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Getting al-Maqrizi’s Khitat on the Web

presented at MESA 2010, San Diego, California

by Martyn Smith
Lawrence University

[To begin I’d like to situate my project in the comments last night by Roger Allen in his presidential
address on translation. He talked mostly about the translation of modern texts, but he could equally
well have been talking about older texts. He also distinguished between mechanical translation
and more interpretive or creative approaches to translation. I’d expand that to include the visual
presentation or apparatus in the act of translation. My project makes the argument that translation
is not just about words, but also about making a world available to readers. Allen urged us to “take
risks” in translation, and this online project is my attempt to do that.]

No translation of al-Maqrizi’s Khitat is available in English or any other European language. The
more you know about the history of Cairo the more remarkable that will appear. Pick up a standard
work on Cairo, such as that by André Raymond, and the influence of al-Maqrizi in reconstructing
points of medieval history is evident in many places. The sort of building by building tour of Islamic
Cairo in the work of Doris Behrens-Abouseif is enabled, to a large degree, by the information
preserved by al-Maqrizi.

In the Khitat al-Maqrizi presented a synthetic view of the history of Cairo, augmented through the
concept of cyclical history that he learned from Ibn Khaldun.1 Equal in importance to his original
views on Cairo are the passages drawn from works otherwise lost. Because of this material al-
Maqrizi is an essential source for the study of the Fatimids, and he receives close attention in Paul
Walker’s Exploring an Islamic Empire: Fatimid History and Its Sources.

The Khitat is a large work, 2 volumes (over 1000 pages) of densely printed Arabic in the standard
Bulaq edition of 1853. The structure of the book can be visualized as a series of historical waves,
beginning with some fascinating material on pre-Islamic Egypt, but soon settling into a period
by period examination of the expansion of Fustat into the palace cities of ‘Askar and Qata’i..

1Briefly explored by Nasser Rabbat in his essay “The Medieval Link: Maqrizi’s Khitat and Modern Narratives of Cairo” in Making Cairo
Medieval (Oxford, 2005), 32.
then comes a lengthy section devoted to the Cairo of the Fatimids. The Fatimids give way to the
Ayyubids under the leadership of Salah al-Din. At this point the historical waves are replaced by the
systematic treatment of different topographical features found within Cairo. So we get surveys of
the markets, neighborhoods, residences, mosques, madrasas, shrines, synagogues, and churches (and
that’s not a complete list). No works with close to this degree of comprehensiveness survive from
the medieval period.

My goal in this talk is to examine how al-Maqrizi’s Khitat can benefit from presentation on the
Internet. Or to put it another way, why al-Maqrizi’s great historical work is particularly well fitted for
our digital era, and points the way forward to new ways of conceptualizing academic work.

To get to that larger point we might ask, why hasn’t the Khitat been translated and published in
traditional book form? It clearly deserves a wider audience. To answer this question we can begin
by looking at it’s most recent Arabic edition, edited by Ayman Fu’ad Sayyid, published from 2002-04
in six large volumes by the Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation in London. The primary goal of
this edition was to present a new critical Arabic text, based on a comparison of several manuscripts.
Frederic Bauden in his review of the text has pointed out that it falls short of this central goal. The
clearer Arabic font is definitely welcome, but it’s not a critical text that can serve as the basis of a
definitive translation. Strangely, one problem with translating and publishing the Khitat is exactly
it’s amazing medieval success. The number of extant copies is so great that there’s been no real
possibility of collating them all. (Chase Robinson puts the number of manuscripts of the Khitat at
170.) So the very popularity of the text--which should be a central argument for publishing it--has
led to its neglect.

This lack of a critical text is one problem, but let’s also look closer at this Arabic edition. One
reason these books are so thick is the amount of space devoted to reproducing pictures and maps.
Especially in the last sections covering the major mosques and other structures from the time of al-
Maqrizi, many of which survive to our own time, we find a schematic layout plus historic photos
of the site. These could well be great helps to the reader, who otherwise might not have a clear
conception of these mosques, madrasas, and shrines. In addition the set comes with several fold
out maps, including the official map of Islamic Monuments, a detailed map of the Citadel, a later
copy of the 16th century Venetian map of the city, and the map of the city published with the
Description de l’Egypte from about 1800. Implicit in all this visual information is the notion that to
understand and follow the text of al-Maqrizi, one should have at hand rich visual material, such as
historic photos, maps, and plans. If this is the kind of total visual attention demanded for a reader to
understand al-Maqrizi, then we may be waiting a long time for a translation.. as the images and maps
will be a challenge for a print edition.

