Dar al-Mahfuzat al-ʿUmumiyya is an important Egyptian government archive, despite the fact that few people know of its existence. Today, the institution is officially known as the Registry and Property Records Archive of the Egyptian Finance Ministry. It is located beside the Citadel in Cairo, near the al-Rifaʿi and Sultan Hasan mosques. Its documents, containing much more than property-related information, are significant for the administrative and urban history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Egypt.
The origins of Dar al-Mahfuzat can be traced back to the defterhane, which was a main depository of government documents. It burned down and was re-established by Mehmet Ali Pasha in 1828. In the nineteenth century, it was variously under the responsibility of the Accountant Office in the Diwan-i Khidiwi, the Finance Ministry (Diwan/Wizarat al-Maliyya), the Cairo Governorate (Muhafazat Misr), or the Ministry of Interior (Wizarat al-Dakhiliyya). In 1905, the institution became a part of the Finance Ministry. In 1929, its name was changed to Dar al-Mahfuzat al-ʿUmumiyya (and some of its documents were transferred to the ‘Abdin Palace as part of an effort to establish a separate royal archive). The post-1952 regime established the National Archive of Historical Records (Dar li-l-Watha’iq al-Tarikhiyya al-Qawmiyya, hereafter DWQ) and ordered the transfer of documents located in the ʿAbdin collection, Dar al-Mahfuzat, and other governmental agencies to this central organization under the Ministry of National Guidance (Wizarat al-Irshad al-Qawmi). However, until a proper building was found, it exercised central control over state historical records only in theory. In the 1960s, DWQ and Dar al-Kutub (the National Library) were united. In 1977, Dar al-Mahfuzat was ordered to join this central organization under the Ministry of Culture (formerly National Guidance), but in 1979 it was re-established as part of the Ministry of Finance. It remained until now as part of the Property Tax Office (Maslahat al-Daraʾib al-ʿAqariyya).
The exact holdings of Dar al-Mahfuzat are not known officially. There is no public catalog. The best available description is in Insaf ʿUmar’s thesis, especially its appendices (see bibliography below). It is possible that some parts of the collection were already transferred to other governmental offices or to DWQ.
The documents preserved in Dar al-Mahfuzat today certainly include three important collections. 1) The pension dossiers of state employees (Milaffat Khidmat al-Muwazzafin) between the 1830s and 1959 (including non-Egyptian subjects who received pension from the Egyptian state). In these dossiers one can trace the entire careers of state employees and obtain some information on their heirs. These files provide also an insight into the administrative work and cooperation between different branches of the state. 2) The tax-registers of buildings in Cairo (Jaraʾid ʿAwaʾid al-Amlak al-Mabniyya, which once belonged to the Cairo Governorate [Muhafazat Misr]), and possibly of other cities as well. This collection mostly contains documents from the turn of the century to the early 1950s. 3) Tax registers of agricultural lands (Mukallafat al-Atyan al-Ziraʿiyya).
There might be other collections. For instance, registers of births and deaths were stored in Dar al-Mahfuzat at one time but may have been transferred to another office. The sijills of the provincial shariʿa courts, which were present in the 1980s, are now in DWQ. Some dossiers of Dar al-Mahfuzat are presently empty.
The number of documents/dossiers/registers is not known officially. Insaf ʿUmar gives various numbers. Judged by my own experience, there must be tens of thousands of registers concerning taxation and thousands of dossiers concerning state pensioners. Insaf ‘Umar estimates 88,794 dossiers of state pensioners.
There is also a library in Dar al-Mahfuzat. Its collection is significant for the legal history of Egypt: it holds printed books between the 1830s and 1870s, mostly in Ottoman Turkish, which contain the official orders from the governors and various state regulations. There is also a collection of the journal al-Waqaʾiʿ al-Misriyya (seemingly, the full series), and some books in French or Italian about Egyptian law. There are other nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Arabic printed materials concerning taxation or administrative laws. The Arabic material is cataloged in Insaf ʿUmar’s thesis but he does not include the Ottoman Turkish books. As of December 2013, the library was being re-organized.
Dar al-Mahfuzat retains archival functions but it is not an archive per se. It is a functioning governmental office with the responsibility of safeguarding highly sensitive information related to state and private income. Not surprisingly, security is tight. It seems that in the 1980s access was easier. It is also possible that the revolutionary atmosphere in 2011 made state institutions more defensive. Until the autumn of 2013, there was a research (viewing) room (qaʿat al-bahth) with a small staff of four ladies. In the beginning, one employee had to escort me in the building, later I was allowed to move more freely. They were very helpful but not entirely knowledgeable about the holdings.
Researchers can only work three hours per day, from 10:00 to 13:00. This three-hour research period is an official decision and it is printed on every research permission. Therefore, complaints to employees are futile and may be interpreted as disrespectful. It often happens that the requested material arrives late or the researcher is asked to come back the day after. However, almost everything I wanted to look at arrived sooner or later.
There is no digital or printed catalog. In the case of pension files, one has to know the date of the retirement or read all the handwritten registers until you find the name or the profession you are looking for, and then ask for the indicated dossier. Given the limited number of working hours, consulting these pension-registers can take up significant research time. In the case of property taxation, one has to consult a separate office in the Garage Building in Opera Square first, in order to gain information about the pre-1952 administrative arrangements and names of the streets, etc. The staff is very helpful there. Once this information is obtained, one can request the given codes of the registers at Dar al-Mahfuzat.
