Placing Ibn Tulun: Evidence from the Majallat al-Majmaʿ al-ʿilmi al-ʿarabi

As I have indicated before, the age when Ibn Tulun was most widely read might well have been the early 20th century. Ahmad Taymur had copies and photographic reproductions made of several of his works, and historians like ʿIsa Iskandar al-Maʿluf and Salah al-Din al-Munajjid also collected his works. Al-Munajjid also edited several texts within the series Rasaʾil al-Tarikhiyya. And finally, both him as well as others described and discussed Ibn Tulun’s works in the pages of the central organ of Syrian or even Arab historical/literary scholarship, the Majallat al-Majmaʿ al-ʿilmi al-ʿarabi.

This post provides an overview of those early writings on Ibn Tulun in the journal. This survey was made with the help of Eva-Maria Thiele, Mariam Eichbüchler, Laurenz Kern and Daniel Kolland during their internships at the Orient-Institut Beirut. I concentrate on the phase until the mid-1960s which was marked by the publication of the edition of Ibn Tulun’s chronicle Mufakahat al-Khillan, which would overshadow most of his other works in the succeeding decades. The only surviving manuscript discovered in Tübingen, Germany, was already described by Richard Hartmann in 1926 – up to this date perhaps the most insightful analysis of the text. Muḥammad Muṣṭafa’s edition would only come out in 1964. It would cement Ibn Tulun’s reputation as an historian of Damascus and guide scholarship on him towards him being a witness to current events.

Ibn Tulun is mentioned in about forty articles between 1922 and 1965. That is not to say that he was the subject of all of them. Often enough he appears only as a source of information on a different subject. Perhaps, it is best to approach that corpus by categorizing the articles. In general, we can speak of four content-related categories. The first one is descriptions of libraries. The second one is discussions of manuscripts and print editions. The third one is articles on other subjects. In all of those Ibn Tulun is cited but not the center of attention. Only the final category is primarily concerned with him and his works. There are certainly some overlaps between the categories and they might not hold up to close scrutiny but here they should suffice.

A second helpful guide to this corpus is to approach it by author. It includes 17 named authors, which, together with two uncredited items, makes up half of the corpus already. The most prolific writers among them are familiar figures: al-Munajjid (6), Muhammad Kurd Ali (5), al-Maʿluf (4), Ahmad Taymur (2) and Muhammad ʿIzzat Darwaza (2). It might be banal but it still shows that people who had access (or even owned) Ibn Tulun’s manuscripts were the ones to write about him.

A third perspective is the temporal one. A full quarter of the articles (11) were published in only four years during the first half of the 1920s (1922-1925). Interest appears to have slackened somewhat during the later half of the decade and completely disappeared during the 1930s (four articles between 1928 and 1931). From the early to the mid-1940s a second spike in interest emerged (11 publications between 1941 and 1946), which would be even higher if I did not count Kurd ʿAli’s two parter on the Ghuta oasis and Asʿad Talas’ three part edition of Ibn Tulun’s work on that oasis as one publication each. After interest decreased once more for a decade, Ibn Tulun reappears with a lower but stable number of mentions from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s (11 entries between 1954 and 1965).

This allows to establish three main clusters – (1) of the 1920s; (2) of the 1940s; and (3) from the 1950s to 1960s – which could be studied for shifts in content-related interest as well. It would be intriguing to see which place the 16th-century scholar Ibn Tulun found within different modern political contexts of knowledge production. Perhaps, someone would like to start with the list provided here to undertake this project? Although it might just be a coincidence, it strikes me that during World War 2, when Syria was under control of the Vichy Regime, the Ghuta features so prominently among this corpus.

This brings us to the intersections of these different categorizations. Some content-related categories appear rather stable throughout the timeline, most notably the description of manuscripts and print editions. Obviously, they would a staple of an academic journal with a historical focus. Citations from Ibn Tulun for other purposes likewise appear rather regularly.

Yet, and this is a capital YET, this goes only for the clusters. It is exactly the gaps between them that should raise questions and would point to rhythms of reception that cannot be addressed fully on basis of this survey. One way to explore the possible meanings of those gaps would be a survey of those same authors featured here. What did they publish (or do otherwise) during those long gaps? Would that be indicative of wider trends in academia or society beyond academia? After all, several of the authors mentioned here held government positions at different points of their lives, as well.

