Dar al-Kutub Manuscript Collections, Cairo


A review of the manuscript collections viewable at the Bab al-Khalq branch of Dar al-Kutub wa-al-Wathaʾiq al-Qawmiyya (Egyptian National Library and Archives), Cairo, Egypt.

Bab al-Khalq Square, Cairo, Egypt
Tel: +20 2393-8656; 2391-7843; 2391-7825
Fax: +20 2393-8759
www.darelkotob.gov.eg (functions sporadically)

Bab al-Khalq Reading Room hours:
Sunday – Thursday, 9 am to 4:45 pm
Closed Fridays, Saturdays, and national holidays.

The Egyptian National Library and Archives in Cairo makes available extensive holdings of printed books, serials, coins, papyri, documents, and other collections of interest to researchers; however, in this review I solely address working with its large and important collection of Islamicate manuscripts, much of which is accessible in microform at the library’s Bab al-Khalq branch. After giving a brief history of the library and its manuscript holdings, I discuss preparing to visit the library, reaching it once in Cairo, working with the printed catalogs and on-site electronic catalog, and viewing and obtaining copies of microfilms. As an appendix I include a list of the numerous printed catalogs dedicated to the collection, along with some tips for working with them. While some of my observations regarding the library’s systems are critical, I hope it will be understood that they come from the perspective of an avid user and admirer of the library, and are in no way intended to detract from the efforts of the highly dedicated staff, or to discourage would-be researchers.

History of the library and an overview of its manuscript holdings

The library was founded in 1870, during the reign of the Khedive Ismaʿil Pasha. It originally was located in Darb al-Gamamiz, at which time it was called al-Kutubkhana al-Khidiwiyya (the Khedival Library). In 1904 it was moved to the purpose-built, monumental Neo-Mamluk-style building at Bab al-Khalq Square—on Port Said Street at the intersection of Ahmed Maher and Muhammad Ali Streets—which it shares with the Museum of Islamic Art. In the 1970s much of the library was relocated to a new building on the Nile Corniche. While the majority of the actual manuscripts are still stored at the Corniche Branch, the Bab al-Khalq building has been renovated in recent years, and now houses greatly improved conservation and storage facilities, a microfilm reading room, and a state-of-the-art exhibition area for select manuscripts. The library currently holds approximately 57,000 codices; the vast majority of these are in Arabic, though roughly 1,000 are in Persian and over 2,100 are in Ottoman Turkish. Since its founding the library has absorbed a number of smaller Cairene libraries and important private collections of manuscripts, such as those of Ahmed Pasha Taymur, Halim Pasha, Khalil Agha, and others, and the names of many of these collectors still serve as shelfmark headings. It is one of the largest and most important collections of Islamicate manuscripts in the world, and includes numerous manuscripts from the first four centuries anno hegirae, including what are claimed to be some of the earliest surviving Qurʾan manuscripts, as well as many thousands of later medieval and early modern codices on the full range of subjects common to premodern Islamicate learning and culture. Much, though not all, of the collection has been filmed and is available in microform. Those seeking a more complete history of the library and the manuscript holdings should consult Dr. Ayman Fuʿad Sayyid’s excellent Dar al-Kutub al-Miṣriyya : Tārīkhuhā wa-taṭawwuruhā (Cairo: Maktabat al-Dār al-ʻArabiyya li-al-Kitāb, 1996).

The current director of the Bab al-Khalq branch is Dr. Iman Ezzeldin, who is also a professor of drama and criticism at Ain Shams University. Having been appointed to the position in 2012, she was briefly displaced during the shake-up at the Ministry of Culture in the waning months of the Morsi administration, but since has been reinstated. The current director of Dar al-Kutub as a whole is Dr. Abdelnasser Hassan; he is the fourth person to have held that position since the 2011 Revolution. It should be noted that all key management positions at the library operate under one-year, renewable contracts, such that turnover in these positions is a frequent occurrence.

