Seminar XCI: dealings with the Fatimid Caliphate

It’s nearly the new term and I haven’t finished talking about the last one yet, again, to say nothing of Catalonia. Therefore, we must speed things up here and so I am going, reluctantly, to say basically nothing of Professor David Abulafia‘s presentation to the Late Medieval Europe Seminar in Oxford on the 22nd February 2011, for all that I have a great respect for David and that he is one of the people to whom some blame for this whole thing my research could reasonably be attached.1 I justify this because although the paper was jolly interesting, it was also a précis of a book that you will soon be able to read for yourselves, should you choose.2 So, instead, let me move on a week and talk about Professor Marina Rustow, presenting to the Medieval History Seminar here with the title, “The Fatimid State as Viewed by Medieval Jews”, on the 28th. You have perhaps heard of the Cairo Genizah? If not, this was an amazing cache of manuscripts of all ages, deposited in a synagogue loft in Fustat between the eleventh and nineteenth centuries, which was then slowly opened up to scholarship, and has been so huge that this is still happening. I can’t do any better than quote the web-page of the largest project based on this material by way of deeper explanation:

A genizah is a storage room where copies of respected texts with scribal errors or physical damaged, or unusable documents, are kept until they can be ritually buried. The dark, sealed, room in the arid Egyptian climate contributed to the preservation of the documents, the earliest of which may go back to the eighth and ninth centuries.

That website, which has digital images of some of the texts too (see below) says there were about 200,000 pieces of manuscript in this Genizah, but Dr Rustow was talking in terms more like half that again. This mass of evidence she handled clearly and comprehensibly throughout: she is an excellent ambassador for a field of study about which most of her audience, perhaps, knew very little. (It’s not safe to gamble on what people don’t know, round here.) Most of the sample, she explained, is as you’d probably expect given its preservation Biblical or Talmudic texts, which are themselves of importance for Jewish theologians, but most of the work I know about has been on the actual documents within the sample, of which there are about 10-15,000. Those best known are the ones from Jewish traders from around the Mediterranean that somehow wound up here, showing a criss-crossing set of links and connections that really make the Sea alive with medieval traffic (of which, after all, the Jews were probably only a part; think of all those supposed Syrians!)3 but Dr Rustow’s particular interest was in the fact that among this stuff there is also a certain amount of Islamic government material: letters to officials, petitions, decrees and memoranda, often having arrived in the Genizah after being recycled and written over for some other purpose.4 The Fatimid chancery of Cairo appears to have written big and with lots of space left over…

New York, Jewish Theological Seminary, E. N. Adler MS 3616 9, recto

New York, Jewish Theological Seminary, E. N. Adler MS 3616 9, recto. Note the widely-spaced lines of Arabic faded or washed out and the new script written in at right angles. If you follow the link you'll see an entire letter was then written on the other side. Whether this is actually a chancery document I have no idea but this is the process Prof. Rustow described

Why this stuff, and indeed the various documents with solely Christian (Melkite and Coptic) and Muslim (Sunni and Shi’a) participants, wound up in a synagogue loft is a problem still currently unsolved, and a lot of the questions that we raised and that Dr Rustow had for us, indeed, were about preservation and documentary cultures in east and west, who keeps what for what reason and so on. Here it seemed to me by the end of the discussion that we had actually brought East and West closer together, that there are odd occasional caches of original documents, from Sinai and Mount Athos to Catalonia via Fustat or Sankt Gallen, that show that with the right luck this stuff can survive and tell us that it probably did in other places too. Once again we have to face up to just having lost an awful lot of stuff. There is an idea, largely the fault of Patrick Geary and not without some foundation, that the West keeps copies of this stuff instead of originals, but there are enough places that have both cartulary and original documents that I think we can doubt whether the disposal of originals was quite as close on the heels of copying them as he seems in places to suggest.5 The same seemed to be true in the East, with a number of the 400-500 documents that Dr Rustow had found to work with in those of the many many archives over which the Genizah material is spread being copies of documents that had previously been copied by the Mamluk régime of thirteenth-century Egypt, meaning that at that point they had survived three centuries and were still thought worth making new ones of. Dr Rustow thought that this suggested that the documents themselves were only of short-term value, but I wonder if that might mainly be true for the régime and whether those actually holding the kind of land or revenue concession that these documents transferred might have had their own copies that they held onto more carefully, but which of course ultimately don’t come down to us because of that. This would match the situation in the West perfectly well, I think, where again people do have documents but only the actual property-holders usually keep them, which ultimately means the Church. In the Islamic zones that non-state archive institution doesn’t really exist, and so we have lost what it might have held, but that doesn’t make what survives in the West typical of what was actually in use.6 Anyway, I could go on in that vein all day and my questions were, as you can imagine, probably a bit too long. Back to the actual point of the paper!