It’s hard not to admire the effort put into these volumes by Al Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation,
but the ambition outstrips the media to some extent. The images don’t have the resolution one
desires; the maps lack the crispness necessary to read the labels. It’s as if the editors fully realized
that the Khitat demanded a multi-media presentation, but were left trying to mimic that on the
printed page. The volumes thus end up pointing to the one place where Maqrizi’s Khitat could come
alive: the Internet.. where images can be reproduced in full detail for almost nothing, and maps can
be used to pinpoint sites. If a visual commentary is necessary for this work, then the Internet has
capabilities that can’t be matched by print works at any cost.

We might also reconsider the other concern about presenting a translation of the Khitat at this time:
the lack of a definitive critical text. Given the multiplicity of texts and the incredible survival of
actual rough drafts for the work, we are likely to lack this critical edition for some time. That might
be a great reason to resist putting a book into print, but it hardly counts as a reason not to publish
a web edition, which can be easily revised to incorporate new readings. In addition, the presence
of multiple manuscripts can be seen as more of a feature than a bug, since multiple versions could
be presented on the Internet. Arabic manuscripts could be made more available for active work
(perhaps even work by students?). The Internet is a fantastic place to think creatively about how to
present a scattered complex text.

At this point let me stop and introduce you to the website I’ve set up for al-Maqrizi’s Khitat. This
is a work in progress, so I don’t consider that it has arrived at a final stage. What in traditional
terms might have been a decade long project has been broken up into smaller stages. The website
went live a year ago in October of 2009, completing a summer of work funded by the National
Endowment for the Humanities, in addition to a sabbatical for the fall term from my institution.
The initial goal has been to get up the translated sections from the Khitat for the medieval mosques
and madrasas that survive in Cairo. These included al-Azhar, the mosque of ibn Tulun, the mosque
of Sultan Hasan, and about 20 other structures. These mosques were marked on a Google Map layer
on the front page of the site. If you click on one of the markers, then basic information about that
structure appears in the left hand column. If you click on the “translation” button, you move to a
new page that features a translation of al-Maqrizi’s Khitat along with photos taken by myself of the
structure as it looks today. The goal in all this is to “place” the medieval structure on the map of
Cairo (recall that one of the difficulties of the Khitat is that it constantly embeds structures within a
local geography--streets and neighborhoods--that are unknown to modern readers). A second goal
is to give a visual introduction to the structure, so that the viewer can get a sense of the size and
beauty of what al-Maqrizi is writing about. Though al-Maqrizi himself doesn’t spend a lot of time
on architectural description, contenting himself with praise delivered in broad brush strokes, it’s
important for the modern reader to see what is being written about.

You will notice that much of the effort in this site is spent on closing the knowledge gap between
the modern and medieval readers. Here’s a sample passage from the Khitat:
The Pond of the Elephant is located between Fustat and Cairo. It is a very large pond, and
in the past there were no structures near it. When Jawhar the commander laid out the city
of Cairo, the pond was opposite Cairo. Then the Black Quarter and other quarters outside
Zuwayla Gate came into existence. An empty space lay between the Black Quarter and the
Yanisiyya Quarter on one side and the Pond of the Elephant on the other. People built
directly around the Pond after the year 600 [1203 AD], and these residences became the
most sumptuous in all of Cairo.
The story is actually quite straightforward, and anyone who knew medieval Cairo could have
followed it. It’s a simple story, but it’s told by means of place names and references that do not exist
anymore. You won’t find references to Fustat in contemporary Cairo. Nor does the Black Quarter
or Yanisiyya Quarter exist. There are no luxury residences in this area. In fact, the Pond of the
Elephant itself no longer exists, having been filled in during the 19th century.

Take another, somewhat simpler example in which al-Maqrizi locates for his readers the placement
of the great Fatimid palaces (which by his own time had disappeared):
In the place [of the eastern palace] now is the madrasa of Salih al-Najm and the madrasa of
Zahir, along with what is in line with them in the way of shops and residences to the Square
of the Eid... Facing that palace was the western palace... in whose place now is the hospital
of Mansur, along with what is in line with it in the way of madrasas and shops until one
reaches the entrance for the mosque of al-Aqmar. [1.374]
This is quite important historically, as al-Maqrizi is delineating the extent of the Fatimid palaces,
but he is doing so with reference to the topography of 15th century Cairo. The palaces themselves
were long gone, but al-Maqrizi is able to set out their ghost dimensions for his readers by making
reference to the later structures that stood in the same place. It is somewhat like someone today
talking about the old courthouse that was burned down in a fire, and explaining how that old
courthouse ran from the First Baptist Church down main street until the corner where the city
park starts. It makes perfect sense if you know the small town to which these references apply, but
otherwise it means nothing. To make matters worse, many of the references that al-Maqrizi uses to
clarify the positions of various structures have themselves passed away.. and are unrecognizable even
to someone who knows contemporary Cairo.

