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Mapping the Global Distribution of Arabic Manuscripts Dr Torsten Wollina

23 June 2020 Dr Torsten Wollina is mapping the provenance of one of the largest Arabic manuscript collections worldwide asking how Aḥmad Taymūr (1871-1930) obtained manuscripts for his library and distributed them within the library. He is also exploring how other Arabic manuscripts ended up in places like Dublin, where he is currently a Marie Skłodowska-Curie COFUND fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub.

The process of reconstructing the history of the Taymūriyya Library is about filling in the gaps” from the often-neglected period in library history between 1850 and 1930, which, however, sheds light on the current global distribution of Arabic manuscripts worldwide, he explains.

Modern research on the Middle East, where literary and other traditions of writing have been studied, has focused on the last 70-80 years or so without looking at the material conditions in which these manuscripts were encountered initially and then kept”, says Dr Wollina, adding, the process of accumulation of these material artefacts, includes questions of colonialism or colonial legacies.”

However, when it comes to the Taymūriyya Library, Dr Wollina argues, it gets complicated because the collector Aḥmad Taymūr was both a member of the elite in Egypt, and a colonial subject.”

Dr Wollina, as part of his research fellowship Stamping Provenance: Towards a History of the Taymūriyya Library,’ is conducting a provenance survey of the Taymūriyya Library as indicated by ex lib s stamps, an endeavour undoubtedly made more difficult in a time of pandemic.

The collector

The Taymūriyya Library contains more than 7,000 manuscripts and many more printed books. It is now part of the Egyptian National Library in Cairo, and includes significant clusters of Syrian, Egyptian, and North African manuscripts dedicated to most fields of Arabic literature and writerly culture.

Born in Egypt in 1871, Ahmad Taymūr was a member of a well-established Egyptian family that had a long history in politics. Dr Wollina was researching Muḥammad Ibn Ṭūlūn, an intellectual from 16th century Damascus, when Taymūr first came to his attention.

Taymūr usually placed his own stamp on a manuscript’s title page. It mentions his name, his endowed library and its founding year 1322/1901. Here it is imprinted on an autograph manuscript by Ibn Ṭūlūn; Cairo, Egyptian National Library, MS Tārīkh Taymūr 631, fol. 1r.

He [Ibn Ṭūlūn] endowed all his manuscripts to one place in Damascus and none of them remained there by the end of the 19th century when we have the first library catalogue that takes this collection into account. A lot of those manuscripts resurface in Cairo in the collection of Ahmad Taymūr”, explains Dr Wollina, who said the collector appeared again and again in his research and seemed essential” for understanding how these manuscripts go from their original contexts to where they are today.”

Taymūr also had photographs taken of a number of manuscripts by the same scholar, some of which are now in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, Dr Wollina adds. It is these types of technological innovations of the period – print production, photography, library catalogues and stamps -  that make the Taymūriyya Library an exciting case. Provenance research uncovers connections between it and other collections in Princeton, Dublin and other places. 

Book stamps, which became prevalent in Egypt in the 19th century, will allow Dr Wollina to conduct a closer examination of the process of extraction and accumulation” of Taymūriyya manuscripts from earlier collections. Their use, Dr Wollina argues indicates a particular transition from traditional modes of textual transmission to modern modes of collection and circulation.” Dr Wollina explains that the book stamps point to vital correlations between Taymūr s collection and the Arabic manuscript collection of the Chester Beatty Library. 

The project which reconstructs the movements of manuscripts from smaller local libraries to the Taymūriyya, shows how hundreds and thousands of manuscripts were transferred from key areas such as Damascus and Syria to other places, often by way of Cairo. This relied on a sophisticated infrastructure which, Dr Wollina says, also allowed European Orientalists to access manuscripts and entire collections.

Arabic manuscripts in Trinity

During his fellowship Dr Wollina is also looking at the Arabic manuscripts held in the Library of Trinity College, a collection significantly smaller than the Taymūriyya, containing around 70-80 manuscripts and now the subject of a new online digital exhibition.

The exhibition is a collaboration between Dr Wollina and the Library, and explores the early Arabic acquisitions in Dublin during the 17th century.

