The Lost Archive: Traces of a Caliphate in a Cairo Synagogue 2018966986, 9780691156477

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The Lost Archive: Traces of a Caliphate in a Cairo Synagogue
 2018966986, 9780691156477

Table of contents :
Front matter
Contents
Technical Note
Maps
Introduction
PART 1_Source Survival
1_The Geniza: Blind Spots and Cataclysms
2_The Storage Capacity of State Power
3_The Corpus: Its Shape and Coherence
PART 2_Chancery Practice
4_Paper: The Search for a Sustainable Support
5_Layout: Early Arabic Chancery Norms
6_Script: The Impact of the Abbasid East
7_Imperial Norms: The Abbasid Chancery
8_The Fatimid Petition-and-Response Procedure
PART 3_The Ecology of the Documents
9_Supply: A Proliferation of Decrees
10_Administrative Manuals and Nonmanuals
11_The Source: The Chancery
12_Copying, Storage, and Dissemination
13_The Probative Value of Documents: Archiving and Registration
Appendix to Chapter 13: Fatimid ʿAlāʾim and Registration Marks
PART 4_The Problem of Archives
14_The Rotulus as an Instrument of Performance
15_The Ontological Status of the Decree
16_Archives, Documents, and thePersistence of “Despotism”
Notes
Notes to Introduction
Notes to Chapter 1
Notes to Chapter 2
Notes to Chapter 3
Notes to Chapter 4
Notes to Chapter 5
Notes to Chapter 6
Notes to Chapter 7
Notes to Chapter 8
Notes to Chapter 9
Notes to Chapter 10
Notes to Chapter 11
Notes to Chapter 12
Notes to Chapter 13
Notes to Chapter 14
Notes to Chapter 15
Notes to Chapter 16
Acknowledgments
Bibliography
Subject Index
Index of Manuscripts with Shelfmarks
Photo Credits and Permissions

Citation preview

The Lost Archive

Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World Edited by Michael Cook, William Chester Jordan, and Peter Schäfer

A list of titles in this series appears at the back of the book.

The Lost Archive T r aces of a Ca l iph ate i n a Ca i ro Sy n ago gu e

Marina Rustow

Princeton University Press Princeton and Oxford Publication is made possible in part by a grant from the Barr Ferree Foundation Publication Fund, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University.

Copyright © 2020 by Princeton University Press Published by Princeton University Press 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540 6 Oxford Street, Woodstock, Oxfordshire OX20 1TR press.princeton.edu All Rights Reserved LCCN 2018966986 ISBN 9780691156477 British Library Cataloging-­in-­Publication Data is available Editorial: Fred Appel and Thalia Leaf Production Editorial: Sara Lerner Text and Jacket Design: Leslie Flis Production: Jacquie Poirier Publicity: Nathalie Levine and Kathryn Stevens Jacket Credit: Zakariya al-Qazwini (c. 1200–1283 AD). From “Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing.” Gouache on paper, folio size: 30.5 × 20.5 cm. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich This book has been composed in Adobe Text Pro and Gotham Printed on acid-­free paper. ∞ Printed in the United States of America 1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

For Petra, with love

Contractual time is a dimension of chancery practice that, though variable according to class of document, will determine the effective life of the archive. Preservation beyond that point, of course, enables its history to be written. —­John E. Wansbrough, Lingua Franca in the Mediterranean, 86

Contents Technical Note  xi Introduction: Middle East History’s Archive Problem  1

I. Source Survival 1. The Geniza: Blind Spots and Cataclysms  23 2. The Storage Capacity of State Power  55 3. The Corpus: Its Shape and Coherence  83

II. Chancery Practice 4. Paper: The Search for a Sustainable Support  113 5. Layout: Early Arabic Chancery Norms  138 6. Script: The Impact of the Abbasid East  160 7. Imperial Norms: The Abbasid Chancery  173 8. The Fatimid Petition-­and-­Response Procedure  207

III. The Ecology of the Documents 9. Supply: A Proliferation of Decrees  247 10. Administrative Manuals and Nonmanuals  274 11. The Source: The Chancery  296 12. Copying, Storage, and Dissemination  319 13. The Probative Value of Documents: Archiving and Registration  343 Appendix to Chapter 13: Fatimid ʿAlāʾim and Registration Marks  368

IV. The Problem of Archives 14. The Rotulus as an Instrument of Performance  381 15. The Ontological Status of the Decree  402 16. Archives, Documents, and the Persistence of “Despotism”  424 Notes  451 Acknowledgments  529 Bibliography  535 Subject Index  577 Index of Manuscripts with Shelfmarks  589 Photo Credits and Permissions  597

Technical Note Most of the geniza documents cited in this book are available in high-­resolution images through the Friedberg Genizah Project (fjms.genizah.org), abbreviated FGP in the documentation. Editions, translations, and descriptions of many of the texts are available online through the Princeton Geniza Project (https://geniza.princeton.edu /pgp/pgpsearch/), abbreviated PGP in the documentation. See there as well for the data infrastructure for chapter 13. Citations of the Encyclopaedia Iranica refer to the online version at www.iranica online.org. The Encyclopaedia of Islam is abbreviated EI1, EI2, and EI3. These refer, respectively, to M. Houtsma et al., eds., The Encyclopaedia of Islam: A Dictionary of the Geography, Ethnography and Biography of the Muhammadan Peoples (Leiden: Brill, 1913–­38); H. A. R. Gibb et al., eds., The Encyclopaedia of Islam: New Edition (Leiden: Brill, 1954–­2007); and Kate Fleet et al., eds., The Encyclopaedia of Islam Three (Leiden: Brill, 2007–­). I give manuscript measurements height by width. Where I give dual dates, the first date is according to the Islamic (hijrī ) calendar, and the second according to the Julian calendar. Single dates or centuries are Julian only. All transcriptions and translations are my own unless otherwise noted.

ATL ANTIC OCEAN B l a c k S ea

AL-ANDALUS

Corsica

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Sardinia UMAYYAD CALIPHATE Cordoba

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S e a Alexandria Minyat Ziftā

Sijilmāsa

I F R Ī Q I Y A

EGYPT

Madīnat al-Fayyūm Oxyrhynchos/ al-Bahnasā

Cyprus Damascus Ramla S Y R I A Jerusalem Fustat

Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai

R e

Abbasids: Northern Syria, Iraq, Iran, Central Asia Loyal to Abbasids: Egypt and Syria

Fatimids and Abbasids in the early tenth century.

a

Loyal to Fatimids: Maghrib, Sicily

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Fatimids: Ifrīqiya

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Ctesiphon Ancient settlement

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Dunhuang

AT L ANTIC OCEAN B l a c k S ea Corsica

AL-ANDALUS

Rome

Constantinople

Sardinia UMAYYAD CALIPHATE Cordoba

M e d i t e Qayrawān

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B Y Z A N T I N E r

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I F R Ī Q I Y A

Aleppo Crete

S e a Alexandria Minyat Ziftā

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Madīnat al-Fayyūm Oxyrhynchos/ al-Bahnasā

Cyprus Damascus Ramla S Y R I A Jerusalem Fustat/ Cairo Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai

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d

Dongola

Loyal to Fatimids: Sicily Loyal to Abbasids: Northern Syria, Iraq, Iran, Central Asia

Fatimids and Abbasids in the late tenth century.

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Fatimids: Maghrib, Ifrīqiya, Egypt, Southern Syria, and the H ̣ijāz

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Ctesiphon Ancient settlement

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Bāmiyān

Is ̣fahān

I R A Q

Ta r i m Ba s i n

Samarqand Panjikent

Ghazna

KH U R ĀSĀN

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YEMEN S ̣anʿāʾ

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Dunhuang

ATL ANTIC OCEAN B l a c k S ea

AL-ANDALUS

Corsica

Rome

Constantinople

Sardinia Cordoba

M e d i t e Qayrawān

r

B Y Z A N T I N E r

E M P I R E

Sicily

a

Fez

n e a n

MAGHRIB

Aleppo Crete

Alexandria Minyat Ziftā

Sijilmāsa

I F R Ī Q I Y A

Cyprus

S e a EGYPT

Madīnat al-Fayyūm Oxyrhynchos/ al-Bahnasā

Damascus Ramla S Y R I A Jerusalem Fustat/ Cairo Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai

R e

d

Dongola

Loyal to Fatimids: Sicily, Yemen, and the Central Maghrib Loyal to Abbasids: Ifrīqiya, Northern Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Central Asia

Fatimids and Abbasids in the mid-­eleventh century.

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Fatimids: Egypt, Southern Syria, and the H ̣ijāz

S e

Ctesiphon Ancient settlement

Ca

Aral Sea

XINJIANG

T ̣arāz

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Turfān

Talas

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Dunhuang

ATL ANTIC OCEAN B l a c k S ea

C A L IPH AT E Cordoba

Rome

Constantinople

Sardinia

M e d i t e Qayrawān

Fez

r

BYZANTINE EMPIRE r

SELJUK SULTANATE OF RUM ARMENIA N CIL

Sicily

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S e a Alexandria Minyat Ziftā

Sijilmāsa

EGYPT

IFRĪQ IYA

Madīnat al-Fayyūm Oxyrhynchos/ al-Bahnasā

Cyprus

ICIA

Aleppo

A DERS

A L MO H A D

CRU S

Corsica

Damascus Ramla S Y R I A Jerusalem

Fustat/ Cairo Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai

R e

d

Dongola

S e

Ctesiphon Ancient settlement

a

Fatimids: Egypt, H ̣ijāz Loyal to Fatimids: Yemen Loyal to Abbasids: Seljuk Rūm, Syria (except Latin kingdoms), Iraq, Iran, and Central Asia

Fatimids and Abbasids in the mid-­twelfth century.

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Ca

Aral Sea

XINJIANG

T ̣arāz

sp

Turfān

Talas

ia ea n S

S O G D I A Bukhārā

BAC TRIA

Rayy Sāmarrāʾ Ctesiphon Baghdad

Bāmiyān

Is ̣fahān

I R A Q

Ta r i m Ba s i n

Samarqand Panjikent

Ghazna

KH U R ĀSĀN

Pasargadae Persepolis

Bas ̣ra

Pe

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n

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I N D I A A ra b i a n S ea

Y

EM EN S ̣anʿāʾ

INDIAN OCEAN

Aden 0 0

500 250

1000 500

1500 750

2000 km

1000 miles

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Dunhuang

The Lost Archive

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Introduction MIDDLE EAST HISTORY’S ARCHIVE PROBLEM

There is a widespread but mistaken notion that few documents have survived from the Islamicate Middle East before about 1500. Even specialists in the medieval Middle East have drawn invidious (or perhaps merely envious) comparisons between what they study and the Ottoman Empire on the one hand or Latin Christian Europe on the other. S. M. Stern, who identified and published more than two dozen Arabic state documents in a period when there were still believed to be virtually none, called the number of extant documentary sources “pitifully small” compared to those of Europe.1 The Ottomans were profligate consumers of paper, prolific producers of documentation, and scrupulous organizers of records; there are hundreds of thousands of documents in archives in Istanbul, more than enough to fuel the work of many generations of historians. By comparison, the preceding rulers—the Abbasids, Fatimids, Ayyubids, and Mamluks, in addition to countless shorter-­lived dynasties—are imagined to have produced few documents and preserved fewer.2 The purpose of this book is to lay such notions to rest. The Islamicate Middle East developed complex systems of documentation that have not yet been well understood. I have set out to understand one of them here: that of the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt and Syria in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The Fatimids (297–567/909–1171) were only one dynasty, albeit the dominant one of their era, a Mediterranean superpower. But their habits of document production were not sui generis: they drew on those of their predecessors and influenced those of their successors. Fatimid documents are, then, one starting point for understanding the documentary habits of pre-­Ottoman Islamicate states, and arguably even of complex agrarian ones more broadly. Surprisingly, though—and not a little paradoxically—most of the documents that survived from the Fatimid period in Egypt survived in the attic of a medieval synagogue. A significant amount of what survived was written by government officials; of the official documents, most survived because they were reused as scrap paper. That is the paradox this book attempts to explain.

GENIZAS AND ARCHIVES The attic where they survived—and by metonymy, the cache it contained—is known as the Cairo Geniza. The name refers to their find spot in the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat, and, in turn, to the Jewish custom of geniza, the long-­lived habit of consigning worn-­out texts in Hebrew script not to outright destruction but to a slow decay in

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2 • Introduction dignified limbo, usually in a storage chamber or cemetery. Christians and Muslims in the medieval Middle East followed similar customs for texts in Arabic, Syriac, and other languages. When the Ben Ezra Geniza chamber was emptied between 1888 and 1897 and its contents dispersed to manuscript dealers, private collectors, and libraries, it held roughly four hundred thousand pages of books and documents.3 The vast majority of these were, indeed, in Hebrew script. But the cache also held documents in other scripts, Arabic among them. Of the Arabic-­script documents, many had nothing whatsoever to do with Jews except that Jews had later reused them. The geniza contained, in other words, precisely the sort of Arabic document that should have survived in a state archive had any state archives survived. But the geniza was not an archive, and that brings us to a second paradox. Like archives, genizot exist to store texts. But unlike genizot, archives are arranged for storage and retrieval. Archives contain live documents that substantiate real claims, and to be useful, they must be orderly. Genizot contain dead writings in search of a final resting place, including worn-­out copies of works of literature, cancelled orders for payment, the marriage contracts of people long deceased, and grocery lists planning meals long consumed.4 The Fatimid state documents from the geniza survived not because they were archived, but because they were jettisoned. Many of the documents show evidence of having spent some time in the archives of the Fatimid state. But their later traces demonstrate that they entered the geniza not because of some cataclysm like regime c­ hange, but while the Fatimid caliphate still stood. Why did government officials discard them? And how did the documents arrive in Jewish hands? What can their migration tell us about methods of document storage and retrieval? If states in the medieval Middle East kept archives, what happened to those archives, and when did it happen? This book attempts to reconstruct the patterns of use, preservation, and reuse that led to this doubly paradoxical situation—that our most abundant source of Islamic state documents was a Jewish house of worship; and that the archive of an Islamic polity is susceptible of reconstruction not because it survived intact, but because it was dismembered. As to how those documents migrated from the palace in Cairo to the synagogue in Fustat, there is no single answer that covers all the documents. The very fact that they survived in Egypt means we can’t assume the Ottomans took the documents to Istanbul when they conquered Egypt in 1517. Catastrophic displacement in times of regime change is only one path to an archive’s dispersion. Mundane routine is another. Fatimid officials not only filled their archives; they also pruned them, as any efficient record-­keeping institution does.5 It is to the pruning that we owe much of what has survived.6

DOCUMENTS, DESPOTISM, AND THE DISCIPLINE Hence the move from talk of archives to talk of archiving practices. In writing this book, I have heeded the warnings of some recent essays to widen the focus from the search

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Middle East History’s Arc hive Problem • 3 for surviving documents—solving the empirical problem of the gaping evidentiary lacuna while leaving a larger conceptual question unanswered—and reconstructing instead the wider system of document production, use, and storage.7 What can the documents themselves tell us about the state and the culture of documentation that brought them into being? Studying Fatimid documents has convinced me that we cannot understand the workings of a polity without getting down to the micro level of its bureaucrats, high officials in the chancery of the capital, and lowly paper pushers of the peripheries alike. Sometimes misconceptions are so deep-­seated that neither empirical evidence nor conceptual overhaul suffices to consign them to the reputeless banishment they deserve. Documents from the medieval Middle East have lain neglected in part because of the belief that the region had no use for them. Where does that belief come from? I have therefore also tried to reflect on the assumptions that have led generations of scholars of the Middle East to imagine the region as uninterested in producing, let alone preserving, documentation. What expectations does this reflect of the nature and capacity of Islamicate political power? The polities of the medieval Middle East tend to be characterized as either laissez-­ faire to the point of indifference or despotic to the point of authoritarianism. Both arguments have mustered the supposed dearth of documents in their favor. One cause, two opposite effects. Because few have looked for the documentary evidence of the quo­ tidian functioning of these states, the states appear weak or despotic; few have looked for the documents because weak or despotic states—either way, states led by arbitrary and unpredictable rulers—would have had little need of them. But it turns out that the notion that the medieval Middle East has preserved fewer documents than medieval Europe requires rethinking from the other side, too: what it assumes about Europe. Most medieval Latin documents survived because they were copied or summarized in cartularies—registers containing transcriptions or summaries of documents—not because they were kept as originals in archives. For the period before 1100, the Near East has, in fact, preserved far more original documents than Europe, whether they’ve been stored in limbo or recovered archaeologically.8 But the vast majority of them languish neglected in library collections: more than 99 percent of extant Arabic papyrus and paper documents remain unpublished.9 It’s important to get the proportions right because of the centrality of documents to legal and political claims. The strongest version of the invidious comparison to Europe holds that while in the Latin West, documents served as tools for the preservation and reproduction of legal and social privileges, in the Islamicate world, they were of little use because rulers monopolized the power to grant privileges and granted them arbitrarily if at all. The survival of documents in European archives, on this logic, demonstrates the stability and strength of Western social institutions, or even a nascent concept of rights. The medieval Middle East supposedly lacked the institutional structures that could have supported or produced a robust culture of documentation, let alone a presumption of legally or politically defensible rights.10 It’s also important to get this right because of the consequences for the field of Middle East history. Medieval Middle East historians have a marked preference for narrative

