A guide to Islamic manuscript research in Cairo (Maktabat al-Azhar, Dār al-kutub, Maʿhad al-makhṭūṭāt)

This guide is meant to help you doing research on Islamic manuscripts in Cairo. The section on Dār al-kutub is a short follow-up to the in-depth review of Noah Gardiner (here) who explained how to gain access to the manuscripts in the Bāb al-Khalq branch of the Dār al-Kutub. The present guide is not as comprehensive as Gardiner’s but walks you through the whole process of manuscript research and gives you some more hints on how to get the best out of three of the most important manuscript collections in Egypt and the world.

1. Al-Azhar – Mashyakhat al-azhar, Ṣālaḥ Sālem Street, al-Darrāsa
Telephone: 19493 (from within Egypt)
Web: www.azhar.eg/splash.html

Opening hours:
Sunday – Thursday, 9.30 am to 3 pm
Closed Fridays, Saturdays, and national holidays.

„The Honorable Al-Azhar University and Mosque (Al-Ğāmiʿ al-Azhar aš-Šarīf) in Cairo, the biggest and most important centre of Islamic Sunnī learning in the World, was built by Ğawhar aṣ-Ṣiqillī (d. AH 382 / AD 992), a famous military commander of the Shiah dynasty of the Fāṭimids. It was first open to prayer in Ramaḍān AH 361 (AD 972), and in Ramaḍān three years later to study. The Library of Al-Azhar, commonly also known as Al-Maktabat al-Azhariyyat, is second in importance in Egypt only after the National Library and Archives (Dār al-Kutub wa-al-Watā’iq al-Qawmiyyat) in Cairo. Al-Azhar’s holdings of Islamic manuscripts comprise something close to 50 thousand separate items – at the time of printing of this catalogue – with about 7 million pages. This extraordinary treasury of Islamic written heritage is currently being digitalized (about one third so far) but a more traditional printed catalogue is still very much in demand.“

Bogusław R. Zagórski in his review: „Fahras maḫṭūṭāt Maktabat  al-Azhar aš-Šarīf. Al-Maṣāḥif. ʿUlūm al-Qur’ān. Al-Qirā’āt. At-Tafsīr [Catalogue of Manuscripts of the Honorable Al-Azhar Library. Copies of theKoran. Koran Sciences. Recitation. Interpretation], Saqīfat aṣ-Ṣafā al-ʿIlmiyyat, [Al-Qāhirat] 1435 h.-2013 m. 1015 p., CD-ROM.“
See: https://www.academia.edu/11690535/Islamic_manuscripts_at_Al-Azhar (accessed 27 December 2016).

Getting to the Mashyakhat al-Azhar

The best and virtually only way to reach the library from downtown is by taxi. Many taxi drivers know where the Mashyakhat al-Azhar is located, so you would need to tell them only that you want to go to the Mashakha. Alternatively you can use Uber and Careem, where you enter the address on your smartphone which is directly transferred to the drivers who in turn will be directed to the address by GPS once you enter their cars.

Accessing manuscripts at the library

Queued up in front of the side entrance on the right side of the Mashyakha main building a chunk of people is usually waiting for being let in. My first impression when I saw them from afar was „Oh my God, please don’t let them be desperate researchers who try to get access to the library.“ God had mercy on me – all of them waited to put down a request for a fatwa, a juridic opinion, on some matter that they came across in their lives. You have to sneak your way through to the guard at the door. It’s the magic word „maktaba“ that opens the gates to the treasures of the library without having to wait with the crowd.
You have to present your passport at the desk on the left, tell what you are up to and the guard will show the library building, which is on the right. Here, too, you cannot enter the building from the main entrance, you have to use the backdoor. Somehow main entrances are not meant for the visitors of the Mashyakha. Once entered, a guard asks for your passport again, writes down your info on a slip of paper that he hands you. He will keep your passport and ask you to leave your bag at his desk, you are allowed to take your notebook with you. Then he sends you up to the sixth floor where the manuscript reading room can be found on your left hand side when you exit the elevator.

Searching and viewing the manuscripts

Once you present the slip of paper to one of the very accommodating officials in the reading room you are allowed to sit down in front of one of the computers that you can use by yourself which is not the case in the Dār al-kutub, neither at the Bāb al-Khalq nor at the Corniche branch.
You use the computers at al-Azhar to search for your desired manuscripts, but be aware that the same caveats as to orthography and authority names that Gardiner makes for the Dār al-kutub hold true for the al-Azhar on-site online catalogue. Most of the manuscripts you will find will be already digitized in jpg-format and viewable directly folio by folio on the machines which is a great plus in terms of time management. The images are of low quality (approx. 500 KB) and resolution (1280×960) but in color and quite comfortable to read if you don’t have to magnify them too much. As al-Azhar holds the actual manuscripts and not the microfilms as it is the case in the Maʿhad al-makhṭūṭāt or in the Bāb al-khalq branch of the Dār al-kutub, they were able to digitize their manuscripts quite recently (see above review by Zagórski). In my case, I could view most of the manuscripts, primarily on literature, I looked for, which means that since Zagórski wrote his review the digitization process has progressed significantly. When you are interested in Qoranic Studies in particular you can also consult the printed catalogue that Zagorskí writes about in his review instead of the online catalogue.

