11 Essential Digitized Collections for Middle East Historians

Written by Zachary Foster 

Every month new resources, archives, and databases for historians of the Middle East come online. Here are some of the most important ones. 

  1. hathitrust.org: This is the most important digitization project in human history. Google went around the United States and digitized the entire collections of dozens, perhaps hundreds of university libraries. Anything no longer under copyright is available, which generally means material older than one hundred years. Many of the most important Arabic scientific magazines from the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries, for instance, including al-Muqtataf, al-Hilal, al-Mashriq, have recently been made available here. And the most remarkable feature: keyword searchable. Ten of thousands of volumes that were previously only available in a handful of libraries in the world are now some of the easiest sources to access.
Hathi Trust Website

Hathi Trust Website

  1. 2. ULB Sachsen-Anhalt: An enormous collection of some 3,050 volumes of printed Arabic, Ottoman and Persian (and other) books that date from the end of the sixteenth century to the early twentieth, digitized by the Middle East and North Africa Special Area Collection of The Universitaets- und Landesbiblithek Sachsen-Anhalt in Halle. The project began in 2010 and is ongoing. WorldCat does not search its contents, so be sure to search them separately. The material is searchable by keyword, author, genre or place of publication. This includes many of the earliest printed editions of Arabic and Syriac texts, such as Bar Hebreas and Ibn Kathir. The digital collection also includes a vast number of volumes of Latin, Italian, French German and English literature on philology, Arabic poetry and history. The bulk of the material dates to late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Shamela's website

Shamela’s website

  1. 3. Shamela is one of the largest free digital collections of Arabic books online, with over 6,000 volumes. Most work deal with Islamic religious sciences, but include other topics as well, such as travelogues, chronicles and biographical dictionaries. Users can search Shamela library by keyword or browse according to the following genres: al-ʿAqida, al-Tafasir, al-Farq wa-al-Rudud, ʿUlum al-Qurʾan, Tajwid wa-al-Qiraʾat, Mutun al-Hadith, al-Ajzaʾ al-Haditha, Makhtutat Haditha, Shuruh al-Hadith, Kutub al-Takhrij wa-al-Zawaʾid, Kutub al-Albani, al-ʿIlal wa-al-Suʾalat, ʿUlum al-Hadith, Usul al-Fiqh, Tarikh, al-Fatawa, al-Sira, al-Tarajim, al-Ansab, al-Daʿwa, and many others. This is an incredible resource for anyone studying pre-modern Middle Eastern history or modern Islamic thought.  Unfortunately, since Shamela reformatted some of the material, page numbers are often inconsistent with their printed counterparts; readers must cross check the electronic files with the printed texts. Still a remarkable resource.


  1. Waqfeya is quite similar to Shamela, although it is smaller and the user interface is not quite as sleek. It also focuses on Islamic religious sciences, but also includes many volumes on other topics, including Islamic economics; history; the Muslim family; contemporary life; and Arabic language and literature.


  1. Al Aqsa Mosque library: This digitization project preserves the historical periodical collections (1900-1950) at the Al-Aqsa Mosque Library, located in East Jerusalem. There are some rare periodicals in this collection, such as Majallat Rawdat al-Maʿarif (1922-34), the journal of one of the most important high schools in Mandate Palestine, al-Kulliyya al-ʿArabiyya (1928-36), the journal of the most important men’s education training college in Mandate Palestine, al-Huquq (1925-7), the only Arabic law journal to publish in Mandate Palestine, as well as a dozen others: al-ʿArab (1933-4), al-Jinan (1874); al-Mahabbah (1901), al-Hasna (1909); al-Zahra (1922-6), al-Fajr (1935), al-Jamiʿa al-Islamiyya (1932-5), al-Jamiʿa al-ʿArabiyya (1928-35), al-Sirat al-Mustaqim (1931-6), Sawt al-Shaʿb (1929-34); al-Awqat al-ʿArabiyya (1935); al-Liwaʾ (1936-7); Tasvir-i Efkar (1909); al-Muqtabas (1909-16); al-Qabas (1913-34); al-Difaʿ (1934-51); Filastin (1923-48); al-Aqdam (1934-6) and Mirʾat al-Sharq (1922-36). This is the single best digitized collection of historical Arabic periodicals on the web. A great many dissertations could be written about the political, religious and educational history of late Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine based on this collection alone. Regrettably, the user interface was poorly designed. The material is not searchable by keyword, so trying to browse through large amounts of material can be frustrating at times. It is still an incredible collection (funded by the British Library).
Historical Jewish Press Website

