The Lost Archive: Traces of a Caliphate in a Cairo Synagogue

By – June 21, 2020

A pile of garbage changed how we viewed Jew­ish his­to­ry — as doc­u­ment­ed in Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, the dis­cov­ery changed how schol­ars under­stood count­less aspects of Jew­ish learn­ing and liv­ing. Mari­na Rus­tow, a Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor and a MacArthur Fel­low, demon­strates that it was­n’t only Jew­ish cul­ture that was enlight­ened by the dusty frag­ments and documents.

Rus­tow argues over the course of the The Lost Archive: Traces of a Caliphate in a Cairo Syn­a­gogue—a sort of ency­clo­pe­dic detec­tive sto­ry — that the lost his­to­ry of the Fatimid caliphate that estab­lished the city of Cairo as a cul­tur­al and gov­ern­men­tal cen­ter can be recre­at­ed by read­ing between the lines. Rus­tow’s inves­ti­ga­tion, uti­liz­ing — among oth­er tools — the Fried­berg Geniza Project, uncov­ers that rough­ly 4,000 Ara­bic doc­u­ments lay buried under­neath the writ­ing of the Jew­ish doc­u­ments. Arab peti­tions, tax receipts, gov­ern­men­tal doc­u­ments and the like were writ­ten over by the Jews, who recy­cled the avail­able mate­r­i­al at their dis­pos­al for their own rit­u­al, famil­ial, and judi­cial texts. These con­sti­tute the main focus of geniza schol­ars. Rus­tow has an enthu­si­asm for this ear­li­er, non-Jew­ish, lay­er of mate­r­i­al that includes long sam­ples of Ara­bic writ­ing styles, and includes turns of phrase that are both lit­er­ary and aca­d­e­m­ic. When exam­in­ing a par­tic­u­lar scrap, she ques­tions whether the author who had writ­ten over an ear­li­er text scrape[d] it down as an act of the­o­log­i­cal aggres­sion, of philo­log­i­cal philis­tin­ism, or of gross mate­r­i­al necessity.”

Her descrip­tion of the dust of Cairo that blan­kets so much of the city spans four con­sec­u­tive pages but is enthralling. For exam­ple: If the Euro­pean fogs are blan­kets of obliv­ion, the dust of Cairo is like a mem­o­ry potion. It gives itself to the city like a man­tle and has been doing so gen­er­ous­ly for cen­turies, coast­ing the build­ings in a brown pati­na.” Though a six-hun­dred page book on medieval scrib­al prac­tices and tex­tu­al trans­mis­sion will be of most inter­est to spe­cial­ists — along the way Rus­tow makes sev­er­al self-dep­re­cat­ing jokes about how excit­ed she is by the afore­men­tioned tax receipts from the eleventh-cen­tu­ry — those seek­ing to ask impor­tant ques­tions about the Jew­ish-Arab dynam­ic in medieval times will also find much to glean. As Rus­tow con­cludes her deep dive into attempt­ing to piece togeth­er from thou­sands of par­tial texts the lost world that lies beneath anoth­er, frag­ments don’t always per­mit the kind of nar­ra­tive his­to­ry that most his­to­ri­ans pre­fer to write — nar­ra­tive at the scale of human lives. But nor can his­to­ri­ans thrive in the air­less micro­cosm of sin­gle doc­u­ments.” By open­ing up this wider view of the his­to­ry of the geniza, Rus­tow restores a sur­pris­ing, and infor­ma­tive, lost era.

Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advi­sor to the Provost of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has edit­ed or coedit­ed 17 books, includ­ing Torah and West­ern Thought: Intel­lec­tu­al Por­traits of Ortho­doxy and Moder­ni­ty and Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought, and has lec­tured in syn­a­gogues, Hil­lels and adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al set­tings across the U.S.

Discussion Questions

In The Lost Archive: Traces of a Caliphate in a Cairo Syn­a­gogue, Mari­na Rus­tow engages in a fas­ci­nat­ing project of schol­ar­ly recov­ery, deci­pher­ing traces of a lost archive of the Fatimid caliphate (9091171) that have lain hid­den under writ­ten Jew­ish doc­u­ments in the Cairo Geniza. While Geniza schol­ars have long focused on the Jew­ish lay­er of text, Rus­tow per­forms a feat of lit­er­ary archae­ol­o­gy, dis­cov­er­ing an ear­li­er lay­er of Ara­bic doc­u­ments that include peti­tions, gov­ern­men­tal doc­u­ments, tax receipts, and more, and in so doing helps to rewrite the his­to­ry of the Islam­ic Mid­dle East, prov­ing that archival sources for pre­mod­ern dynas­ties do in fact exist. This well-writ­ten, detec­tive-like inves­ti­ga­tion of recy­cled doc­u­ments (which includes illus­tra­tions of the actu­al sources them­selves), will almost cer­tain­ly have a major impact on the writ­ing of medieval Mid­dle East­ern his­to­ry for decades to come.