Research at the Bibliothèque Nationale du Royaume du Maroc

It is always daunting to start research in a new location; it is perhaps more so when you are one of the first people (if not the first) from your institution to arrive there and the advice you have to go on is whatever one can glean off of a library website, if that even exists. The aim of this post is to provide information about conducting research at the National Library of the Kingdom of Morocco, from getting a researcher card and gaining access to the collection to requesting manuscripts and getting digital copies for future use as well as other information about library services.

Getting there and Gaining Access

The Bibliothèque Nationale du Royaume du Maroc (henceforth BNRM) is the new name for what used to be the Bibliothèque General.  Founded in 1924 and renamed in 2003
Bibliothèque Nationale du Royaume du Maroc, the library now occupies a beautiful new building on Avenue Ibn Khaldoun in the Agdal neighborhood of Rabat, Morocco.  Easily accessible by car and by the Rabat Tram (Station: Bibliothèque Nationale), it is also a 30 minute walk from the neighborhoods of L’Océan and Hassan and a 15 minute walk from the Rabat Ville Train Station.

The BNRM is open M-F 9:00-21:00 and Saturday 9:00 – 18:00, with reduced hours during the month of Ramadan (M-F 9:00 -15:00).  The four main sections of the library are the Espace Grand Public, Espace cherchéres, Espace collections spécialisées, and Espaces audiovisuals et malvoyants.  There is also an auditorium on the ground floor, a public lobby where artwork and various cultural installations reside, as well as a café with an outdoor terrace on the second level.  At the end of the lobby on the left there is the bag check, bathroom, and the Inscription (Registration) office.  Requests can be done in French or in Moroccan Arabic.  For those who speak only Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) your interactions will be a bit more limited; be prepared to have staff, especially those working at the security level, to reply only in Moroccan Arabic to your MSA.

In order to gain access to the library, one needs to complete and print the Inscription form provided on the BNRM Website BNRM Website, then bring that, a copy of your passport, proof of University affiliation and/or your Letter D’Attestation (in French or Arabic) stating your research, and 150 MAD to the Inscription office.  If you can’t print your Inscription form —the system does not like to work with Mac OS— bring everything else with you when you go and tell them your situation; usually people are forgiving and will print everything there.  Once you have given them your paperwork and paid the fee (if they are nice, you might only get charged 100 MAD), they will print your library card.  The card is valid for one year and can be renewed by completing the same process outlined above.  Unlike other libraries, such as the Biblioteca Nacional de España, you do not have to register your computer or electronic devices with the BNRM.

The Library Itself

Bags, purses, folders, and laptop cases are not allowed in the BNRM; they must be checked at the bag check.  However, you are allowed to bring your laptop, your phone, a small bottle of water, pens, pencils, and notebooks. Once you’ve checked your bag at the bag check, you enter the library by going through the main turnstile. Tap your library card on the card reader to pass through.

The Espace Grand Public is down the hallway on your right.  A large, 2 story reading room with open stacks access to a number of books, the majority in Arabic but a sizable minority of French publications with other European languages thrown into the mix, the Espace Grand Public is a popular space for university students to study.  The books are catalogued according to the Dewy Decimal System though shelving can get a bit creative within the sections themselves.  At the far end of the Espace Grand Public is a copy room where you can request photocopies of books for a small fee.  Usually a couple of pages costs 1 Moroccan dirham (MAD), approximately 10¢, whereas 50 pages will cost around 25 MAD (approximately $2.50).  At present, there are two scanners in the Espace Grand Public but they are not operational.

NB: One cannot request an entire copy of a book; for that, best to download a scanner app to a tablet or phone and make a scan using the camera.

The Espace Cherchères is a separate area towards the back of the library on the right; to gain access to the EC, you again pass through a turnstile.  If your card does not let you pass, go back to Inscriptions and report the problem.  Inside the EC there are several large tables with outlets on the first and second floors, additional reference books, microfilm readers, computers for searching the library catalog, and the request desk.

