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Medieval Damascus: Plurality and Diversity in an Arabic Library

The Ashrafiya Library Catalogue

Konrad Hirschler


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The first documented insight into the content and structure of a large-scale medieval Arabic library

The written text was a pervasive feature of cultural practices in the medieval Middle East. At the heart of book circulation stood libraries that experienced a rapid expansion from the twelfth century onwards. While the existence of these libraries is well known, our knowledge of their content and structure has been very limited as hardly any medieval Arabic catalogues have been preserved. This book discusses the largest and earliest medieval library of the Middle East for which we have documentation – the Ashrafiya library in the very centre of Damascus – and edits its catalogue. The catalogue shows that even book collections attached to Sunni religious institutions could hold very diverse titles, including Mutazilite theology, Shiite prayers, medical handbooks, manuals for traders, stories from the 1001 Nights, and texts extolling wine consumption. At the same time this library catalogue decisively expands our knowledge of how books were thematically and spatially organised on the shelves of such a large medieval library.

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1. The Making and Unmaking of a Medieval Library
2. Organising the Library: The Books on the Shelves
3. Plurality and Diversity: The Profile of a Medieval Library
4. The Ashrafiya Catalogue: Translation and Title Identification
5. The Ashrafiya Catalogue: Edition
Maps, tables and figures

About the Author

Konrad Hirschler is Professor of History of Near and Middle East at Freie Universität Berlin. He is the author of The Written Word in the Medieval Arabic Lands (2012) and Medieval Arabic Historiography: Authors as Actors (2006) as well as co-editor of Manuscript Notes as a Documentary Source (2011).


This is a tour de force of ferocious codex dissection, relentless bibliographical probing, and imaginative reconstructive storytelling. The trajectory of an urban ‘public’ library whose holdings shed light on the intellectual milieu of thirteenth-century Damascus comes to light through Hirschler’s sensible and comparative lens. Our knowledge of medieval Arabic book culture, library culture and reading culture is significantly enriched.

- Li Guo, University of Notre Dame

'Konrad Hirschler’s Medieval Damascus offers a unique insight… Scholars of Middle Eastern literacy and literature will be trawling Medieval Damascus for some time to come. And from a wider perspective, because Damascus’s old libraries were thoroughly dispersed and destroyed, this book at last allows us to see what kind of people called medieval Damascus their home.'

- Peter Webb, Times Literary Supplement
'Provides a unique insight into the pre-print world of books in the Middle East.'
- Stephan Conermann, Univesity of Bonn, Sehepunkte 16/7-8
‘Konrad Hirschler’s book is a pioneering study that will certainly give a new turn to library studies and remain indispensable for everyone working on Ayyubid scholarship and Arabic literary and cultural history.’
- Thomas Bauer, Universität Münster, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies

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