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Dar al-Wathaiq al-Qawmiyya

Page history last edited by Paul Keenan 13 years ago

Date of tip: May 2006

Source: John Dunn, jdunn@valdosta.edu


Location: Cairo, Egypt


How to get there: Getting to work is very easy.  Located along the Nile in the Dar al Kutub [National Library] building, the DAWAQ is just north of the "World Trade Center."  A taxi from AUC, or ARCE, costs next to nothing. If your Arabic is poor, "Bulaq, Corniche?" is the question to ask.  In my four months, only one driver knew of the DAWAQ, but many knew Dar al-Kutub, and all knew "World Trade Center."

Once there, walk through the southern gate and present your carnet to the front desk.  You will be asked to sign a register, and can then proceed to the second floor.  Entering the readers' room connects you with the staff and your study tables.  Madame Sawsan `Abd al-Ghani, now retired, was deputy-director during my visit.  She had worked in the national archives from 1962, and witnessed its transfer from the Abdin Palace to the Citadel, and then to Dar al-Kutub.  She came highly recommended by senior scholars, and the writer must concur with such opinions.  Madame Sawsan and her staff made every possible effort to assist in my research.  The staff was fluent in French and English – all were uniformly friendly.


Language: Arabic, English, French


Getting started: As sensitive documents are stored at DAQAW, access is only possible after a security clearance.  Here is where affiliation with a Cairo-based institution, like the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), or a European counterpart, can prove invaluable.  It is possible to do such on your own, but sometimes at a very slow pace.  A French associate told the author of a three year hiatus between application and acceptance.  In the writer's case, thanks to ARCE, this took only six months.

The application process, although not difficult, is different from the typical American experience.  First, you must be affiliated with an Egyptian scholar.  Once again, aid from associations like ARCE, or CEDJE, can be invaluable.  The American University in Cairo, AUC, has an African Studies Department which is also known to assist independent scholars.

A carefully prepared proposal is the next step.  Here it is important to remember your audience.  You are attempting to convince the Egyptian authorities that you have a feasible project, and one that will not conflict with their national interests.  If your work presents the possibility of the latter, do talk to people with current research experience, otherwise, a simple word could place your project in jeopardy.  As an example of how such can be overcome, one researcher was told that oral interviews were not possible, however, "conversations" were allowed.

Be prepared also for glitches resulting from security issues.  A fellow researcher found her mahafiz (box) had disappeared overnight.  She had been studying the delineation of the Egyptian-Sudanese frontier in the 1800s, when the two nations had a dispute over such in the 1990s.  Then yours truly was given the wrong mahafiz, one containing VERY interesting material on the spending habits of Egypt’s last monarch – Farouk.  Normally, these boxes were delivered and retrieved by low-level staff members, many of whom seemed semi-literate.  Within five minutes of my find, the Deputy Director rapidly advanced to my table, and politely informed me that “It is forbidden for you to read these files.”  She then picked them up and had an assistant bring me the correct set.  So much for my article on Farouk!

Another potential hazard is some clerk reading your proposal, and deciding that you are only allowed to see certain files.  A very specifically defined topic might exclude you from entire collections, even though valuable information could be found there.  This problem could be overcome by a proposal that looks at a broad field.  Cover all potential bases, as you can always pass on material deemed insignificant.  Otherwise, you may need to make a new proposal, which entails yet another security clearance.

Next, there is a three page form to complete, in Arabic, English or French.  It travels to the Ministry of Education, and after its approval, one must still obtain clearance from the DAQAW itself.  That accomplished, you should bring two passport sized photos for the creation of a carnet [I.D. Card].


Opening Hours: Researchers may visit DAWAQ from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm, Saturday through Thursday.  During Ramadan, the hours are 10:30 am to 1:00 pm.  There was talk of extending the hours until 5:00 pm after Ramadan, but this was only a "possibility."  Hours for most research centers in Egypt are short and oriented towards morning-early afternoon.  I found it useful to have alternative plans, as many opened and closed on irregular schedules.


General working conditions: The readers' room was well lit and has comfortable chairs.  Tables were either massive group affairs, or the individual folding type.  After watching one of the latter collapse under the weight of too many cartons, the writer always opted for the shared variety!  

Another bit of advice is to prepare for heat or cold.  December and January can be chilly; a sweater or jacket is a good idea.  Summer is rather hot, and like everywhere else in Cairo, can produce flies.  Loose comfortable clothes and a rub-on insect repellent can make life easier.  Dust is another problem.  Unavoidable in a desert climate, it adheres to the cartons, and will soon coat your hands.  Some mahafiz had a good deal of dirt inside, along with collections of native insects actively engaged in their own studies of Egyptian history.  If this is a nuisance, just tap the box on your table, or bring along some moist towelettes.