When a register or a dossier arrives, a security guard also enters the room, and sits next to the researcher (sometimes so close that you may feel restricted in free movement). However, after a time, security is frequently relaxed; I was often left without a “guard” (of course, the ordinary research staff remained in the room).
At my last visit in December 2013, I found the research room closed and some of the employees dismissed. There was a new director and the remaining research employees were transferred to the library which became the new “viewing room.” Still, during this research visit, I could only view the requested material in one of the working offices, among the administrators under the supervision of a security guard. Do not be surprised if you see that an employee eats a sandwich above a one-hundred-year old document. However, the atmosphere, after the first wave of surprise about my presence, was rather kind and welcoming. I could even work more than three hours. Despite the initial efforts of the security personnel to restrict my viewing, ultimately I was permitted to read whatever page of the registers I wanted.
My advice is to be kind, humble, and persistent. Of course, you can only chat in Egyptian Arabic. Depending on the scope of your research, you must organize your time wisely – it is possible that you have to return time and time again. Be always aware that this is a living part of the Ministry of Finance. In any country in the world this would cause difficulties, especially if you are a foreigner.
Dar al-Mahfuzat is usually open from morning around nine to the mid-afternoon and is located on 2 Shari’a al-Mahjar. However, research is restricted to 10:00 – 13:00, and sometimes four days a week. It is open during the summer.
Permission needs to be requested from the Security Bureau (Maktab al-Amn) of the Property Tax Office of the Finance Ministry, at the left side of the Saʿd Zaghlul Mausoleum. Since there were rumors that foreigners cannot do research, I submitted 1) photocopies of my passport, 2) a letter of recommendation from my university in Arabic (and English) 3) a letter, signed by my Ambassador that I am a scientific researcher, in Arabic (and English) 4) a research plan in Arabic 5) a form to be filled in (you will be given) 6) Two colored passport-sized photographs.
It is crucial that on the form you define the time period of your research as broadly as possible because you will be given only those files which fall within the specified period. For instance, if you focus on the 1880s, you should provide dates between 1850 and 1920 or more, since perhaps the person you are looking for retired much later and you will not even receive the name-registers after the stated end of your period.
The permission process can take months, often half a year. For me it took longer, perhaps because I submitted my request in 2011. After receiving permission, I went to Dar al-Mahfuzat and, despite the permission from the Ministry, was immediately taken by the security personnel to the director, who, after a little chat, gave her permission too. As the office is now under new management, circumstances may be different.
The permission is valid for one year (365 days) with the possibility of renewal.
Dar al-Mahfuzat is not wheelchair accessible.
Dar al-Mahfuzat does not permit the use of cameras or laptops while working with documents. Moreover, the archive provides no photocopying services. Researchers are permitted only to hand copy the documents they consult. You cannot bring a laptop into the viewing room.
Transportation and Food:
The easiest way to access the archive is by taxi or bus to Sayyida ʿAʾisha or the al-Rifaʿi and Sultan Hasan Mosques.
There are plenty of small kusheri and ful shops nearby.
Future Plans and Rumors
Egypt is in the midst of immense political changes which affect all levels of government bureaucracy including Dar al-Mahfuzat. Researchers should be prepared to navigate a quickly evolving bureaucratic environment while undertaking their research.
There will be possible changes. Look for updates.
Though Dar al-Mahfuzat can be reached by phone, I do not recommend calling it directly. First go to the Security Office and request permission in person. There is no website.
Resources and Links:
The most important resources are:
J. Deny, Sommaire des Archives Turques du Caire (Cairo: IFAO, 1930)
Insaf ʿUmar, “Dar al-Mahfuzat al-ʿUmumiyya bi-l-Qalʿa – Nashaʾatuha – Tanzumuha – Idaratuha – wa-Dawruha fi-Khidmat al-Arshif al-Jari” (unpublished thesis, Kulliyat al-Adab, Cairo University, 1983) – available at www.kotobarabia.com
Insaf ʿUmar, “Min Kunuz Dar al-Mahfuzat al-ʿUmumiyya – Milaffat al-Muwazzafin bi-l-Hukuma al-Misriyya,” in: Khamsun ʿAmman ʿala Inshaʾ Dar al-Wathaʾiq, ed. Muhammad Sabir ʿArab et al (Cairo: Dar al-Kutub, 2009), 160-194.
Some material is in:
Al-Wathaʾiq al-ʿArabiyya fi Dar al-Mahfuzat (Cairo: al-Majlis al-ʿAli li-l-Thaqafa, 2007)
Al-Daftarkhana: Dar al-Mahfuzat al-ʿUmumiyya (Alexandria: Maktabat al-Iskandariyya, 2010)
Works of Ibrahim ʿAbduh, ʿAli Barakat, Crabbs, Gran, Hunter, Peters.
Though Dar al-Mahfuzat almost totally missing from these two important studies in English, they provide good context:
Helen Rivlin, The Dar al-Watha’iq in ‘Abdin Palace at Cairo as a Source for the Study of Modernization of Egypt in the Nineteenth Century (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1970).
Yoav di Capua, Gatekeepers of the Arab Past: Historians and History Writing in Twentieth-Century Egypt (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2009).
Adam Mestyan is a Junior Fellow at the Society of Fellows, Harvard University and currently writing his first book on the relationship between political power and theater in nineteenth-century Egypt.
Cite this: Adam Mestyan, “Dar al-Mahfuzat al-‘Umumiyya (Cairo),” HAZINE, 3 Mar 2014, http://hazine.info/2014/03/03/daralmahfuzat/