Getting copies

If you wish to get a copy of the manuscript or a limited number of folios you have to make a request (be sure to have an official letter, signed and stamped, in Arabic of your university with you) which will be executed on the same day. You receive a CD within 15-30 minutes once you paid the fee. With the mentioned letter stamped and signed, you get a folio for 0.75 EGP, without it will cost you 4 EGP. So better you have one in your bag. Unlike at the Dār al-kutub, al-Azhar sets no limit to the number of manuscripts that you may have copied on CD which is a true boon to anyone who needs a considerable number of manuscripts. This makes the al-Azhar library the least time consuming in our review, and also cost-wise it is together with the Dār al-kutub cheaper than the Maʿhad al-Makhṭūṭāt but unfortunately you have no choice if the manuscript you are looking for does not appear in al-Azhar.

2. Dār al-kutub, Bāb al-khalq branch / Corniche, headquarters

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

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

Corniche headquarters
121 Nile Corniche, Ramlet Boulaq, Boulaq, Cairo (best to be reached by taxi, a walk from downtown will take about 30-40 minutes)
Opening hours:
Sunday – Thursday, 8 am to 2 pm
Closed Fridays, Saturdays, and national holidays.

View Noah Gardiner’s review first: http://dissertationreviews.org/archives/7355

Now, here is a walkthrough garnered with some additional details on how to proceed with your manuscript research at the Bāb al-khalq and Corniche libraries: When entering the Bāb al-Khalq building you are not only asked to leave your passport at the reception desk, you are also not allowed to take your laptop with you (same in Corniche). Any bags or suitcases have to be left at the reception desk. So, it is better to have all the necessary information on the manuscripts in printed form (preferably in Arabic, you will understand why a bit later). Once you wrote down your ID details and signed the guest book at the desk you are allowed to walk your way up to the manuscript section.

Entering the first room you have to write your personal information in another register. For some reason you are not allowed to use the on-site computers that give access to the online catalogue by yourself. Instead, one of the muwaẓẓafūn will ask you what manuscript you are looking for. As Gardiner states you usually can only request to view three microfilms per day. Therefore it is very useful to have these three titles printed in Arabic script so that the muwaẓẓaf(a) can look them up easily. The whole search process can become a very tedious task as the information in the online catalogue may not always be accurate and consistent (see Gardiner‘s review), accordingly you have to tell the muwaẓẓaf(a) to try every possible orthography or finally push her kindly to let you do the job …

Once you found the manuscript the muwaẓẓaf(a) writes the corresponding microfilm number on a request form which you need to complete with your name, address etc. and sign. You take the form and enter the hall where the actual microfilms are stored. One of the officials will take the form and have you wait outside while he searches the microfilms. When he has found them, you will finally be ushered through the microfilm hall into the room where the microfilm reading devices are located. Here, too, you have to put down your personal details into another register (which is the last, I promise). The official will help you insert the microfilm, explain how to use the device and how to calculate the number of folio copies that you might require.

When you are done reading you need to complete a little paper which serves as copy request form. With this form you are directed to the head of the section in the microfilm hall who will fill out another form that you need to sign. At this point you will be asked to pull out the official request letter by your university or institution (signed and stamped).

Be sure to have copies of those handy if you intend to go there more often, as for each copy request one copy of the letter is needed. With the request form and your letter you finally return to the computer room from the beginning of this tale and pay your dues, upon which you get a blue carbon copy receipt that you will need when you come back to pick up the CDs two or three days later.

Important: By internal regulations researchers are only allowed eight copies of manuscripts no matter whether they be full or partial copies (made from microfilm on CD) per person.
The quality of the grayscale bitmap images (.bmp) that are created by the microfilm digitizing device is, to put it mildly, mediocre.

It is possible that some mss. are not available on microfilm or that the copies are so bad you need to consult the originals. This is the point where the Corniche headquarters comes into play. There, too, the same official letter by your university is required (another original!, and one copy for every session), as well as your passport and a photocopy thereof. All in all the procedure is similar to that of the Bāb al-Khalq branch. Copies of pages (not folios!) are charged 7 pounds each, a huge difference to the price at Bāb al-Khalq. These are shot with a Canon EOS 6D directly from the manuscript original, which results in color images (.jpg format) of a very good quality (3410×4298), much better than the al-Azhar images in any case. The problem with Corniche is that they only reluctantly make copies of manuscripts. And if they do, they will only allow of some pages.

