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A Survey of Middle East Archives: Egypt

Kian Byrne

In part three of a new series of blog posts, Kian Byrne surveys archives and research institutions in Egypt.

Scholars, especially foreigners, hoping to work within Egypt’s state archives face an uphill battle. Historians Omnia El Shakry, Khaled Fahmy, and Pascale Ghazaleh have gone into depth on the struggles facing scholars attempting to work inside Egypt’s state archives.[1] The tone of these works tends toward the bleak; they paint the struggle for access to the state archives as an existential one. Certainly, life has not been easy for scholars in Egypt since the 2011 uprising that overthrew longtime president, Hosni Mubarak. The years under current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who came to power following a military coup that removed Mohamed Morsi in 2013, have seen greater restrictions on access to archival materials in the National Archives. They have also seen violence against researchers, even foreign ones. The obstructions and dangers facing researchers are very important to consider for those planning a trip to Egypt.

Still, researchers should not write off Egypt entirely, and there are many people doing good and valuable work on the country’s history.

There are actually two National Archives in Egypt, which can be confusing for those who do not speak Arabic. The first and better known is Dar al-Watha’iq, run by the Ministry of Culture. Following the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser and his clique of young officers, there was a push to create an historical archive to document the new era in Egyptian history. Law no. 356 established this archive in 1954. It is the official repository for the documentation of all government ministries, except the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior, going back into the early Ottoman period. Though the location of the archive has changed several times over the past 70 years (it now resides on the Nile Corniche), the laws organizing the archive have not progressed much since its inception. There is no Freedom of Information Act allowing for the declassification of state records, nor is there a law that mandates the release of classified documents after a certain time.

Dar al-Watha’iq is therefore Egypt’s most important archive, yet also its most frustrating. It should be the greatest resource for documents relating to the state, but, because the Ministries of Defense and Interior are officially exempt and the Ministry of Culture lacks any mechanism for enforcing the other ministries to submit their holdings, the archive largely only contains materials relating to day-to-day government administration, and hardly anything relating to diplomatic history.

Even the process for accessing the archive has recently become far more difficult. Researchers are required to gain a security clearance, which previously took a few weeks, but can now can take months or even a year. The application process requires a written proposal listing the topic the researcher intends to cover as well as the archival units to be used, choosing 3 of the 400 listed. The response rate before the changes in process was never ideal, but now even when a researcher receives a notice of rejection, there is no reason given, making it difficult to ascertain how to adjust future applications.

It is not entirely clear who has official authority over these security clearances, but there is no doubt the staff of the archive controls access to its holdings. No survey of the National Archives is complete without mention of the ladies who run its day-to-day administration. A good relationship with archive staff is crucial to a positive experience in the national archives. Their knowledge of the holdings and indexes, though far from complete, can provide unique access to hidden materials, while any sign of disrespect to their authority is sure to close doors, literally. Beyond a friendship with the staff there, affiliation with an Egyptian institution and comfort with Arabic – both written and spoken – are requirements for working in the archive.

In an adjoining building to Dar al-Watha’iq is the National Library, Dar al-Kotob. The largest library in Egypt, followed by Al-Azhar University and the new Library of Alexandria, Dar al-Kotob holds millions of volumes on a wide range of topics. As with most national libraries, these holdings are not the primary sources held in the national archives, but the periodicals and literature contained there could still be of use to researchers. Unlike the National Archives, which are technically an annex of the library, the National Library is open to the public through appointment. The email on the library’s website for arranging appointments is dubiously listed as XYZ@testmail.com, so I recommend reaching out to the “Complaints and Proposals” email, Ymamdouh@abcmail.com.

