Medieval Damascus: Plurality and Diversity in an Arabic Library. The Ashrafiya Library Catalogue.

Author:Auchterlonie, Paul
Position::Book review
 
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Medieval Damascus: Plurality and Diversity in an Arabic Library. The Ashrafiya Library Catalogue. By KONRAD HlRSCHLER. Edinburgh Studies in Classical Islamic History and Culture. Edinburgh: EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2016. Pp. x + 525. $140, [pounds sterling]85.

In some ways, this fascinating book is a sequel to the same author's The Written Word in the Medieval Arabic Lands from 2012 (reviewed in JAOS 135.2 [2015]: 391-93), which explored the growth of reading practices in Ayyubid and Mamluk Egypt and Syria by using documents such as endowment records, manuscript notes, and reading certificates (sama'At), in addition to the standard biographical and historical sources. Medieval Damascus takes the process of using "crucial documents [that] remain on the margins of scholarship" to supplement "the depleted soil of a narrow band of narrative sources" (p. 4) further by framing an entire monograph around just a single hitherto ignored document--the manuscript catalogue of a little known library in medieval Damascus, the Ashrafiyya.

While catalogues of medieval libraries are not uncommon in Britain--several hundred have been published in the series "Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues" (1990-)--only two have been preserved to date from the medieval Arab world, a short alphabetical list of titles belonging to the mosque library in Kairouan and the much more substantial and complex catalogue of the Ashrafiyya. Konrad Hirschler provides photographs of the Arabic manuscript of the Ashrafiyya catalogue, an edition in a modern Arabic typeface, and a very well-annotated translation of the catalogue. The expertise that has gone into identifying the books in the catalogue is remarkable, since the library's collection covered a wide of range of subjects, with many locally produced books, some of which appear to have been unique, and the title entries themselves are often heavily abbreviated, with no indication of authorship. Hirschler quotes Richard Sharpe, who stated that "entries in medieval book lists can sometimes seem like a fiendish species of crossword, demanding to be solved but providing incomplete or otherwise inadequate clues" (p. 9). Hirschler, however, goes far beyond just demonstrating his extensive bio-bibliographical knowledge through the edition of this document--see chapter four on title identification, and especially his dissection of Paul Sbath's Choix de livres qui se trouvaient dans les bibliotheques d'Alep (au XIIIe siecle) (Cairo, 1946)--and explores in three introductory chapters what can be gleaned from the Ashrafiyya catalogue about what people read, how libraries were organized, and the quality of the intellectual and literary...

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