The 2017 MEM book prize was awarded to Konrad Hirschler‘s work, Medieval Damascus: Plurality and Diversity in an Arabic Library. The Ashrafiya Library Catalogue (Edinburgh, 2016).
In this impressive, multi-faceted work, Hirschler examines the catalogue of the Ashrafīya library in Damascus, a relatively small and short-lived collection, at least by medieval Damascene standards. Most scholars would find such a catalogue useful largely for determining what works were extant in Damascus in the 13th century, perhaps treating it as a smaller Damascene version of Ibn al-Nadīm’s Fihrist, and pursue the matter no further. Hirschler, however, digs deeper, approaching the catalogue from several directions to produce a fascinating portrait of medieval Damascene book culture and intellectual life. In addition to identifying most of the books in the collection, including some obscure ones, he is able to trace the provenance of many of these works, determine what became of them after their dispersal from the library, and in some cases even identify the scribes who copied the works, discussing their careers and the significance of their employment to copy particular texts. Hirschler unearths details about the funding and management of the library, the system the curator used to classify and sort books in the collection, and even the arrangement of the books on the shelves. He also offers important insights into the patrons and sponsors of the library and how the collection was used. Hirschler’s analysis of the catalogue is painstaking and impressively thorough. It offers significant new understandings of many facets of book culture and libraries as institutions in medieval Damascus. Yet, this is not all Hirschler offers. He also includes an edition of the catalogue text and a meticulously annotated translation. Hirschler’s work is a significant and, we anticipate, a long-lasting contribution to the field. We are pleased to recognize the importance of this work by awarding the first MEM book prize to Medieval Damascus: Plurality and Diversity in an Arabic Library.
Steven C. Judd (chair of MEM’s book prize committee)
Committee members: Zayde Antrim, Nancy Khalek, Isabel Toral-Niehoff.