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4 • Introduction and prescriptive sources—texts meant for posterity, or what historians refer to as “literary sources,” though the category encompasses more than literature, extending to chronicles, juristic works, and encyclopedic compendia of many kinds. The problem with literary sources—with relying on narrative and normative works nearly exclusively—is not that their authors consciously crafted them for an audience: so did the authors of documents. But the kind of audience matters. Chronicles were acts of memorialization, generally of elites, directed at nameless future generations. They were written on speakerphone, as it were. Legal works tell us how a handful of religious specialists wanted Muslims to comport themselves, but less about how they did, and they say little about areas of life that Islamic law had little interest in regulating, let alone about non-­Muslims, who for the first several centuries of Islamic rule constituted the majority of subjects. Middle East studies has flourished despite these constraints and even, to some extent, because of them. The educational trajectory of medievalists entering the field has for a long time mirrored that of the elites they study. They focus on classical Arabic texts of the high religious, juristic, and literary traditions. Sooner or later, for many students, love for those traditions takes over. Many go on to specialize in the classical Islamicate disciplines, such as philosophy, theology, poetry, or the study of the learned elite (ʿulamāʾ) and the makings of the Islamic legal tradition. All this is, in and of itself, not a bad thing. But there is a problem with ignoring documents, and that problem is both methodological and substantive. The tendency toward the literary has resulted in a body of knowledge tilted disproportionately toward the lettered elites and their engagement in religious thought, literary pursuits, and high politics. It has starved medieval Arabic and Persian documentary sources of attention. It has also kept historians of the pre-­ Ottoman Middle East at the margins of the historical discipline, at the risk of mutual impoverishment. Finally, and centrally to this book’s argument, ignoring documents has exacerbated a long Western habit, already evident in early modern European writings on the Orient, of depicting Middle Eastern sovereigns as ruling their patrimonial domains as personal fiefdoms. Viewed through the lens of the chronicle tradition, rulers appear to have governed in a manner that was ad hoc and unpredictable. This is unsurprising: the chroniclers’ gaze tended to focus on the colorful anecdotes and intrigues in the upper echelons of the court, rather than the midlevel bureaucrats and the relatively stable administrative infrastructures that remained intact across dynasties. Their preference was for stories about powerful individuals; modern historiography has followed suit. Students of Islamic law, conversely, have tended to focus on prescriptive law and jurisprudence to the exclusion of the documents legal courts produced, the personnel who wrote them (whom one could characterize as the standing armies of Islamic civil law), and how litigants’ demands shaped the law.11 The notion that there was a dearth of written instruments has, then, played into the image of a Middle East ruled despotically and arbitrarily, pervaded by pious prescription, while virtually assuring that such an image go unchallenged. Subjects of a polity

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Middle East History’s Archive Problem • 5 without written records lack a means of asserting their rights or contesting official injustice. Their only choice is to throw themselves on the whims of the powerful. Where there are no archives—documents stored and organized so as to facilitate retrieval— there can be neither administrative memory, nor procedural predictability, nor political stability. One historian has argued that the Muslim elite competed for social power and defended its privileges not by presenting documents in their defense, but by writing (or appearing in) works that staked claims to juristic and literary expertise, such as biographical dictionaries. On this argument, social historians can cease to lament the paucity of documents preserved in archives and, instead, should think carefully about biographical compendia and the preference for them.12 The abundance of biographical dictionaries is a worthwhile historical problem, no less than the dearth of surviving archives. But those problems are not necessarily related. And not to seek out the documents that have survived, let alone those that haven’t—to suggest that Middle East historians should remain content with their chronicles and biographical dictionaries— is to make a virtue of a false necessity. The disavowal of the ephemeral documentation on which most complex cultures rely has led to an impasse from which I would like, in this book, to trace a path backward in order to find a new one forward. The medieval Middle East possessed a robust culture of written documentation. State officials produced records including decrees, memoranda, orders, accounts, registers, and receipts, and they form a corpus so coherent in their graphic presen­ tation that anyone with a modicum of exposure to them can recognize them at first sight. Courts of law and government offices produced written acts and maintained consistent procedures for authenticating them; their personnel had an interest in ensuring that rights claims depended on more than personal whim—the ruler’s or anyone else’s.13 Scribes developed diverse technical specializations in the art of record keeping. Along with these came a division of labor among administrative and legal personnel. And along with those, in turn, came systems of document organization and retrieval. My aim in this book is, in part, to contribute to the reconstruction of those systems. I want to use the documents that have survived to understand not only the process of their production, but also their patterns of use, preservation, displacement, destruction, and reuse—in short, their afterlives.

AN ABUNDANCE OF DECREES How, then, did Fatimid state documents survive in the Cairo Geniza? The question is not entirely new, even if the complexity of the answers still needs to be fathomed. S. M. Stern explained the migration of state documents from the palace to the geniza via the shortest route possible: a straight line. Jewish officials who worked in government offices, he surmised, held on to at least some of them and eventually

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6 • Introduction deposited them in the geniza chamber because that was their habitual method of discarding documents.14 It may be that some documents from the palace in Cairo reached the synagogue in Fustat this way, but I have become convinced that those are the minority. In an early article on this subject—when I published it, I had just begun making my way into the corpus of documents—I argued that Jewish officials brought state documents into the synagogue to provide communal leaders with effective models to copy. Such a scenario would explain why many of the Fatimid petitions that survived in the geniza are whole: they served as exemplars for the art of writing documents. And this is especially true of petitions: when what’s at stake is defending or contesting one’s rights, privileges, and social and legal status, the need for exemplars is pressing.15 But neither of these scenarios—catastrophic displacement or hunger for diplomatic models—explains a type of document that has survived in surprising abundance: state decrees, especially the kind of decrees written wastefully on long vertical scrolls (rotuli) with very wide line spacing. The Fatimid chancery drew up these impressive-­looking edicts and had them delivered to lower officials or to petitioners, or had them read aloud in public. The geniza has preserved hundreds, maybe thousands, of them, all of them fragmentary, and all of them reused for Hebrew-­script texts. Those form much of the documentary infrastructure of this book. The problem of the Fatimid decree is the problem of Islamicate state archives writ small. All the original Fatimid decrees that have survived in the geniza are fragmentary. There are a few whole decrees, but they are all private copies. Of the grand, wasteful originals, all we have are fragments. There are whole decrees that survived outside the geniza, and other types of Fatimid state document that have survived intact inside it, including petitions to sovereigns and other dignitaries; memoranda and reports to higher-­level officials; and fiscal records, tax receipts, accounts, and ledgers. But the decrees are fragmentary, and they are also perplexingly abundant. They also look as though they have been cut deliberately, not merely ripped apart by the ravages of time and haphazard storage. They are so systematically dismembered as to suggest that they may have been intended not for the archives at all, but for some other life trajectory. (The phenomenon is not exclusively a Fatimid one; I shall return to it in chapter 2.) The material is so much more abundant than I had anticipated that at some point, I had to admit that working through it was a project for a team rather than a single scholar, and for a series of publications rather than just one, even one as long as the book you’re now reading.16 This book represents my attempt to make sense of the system of state documentation, not just the system of archiving and deaccessioning, because only in light of the whole problem of document production and exchange do the parts become legible and comprehensible. The seeming paradoxes begin to make sense when one reconstructs the larger documentary ecology of circulation, discard, migration, reuse, and preservation. What is needed, then, is an understanding of the broad ecology of Fatimid state documentation—as well as the proximate reasons why documents may have circulated and migrated.

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Middle East History’s Arc hive Problem • 7

THE SIDE OF DEMAND When I began research for this book, about one hundred Arabic documents from the Fatimid and Ayyubid periods had come to light through the labors of four scholars: S. D. Goitein, S. M. Stern, D. S. Richards, and Geoffrey Khan.17 One hundred is a respectable number if you are a medievalist. All of them had emerged from a small handful of repositories: the Cairo Geniza, the archives of the Jewish and Coptic communities in Cairo, the monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai, and the Italian state archives. The find spots all happen to be non-­Muslim institutions, a fact so striking that many assumed keeping archives was specific to dhimmīs, as though their legal status gave them reason to keep archives, while the rest of the medieval Islamicate world lacked institutional structures persistent enough to allow for long-­term document preservation. In fact, it was only because those Jewish and Christian institutions had received the documents rather than issuing them that they had survived. This is a common enough phenomenon—the recipients of privileges are more likely to hold onto the documents attesting to them than the issuing institutions, a pattern not only in the Islamicate world, but in Japan and Europe as well, where documents tended to survive in monastic and family archives, and to enter public repositories only with the birth of the modern state.18 Such was the situation when I began. As I trawled the geniza collections, I expected the total number of state documents to reach perhaps four hundred, a figure I published and immediately began to fear was too high.19 The current number now exceeds sixteen hundred, and this is only the number I happen to have seen personally. The largest geniza collection, at the Cambridge University Library, has yet to be searched and could yield many more. (If the prospect sounds exciting to you, consider this an invitation to join in the trawling.) The current number is sizable not just compared to what I expected. It is also a significant proportion of the documentary texts in the geniza. I would currently estimate the documentary geniza at forty thousand texts.20 By that measure, Arabic documents of state make up 4 percent of the whole documentary hoard—a surprisingly high percentage given that the geniza was a repository for worn manuscripts in Hebrew script. That proportion demands an explanation not just on the side of supply—how did state offices deacquisition documents?—but also of demand: what was the larger set of assumptions that impelled Jewish scribes, and many others besides, to use official documents as writing material? Here, too—on the supply side—patterns have emerged. Most of the fragmentary decrees have Hebrew-­script texts on the verso, and sometimes between the lines on the recto as well, and they are texts intended for public performance, such as liturgical poetry and parts of the Bible written out for public recitation in synagogue. Liturgical texts are well represented in the geniza overall, but the correlation between them and the decree fragments is so striking as to suggest that the prolific recyclers of state decrees were the cantors who worked within the walls of the synagogue where the geniza

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8 • Introduction was found. What connection, if any, did the cantors who reused state decrees have to the state? And did they cut up the decrees themselves, or did they acquire them only when they were already in pieces? The scenarios I propose are not as cataclysmic as regime change, whether attempted or successful. The survival of Arabic state documents in the geniza is not just an unlikely circumstance. It is a fortunate one for the historian: recycled documents provide better evidence of archiving practices than continuously existing archives would. The documents themselves have convinced me that the best way to understand how a culture of written documentation worked is to pull forensic evidence from the documents themselves. This is, then, a book about documents and their afterlives. But it has, over the course of the writing process, become larger than that as the material has suggested another set of questions. What would the history of the medieval Middle East look like if its historians took documents seriously? How would the field evolve if documents formed a regular part of our source base, as they have for medieval European historians since the early modern age of antiquaries? What would happen if we read them not just as containers for textual information, but as artifacts in their own right?

THE IMPORTANCE OF DIPLOMATICS Like many books on premodern documentary texts, this one sits astride the discipline of history and a number of technical fields: philology (the comparative linguistic study of historical texts), papyrology (the study of ancient documents, not just on papyrus), paleography (the study and decipherment of old writing), and diplomatics (the structural and institutional analysis of historical documents). Starting in eighteenth-­century Göttingen, these fields developed under the rubric of sciences that are “secondary” or “ancillary” to historical writing, the historisches Hilfswissenschaften. That rubric also includes epigraphy (the study of inscriptions), numismatics (of coins), sigillography (of seals), codicology (of books from a material perspective), chronology, geography, and others. Together these form an arsenal of techniques that historians deploy—in admittedly variable measure—in order to make historical evidence legible and make it yield meaning.21 Astride history and the Hilfswissenschaften is not always a terribly comfortable place to sit. Historians who work with difficult or very old documents tend to fear the judgment of philologists, because we suspect (often with justification) that they are linguistically better equipped to understand them, yet our history writing depends on understanding them deeply. Philologists experience a reciprocal measure of fear and trembling in facing—or avoiding—the epistemological dilemmas, interpretive constraints, and narrative decisions that historians regularly handle in the course of their work. Historians may worry that philologists will say they have read their evidence sloppily; but they are also likely to dismiss the technicalities of reading because they believe history comes alive at the writing table, in the course of argumentation. Once a historical narrative is complete, the technical skills that undergird it are passed over in silence—like money, religion, and politics in polite company. Philologists risk a re-

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Middle East History’s Archive Problem • 9 ciprocal judgment: in handling historical evidence, they have been known to adhere to a kind of naive positivism, believing that once they have identified, transcribed, translated, and contextualized a text, their work is finished. The historian’s work has just begun. This book tiptoes ever so quietly away from this dilemma to begin from a different standpoint. The technical skills required to read documents—above all, very old and difficult ones—are not merely a means to an end. They are a bridge to the past, a means of understanding the scribes who wrote them and the institutional practices those scribes established and perpetuated. In the technical details, in other words, lies otherwise irrecoverable information about documentary culture. Those details must, then, be handled like any other type of historical evidence: interpreted and discussed—not ignored or assumed to hold self-­evident meaning.22 There is a related problem. Medieval Middle Eastern documents, to the extent that they are read at all, tend to be read as vehicles for individual case studies of the type that has long engrossed both historians and papyrologists. We somehow possess a prurient interest in the singular, the contingent, the anecdotal—the exception. Historians in particular tend to strip documents of their boilerplate, their repeated verbiage, their characteristic look, their repeatable features—to “debone” them, as Tamer el-­Leithy has put it.23 We divest them of their formulaic text and go straight for the variable free text, the “meat” of good narrative. The grandfather of documentary geniza studies, S. D. Goitein, tended to read documents this way, and many in the field of geniza studies have followed him in doing so, myself included.24 There is nothing inherently wrong with this: focusing on one-­off information yields the kind of historical narrative that thrives on human drama, and permits one to judge a society’s norms from its exceptions and limit cases. Specialists in the geniza are not, to be sure, the only historians to work this way. But we have, perhaps, fewer excuses for leaving so much text lying on the floor of the shop: our constant contact with the Hilfswissenschaften should prevent us from discarding any part of the animal. The bones contain otherwise unrecoverable information. It was difficult not to debone documents when we knew them primarily via printed editions, microfilms, or—if one had the proper funding and few competing commitments—long-­distance travel, accommodation in spartan rooms, and a steady diet of library cafeteria food. It was like salvage archaeology: get in, get what’s important, get out. But now, the nearly ubiquitous availability of digital images means that no interpreter of the past has to settle for reading documents as containers for one-­off information: their material qualities and diplomatic vestiges are right there before us. The diplomatists, for their part, have always maintained that documents are records of their own production, of scribal traditions, of storage habits, of patterns of deposit and deacquisition—that they are material artifacts and our best witnesses of their trajectories and afterlives. A historian might put it differently: they are records of the workings of power. But as both diplomatists and historians know, documents can also be diffident. They will relax enough to divulge their pasts only if questioned with empathy, and they speak more volubly in groups than singly. (This in itself is an argument for treating documents in groups by genre, not just by narrative concern.)

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10 • Introduction I’ve come to see the rubric of “ancillary sciences,” then, as dismissive and unfair, as though technical skills are a mere scaffolding. If, as students of a long forgotten past, we are honest about how we work, the technical skills are not ancillary to what we do: they are central to it. They are conduits for historical empathy, tools for entering the minds and bodies of the scribes on whom our work depends, ways of getting to know the ordinary people on whose behalf they wrote them, of watching the officials who used and discarded them do their work. I believe in discussing the “ancillary” techniques and even making them central to what we do, not only as a bridge to the past, but also as a way of bringing the research process out into the open, of making it teachable and reproducible. The ancillary sciences are hardly to blame for the naive positivism with which they have been applied. Now, after the material turn, they are practically begging us to transcend it. I have begun, then, from the premises that historical information lies embedded not only in the texts of documents but also in their material features—and that documents must, therefore, be studied both as vehicles for texts and as physical artifacts. That means that it will not suffice to study them from printed editions, to read the recto without asking what was later written on the verso, or not to ask how the document found its way from the first scribe who wrote on it to the second. But documents are also more than mere artifacts, precisely because they contain texts. The Fatimid state documents I study here not only shared a common fate. They also have a set of features in common, a range of verbal and graphic styles that mark them as specifically Fatimid. Taken together, those features demonstrate that the dynasty developed a coherent set of diplomatic norms, conventions, and protocols that scribes transmitted over the course of generations. They attest, in other words, to a set of institutions—a socially legible code of habits that opened and constrained future possibilities. Some Fatimid diplomatic norms—wide line spacing, upward-­curving lines, and word-­stacking at the ends of lines—were remarkably long-­lived in Arabic script documents of state: they began at the Abbasid chancery and would survive in petitions and decrees down to the Ottomans, Safavids, Qajars, and Zaydīs.25 Their longevity itself bespeaks their semiotic force and the continuity of the institutions they represented. That, in turn, suggests that we abandon the shopworn notions of a Middle East devoid of documents, let alone of institutions. Fatimid state documents are worth studying, then, on several counts: in their own right; as a material record of Fatimid statecraft; as probable and not-­so-­pale reflections of what the long-­lamented central Abbasid archives might have looked like had they survived; and as a watershed in a much longer tradition of Middle Eastern document production. But even stopping there would be to sell them short. They are also some of our best evidence of how administrative traditions in the premodern world evolved. A certain basic conservatism of scribal praxis stands to reason when much was at stake in a document’s legibility, predictability, and legitimacy. Fatimid state documents were milestones in the establishment of a characteristic Islamic chancery style that would persist for a millennium through changes of regime, capital, and religious ideology. I take that persistence itself as evidence of precisely the sort of institutional stability that many histories of the medieval Middle East have denied. The inflection points, con-

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Middle East History’s Archive Problem • 11 versely, when scribes adopted new styles are also significant: to innovate in a basically conservative milieu, as the Fatimids also did, is a decision that begs interpretation.