The second national archive is Dar al-Mahfuzat ‘al-‘Umumiyya, the archive of the Ministry of Finance at the Cairo Citadel. It is not an archive in the same sense as Dar al-Watha’iq, as it is part of an active government office, but Dar al-Mahfuzat’s holdings are vital to the administrative history of modern Egypt. There is no public catalog nor is there a website for reference, but the three key collections, according to Adam Mestyan who published an in-depth breakdown of Dar al-Mahfuzat in the online magazine, Hazine, are:

  1. The pension dossiers of state employees between 1830s-1959
  2. Tax registers of buildings in Cairo and possibly other cities
  3. Tax registers of agricultural lands

Through these collections, researchers are able to trace the careers of Egyptian state employees, including non-Egyptian citizens, and gain insight into the nature of inter-ministry relationships during a vital time of Egypt’s history.

The process for gaining access to such potentially sensitive materials is equally rigorous and restrictive to that of Dar al-Watha’iq. Mestyan and Ghazaleh provide very helpful guides for submitting applications, but the key points are as follows. Foreigners are generally unwelcome, though exceptions can be made if the researcher can provide endorsement letters, in Arabic, from their institution and ambassador. Prospective researchers must fill out the provided application, a research plan, and numerous copies of their passport and photo, and, once given access, a date range for their research. It is important to be as broad as possible when selecting the dates, because all other materials will be withheld. All applications, forms, and conversations must be done in Arabic.

Dar al-Mahfuzat, also like Dar al-Watha’iq, is run by a staff of ladies who seem to have absolute authority over their domain. A good relationship with them is equally crucial. Researchers should also be prepared to have very close interactions with security guards who have little sense of personal space, as they monitor your handling of the documents. The final warning to scholars hopeful of working in Dar al-Mahfuzat is that the archive is only open from 10am-1pm on weekdays. With just three hours a day to work, researchers should arrive with a clear idea of what they hope to accomplish with each visit and be prepared to make numerous return trips.

The ministries typically associated with diplomatic history – Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Defense – have their own archives, but all are very difficult to access. Dar al-With a’iq al-Qawmiyya, the Foreign Ministry Archives, is across the street from the National Library on the main street that runs along the Nile. Before the 2011 uprisings, researchers were able to access files in the archives all the way up to the early 1960s. Even then, however, access to the records hinged largely on connections from influential figures in the academic and/or political spheres. Now, these connections are all the more important to push through the myriad forms and applications.

The Ministry of the Interior, the ministry in charge of Egypt’s intelligence apparatus, requires applications first through the facility’s director then through state security, a process that can take weeks or months and frequently is met with unqualified rejection. Within the archive are the records of national-security issues from the various security branches of the Egyptian government, going back to the Mubarak days. Because of the nature of these documents and the role of the Ministry of the Interior in restricting access to other state archives, there is little hope of getting in, particularly for foreigners. Likewise, the Central Archive of Armed Forces is not open to the public, and not even commonly known to exist.

The true gems in Egypt’s academic sphere are not the state archives, but the universities and research institutions. Foreign scholars, especially Americans, should consider it a necessity to begin any research trip to Egypt by first contacting the American University of Cairo (AUC). AUC is home to a fantastic archive, relating primarily to its own history and the lives of its alumni – many of whom played prominent roles in Egypt’s broader national history, as well as to archivists and professors who are willing and able to help visiting researchers and scholars.

Located in New Cairo, a 45-minute drive from the capital, researchers will need to set up an appointment with an AUC faculty-member to get past gate security, but its archives are open to the public. The records are broken up into three divisions or curators: Photographs, Regional Architecture, and Archives. The photographs and architecture curators are impressive in their own right, but the archives are more likely to be useful for scholars of modern Egyptian history; AUC has a strong focus on the social and cultural history of Egypt, rather than its diplomatic history. The highlights of these collections include the papers of Hoda Shaawari and social activists such as Aziza Hossein, whose husband was Ambassador to the US and head of the farm department in 1952, as well as the business records and papers of scholars who were affiliated with the university.

The AUC archive does not have a definitive catalog for reference. Instead, featured collections are emphasized. Some of these collections are digitized and online, but the most of the website’s content is audio/visual and there is not much in the way of correspondence or hand-written materials. The curators of the archives are extremely helpful in this regard, and will help find any records needed. Digitization of the archive’s physical records is allowed, but permission is required for re-publication.