Preparing to visit Dar al-Kutub

No state-issued research permits are required in order to view microfilms at Bab al-Khalq, which is the preferred method of utilizing the collection. Those wishing to view the physical codices rather than their microfilm surrogates will need to obtain special permission from the library director, currently Dr. Abdelnasser Hassan. This is best done by arranging an in-person meeting while in Cairo. As of early last year (2013), no official security clearance beyond the director’s permission was required, though this may be subject to change. The applicant will need to bring letters of introduction or other means of establishing her bona fides, and be prepared to explain why microfilms will be insufficient to her research needs. Those wishing to do this would be advised to plan for a somewhat lengthier stay in Cairo than would be necessary simply to utilize the microfilm collection, so as to allow time for the process of obtaining permission. Viewing of physical manuscripts is done at the Nile Corniche branch.

Many researchers will of course want to consult the printed catalogs of the collection prior to their visit; see below for more information on these.

Getting to Dar al-Kutub

The microfilm viewing room and associated facilities at Bab al-Khalq are open Sunday through Thursday from 9:00 am to 4:45 pm. The easiest way to reach the library is by taxi, though rather than requesting to go to Dar al-Kutub (by which most will assume that you mean the Nile Corniche branch), tell the driver you are going to ‘the Islamic Museum’ (al-matḥaf al-islāmī) on Sharia Port Said. The closest Metro stop to Bab al-Khalq is Mohamed Naguib (one stop from Sadat station on the El Mounib-Shoubra line), though one then will need to walk approximately a kilometer west along Ali Zou El Fekar and Sami El Barodi streets to reach the library.

You will need to bring your passport each time you visit the library to gain admittance, and you will be asked to leave it at the security desk while inside; photocopies of passports and non-Egyptian forms of identification are not accepted. If you are affiliated with a university in Cairo from which you have an ID card then this might be acceptable, but bring your passport in any case. All bags will be scanned upon entering and exiting the library. Cameras are not permitted.

Using the catalogs

The most complete—though in many ways not the most detailed—inventory of the collections is the electronic catalog that, at present, is accessible only on-site, and cannot be consulted via the Internet. Note that the catalog tool accessible through the website listed above (on occasions that the website is functional) is not identical to the on-site electronic catalog, and does not represent as large a portion of the collections. Prior to visiting the library researchers likely will want to consult the numerous printed catalogs of the collections (see the Appendix for a list of these). In many cases they provide far more detailed descriptions of the manuscripts than does the electronic catalog. Indeed, vital information sometimes found in the printed catalogs, such as descriptions of the texts, copying dates, the presence of reading certificates and other paratexts, etc., is in many cases absent from the electronic catalog.

Of the printed catalogs, those most broadly useful are the major catalog from the Khedival period, Fihrist al-kutub al-ʿarabiyya al-maḥfūẓa bi-al-Kutubkhāna al-Khidiwiyya (1884-93), the later catalogs of the main collection Fihris al-kutub al-ʿarabiyya al-mawjūda bi-al-Dār (1924-1942) and Fihrist al-makhṭūṭāṭ: Nashra bi-al-makhṭūṭāt allātī ʾqtanathā al-Dār min sanat 1936-1955 (1961-63), and the recent inventory of works contained in compilatory codices (majāmiʿ), Fihris al-makhṭūṭāt al-ʿarabiyya bi-Dār al-Kutub al-Miṣriyya: al-Majāmīʿ (2011). The earliest of these, the Khedival catalog, is the source glossed by Carl Brockelmann as ‘Cairo’ in Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur, and thus is still frequently cited and consulted by scholars. Certain researchers will of course be drawn to the more specialized catalogs, such as those for the named subcollections, or, for example, those by David King on manuscripts of ‘scientific’ works. For those who begin their search of the collections from the printed catalogs—particularly the earliest catalogs—there is something of an art to locating manuscripts mentioned in the printed catalogs in the electronic catalog, and I include some brief notes on doing so in the Appendix. Since less than the entirety of the collections has been filmed, not all of the manuscripts mentioned in the printed catalogs will be available to view. It seems particularly to be the case that many works on occult-scientific topics (lettrism, alchemy, etc.) have not been filmed, and thus are not available for viewing; however, this is not an absolute rule, and works on those topics which have been filmed typically are viewable.