DOCUMENTS, ARCHIVES, AND GENIZOT: A USER’S MANUAL The geniza is not the only place where Fatimid state documents have survived. The vast riches of Arabic paper documents in the non-­geniza collections of Cairo, Vienna, Utah, and elsewhere will surely yield more of them.26 I have not looked systematically through these collections, partly for reasons of manageability, but also in the interests of maximizing my own utility to scholarship. An unplanned intellectual trajectory led me to the skills required for working with geniza documents, and also to an abiding curiosity about how premodern empires work.27 Those two roads converge in this book, and now that I’m here, I am determined to make what I have learned useful to others. I have focused on the geniza, though, 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. If you’re curious about the convoluted circumstances in which ordinary Fatimid subjects submitted petitions, or about the mix of reverence and glee with which an otherwise unknown Jew of Fustat beheld the chancery rescript he had just received in response to his petition, or about the difficulties one man faced in tracking down a stray tax receipt because of his fear of being caught without one—if you’re a student of any premodern empire and these questions excite your curiosity, an excellent way to satisfy it is to read letters and legal testimonies documenting the user end of the Fatimid state, and most of those are in Hebrew script.28 It is not always possible to find such fine-­grained texture in premodern history—to access the social tensions that resulted, after who knows how many turns of the screw, in administrative documents. I thought this was an opportunity not to be missed. Conversely, I felt I couldn’t go further in my exploration of the Jewish communities of medieval Egypt and Syria without some understanding of bureaucratic procedures they encountered and sometimes mastered in the normal course of business. That, in turn, led me to an interest in diplomatics, which I’ve since realized is essential to the historian’s craft, all the more so for social historians. Taking a diplomatics-­based approach to documents turbocharges the process of interpreting them, casting sharper light on texts that would otherwise be mined for colorful anecdotes while leaving the scribes, institutions, and archives that lay behind them invisible. Working with a cache that was fragmentary to begin with, and then was acquired chaotically and scattered abroad, also entails its share of frustrations. (For how the geniza survived and what its early collectors were looking for when they found it, see chapter 1.) Documents and archives are the basic building blocks of historical technique. Most archival historians begin from archives the coherence of which is virtually guaranteed by mere virtue of its having been assembled and maintained. If you are among this fortunate group, you will read through documents that are in some way related and then use them to tell a convincing story. You may even sit down to conduct

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12 • Introduction research with a certain sense not just of wonder but of entitlement: here are the traces of the past, offering themselves up and practically begging to be understood and contextualized. Many historians have, of course, thought long and deeply about the power relations that brought their archives into being. But do we really think enough about what has not survived, or what has survived in an altered state—for instance as scrap paper, or in bookbindings?29 That sense of entitlement is something I confess I haven’t really known, and if this sounds like a lament, it sort of is. Not having a ready-­made archive at my disposal has, in many passages below, impeded me from offering the kind of coherent narrative historians love to write, myself included. Or else it has forced me to compose a narrative about my attempt to recreate the archive or imagine it into existence, with all the lacunae and frustrations that suggests. I have tried to be as transparent as possible about the process of imaginative reconstruction and the moments of narrative aporia I faced— to break down the “fourth wall,” the conceptual barrier between the performers and the audience, or the convention that allows the audience to see and appreciate the action on stage but not the converse. I have tried to make the interpretive process transparent because I fear that historians who remain silent on the technical elements of their craft, or dismiss them as sterile, boring, or ahistorical, are selling their own interpretive skills—and their subjects—short. Finally, I have attempted to offer what I believe is a reasonable approximation of what we might expect to find in a medieval Arabic state archive and what the Fatimids would have deposited in one. When it came to decrees, scribes produced different formats for distinct purposes. These differences were neither as codified or as systematic as they would become (like so much else) under the Mamluks (648–922/1250– 1517). But there were patterns. The decrees that officials read aloud were long, lavish rotuli of an impractically large format—half a meter wide by several meters long. They were meant to look impressive and embody sovereign authority. They were not, however, meant for the archives: they were large, and when rolled they were round rather than flat. This is fine if you have a finite number of items to store, or if you have an interest in limiting what you want to store, as in ancient libraries that were repositories of classicizing traditions, for instance. But if you are part of an administrative apparatus producing paperwork constantly, you might prefer compact, flat documents to long, unwieldy three-­dimensional ones. The versions state officials kept on hand were small and sensible—normally 17 × 27 cm—and designed with the practical needs of the archivist in mind. The scrolls could then be jettisoned. The ephemeral nature of some state documentation should not, however, suggest that the state was an ad hoc organization with few procedures or principles of storage or continuity. Studying the archival system the Fatimids developed has convinced me of its complexity and its coherence as a system, and that complexity and coherence mean that power inhered not in the charisma of a sovereign whose decisions were arbitrary and immune to contestation, but in the routines of bureaucrats, for whom consistency was a stock-­in-­trade. And anyway, we should not expect medieval Middle Eastern states to prove to us their complexity and procedural consistency. The onus should fall, rather, on us as historians to understand those states on their own terms,

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Middle East History’s Archive Problem • 13 so that their approaches to documentation, archiving, and governance reveal themselves, and, in turn, shed light on how they handled the problem of their own legitimacy.

A ROADMAP OF THE BOOK This book has four parts. The first introduces Fatimid state documents, the second the longue durée history of how Arabic state documents came to look the way they did under the Fatimids. The third and fourth parts trace the biographies of Fatimid documents from the moment of their production to their archiving, dismemberment, and reuse, and then consider what all this means for both the documents and the discipline that studies them. Part 1 begins by taking up the problem of source survival and discussing some previous attempts to solve it. Chapter 1 introduces the Cairo Geniza and explains how (and why) the Fatimid state documents preserved there went overlooked for nearly a century. It does not go into the problem of why they survived in the geniza in the first place, since the answers are many and complex, and form the substance of much of the rest of the book. Chapter 2 introduces two influential attempts to explain the seeming dearth of archival material from the medieval Middle East: Frédéric Bauden’s illuminating account of how the Mamluk-­era historian al-­Maqrīzī came to possess official government documents and repurpose them as scrap paper; and Wael Hallaq’s postulate that courts of law before the Ottoman period recorded information in registers rather than storing original documents. The procedure Hallaq outlines runs parallel to the medieval European cartulary and finds striking parallels in Fatimid practice as well, but his thesis rests on prescriptive sources. And while both arguments have advanced the question of archiving practices and the cause of answering it, one must resist the temptation to elevate them to the status of general theories. Neither quite explains the phenomena I discuss in this book, though they raise many of the same questions. Chapter 3 surveys the Fatimid state documents that have survived in the geniza, both bureaucratic and fiscal. I also argue on behalf of the existence, in the medieval Middle East, of something that can—and, indeed, must—be called a state. Those who avoid applying that term to premodern polities, I believe, define the term too narrowly and also misunderstand how premodern states functioned. The chapter also introduces a striking characteristic of Fatimid documents: their similarity, both visually and verbally, to documents from the Abbasid chanceries at Baghdad and Sāmarrāʾ (that is, the few that have survived or that we can reconstruct from circumstantial clues). This raises the question: What does it mean for a Shīʿī dynasty whose raison d’être was the supersession of the old Sunnī caliphate to have adopted its system of documentation, or at least its semiotics? Then, no less than now, written texts—portable and monumental—were laden with semiotic cues. That the Fatimids carried over Abbasid elements of style speaks to the dynasty’s strategies of self-­legitimation—its efforts to make the new dispensation legible, comprehensible, and authoritative to those who had lived under the old. Part 1 establishes, then, that the Fatimid state was a state, that it

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14 • Introduction produced documents, that many of those documents have survived, and that they imitated Abbasid precedents. Part 2 moves backward in time, situating the dynasty’s diplomatic language in the broader context of Islamicate chancery practice. Chapter 4 opens the discussion of the Abbasid legacy by tracing the diffusion of the writing support universally characteristic of Fatimid documents of state: paper. Paper technology reached Egypt in the tenth century, by which time it was already the medium of choice for state documents farther east. The story of the diffusion of paper technology from Central Asia westward has been told before, but new archaeological discoveries and documentary evidence make it possible to tell it with the emphasis on how real states functioned and how they deployed the semiotics of written media. Against the prevailing consensus, I argue that the transfer of paper to the Islamicate world took place not when Abbasid armies vanquished Chinese forces in Central Asia in 751, but in the 720s, when the Umayyads conquered Khurāsān (the land straddling today’s Iran, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan). Geoffrey Khan has described Khurāsān as the engine room of Islamic sovereignty; he has posited, among the other key innovations of the province, scribal and administrative habits that would come to shape Arabic documents as far afield as Egypt. Throughout this book, the greater Iranian world will play a recurring role as the source of administrative innovations that had long afterlives. Those innovations began with paper.30 But paper was not merely a technological innovation. It was also a prestige good that, by the time it reached Egypt in the tenth century, had become the medium par excellence of state administration and indissolubly linked to it. That prestige explains its rapid spread and the precipitous decline of papyrus. That precipitousness, in turn, explains some of the changes to the layout and script of state documents in the decades preceding the Fatimid takeover of Egypt. The shift to a new medium loosened the old writing habits and broke up the soil in which new diplomatic seeds would take root. In the following chapters, I trace the Abbasid documentary habits that shaped the work of Fatimid bureaucrats: layout (chapter 5), curvilinear script (chapter 6), and the proportioning of scripts (chapter 7). Though some elements of the chancery style on which the Fatimids drew can be detected in earlier Egyptian documents, most of them came from the Abbasid capitals of Iraq: Sāmarrāʾ (from which original documents have survived), Baghdad (whose documents can be triangulated, more or less, on the basis of the codices and descriptions of writers who worked in the court and bureaucracy), and Baṣra. The use of paper in Central Asia had a decisive impact on the Fatimid chancery’s choice of writing support; the scribal culture of Khurāsān had made its way to Egypt long before they arrived. But the look of Fatimid state documents owed nearly everything to a more proximate model: the metropolitan norms of the Iraqi capitals. Paradoxically, the Fatimids succeeded in tying the documentary norms of Egypt more closely to Baghdad than they had been under the Egyptian dynasties that were loyal to the Abbasids. The Fatimids of Egypt were, when it came to diplomatics, more Abbasid than the Abbasids of Egypt had been. At the same time, building on the work of both Nabia Abbott and Alain George, I argue that the aesthetic and philosophical ideal of proportioned script, which is usually attributed to the Abbasid vizier Ibn Muqla (272–

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Middle East History’s Archive Problem • 15 328/885–940), emerged from a network of bureaucrats, philosophers, and polymaths in and around the Buyid courts whose works Fatimid officials (such as Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī) continued to idealize long after the Buyid demise. But there was one type of document that the Fatimids completely rebuilt once they arrived in Egypt: the petition.31 The Fatimid decree of the eleventh century was not terribly different from the Abbasid one of the tenth, or even from the standard high-­ level official letter. But the petition was different. Subjects had petitioned the Abbasids and the Umayyads, not to mention the Romans and Ptolemies before them; plenty of evidence survives of petitioning in Egypt before the Islamic conquest. But the Fatimid petition took an independent course in its wording and layout. In chapter 8, I explain why. The petition-­and-­response procedure was vitally important to the architects of the Fatimid state. Before the dynasty entered Egypt, high officials—the caliph and the chief qāḍī—had begun to advocate for a petition-­and-­response procedure and build it into the rules of government. When the dynasty arrived in Egypt, it began to implement these rules. The regime granted taxpaying subjects the right to petition the sovereign because they would not extract revenue without offering justice in return. By responding to petitions caliphs could also bestow mercies and benefactions on their subjects, and this would help win their loyalty—or, put another way, sap their will to revolt. And by petitioning the caliph about the injustices that their local officials had inflicted on them, subjects kept the caliph apprised of recalcitrant, rogue, or corrupt appointees whom he could then remind that they served at his pleasure and sack, punish, or make pay staggeringly large fines to the fisc. Petitions served the ruler by keeping subjects happy and lower officials in check. The political uses of the petition-­and-­response procedure was not new to the Fatimids. The innovation that they brought to it was to redesign the petition as a distinct type of document rather than the variant on the common letter it had been under the Abbasids. Requiring official petition writers to draw up petitions in a new and recognizable style also meant requiring them to enact their loyalty to the new state—a particularly useful thing to do when some of those scribes had worked for the Abbasids and you might suspect their loyalties. By writing new-­style petitions, scribes physically enacted their loyalty to the new regime. They also listened to subjects as they recounted the kind of limit cases that would cause them to complain of mistreatment. The petition served, then, as a disciplining device for midlevel officials. Thus did the state ensure that it could rely on the existing administrative infrastructure it found when it entered in Egypt while prying officials loose from their loyalties to the old regime in Baghdad. Part 2 establishes, then, that the diplomatic vocabulary of the Fatimids had roots in the past and in the East, and that the Fatimids put their own dynastic stamp on it, introducing clusters of features that would persist in Arabic state documents far longer than the Fatimids would persist as a dynasty. Throughout this part of the book, I’ve derived my descriptions of Fatimid documents from the documents themselves. The narrative sources tend to be partial, vague, or inconsistent when they describe Fatimid diplomatic norms, or else contradict the material evidence. But the documents follow a conspicuously consistent and discernible set of patterns. Fatimid scribal practice was

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16 • Introduction loosely consistent, but I suspect it may not have been fully standardized. There were institutionalized patterns, norms, and ideals, but not yet an explicit set of rules or a guide to document production (the way there would be, for instance, in the Mamluk period). This hints at the possibility that Fatimid bureaucrats trained in apprenticeships rather than in a school or a scriptorium. It also underscores the importance of pulling information about the documents from the documents themselves. Part 3 leaves the broad narrative of Arabic diplomatic style and zooms in on a single genre: the decree. My goal here is to map the ecology of the Fatimid decree—both its life cycle (from writing, copying, dissemination, and registration to archiving and dismemberment) and the habitat in which its life cycle unfolded. Chapter 9 argues that the long, lavish vertical scrolls (rotuli) that Fatimid subjects reused as scrap paper must once have been in strikingly abundant supply. Here, I tell the story of a conflict between two groups of Jews in the 1030s from the point of view of the documents it produced. This single case yielded fifteen state documents, both petitions and decrees, of which two are extant; the other thirteen are phantoms. This is a rate of preservation of less than 15 percent, and it may suggest the rate at which Fatimid state documents survived more generally—the proportion of some putative whole that our extant evidence represents. This same case study also shows that the letters of the heads of the Jewish community in Syria-­Palestine and Egypt discussed Fatimid bureaucratic procedure with conspicuous precision. One of the letters that document the case is in Hebrew, the language that Jewish communal leaders used when they were writing to each other and trying to sound impressive and official. But Hebrew had, by the eleventh century, been a written, not spoken, language for a millennium. Its limited lexicon presented those who used it with the dilemma of how to express new ideas in very old words. Where would a Jewish leader look in search of a Hebrew word for “decree”? The Hebrew Bible had two good sources of bureaucratic vocabulary: the books of Esther and Ezra. Both happened to have been set at the Achaemenid court. Eleventh-­century CE letters thus drew on fifth-­century BCE administrative vocabulary, talking about Fatimid governors as though they were Achaemenid satraps. To read them is to behold the persistence of Near Eastern administrative habits. This may point to the long shadow that the Achaemenids cast over Middle Eastern imperial politics, an even longer shadow than the Abbasids (who themselves drew on Sasanian symbols and political philosophy). The precision with which Jews deployed this administrative vocabulary suggests that the Fatimid procedures were knowable, even by those who didn’t work in the dīwāns (the offices of government). This case study also helps explain why the Fatimids bothered to write up decrees in response to petitions in the first place. Chapters 10, 11, and 12 explain how they wrote them up, taking us into the belly of the beast (or, if you prefer, the holy of holies): the Fatimid chancery. Chapter 10 introduces the genre of administrative manuals, asking why the work of some Fatimid-­ trained officials remained useful and survived in multiple later copies, and others barely made it to us at all. I am particularly interested in a description of the Fatimid chancery written by a man who worked there for nearly half a century, and for the last two decades as its director, Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī (d. 542/1147). The work survived in a single copy,

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Middle East History’s Archive Problem • 17 in the same manuscript as an Ayyubid fiscal manual—that of Ibn Mammātī—which is much more technical and difficult to read but was copied repeatedly for centuries. The fact that they now occupy a single codex may have something to tell us about the circumstances under which both were copied—and thus of the transmission of Fatimid administrative practices during the Ayyubid period. Chapter 11 considers Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s account of the chancery, attempting to reconstruct how officials drew up different types of decree for public dissemination and for local archiving. Chancery fragments survived in the geniza that can be dated to Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s tenure as director. Comparing the claims he makes with the material record of original chancery decrees convinced me that he described the tasks and specializations of his appointees without informing us that more than one specialist filled each post. The Fatimid chancery was, then, a larger organization than he let on—with implications for the production rate of Fatimid state documents. From the scale of the operation, I then move to a particular problem of logistics. In chapter 12, I ask which the scribes of the Fatimid chancery wrote first, the grand rotuli that went out into the territory or the compact bifolios they stored in their archives. The question may seem painfully demotic—as when John Pryor asked how many horses could fit on a seafaring ship at the time of the Crusades, the kind of question that, left unanswered, made it difficult to understand how the Frankish conquests of the Levant could have happened in the first place.32 Students of the past sometimes find it easier to think in abstract, long-­term processes than to render history in real time and at the scale of human lives. The answer was surprising, at least to me: the compact bifolio versions of decrees came first; they were the originals that stabilized the text of decrees, while the grand rotuli were instruments of performance. The rotuli may have looked impressive, but they were fungible. Given that, it seems less paradoxical that so many of them got discarded and survived as reused fragments, if at all. Only the compact bifolio versions of decrees were bound in the archives; they were the originals, serving to stabilize the text of a decree before the chancery calligrapher copied out grand rotuli from them. Chapter 13 leaves the chancery and follows its products into the provinces. The first stop is the government bureaus where officials summarized decrees, copied them into registers, and festooned them with signatures and registration marks. S. M. Stern left us a thorough excursus on the caliph’s signature (ʿalāma), but lower officials had their own signatures and deployed them to authenticate documents and register their contents in their own archives.33 The system of authentication was complex but rational. It had firm procedures. It required storage and retrieval. Having studied this system, one would be hard pressed to doubt the robustness, complexity, and concrete reality of the Fatimid state and its documentary culture. But beyond merely existing, that documentary culture also hints at the resources and precedents on which the Fatimids drew and at the density of nodal points in the system they constructed. Part 3, then, traces the supply end of the arc, establishing that Fatimid decrees left their traces in offices throughout the empire—that documents were registered in numerous dīwāns. Part 4 establishes that not every document was intended for the archives. In chapter 14, I circle back to the decree in its grand form—the long, wasteful

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18 • Introduction vertical scroll. While these scrolls were created to impress lower officials and subjects, once they had served their purpose, they were rarely preserved. For those of us (like me) who fetishize original documents—especially very fancy-­looking ones—the fungibility of the grand decree may seem hard to fathom. But not all written objects required archiving. On the contrary: a humble, compact avatar of the same text was more easily stored and retrieved. It is perhaps intuitive for historians to regard physically impressive historical evidence as somehow possessing a greater value for posterity, almost as though we were reliving our medieval subjects’ awe before the authority of the ruler. To do so is to miss something important: documentary culture and archiving practices. Even though the public decrees were grand and might seem, to us, worthy of preservation by sheer dint of their grandeur, in their own time and place, they were fungible because they were instruments of performance. And so they entered the supply chain once more, only this time as scrap paper. What did it mean for an impressive-­looking and lavish rotulus to be dismembered and reduced to the status of an inert writing surface? Sometimes, in their second lives, they also served as instruments of performance. Many different kinds of people reused the dismembered decrees as writing paper and filled their blank spaces with religious texts or personal letters. What did they make of them? Did they imagine themselves to be contributing to the destruction of state documentation, of historical evidence, or to its preservation in altered form? What, in sum, did it mean to use a decree as scrap paper, and why choose it over any other writing material? These are questions I take up in chapter 14 with a case study: Efrayim b. Shemarya (active ca. 1020–50), a synagogue leader in perpetual need of writing materials who satisfied it with his fair share of scrapped decrees, thus permitting us to trace their life cycles. But in chapter 15, I argue that scribes reused decrees not simply because paper was scarce or prohibitively expensive. There were many types of paper available, at a wide range of costs. The used decree was special, and it may not have been a random choice. In the hands of state officials, it had been an ephemeral instrument of performance, a prop to aid the dramatic scene of its own recitation in public or its own phatic statement of the state’s grandeur. It was also the embodiment of the sovereign. Just as it had been designed as an ephemeral instrument of performance, so, too, was it frequently (though not always) reused for ephemeral performances—especially for liturgical texts meant to be recited aloud. That, in turn, raises the question of whether the documents were, in fact, designed to meet the ultimate fate of sparagmos—dismemberment for quasi­ ritualized purposes. One analogy I explore (playfully, I assure you) is the Eucharist: the humble matter of flour and water rendered sacred. Another is Pete Townshend’s guitar, an instrument of performance sacralized through its own destruction. Was the decree’s sparagmos one way the state could disseminate its message even more widely than it could with whole decrees? The sparagmos of the Fatimid decree marks a limit case: preservation of documents was not some default mode, deviations from which the historian must explain. It was a deliberate decision that officials made and enacted in specific cases, for reasons we must research and reconstruct, not presume.