Historical Jewish Press Website

  1. Historical Jewish Press: This is the largest collection of Jewish and Hebrew periodicals in the world, digitized and searchable by keyword! The collection includes fifty-two titles in a half-dozen languages, including Hebrew (28), French (8), Yiddish (6), English (5), Judeo-Spanish (2), Judeo-Arabic (2), Russian (1) and Hungarian (1) published in Europe, the Middle East and the United States from the 1850s to the 1990s, with a concentration of material from 1900-1950. I recall very vividly doing a simple search for the word “locust” (in the relevant languages) and digging up countless anecdotes buried in newspapers I had not even heard of about the 1915 locust attack in Syria and Palestine. But make sure you use the old version. The new one still has some bugs. (update and ed. note [18 Jun 2015]: According to other researchers, this website is not accessible from Turkey. Use a VPN to access it.)


  1. Hebrew Books: This enormous collection includes some 52,449 Hebrew books. Most of the material will be of interest primarily to students of Jewish philosophy, theology, prayer, the Talmud, halakha and other matters pertaining to Jewish ritual worship and practice, but there is much to be gained for anyone studying American and Jewish history or the history of Israel/Palestine. Most of the collection dates from the nineteenth century onwards and can be searched by keyword or browsed by genre: American, Avos, Chabad, Chassidus, common, Hagada, periodicals, rishonim, shulchan aruch, biography and more.


  1. Qatar Digital Library: The sleek design and powerful user interface feels more like a tech-start up than a digital archive, but then again, this project was funded by Qatar. The site has digitized 303,094 documents, most of which seem to come from the British India Office that deal with the Gulf, especially Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iraq, Iran and the UAE. The documents span the period 1700-1999, with the overwhelming majority of the documents covering the period, 1850-1950. The database is searchable by subject (e.g. foreign relations, Arab nationalism), place (Bushehr, Muscat, Persian Gulf), type (archival file) or people and organizations (Colonial Office, Sir Gilbert Clayton). Incredibly, for each document, users can view a transcript of the document (machine generated), a summary (human generated) as well as a bit of information on the physical characteristics of the document. The site also provides some simple html5 to users who want to embed the image viewer of certain documents into their websites, as well as a selection of “articles from our experts,” all of which seem to have been written by Arabists and other librarians at the British Library (funded by Qatar).


  1. Women’s Worlds in Qajar Iran: The focus of the collection is, wait for it, Women in Qajar Iran (1796-1925), but there is much to be gained here for specialists of other topics and periods, such as a sixth century Persian medical textbooks and letters from the 1930s-1950s. qajar women screenshotThe collection can be browsed either by genre of the source itself (i.e. manuscripts, objects, legal and financial records, photographs, letters and audio files), people, places or subjects. Most of the material is in Persian, save for an occasional Arabic text. Contributors digitized an extremely rich collection of physical materials, from water pipes to lingerie, innocuously labeled “undergarment pants.” There is an inordinate amount of really personal stuff, such as juicy marriage contracts. The design is sleek, until you reach the page to view the actual records. There is one saving grace: click the “print” button, then select “convert entire document,” and type your email. A PDF will be sent to your inbox. Note that some of the contributors to the collection still maintain their ownership rights, so be sure to prnt scrn if you are using any of the personal stuff. (Read HAZINE’s piece on the Women’s World in Qajar Iran.)