Many researchers’ primary tool for exploring the collection once at Bab al-Khalq will be the on-site electronic catalog , which is accessed from a bank of computers on the upper floor of the library; unfortunately, it suffers from some shortcomings that should be taken into consideration in formulating one’s research plan. In using the catalog, one can browse by subcollection, which are divided by subject and collection name (e.g. Taṣawwūf, Taṣawwūf Ṭalʿat, Taṣawwūf Ḥalīm, etc., the second term, when it is present, referring to the named subcollection in which a manuscript resides). One can also search by title or author, though searches are complicated by some systemic problems. First, there is a lack of ‘authority’ titles and names, i.e. standardized titles of works or of multipart Arabic names. In many cases titles seem to have been transcribed directly from the manuscripts, with all the variations that can entail; although a field exists for an authority title, it is filled in only sporadically. Similarly, one will sometimes find a single author under multiple variations of his name. As a result, numerous searches and a degree of guesswork are sometimes required to find all copies of a given title or all works by a given author. An additional issue is that certain idiosyncrasies of Egyptian orthography are reflected in the catalog, especially the use of alif maqṣūra in the place of the final yāʾ, and the use of hāʾ in the place of tāʾ marbūṭa. These substitutions are not entirely consistent however, such that, for example, one might find certain works by Ibn al-ʿArabī by spelling his name with a final yāʾ (as it would be spelled in standardized fusḥā), and a different set of works by spelling his name with an alif maqṣūra. These inconsistencies compound the problems created by the lack of authority names and titles.

A further issue with regard to the electronic catalog is that it does not facilitate complex searches. For example, although there is a field in the records for the date at which a manuscript was copied, there is no way to search for manuscripts copied within a certain date range, to search only for dated copies of certain title, etc. The ways in which records can be sorted also are limited, such that one can sort by title, author, or collection name, but not by copying date. It seems that the catalog was intended to have some of these capabilities, but that they simply are not functional at this time, and perhaps they will be implemented at a later date. Relatedly, many fields that are present in the catalog, such as ones for noting reading certificates and other transmission paratexts, are not currently being utilized.

Viewing and ordering copies of microfilms

The most important factor to be aware of with regard to viewing microfilms is that a visitor is allowed to request only a limited number of microfilms per day; the official limit seems to be three, though in my experience the librarians will typically allow at least four if asked politely. This is perhaps the single most limiting factor on how much one can accomplish in a given length of time at the library, and researchers should plan accordingly.

There are a few steps to requesting a microfilm for viewing. One first must locate the microfilm number; these can be found in the electronic catalog, as well as in many of the later printed catalogs. If no microfilm number is recorded in the electronic catalog then the manuscript likely has never been filmed. Manuscripts that have not previously been filmed are not currently being imaged, but see above regarding requesting permission to view physical manuscripts. Armed with the microfilm number, one fills out a paper request form and then asks a librarian in the computer area to verify that the microfilm is available. If it is, you will be directed to take the form to another desk in the upper part of the library area, and then proceed to the microfilm viewing machines, sign in, and wait for the microfilms to be brought.

Copies of microfilms can be ordered at the desk in the microfilm viewing area. Copies are provided on CD-ROM in multi-page TIFF format. The cost is 5 LE per image for academic researchers and 7 LE for the general public, with two facing pages per image (which is to say 5/7 LE per folio generally speaking). Copies officially take three days to be prepared, but those ordering large numbers of images should be prepared for lengthier processing times.

Author’s note: Special thanks to Elena Chardakliyska, Jake Benson, and Aleksandar Šopov for their fact-checking assistance and advice in composing this review. The opinions expressed here, and any errors that remain, are my own.

Noah Gardiner
Department of Near Eastern Studies
University of Michigan


Appendix: The catalogs

An extensive list of catalogs that reference works held at Dar al-Kutub can be found in Geoffrey Roper’s World Survey of Islamic Manuscripts (London: Al-Furqan, Islamic Heritage Foundation, 1992), vol. 1, pp. 213-219. Ayman Fuʿad Sayyid’s aforementioned Dar al-Kutub al-Miṣriyya is also valuable in this regard. Here I mention only those dedicated exclusively to the Dar al-Kutub collections. Note that many of the older catalogs list printed books as well as manuscripts.