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Middle East History’s Archive Problem • 19 That process of deliberate decision making and rational system building—usually through written instruments—typifies complex, sedentary states and defines bureaucracies, not just modern ones. The possibility of reenvisioning the Fatimid state as a Weberian bureaucracy brings me to the book’s concluding chapter, in which I take up the historiography’s annoyingly persistent notion that the medieval Middle East was poor in documents and archives and weak in institutional structures. There are many reasons why this notion has clung to the scholarship. Here, I focus on what I believe is the most important of them. Conceptions of pre-­Ottoman Middle Eastern polities have tended to cluster around two poles: the passive and ineffectual or else the despotic and unpredictable. These two visions appear to be contradictory, but in fact, they share an assumption: that these polities were flying by the seat of their pants and ran on personal whim rather than as considered systems of statecraft. Of these two contradictory images—the laissez-­faire and the despotic—the laissez-­faire is now more common among specialists, and my skepticism about it is one reason I wrote this book. The despotic conception continues a tradition that stretches back to Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Montesquieu, and if its roots are surprisingly deep, its tendrils are surprisingly ubiquitous: they can be found in the classic historical studies not just of the Islamicate Middle East, but of the Romans and Achaemenids before them. The first step to uprooting them both is to take stock of the evidence and reconstruct the state’s real-­time workings via its documents.

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O

I

Source Survival

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O

1

The Geniza BLIND SPOTS AND CATACLYSMS

Many improbable contingencies have linked up to bring sources to the present, including patterns of human settlement, geographical and environmental constraints, evolving maps of political sovereignty, and uneven distributions of power. It is an indescribable stroke of good fortune for historians that the oldest and largest geniza in the world happens to have survived three kilometers south of the first capital of Islamic Egypt (fig. 1.1). The Fatimids entered Egypt in 359/969 from the West, ousting the Abbasids—in the form of their governors, the Ikhshīdids—and beating them back to the deserts of Syria and Iraq. They began building their capital and palatine complex, Cairo, as soon as they arrived, thus becoming the first fully sovereign dynasty in a thousand years to rule Egypt from Egypt.1 Soon after, between 1025 and 1041, the synagogue now known as the Ben Ezra was built (or rebuilt on the site of two previous synagogues) and outfitted with a chamber for worn documents large enough that for a thousand years after, it didn’t need to be emptied.2 The building of a capital and a geniza within half a century and seven kilometers of one another was a fortunate confluence whose consequences have not yet been spelled out. Egypt is the only Islamicate setting that permits the luxury of examining original documentation from every medieval century. This is not because Egypt housed an abundance of medieval archives. It probably did, but in this it was not alone. Rather, Egypt’s environmental conditions granted us what the discontinuity of archives withheld: traces of repositories that once served living purposes. This is owing to a rare confluence of factors.3 First, there is geography. Egypt is cut through by the Nile, on which human habitation and civilization depended for the entire history of the country until recently. The rest of the place is huge swaths of desert, with the exception of the Fayyūm, the agricultural oasis southwest of the delta. Settlements have snaked along the course of the Nile for millennia, and the proximity of settled civilization and desert is ideal for the intact survival of human artifacts—texts among them. As the towns and cities along the Nile grew, they stretched into the desert (as Cairo is still doing today). As they shrank, they drew closer to the river, leaving archaeological deposits in the dry-­as-­dust no-­man’s-­land. One fine example of this is the survival of an enormous cache—estimated at half a million pieces, though I do not know how accurately—from Roman Oxyrhynchos (now

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24 • Chapter 1

N I L E

AL-MAQS

ring

FAT IMID CAI RO

ALSHĀ ˛ RI A ˛ L-A Z ̣ AM

̦ ˛ AL-QAT ̣Ā I

ile d u

˛

AL- ASKAR

f th

e Ri

ver N

al-

am att uq M

al-Rawd. a

Mosque of Ibn T ̣ūlūn

Birkat Qārū n

the F atim id p

eriod

Bir

ka

t al

-Fīl

T H E

AL-K H

ALĪ JA

L-K ABĪ R

Mosque of al-H ̣ākim

Ban ko

N E

W

Nilometer

AL-FUST ̣ĀT ˛ ̣ ˛ Mosque of Amr b. al- Ās. Kanīsat al-Shamiyyīn ˛

Qas.r al-Sham

S

0 0

1 ½

2 km 1 mile

1.1. Fustat and Cairo under the Fatimids

al-­Bahnasā) in Middle Egypt.4 The texts survived in a garbage heap that became increasingly isolated as the town shrank and hewed to the banks of the Nile in the late Roman era. Most of the Oxyrhynchos finds are documents, not literary fragments, in contrast to the geniza, about 10 percent of which is documents. Because the mound at Oxyrhynchos was a trash heap, the town’s inhabitants were more likely to consign to it their dead-­letter documents than fine literature; the geniza, by contrast, was a holding tank for discarded books in an urban synagogue whose elders and leaders regularly handled

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The Geniza • 25 literary texts. That said, Oxyrhynchos also preserved its share of literature: nothing induces a sense of the palpability of the ancients like a rediscovered ode of Sappho, an unknown comedy of Menander, or a three-­column fragment of Homer from the lost library of Alexandria.5 While most of the Oxyrhynchos papyri are in Greek, a significant proportion are in Arabic, from as late as the Ayyubid period.6 But none of the Arabic Oxyrhynchos texts has been published: the cache has remained the preserve of papyrologists who work in ancient languages. That no one has yet taken them on suggests a twin bias: of Islamic studies against documents, and of papyrology against “late” material, though both biases are now happily eroding. Abundant documentary writings in Arabic script have been recovered via archaeological methods from elsewhere in Egypt, too, especially the Fayyūm. Then there are the quasiarchaeological methods. Late nineteenth-­century fellāḥīn (peasants) knew that the nitrogen-­rich sebākh, the composted fertilizers they used on their fields, contained ancient papyri that could profitably be sold to European manuscript hunters.7 But all this is the case outside Cairo. In Cairo itself, environmental conditions are conducive to the preservation of written materials in a special way.

THE DUST OF CAIRO The humidity level in Cairo is uniform. It’s not dry, but rainfall is minimal, and the level of humidity remains relatively stable at around 60 percent most of the year, sliding gently down to 45 percent over the course of March, remaining stable through April and May, and then over the course of June creeping back up to 60 percent. More than moisture, dramatic fluctuations in humidity create bad conditions for paper and parchment and good ones for the growth of mold. In Cairo, these are absent. Perhaps even more important than the climate, however, is the dust. Anyone who has visited Cairo knows the dust. It is a very special kind of dust. It is light brown and powdery, and it is pervasive. It enters your pores, your nostrils, and the windows of your apartment, even when they are closed. It covers your furniture and your books. You either dust them daily, or you give up. It collects around your ankles by day and must be scrubbed off by night. Smears of it appear on your book bag and your shoes regardless of whether you have left the house or not. The dust is so pervasive that it has a personality. It is like T. S. Eliot’s yellow fog that rubs its back on the windowpanes, The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-­panes Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening, Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains, Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys, Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap, And seeing that it was a soft October night, Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.8

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26 • Chapter 1 It is like the fog of Venice in winter, “the famous nebbia,” which, Joseph Brodsky wrote, renders this place more extemporal than any palace’s inner sanctum, by obliterating not only reflections but everything that has a shape: buildings, people, colonnades, bridges, statues. Boat services are canceled, airplanes neither arrive nor take off for weeks, stores are closed, and mail ceases to litter one’s threshold.9 The nebbia is “thick, blinding, and immobile” and leads, finally, to self-­oblivion, “induced by a city that has ceased to be seen.”10 The dust of Cairo is no less worthy of immortalization than the fogs of London and Venice. But more than the fogs—much more—the dust of Cairo is in possession of an acute historical consciousness. 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, coating the buildings in a brown patina. It makes all manmade structures appear uniformly ancient and timeless—extemporal indeed; the dust incorporates whatever it covers into the annals of the city’s history. The dust is the great equalizer, covering buildings indiscriminately: the mausoleum complex of a Mamluk sultan, the villa of an Ottoman bey, or a high-­r ise apartment of the Sadat era. The dust is unstinting with them all. It envelops the city in a uniform semblance of great age and grandeur (fig. 1.2). The source of the dust is not the desert. It isn’t sand; it isn’t abrasive; it isn’t beige. It is soft, it is brown, and, above all, it is chalky, because it comes from a friable limestone massif. This is the Muqattam mountain, at the right bank of the Nile, toward the northern side of the city. The Muqattam overlooks Cairo like a sentinel who has seen empires rise and fall so many times that the spectacle bores him (fig. 1.3). If the sentinel could speak, he would speak in the voice of al-­Maqrīzī, the great Mamluk-­era historian of Egypt, and the stories he would recount in high rotation date to the early Fatimid period, when Cairo was new, even if Egypt was already very, very old. The first story: how the Fatimid caliph al-­Ḥākim disappeared on a walk below the Muqattam one evening in Shawwāl 411/February 1021. Only the Muqattam knows what happened that evening.11 (That is not to say that the Druze—who believe that al-­Ḥākim, a physical manifestation of the divine Oneness, resumed his transcendent form that night—don’t know what happened; but gnosis and knowledge are not hewn from the same quarry.)12 The second story: according to medieval Coptic sources, a religious debate at the court of the Fatimid caliph al-­Muʿizz (or perhaps al-­ʿAzīz) resulted in the urgent need for a miracle to help the Coptic side, and one swiftly ensued through the agency of a humble tanner named Samʿān, who made the Muqattam jump three times, thereby convincing the caliph of the truth of Christianity.13 The miracle of the Muqattam is only one instance of the mountain’s generosity. The dust is another. A third is its inexhaustible gift of limestone blocks for the building projects of successive civilizations, pharaonic onward. It is not the only source of limestone: the right and left banks of the Nile valley are lined with it, from Giza to Luxor— hills, cliffs, and plateaus that supplied pyramid, temple, and tomb for millennia and sup-

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The Geniza • 27

1.2. The dust of Cairo.

ply villas and apartment buildings today. But the Muqattam is particular: deep inside its core lies a fine, white limestone, used, for instance, for the facade of the Great Pyramid of Cheops and for the pavement of the Fatimid mosque of al-­Aqmar.14 And in that fine, white limestone lies a key to the survival of the Cairo Geniza. The Muqattam gives itself so completely to the city’s history that it protects its antiquities—especially its portable texts.

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28 • Chapter 1

1.3. The Muqattam, a limestone massif overlooking Cairo from the right bank of the Nile. Illustration from Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt (1798–­1801).

Limestone contains, by definition, a minimum of 50 percent calcium carbonate. Calcium carbonate is one of the most effective substances available for the preservation of paper, parchment, and ink.15 In the Ben Ezra synagogue, the geniza chamber’s roof had collapsed at some point before 1864.16 The quantity of soft, chalky dust that had settled on the hoard of manuscripts was so prodigious that after nine months sorting through the geniza chamber, Solomon Schechter complained of the permanent ruin of his lungs.17 He described the geniza as “emitting clouds of dust when its contents were stirred, as if protesting against the disturbance of its inmates. The protest is the less to be ignored as the dust settles in one’s throat, and threatens suffocation.”18 The women of the Jewish community showed him “their deep sympathy in my fits of coughing caused by the dust.”19 Little did Schechter realize that the very dust that destroyed his lungs had also preserved his hoard of Hebrew manuscripts relatively intact.20 If the proximity of the desert and the sown is good for the preservation of human artifacts, the dust was especially good for manuscripts. But the very environmental conditions that favored the survival of texts from Egypt also raise legitimate questions about how representative it is of the rest of the Islamic world. Just as Egypt’s environmental conditions facilitate the preservation of material evidence, they also impose certain constraints on human habitation. A swath of fertile territory surrounded by vast tracts of desert makes extracting the land’s resources, redistributing them, and regulating the movement of people relatively straightforward affairs, certainly compared to places where the arable land and inhabitants are more diffusely and less predictably distributed. The economic system of the country was organized around the Nile. That means that from your perch in the palace in Cairo, you could gauge the level of the annual flood and know whether it would be a year of plenty or of want and how high grain prices were likely to go. And because the human geography of Egypt was also organized around the Nile, governors and their minions did not have to wonder where to find revenue for the fisc. The geography, in other words,

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The Geniza • 29 preserves documents but also diminishes the need for them. The geographic complexity of other regions may well have required networks of personnel and record-­keeping systems that were more rather than less complex than those of Egypt. Whatever doubt may be cast on Egypt’s representativeness of the rest of the Islamic world, then, it is difficult to imagine that Egypt produced more documents than other regions—even though it preserved many more of them. The geniza’s existence is usually explained by citing a set of ancient Jewish injunctions against casually destroying texts containing the name of God in Hebrew. The congregants of the synagogue where the geniza was preserved—who followed the Syrian-Palestinian rite (al-­shāmiyyīn)—were loath to throw away their writings, this argument runs, because even common letters and legal documents began by invoking God’s name, or else because they came to believe that Hebrew script itself was sacred and should not endure the indignity of casual destruction. But placing sacred texts in an attic in perpetuity is a disposal method unattested in rabbinic literature. Traditions recorded in the Babylonian Talmud mandate disposing of sacred writings by burning or burying them; nowhere does rabbinic law dictate building a special chamber as a kind of limbo for disused writings.21 Moreover, while the classical rabbinic injunction refers to texts containing the name of God in Hebrew script, the geniza also preserved decidedly nonsacred texts in a variety of languages—Hebrew, Aramaic, Judaeo-­Arabic (Arabic in Hebrew characters), Yiddish, and Ladino—and in scripts besides Hebrew as well. None of the Cairo Geniza documents thus far deciphered discusses the practice of discarding texts in a geniza. There are fragments of rabbinic literature that do, but we cannot take it for granted that everyone heeded their injunctions or interpreted them the same way.22 Were you to conduct ethnographic fieldwork among the Jews of eleventh-­and twelfth-­century Fustat who filled the geniza with their disused papers, it is unlikely that everyone you talked to would offer pious statements about the inherent sacrality of Hebrew texts. The answers would probably fall along a broad spectrum, from rabbinic injunction to family traditions vaguely understood and unquestioningly imitated. The congregation interpreted the custom of geniza liberally. A minority— those who had studied in the yeshivot of Jerusalem and Baghdad, for example—may have taken the prohibitions against casual destruction of Hebrew-­script texts quite seriously. Others might have applied it to other scripts, and still others might say that they deposited all their papers there regardless of script; it is demonstrably the case that not everyone sifted out the Arabic-­script texts before dumping their manuscripts into the geniza chamber. Still others may have deposited texts there not because of beliefs about their sacredness or prohibitions against their destruction but because since childhood they had seen their elders do the same. But rabbinic injunction and Jewish family tradition are still not enough to explain the practice of geniza. It is part of a wider set of practices of textual disposal in many Middle Eastern contexts, premodern and otherwise. Deposits of worn manuscripts have survived in two Umayyad-­era mosques, at Damascus and Ṣanʿāʾ.23 Both caches included copies of the Qurʾān—the same pattern of placing sacred texts into limbo—and

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30 • Chapter 1 Damascus’s contained the mix of sacred and everyday writings characteristic of the Cairo Geniza. So did the Khālidī Library in Jerusalem, where worn manuscripts survived between the ceiling and the roof and came to light in 1987.24 The practice of trapping worn manuscripts behind and between walls as a method of disposal—relegating them to permanent limbo, to decay naturally, as a way of avoiding destroying them deliberately—was not exclusively a Jewish custom. There are other reasons to be skeptical about the usual reasons given for the Cairo Geniza’s existence. The notion that, for some reason, this particular congregation never buried its sacred texts, keeping them in the attic chamber even though burial was the norm, fails to explain why similar manuscript material was excavated from the perimeter of the Ben Ezra courtyard and the Basātīn cemetery (though in the second case, it may have been buried in the nineteenth century). Burial may have been a widespread norm in Middle Eastern communities only toward the modern period. At least the only evidence we have of it is modern. That, in turn, means that this explanation for the geniza’s existence has a thin pedigree. Its roots lie in some fanciful speculations extrapolating from modern practices back to medieval ones. Here is Solomon Schechter, just back from ruining his lungs in Cairo: the custom of geniza “means much the same thing” for books “as burial means in the case of men. When the spirit is gone, we put the corpse out of sight to protect it from abuse. In like manner, when the writing is worn out, we hide the book to preserve it from profanation. The contents of the book go up to heaven like the soul.”25 The “we” coming from this Eastern European rabbi is telling: it is a charming explanation, but unattested as a medieval belief. S. D. Goitein more cautiously pointed out that “there existed no uniform practice with regard to” geniza.26 But he also repeated Schechter’s fanciful explanation: “just as the human body, having fulfilled its task as the container of the soul, should be buried, that is, preserved to await resurrection, thus writings bearing the name of God, after having served their purpose, should not be destroyed by fire or otherwise, but should be put aside in a special room designated for the purpose to await burial in a cemetery.”27 This, too, is a nice way to begin a magnum opus, but its empirical basis is questionable. When Goitein wrote that it “was a general Jewish custom” to remove the contents of genizot “to a cemetery to make room for other discarded books and writings,” he cited a Life magazine article about Orthodox Jews in Washington, DC, and ethnographic research from nineteenth-­ century Jerusalem, where “it was customary to empty the genizas every seventh year and also in a year of drought, for it was believed that the burial of dried-­out sacred books was conducive to the precipitation of heavenly moisture.”28 Again charming, if a tad orientalizing. That, Goitein tells us, is why other genizot—those in Jerusalem and Aleppo, for instance—contained nothing older than the nineteenth century: only the Ben Ezra had a geniza chamber that could accumulate texts indefinitely without being emptied for burial. But does this really mean that burial was the medieval norm to which the Ben Ezra’s practice was the exception? Goitein’s evidence might in fact point toward the opposite conclusion: that at least among Jews, burial was a later custom. It is likely that there

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The Geniza • 31 were many solutions to the problem of worn sacred text, a possibility supported by a late seventeenth-­century Ottoman legal opinion cited by Joseph Sadan. The fatwā prescribes a range of methods for disposing of Islamic sacred texts, including burning them, sinking them in a body of water, washing and erasing them (palimpsesting), cutting them up, stuffing them into bookbindings, setting them aside in a locked chamber, and, finally, burying them. Many jurists, the fatwā continues, consider burial to be “the best solution,” but how long they had considered it as such, we don’t know.29 “Setting aside in a locked chamber” had plenty of adherents as well. It may even be that this was the dominant tradition—so the parallel cases from Ṣanʿāʾ and Damascus suggest. Regardless of how one explains the geniza’s survival, few would dispute its importance for the history of the region.