Catalogs and Websites

The website for the BRNM is in French and Modern Standard Arabic but the majority of the catalog holdings are in Arabic.  This can be a bit frustrating if you are working off of Latin transcriptions of Arabic titles but you can always give the title to one of the librarians and they can look it up for you.  Alternatively, you can also find the item via Latin transcription on World Cat and then click on the link to the Bibliothèque Nationale to get the call number.

For manuscripts, one must search on the BNRM website in Arabic search on the BNRM website in Arabic or download one of the manuscript catalogs to look up the call number.  The catalogs are a good place to start if you want to browse but in order to find a specific manuscript, it is best to just go directly to the online catalog.

NB: For those who are following references pre 2003, note that letters associated with manuscripts are now  using the Arabic rather than the Latin alphabet.  Thus MS 419 G becomes MS 419 ج , K becomes ك  and N becomes ن

MS 419 ج

Requesting Manuscripts

About 80% of the BNRM’s manuscript holdings are digitized and they have a number of microfilms of manuscript collections from other libraries, including the Arabic manuscripts held at El Escorial in Spain.  Actual manuscripts are only given out to those researchers who are doing codicology work and who are requesting specific manuscripts.

To request a microfilm, fill out the request form at the request desk in either French and Arabic, complete with the shelf number.  Once you put in your request, the librarian will fetch the microfilm and set it up on one of the viewers.

The viewers are not the greatest for actually working off of the manuscripts so it is best to find what you need within the manuscript, noting the page numbers and then put in a request for a digital copy at the request desk.  In order to complete this request you will need another copy of your passport page and your Lettre d’Attestation, as well as additional money.  The librarian will write out two copies of your request, then ask you for your name, contact information including email address and/or phone number, and whether or not you want the scan emailed to you or on a disk.  You will also need to sign both copies of the form, then take one of them to an administrative office on the other side of the library; it is at that office where you will pay for the copy.  For the record, 10 manuscript folios cost 20 MAD ($2).  After paying, take your receipt back to the Request Desk in Espace Cherchères and give it to the librarian.   Your digital copy will be ready in a day or two.

Final Notes

The BRNM is a popular spot for university students since they can get access at a reduced rate; expect the place to get crowded in the afternoon and into the evening come the end of term (usually January and July).  Only upper level students, however, can gain access to the Espace Cherchères.

Water bottles are allowed but you must keep your water bottle on the floor by your chair, not on the table.  A guard (speaking Moroccan Darija) will come by and remind you if you forget, even if the bottle is empty.  Also, don’t bring water with you during Ramadan if you can help it.

There are two bathrooms, one on the ground floor and one on the upper floor, but you need to go out through the turnstile to get to them.  They are very clean but notoriously lacking in toilet paper; keep a pack of tissues with you.  The upstairs toilets also have places to wash for ritual prayer and to fill up your water bottle.

The cafe does breakfast lunch and dinner for about 30-50 MAD ($3-5) depending upon what you order.  The coffee and tea is a bit overpriced for what you’re getting but the food is solid.  It is also a popular place for students as you do not need to have a library card to enter the area.  The cafe is closed during Ramadan.

There is Wi-Fi but it is slow; if you’re working off of the cloud or just trying to open your email on your laptop you will get frustrated.   Consider adding internet credit to your local phone and tethering your laptop to it order to work with minimal disruptions.

Additional Resources

l’histoire de la Bibliothèque Générale et Archives

Owls: Always a Hoot?

Owl, Book of Hours, London, c. 1460; British Library, Harley MS 2887, f. 29r; © The British Library

Today, owls are usually associated with wisdom. Their depictions in modern iconography range from majestic hunters to cute messengers à la Harry Potter. The convention of associating these nocturnal birds with wisdom goes all the way back to ancient Greeks and Romans depicting owls with the goddess of wisdom, Athena/Minerva. However, owl symbolism has not continuously had such positive connotations; in fact, in Medieval England, they were drastically different.

