The Lost Archive

Traces of a Caliphate in a Cairo Synagogue

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Marina Rustow
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , January
     624 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


A synagogue may seem like an unlikely place to look for clues about the form and function of medieval Islamic government, but paradoxically that is where a treasure trove of documents dating back to the Fatimid caliphate (909–1171 CE) were found. The documents survived due to the Jewish practice of geniza, which consigned discarded texts to a storehouse where they would be left to decompose slowly. The Ben Ezra synagogue housed one such chamber, the famous Cairo Geniza, and it is here that Marina Rustow’s work begins. Rustow reconstructs a curious and unexpected historiography of the Fatimid caliphate from the geniza in her masterful new book, The Lost Archive: Traces of a Caliphate in a Cairo Synagogue.

While the Cairo Geniza has long been of interest to Jewish studies scholars who have sought to retrace something of the Jewish story through these discarded documents, there are many texts which tell a story about Muslim communities as well. Rustow situates her research in a way that examines the material reality of texts, asking not only about the impact the Islamic conquest had on Judaism, but also unearths the Fatimid culture of documentation. “I have focused on the geniza,” she notes, “not only for reasons of manageability and utility. I have come increasingly to work Janus-like—making geniza material face inward toward the Jewish community and outward toward the broader society” (11). Rustow marvelously captures the minutiae of documents as she recreates the bureaucratic picture of state institutions. She reveals the mimetic element to scribal work as a kind of chancery apprenticeship where one imbibes diplomatic norms. This enables us to think about archival sources as a way to comprehend the scale and mechanics of the state, beyond the vision we are offered in documents of intellectual history. Interestingly, much can also be learned about the Jew­ish-Muslim dynam­ic in medieval times, not least of which is to reflect on how Jews interacted with the state, and also how Jewish history can be seen as a prism by which to understand different governments.

It is often lamented that there are no archives before the Ottomans in the 15th century, but Rustow’s work breaks the myth that the Middle East used documents less than Europe. Documents provide access to information not intended for long posterity, thus removing a layer of bias found in legal codes or chronicles, she argues. Hence the documents of the geniza give us the rarest of opportunities in social history: although not completely transparent, they let us see the calculations, the analysis, and eventually the choices of a group of everyday individuals—how they navigated society, and even how they contributed to larger-scale economic change.

The 600-page book, with copious detail and numerous color photographs of many geniza documents, is primarily aimed at specialists working on textual transmission and social history. After the introduction, each of the sixteen chapters provides meticulous attention to an individual part of the archive whole. Specialists will feel at home zooming in on any of the chapters, though we get a wider picture of the overall relevance also by zooming out to understand premodern politics, especially of the Fatimid caliphate. Some representative examples: Chapter 1 presents the history and significance of the geniza as the source of the archive and reason for its survival. Chapter 4 tells us about the role paper played in the development of a chancery, and in particular lends insight into continuity built on the Abbasid imperial past. Chapter 8 concludes the section on Chancery practice revealing the Fatimid innovation of a petition-and-response procedure, whose “reinvention” (207) materializes the imam’s access to justice. Chapter 12 meanwhile speaks to the thorough nature of classification and the pivotal role of the clerk; and finally, chapter 16, to my mind one of the most interesting, pushes back against the surprisingly stubborn notion of “oriental despotism.”

Rustow reveals how the geniza, offering a palpable view from below, can be a source for understanding the Fatimid state more broadly, and indeed changes the view of the state itself. Her discovery pushes back against the misconceptions that have plagued the field, her thesis ultimately fighting against the (false) notion of an “ad hoc” legal culture, which rebuts the Weberian idea of kadijustiz whereby the qadi, or judge, was thought to arbitrarily issue judgements based on politics, sentiment, or caprice. Rustow argues, ultimately, that our view of governments has been too narrow: we know about courts, but we know much less about the faceless bureaucrats or even the anonymous rural and urban masses who interacted with the state. The geniza’s archival presences are a symbol of strong, as opposed to weak, institutions. Whence we get a sense of the workings of an Islamic state, a glimpse of the business of statecraft in the Fatimid world, and of the detailed administration of infrastructure on the ground. This fuller picture of a network of state officials reveals the state to be much larger and pervasive than what previous historians believed.

In light of Rustow’s work, we might also reflect on knowledge production and how we can come to know about the past or reconstruct our best understanding of it. A curious aspect of premodern history in the Middle East is that it is often modeled on narrative texts by authors who were close to the centers of power, with legal treatises, biographical dictionaries, or hagiographies each intimating how people ought to comport themselves, but not necessarily reflecting the lives of the vast majority of subjects. The fundamental question we must consider then is the balance between sources of intellectual history and those of social history. Though the truest account may elude us, and things get lost over time, we understand the past through the traces that reach us; and it is by those traces that distant times have the capacity to speak to us. Both Rustow’s material discovery and her historiographical work is truly remarkable insofar as it expands our understanding of the existence and use of artefacts, manuscripts, and documents, whilst also tackling this question of knowledge generation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Yusuf Lenfest is a doctoral student in religion at the University of Southern California, focusing on Islamic intellectual history.

Date of Review: 
October 21, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Marina Rustow 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, and is the author of Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.