Arabic books were traditionally placed horizontally and a shortened title was written on the book’s cut. This one reads „al-Tarshīḥ li-qāḍī al-quḍā al-Subkī“, referring to the well-known Damascene jurist Tāj al-Dīn al-Subkī’s (14th century) legal work "Tarshīḥ al-tawshīḥ“; Dublin, Trinity Library MS 1521.

I have concentrated more on the earlier acquisitions up to 1700. The reason being that this collection is close to my interests in terms of provenance because most of those manuscripts come from somewhere between Constantinople and Cairo”, Dr Wollina comments. The Library s early manuscript collection and the historical catalogues have also been the subject of one of three recent blog posts by Dr Wollina published on the Library s website, which goes into more detail about Trinity Library s first catalogue, finished at around 1670.

In the post, Dr Wollina outlines how the history of Trinity Library s manuscript collections began in earnest with the acquisition of archbishop James Ussher s (1581-1656) library”, adding that “having himself been a student, Fellow and Professor of Theological Controversies at Trinity College, James Ussher retained  his scholarly interests throughout his life as a clergyman. In addition to his better known contributions to scholarship, he was ‘an important figure in Arabic studies, but not as an Arabist’, rather ‘as a collector of manuscripts, and as a patron and promoter of scholarship.’”

According to Dr Wollina, looking at Trinity s collection of Arabic manuscripts in tandem with his project on the Taymūriyya library has allowed for a historical comparison between the manuscript market at around 1900 with one of its centres in Cairo, and the earlier manuscript market in Istanbul in the 17th century.”


Dr Wollina is one of many scholars whose research was impacted in 2020 as a result of Covid-19. A difficult time for researchers, he notes the pressures to continue to be productive must also be balanced with checks on mental and physical health.” One way Dr Wollina tried to overcome this difficult period was by offering advice to others in blog posts such as this one.

He has also been reflecting on how to conduct provenance research from a distance, in a further blog post he wrote for the Library in Trinity College as part of his fellowship. Commenting on the Library s manuscript resources and online catalogues and how to navigate these useful resources, Dr Wollina notes provenance research helps situate the information a book contains, not only in the time of its creation or our current time, but acknowledges that the book (or any other object) has experienced its own historical trajectories in the intervening time.”

In terms of the important support structure in the Library, Dr Wollina praises the helpfulness of the staff at the Manuscript room and the guidance of Jane Maxwell in particular, from his early work in examining the manuscripts up to their current collaboration on the digital exhibition.

Dr Wollina, who had previously spent time in Dublin, said he was aware in coming to Trinity and the Trinity Long Room Hub that the support structure would be exceptional.” “The people I have met through the Hub and in Trinity in general have all been very supportive and I have learned a lot due to those exchanges.”

Dublin is also ideal, Dr Wollina noted, because of the connections to Trinity Library, the Chester Beatty Library and Marsh s Library and all the great people here that work on manuscript histories in different contexts, not only the Arabic ones.” Ultimately, these networks and resources may help Dr Wollina reflect on the broader questions in his research: the significance of working on a 17th century Syrian manuscript that is now in Dublin, and what that says about the historical realities of the time, and the preferences and networks of the collector. 

Dr Wollina’s fellowship will conclude in late August when he will return to Berlin to continue working at the crossroads between scholarship and librarianship.


Find out more:
  • Why were Arabic Manuscripts Collected in 17th Century Dublin? View the exhibition on the collection of Arabic manuscripts at the Library of Trinity College Dublin here.

Torsten Wollina holds a doctorate from Freie University Berlin, completing his thesis with generous support from the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies, Berlin, and the Anne Marie Schimmel Kolleg, Bonn University, between 2008 and 2012. Since then, he has been working at the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research, the Orient-Institut Beirut, and, lastly, Hamburg University. Torsten is the author of Zwanzig Jahre Alltag: Lebens-, Welt- und Selbstbild im Journal des Aḥmad Ibn Ṭawq [= Twenty Years of Everyday life: images of life, world, and self in the journal of Aḥmad Ibn Ṭawq] (Göttingen 2014). He has published research in the wide field between manuscript studies, social history of the Medieval and Early Modern Middle East, and its contemporaneous representations in writing. His most recent research project has explored the creation and dissolution of the written corpus of a 16th-century Damascene author. His next publication will discuss these processes in detail.To find out more about Dr Wollinas fellowship, click here.

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