Owls have a strong presence in medieval fables and poems, many of them associating owls with the darkness and uncleanliness. Medieval poets took biblical references to owls as inspiration. For example, Job in his sorrow is referred to as the companion of owls, linking owls with mourning. In Leviticus, owls are mentioned as unclean birds. Building on these negative associations, medieval beast poems include violence towards owls. In Cuono of St. Nabor’s fable “The Peacock and the Owl,” a white peacock, symbolizing light and goodness, is violently murdered by an “envious owl” (Ziolkowski 245), and then a violent curse is wished upon the owl to avenge the death of the beautiful peacock. In the same vein, in the often-repeated story of the owlet in the hawk’s nest, the owl’s true identity is discovered when it fouls the nest—and then it is thrown out of the nest and dismembered by magpies and crows (Mann 178).

Anthropomorphic owl meant to resemble a Jew; bestiary, 2nd quarter of the 13th century, England; British Library, Harley MS 4751, f. 47 r; © The British Library

A more disturbing element of owl’s negative symbolism is their association with anti-Semitism. Owls, who are day-blind and live in darkness, were used to represent Jews in medieval England, who were said to have rejected the light of Christ and live in the uncleanliness of religious blasphemy. This accounts for the anthropomorphic appearance of some manuscript drawings of owls: they were sometimes given hooked noses to resemble Jews, and their horns represent the horned hats Jews were forced to wear.

Not all mentions of owls are completely negative, however. The Aberdeen bestiary presents a positive moralization of owls, saying that they represent Christ, who lived in the darkness (or away from view, like the owl) because he wanted to save sinners who also lived in darkness away from the light of God.

One of the most well-know medieval literary owls is in the poem The Owl and the Nightingale. The Owl and the Nightingale offer retellings of some of Marie de France’s fables, illustrating the popularity of animal fables. Significantly, the Nightingale recites the fable of the owl in the hawk’s nest to emphasize the inescapability of nature over nurture: the owl is recognized because it can’t escape its unclean nature despite being raised by a different bird. However, the poem gives the well-known story a twist, turning the usual moral condemnation of the owl on its head. The owl counters that it cannot be at fault for a nature that is common to all infants—even humans.

Owl symbolism continued to have negative associations even after the medieval period. During the Reformation, they came to be associated with Catholics, and later with Puritans (Hirsch 151)—generally with the vilified religious group du jour. Negative symbolism continued into the early modern period: in several of Shakespeare’s plays, the owl is an evil omen. Though the owl has much more positive connotations today, its history is plagued by darkness and negativity.

Owl and other birds decorating the bottom of a page; psalter and hours, France (Arras), c. 1300; British Library, Yates Thompson MS 15, f. 96r; © The British Library

Anne Marie Blieszner
MA Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Hirsch, Brett D. “From Jew to Puritan: The Emblematic Owl in Early English Culture.” “This Earthly Stage”: World and Stage in Late Medieval and Early Modern England. Brett Hirsch and Christopher Wortham, Eds. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2010.

Mann, Jill. From Aesop to Reynard: Beast Literature in Medieval Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. Talking Animals: Medieval Latin Beast Poetry, 750-1150. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

 

 

A Matter of Faith: Religion in North Africa at the end of Late Antiquity (Part 1)

If the majority of Late Antique Europeans living in the former Roman territories were, at the very least, nominally Christian in the eighth century CE, what was the religion of the peoples of Late Antique North Africa, Rome’s southern lands during the same period?

Given that the region of North Africa — the lands from what is today western Morocco to Egypt– gave the Christian world some of its earliest texts, had more bishoprics than other regions, and was the home of St. Augustine, one of the four doctors of the Catholic Church, it stands to reason that this region was quite Christian in the year 700.