So what can the sample tell us about intersections? For once, the first cluster is characterized by the inclusion of four articles on private libraries: Taymur’s library, the Jawhari Library in Nablus, and two articles on the Barudi Library in Beirut. Moreover, three of these articles were written by al-Maʿluf, who also addresses the composition of libraries (including his own) in yet another article, where he describes a manuscript of Ibn Tulun’s biographical dictionary Dhakhaʾir al-Qasr.

As mentioned before, the 1940s cluster is dominated by editions. Also, descriptions of other manuscripts are prominent. ʿAbbas al-ʿAzzawi used Ibn Tulun as a source for two earlier historians, al-Jazari (1944) and al-Birzali (1945); Kurd Ali (1943) and Kurkis ʿAwwad (1943), explorer of Arabic manuscript collections worldwide, both mention his works among many other. Finally, Muhammad Duhman’s edition of al-Qalāʾid al-jawhariyya fī tārīkh al-ṣāliḥiyya is discussed (1946). Ibn Tulun’s works are also utilised to illuminate the history of areas and buildings of Damascus. In addition to Kurd ʿAli’s studies on the Ghuta (1941), Duhman (1943) provides a history of hospitals (bimāristān). This entire cluster is framed by Kurd ʿAli’s (1942) contribution al-Shāmiyyūn wa-l-tarīkh.

In fact, this thrust is already visible in the first cluster and continues into the third. The first cluster features several manuscript descriptions and excerpts including one of Ibn Tulun’s work on the Ghuta (1925)! There are also two descriptions (1922) on the suburb al-Rabwa (which was featured here). Ibn Tulun is finally mentioned in a summary of Kurd ʿAli’s monumental Khiṭat al-Shām, a modern description of Syria, which features a chronological political and a thematically organized social history (1924).

In conclusion, we see more continuity than rupture between these clusters. When Ibn Tulun appears, he does so in pretty similar contexts. And perhaps, the gaps are the most interesting parts of this trajectory which for now remains opaque. Yet, there is one interesting element of change in the data presented here. It clearly demonstrates the initial centrality of private manuscript collections for the professional and semi-professional engagement with the Arab heritage or history or however you might call it.

These were initially quite closed circles who institutionalized the pursuit of history and who profited from that institutionalization. Several of the earlier authors refer to Ahmad Taymur as “our dear friend”. It was these personal relationships that allowed for firsthand research which would shape, I gather, Syrian academia for decades to follow. The Arab Academy became the vessel through which these hierarchies would be stabilized, especially when photographic reproduction became a means of multiplying manuscripts during the 1920s and the Academy would establish itself as a hub in accumulating such facsimile copies.

The sample also illustrates the elusiveness of private collections and their diminishing importance in the region. By 1925, the Barudi Library’s mansucripts were sold as a bulk to Robert Garrett. By the early 1930s, the Jawhari Library had sold their manuscripts, at least partly through Abraham Yahuda to Chester Beatty. The only collection that remained in the region in its entirety, was that of Ahmad Taymur. Even that one would eventually become part of the Egyptian National Library and thus be subjected to a very different set of rules as to who could access the manuscripts. A similar process of state centered accumulation and centralization began in Syria much earlier with the foundation of the Damascus Public Library in the 1880s but gained speed again only with the establishment of the National Library.

In any case, the intimate knowledge of small-scale collections in diverse places seems to have served its cause as part of historical scholarship by the 1930s. And indeed, these shifts in collection history might be another promising route for exploring the gaps in Ibn Tulun’s reception during the first half of the 20th century. Despite a high degree of international cooperation during this period, the extraction of at least two high-profile collections and the integration of the third into a different institution would have created severe, if temporary, problems for scholars.

Thus, within its own limitations, a case study on one scholar can help to illuminate larger developments. And it shows that we finally need to address the epistemological impact of archives on our own knowledge of Arabic history and literature.


Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "Placing Ibn Tulun: Evidence from the Majallat al-Majmaʿ al-ʿilmi al-ʿarabi", in Damascus Anecdotes, September 15, 2018,

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