Research Project: An Author’s Library in Sixteenth-Century Damascus

In recent years historians have become more interested in manuscripts not only as sources but also as objects of inquiry. In particular, their qualities as objects and their historical trajectories have become areas of study in themselves, breaching the temporal gap between their creation and their reception by modern historians. This has led to a reassessment of hitherto neglected formats of publication, foremost among them the majmūʿa, i.e. a “multiple-text manuscript” (MTM) that contains several texts between its covers.

One author who made much use of MTMs was the sixteenth-century Damascene scholar Muḥammad Ibn Ṭūlūn (d. 953/1546). According to biographical sources, he compiled about sixty MTMs filled with his own writings and endowed them for posterity. This project by OIB Research Associate Torsten Wollina explores the history of this endowment and traces the histories of its components. Ibn Ṭūlūn’s MTMs, or parts thereof, can be found today in libraries in Egypt, Germany, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Ireland and the United States. In order to discover how these manuscripts ended up in these places, the project makes use of paratextual elements in the manuscripts as well as on microfilms that were made of them both in Egypt and Syria in the early twentieth century.

Searching through the catalogues of the Egyptian National Library (Dar al-Kutub), one finds a large number of entries for Ibn Ṭūlūn, and a large number of these point to a manuscript from the collection of Ahmad Taymur: MS Majāmīʿ Taymur 759 is said to contain a staggering thirty-three different texts. This is far from ordinary even for one of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s MTMs. In contrast, three other MTMs – MSS Majāmīʿ Taymūr 373, 374 and MS Ḥadīth Taymūr 546 – contain between seven and sixteen texts each. None of these manuscripts can be considered an original compilation by the author of the texts they include. Ibn Ṭūlūn originally prefaced his MTMs with a detailed statement of contents on the first page of a volume. None of these four MTMs includes such a statement of contents. They were probably recompiled and rebound at a later stage according to interests different from those of the author.

Such processes of recompilation could extend well into the twentieth century as is exemplified by these four manuscripts. As the table below shows, a collation of the contents of MS 759 with MSS 373 and 374 and MS 546 shows a complete overlap between them. The titles in yellow and dark blue were even transferred from one manuscript to another, in the same order (titles had to be left out for the sake of legibility). The overlap is not a result of a prolific copying activity on the author’s part. Rather, it is significant because the three other MTMs were recompiled to become MS 759. This is attested by the fact that only microfilms of those three remain in the Egyptian National Library, while MS 759 is actually physically present. The microfilms were created from “Damascene microfilms” in 1927, as notes on their first slides testify. Thus, MS 759 must have been created and sold to Aḥmad Taymūr by the beginning of the 1930s. It is impossible to say whether the texts were rearranged so that the buyer would not notice their pedigree.

What this example shows, however, is that Ibn Ṭūlūn’s MTMs were still being reshuffled at a time when his works were already being edited and published. It also shows that practices of recompilation and thus reinterpretation continued well into the twentieth century and that microfilms can function as an important source for a manuscript’s historical trajectory in this period.

For further aspects of the project’s explorations, visit Torsten’s own blog Damascus Anecdotes. Reading Historical Bilād al-Shām.

Contents of MS 759 vis-à-vis MSS 373, 374, 546. Light blue, red and green indicate the MS to which a text originally belonged. Yellow and dark blue indicate that they were transposed to MS 759 in the original order.

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