3. Maʿhad al-Makhṭūṭāṭ – Institute of Arabic Manuscripts
Al-Madīna al-Munawwara Street 21, al-Mohandeseen, Cairo

Phone: +20237616402 or +20237616403 or +20237616405
Web: www.manuscriptsinstitute.com

Opening hours:
Sunday – Thursday, 9.30 am to 3 pm
Closed Fridays, Saturdays, and national holidays.

General information
The Institute of Arabic Manuscripts is a transnational body which was founded in 1946 and forms part of the Arab Organization for Education, Culture and Sciences المنظمة العربية للتربية والثقافة والعلوم, www.alecso.org (one of the organizations of the League of the Arab States جامعة الدول العربية).

You will find here tens of thousands of manuscripts on microfilm that have been contributed by various libraries across the world (such as Egypt, Qatar, Kuwait, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Morocco, Spain, India, Serbia, and Palestine. Part of those have already been digitized, see here.

So, if you happen to be in Egypt and you need manuscripts that are located in one of these countries it is perhaps a good idea to start here, as the cost of a folio copy is 4 EGP (0,20 EUR, 0,25 USD) which is, with regard to the current weakness (Dec 2016) of the Egyptian currency, good value.

Getting there
The easiest way to get there is obviously by taxi. It will take around half an hour from downtown if traffic is not to heavy. You can also take the metro line 2 (Shobra-Giza), you get off at Bohooth and walk around 30 minutes heading north. You would need a map to find your way. The institute is located off the street Shāriʿ Ǧāmiʿat al-duwal al-ʿarabiyya (spelled Gameat Al Dewal Al Arabeya on google maps), that taxi drivers know well (nobody will know the manuscript institute itself). Although the address of the institute is Madīna al-Munawwara 27 its entrance is on the Muḥyī al-Dīn Abū al-ʿIzz street (spelled „Mohi al-Din Abou Al Ezz“ on google maps) that is perpendicular to the Shāriʿ Ǧāmiʿat al-duwal al-ʿarabiyya. Look out for the furniture store „Istikbal“ which is just on the corner of Muḥyī al-Dīn Abū al-ʿIzz and Shāriʿ Ǧāmiʿat al-duwal al-ʿarabiyya. From there you walk into the Muḥyī al-Dīn Abū al-ʿIzz street. The entrance is very inconspicuous but you will find one of those black booths next to the building where security officers are standing usually who you can ask, where the institute is.

Accessing manuscripts at the Maʿhad al-Makhṭūṭāt
When you enter the building you will see a room equipped with computers right in front of you. You noticed that here you do not need to leave your passport, neither your bag at a reception desk. Just walk in. There will be someone who welcomes you and assists you in your search. You are free to look for your manuscripts on the computers on-site but I strongly advise you to run a search of the desired manuscripts before you arrive at the institute as the online catalogue accessible via internet ( is the same that you will find on the on-site computers. One little hint: When you found your manuscript the interface shows you the normal view (tab on top of the result page). Be sure to open the second tab (MARC view). You will find there plenty of additional information such as the first and the last line of your text, which is especially useful if your text is part of a maǧmūʿa (see for an example here).

The search engine allows boolean searches, so it has an advantage over Al-azhar and Dār al-kutub catalogues. Note that you cannot view images of the manuscripts on the on-site computers, though. As mentioned before the Maʿhad only holds microfilms.

Once you identified the manuscripts you need to write them down to have them collected by one of the clerks on the ground floor. You can view these microfilms on the reading devices that are in a sorry state. If you are not used to mount and demount microfilms you should ask one of the staff to give you a hand. Unfortunately I saw cases where even the staff treated the microfilm quite roughly.

When you need a copy of the manuscripts that you selected you will be asked to go up to the technician who actually digitizes the film by the same machine that is used in Dār al-Kutub. So, here too, the quality of the images can be miserable, depending on the quality of the microfilm and the digitization process.

At this point you will be asked to present a letter by your institution (signed and stamped).

Important: The technician who is in charge of copying the microfilms has a large array of digitized copies from several libraries from all over the world at his disposal (also from the Dār al-Kutub, in addition to the microfilms of Dār al-kutub, that is to say). You should ask him, once you get to his office after ordering copies of the microfilms. Doing so you can circumvent time-intensive searches at the Dār al-kutub because searching, viewing and ordering at Maʿhad al-Makhṭūṭāt is much easier as you have certainly noticed so far. Of course there is the downside to this – the price tag of 4 EGP against 0,75 EGP at Dār al-kutub. But if you consider that you can view and order in one day as many copies as you would have in five days at Dār al-kutub, the price will be more than justified. Because the hotel, the food, the transportation, all this adds to the bill in the end. So all in all, it actually is a good and hassle free trade-off if you put the Maʿhad first.

Also important: There is no set limit as to the number of manuscripts that you are allowed to order but you will probably be asked why you need so many.

You will get your copy (either on CD or on USB memory stick) within some days depending on how many manuscripts you ordered. Payment is made on the day of delivery not in advance as at Dār al-kutub.

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