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Groups of books and book production in Islamic Egypt

In Islamic Egypt, the institution of the library flourished as it had in the thousands of years before in ancient, Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, though its exact history remains to be established in detail. Two factors in particular complicate appreciation of the libraries in the Islamic Period:


Libraries in the Arab World up to AD 1250

The Abbasid caliphs had assembled great libraries at Baghdad already in the eighth century, and they turned translation and copying into state industries. With Arabic victories against Byzantium, the caliph al-Mansur (AD 754-775) was able to send the Byzantine emperor copies of Euclid and other Greek scientific books (Bloom 2001, 117). A few examples may be cited to demonstrate the scale of book production and storage in the capitals of the Arab world:

All these libraries, like those in Western traditions, suffered in political historical turmoil: in AD 1055-6 the Saljuk Turks destroyed Baghdad, and in AD 1068-9 the Cairo palace was looted, while a century later Saladin dismantled the Fatimid institutions in his restoration of Sunni Islam (the Fatimid dynasty was Shiite). At the victory of Saladin in AD 1171, the library of the Fatimid caliph al-Amir is said to have contained 1,600,000 volumes. The incredible number, rivalling the figures given for the library of the Alexandrian Museum, includes many duplicates; there were not only the multiple copies of the Holy Quran and other religious literature, but also 1,200 copies of the History by al-Tabari (Bloom 121-122). Even if the number has been enlarged by the number of 'books' required to make up a larger work of literature, it remains an extraordinary testimnoy to the value placed on the book in Arabic culture.


Change and continuity

There are fundamental changes in the production of books during the early Islamic Period:

There are also fundamental continuities:


On printing and the decline of book production in Mamluk and Ottoman Egypt

The Arab world introduced paper to Europe, and by the sixteenth century AD, Renaissance Europe had become a major centre for book production. European centres now exported to Egypt and the rest of the Ottoman Empire, where previously Egypt had been the exporter to Europe. How did this happen?

1. Part of the reason might lie in a decline of the textile industry in Egypt in the fifteenth century AD, after the Black Death; the decline in production of textiles deprived the cloth paper industry of its raw material, exactly when European paper was becoming affordable (Bloom 2001, 82-83).

2. The new industry of printing also played a major part in this reversal in trade; Latin and derived scripts were more easily adapted to the early printing process; in printing, Arabic needed more blocks because it involves four forms for most letters (initial, medial, final and absolute). Block printing offered greater potential: some of the earliest examples of block printing are from the Arab world (Bloom 2001, 218-219, with an example from Fustat in Egypt, dated about AD 1000). In the nineteenth century AD, numerous Arabic-script books were printed by typesetting but also by lithography following the French development of stone-block printing in AD 1800. One of the first European experiments in lithography was the French copy of 1799 from the inscription on the Rosetta Stone; this copy is now in the Bibliotheque Nationale, and still one of the finest of that inscription, one of the great stimuli to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Jean-Francois Champollion in 1822.




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