HISTORY FROM BELOW The first generations of scholars who worked on the documentary material from the Cairo Geniza were rightly excited about writing history from below. They were among a tiny handful of people doing so in either the history of the Jews or the history of the medieval Middle East. Foremost among them were S. D. Goitein and his students, who gave us a mass of fine-­grained detail about commerce, trade, commodities, ships, land-­ conveyances, and material culture over an astonishingly broad swath of the globe, from the Atlantic coast of the Old World to the Malabar Coast of India, as well as a picture of Jewish habits and Jewish communal politics during the obscure period between Saʿadya Gaʾon (882–942) and Maimonides (1138–1204).30 Goitein’s students and, in turn, their students have continued to make sense of this material. We now know about women, slaves, children, animals, domestic furnishings, and marriage patterns, or enough to render social history less opaque.31 We know more than we ever thought knowable about a host of deliciously mundane subjects—for instance take-­out food. In the medieval period as today, Cairo was full of excellent take-­ away and delivery options.32 We know what people wore: mainly flax and linen, some wool; silk was for the wealthy only.33 We know about ordinary, everyday piety: people were as likely to change synagogue because they found their rabbi overbearing as they were for reasons of religious belief.34 We know about sex: people had more of it than you might imagine, not all of it with their spouses.35 We know about literacy: there was either more or less than you’d imagine, depending on whether you came in believing that preindustrial literacy rates could exceed single-­digit percentages. We know about Jews living under Crusader rule: there were many more than you might imagine given that people imagined there were none at all.36 We know about the lives of children: few of them grew up in a single household with a stable set of adults, a fact that has momentous implications for the transmission of Jewish traditions in a society in which such practices were passed down by mimesis, and books and literacy were scarce compared to modernity.37 Above all, we know medieval Jews were pious without being Victorian or prissy about it.

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32 • Chapter 1 This was all very good for the history of the Jews, since 90 percent of them lived under Islamic rule during the main period the geniza covers, 950–1250. This was a time when the Jews of northern Europe (Ashkenaz) were still demographically insignificant, a mere cluster of families along the Rhine River. To learn more about the Jews of the medieval Islamic world was to learn more about medieval Jews tout court. The geniza was also a great boon for Middle East history, even if it wasn’t systematically exploited for it. Jews tended to be well documented in precisely the areas in which religious loyalties seemed least significant: trade, daily life, and material culture. What you learned about Jews also told you a lot about Muslims and Christians, even if the degree of analogy was more often assumed than demonstrated.38 Goitein believed that the Jewish documents of the geniza could be used to reconstruct, by a pars pro toto logic, the history of the broader society. But to do so, one needn’t make any claims about Jews as representative of it: the geniza has preserved direct evidence of the Christians and Muslims among whom Jews lived.39 More than one book could be written on the influence of Islamic courts on rabbinical courts based solely on geniza documents: the geniza preserved dozens if not hundreds of qāḍī-­court documents that share scribal formulas with the larger corpus of rabbinic ones. Where there are shared scribal formulas, there are also shared documents and even conversations among scribes, and among litigants. This is not even to mention the number of bit players in Jewish documents bearing names that are obviously Christian or Muslim, or vice versa. The turn to social history, then, revolutionized the study of the Jewish past and set the stage to revolutionize the study of the medieval Middle East. But there was one subject on which it told us very little: the courts of caliphs and sultans, the very political centers so abundantly represented in the literary sources. The canvas of the geniza and its scholars was not the state, or the top-­down. It was the microcosmos, the local, the bottom-­up. This was as much a question of temperament as of historical scale. Goitein covered the history of trade and material culture, but he also wrote that his subject was “society rather than the economy, human relations and not technology.”40 His was a certain kind of social history. Consider, for instance, his oft-­cited claim that the Fatimid state “excelled in laissez-­ faire, out of indolence, it seems, rather than conviction. The far-­reaching degree of autonomy enjoyed by the Jews (and, of course, the Christians) during their rule has a very simple explanation: their Muslim subjects, too, were left mostly to their own devices.”41 In effect, he says, the Fatimids were uninterested in the details of governing their empire, or perhaps were too decadent and weak to do so. Because Goitein was the first to think in a sustained way about the social history of Fatimid Egypt and Syria, his laissez-­faire notion has stuck (despite the ungentle cautions of one reviewer).42 In context, he had his reasons: he may have felt moved to emphasize the looseness of the Fatimid state in part because most historians had seen Near Eastern rulers as oriental despots—a tradition of thought that extended to the history of medieval Jewish communities.43 But what seemed to Goitein in the 1960s to be “laissez-­faire” and “indolence” seems, from this side of the orientalism watershed, the workings of a typical preindustrial polity.44 In premodern societies, people were scarce on the ground rela-

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The Geniza • 33 tive to the modern period, literate administrators all the more so. States were stretched for officials. Communications were slow. Local elites were indispensable to successful rule, and micromanagement was impossible.45 From a modern perspective, such a state might appear to be “weak.” In fact—as I hope to demonstrate in this book—the Fatimids ran a state of great complexity and surprising strength for the period. The sheer number of words people devote in geniza letters to getting things from the state, avoiding its agents, or becoming one of them is enough to fuel more than one book. To Goitein, the state was like some distant apparition in Saul Steinberg’s “View of the World from 9th Avenue”—that’s Japan, barely visible over the horizon. For Goitein, ordinary people occupied most of the foreground, like the looming buildings of the West Side of Manhattan for Steinberg. Such was Goitein’s taste for the scale of human relations: his favored preserves were the private houses of Fustat, Alexandria, and Minyat Zifta, or the decks (less often the holds) of ships sailing east across the Indian Ocean and west across the Mediterranean, or the courtrooms where Jewish families negotiated dowries and urged clerks to note down their value. As for the officials—Jewish or not—in the palace and citadel of Fatimid and Ayyubid Cairo, let alone the provincial state bureaus of Egypt and Syria, he mostly ignored the abundant evidence the geniza holds about them. What the geniza has preserved on the provinces and the capital alike could serve as the source for a new manual of Islamic dynasties consisting entirely of midlevel and lower officials (although they would appear more often by title than by name).46 Had Goitein wished to focus on large structures (economy; technology), he might have seen the centrality of the state to running anything larger than a household. He was more interested in reconstructing the possessions, family relations, urban environment, and eating habits of a day laborer than in the workings of the medieval state. This was, on balance, a good thing, better for the field than a new political history might have been. And this is not to say that Goitein avoided breadth. A. L. Udovitch has described Goitein’s temperament with extraordinary evocativeness: Twentieth-­century historical scholarship has produced two grand visions of the Mediterranean world, that of Goitein and that of Fernand Braudel. . . . Braudel’s Mediterranean is vast. It stretches from the gates of Hercules to the gates of Peking. It is full of plains, plateaus, and peninsulas, of climates, of seasons and of world empires. It moves with the majestic, leisurely rhythm of the long durée. Goitein was more modest, and his Mediterranean is much more modest and circumscribed. It is the Mediterranean coast between Tunisia and Egypt, with a little extension in either direction. It is only a part of the Mediterranean; but its shores are teeming with people, their quarrels, their wedding contracts, their dowries, their house furnishings, their table ware, and also their dreams and visions, their religion, and their most intimate feelings. His universe was not on the measure of the sea. Goitein’s, like Braudel’s, is a total history, but a total history tailored to the measure of man.47 And so what the geniza has yielded, by and large, is a “total history tailored to the measure of man.”

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34 • Chapter 1 The geniza has been generous to historians in some ways: it has offered a fine-­grained picture of what a particular community of Jews read, wrote, copied, and discarded; myriad details about what they ate, where they slept and prayed (or didn’t), what they bought, how they told stories about their daily lives, and how they married, raised children, earned a living, lamented their dead, and resolved conflicts or turned to institutions to help them do so. It has offered us, in sum, a wealth of information with which to reconstruct webs of relationships, and the methods people developed to mediate their relationships. But it has been less generous in other ways. It has not disclosed to us what proportion of some putative larger whole its documents represent. The question of patterns of deposit remains unanswered, if not unasked: what did the Jews of the Shāmī synagogue choose not to discard in the geniza? Did other genizot in Cairo receive the same kind of documents, and at the same rate?48 Are the glimpses we gain of the wider population of Fustat, Fatimid territory, and the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern worlds misleading or suggestive? Inferences can be made from part to whole, and they have been, particularly in matters of material culture, trade, and to some extent social patterning. But inferences aren’t our only source of information about the world outside the Jewish community. Arabic-­script documents permit us to train our view on that world. They allow us access to both Braudel’s historical vision and to Goitein’s history tailored to the measure of man. Because Goitein read thousands of letters from traders and notables, he saw that the state continually attempted to extract resources through taxation and outright confiscation.49 How, then, could he have imagined the state was laissez-­faire? There is a disjunction there, as though he was thinking, well, everyone gets annoyed by taxes, so there’s nothing worth exploring in a state that wants to extract them. But because Goitein didn’t focus on the state’s point of view, he couldn’t know that what the Fatimids were doing was deliberate, strategic, and hard-­won. The Fatimid state was neither laissez-­ faire nor despotic, orientally or otherwise. It was a middling premodern regime, geographically overextended and demographically thin. It went to considerable trouble to tax both agricultural production and the transit trade; it maintained irrigation systems; it hoarded and redistributed grain during shortages and famines. But it also subcontracted tax collection and, in many cases, administration because it had to.50 The planet earth currently holds an estimated seven billion human beings, and the rate at which we add a billion has been holding steady since 1960 at once every twelve to fifteen years. In Goitein’s day—between 1947, when he first became aware of the geniza, and 1985, when he died—the global population doubled from 2.4 to 4.8 billion. In the world of the geniza, it was just over three hundred million. That is the current population of the United States, or half the population of today’s Europe. To a historian living in modernity, then, any premodern state looks rather thin on the ground. Because the state has not made much of an appearance in geniza scholarship, some might assume the geniza doesn’t have much to say about the state at all. It turns out the state was under our noses the entire time, only we didn’t see it—quite literally.

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The Geniza • 35

PATTERNS OF RULE AND PATTERNS OF DEPOSIT At the start of their rule from Egypt, in 359/969, the Fatimids founded a new capital. It was a walled palatine compound just north of the already burgeoning city of Fustat; they named it the City Victorious (al-­madīna al-­qāhira, anglicized as Cairo). A sense of the epoch-­making excitement of the operation can be detected in the first generation of their rule in Egypt. Around 990, a Syrian geographer of Iranian origin named al-­Maqdisī conceded that Cairo had now abrogated Baghdad as the center of civilization. The Abbasid capital, he wrote, had been “superseded until the day of Judgment; [Egypt’s] metropole has now become the greatest glory of the Muslims.”51 Soon, the merchants of Fustat-­Cairo would be trading over longer seaborne distances than anyone could previously have fathomed. Perhaps of more immediate moment at the time, the Fatimids were stupendously and conspicuously wealthy, and determined to increase their wealth through extraction. Egypt’s prosperity was central to their story now that Egypt’s tax revenue stayed there rather than being siphoned off to Baghdad as tax or tribute. The last time this had happened—the last time there had been an imperial capital anywhere near the Nile— there were still pharaohs, and people still mummified each other and crocodiles. Where there is a court, there is wealth; where there is wealth, there are merchants hoping to gain some of that wealth by purveying luxury goods to the wealthy, and a state hoping to tax them in return. When merchants can sell luxury items, they will take risks and travel ever greater distances to find them; when merchants bring primary materials from far-­off places, locals will come up with ways to use their hands and their tools to turn them into objects of desire. The geniza documents are teeming with merchants and their commodities, and with craftsmen and their manufactured goods. Read any dowry appraisal in a marriage contract, and you will find objects invested with such importance that they are treated as inalienable property, to be returned to the bride’s natal family in case of her death. Try to translate that dowry appraisal, and you are bound to come across words you cannot find in any Arabic dictionary, evidence of the inventiveness and geographic reach of the Fatimid age when measured in material culture. Goitein himself, whose prowess in Arabic was legendary, had to appeal to experts in dialects and material culture to make sense of the objects he was reading about.52 The world of material culture was vast, even fathomless; medieval people’s relationship to those objects was at once intense, sentimental, and calculated, even if the modern scholar’s encounter with them produces bewilderment. In any preindustrial society, all objects are (by definition) handmade. That, in part, explains the sentimentality: people are reluctant to discard something made by the human hand with great difficulty and at great sacrifice of time and exercise of patience. The idea of doing so may seem foreign, even offensive. A scribe who scrapes a Greek text off a parchment to make way for a new Hebrew one—or the used parchment vendor who does the dirty work for him—has a reverence for objects different from ours but no less profound. Nothing should be destroyed—far be it from the imagination and the conscience. What one generation hewed and inscribed, another pillaged and

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36 • Chapter 1 reused; what one generation read and reread, copied and recopied, another erased in order to copy and read something different. Likewise, a scribe in need of a long sheet of paper was more likely to use a ready-­ made one with ink on the back than to invest in new sheets and the gluing time they would require of him. Why, then, wouldn’t we find reused government documents in the geniza? For one thing, because one doesn’t expect government documents to get into the hands of ordinary scribes, let alone small-­time religious functionaries scrambling for writing material on which to scribble their rabbinic texts, notes for sermons, or other scholarly and liturgical interventions. One assumes that governments need access to their own written information and need other people not to access it. For another, it is because a geniza is a repository for Hebrew-­script texts. And so it was when I first began noticing recycled state documents in the geniza. I, too, had no idea of the scale of the phenomenon. In 2008, I published a brief notice about the recycled state documents in the newsletter of the Cambridge Geniza Research Unit.53 Those five hundred words would launch at least as many ships: I began receiving emails from colleagues who wrote to say that in the course of deciphering this or that Hebrew-­script text from the geniza, they had noticed some intriguingly monumental, calligraphic lines of Arabic but had not known what they were. The first of those emails came from Shamma Friedman, who over the past five decades has revolutionized the study of the canonical late antique rabbinic scholastic compendium, the Talmud, by tracking its transmission through medieval manuscripts. His premise is an old philological one: no scribe is immune to error, to the temptations of creativity, or to the compulsive need to “correct” his predecessors’ work; consequently, no two manuscripts of the same text are exactly alike, and tracking scribal variations through surviving manuscripts allows the textual critic to deduce a pristine Urtext that has not survived. In sum, textual critics are in the business of closely studying texts. Closely studying texts though you may be in the business of doing, if what you want from a manuscript is an Urtext, or even a single text, you will tend to ignore any intruders. Friedman had bracketed the Arabic in his mind, but, being a careful, honest, open-­minded, and collaborative scholar, when he saw my brief notice of 2008, he immediately wrote to tell me that he now understood why a bifolio he had published in 1981, a medieval copy of a section from the Talmud tractate Bava Meṣiʿa, contained four lines of large, widely spaced Arabic writing across the width of the page that he had left undiscussed in his edition.54 He attached a photo of the text, from which the following became clear to me: his medieval Jewish scribe had started not with a pristine sheet but with a fragment of a Fatimid decree, turned it ninety degrees counterclockwise, and folded it to form a bifolio on which he arranged his talmudic text between the lines (fig. 1.4). The Fatimid decree he reused was addressed to a provincial official during the second half of Fatimid rule in Egypt, to judge by the script and formulary. Those are actually the only features by which I could judge, because by a stroke of Murphy’s Law that

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5 cm 2 in

1.4. Part of a late Fatimid decree, reused for a section from the Babylonian Talmud tractate Bava Meṣiʿa. The second scribe has rotated the decree fragment ninety degrees and folded it in half to form a bifolio. Cambridge University Library, T-­S F8.64.

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38 • Chapter 1 I subsequently found to be annoyingly common, the text cuts off just before the date. Assuming I had estimated the date range correctly, Friedman now had a terminus a quo of approximately 1150 for his Talmud bifolio; I had evidence that decrees were seen and held by many more than those for whom they may have been intended. And then the plot thickened: Friedman later found a second bifolio of the same text in the hand of the same scribe—written on a fragment of a different Fatimid decree.55 Was this evidence that decree fragments came in bulk, as used paper, already cut apart? This is a question to which I will return in chapter 2. This recycled Talmud text—not a palimpsest, because the original ink hadn’t been scraped away—suggested that something complex and worthy of investigation was going on in the world of Fatimid state documents. That it took a while for the field to connect the Arabic and Hebrew/Aramaic texts on the same pages typifies a pervasive methodological problem: when it comes to understanding objects with writing on them, it is all too easy to tunnel one’s vision, whether wittingly or unwittingly—to don the blinders, hold up the magnifying glass, focus on one part of the text, and ignore the rest. This was how textual scholars worked before the era of the “material text.” Many scholars would have treated a signed deposition intended for the plaintiff ’s safekeeping no differently from the summary of the same case in a court clerk’s archival register: what interested them was the case, not whether the court clerk recorded it in different formats for the plaintiff and the court archive. General blindness to the material text was, then, one reason it was all too easy to overlook cases of recycling. The other reason is more mundane and contingent: few specialists thought to look for Fatimid state documents in the Cairo Geniza, and there were periods when few people alive could have recognized one—including precisely the period when Friedman published his Talmud bifolio. The first Arabist to publish a steady stream of Fatimid state documents, S. M. Stern, died prematurely in 1969. The second, Geoffrey Khan, began publishing in 1986. In 1981, when Friedman’s bifolio first saw light of day, the only two living scholars who could have identified the original text as a Fatimid decree were D. S. Richards—an Arabist at Oxford who would have had no reason to keep up with Hebrew-­language publications on the Babylonian Talmud—and S. D. Goitein.56 Goitein may have read Hebrew-­language publications on rabbinic literature, but he didn’t need Shamma Friedman’s article to alert him to Fatimid decree fragments. Some years earlier, he had found a pair of them, reused for Judaeo-­Arabic business letters. He noted down the information in his research notes, which he kept on index cards, but he neither published the information nor pursued it further. His header on the card reads, “Paper from the Fatimid Chancellery,” followed by two Cambridge shelfmarks (fig. 1.5).57 He then notes, in Hebrew, that both letters were from a trader named Abū ʿAlī Yeḥezqʾel b. Netanʾel, in Qalyūb, a town less than twenty kilometers north of Fatimid Cairo, to his brother Ḥalfon, an India trader in Alexandria. They were written within a span of two months or less (late February or March 1140 to late April 1140).

