Notes on a private library in fourth/tenth-century Baghdad
Letizia Osti (UNIVERSITÀ DEGLI STUDI DI MILANO)
Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies 12 (2012)
The importance of bibliophilia and its by-product—the library—for medieval Arabic culture is well documented in the sources and has been studied by scholars since the 1800s. Information has come down to us not only on public and semi-public libraries such al-Maʾmūn’s ḫizānat al-ḥikma and institutions connected to madrasas, but also on collections held by private individuals. However, while for the former we do have information on the physical spaces containing the books and on their arrangement, descriptions of early private libraries mainly restrict themselves to the amount of books they contained, their value, and the subjects they covered. The fourth/tenth-century bookseller and bibliophile Ibn al-Nadīm, for instance, mentions that the historian al- Wāqidī (d. 207/823) had left at his death six hundred cases full of books, each of which could only be carried by two men. Accounts such as this are frequent, and modern scholars have been able to collect detailed information on the libraries of specific individuals who lived in late and post-ʿAbbāsid times. However, the library as a physical space, and the organization and arrangement of books within it are rarely mentioned.
Ibn al-Nadīm cites eleven individuals as book-collectors (ǧammāʿa li- l-kutub). He also mentions actual libraries (ḫizāna), two of which belonged to caliphs, saying of one private library, which he had personally visited, that it was the largest he had ever seen. Its owner, Muḥammad b. al-Ḥusayn b. Abī Baʿrah, kept antique and precious books in a case there, which he took out to show to Ibn al-Nadīm. The case (qimaṭr) weighed 300 raṭl and contained writings on different materials, heavily annotated by successive owners. Unfortunately, after the owner’s death, Ibn al-Nadīm lost track of the case and its contents.