Digital Perspectives on hypotheses

Earlier this year, I attended the second instance of the Digital Humanities Institute Beirut (#DHIB2017). It was the second of its kind in the Arab World and, thanks to the generous support by AMICAL it offered participation free of charge (also it included nice gimmicks such as a reusable water bottle which I have since lost, a high-quality tote bag, and a notebook with its own sticky tags and notes).

The DHIB featured, among other workshops, two sessions on markup languages: multimarkdown and TEI XML. Since I am still struggling to understand how to integrate either of those into my own research and publication process, I will not dwell on those – mostly failed – efforts here.

Now, I kind of forgot about this entry for some time and some of it might seem dated by now. Yet, as the first ever digital humanities internship at the Orient-Institut Beirut draws to a close, bringing us that much closer to a publication of our Arabic text editions in a workable html format (besides the classic print and open access PDFs derived from it), it might regain some of its earlier timeliness.

Instead of summarizing the DHIB, it might be a better idea to point out those blogs on hypotheses which are much further in their mastery of digital possibilities and thus offer advise to others who want to stride down this road.

The first one is foxglove which gives you an overview of French DH initiatives. It also introduces workflows for TEI related edition projects for Latin script texts.

In contrast, Freakonometrics is rather concerned with optical character recognition and machine-readability of texts (e.g. PDFs). In general, it is rather about text analysis than text enrichment but it also provides perspectives on the usefulness of markup languages.


Personally, I find the third one, Himanis, the most interesting. Himanis is short for “HIstorical MANuscript Indexing for user-controlled Search“. It speaks to me mostly because it brings together Digital Humanities perspectives and an understanding of books as objects. The notion of books as objects becomes especially important when thinking about their organization in book cases or shelves. How they deal with that in their TEI based edition of royal charters, they explain here.

Obviously, hypotheses has much more to offer which I will not address here at length. And for those who, like me, read French at a snail’s pace, there are also all-English sites. For instance, digilex covers the creation of a digital dictionary of spoken German with TEI and XSLT.

But one of my favorites is certainly The Recipes Project. They again start out from a distinct interest in manuscripts and old texts. In addition to sharing their insights about encoding these texts in a digital format, the blog also provides useful descriptions of manuscript collections, digitization, historical trajectories of books, teaching with manuscripts, and flabbergasting bits and pieces from the history of strawberries. Even though it deals exclusively with European texts, everyone should check it out.


Ibn Ṭūlūn’s Autograph Corpus: Online Catalogues

Making sense of a manuscript corpus as large as that of Ibn Ṭūlūn can be tiresome. In particular, since his autographs are today dispersed in libraries in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Germany, England, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United States, and the relevant institutions offer very diverse degrees of information about the manuscripts in their catalogues. Yet, these catalogues are obviously a central source in establishing any manuscript corpus.

Things get especially irksome when one wants to make sense of the collections of the Dār al-Kutub (for guidance to its collections, see this review) and the manuscript center of the Arab League (GAD) in Cairo. Access to microfilms at Dār al-Kutub is comparatively easy if rather slow (due to the limit of three items one may order each day); access to the physical manuscripts themselves, however, requires good connections and a lengthy stay. One might circumvent the Dār al-Kutub altogether by turning to the GAD, which offers an online catalogue to browse the selection even beforehand and allows to collect digital copies within the same day.

The GAD offers access to the (partial) holdings of several important manuscript collections of the Arab World. Yet, therein lies a danger as well as new possibilities. The catalogue was apparently created on the basis of the individual library catalogues but their holdings were not compared to each other. What I mean by that: Several collections hold microfilms of manuscripts belonging to another institution. In the GAD catalogue, the same material artifact may thus appear several times. In some cases, doublets might be visible through an allusion to the original collection in the “subject” section but often enough it is not.