Consultation: You are allowed to have up to five mahafiz (boxes) at your station, maybe only three if another is working in the same field and maybe more if you are on good terms with the staff.


Policy on technology: unknown


Photocopy policy: Photocopies are possible, but you were allowed only 30 pages total, and  charged 2.5 Egyptian pounds per page.  In addition, each order required a letter to the director of the archives!  


Particularities: The World Trade Center is a two minute walk from Dar al-Wathaiq.  Several scholars noted it as an excellent source of food, drink and clean bathrooms!


Contact name in case of questions regarding classified files: See the following page for contact details: http://www.darelkotob.org/ENGLISH/HTML/CONTACT.HTM


Places to Stay: n/a


Forms: n/a


Funding: n/a


Note on the Collections: Modern Egypt's history of record keeping begins with the reign of Muhammad Ali (1805-1848).  Unfortunately, his first archives were located in the Citadel, and mainly destroyed in the great Cairo fire of 1824. 

A second archive, also in the Citadel, was completed in 1828, and information retrieval continued although work was often plagued by Egypt's nineteenth-century economic problems.  In the early Twentieth Century, both Kings Fuad and Farouk strongly supported efforts to organize the collection, and these were continued during the Republic when famous historians, like Dr. Muhammad Anis, directed such work.

The purpose of my visit was to obtain information on Egypt's armed forces between the years 1805 and 1885.  A main focus was the role played by mercenary officers in training and instruction.  It was thus very important to view the Arshif Ifrangi [foreign language] section.  This collection has been described in detail by Dr. Helen Rivlin.

 While her work is still very valuable, it should be noted that the mahafiz [box] numbers have changed, and will probably change again, as a "better" system is in the process of implementation.  Still, for most of the Période Ismail collection, dossier numbers are also printed on the outside of each mahafiz, and these have not changed.

You are allowed to have up to five mahafiz at your station, maybe only three if another is working in the same field and maybe more if you are on good terms with the staff.  There are sijillat (registers) for the Turkish and Arabic collections, but Rivlin's book is the closest you will get to such for the foreign language collection.  One might note that there are often significant cross-overs of Turkish/Arabic into foreign language files, and vice-versa.  There are also good translations of Turkish to Arabic to French produced for foreign scholars in the 1930's; sometimes all three versions are bound together.  In several cases the papers were originals, in other cases, copies.  Thus a researcher unable to advance in one collection may find useful items in another.  Other dossiers have misfiled material, for instance, railway information in the naval dossiers.  Some, like the papers of historians Georges Douin, or Angelo Sammarco, have original documents never returned to their proper dossiers.

Most mahafiz are subdivided into dossiers.  Many still bear the crest of the pre-1952 monarchy, and all viewed by the writer maintained the numbers found in Rivlin's catalogue.  In some mahafiz typed duplicates are available, while in others, the typed copy is all that remains (or can be found).

The Foreign Language Collection is divided into two major parts:  Période Mehemet Ali à Said Pacha, and Période Ismail.  The former is small, and seems to have been well mined by Douin, Driault, Rivlin, Marsot and others.  The strength here lies in diplomatic, military, educational, religious, health and slavery issues.  The period of 1820-1848 is represented mainly by consular reports from Austria, Belgium, England, France, Spain, and Italian States; there is also a significant run of papers from the Service Santé, and some interesting statistical work it generated.  Philatelic research might also prove rewarding, as most letters from this period were folded over with postal rates marked on the "outside."  Very little exists from the reign of Abbas, while Said is represented by a peculiar set of documents that only serve to support contentions that he was a frivolous spendthrift!

The reign of Khedive Ismail is a far more valuable collection.  As no scholarly biography of him has been published in a western language, these papers represent excellent potential for information on him and his family.  In addition, several groups could serve as a strong base for more specialized research.  Several immediately come to mind.  First, the railway files, which are extensive and worthy of study.  Next, Dossiers 83/5 - 83/10 which look at early activities of the Red Crescent Society during the Russo-Turkish War of 1876-1877.   Finally, there is a wonderful collection dealing with vice-regal patronage of the theater.  The latter, Dossiers 80/1 - 80/7, contained letters and manuscripts dealing with the hire of European talent, the productions put on in Cairo, theater budgets, and how the state bankrolled these affairs.  The Sudan collection, a sub-group of Période Ismail, although extensively used in Douin's famous work, is simply too large to be completely mined out.  Unfortunately, it is not well organized, and would require a lot of "digging."

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