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The Geniza • 39

1.5. One of S. D. Goitein’s nearly twenty-­nine thousand index cards containing his research notes. Here, he identifies two Fatimid decree fragments, guessing that the India traders who reused them for letters may have bought them, or perhaps found them in the geniza. He never published this information.

Goitein then measured the space between the lines of the decrees, noting that it was the same on both fragments, and then concluded, now in English, that it was “the same paper.” It isn’t—the scribes’ ductus and treatment of the ascenders and descenders are different enough to warrant the conclusion that they are fragments of separate decrees. Yeḥezqʾel b. Netanʾel, the author of the letters, apparently acquired not just one Fatimid decree, but two.58 What does Goitein make of this? Just below the two shelfmarks, he has added a note in Hebrew: “Maybe they bought (the decrees) or . . . found them in the Geniza?” This is one of those flashes of insight with which Goitein’s index cards and footnotes are littered: it is tentative but, as it happens, correct on the first count.59 (The second scenario is less likely: the letters came not from Fustat but from Qalyūb, so the paper is unlikely to have come from the geniza, not to mention the improbability of retrieving fragments of similar widths from the jumble.) Goitein came, in other words, within millimeters of unraveling the entire problem of reused Fatimid state documents. For neither publishing the information nor pursuing the question further, he can hardly be faulted: there is always more geniza material than one can discuss in print. But his choice to pass over the information is also significant for the present discussion. Goitein has a run of cards on diplomatics, but diplomatic analyses rarely appear in his discussion of documents. And he had more information at his disposal about the Fatimid state than any other researcher alive at the time, but devoted only a brief subsection of his five-­volume work to it. In light of the documents I have studied in writing

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40 • Chapter 1 this book, his discussion downplays the vigor of the state, if not its palpability in daily life.60 The state was just slightly off his radar screen. (When it appeared, it appeared demanding taxes, of merchants and non-­Muslims especially.) Arabic state documents from the geniza have, then, taken a long time to attract scholarly attention. For more than a century, with the exception of a handful of scholars (five at last census), they have been not just neglected but nigh invisible: some of the specialists who saw and handled them passed silently over the Arabic texts around which some of their Hebrew-­script texts were arranged. The exception is Geoffrey Khan, who published several dozen of them in a single volume.61

ONE SCHOLAR’S TRASH Selective blindness and periodic insight is typical of nearly any sustained set of historical or scientific inquiries. Every once in a while, a state of naturalized ignorance will shatter and lodge its strange and intolerable shards into your brain, annoying you into seeing things differently—and, no doubt, blinding you to other questions. When it comes to the geniza, the selective blindness has nearly as old a pedigree as the field itself. Early collectors of geniza material were uninterested in Arabic-­script material. The profile of collections like the Bodleian’s demonstrate this: the library acquired it between 1888 and 1910 and subjected it to several filters. Arabic state documents make up a tiny proportion of its total geniza collection, just 0.225 percent (a mere twenty-­eight of 12,401 leaves). Arabic-­script documents in general, now including state documents, personal letters, and qāḍī-­court documents, make up only twice that proportion, about 0.45 percent.62 The situation is different at Cambridge, where the collection consists not of handpicked items but of whatever Schechter found after collectors and other libraries had had their way with the cache. Cambridge’s collection holds at a bare minimum seven thousand Arabic-­script documents out of 192,843 leaves (3.6 percent).63 That is a high number given that the geniza belonged to a synagogue whose members generally wrote their Arabic in Hebrew script and, at least in theory, consigned mainly Hebrew-­script texts to the geniza. During the dispersal of the geniza, as well, no one recognized the value of the Arabic documentary material. The most thorough of the blind dismissals came less than a decade after Schechter brought his hoard of manuscripts back to Cambridge. It came from Arthur Cowley, a specialist in Hebrew and Sanskrit, Bodley’s future librarian, and someone with a broad enough vision and range of scholarly contacts that he could have put the story together. In his 1906 catalogue of the Bodleian geniza collection, Cowley described in painstaking detail the thousands of geniza texts that the library had equally painstakingly collected from middlemen over the course, at that point, of nearly two decades. Each time Cowley catalogued an Arabic document of state, he described it in one of two ways: “illegible” or (my favorite) “scribbling.”64 That is how trivial—and indecipherable—Arabic state documents appeared to him, presumably in view of their perplexing

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The Geniza • 41 mix of calligraphic elegance and cavalierness by the standards of book hands, their inconsistent use of diacritical dots, and their unruly tendency to connect canonically unconnected letters. Others after Cowley likewise dismissed state documents as “trials of the pen” or (most spectacularly, and this from a fine Arabist) “scrawls on the back which we have not attempted to explain” written in “a hopelessly difficult Arabic script.”65 But as always with the chaotic textual and archaeological legacies of the ancient and medieval worlds, one scholar’s trash is another’s treasure. This is the refrain of the thoroughly researched and well-­crafted history of the Cairo Geniza’s dismantling by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, Sacred Trash: since the late nineteenth century, geniza scholars have made breakthroughs not only by examining fresh material, but by seeing texts that had been hiding in plain sight.66 The paradigmatic example Hoffman and Cole offer of this blindness and insight is a parchment leaf of Origen’s Hexapla, a sixfold Bible translation by one of the fathers of the early Christian church that is of enormous importance for the history of the biblical text. The Hexapla had survived in fragments. Given its importance to early Christianity—and thus to biblical philologists—its discovery in the geniza attracted immediate attention. It was a parchment folio covered with Greek in a seventh-­century hand; three centuries later, it had been palimpsested—scraped nearly clean—and reused by a scribe who filled it with Hebrew writing in a (mostly) heavy, jet-­black carbon ink.67 During the first flush of geniza discoveries, Charles Taylor (1840–1908) at Cambridge noticed, beneath the thick black Hebrew upper text, the very faint, light-­brown traces of Origen’s Greek (fig. 1.6), and he published an entire book announcing the discovery.68 But another shoe had yet to drop. The question of what the upper text was went unasked until an old-­world scholar of Hebrew poetry at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York named Israel Davidson (1870–1939) recognized in it some poems by a seventh-­century Hebrew liturgist named Yannai, the first poet to introduce rhyme into the Jewish liturgy. Only a single poem of his had survived in the Jewish prayer book. Davidson’s discovery of a second one was, in kind if not in magnitude, on a par with Taylor’s discovery of the palimpsested Hexapla, though surely fewer people noticed. The geniza eventually yielded another four hundred of Yannai’s poems.69 Or take Solomon Schechter: having ruined his lungs in the geniza chamber, he then brought nearly two hundred thousand fragments back to Cambridge, only to pronounce half of them “rubbish.” Half a century later, Schechter’s “rubbish” was removed from crates to library volumes and yielded many of the geniza’s greatest contributions to history.70 One scholar’s trash may indeed be another’s treasure, but the reused Arabic state documents have pushed me a step beyond this refrain. You can make a stunning scholarly advance by noticing a text that previous scholars have overlooked, ignored, or deemed insignificant. (And you should, as often as possible.) But it doesn’t suffice to notice a second text that shares real estate with the first. You also have to explain how both came to occupy a single writing support, and what happened in between. Did the tenth-­century scribe of Hebrew liturgical poetry actually own Origen’s Hexapla, and if

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42 • Chapter 1

5 cm 2 in

1.6. Fragment of Origen’s Hexapla (Ps. 21–­22), copied in the seventh century and palimpsested in the tenth for the Hebrew liturgical poetry of Yannai. Cambridge University Library, T-­S 12.182.

so, did he scrape it down as an act of theological aggression, of philological philistinism, or of gross material necessity? But wait: the same scribe palimpsested other texts for his parchment quires, including a Palestinian Aramaic translation of part of the Gospel of John.71 Had this collector of Jewish liturgical poetry read any early Christian texts? Or did he get them from a middleman, perhaps a Christian monastic librarian discard-

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The Geniza • 43 ing worn manuscripts after his monks had copied them afresh—in which case did rabbinic Jewish scribes and Christian monks in tenth-­century Islamic Palestine talk to each other regularly, or at all? Or was there an anonymous trade in used parchment connecting and standing between them? At some point, I came to believe—perhaps quixotically—that if I wanted to understand the relationship between the complex, multitext manuscripts in the geniza and the equally complex society that produced them, I had to consider all parts of the animal.

EGYPTOMANIA AND THE WONDROUS SEASON OF 1896–97 Compounding the problem is a different form of selective myopia. When the geniza documents began to find their way into libraries and private collections, the texts that manuscript hunters hoped to find were not mundane documents but holy writ. The story of European scholars’ discovery of manuscript caches from Egypt is rarely told as a single narrative. I won’t tell the whole story here; doing it properly would require a different kind of archival research from what I’ve done for this book. But there is one coincidence that deserves mention—perhaps as stunning a coincidence as S. D. Goitein and Gershom Scholem having traveled on the same ship from Trieste to Alexandria en route to Palestine, before either would go on to revolutionize his subfield of Judaic studies.72 The coincidence is that four of the most important Middle Eastern manuscript hoards came to light in the same season, 1896–97: the early Christian codices of the Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai; the papyri of Oxyrhynchos; the cache of manuscripts from the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus; and the Cairo Geniza. The discoveries were, moreover, related, either directly or circumstantially. Schechter’s prying eyes would never have beheld the “dust-­heap of the Geniza” had his semiticist friends in Cambridge Margaret Dunlop Gibson (1843–1920) and Agnes Smith Lewis (1843–1926—the birth years are the same because they were twin sisters) not first gone to Sinai in search of early Christian manuscripts at Saint Catherine.73 Gibson and Lewis, in turn, may never have gone to Saint Catherine had it not been for the flamboyant (and ideologically racist) archaeologist W. M. Flinders Petrie (1853–1942), who began an Egypt craze in the learned circles of British academia, going on, in 1896, to discover the Merneptah stele at Luxor, which contained the only mention anyone had found in an Egyptian text of the vanquished people “Israel.”74 And had the deeply Christian Flinders Petrie not been more interested in trawling for ancient treasures, he would never have delegated the comparatively prosaic and unpromising excavation of a Roman-­era rubbish heap at Oxyrhynchos to the young scholars B. P. Grenfell (1869–1926) and A. S. Hunt (1871–1934), who in their first season, also 1896–97, promptly turned up a leaf of an unknown apocryphal gospel that, half a century later, when the Nagʿ Ḥammādī codices emerged, turned out to be the Gospel of Thomas.75 The discoveries of Oxyrhynchos, Saint Catherine, and the Cairo Geniza were all sideshows next to the pharaonic material, but they might never have happened without it,

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44 • Chapter 1 or had the scholars who discovered them not been after the most ancient possible versions of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. And, finally, there were the manuscripts of the Qubbat al-­Khazna (Dome of the Treasury) of the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. The most famous of them was the so-­called Violet fragment, after the scholar who published it, containing psalms in Greek and Arabic parallel texts—but the Arabic was in Greek characters.76 The dealers and collectors who traded in geniza texts up until Schechter emptied it may have been the same dealers who retrieved the manuscripts from Damascus before they ended up with the Ottoman authorities in Istanbul.77 All four caches had something in common besides their improbable survival, simultaneity, and sensational quality in European eyes: the Europeans found them in a hunt for literary texts, not documents, and for one literary text in particular: the Bible. Canonical or heretical, Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, or Arabic—language, provenance, and canonicity didn’t matter, only that the texts be Judaeo-­Christian and as ancient as possible. When Lewis and Gibson passed through Cairo and acquired an oily scrap from the geniza, they were already seasoned scholars and manuscript collectors. In the Library of Saint Catherine in 1892–93, Lewis had found a gospel in Syriac from the late fourth century, then the oldest known copy. It had been palimpsested and was barely visible under a Syriac martyrology of 778 CE.78 It took extraordinary vision for Lewis to understand the importance of the Syriac gospel for the history of early Christianity. It also took extraordinary vision for her to recognize the Sinai palimpsests for what they were—and even to see them at all, most likely without the aid of electrical illumination. And so it was that in 1896, on a second trip to Sinai, Lewis and Gibson passed through Cairo and bought a tattered, oily leaf of paper from an antiquities dealer that looked like it had served as a wrapper for some buttery pastries, but turned out to be perhaps the most significant souvenir a tourist has ever acquired in Egypt. This fragment launched not a thousand ships, but a single one bearing tens of thousands of manuscripts to Cambridge. The leaf that Lewis and Gibson bought was in Hebrew, which they read in addition to about a dozen other ancient languages. The text was from the biblical book of Ecclesiasticus, also known as Sirach or the Wisdom of Ben Sira, and if you haven’t heard of it, this is likely because you are neither Catholic nor Christian Orthodox: those churches consider it canonical scripture, but Protestants do not. For Jews, it’s complicated. Ben Sira had been composed by a Jew in Jerusalem early in the second century BCE in Hebrew. The author’s grandson had then translated it into Greek for the benefit of Hellenized Jews who read Greek more easily. But a few centuries later, when it came time for the rabbis of Roman Palestine and Sasanian Iran to decide on the canon of Hebrew scripture, they waffled. They quoted the book they knew as Ben Sira approvingly, even sometimes (sometimes!) introducing it with an Aramaic technical term reserved for quoting sacred scripture; and undecided the rabbis remained when the church adopted the sacred scripture of the Jews as their Old Testament. In the end,

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The Geniza • 45 the rabbis declared it apocryphal, but the church accepted it as canon, and thanks to Christian copyists, it survived for nearly two millennia, but in Greek alone. Or so it was believed. But then Lewis and Gibson brought home to Cambridge their oily Hebrew leaf. The manuscript had been copied, to judge by the script, in the tenth-­ century. The Hebrew original of Ben Sira was no longer lost; and the Jews of Egypt, it turned out, had a more adventurous palate for reading matter than anyone had realized. Lewis and Gibson had bought the fragment from a dealer. Its ultimate source was the geniza, and back in Cambridge, when they showed it to Schechter, he went about finding the rest of the trove from whence it came. He was Reader in Rabbinics at Cambridge—responsible, in other words, for teaching canonical Jewish texts—but anything with a whiff of the heterodox delighted him.79 He had also long harbored the theory that the original language of Ben Sira had been Hebrew, and now he had himself a smoking gun. Other pages of Ben Sira eventually came to light from the geniza. They not only proved Schechter correct—the work had originally been composed in Hebrew—they demonstrated that the Jews of medieval Fustat were so interested in Ben Sira that they sent multiple copies of it into circulation.80 Lewis and Gibson’s discovery, in short, bore the potential to reconfigure Jewish intellectual history and biblical textual history in one fell swoop: if Jews continued to cite, read, and copy noncanonical works, then what was the meaning of canonicity? Once Schechter found the geniza that had yielded the oily leaf—and the good graces of the synagogue’s leaders—he went to work emptying the geniza chamber, the same season when Flinders Petrie was at Luxor and Grenfell and Hunt were excavating the rubbish tip at Oxyrhynchos, two hundred kilometers up the Nile.81 Such is the foundation story of the field, but questions remain. One is the problem of the geniza’s chaotic dispersal before Schechter’s arrival. Another is the connection between the geniza and the cache from the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, specifically whether the two collections mingled in the possession of dealers. A third is the impediment this chaotic acquisition history throws in the face of attempts to reconstruct medieval archiving practices.