How Digitization Has Changed the Cataloging of Islamic Books

This is, however, not a new problem. With the spread of microfilm and microfiche in the early 20th century, collectors and scholars alike made ample use of these technologies, and, among others, the Taymūriyya Library (today in Cairo) and the Arab Academy in Damascus supplemented their manuscript collections by acquiring microfilms from other institutions around the world.

These microfilms received their own call numbers, being treated somewhat similarly to manuscripts physically present in the respective collections. Even though this process is clearly important to the constitution of the corpora which ground our understanding of Arabic literature and book culture, to my knowledge no study has yet been dedicated to this important chapter in the transition from a living manuscript to a print culture (and hence to digitization). Yet, in the face of the ubiquity of the medium, we need a new “codicology” for  microfilms.

To conclude with just one basic example, the integrity of a text in a physical manuscript is partly assured by the use of catchwords on the verso page of each folio. The text is bound to the materiality of the two-sided leaf of paper. In contrast, microfilm images present a surface to the viewer, which usually covers the verso page together with the recto of the following leaf. In order to assure that the following image actually refers to the following double page in the physical manuscript, it would require a catchword on the recto page.

While this might seem a theoretical issue at first sight, the microfilm of the Ibn Ṭūlūn autograph manuscript Majāmīʿ Taymūr 759 is only one case where the addition of such catchwords would be really necessary. For about the first half of the files I bought from Dār al-Kutub, the slides only seem to be in the opposite order (fol. 100 comes before fol. 99 before fol. 98 etc.). Yet, around the middle, the confusion increases even more and it is painstaking to find out which image belongs to which work. Finally, about half of the texts ascribed to this manuscript by the latest print catalogue is completely missing from the microfilm.


Tulianana 3.b: A second ijāza

In the last post, I announced the upload of transcripts of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s ijāzas here. In the meantime, I have uploaded all the files on github. The second ijāza presented here is one of two found in MS Princeton, Firestone Library, Garrett 4098Y which can be accessed online.

This ijāza is item five in the manuscript and covers fols. 52b to 54a. It was issued for the recitation by the Shafiʿite Qurʾān reciter (muqrī) Shihāb al-Dīn Abū al-ʿAbbās Aḥmad b. Jābir b. Ghānim al-Dimashqī al-Ḥarīrī, which took place in the Umayyad Mosque on 15 Ramaḍān 923/1 Oct. 1517. The subject of the session headed by Ibn Ṭūlūn was the 13th-century Arabic grammar work al-Muqaddima al-Ajurūmiyya.

As can be expected, the text then lists the chains of transmission of that work up to Ibn Ṭūlūn. This documentary character notwithstanding, the ijāza is illuminating as to Ibn Ṭūlūn’s education and the hierarchies he realized between his different teachers.

As has been indicated in the prior post, it also gives insight into the composition of the audience present at the event, which lay in the middle of the fasting period and only shortly before the holiest part of Ramaḍān, during which ḥadīth would be regularly recited.

For this document, I have added markup for personal and place names. Yet, the result is not optimal for people who do not work with an xml viewer or editor. It appears there are also some issues with the file’s presentation in some browsers. Perhaps markDown might prove a better way to host these files for audiences both familiar and unfamiliar with markup? Or an even simpler way would just be using standard formatting features to indicate certain entities: e.g. bold for personal names and underlining for place names?

Tuluniana 3: A teaching certificate

Teaching and audition certificates have become all the rage in the social history (of knowledge production) of the Medieval Middle East during the last decades. Ibn Ṭūlūn allegedly complained that he lost most of those he received from his teachers in the turmoil of of revolts and reconquests of Early Ottoman Damascus.  Yet, some actually have survived and even been edited by Muḥammad Muṭīʿ al-Ḥāfiẓ under the title Nawādir al-ijāzāt wa-l-samāʿāt (Beirut 1998).

