I had the opportunity to visit Cairo for research and availed myself of the Arabic manuscripts held at the Dār al-Kutub or National Library among a handful other places. There are other notable archives in the city, such as the Dār al-Wathāʾiq al-Qawmiyya (The National Archives of Egypt) and the Library at al-Azhar (a site for manuscripts and another for dissertations), but not having dealt with these other institutions closely or at all I’ll restrict my comments to personal experience. If anyone would like to put together a helpful guide for any of Cairo’s research-rich sites, please do not hesitate to contact us. We would gladly share it here.
I would also like to thank Prof. Matthew Ingalls at the University of Puget Sound who provided me with helpful information on the protocols to dealing with the Dār al-Kutub in advance.
The American Research Centre in Egypt (ARCE)
While conducting research in Cairo I was affiliated with the American Research Centre of Egypt (ARCE, pronounced AR-SEE). The Centre is located in Garden City, specifically in Midan Simon Bolivar, which is just south of Tahrir Square. It is across from the very large Samiramis Hotel and is on the same block as the American Embassy. While the Embassy is away from the main square, the entrance to ARCE is right on the square. The entrance, however, can be difficult to find. As of 5 April 2012 there is a hard to miss wig shop by the entrance to the building in which ARCE is housed. Enter the right hand door and climb one flight of stairs and you’ll find yourself in the ARCE offices where there is a rarely used computer room and a spacious lounge reception area. The office is open Sundays to Thursdays from 8:30am to 3:30pm. The staff at ARCE can be extremely helpful in getting you oriented and putting you in touch with other researchers affiliated with the Centre. Djodi Deustch, the Academic Program Coordinator, was helpful in getting a lay of the land research-wise. She mentioned that researchers have generally had an easier time accessing materials at the Dār al-Kutub (The National Library) in Bāb al-Khalq than with other archives in the city, particularly Dār al-Wathāʾiq (The National Archives) along the Nile in Ramlet Boulaq. (Information up to date as of 5 April 2012)
The ARCE Library
The ARCE Library can be accessed by entering the right-hand door from outside and ascending one flight of stairs. Alternatively, you can pass through the ARCE offices and exit into the opposite stairwell where the ARCE Library front door will be directly across from ARCE Office door. When entering the library you will need to sign-in and check your bag. The ARCE Library has a sizable collection for its relatively small space. Several cases of rare books are housed in glass cabinets off to the side. A physical card catalogue is maintained to organize the books and periodicals and registers are available that list the rare books and dissertations housed at the library. The materials are non-circulating so the library serves instead as a good reference reading room, much like its counterpart in the Arnavutköy area of Istanbul, the American Research Institute of Turkey (ARIT). There are two reading tables to work at in the main room and a long table off to the side in the rare books area. In addition to books and bound journals there is computer access to JStor. There is a minimal cost attached to downloading and/or printing articles from the ARCE library computers. The library also has a photocopying service, which is again at a nominal cost. (Information up to date as of 5 April 2012)
Dār al-Kutub (Dar el-Kotob/The National Library of Egypt)
The manuscript collections of this library are housed in the Dār al-Kutub in Bab El Khalq, at the intersection of two main streets, Bur Said and Muhammad Ali. It shares building space with the Islamic Art Museum (Matḥaf al-Fann al-Islāmī). The Museum’s entrance is at the front of the building on Bur Said Street while the Dār al-Kutub is entered from the back entrance. The library is closed on Friday, but is otherwise open from 9am until 4pm.
When entering the building there is a security desk where visitors will sign-in, hand over their passports (for foreigners) in exchange for an access card, and check their bags. Afterwards you will climb a double flight of stairs and enter foyer area. Immediately to the left is a small Dār al-Kutub bookshop. Walk straight ahead past the bookshop and turn left where you will see the proper entrance to the Dār al-Kutub library. Through the doors is another security desk where you will have to check in again. The bursar is also located here. Beyond this desk is a large reading room with reference books on either side and plenty of desks at which to work. Major references works in Arabic are here as well as in English, German, French, Persian and Hebrew.
Walk to the far end of the room and up the stairs to the next floor. To the left is the microfilm room with several machines and to the right is an open space housing a good number of computers, though not all of them are on or connected. Two staff desks are at the front of this computer space. At any of the available computers you can search in Arabic for manuscripts by a number of categories: title (ʿanwān), disciplinary field (fann), language (lugha), author (muʾallif), library collection (maktaba), entry number (raqm al-tasjīla), microfilm number (raqm mīkrūfīlm), or general keyword (kalima ʿamma). Each search should bring up a list of hits, each of which can be clicked for further information, which will appear in a window below. The information provided typically title, author, record number (raqm al-hifẓ), manuscript date, page dimensions, lines per folio, total number of folios, and library collection. You will likely need to adjust the window divider to see all the information provided in the bottom window. It is important to write down the title, author, and especially the record number (raqm al-hifẓ) of the manuscripts you wish to view. When starting a new query click on the new search button, rather than typing in the search box, and a new window will pop up.
When you have compiled your list of desired texts, return to the the front desk in the computer area and a staff member will look up the microfilm numbers for your requested manuscripts and he/she will fill out for you a request slip. You then head to the opposite end of the computer area and take the first right over an open walkway to another series of desks. Here you will find at least two staff members, one retrieves the microfilms and the other is responsible for taking copy orders. Give the retrieval staff member (who was seated at the first desk upon my visit) your request slip. You can then wait in the computer area while he fetches the desired microfilm reels. He will then guide you to the microfilm room where one of the staff members there will load your microfilm. The microfilm reading machines are fairly dated and it can be hard to read manuscripts with poorly contrasting shades of paper and ink, but it is workable.
If you would like a copy of any of these manuscripts you need to determine which page numbers you would like and how many total pages. If you are lucky your manuscript will be numbered. I was not and had to individually count over 300 folios across two reels to verify exactly how many pages I wanted copied to CD. It was divine. The microfilm staff member will then fill out a copy request form for you detailing the specific films and pages and page numbers. You then have to return back to the copy order desk, where you will fill out a copy purchase form. He keeps one carbon copy and you take two, with which you then must return downstairs to the second security desk where you will pay the bursar. Unfortunately I don’t have the exact rate, but it roughly breaks down to 40 E£ for 50 folios, which is extremely reasonable. If you are a student and have a student ID or possibly a business card you can obtain an even more affordable student rate. I placed my order at noon on Sunday and was told it would be ready for me on Wednesday, a three day turnaround. The time was needed to transfer the microfilm to digital images. I have also been informed that copy requests need to be submitted by 2pm in order to be placed and processed the same day. Otherwise, a return visit would be needed. When I returned on Wednesday, the CD had not yet been made (though the scans had been) since they wanted to confirm with me the order since the poor quality of the microfilm was going to produce a poor quality digital scan. I had it made nonetheless. You’ll need to show security your CD and receipt as you leave (Information up to date as of 11 April 2012)
Between the two security desks is a small bookstore containing a good number of publications from the Dār al-Kutub wa’l-Wathāʾiq al-Qawmiyya. Purchases are accompanied with an officially stamped receipt which you will need to show the security desk at the exit to the street.