  1. Open Access TBMM: This collection of 1,230 volume is a gold mine for researchers of the late Ottoman and Republican periods of Turkish history. It includes hundreds of Ottoman language works that
    TBMM Website

    TBMM Website

    cover contemporary affairs, history, ethics and government publications, such as a 1914 book about the health bureau in the Hijaz, early editions of Katib Çelebi’s Taqvim-i Tevarih, an authorless 1861 history of Afghanistan and Şevki ʿAziz’s 1877 Mirrors of Ottoman history, a 1916 military report about Iran and hundreds of other rare works. There is also rich collection of high quality maps of various parts of the Ottoman and Turkish towns from both the Ottoman and Republican periods, such as Edremit, Kütahya, Sivas, Erzurum, Simav, Rize, Ünye, Maltya, Van, Kilis, Sis, Çorum, Ankara, Urfa, Amasya and dozens of other places. The materials in this collection published from the 1930s and beyond consist almost exclusively of Turkish political party programs. The collection is searchable by author, subject or publication date. There are also dozens if not hundreds (most of the books seem to have been in the possession of the library of the The Grand National Assembly in Turkey, the TBMM). This is an incredible collection, not known to Worldcat.


  1. Archive.org: It seems almost too obvious to list, but researchers do not regularly search archive.org as they would worldcat. Archive.org is better known for archiving the internet, but its contributors have scanned a great deal of material that worldcat does not seem to know about and have gathered an impressive array of material scattered across the web. An example is the French language periodical about the Orient, Revue de l’Orient Chrétien (1896 à 1936), which had previously existed elsewhere on the web but was brought over to archive.org. The user-interface is friendly. Archive is the best place on the internet to find keyword searchable texts out of copyright.

Cite this: Zachary J. Foster, “11 Essential Digitized Collections for Middle East Historians,” HAZINE, 17 June 2015, http://hazine.info/11-essential/

Zachary J. Foster is a Ph.D candidate in the Near Eastern Studies Department at Princeton University, focusing on the history of the idea of the Palestine.

3 responses to “11 Essential Digitized Collections for Middle East Historians

  1. I am surprised to see you did not include archnet.org in your top 11 digitized collections for study of Middle East. From Archnet’s website, “Archnet is a globally-accessible, intellectual resource focused on architecture, urbanism, environmental and landscape design, visual culture, and conservation issues related to the Muslim world. Archnet’s mission is to provide ready access to unique visual and textual material to facilitate teaching, scholarship, and professional work of high quality. Officially launched in 2002 as a partnership between the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Archnet has since evolved into the largest open, online architectural library with a focus on Muslim cultures. Its digital archives form a comprehensive resource on architecture, urban design, landscape, development, and related issues. Archnet provides a bridge for interested persons to learn how to enhance the quality of the built environment, to compensate for lack of resources for students and faculty in academic institutions, and to highlight the culture and traditions of Islam.” And, yes, my opinion is biased as I am co-director of the site; however, I think it worth your consideration if you have not yet.

    • Hi Sharon, I’m definitely a big fan of Archnet and know about its existence. I’ll make sure Zach see’s your comment. Maybe we’ll post an updated version in the future. I guess it is in the nature of listicles to only include some of the many resources out there. In any case, we’re trying to update our resources section and will make sure to include Archnet.

  2. I would like to add to the list the recently opened Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation a Digital Library Portal, providing access to a variety of works of Islamic written heritage. One of the Foundation’s flagship accomplishments can be found here in the World Collections area.

    In 1989 the Foundation set up a research project to investigate, as comprehensively as possible, the present state of Islamic manuscript collections extant worldwide. Scholars ultimately surveyed in more than 100 countries, and the outcome of this project was the World Survey of Islamic Manuscripts publication.

    The World Collections area of the Digital Library Portal presents the libraries of the World Survey in geographical context, which users can browse and explore interactively. For example, hovering over a library on the world map provides a quick preview of the library and its holdings.

    The Digital Library Portal is currently available in English and Arabic. You can access the Portal by going to http://www.al-furqan.com and clicking on the Digital Library icon. http://www.al-furqan.com/world_library/

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