IMC 2019: Sessions

Session 1199: Keynote Lecture 2019: Contractual, Archival, and Historical Time: The Ecology of Documents and the Workings of State Power in Fatimid Egypt (Language: English)

Wednesday 3 July 2019, 13.15-14.00

Introduction:Anne E. Lester, Department of History, University of Colorado, Boulder
Speaker:Marina Rustow, Department of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University

An old consensus maintains that until the advent of the Ottomans, the medieval Middle East produced few documents and preserved even fewer. That consensus has given way as the field has expanded from its near-exclusive interest in long-form texts to awareness of single-page documents on papyrus, paper, and parchment. The conversation has concomitantly shifted from the putative absence of archives to the study of archiving practices; from static caches of documents to the systole and diastole of the institutional mandate to preserve; and from documents as containers for textual information to the forensic value of material support and paratext.

This lecture will consider the written instruments of the Fatimid caliphs (909-1171) – including their material form and afterlives – as expressions of imperial power and post-Abbasid caliphal ambition. The Fatimid state produced masses of documents. Its central archive was one locus of document preservation, but there were others: provincial bureaus, the stores of used paper-sellers, the writing-tables of ordinary scribes, and, above all, the Cairo Geniza, which preserved more Fatimid state documents than any other site by several orders of magnitude. Most were reused for texts in Hebrew script, and they have yielded, paradoxically, better evidence of archiving practices than any continuously surviving archive could. The administrative complexity that can be teased out of these documents suggests that the Fatimids were acutely dependent on extracting tribute in coin and equally acutely conscious of their obligation to render justice to their subjects.