Very recently this website reproduced An interview with authors of Lost Maps of the Caliphs: A meticulous book about an extraordinary Fatimid manuscript illustrating the heavens and the earth as was known in 11th century Cairo.
Grabbing our attention now is a splendid new book on the Fatimids that looks at the caliphate’s robust culture of documentation. In an editorial review of the book, Konrad Hirschler of the Freie Universität Berlin describes Marina Rustow’s work “as a veritable magnum opus that will remain a point of reference for decades to come.” He also notes that “there are few books like this one that take the reader on such a long-distance journey across centuries and writing systems.”
The Lost Archive: Traces of a Caliphate in a Cairo Synagogue is Marina Rustow’s second work on the Fatimids. Her first one was entitled Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate. She is the Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East and professor of Near Eastern studies and history at Princeton University. She is director of the Princeton Geniza Lab and a MacArthur fellow. Her latest work is also praised by Geoffrey Khan, University of Cambridge, who states that “with great historiographical skill, Rustow brings new insights into the history of the medieval Middle East through a holistic analysis of the surviving state documents of the Fatimid dynasty. This is a splendid book.”
Marina Rustow has made very interesting and informative presentations of her research and work at the American Philosophical Society and the University of New Mexico. Links to both the videos are provided at the end of this piece.
The lost archive of the Fatimid caliphate survived in an unexpected place: the storage room, or geniza, of a synagogue in Cairo, recycled as scrap paper and deposited there by medieval Jews. In the book Marina Rustow tells the story of this extraordinary find, inviting readers to reconsider the longstanding but mistaken consensus that before 1500 the dynasties of the Islamic Middle East produced few documents, and preserved even fewer.
Beginning with government documents before the Fatimids and paper’s westward spread across Asia, Rustow reveals a millennial tradition of state record keeping whose very continuities suggest the strength of Middle Eastern institutions, not their weakness. Tracing the complex routes by which Arabic documents made their way from Fatimid palace officials to Jewish scribes, the book provides a rare window onto a robust culture of documentation and archiving not only comparable to that of medieval Europe, but, in many cases, surpassing it. Above all, Rustow argues that the problem of archives in the medieval Middle East lies not with the region’s administrative culture, but with our failure to understand preindustrial documentary ecology.
Illustrated with stunning examples from the Cairo Geniza, this compelling book advances our understanding of documents as physical artifacts, showing how the records of the Fatimid caliphate, once recovered, deciphered, and studied, can help change our thinking about the medieval Islamicate world and about premodern polities more broadly.
Date posted: March 8, 2020.
American Philosophical Society presentation by Marina Rustow (34 minutes)
University of New Mexico presentation by Marina Rustow (1 hour 35 minutes)