For works listed in Fihrist al-kutub al-ʿarabiyya al-maḥfūẓa bi-al-Kutubkhāna al-Khidiwiyya, the means of arriving at the modern shelfmark from the indications given in the catalog is less than obvious. The key is that the heading under which the work was cataloged (e.g. taṣawwūf or taʾrīkh) followed by the language of the work (ʿarabī, fārisī, turkī) will be the first component of the shelfmark, and in the series of letters and numbers at the end of each entry, the numbers following the siglum nūn khāʾ (with a space between the letters) will be the numerical component of the shelfmark. Thus, for example, in volume two, page 76 of that catalog, in the Taṣawwūf section, there is an entry for a copy of Abū Layth al-Samarqandī’s Tanbīh al-ghāfilīn completed in 865 AH by one Zakariyyā b. Sulaymān b. Muḥammad b. ʿAbd Allāh. At the end of the entry is the string: نس 1 ج 1 ن خ 341 ن ع 17879; thus the modern shelfmark is Taṣawwūf ʿarabī 341.

The process is more straightforward with later catalogs. In Fihris al-kutub al-ʿarabiyya al-mawjūda bi-al-Dār, for example, one simply takes the heading under which the work is cataloged and adds the shelfmark number given in square brackets at the end of each entry. While this might seem sufficient reason to ignore the Khedival catalog, one should note that it sometimes contains information that was not reproduced in later catalogs (including, in many cases, the electronic one). For example, the same copy of Tanbīh al-ghāfilīn referenced above is recorded in Fihris al-kutub al-ʿarabiyya al-mawjūda bi-al-Dār (vol. 1, p. 281), but neither the copying date nor the name of the copyist is mentioned.

The printed catalogs are given in two lists (arranged by publication date); the first is of catalogs of the general collection, and the second of those of the named subcollections, as well as various subject-specific catalogs.

Catalogs of the main collection:

1872          Fihrist al-kutub al-mawjūda bi-al-Kutubkhāna al-Khidīwiyya al-Miṣriyya al-kubrā al-kāʾina bi-Saray Dar al-Jamāmīz al-ʿāmira bi-Miṣr al-Qāhira. Cairo: Maṭbaʿat Wādī al-Nīl, 1289.

1884-93    Fihrist al-kutub al-ʿarabiyya al-maḥfūẓa bi-al-Kutubkhāna al-Khidīwiyya al-Miṣriyya al-kubrā al-kāʾina bi-Saray Dar al-Jamāmīz bi-Miṣr al-maḥrūsa. Cairo, 1301-08. 7 vols. in 8 parts:

Vol. 1 (Qurʾan manuscripts, Quʾranic sciences, ḥadīth sciences):
Vol. 2 (other religious sciences, Sufism, preaching, etc.):
Vol. 3 (jurisprudence):
Vol. 4 (linguistic sciences and ādāb):
Vol. 5 (history, geography, and physical sciences):
Vol. 6 (medicine and philosophy):
Vol. 7, pt. 1 (majāmiʿ):
Vol. 7, pt. 2 (majāmiʿ cont.):

1889           Fihrist al-kutub al-fārisiyya wa-al-jāwiyya al-mawjūda bi-al-Kutubkhāna al-Khidīwiyya al-Miṣriyya. By ʿAlī Ḥilmī al-Dāghistānī. Cairo: al-Maṭbaʿa al-ʿUthmaniyya, 1306. 2 vols.

1889           Fihrist al-kutub al-turkiyya al-mawjūda bi-al-Kutubkhāna al-Khidīwiyya al-Miṣriyya. By ʿAlī Ḥilmī al-Dāghistānī. Cairo: al-Maṭbaʿa al-ʿUthmaniyya, 1306.

1924-42.    Fihris al-kutub al-ʿarabiyya al-mawjūda bi-al-Dār. Cairo: Dar al-Kutub, 1342-61. 8 vols.