Castonguay_Volubilis
The Decumanus Maximus in Volubilis, (Oaulili), Morocco. © A.L. Castonguay 2014

Yet until recently, this argument was not advanced by scholars of Late Antiquity, the European Middle Ages, or Islamic History.  If anything, North Africa c. 700 was seen as nominally Muslim, due in large part to the Arab conquests of 670-710.  In fact, so few scholars discussed the idea of Christians in North Africa that, as recently as 2004, an article pointing to proof of Christian communities in North Africa post Arab conquest was described by one reviewer as “pull[ing] the rug out from under the feet” of naysayers.

Now, it seems that more scholars are pointing towards the continuation of Christianity in North Africa c. 700, with some even going as far as to point to evidence of Christian communities in the twelfth century.  However, this group is still quite small, and the wide range of territory, both geographical and historical, that a potential researcher must cover is immense, to say nothing of the required linguistic skills in Medieval Latin, Ancient Greek, and now, Arabic, required to decipher extant evidence.

Castonguay_Volubilis-basilica_small
Basilica in Volubilis, abandoned in the 8th century following an earthquake © Jerzy Strzelecki

Yet what about the Muslim conquests?  How did this event shape the religious landscape of North Africa between 700 and 800 CE?

For one thing, it seems as though the Muslim conquests brought about the conversion of the Amazigh (Berbers), who, despite putting up several decades of resistance to the Arab invaders, accepted the new faith with gusto.  Having attached themselves to their new Arab overlords as their mawalia status that indicated conversion to Islam and affiliation with an Arab tribe–these new converts joined the Umayyad armies in Qayrawan and participated in the conquest of the Iberian peninsula, both as generals and as settlers.

Castonguay_Age_of_Caliphs
Map of the Muslim Conquests in Late Antiquity, 622-750

So quick was this conversion that come 740, the Amazigh were already fully enmeshed in Arab-centric quarrels on the question of who, exactly, should be God’s deputy (khalifat Allah) and lead the faithful during this life and the next.  Although there had been periods of unrest in the preceding decades, in 740 the Muslim Amazigh rebelled against the Umayyad caliphs under the banner of Kharjism, an Islamic sect that had, since c. 658 rejected both the ruling Umayyad caliphs and the Shi’a ‘Ali as God’s correct deputy.  This “Berber Revolt” successfully divorced the regions of North Africa west of Egypt from the Umayyad caliphate in 744, leading to the growth of the first independent and autonomous Islamic dynasties.

Thus, circa 700, there appears to be a Late Antique African Christian population that is either somehow subsumed under a Muslim population by 740 due to mass conversion of the Amazigh to Islam; or exists side by side with their new Muslim brethren for centuries but, due to the fact that independence from the Islamic caliphate was gained under the banner of Islam and not Christianity, were “lost” to history until now.

A third possibility exists, however, namely that both of these pictures of North Africa and its confessional affiliations are only partially true and need to be amended in order to reflect what was actually going on in the region between.   It is this path that will be explored in subsequents posts.

A.L. Castonguay
Ph.D. Student
Department of History
University of Notre Dame

References

  • Khalid Yayha Blankinship.  The End of the Jihād State.  The Reign of Hishām ibn ‘Abd al-Malīk and the Collapse of the Umayyads.  Albany:  SUNY Press, 1994.
  • Mark A. Handly.  “Disputing the End of African Christianity,” in A.H. Merrills (ed.), Vandals, Romans, and Berbers.  New Perspectives on Late Antique North Africa.  Aldershot:  Ashgate, 2004: 291-310
  • Anna Leone. “Bishops and Territory:  The Case of Late Roman and Byzantine North Africa,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 65/66 (2011-2012): 5-27
  • R.A. Markus. “Review:  Vandals, Romans, and Berbers. New Perspectives on Late Antique North Africa by A.H. Merrills,” The English Historical Review, Vol. 120, No. 487 (Jun., 2005): 759-760