Matt Malczycki pored over ancient papyri in the University of Utah's J. Willard Marriott Library. The pieces intrigued and excited the graduate student completing his doctoral dissertation. He spoke earnestly about the Arabic collection at seminars around the country. The experts chided him. No such collection existed, they said. But it does: Eight centuries of rich Muslim history and lore, stories of life under many caliphs gathered over several years by Professor Aziz S. Atiya, founder of the university's Middle East Center. Atiya acquired the fragments of papyrus, paper, parchment, and cloth in Beirut, Cairo, London, and from the University of Chicago. The majority of the fragments originated in Egypt. Dr. Atiya and his wife Lola donated the collection to the J. Willard Marriott Library in 1975.
The Aziz S. Atiya Arabic Papyrus and Paper Collection consists of nearly 1,700 pieces-more than 800 papyrus fragments, nearly 900 paper fragments, 10 parchment fragments, and 4 cloth fragments. The fragments date from the eighth century CE through the Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluk, and Ottoman eras (922 AH/1517 CE). It is the largest collection of its kind in North America. And it is one of the richest. The fragments include legal, literary, and magical texts; administrative records, tax receipts, contracts, private letters, official business correspondence, sections from the Qu'ran, and several bilingual documents.
Professor Donald P. Little of McGill University, with a grant from the Fuqan Foundation, surveyed the collection. In his report to the foundation he wrote, "[The collection is] an extremely important segment of the medieval Arabic heritage and an invaluable resource for scholars interested in the history and culture of Islamic Egypt." Still, until just recently the collection was practically unknown.
Malczycki became instrumental in bringing awareness of the collection's existence to scholars throughout the world. One of the scholars Malczycki contacted was papyrologist Dr. Gladys Frantz-Murphy. Frantz-Murphy visited the library and was astounded by what she saw. In a letter she said, "[It is] by far the largest collection of pre-modern Arabic documents in the United States, and therefore, the Americas…it is also the most diverse…distinguished…also by the time span that it covers."
The collection is open for study to all researchers and is presented state-wide to students and the community through lectures, presentations, exhibitions, and workshops. A plan to digitize the collection and place the images on the Web will help make the antique pieces accessible to the global community, adding primary source materials to scholastic work the world over.
The early Arabic world reveals itself to its future through the abundant materials in this collection. The study of Arabic papyrus is of immeasurable value in enhancing understanding of the history of the Middle East. The collection helps give insight into the political and social history, finance and taxation, trade and commerce, topography, religion, and law-in short, the development of Islamic civilization.
Collection Profile and Overview: Luise Poulton
Illustrations: Borge Anderson & Associates