New York, Jewish Theological Seminary, E. N. Adler MS 4009 2

New York, Jewish Theological Seminary, E. N. Adler MS 4009 2v: pen trials

Once they reached the Genizah, however, or rather immediately before, these Fatimid documents appears to have been being kept just as papyrus for pen-trials or as formulae to use in new documents (which is a model I think we have to face in many other places too). There were also a few instances where régime change had apparently led to the previous incumbent’s archives quite literally being thrown out and sold in bulk as second-hand papyrus or paper. What they actually show us, however, is a state apparatus that could be accessed, to a certain extent, by individuals, by means of petitioning. This was an ‘Abbasid innovation, one of the ways in which those high-minded coup-mongers were able to present themselves as being better justified and less tyrannical than the first, Umayyad, caliphs, and acted both as legitimisation and as a check on the state’s officials (much like Charlemagne’s circuits of missi but more centralised, as the Islamic states could manage to be).7 It was presumably much easier to get access to the court machinery of audience with suitable contacts or bribery, of course, but the same was probably true everywhere. Nonetheless, the possibility that a humble person could seek redress from the Caliph himself (which is also littered through The Arabian Nights, you may remember, even though that is kind of the Scriptures of Western Orientalism along with Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra as its New Testament) was a kind of consensus on which the régime could rest. Dr Rustow’s takeaway point was, therefore, that when we actually have evidence for the workings of these supposed Oriental despotisms, we don’t find purely ideological and theocratic justifications of power but a régime that was as interested in giving good justice and being fair, or at least in seeming that way enough to keep its people from revolt as any in the medieval West. In other words, this is no more ‘Oriental despotism’ than the high medieval west is a ‘feudal system'; in both cases there is far too much social theory that lurks around assuming that these two ideal types had more real existence than they did and in both cases that theory needs a sound kick in the paradigms, which it here got. This was a good paper.8


1. Because how, Professor Abulafia used to run an undergraduate paper on Muslim Spain, and taught it to me, and one of the things he set as reading was Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “Christian-Muslim Frontier in al-Andalus: idea and reality” in Dionisius Agius & Richard Hitchcock (edd.), Arab Influence upon Medieval Europe (Reading, IL. 1994), pp. 83-96 and from that I learnt that the Muslim-Christian frontier was full of weird anomalous social groupings and at Masters level resolved to investigate them and well, here we are.

2. It’s called, if I remember, A History of the Mediterranean and covering really quite a timespan.

3. This is classically described in Shelomo Dov Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: the Jewish communities of the world as portrayed in the documents of the Cairo Genizah (Berkeley 1967-1993, repr. 1999, 2000), 6 vols; a single-volume abridgement (Berkeley 2003).

4. This material is partly published—given how scattered the collections are anything more than partial is a major effort—in Geoffrey Khan (ed.), Arabic legal and administrative documents in the Cambridge Genizah Collections (1993), but of course, as I have myself discovered, Cambridge is not the whole world.

5. Originally in P. J. Geary, Phantoms of Remembrance: remembering and forgetting in the tenth and eleventh centuries (Princeton 1985) though Professor Geary has been as enthusiastic as anyone about modifying and refining his suggestions there in conference volumes such as Olivier Guyotjeannin, Laurent Morelle and Michel Parisse (edd.), Les Cartulaires. Actes de la Table Ronde organisée par l’École Nationale des Chartes et le G. D. R. 121 du C. N. R. S. (Paris, 5-7 décembre 1991), Mémoires et Documents de l’École des Chartes 39 (Paris 1993).

6. See for the West, of course, Warren Brown, “When Documents Are Destroyed or Lost: lay people and archives in the early Middle Ages” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 337-366 and Alice Rio, “Freedom and Unfreedom in Early Medieval Francia: the evidence of the legal formulae” in Past and Present no. 193 (Oxford 2006), pp. 7-40.

7. If you don’t know your Umayyads from your ‘Abbasids, the starting point probably has to be Hugh Kennedy, The Age of the Prophet and the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the 6th to the 11th Century, 2nd edn. (London 2004). If, instead, it’s the mention of missi that has you in a mither, Matthew Innes, “Charlemagne’s Government” in Joanna Story (ed.), Charlemagne: Empire and Society (Manchester 2005), pp. 71-89 might be the magic.

8. I realise that I do default to this position a bit too readily, even now, but I persist in thinking that it is a reasonable and rational check on theories of human society supposedly based in history to say, “it was not like that at the times and in the places when you claim it was, so I do not think your theory is valid, however lovely it may feel”. How are we ever going to understand human if we don’t actually know what it’s like and what it has done?

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2 responses to “Seminar XCI: dealings with the Fatimid Caliphate

  1. First comment! But seriously folks. Just to say that David Abulafia’s book, which his paper that I didn’t here report was about, is now out and reviewed here: its title is The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean.

  2. Pingback: Seminar CXLIV: making landowning legal in early Islam | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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