In turn, some certificates he issued in turn to his own students do survive as well, dispersed in manuscripts in Berlin, Istanbul, Alexandria and Princeton. So far, I could identify five teaching certificates (ijāza) in Ibn Ṭūlūn’s handwriting. The four I have seen are between two and five pages long and were all written between 922/1516 and 943/1536. I hope to present all of them here in the near future.

The first one (see below for the attachment) is the earliest among them and also one of the shortest. It is found on fols. 30a-b in MS Wetzstein I 134 at the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin. In fact, Ibn Ṭūlūn might have been only the scribe but not the authority of this document, as it documents the transmission of a work elaborating on the merits of Damascus (faḍāʾil) from his teacher ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Nuʿaymī who was himself present. Fittingly, the ijāza follows directly a copy of another faḍāʾil work by Ibn Qāḍī Shuhba.

Even though it sits right in the middle of the volume, the ijāza carries two paratextual elements on the second page that indicate a later compilation of that codex. One is a reading note and the second a library stamp, both of which indicate one Ḥāmid b. Ismāʿīl al-Taqī as a temporary owner around 1314/1799. Below the reading note, there is another annotation which seems to indicate a price (all are included in the transcript).

This ijāza has some interesting information concerning Ibn Ṭūlūn’s social and intellectual environment. For once, the presence of his life-long friend, the Meccan scholar Jār Allāh Muḥammad Ibn Fahd stands out. Following Ibn Ṭūlūn’s own journey to Mecca, where he received several ijāzas from members of that family, he seems to have reciprocated by taking Jār Allāh under his wings in Damascus, and he frequently refers to his presence in other works as well.

Secondly, this session took place a mere half year before the Ottoman conquest of the city and in a garden (bustān) in Qaṣr al-Labbād, an area in the vicinity of Barza and Qābūn, north-east of the old city. The geographical designation is used until this day. In contrast, the three other sessions all took place in mosques. Nonetheless, at this one several Egyptians and Meccans were present, among them the imām of the Shrine of Abraham.

Ibn Ṭūlūn refers to this event in his chronicle as well (Mufākahat, vol. 2, 7), where he adds that the judge Karīm al-Dīn Ibn al-Akram decides to move ḥadīth studies there. Most of the participants met at the jujube tree in front of the judge’s house to travel there. In this account, al-Nuʿaymī is only mentioned as one and not even the first of those present, whereas the ijāza shows that he must have been rather one of the central figures in the following session.

Finally, the annotations mentioned above might indicate a later assemblage of the manuscript codex. Even though the text prior to the ijāza was copied contemporarily to its creation (the colophon gives the year 913/1508), it is not the work referred to in the ijāza. Instead it refers to a faḍāʾil work by the Mālikī author “Abū al-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. Muḥammad b. Shujāʿ al-Rabaʿī” (d. 444/1052-53).

The transcript of ijāza is an xml file and uses TEI XML for the manuscript description. In this I have followed the fihrist guidelines. Minor structural markup indicates page breaks. Place and personal names have been marked up as well in a very simple manner.   Every annotation on the two folios has been entered into a different <div> section.

Yet, the use of TEI is not completely coherent when it comes to point where I was unsure in my reading of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s handwriting. These instances are marked by a “(؟)”; sometimes two possible readings are given divided by a “/”. These uncertainties are indicated on the level of individual words.

Addition: All four ijāzas have been uploaded to github.

Visualizing Manuscript connections with Palladio

Geographical dispersion of autograph manuscripts of Ibn Ṭūlūn

How do you picture the work in the archives? Dusty pages, creaking in the half-light of old halls of knowledge? Bent-over people shuffling their feet between rows of shelves? The creaking of a microfilm viewer seeming deafening in a silence otherwise interrupted only by occasional coughs? It is probably all happening somewhere and might be a strong impetus behind advocation for the digitization of primary sources.

