Working in the 'Dar', Egypt's National Archive

Old CairoThe Dar al-Wathaiq, Egypt's National Archive, is situated along the Nile Corniche in the heart of central Cairo, north of Tahrir Square and opposite the river from the posh, expatriate-teaming island of Zemalak. To the east is Bulaq, Downtown Cairo, and the remnants of the late nineteenth century city. A turn into the surrounding neighborhood leads to winding alleys of tightly-packed homes, ahwas—cafés—and koshari stalls—koshari being the traditional Egyptian staple meal of rice, pasta and lentils served with fried onions and spicy red sauce. The 'Dar,' as the archive is more commonly known to foreign researchers and academics, is on the periphery of the labyrinth of small streets that comprise Bulaq. The Archive was first housed in the old Abdin Palace, a mammoth, Versailles imitation further to the south and east in Downtown Cairo. The Palace was completed by Ismail Pasha, the Governor of Egypt in the 1860s and 70s, and it served as a major seat of power and intrigue in the country that vexed the British Resident through the interwar period. The Archive moved to its current location, the 'Dar,' in 1990, although the structure seems to date to the 1960s and the era of functionalist, even Stalinist architecture that characterized building under both Nasser and Sadat. Woefully underfunded, the building remains a largely dilapidated, dust-strewn structure that often resembles a construction site as opposed to a critical research and cultural centre.

Once inside the Dar, the staff of mostly middle-aged, Hijabi-wearing archivists is attentive and helpful. Accessing the Dar for the first time, however, is a frustrating experience and nearly an impossible one without advanced Arabic skills or friends and colleagues in Cairo who are willing to help. The application itself is straightforward but the documents are then sent to Amin a-Dowla—state security—for processing. This procedure could last several months. Even after securing general clearance for the Dar, Cabinet or Foreign Ministry papers are still not accessible unless the patron has obtained additional permits from the ministries themselves.  

The main reading room is on the second floor. It is spacious and despite the periodic call to prayer—an electronic notification flashes across the computer screen of every patron—it is a comfortable place to work. Every patron must first sign in at the main computer stall, choosing a seat and from the designated seat documents can be ordered. Document ordering is difficult because folder descriptions are short and often misleading. A patron can only order up to six folders a day before the ordering system on the computer stops. I spent numerous days in the archive quickly perusing six irrelevant folders before being forced to leave prematurely.

The Archive catalogue is vast, with documents dating from the early Fatimid period to as late as the 1980s—although more recent documents will likely be closed to foreign researchers. The catalogue can be accessed online——but it takes a great deal of creativity to navigate effectively. An English version of the website exists but searches can only be made using the relevant or target Arabic term. In general, the catalogue is divided into several main categories (levels of description)—the Office of the Khedive/Documents from Abdin, the Council of Ministers, the Foreign Ministry, the Provinces of Egypt, the Financial Bureau, etc. Each of these has a relevant code, or UOD number. The Office of the Khedive and documents from Abdin, for example, begin with 0069. Foreign Ministry documents begin with 0078, 0075 for the Council of Ministers, etc. It is worth becoming familiar with the categories and their relevant codes because it simplifies the search process and allows the patron to know whether or not the documents are in fact open. Without Foreign Ministry clearance, all 0078 documents will be closed.

When initiating a search, I found it most helpful to begin on the 'Database Search' page and to enter an Arabic term, such as wafd (وفد) or Syria (سوريا). The results will then appear and the site produces a breakdown of the documents by language, year of creation and level of description with the relevant UOD number. A basic search of Zaghloul (زغلول), for example, produces 53 results. On the right hand side of the screen, the patron can see that there are documents with the term, زغلول, between the years 1000 and 1099, 1200 and 1299, 1910 and 1919, and 1920 and 1929. Forty-seven of the documents fall between the years 1920 and 1947.

Searching non-Arabic names and terms will be more complicated. A search for America using the Arabic word, أمريكا will produce different results than a search for أميركا—, an older way of writing America that often appears in late nineteenth/early twentieth century Arabic language periodicals. In some cases, only one Arabic spelling might yield results in a search using a certain non-Arabic term or name. The name Cohen, for example, is spelled in the catalogue as كوهين—but Cohen might be spelled any number of ways in Arabic. It is important, therefore, that the patron play around on the catalogue web site, searching for different Arabic versions of the same English term before giving up and concluding that the Archive holds no information on a certain subject.

Working in the 'Dar' is challenging but ultimately worthwhile. Its collections, especially for historians of the modern Middle East and colonial Egypt, have barely been exploited. Regrettably, conditions for researchers conducting archival work at the Dar have not improved in the three years since the uprisings of January 2011. The 25 January Revolution did not lead to a temporary loosening of restrictions to the state archives—as the end of the Soviet Union did briefly for research in Russia—and applications to the Dar are still dictated today by the predilections of Egyptian state security—amin al-dawla. Ongoing political instability has also taken a toll on the day-to-day logistics of carrying out research. The periodic government shutdowns between 2011 and 2012 not infrequently forced the Dar to alter its hours or close unexpectedly.  Toward the end of the Presidency of Muhammad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood also moved to replace the director of the Dar with a more politically friendly appointee. This was part of a series of high-level ministerial replacements—that also included the dismissal of the Minister of Culture and the directors of the Cairo Opera House and Ballet—which the Brotherhood undertook to enhance its oversight of primary socio-cultural institutions in Egypt. The military-led coup on 30 June reversed these appointments but the situation today seems to be the status quo pre-2011.


Max Reibman
PhD candidate, Modern Middle Eastern History, University of Cambridge

Added February 2014

(All photos M. Reibman)