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Archives and Collections in Israel/Palestine: An Interview with Zachary J. Foster

[Image via Ottoman History Podcast] [Image via Ottoman History Podcast]

[NOTE: This Ottoman History Podcast episode was first aired in June 2011. We are featuring it here with a new introduction by Zachary J. Foster.]

The sources and collections for the study of the Ottoman period located in Israel/Palestine are extremely rich. This introduction (and podcast) is less a survey of available libraries and archives (which has been itemized categorically here, here, and here). Instead, I would like to highlight some interesting sources I myself have found, and encourage other scholars to talk about their sources.

The first noteworthy collection is actually quite famous but nevertheless remarkably under utilized, known by its label “AP” at the Israeli national library in Jerusalem. These sources were gathered from the “abandoned” Palestinian homes in the 1948 war, and are available for viewing to anyone who can access the library. (Sadly and ironically, many if not most of the descendants of the owners of the books themselves cannot even access the collection—for they are barred from entering Israel).

Just a few of the highlights include an early eighteenth-century manuscript of ijazas (religious certificates) written by Najm al-Din for his father, the infamous seventeenth century scholar from Ramla, al-Khayr al-Din al-Ramli. A monthly diary by another native of Ramla, Yusuf Jahshan, dating to the 1760s, catalogues many of the day-to-day struggles of life, such as winter rains, crops, high prices, wind and cold, starvation, hunger, locust attacks, and war. A third manuscript dating to 1902 by a certain Niqula bin Sim‘an examines Muhammad Ali Pasha’s nineteenth-century wars in the Ottoman Levant and Arabian Peninsula. To the best of my knowledge, none of these works are known to specialists of these periods and regions.

This is not to mention the tens of thousands of published “AP” volumes, which in my experience represents the single richest collection anywhere in the world of Arabic language literature published in Beirut, Damascus, Jaffa, Haifa, and Jerusalem from the 1850s-1940s. It is no surprise, then, that many of the greatest studies we have on the nahda period were conducted by Israeli scholars who have had easy access to this incredible collection (including work by Ami Ayalon, Haim Gerber, Kais M. Firro, Fruma Zachs, and others). This is the closest thing historians have to the collected literary heritage of the Palestinian people, and it is an indispensable collection for anyone studying the nahda period.

On the podcast, I survey this and many other collections in the country, including the shar‘ia court records and the Zionist archives.


Zachary J. Foster is a graduate student at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies studying the history of Greater Syria in the early twentieth century.

Chris Gratien is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University researching the social and environmental history of the Ottoman Empire and the modern Middle East.

Listen to “Archives and Collections in Israel/Palestine,” featuring Zachary J. Foster:

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