TOWARD A MUSEUM ARCHAEOLOGY OF GENIZA COLLECTIONS When Solomon Schechter arrived in Cairo in 1896, numerous other dealers, libraries, and private collectors had already had their way with the finds. Schechter transported roughly two hundred thousand fragments to Cambridge, but over the previous decade, more than half that number had already been dispersed. The story before Schechter’s arrival has now begun to emerge, most recently through the efforts of Rebecca Jefferson.82 There are nearly sixty Cairo Geniza collections besides Cambridge’s, and their ­acquisition histories remain murky at best. Could one perform on geniza collections,

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46 • Chapter 1 even on a limited scale, what one papyrologist, Katelijn Vandorpe, has termed “museum archaeology”? Museum archaeology involves tracing linked acquisitions from multiple holding institutions to a common provenance.83 If you know that an excavation (legal or illegal) sold its finds to several museums, you can trace your way back from the acquisition records to reunite ancient archives separated at the excavation phase. (These reunions are confined to the pages of scholarship; as to holding institutions and ownership, what’s done is done.) The method is assumed unnecessary in the geniza’s case: the finds, it is believed, came from a single source, even if we will never have a properly stratigraphic analysis of the cache.84 But things are more complicated than they seem: dealers may have mixed finds from different sites into geniza caches, and in some cases from the insides of bookbindings. A few libraries labeled acquisitions as having come from the Cairo Geniza if they were medieval, fragmentary, and in Hebrew script.85 A “museum archaeology” of geniza collections, contrary to museum archaeology’s usual purpose, would serve as much to disconfirm common provenance as to confirm it. One of the things we do know, thanks to Jefferson’s research, is this. At some point before 1864, the goddess Catastrophe smiled on the historian, and the roof of the synagogue either collapsed or fell into severe disrepair, pressing the Jewish community to consider renovation or outright demolition. Catastrophe, Marc Bloch (1886–1944) wrote, is “a deity who often favors the scholar.” Had Vesuvius not erupted and buried it in ash, the papyrus library of Philo­demus at Herculaneum would never have survived. “Innumerable Roman municipia have been transformed into banal little Italian villages,” Bloch lamented, “from which the archaeologist unearths a few vestiges of antiquity with difficulty. Only the eruption of Vesuvius preserved Pompeii.” Continuity of civilizations is not always propitious to the preservation of historical evidence: “a good cataclysm suits our business better.”86 As for the scene at the crumbling synagogue in Cairo, one of its foreign observers was a dogged British collector of Egyptian antiquities, Reverend Greville John Chester (1830–92), many of whose finds went to the Bodleian Library and the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. Chester was in Cairo in 1889 and saw the cataclysm himself, grousing in high orientalist dudgeon: “These wretches have demolished the most curious and interesting old building & are building a new one on the same site.”87 A few months later, in a letter to Bodley’s librarian, E.W.B. Nicholson, the dudgeon had metamorphosed into breathless excitement: A room has been laid open whose floor is literally covered with fragments of M[anu]S[cript]S & early printed Hebr. books, & rolls of leather. From these I selected what I have got, & though I bought the best I could find there were doubtless numbers of others worth having. I only fear the lot will be destroyed or perhaps buried, & I could not get the people to say what will be done with them. One fragment of a book I got seems to me to be cabalistic. As I go on board my dahabeyeh [Nile boat] tomorrow I cannot send off any more, but

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The Geniza • 47 when I have time, I will sort the MSS., clean out the filth, try to straight[en] them out, & send them to you by Book Post from time to time.88 He then adds, for good measure: “I was almost suffocated with dust & drowned by fleas when making selections.” Chester’s description suggests that when he visited the synagogue in 1889, the attic chamber was still enclosed by walls, even if there was no longer a roof above them. Later that year, the community demolished the synagogue to rebuild it. The contents of the geniza had to be moved; but where to put them? The only space large enough to accommodate them without crowding congregants from the synagogue was the courtyard of the compound—out in the open. For medieval manuscripts, exposure to the Cairo sun is not an ideal method of conservation, with or without the protective mantle of the omnipresent limestone dust. For dealers hoping to profit from selling manuscripts, however, their exposure to the elements offered unprecedented ease of access. One still unidentified observer immortalized the tumult of human greed this way: Many dealers helped themselves to small bundles of fragments which they would obtain by bakhshish from the beadle of the old Synagogue at Fustat (Old Cairo), where the Genizah had been discovered in an attic as a result of the work of repairing the Synagogue. The workmen on tearing down the roof dumped all the contents of this attic into the court-­yard, and there the MSS were lying for several weeks in the open. During these weeks many dealers could obtain bundles of leaves for nominal sums. They later sold these bundles at good prices to several tourists and libraries.89 Chief among those libraries was the Bodleian. Between 1890 and 1910, two of its sublibrarians, Adolf Neubauer and Arthur Cowley—Neubauer had argued against Schechter that Ben Sira was composed in Greek; Cowley is the one who would later identify Fatimid chancery decrees as “scribbling”—handpicked Bodley’s collection of geniza manuscripts. Neubauer and Cowley never went to Egypt; they dealt exclusively with dealers, among them Reverend Chester. They could not, then, possibly have known the provenance of every folio. The library’s acquisition records are littered with the perfunctory phrase “from the Geniza,” suggesting that the librarians simply assumed anything in Hebrew script on paper or parchment (but not papyrus) was from the Ben Ezra. Whether some came from other genizot, communal archives, under the perimeter of the courtyard, or archaeological sites in Fustat cannot be known. Nor is it impossible that geniza material came from outside Egypt. In 1893, our friend Catastrophe paid a visit to the Great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus—or so the story goes—in the form of a fire. The conflagration is said to have provoked the dispersal of thousands of folio pages from the Qubbat al-­Khazna—the “Dome of the Treasury,” an octagonal structure inside the mosque courtyard (fig. 1.7). The manuscripts came in every conceivable local language and script, including Arabic, Persian, Syriac, Aramaic, Coptic, and Hebrew. Much of the material is literary, but there are also documents in languages that include Arabic, Hebrew, and Judaeo-­Arabic.90

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48 • Chapter 1

1.7. Qubbat al-­Khazna (the Dome of the Treasury) in the courtyard of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, which housed a large cache of disused medieval manuscripts until their discovery in 1893.

Doubt has recently been cast on the veracity of the fire story.91 One wonders if thieving dealers passed off the tale of cataclysm to cover up their source. Ultimately, most of the texts went to Istanbul, Syria being at the time an Ottoman province; some went to Berlin, were photographed there, sent back, and then lost on the way; some found their way into the hands of collectors; not all of them have been accounted for.92 Geniza collections contain enough Syrian documents to raise the possibility that they came from dealers who also dealt in the Damascus cache. The relationship between the Qubbat al-­Khazna documents and Cairo Geniza remains an unanswered question. It is standard to attribute to the Ben Ezra geniza the tens of thousands of fragments that left Cairo for the Bodleian and elsewhere before Schechter arrived. This attribution has, to the best of my knowledge, been questioned by only one other person.93 Even Schechter spoke of visiting “genizas,” in the plural, one of which may have been at the Qaraite Dār Simḥa Synagogue in Cairo.94 The murky process of acquisition, then, makes it difficult to trace the precise provenance of each geniza manuscript. One scholar of the material has proposed using “the Cairo Geniza” as a generic and baggy designation for Jewish document hoards from Cairo and environs, regardless of their precise origin.95 I am not a proponent of this

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The Geniza • 49 approach. While we may rightly despair of knowing the origin of every item, declaring all provenance unknowable is too agnostic an approach for my taste because it risks foreclosing the search for better information. This is all the more true given that amid all the acquisitions, there have also been some dramatic acts of deacquisition whose effects have yet to be considered. In 1899, the Bodleian sold off a large trove of texts from its geniza collection—probably as much as half of its original holdings.96 Most of what it sold had, apparently, been dug up from the periphery of the synagogue compound after Schechter emptied the chamber.97 The person responsible for digging in the synagogue’s periphery, Jefferson has discovered, was a shadowy figure self-­styled the Count Riamo d’Hulst. The Bod­ leian sold d’Hulst’s trove to Elkan Nathan Adler, an inveterate British manuscript collector whose financial ruin then forced him, in 1923, to sell his collection in turn to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. In the catalogue Adler compiled and published in 1921, he acknowledges a vast number of sources for his manuscripts from all over the Middle East, including “a Geniza in Alexandria.”98 It is impossible to say how many of his manuscripts came from Cairo—and whether even within Cairo those sources included synagogues other than the Ben Ezra. We’ve made a lot of progress on the history of geniza collections, in parallel with what papyrologists have done with museum archaeology. But for state documents, we can also go beyond museum archaeology: we don’t have to stop at how the collection was dispersed and where it ended up. We can, instead, go back to the collection point: not the museum or library, but the geniza itself. How did state documents end up there to begin with? State archives got dispersed, and the next time some of their contents met up again, they bore Hebrew script texts on their backs. How did they get from the state officials who wrote on them first to the Jewish scribes who reused them, and what happened to them in between? Who archived what, for how long, what did they jettison, and why? There are answers to these questions embedded in the documents themselves.

TWO PETITIONS AND A PRINCESS Consider a pair of important and rare Arabic petitions (fig. 1.8).99 I say rare and important because they are petitions to a woman, to the same woman no less, one who wielded power tantamount to the rank of vizier: Sitt al-­Mulk, the sister of the caliph al-­Ḥākim. This is the same caliph who had disappeared in 411/1021 on a nighttime walk below the Muqattam massif. Few documents have survived from so early in the Fatimid period—a handful from al-­Ḥākim’s reign and few, if any, from before. The petitions confirm the statement of one contemporaneous chronicler, al-­ Musabbiḥī, that Sitt al-­Mulk wielded supreme power over the Fatimid state for more than two years after her brother’s disappearance, and that she received petitions in her dīwān (bureau or office).

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5 cm 2 in

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1.8. Two petitions to the princess Sitt al-­Mulk, who ruled the Fatimid state as vizier in all but name (411–­14/1021–­24). New York, ENA 3974.3 + Oxford, Bodl. MS Heb. b 18.23.

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The Geniza • 51 The sources tell us that after two years, more or less, of rule, she died of dysentery— meaning, one assumes, she was poisoned by a faction at court. That dates these petitions to 411–14/1021–24. The two petitions to Sitt al-­Mulk were, then, drawn up close together in time. But geographically, they are worlds apart. One (fig. 1.8 left) is from the countryside of the Fayyūm. It comes from a villager named Yaḥyā b. al-­Ḥasan, who explains (via a scribe) that he had sent his son to Madīnat al-­Fayyūm to buy grain, only to hear that an amīr had then confiscated seventy sacks of it from his son.100 Yaḥyā asks that the grain be intercepted before it reached the Nile port of Giza, which meant that it was bound for Cairo, and he knew it. He asks this of Sitt al-­Mulk because she was the highest authority to whom he could appeal for redress. The timing of the petition is significant: it came to her at the beginning of the great Egyptian famine of the 410s/1020s, when grain prices had started to rise.101 It is unclear whether the amīr was commandeering the grain of subjects on orders from Cairo, or whether he had gone rogue and was expropriating it for his own purposes. Either way, one of the avowed purposes of the Fatimid petition-­and-­response procedure was to encourage subjects to approach the upper echelons of the state—the caliph, the vizier, and their equivalents—with complaints against the injustices of officials (see chapter 8). The other petition (fig. 1.8 right), by contrast, comes from an Ismāʿīlī mosque administrator in Fustat or Cairo, who writes to Sitt al-­Mulk because she had set up the mosque’s endowment (ḥabs or waqf).102 The apartments or shops in the mosque compound were inalienable property whose income was earmarked for the mosque’s operations. But the renters in the compound were in arrears, so the mosque administrator wrote to Sitt al-­Mulk asking for her help getting the renters to settle their accounts. The petitions reached Sitt al-­Mulk, then, over a maximum span of two years, converging on Cairo between 411/1021 and 414/early 1024. But they look as though they’re from different worlds. The first petition, from an anonymous rural peasant, is written on rough, brown paper in a hand that for the 1020s looks archaic: it has more in common with the tenth-­century hands of Arabic papyri and early paper documents than with the eleventh-­century Arabic hands that are common in the geniza. The second, from a member of the educated urban elite, probably an Ismāʿīlī and someone close to the upper echelons of the court, is written on fine, creamy white paper in a calligraphic hand of the type one finds on chancery documents. The differences show the rate at which Fatimid chancery norms spread from the capitals to the peripheries (a point to which I’ll return in part 2). It also shows that to lodge a petition, one didn’t have to travel to Cairo; a rural scribe would do. Let’s assume, then, that the petitions both reached Cairo. The next question is whether Sitt al-­Mulk—or the slave girl who vetted her petitions—answered them. There were a few ways officials could handle a petition. One was to ignore it. Another was to write the decision on its margins or back. The chancery could also address a separate decree to a local official ordering him to redress the complaint. Or the chancery could draw up a decree for the petitioners to keep. Or some combination of the last three: a

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52 • Chapter 1 petition could be answered with an instruction on its verso, a decree for the official enforcing it, and another for the petitioner. Either way, petitions left blank on the verso, like these, had not necessarily gone unanswered. At some point, however, these two petitions left Sitt al-­Mulk’s dīwān. After her death, her archives may have been dismantled, perhaps in an effort to erase her from worldly (or at least courtly) memory; or her archivist pruned them in the normal course of business. The point is that after they left Cairo, they remained together long enough that a Jewish scribe reused not one but both simultaneously: on the versos, there is a single, continuous text in Hebrew characters; a triangle of the second petition remains stuck to the bottom of the first (fig. 1.9). Neither petition, so far as we know, has anything to do with Jews.103 But a Jewish scribe acquired them—presumably together—and we don’t know how. It may be that some palace official, perhaps even a Jewish one, brought them into the Ben Ezra to serve as model petitions for communal officials who drafted their own. Or—think back to the palimpsested Hexapla—a used paper seller was the anonymous link in the supply chain. As for the Jewish scribe who reused them, we are on firmer ground: he (or she) needed a vertical roll on which to copy a liturgical text. Among medieval Jewish scribes, the rotulus was the format of choice for copies of texts not meant to circulate, among them liturgical aides-mémoire.104 And so our scribe either bought or glued the two petitions together as a long vertical roll and filled their blank side with passages from the book of Zachariah, in Hebrew and in Aramaic translation. We don’t know when: the hand is probably eleventh century, whether early or late I cannot say. (I’ll have better luck later in the book dating both sides of reused state documents.) The point is that they remained glued together for perhaps hundreds of years, only to come apart again in the jumble. Today the top fragment is in New York and the bottom in Oxford. But when did they separate? Glue of the type one finds on medieval Middle Eastern rotuli was strong stuff. I don’t know what it was made of, and to the best of my knowledge it has never been chemically analyzed. But it has held countless composite documents together for nearly a thousand years, among them the extravagantly long rolls on which the chancery wrote up its decrees. The glue seam (kollesis is the technical term) connecting these petitions was so strong that it remained intact when they came apart. The tear is just below it. It is possible that they came apart in the geniza. It is equally possible that they came apart in the synagogue courtyard, during the interim period when dealers were having their way with the manuscripts that lay out in the open. Whenever it happened, it happened before the Bodleian deacquisitioned half its collection, because only one of the two fragments was sold to Elkan Nathan Adler. In 2008, by complete accident, I noticed the join. Were it not for the Jewish scribe’s reuse, I might never have made the connection between them. Had I been looking only at the petitions, I would have concluded that they were both addressed to women, possibly the same woman, and left it at that. But now, I knew that they had remained together for some time after they were deacquisitioned from the palace, which suggests that they also remained together inside the palace. But how? Filed by month and year in Sitt al-­Mulk’s dīwān, amassed in a large

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5 cm 2 in

1.9. The two Sitt al-­Mulk petitions (see fig. 1.8) as joined by a Jewish scribe who wrote biblical passages in Hebrew and Aramaic on their backs. They then came apart again and are now separated by an ocean.

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54 • Chapter 1 heap on its floor, held in neat piles in the inventory of a used-­paper seller, archived at the Shāmī synagogue for its leaders to copy when they needed to write petitions, or all of these in turn? Knowing things about how Jewish scribes worked, in other words, helps you understand how the Fatimid archives worked. While the case of the two Sitt al-­Mulk petitions exemplifies the challenges of repairing the damage of haphazard acquisition methods, it also raises new and exciting questions. Our anonymous Jewish scribe, by recycling these texts, has led us into a world in which there were state documents available for recycling—state documents that weren’t completely detached or dispersed just yet. A static archive is one thing, and a very convenient thing it is. But it is another to be able to think through the logic according to which an archive waxed and waned over time.

TOWARD THE MACROCOSM The synagogue that housed the geniza no longer exists. The one that has been built in its place is a simulacrum, as far as anyone remembers, in the same footprint as the medieval one. It is a jewel-­box-­like structure; the first time I visited it, I found it surprisingly compact, so small that I had to revise my notions of medieval Jewish piety because I could not picture the Jewish community whose documents I had been reading fitting inside it—even counting mostly the men and leaving the children out in the courtyard to run around. The volume of the structure is also disorienting because its ceiling—a magnificent specimen of late nineteenth-­century Egyptian painted-­wood craftsmanship—seems much higher than it needs to be, higher, even, than the mezzanine women’s section necessitates. I assume this was because when the synagogue was rebuilt in 1891, it was outfitted with an attic chamber large enough to store the geniza texts in perpetuity. And so they were returned from their exposure to the Cairo sun back to the shadows and dust, jumbled but, for the moment, quiet until Schechter’s arrival. That space under the eaves held unseen worlds. One of those worlds was the orbit of officials, the bureaucrats and administrators whose daily work included cutting reed pens, mixing ink, choosing paper, practicing calligraphy, mastering the protocols of registration and notation, filing copies, retrieving them, and weeding out dead letters. Those officials came in the wake of a long administrative tradition. To imagine them at work—to hold in one’s mind the vast corpus of documents they produced—renders a Middle East devoid of documents unfathomable. But one cannot trace the histories of these documents without understanding the logic of their production, storage, and dispersal.

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O

2

The Storage Capacity of State Power The geniza having been housed in a synagogue, one wouldn’t expect it to have preserved Fatimid state documents; and the Fatimid caliphate having been a state, one wouldn’t expect it to have jettisoned archives for scrap. The Fatimids’ decision to relocate their operations to a new palatine complex called Cairo was momentous in all kinds of ways. The least consciously planned of them was long-­term source survival: the Ben Ezra Synagogue was a ninety-­minute walk from the palace. As for the consciously planned, Cairo sat strategically astride the Mediterranean and the Red Sea; it became one of the greatest government complexes of its day, the center of an empire with tentacles reaching outward to Ifrīqiya, Libya, Sicily, Sudan, Syria, Arabia, Yemen, and India.1 The consequences for the Jews whose documents wound up in the geniza have long been a topic of discussion. But a challenge remains: bringing the two worlds together—the palace and the synagogue. The challenge is to read the Arabic-­script and Hebrew-­script documents where they intersect—where the documents that each building complex housed and then deaccessioned meet and speak to each other. One place they speak to each other is at the problem of laissez-­faire. Goitein’s world was Fustat as read from the ground up, and Cairo felt very far away from it. The world of the Arabic-­script documents is the world of Cairo and the provincial bureaus, in which the Jews were but a tiny minority in the administration’s peripheral vision. Goitein’s laissez-­faire idea responded to something real: the striking leanness of the Fatimid state as compared with modern polities. That leanness is not just an optical illusion induced by the view from Fustat. It signals a challenge the Fatimids themselves had to face: running a complex empire with far-­flung interests, but without the capacity for the kind of centralization we would recognize as such.