1961-63.    Fihrist al-makhṭūṭāṭ: Nashra bi-al-makhṭūṭāt allātī ʾqtanathā al-Dār min sanat 1936-1955. By Fuʾād Sayyid. Cairo: Dār al-Kutub, 1380-83. 3 vols.

1966-67.    Fihris al-makhṭūṭāt al-fārisiyya allātī taqtanīhā Dār al-Kutub ḥattā ʿām 1936. By Naṣr Allāh al-Tarrāzī. Cairo, Dar al-Kutub. 2 vols.

1968.         Qāʾima bi-al-makhṭūṭāt al-ʿarabiyya al-muṣawwara bi-al-mīkrūfīlm min al-jumhūriyya al-ʿarabiyya al-yamaniyya. Cairo: Dār al-Kutub.

1987.         Fihris al-makhṭūṭāt al-turkiyya al-ʿuthmāniyya allātī ʾqtanathā Dār al-Kutub al-Qawmiyya mundhu ʿām 1870 ḥattā nihāyat 1980. Cairo: Al-Hayʾa al-Miṣriyya al-ʿAmma li-al-Kitāb. 4 vols.

2011.         Fihris al-makhṭūṭāt al-ʻarabiyya bi-Dār al-Kutub al-Miṣriyya : al-Majāmīʻ. By ʻAbd al-Sattār al-Ḥalwajī. Cairo: Dār al-Kutub, al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation (London). 4 vols.

Catalogs of the named subcollections, and subject-specific catalogs:

1910          “Maktabat Aḥmad Zakī Bāshā wa-ahamm makhṭuṭatiha al-ʿarabiyya.” By Muḥammad Kurd ʿAlī. Al-Muqtabas, Vol. 5 (1910), pp. 789-93.

1912          “Al-Khizāna al-Taymūriyya wa-fihrist makhṭūtātihā.” By Muḥammad Kurd ʿAlī. Al-Muqtabas, Vol. 7 (1912), pp. 437-58.

1912-14.   “Al-Khizāna al-Zakiyya, aw majmūʿat kutub Aḥmad Zakī Bāshā al-miṣriyya.” By Muḥammad Kurd ʿAlī. Al-Muqtabas, Vol. 7 (1912), pp. 593-604; Vol. 8 (1914), pp. 393-404.

1923.         “Al-Khizāna al-Taymūriyya. By ʿĪsā Iskandar al-Maʿlūf. Majallat al-majmaʿ al-ʿilmī al-ʿarabī/Revue de l’académie arabe, Vol. 3 (1923), pp. 225-30.

1923.         “Min nafāʾis al-Khizāna al-Taymūriyya.” By ʿĪsā Iskandar al-Maʿlūf. Majallat al-majmaʿ al-ʿilmī al-ʿarabī/Revue de l’académie arabe, Vol. 3 (1923), pp. 337-44 & 360-66.

1931-33.    Fihris Maktabat Qawalla fī Dār al-Kutub al-Miṣriyya. Cairo: Dar al-Kutub, 1350-51. 4 vols.

1932.         Nashra bi-asmāʾ kutub al-mūsīqa wa-al-ghināʾ wa-muʾallifihā al-maḥfūẓa bi-Dār al-Kutub al-Miṣriyya. Cairo: Dār al-Kutub, 1350.

1933.         Fihris Maktabat Makram. Cairo: Dar al-Kutub, 1351.

1935.         “Les manuscrits illustrés musulmans de la Bibliothèque du Caire.” By Ivan Stchoukine. Gazette des beaux-arts, Vol. 7, no. 13 (1935), pp. 138-58.

1947-50.   Fihris al-Khizāna al-Taymūriyya. Cairo: Dār al-Kutub, 1366-69. 4 vols.

1950.         Ibn Sīnā: Muʾallafātuhu wa-shurūḥuhā al-makhṭūṭa bi-Dār al-Kutub al-Miṣriyya. Cairo: Dār al-Kutub, 1370.

1956.         Fihrist al-makhṭūṭāt, al-mujallad al-awwal: Muṣṭalaḥ al-ḥadīth. By Fuʾād Sayyid. Cairo, Dār al-Kutub, 1375.

