A Digital Catalog of Islamic Numismatic Material in the Egyptian National Library: Introduction

Our catalog is the third major catalog of Islamic numismatic material held in the Egyptian National Library, formerly the Khedivial Library, Egypt’s most important library. Our catalog differs from its predecessors in a number of ways. First, it is a new catalog in that we had to read the inscriptions from the digital images not the actual objects for reasons which will be explained below. Second, we included in this electronic catalog inscriptions in Arabic as we read them, which was never possible in the previous studies because of costs. Third, images of every piece are part of this catalog, which was financially impossible when the earlier catalogues were published, and, fourth, the images are in color which modern technology permits at no additional cost. Each new catalog has built on its predecessor while bringing to bear new knowledge and technologies. We anticipate that this will be true of our efforts as well and we welcome corrections and comments upon our work as digital technology allows us to correct the existing data base without the costs of printing.

The Egyptian National Library collection began as a bequest from the estate of the resident Englishman Edward Thomas Rogers in 1884 and grew at a modest rate when Stanley Lane-Poole [1854 – 1931] catalogued the holdings as Catalogue of the collection of the Arabic coins preserved in the Khedivial Library at Cairo [London: Bernard Quartich, 1897; reprinted Cairo: Arab Bookshop, 1984]. The volume he produced on the Khedivial collection had the advantage of extensive descriptions in Arabic of many of the coins but in light of the technology and costs at the time lacked any images. Lane-Poole was the most important Islamic numismatist in Britain and Orientalist of his generation and his extensive bibliography included histories of Muslim lands from Spain to India. His monumental 10 volume Catalogue of Oriental Coins in the British Museum [London: British Museum, 1875; reprinted Bologna: Forni, 1967] is still a standard reference.

Eight decades later Dr. Norman “Doug” Nicol and Dr. Raafat al-Nabarawy under the general supervision of Dr. Jere L. Bacharach had the opportunity to study the non-hoard part of the Egyptian National Library’s holdings or approximately 6,500 of the total 13,000 items. The team of Nicol and al-Nabarawy were able to work for many months four hours a day, three days a week with two Library staff members present until they finished examining, weighing, and measuring each piece while writing the data for each item on a separate card. The resulting publication, Norman D. Nicol, Raafat el-Nabarawy, and Jere L. Bacharach. Catalog of the Islamic Coins, Glass Weights, Dies and Medals in the Egyptian National Library, Cairo [Malibu, CA.: Udena Publications, 1982], was typed by hand by Nicol and included basic data such as weight and diameter on each item and references to numismatic literature where similar items could be found. The Nicol-al-Nabarawy work was superior to the old Lane-Poole volume in many ways as significantly more coins were listed and data on glass weights, dies and medals were included. However, costs and even technology impacted the final product and relatively few Arabic inscriptions were pasted into the text while the number of images, which had to be printed on higher quality paper, was limited to approximately 5% of the collection with none in color.

Both Nicol and al-Nabarawy continued to advance the field of Islamic numismatics after their work at the Egyptian National Library. Nicol’s monumental study A Corpus of Fatimid Coins [Trieste: G. Bernardi, 2006] is likely to have a longer shelve life than even Lane-Poole’s 1897 British Museum catalogue. He has also written six volumes of the Sylloge of Islamic Coins in the Ashmolean [Museum] [Oxford: Ashmolean Museum] and has compiled A Standard Catalog of German Coins: 1601 – Present [Iola, WI: Krause, 1994 and later editions]. Dr. al-Nabarawy has had a stellar career as a faculty member in the Department of Archaeology, Cairo University rising to the rank of Dean of his college. He has trained more Ph.D. and M.A. students in Islamic numismatics than any other scholar in the world. As an active scholar al-Nabarawy has produced many books and articles including al-Sikkah Al-Islāmīyah Fī Miṣr : ʻaṣr Dawlat Al-Mamālīk Al-Jarākisah [al-Qāhirah : Markaz al-Ḥaḍārah al-ʻArabīyah, 1993] and al-Nuqūd al-Ṣalībīyah fī al-Shām wa-Miṣr [al-Qāhirah : Maktabat al-Qāhirah lil-Kitāb, 2004].

Almost three decades after the publication of The Catalog of the Islamic Coins, we were granted the opportunity to look at the collection but in a different environment reflecting major changes in technology and in the museum world. Public museums and libraries as holders of cultural heritage have become increasing concerned with the preservation and security of their collections. The rules under which coin collections may be examined in many public institutions including the British Museum, the American Numismatic Society in New York, and elsewhere have changed. For example, specific personnel must be present when coins are examined and the places where this can take place have a significantly higher degree of security than earlier settings. While slightly inconvenient these changes ensure a higher degree of protection for the collection. We believe that not a single registered Islamic numismatic piece in the Egyptian National Library is missing since the late 1970s, a record the Egyptian National Library should be proud of.

A second trend has been the decline in the number of Islamic specialists available in these institutions who work on coins. The American Numismatic Society in New York, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Cabinet de Medaille in Paris and the Münzkabinett in Berlin are only a few examples where significant Islamic collections are held but no specialist is available to work on them or aid visiting scholars. The absence of a numismatic specialist at the Egyptian National Library is not unusual but it meant two things. First, whenever we worked National Library officials who had other responsibilities had to take time from their normal work schedule to be with us and we are extremely grateful for their support in our efforts. Second, the rules governing the overseeing of the National Library’s treasures including their coins has meant that more personnel than required in the late 1970s had to be present when we did our work. Third, since no specialists were present before our arrival, Library personnel did not realize that some of the numismatic items had shifted location in the trays when they were moved from Bab al-Khalq to the Cornish location so that there were a dozen or so cases where the coin in a particular holder did not match the description in the hand written registration book which was completed by 1930 or in the 1982 catalog. A few times we were able to shift coins to their proper place but we were not in a position to do this in a systematic fashion. Only in the case of the dies where many of the original numbers had worn off did we ensure that the new numbers matched the ones in the 1982 catalog.

Working with members of the staff which ranged from a minimum of three to one day when a dozen employees were present, we were given permission to take digitial images of every item listed in the 1982 catalog or approximately 13,000 images! On those days when all the required members of the security team could be present, we could work for only two to three hours. Unlike the work done by Lane-Poole and later by Nicol and al-Nabarawy, we did not have the time to re-weigh, re-measure, and, most important of all, re-read each numismatic item from the coin, glass weight, medal or die itself. Therefore data on weights and diameters are copied from the 1982 catalog. We have listed what we read on the coins in Arabic which we recognize is open to error and by using a web based system these errors can be corrected and the catalog updated. Also, we were not able to shot the images one-to-one.

Another factor which impacted our work is that the collection of numismatic references acquired in the late 1970s through support of a grant from the Smithsonian Institution disappeared decades ago. They were never part of the Egyptian National Library nor were they catalogued as part of the American Research Center in Egypt Library. Therefore we have retained for the webpages in almost every case the references listed in the 1982 catalog and in a few cases the readings by Nicol of the medals. We acknowledge those cases in the electronic catalog.

For those who wish permission to acquire images without watermarks and reprint any image, that individual must contact the Egyptian National Library by faxing 02 2575 0620 or 02 2576 5185 stating which images they wish without watermarks and where and why they wish to reproduce the image. Since the images without watermarks are organized in the Egyptian National Library by the 1982 catalog number which is in the title line for each object in this database, that number must be included in the request.

Dr. Jere L. Bacharach
Professor Emeritus
Department of History
University of Washington
Seattle, WA., USA