A germaphobe and his quest for 15th century Arabic manuscripts

By Mohamed Maslouh

In this blog post, I will try to walk the reader through our work in the manuscripts part of the Mamlukization of the Mamluk Sultanate II (MMSII) project. This part of the project has several aspects as it is concerned with: surveying the surviving manuscripts of historiographical works produced within the realm of the Cairo Sultanate during the period 1412-1478 CE, visiting the libraries that have significant collections of relevant project texts (whenever it is possible) and conducting a thorough examination of them, creating a user friendly template for the mss database and insuring the functionality of its interface. This, of course, is pursued after our identification of relevant texts from this period, which is an ongoing process. An initial list of texts was created through a collaborative work between the PI, post-doctoral researchers, and me.  However, this list is modified throughout the project and I am glad to say that digging into the contents of some libraries helped us to further expand this list, as my colleague Gowaart Van Den Bosche already pointed out in his blog (see. https://www.mms.ugent.be/research-trip-to-cairo).

When it comes to surveying the libraries for manuscripts, we are conducting a thorough examination of libraries’ catalogs, general survey works (e.g. Brockelmann’s “Geschichte der Arabischen Litteratur”), manuscript databases, and secondary works that deal with the period under study! We aim however to go way beyond the scattered efforts to collect metadata about the historiographical corpus of interest by not merely examining the usual libraries (e.g. Suleymaniye, Topkapi, Dār al-Kutub al-Miṣrīya, al-Asad Library, and major European and North American libraries). We are also examining less known libraries such as those located in Iran and North Africa, as well as various Middle Eastern provincial libraries. More importantly perhaps, we also try to identify the status of the vulnerable collections, or the manuscript collections located in countries that went through political turmoil. Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and Yemen are the usual suspects in this case, but we have to keep in mind that even some of the German collections were catalogued before WWII and their current status is still unclear. For instance, out of 44 manuscripts that we wanted to examine in Staatsbibliothek Berlin, we found out that 7 manuscripts are no longer present in their holdings, while 3 manuscripts were moved to Krakow and only microfilm copies are kept on site. Furthermore, some manuscript collections were unfortunately not damaged by compelling factors like wars and natural disasters. Rather neglect, theft, and poor curation were the main culprits behind the discrepancy between what is found in the catalogs of these libraries, and their actual holdings! This is why visiting the libraries is quite essential. In recent months, however, our efforts to visit as many libraries as possible were hindered due to the ongoing Cov-19 situation.

When it comes to describing the manuscripts, we are taking into consideration the recent material trend in so-called “Mamluk Studies” to produce a wide set of metadata that are relevant to potential users’ research topics.  I am mainly referring here to the increased interest in examining manuscripts as material objects as well as in focusing on their readership and circulation, and the scribal practices that produced and/or reflected on them. This returns in our approach to describing the manuscripts where we mix the pretty straightforward cataloging practices (i.e. title, volume, number of folios, ink, type of papers, colophon, reading and ownership statements,…)  with sometimes more basic analysis of the contents of the manuscript. For instance, in our analysis we point to possible discrepancies between the production date and the physical status of the manuscript, variations between the different copies of the same work, or simply try to fill the blanks about the manuscript’s production date and location based on its physical status, acquisition history, and reading and marginal notes.

Finally, our work also consists of creating a template for organizing the data, reviewing the user interface, and communicating our remarks with the programmers to further develop our database. At the beginning of the project, we used the Integrated Library System (ALEPH) to organize our data. Now, however, we are using the recently launched graph database “Bibliography of 15th Century Arabic Historiography (BAH)” which is part of the Islamic History Open Data Platform (IHODP). It is difficult to sum up here the technical aspects of the project. Thus, I would recommend going through Maya Termonia’s blog post with her description of this part of the project, and her input in materializing it (see. https://www.mms.ugent.be/from-a-project-specific-database-to-an-open-access-digital-humanities-database/).

On the personal level, after travelling for more than 30000 Km in my hunt on manuscripts, visiting more than a dozen libraries, and examining hundreds of manuscripts, I believe I was lucky that I was assigned this job. Examining these centuries’ old texts gave me more appreciation for my field as a researcher and historian.  Simple things like the smell of papers, the comments of those who have studied/owned these manuscripts before me, and the slight differences between manuscripts of the same title have made my experience as a historian more vibrant than the simple (or dry) examination of printed books and books’ databases. This does not mean however that my experiences were always rosy. For instance, I remember that one of the manuscripts that I examined in Dār al-Kutub was in a very bad status (i.e. sticky and discolored papers, and with a foul smell) and I had to deal with it without wearing gloves. An atmosphere that is not ideal for a germaphobe like myself, I must add. Coincidentally, the manuscript was that of Ibn Ḥajar’s plague treatise “Badhl al-Māʿūn fī Faḍl al-Ṭāʿūn”.  And while I was trying to find a way to deal with it, my colleague Gowaart (who was examining a different manuscript at the time) told me – out of nowhere- “you know what, I think it is probably still carrying the plague”. His comment somehow made me examine it with a smile, but it is hard to forget this manuscript! I do not want to point fingers here, but I would not be surprised if one day I found that this manuscript was Pandora’s Box from which in 2020 the epidemic emerged.

Another problem that I had was that the process of having the permission to check some libraries’ collections was not always as simple as expected. In many occasions (especially in the libraries with large collections), I had to hustle to convince them to allow me to examine all the manuscripts I asked for. In one library in Turkey, I needed to examine 22 copies of the same title, which made no sense for the curator and I had to spend a lot of time convincing her that it is an essential part of my job to do so.  Sometimes also, I had to examine manuscripts under a tighter supervision than that imposed on prisoners in some of the toughest prisons in the world. On the same note, I remember that a simple misunderstanding while entering the Vatican Library made me spend an hour in the back of a Carabinieri’s (i.e. national police) car until they checked my credentials. Apparently, they take entering the wrong door in the Vatican more seriously than a naive yet harmless historian such as myself had expected. These incidents however gave additional dimensions to my experience in working in the MMS-II project, and I think they are most likely what will stick to my memory for many years to come.