Al-Azhar University, one of the world’s oldest universities, and Cairo University, Egypt’s top public university, offer alternatives to AUC. Al-Azhar is associated with the mosque of the same name in Islamic Cairo and is at the center of Egypt’s Islamic education system. It has also been at the center of some controversy, perhaps most famously for its role in the assassination of Egyptian academic Farag Foda in 1992. It does house one of the largest libraries in Egypt and cannot be overlooked for its cultural and historical impact on the country. It does not have a website, but can likely be reached through local research institutions. Cairo University, located in Giza, is Egypt’s second oldest university, after Al-Azhar and is home to over 155,000 students. While it does not have an archive on par with AUC, it is affiliated with dozens of research centers throughout Egypt and its expansive alumni network makes it a valuable resource.

The new Library of Alexandria, or Biblitheca Alexandrina, is another vital resource. The new library was built on the shores of the Mediterranean only a few hundred yards from the site of the original and is a gorgeous and massive facility. The reading room alone is 200,0002ft. Founded in 2002 by presidential decree, it is partially supported and run by the Egyptian Government. “BA” is by far the most advanced research institution in the country and is immense in its scope. The new library sees itself as heir to the library of antiquity and aims to be the center for documentation of Egyptian cultural and natural heritage, and eventually for the Arabic world in general. At the heart of BA’s mission is its truly impressive technological division. In 2002, BA signed an agreement with the Internet Archive to serve as a backup and mirror site, which is supported by an on-site supercomputer.

While its physical holdings are impressive and the facilities in Alexandria are pretty awe-inspiring, most scholars outside of Alexandria will want to utilize the Digital Library, part of its Projects and Activities page. Like AUC, there is a greater focus on featured collections, rather than an index of records, however, researchers can search the dozens of collections available online by keyword, related project, or theme. Some of the key collections worth mentioning are the Memory of the Arab World; Memory of Modern Egypt; Memory of the Suez Canal; Gamal Abdel Nasser Digital Archive; and the Anwar Sadat Digital Archive. Each collection has its own site, which vary in style and quality, and most are in Arabic. Records are typically scans of original documents, but while free to access on the site, none of the materials are available for download or re-publication. The BA has also begun digitizing 90 million documents from the National Archives of Egypt, but there is no word on where or how these will be made available to the public.

If you are able to visit the primary location, the BA has facilities in nearly every university in Egypt, it is worth the trip to Alexandria alone. But for those who cannot get to Egypt, the new Library of Alexandria is a rare resource accessible online that is continuing to grow and develop.

There are a number of other research institutions in Egypt in positions to provide advice or support. The American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), for example, is a non-profit organization created in 1948 to support research on Egyptian history and culture. It has an archive of records documenting the Center’s own projects, but these refer primarily to preservation of antiquities. The scholars working at the Center, however, are well-versed in the ins-and-outs of conducting research in Egypt and its archives. ARCE also has an office in Alexandria, Virginia just outside of Washington, DC. The US office can be reached by email at info@arce.org or by phone at 703-721-3479.

The Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies, which specializes in classical Arab-Muslim heritage, has a library with an online catalog that is open to all students from the Masters level up. The French Institute of Egypt can likewise provide insight into the history Franco-Egyptian relations. For a longer list of research institutions in Egypt, check out Djodi Deutsch’s article in Hazine, “A Short Research Guide to Egypt.”

 


[1] El Shakry, Omnia "'History without Documents': The Vexed Archives of Decolonization in the Middle East." The American Historical Review 120, no. 3, 2015: 920-934; Fahmy, Khaled “The Crisis of the Humanities in Egypt,”Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 37:1, 2017: 142-148; Ghazaleh, Pascale “Past Imperfect, Future Tense: Writing People’s Histories in the Middle East Today,”Essays of the Forum Transregionale Studien, Vol.5 (2019).

About the Author

Kian Byrne

Kian Byrne

Program Assistant
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