Ruminations on publishing pre-print

An argument that one might still find frequently about premodern Arabic historiographical and biographical writing, despite all recent findings to the contrary, is that they are derivative and repeat much of what other authors have said before. This argument has, in fact, been made towards a larger segment of premodern Arabic literature and has been rebuked in a number of other fields, as well. In this post, I will argue that one aspect might actually be understood better by comparison with current social media practice.

In the olden days of European Arabic Studies in the 17th century, Edward Pococke of Oxford produced one of the earliest annotated editions of an Arabic history. It was influential mostly for the large-scale apparatus with notes on language and cross-references. History appears in this context as an auxiliary discipline but, as Claire Gallien has recently argued, this publication did, at the same time, indicate a shift maybe not to modern Oriental Studies. but to something in between two approaches. Gerald Toomer’s assessment of Oriental Studies are important here, as they emphasize the importance of publishing and thereby actualizing in print what hitherto had only been available in manuscript.

By the 19th century, historical literature was quite prevalent in print both in Arabic (and in the Arab lands) and also in translation. In this period, constructions or reconstructions of medieval multi-volume chronicles began to dominate public ideas of history in a new way that had not been accessible for a large public in the same way before-hands. Even though histories would have been read-out in coffee houses and other venues,{1} now it was in theory possible to have a work laid-out before you as a whole. The performance of such works necessarily required to split it up into several sessions, not necessarily following a work’s order. In modern parlor we could call them edutainment and it is difficult to know what a performer might have added and subtracted to give his audience a good time.

More recent studies by Kathryn Schwartz or Ahmed El Shamsy demonstrate that history was considered worth publishing even in large-scale, multi-volume editions (this means edition in the print sense, not in the sense of critical edition, necessarily). Some were also syndicated in newspapers so that we can safely assume a larger demand and audience. On a side-note, some people would turn their reading of a printed edition into a new manuscript again, or even complete a fragment of one manuscript by copying from a critical edition (although this might not be representational). In any case, the print publication did not only put these texts in the foreground because a print edition reached more people but because the publication itself was an act covered in other media. The edition actualized the material published and that notion was an occasion for other voices to join in to talk about this text.

This side of intellectual production is important, as it also supplied much-coveted texts to researchers and an interested public alike. For instance, the main German orientalist periodical, Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft (ZDMG), featured regular reports by members resident in Cairo and other publishing centers on newly available print runs and on manuscripts present in the Khedivial Library. The manuscript collection of Wilhelm Spitta (1852-1883), who served as director of the Khedivial Library between 1875 and 1882, contains a large number of ‘modern’ copies made from manuscripts housed in that library (It is now in Strasbourg).{2}

In a certain way, Cairo around 1900 featured an infrastructure in manuscript trade comparable to that of Istanbul in the 17th century where British and other manuscript hunters (I have not come up with a better term, sorry) ventured to gather their collections. First, Cairo featured an institutional support network with embassies, corporate branches, and social clubs which allowed Europeans an entry point. Second, a predominantly local or regional manuscript trade was already in place. This is embodied in the great Khedivial and Azhar Libraries both of which offered—outsourced—copying services in addition to reading access to manuscripts. It is further visible in figures such as the manuscript trader Amīn al-Madanī or the collectors Aḥmad Zakkī, Aḥmad Taymūr, and the like.

Today, the actualization of an historical text is often achieved through a study of that text, maybe in conjunction with an edition attached or sold separately. This happens in monographs, articles, book chapters, op Eds, blog posts, and also on, e.g., Twitter. “See how this ancient/medieval author speaks to our present concerns” encapsulates the gist of it. So what does that do? Sure, it makes people read something that they did not know (much) about before. But the most important aspect of it is the conversation it starts. Today, much of that conversation happens via typing and posting online, and thereby (dis-)agreement is articulated. At this moment, (historical) takes on various plagues and epidemics help us make sense of our own LockDown experiences. And historical voices beyond Shakespeare are being actualized (Note: don’t be like Bishop Thomas Brinton). And, along the same lines, the last blog entry attempted to do the same for one of my own book chapters from 2014.

Since the literary turn caught hold in the field of Middle Eastern History, reassessments of chronicles have mostly focused on the author’s agency in using chunks of information to sculpt new narratives from them. Konrad Hirschler’s Authors as Actors (open access available) or Boaz Shoshan’s Poetics of Islamic Historiography are noteworthy examples ( has reviews for both in German). With the resurgence of (social) codicology and the increasing attention paid to studies in provenance, the attention has somewhat shifted to readers, owners, and perusers. We could thus say that every new manuscript copy constituted a, however limited, actualization of a text even before print became prevalent. And, of course, some works only survive through citations and excerpts. Preservation in this regard should, however, not be understood as mere replication but was an intellectual process. This is nicely encapsulated in the title of a book chapter by Christopher Bahl who calls it “Preservation through Elaboration”.{3}

As Michael Saler has remarked in As if: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality, literature comes to life both through the individual engagement through reading and through discussion of these experiences, shared by a community (this is a paraphrase; the book is in storage in a different country). Thus, older ideas attain new and often contested meanings in every actualization. And while he refers mostly to the spread of fan letter to ‘Zines concerned with fantastical literature and today there is an even wider meta-textual range of possibilities for achieving actualization (e.g. by movie adaptation) that reaches a large audience, I would say that the same two components were present and important in pre-modern Damascus as well.

