What does it mean that our single greatest source of medieval Islamic government documents comes from the attic of a Jewish synagogue in Cairo?
This is the seeming paradox that Marina Rustow, director of the renowned Geniza Lab at Princeton University, has been trying to make sense of for years. In 1896, twin sisters and Scottish philologists Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson transported fragments from the geniza (or worn text repository) of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo to their dear friend Solomon Schecter, a Talmud scholar at Cambridge University. The Hebrew-language fragments of the Cairo Geniza would go on to revolutionize the study of medieval Jewry: in 1970, German-Jewish Arabist Shelomo Dov Goitein dubbed the Cairo Geniza “the Living Sea Scrolls” for its remarkable insight into the social world of medieval Jews.
But flip the documents over, and the world of the Geniza is hardly just a Jewish one. In her new book, The Lost Archive: Traces of a Caliphate in a Cairo Synagogue (Princeton University Press, 2020), Rustow examines the previously neglected lines of Arabic found on some of the Geniza’s Hebrew-language documents: Fatimid-era petitions and decrees that defy the adage that the dynasties of the Islamic Middle East produced few documents and preserved even fewer.
No Fatimid state archive exists in the Middle East today. But the Cairo Geniza’s fragments—which passed through the hands of tax collector and chancery secretary, paper pusher and vizier alike—force us to reconsider the longstanding but mistaken consensus that the pre-Ottoman Middle East was defined by weak or informal institutions. 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 fully understand it.
Listen in to learn more—and stick around to the end to hear Marina’s favorite fact about daily life in medieval Cairo!
Notably mentioned in this episode:
Marina Rustow is the Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East at Princeton University, and the director of the Princeton Geniza Lab.
Nancy Ko is a PhD student in History at Columbia University, where she works at the intersection of Jewish and Middle East Studies.