt and Maʿājim: 3974 vols.
  • Tārīkh, Buldān, Ijtimāʿ: 4273 vols.
  • Fahāris, Majāmīʿ, photographic copies (ṣuwar): 1286 vols.
  • diverse disciplines: 1708 vols.

As the total of this list adds up to 21,262 volumes, it also refers to the library as a whole and not the manuscript collection specifically. And indeed, already the first five entries in the first volume of the catalogue (tafsīr) refer to 19th-century prints. Moreover, the list repeatedly combines several of Taymūr’s own class marks into one umbrella category. For instance, he would group a manuscript either in tārīkh Taymūr or in buldān Taymūr or in ijtimāʿ Taymūr.

The one catalogue that can help us bring light into the situation is the digital catalogue you can access onsite at the manuscript room of the Egyptian National Library. On the one hand, it finally allows me to establish the total number of class marks employed by Taymūr which is exceedingly larger than I anticipated originally. On the other hand, these 45 categorizations give a very different impression of his scholarly and more general interests. For once, he chose to include “games” (alʿāb) as its own category (even though it is small in size at thirty items). He also wrote a book on games among the Arabs. And, as I said above, the largest thematic sections of his collection were not as close to the traditional religious-legal canon as the ones catalogued. In the diagram below it is clearly visible that history and poetry made up a considerable part of the collection (at 2581 and 1256 volumes respectively).

For this diagram, I have searched each class mark for its highest call number. It stands to reason that Taymūr assigned consecutive call numbers to new manuscripts upon their entry into his collection. However, those numbers do not always add up in the onsite catalogue. For instance, while it gives the option to search the section qirāʾāt Taymūr, this section does not contain any entries. Or, whereas the highest call number for qawānīn is MS 73, the search brought up only three entries, and MS iqtiṣād Taymūr 73 is the only entry in its section. Finally, the, arguably, very early acquisition MS fiqh Taymūr 18 also has no entry in the manuscript catalogue. The microfilm with that very same call number is, however, available at the Bāb al-Khalq branch and the Institute of Islamic Manuscripts.

Thus, the diagram and its underlying count of manuscripts should be taken with a grain of salt, unfortunately. Whereas it is possible that certain manuscripts were relabeled, reordered or even lost in the last ninety years, the total count of manuscripts based on the call numbers alone also seems too high to be true. It would result in a total of 13, 834 manuscripts, around 65 percent of the entire library.

Perhaps, the way the library is presented in the Fihris is indeed the same way in which Taymūr catalogued his manuscripts—not separated from but together with his printed books. This would mean that his printed books also carry call numbers like those in the manuscripts and perhaps that the gaps in the numeral sequence of my survey so far are, in fact, no gaps in the manuscript corpus at all. They rather show where print books would have been recorded as new entries in the different thematic sections. In any case, the exploration of this fine private library remains intriguing as ever.

Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "One step further into Ahmad Taymūr’s library", in Damascus Anecdotes, February 16, 2020,
  1. This and the following, see Dār al-Kutub, Fihris, vol.1, ii-iv. []

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