The Khitat was written for an audience familiar with the topography of Cairo, and if this book is
to be read now, some effort has to be spent supplying the reader with the local knowledge that al-
Maqrizi expected. The most agile and non-intrusive way to accomplish this is through the platforms
and capabilities offered by the Internet. Reading al-Maqrizi I often get the feeling that he has his
own personal version of Google Maps in his head. He thinks in terms of topography and works
often to visualize the placement of structures. In the section on the layout of the Fatimid city
the presence of a mental map overlay is especially notable. So moving al-Maqrizi’s material to a
platform that includes map layers and markers is in harmony with the way his own mind evidently
worked. I think that’s an important point, since we often think of technology as “new” instead of
understanding it as making more visible some very old cognitive processes.

Another way to view the affinity of the Khitat for Internet forms is to consider more carefully the
introduction in which al-Maqrizi lays out his methodology. The primary vehicles for history at his
time were the chronicle, which moved year by year through political events, and tabaqat, which were
biographical dictionaries. Although al-Maqrizi would compose works in both formats,, for the Khitat
he rejects them and organizes his material differently. Here’s his explanation:
On account of this I divided up [the reports] that mention the districts [khitat] and ruins, so
that every section of the book contained what was suitable and congenial for it, and came by
this approach to gather together what was divided and scattered of the reports about Egypt.
I did not hold back from repeating a report when it was needed, so that a clever person
might approve of it and the cultured mind not reject it. The result is that the reader of each
section has no need for what is contained in another section... [1:4]
As we now know something about the working methods of al-Maqrizi, which included notebooks in
which he copied down passages that pertained to Egypt from larger works, this introduction to his
methodology makes even more sense than it did before. The work of a historian in this period was
largely connected to the arrangement and organization of historical material that he had transcribed
from earlier sources. Instead of arranging this material by year or name, as was customary, al-Maqrizi
was proposing to distribute that material by topographical feature. One problem this might easily
lead to is the repetition of material as it was applied to various sites, but al-Maqrizi counters this by
pointing out that the different sections of the Khitat are meant to have a stand-alone value and not
be dependent on sections before or after.

We would recognize this as almost the definition of a reference work--that is, a book meant to be
consulted, not read from beginning to end. Consider again how well this connects to the demands
of the Internet. One argument against splitting up the different sections of the Khitat onto a map
might be that it breaks up the flow of the book itself. But such a flow was not at all the intent
of al-Maqrizi, who from the start envisioned the sections of his book as independent units to be
consulted by the reader. Both in terms of his topographical orientation and his conception of the
book as a reference work, it appears that he was striving to create something that only with difficulty
existed in the pages of a book. The Internet with its maps and ability to separate the sections into an
easier layout for browsing can be seen as giving the Khitat its most sensible setting.

That’s a way to think, or perhaps an argument for, putting the Khitat online. The Internet can
perhaps also supply a new way to understand the position of an author like al-Maqrizi. It is widely
noted that medieval Arab historians were not so much “authors” as we imagine that term--that
is, people who write their own narrative of what they believe happened--so much as compilers of
traditions. Chase Robinson notes “a passion for collection and arrangement, and a correspondingly
taciturn authorial voice.”2 If we were to characterize the changes in our contemporary media and
publishing landscape, it could very well be along these lines: we are in the process of moving from
an authorial culture to an edited culture. As we continue to learn from technology critics such as

2Islamic Historiography. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. pg. 93.


Jeff Jarvis, as knowledge moves from an economy of scarcity to one of abundance, value becomes
centered on the the editor or curator of the information. Al-Maqrizi, living as he did through the
first half of the 15th century, was the inheritor of a long tradition of historical work. He did not
innovate by discovering new facts, but by re-arranging inherited traditions in a new way.. so that
together they told a new story. In the case of the Khitat that new story was a comprehensive view of
the cityscape of Cairo..

Our own age of information abundance may succeed in making us better attuned to the value of
curation. In this we can now be effectively schooled by medieval Arabic scholars and men of letters.
Something of the formal openness that we are beginning to encounter online can be glimpsed
in their rich texts. So not only does the Khitat happen to work well online, it also stands for us
as a formal challenge to further work out the implications of technology on scholarly forms of
publication. Medieval Arabic works (not only the Khitat, but also works such as the Kitab al-Aghani by
the collector/writer al-Isfahani) should be presented accurately online for more than just historical
goals. Works like these could serve as guides for re-imagining scholarly and creative work online.