Publication before print worked differently, partly because there was no real “book launch” and partly because at least some works were primarily written for patrons, a very limited audience to be sure. However, as Thomas Bauer has shown with regard to Mamluk Era poetry, even works written in order to gain patronage were, in fact, addressing the author’s peers, referring to a common meta-textual sphere and playing with it. The publication process thus included often several public steps in which the book was read out to an audience (of different sizes), discussed, corrected or commented upon, sometimes even ridiculed. In any case, we find here the two aspects of book reading communally mentioned above.

Finally, Saler does allude to the entanglement of reading and writing (letters to the editor) as an important aspect of the creation and maintenance of a reading community. In other words, there was a flow of ideas in both directions between authors and readers (and, in his cases, editors). And this brings us back to Ibn Ṭūlūn (finally, some might say). Below you see the first two pages of a very late copy of his historical-mythological work on the citadel of Damascus.

Ibn Ṭūlūn. “al-Shamʿa al-muḍiyya fī akhbār al-qalʿa al-Dimashqiyya.” Cairo, Dār al-Kutub, MS  Tārīkh Taymūr 2058, fols. 1v-2r. This copy was made by Ṣādiq Fahmī in the Ẓāhiriyya in Damascus on order of Aḥmad Taymūr Pasha on 2 Jum. II 1343 (as stated in the colophon of the last page).

This work can be described as a florilegium (on which you can learn by following that tweet below), a collection of what other authors before Ibn Ṭūlūn had said on the issue. So, this is a prime case of what mid 20th-century historians might have called “unoriginal”. And we could hold against them that he selected the quotations and put them in a new order to create a new narrative in some way. A very concise one at that, taking up only 23 pages (not folios!) in the Taymūr manuscript. Moreover, as this manuscript was still being copied in the 1920s (and several times before that) shows that this version still resonated with a however small audience 500 years after it was first put on paper.

But what is more relevant here is that in this work we find a self-actualization of its contents and thereby its own creation. The relevant passage begins on the left page on line 5 of the main text: “Our brother [I’ll leave out all the honorifics…] Muḥibb al-Dīn Muḥammad, known by the name Jār Allāh […and also the lineage…] Ibn Fahd […and the several nisbas] asked us for this excerpt [fī taʿlīqihi, referring to Ibn Ṭūlūn’s own description of the work as a taʿliq (notebook, excerpt) in line 4]”. Thus, this work was written as it is because of a conversation between Ibn Ṭūlūn and his longtime penpal Ibn Fahd who had first met in Mecca in 920 AH and again two years later in Damascus.

We do not know what sparked Ibn Fahd’s interest in the history of the citadel, which might well have come up in a session with more than just two people. Or it came up during one of their walks in al-Rabwa, a place upstream from Damascus along the Baradā river which was a favorite spot for recreation well into the Ottoman period. But what this short passage tells us that through that exchange an actualization of the citadel’s history took place and thereby also of materials from earlier authors. And as the manuscript shown above attests, this actualization was not seen as derivative but as an important addition to a meta-textual network in its own right.

Incidentally, Aḥmad Taymūr who had ordered this manuscript also published a description of al-Rabwa in the Journal of the Arab Academy in Damascus a year prior, based on another of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s works. Unfortunately, we do not know whether there is any immediate connection between this and that. Yet, another actualization of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s corpus must have been taking place at the time, as in 1927, Taymūr had photostatic reproductions be made from a much larger number of Ibn Ṭūlūn autograph manuscripts and throughout the 1920s, a considerable number of articles on Ibn Ṭūlūn was being published.

Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "Ruminations on publishing pre-print", in Damascus Anecdotes, May 3, 2020,
  1. Liebrenz, Boris. “The Library of Aḥmad Al-Rabbāṭ. Books and Their Audience in 12th to 13th/18th to 19th Century Syria.” Orientwissenschaftliche Hefte 32: Marginal Perspectives on Early Modern Ottoman Culture. Missionaries, Travellers, Booksellers (2013): 17-59. []
  2. On him and the other German directors, see Sabine Mangold, Die Khedivial-Bibliothek zu Kairo und ihre deutschen Bibliothekare (1871-1914), ZDMG 157 (2007): 49-76. []
  3. Bahl, Christopher D. “Preservation Through Elaboration. The Historicisation of the Abyssinians in Al-Suyūṭī’s Rafʿ Shaʾn Al-Ḥubshān .” In Al-Suyūṭī, a Polymath of the Mamluk Period : Proceedings of the Themed Day of the First Conference of the School of Mamluk Studies : (Ca’Foscari University, Venice, June 23,2014). Edited by Antonella Ghersetti. 2017. []

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