1957.         “Nawādir al-makhṭūṭāt fī Maktabat Talʿat.” By Fuʾād Sayyid. Majallat maʿhad al-makhṭūṭāt al-ʿarabiyya, Vol. 3 (1957), pp. 197-236.

1964.         Nūr al-Dīn ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Jāmī: Fihris muʾallafātihi al-makhṭūṭa wa-al-maṭbūʿa allātī taqtanīhā Dār al-Kutub al-Miṣriyya. By Naṣr Allāh al-Tarrāzī. Cairo: Dār al-Kutub.

1967.         Index of Arabic Manuscripts on Medicine and Pharmacy at the National Library of Cairo/Fihris makhṭūṭāt Dār al-Kutub al-ʿArabiyya al-mutaʿalliqa bi-al-ṭibb wa-al-ṣaydala. By Sami Khalaf Hamarneh. Cairo: Dār al-Maḥāsin.

1968.         Al-Fihris al-waṣfī li-al-makhṭūṭāt al-fārisiyya al-muzayyana bi-al-ṣuwar wa-al-maḥfūẓa bi-Dār al-Kutub. By Naṣr Allāh al-Tarrāzī. Cairo: Dār al-Kutub.

1976.         “Fahāris makhṭūṭāt Dār al-Kutub al-Miṣriyya: Qāʾima bi-makhṭūṭāt al-ḥikma wa-al-falsafa bi-Maktabāt Ḥalīm wa-Taymūr wa-Ṭalʿat fī Dār al-Kutub wa-al-Wathāʾiq al-Qawmiyya bi-al-Qāhira.” By Aḥmad b. ʿAbd al-Majīd Abū Nahla. Al-Mawrid, Vol. 5, no. 4 (1976), pp. 237-48.

1977.         “Fahāris makhṭūṭāt Dār al-Kutub al-Miṣriyya: al-Makhṭūṭāt al-adabiyya, Maktabāt Ṭalʿat fī Dār al-Kutub wa-al-Wathāʾiq al-Qawmiyya bi-al-Qāhira.” By Aḥmad b. ʿAbd al-Majīd Abū Nahla. Al-Mawrid, Vol. 6, no. 1 (1977), pp. 271-78.

1980.         “Fahāris makhṭūṭāt Dār al-Kutub al-Miṣriyya: Qāʾima bi-makhṭūṭātal-ṭibbiyya.” By Aḥmad b. ʿAbd al-Majīd Abū Nahla. Al-Mawrid, Vol. 9, no. 3 (1980), pp. 285-324.

1981-86.   A Catalog of the Scientific Manuscripts in the Egyptian National Library/Fihris al-makhṭūṭāt al-ʿilmiyya al-maḥfūẓa bi-Dār al-Kutub. By David King. Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organization. 2 vols.

1986.         A Survey of the Scientific Manuscripts in the Egyptian National Library. By David King. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, for the American Research Center in Egypt.

1989.         Dhākirat Miṣr: Kunūz min al-turāth al-ʿarabī. Cairo: Al-Hayʾa al-Miṣriyya al-ʿAmma li-al-Kitāb.

2008.         Treasures of the Illustrated and Illuminated Persian Manuscripts, National Library of Egypt/Rawāʼiʻ al-makhṭūṭāt al-fārisiyya al-muṣawwara bi-Dār al-Kutub al-Miṣriyya. By Heba Nayel Barakat (et al.). Cairo: Dār al-Kutub, 2008).


Image: Sign above Dar al-Kutub entrance. Annie’s Cairo Weblog, 25 June 2008: http://annie2008cairo.wordpress.com/2008/06/23/day-23-a-nations-archives.

  1. Very nice review – much appreciated. Your readers might like to know of another online catalogue of Egyptian manuscripts which is generally available on the web at: http://www.manuscripts.idsc.gov.eg/Manuscript/Manuscript_OPAC/SimpleSearch.aspx . The underlying database for that site contains close to 62,000 manuscript entries. However the data is such that the search engine suffers from many of the same limitations mentioned in this article. Generally one must guess at multiple variations on the title and/or author.

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