Yet, the work in the archives is also one of the most intriguing parts of an historian’s work. There you encounter the handwriting of a scholar whose ideas you have followed for so long, and the manuscript closes the gap in time, occasionally bearing traces of its own travels and trajectories through time and space (the result looks a lot like space as well, with stars and planets).

One interesting aspect of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s autograph corpus is that most of what survives are rather small-scale writings. In several cases, these are found within one volume entirely consisting of his own works. Moreover, between these volumes there are occasionally several autographs of the same work. And these – both textual and material items – are today dispersed in libraries in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Germany, the Netherlands, England, Ireland, and the United States (more copies in other hands are found elsewhere). In order to make sense of the connections between manuscripts, on one hand, and texts, on the other, as well as their locations today, I have used Palladio.

The present post tries to convey this excitement through the use of visualizations of the dispersion of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s works and codices . I have used Palladio, a network visualization software created at Stanford University. It is platform independent and runs in your browser. It is less powerful than other network analysis and visualization software but it allows you to get results in your first day, which can be very motivational. There is also a good tutorial by Marten Düring, which leads you through the first steps. For the first steps of setting up a Palladio project, you should refer to those sites.

My own project consists of three csv sheets (the full json project file cannot be uploaded here):

Manuscripts Ibn Tulun-Tabelle 1 Works Ibn Tulun-Tabelle 1 Relations-Tabelle 1

Follow Fig. 1 (left to right) in uploading them. The figure also shows the connections (“extension”) you should create between them: Manuscripts should be connected to call number, and key should connect in tables Works and Relations.

Fig. 1: Palladio project start screen

The following visualizations have been created using the graph function. The first image shows the collections which hold Ibn Ṭūlūn autographs and which hold overlapping works. The figure was created by using Place as Source and Place_2 as Target.

Fig. 2: Connections between collections, created through holding of identical works.

The Dār al-Kutub, Cairo, and the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, clearly emerge as the main collections for Ibn Ṭūlūn autographs, with Alexandria, Leiden, and the Staatsbibliothek Berlin trailing.

Fig. 3: Manuscripts held in collections and overlaps in contained works.

Figure 3 makes the interconnections between the holdings of the two main collections even more obvious. Among the manuscripts held by either are several works that can be found in manuscripts of the other as well. The Princeton cluster, which now appears more prominent, contains several fragments or other drafts of texts, held at either Dublin or Cairo, as Kristina Richardson has recently proved. The British Library, London, is connected to this through their one partial autograph, whose remaining volumes are held in Cairo. The size of the Leiden cluster derives from the fact that each text is counted as one manuscript, even though some only count 5 folios.

Fig. 4: Fig. 3: Works held in collections and overlaps through appearing in other manuscripts.

The centrality of the Cairo connection becomes yet clearer if we switch the focus from manuscript codices to individual works. Dār al-Kutub holds the largest number of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s multiple-text manuscripts (MTM), which each contain up to more than ten titles. (I have used reference keys here, since titles are too long to display and Palladio does not allow for proper transliteration. But I am not talking about content here, anyway.) For the same reason, the Alexandria collection (holding only one MTM) draws almost even with the one in Leiden.

Also, the overlap between the Cairo and Dublin collections is now so strong that reading anything becomes difficult (also within the Cairo cluster). Therefore, I have included one last figure. This shifts the focus from the collections to the direct relations between works and manuscripts. In this case, I have used Palladio’s facet filters to consider only those manuscripts held in Cairo, Dublin, and Princeton. Figure 5 is, however, only a limited screenshot which captures the most interesting cases of overlap between – and within – these collections.

Fig. 5: Manuscripts held at Cairo, Dublin, Princeton, containing identical textual items (dark dots are manuscripts, light dots works).

Three out of four MTMs held in Dublin (MS CBL…) have strong overlaps with Cairene manuscripts (MTMs from the Taymur Pasha collection, MS TayMa…). And also within the Taymur collection, the MTMs 759 and 373 share 11 identical items  between them.