THE STRATEGY OF VASSALAGE It came about like this. In 297/909, the Fatimids had been an upstart Shīʿī dynasty based in Ifrīqiya (central North Africa), with messianic claims and a following large enough that they declared their territory a caliphate and themselves its rulers. This was an exceptionally bold thing to do because Islamic political theory held that, since the caliph was the vicegerent of God on earth, there could be only one at a time—hence the regularity with which disagreements over the Prophet’s succession turned into civil wars and political crises.2

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56 • Chapter 2 The Fatimids got around the problem of the Abbasid monopoly on theopolitical legitimacy by declaring themselves imam-­caliphs and the Abbasids usurpers. There were now two caliphates, to be followed within two decades by a copycat proclamation, when the Umayyad amīr of Cordoba, ʿAbd al-­Raḥmān III, announced his own caliphate in al-­Andalus. After a generation or two in Ifrīqiya, the Fatimids developed designs on the East. In 358/969, those designs came to fruition, and they entered Egypt. “Conquered” is not quite the word to use: the Abbasid caliphate was too overextended to defend its own provinces, even a province as wealthy as Egypt. Hence the Abbasids’ reliance on their governors, the Ikhshīdids (327–57/939–68), whom they granted independence in all but name. But the Ikhshīdids had problems of their own, among them a series of low Niles that threatened their tax revenue and thus the stability of their rule. The Fatimid takeover of Egypt in 969 was not bloody. Once the dynasty entered, it set about the main business of depriving Abbasid Baghdad of its largest source of tax and tribute outside the Iraqi Sawād. Such were the riches of Egypt that an Arabic collector of marvels thousands of kilometers away in Central Asia at the court of the Ghaznavids, al-­Thaʿālibī, reported, within two or three generations of the Fatimids’ arrival, that a staggering amount of money was pouring into their coffers—either two or four million dīnārs worth of tax levies, depending on whom you asked. There is a saying, al-­Thaʿālibī further reported, that anyone who goes to Egypt and fails to amass wealth is so hopeless that God has deemed him unworthy of becoming rich and will never make him so.3 Part of Egypt’s famous wealth derived from the Fatimids’ determination to make the land prosper, and their understanding that it wouldn’t do so unless they helped it. Egypt was one of the few regions of the Mediterranean basin in which the normal way to water farmland was not to wait for rainfall but to irrigate. Egypt did, however, rely on rainfall indirectly: a dry winter in the highlands of central East Africa wouldn’t adequately feed the sources of the Nile or produce a sufficient inundation in late summer, and without a sufficient inundation, there could be neither irrigation nor water-­ borne redistribution of what was grown. But even a strong annual flood wouldn’t suffice if irrigation canals, levees, and dikes fell into neglect or outright disrepair. Irrigation works require persistent inspection, maintenance, dredging, and shoring up. The Fatimids took this on themselves, as is clear even from the fragments of state decrees and official memoranda from the geniza concerned with canals, their maintenance, and water supply.4 But even irrigation was not enough. There was also the distribution of seed crop to manage.5 The fiscal administrators distributed seed to farmers on loan and required repayment the following harvest. This was typical of the dynasty’s approach to governance: making investments on future returns, appearing to help subjects whenever possible, and expecting allegiance from them in the form of fiscal revenue. All three methods appeared on a small scale in the countryside and on a grand scale in the broader Fatimid political economy. They were bound together in a single strategy: cultivating local elites.

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The Storage Capacity of State Power • 57 Supporting local elites in the expectation of fiscal return appears to have been an empire-­wide policy, as firm at home as it was abroad. In Egypt, the Fatimids encouraged (or required) the patriarch of the Coptic Church to relocate from Alexandria to Cairo in the 1080s not because they wanted him to enjoy added authority over his followers, though that was one effect of the move, but because the Coptic Church controlled clerical appointments in Nubia and Abyssinia, and the state wanted to benefit from stronger links across the southern frontiers and taxes on the trade in slaves and gold.6 Farther afield, in Yemen, they pursued a similar strategy with the Ṣulayḥid amīrs, a dynasty of princes controlling the southern Yemeni highlands and the Tihāma coastal plain on the Red Sea. In the mid-­eleventh century, the Fatimids made the Ṣulayḥids their vassals, and the Ṣulyaḥids obliged by serving as conduits for the lucrative profits from the western Indian Ocean trade, sending its revenue as tribute to Cairo for nearly one hundred years (439–532/1047–1138).7 Likewise, in circa 476/1083, the Fatimids appointed a local Adeni dynasty, the Zurayʿids, as lords of Aden; granting them the trappings of regional power was a small price to pay for profiting from the India trade via tax and tribute alike. Hundreds of letters of Jewish traders between Fustat, Aden, and the Malabar Coast attest the staggering profits of the India trade, commensurate with the distances and risks of Red Sea and Indian Ocean seafaring.8 But vassalage was also a risky strategy. The problem with vassalage if you were a lord was that provincial governors had a tendency to break away and produce hereditary lines of successors. That was a good thing if a basically self-­managing province remained loyal to the center and sent tribute. But once such minidynasties took root, they could watch the capital for signs of weakness and, if the caliphs became too feeble to send troops, refuse to render their taxes and throw off their loyalties to the center. Maintaining the provinces depended on the right combination of cultivated independence, threats, and concessions, including fiscal privileges, land grants for governors, and military protection. This was a delicate balance to strike. A hereditary governorship worked best in the sovereign’s favor when it was both competent (read: lucrative) and loyal, but the more competent it was the less loyal it needed to remain. The Abbasids had had precisely this problem, and the Fatimids reproduced it in variant form on a smaller scale. The Fatimids left the Kalbid governors in charge of Sicily, the Zīrids in charge of Ifrīqiya, and the Kanzids in charge of Nubia, in addition to the Ṣulayḥids and Zurayʿids in Yemen. Every so often, there arose a line of governors or princes (the term amīr can go both ways) entrenched and self-­interested enough to turn their backs on the center and start producing their own heirs. In the 1040s, the Zīrid amīrs transferred their loyalty from the Fatimids to the Abbasids, presumably because doing so cost them less in both fiscal expenditures and political capital. The Zīrids switched their allegiance first epigraphically, carving the name of the Abbasid caliph rather than the Fatimid one into public monuments, and then in oratory, by proclaiming the Abbasid caliph’s name in the khuṭba, the public sermon at congregational mosques—a prime venue in which Muslims declared or contested political loyalty.9

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58 • Chapter 2 Such was the calculus of rule by proxy: it brought rewards in efficiency and diminished outlay of manpower, but also the risk of an outright loss of territory and thus revenue. If the change was only nominal, governors who had rendered taxes to the fisc directly became independent dynasts rendering them as tribute; there was little reason to fight the change, and indeed the Abbasids had allowed ones like it when the Ṭūlūnids and Ikhshīdids ran Egypt.10 But the Fatimids may also have learned from the Abbasids’ failure to make up for the fiscal shortfall. So as soon as the Zīrid governors threw over the Fatimids and declared their loyalty to the Abbasids, in the 1040s, the Fatimids adopted new vassals in Yemen, the Ṣulayḥids. A vassal state was, then, like tax farming writ large, a contractual relationship based on the expectation of a fixed amount of revenue. After the Fatimids established their vassal state in Yemen, within a matter of decades, the old triangular trade of the eastern Mediterranean began to pale in comparison to the volume of the India trade. The Mediterranean trade had connected the markets of Egypt with Sicily (which the Fatimids had already forfeited to the Kalbids and would soon lose to the Normans) and Ifrīqiya (now lost to the Zīrids); but the India trade eclipsed it, with Aden as a requisite port of call and the Red Sea coast a key maritime corridor.11 How, then, to prevent local headmen from establishing themselves and their progeny in perpetuity? One strategy was to allow subjects to petition against overweening midlevel officials. Petitioning, from the state’s point of view, solved two problems in one: it responded to the complaints of subjects by retaliating against local appointees. By responding to petitions, the caliphs and viziers contributed to the contentment of the populace and the discipline of the official corps. They could make their appointees feel that much more watched and insecure while also making a show of listening to their weakest subjects. This was one way of keeping the local headmen in check. Another was simply to cut ties with them. The Kalbids in Sicily eventually became more expensive to maintain than they were worth, so the Fatimids abandoned rule of the island. The Zīrids threw off Fatimid sovereignty themselves in the 1040s, but the Fatimids might have put up more of a fight had they not replaced the revenue elsewhere. The Fatimids ran, then, a star-­shaped empire with nodal points in Ifrīqiya, Sicily, Nubia, and Yemen, and interests in southwestern India. They did this by cultivating elites abroad. In the heartlands of Egypt and Syria, their strategy was similar. In Egypt, the fiscal administration was filled with Copts because, as a long-­standing rural population, they knew how to assess land and where to find revenue. Appointing Copts to the agrarian administration made the (or certain) Copts happy by granting them a stake in government and the government happy by sapping their will to revolt. In Syria, finding revenue was more complicated because it was distributed over a greater and more complex surface area and so harder to find. One way the Fatimids managed this problem, at least in one period for which we have evidence, 1000–1025, was by granting the Jewish ­yeshiva in Jerusalem a stipend directly from the fisc.12 It’s only superficially puzzling

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The Storage Capacity of State Power • 59 from the point of view of Jewish history that the central institution of rabbinic learning and communal administration had direct support from a Shīʿī state: such arrangements had been perennial, from the Achaemenids onward. But it happened, and it happened because the Fatimids knew that stronger organized communal structures meant more (or more predictable) capitation tax revenue. When the dhimmī communities were strong, poor Jews and Copts sought help with their payments from wealthy ones. Here, too, then, there were investments on future returns. It may be, in fact, that Jewish elites in Syria played as important a role in taxation as the Copts did in Egypt. There may be a hint of this in two mid-­eleventh-­century Qaraite Jews who played key roles in the fiscal administration of Syria. Ditto for a third Qaraite of the same generation, Ṭuviyya b. Moshe al-­Rūmī, who despite his Byzantine origins managed some estates for the Fatimid fisc in the 1040s. A fourth Qaraite, David ha-­Levi b. Yiṣḥaq, whose home turf was Tyre, worked as ṣāḥib bayt al-­māl (head of the fisc) in Cairo in circa 1023–55.13 Supporting local elites was, then, a Fatimid pattern. It wasn’t, of course, specific to the Fatimids: it’s a strategy typical of large agrarian empires. If you wanted to run a territorially extensive regime and you happened to want to do so before the advent of the steam engine or the telegraph, you had to get around some basic problems: distances (always long), demographic distribution (unpromising by modern standards), and obstacles to transportation (like winter: ships sailed only six months of the year, and even in summer the winds were not always reliable). The main strategies for getting around these were local elites and written instruments, and they did not mutually exclude. Rulers produced written records to defy distance; clerks and copyists mitigated an endemic lack of manpower by making orders authenticatable at a remove. Writing and record keeping had always been indispensable to the large, multigenerational empires of the Near East. But when communications failed, what you needed was trust, and one way rulers used trust was to shift work away from the center into the hands of local elites.14 It is no accident, then, that among the Arabic state documents of the geniza, five genres are particularly conspicuous: decrees to lower officials;15 writs of investiture, which empowered local leaders;16 tax receipts that tell us the regular taxes were largely the preserve of tax farmers;17 internal government memoranda strategizing about taxation or complaining about local impediments to it, such as landowners;18 and petitions complaining about local officials.19 If one purpose of local elites was to ease the challenges of taxation, one purpose of the grievance tribunals was to keep middling officials from lining their pockets with tax revenue or subjects’ property. In both cases, the point was to find a way of governing by persuasion rather than force, not because force was necessarily to be avoided, but because it was expensive. All this makes the Fatimid state well within the typical range of preindustrial states of the complex sort: largely agrarian, disproportionately focused on extraction through taxation, hampered by the manpower problem, and dependent on local elites.20 What is extraordinary about the Fatimid state is not how it worked, let alone that it worked at all, but the degree of detail in which it is documented. And therein its importance lies.

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60 • Chapter 2

INSTITUTIONAL CONTINUITY ACROSS DIVIDES Any single scholar who possessed the languages and technical skills to examine the entire record of Near Eastern and Mediterranean state administration would find striking continuities across the ancient and medieval millennia.21 Regimes preserved the administrative apparatuses of their predecessors, kept intact elements of their legal systems, or retained their clerks as bureaucrats. Continuity was in their best interests: there were resources to be extracted, and the deeper they went into the provinces to utilize lower officials there, the more technical knowledge they could access. One result of this kind of administrative path-­dependence was that methods of documentation persisted across changes in dynasty and ruling ideology. Even the language and specialized vocabulary new dynasties employed carried over from old linguistic and political contexts. Take, for instance, the adoption and spread of imperial Aramaic as a lingua franca under the neo-­Assyrians of western Asia in the late eighth century BCE. Their successors, the Achaemenids, continued to use Aramaic as a language of administration in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, and its influence long outlasted them. The Aramaic alphabet, in turn, which came from the Phoenicians, survived in derivative forms in an astonishing variety of Asian writing systems, among them Hebrew, Nabatean, Syriac, Arabic, Sogdian, and dozens of central and South Asian scripts, including Kharoṣṭhī and its derivatives.22 Scripts survive because they are used for administrative purposes, and administration usually prefers continuity. The case of the Achaemenids is especially important, and it will recur in this book. Imperial Aramaic terminology had as long an afterlife as the script. Even though most of the Jews of the Levant (save in remote mountain communities and on the Mosul plain) had stopped speaking Aramaic by the tenth century CE, the ancient imperial administrative lexicon persisted in their letters and legal documents long after. In need of a Hebrew word for the chancery decrees of the Fatimid caliphs, Jewish communal leaders of the eleventh and twelfth centuries CE might have calqued a proper Hebrew term for the Arabic sijill (sealed decree—itself from Greek), manshūr (letter patent), or tawqīʿ (rescript). Instead, they rummaged around in the arsenal of imperial Aramaic— transmitted to them in the books of the Hebrew Bible set in Achaemenid Iran, including Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and Daniel—and adopted the term nishtewana (in its Hebraized form, nishtevan), which in the Achaemenid context meant a royal letter containing an edict.23 If you were a medieval Jew trying to sound solemn and official in Hebrew while discussing the state, choosing a technical term in a biblicizing register was not a bad way to do it. But even a Jewish communal leader of mid-­eleventh-­century Jerusalem writing in Judaeo-­Arabic, and thus perfectly capable of using an Arabic term to describe a communal edict he was issuing, coined the neologism al-­nishtevān, prefixing the Arabic definite article to the Aramaic term in its Hebraized form—thus making himself sound vaguely like an Achaemenid shāhanshāh.24 Such was the persistence of an obsolete imperial lingua franca that nearly two millennia after the fall of the empire

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The Storage Capacity of State Power • 61 that first gave rise to it, shards of it remained embedded in the administrative lexicon of the subalterns who outlasted it. There are other equally striking examples of administrative continuity across imperial and linguistic contexts. Greek, for instance, staggered on in Egyptian and Syrian administrative documents after the Islamic conquests. The first generations of Muslims ruling the formerly Roman territories thought that using Greek—leaning on the administrators who wrote in it—was a better option than dismantling the old tax system. The Normans of Sicily similarly introduced Arabic documentation and a mix of Fatimid and Byzantine bureaucratic norms into the royal administration at Palermo—and a mix of Fatimid and Byzantine aesthetics into the royal building program—because the personnel steeped in those norms and aesthetics were experienced and knew how to use them to project imperial power.25 Those also happen to be examples of continuity across the divide between Christendom and Islam and vice versa. The administrative tendency toward conservatism often transcends religious or ideological differences. It is not difficult to understand this at the level of practicality. If you have just conquered an old imperial territory for your rapidly expanding empire, sacking the officials who know how to collect taxes and wrest compliance from subjects would be an imprudent move. But there were also questions of prestige at stake. The Norman chancery subsumed Fatimid and Byzantine norms because those were the imperial powers that dominated the world into which the Normans had strayed, and with whom the Normans wished to compete. John Wansbrough has made the broadest-­ranging argument of which I am aware on behalf of the conservatism of administrative terms and diplomatic styles, or rather, their mobility across languages. He did so over a colossal stretch of Mediterranean history, from the Hittites in the fifteenth century BCE to the Ottomans in the fifteenth CE, a daring, even quixotic feat to which surprisingly few specialists have responded.26 His sketch may need to be revised in its details, but his questions deserve careful consideration. Wansbrough’s analysis focuses chiefly on diplomatic calques. He traces pieces of formulary across administrative and linguistic systems, noting how bilingual bureaucrats—or monolingual ones via translators—imported what had worked in one language into another via the shortest route they could find: calquing. Calques come in many forms. For linguists, calques are loans that can happen at various scales: the individual word (semantic and phonetic calques); sticky groups of words that remain attached in a second language (phraseological calques); or sentence-­ level logic that jumps linguistic divides (syntactic calques). Some of the examples that Wansbrough offers come from a commercial treaty in Arabic between Mamluk Egypt and the early Venetian republic dated 877/1473 and preserved in the Venetian state archives.27 The names of some of the commodities are semantic calques on Arabic into Venetian dialect, for instance candi for sugar (from Arabic qand, cane sugar) and sesse for muslin (from Arabic shash). There are more complex phraseological and syntactic calques in the formulaic sections, the parts of the document scribes would be reluctant to skip but equally reluctant to translate freely. Wansbrough describes some of the key

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62 • Chapter 2 formulas in this treaty as “so closely calqued on Arabic phraseology as to be unintelligible to a monolingual speaker” of Venetian.28 Geoffrey Khan has placed Wansbrough’s argument on firmer footing for Arabic documents. First, he has noted the persistence of western and central Asian documentary systems across the watershed of the Islamic conquests, among them administrative terms and scribal habits that were carried over from Aramaic and Pahlavi into Arabic.29 Khan has also found calques in document production, including graphic and paleographic calques—when scribes import the intimate technicalities of grapheme production from one writing system to another. He has, in other words, extended Wansbrough’s argument about diplomatic calques from the realm of text to that of paratext.30 Were such scribal continuities the result of a general human reluctance to alter workable systems? Or, more specifically, of the bureaucrat’s allergy to the risk of reform? Scholars who work on magic in the ancient and medieval worlds have noted the surprising conservatism—a distinct lack of evolution over time—of magical formulas and methods of producing amulets. When harnessing invisible powers, it is best to use what has already proven effective. The same applies to administration: one tends to use what has worked in the past. The parallel between magic and administration is not as loopy as it might seem: both systems run on speech acts and, in some cases, written documents in order to transform status, or to lodge requests of unseen powers. Scribes doing bureaucratic and legal work followed well-­defined traditions: in the absence of control over caliphs, viziers, and any future court deciding whether a document was enforceable—unseen powers all—they tended to use what worked, and what worked is what had worked in the past. Another way of saying this is that scribes established documentary habits—protocols, if one prefers formal-­sounding rhetoric; and those habits, in turn, became markers of their documents’ authenticity and legitimacy. In carrying old writing traditions into the new landscape, scribes built and perpetuated diplomatic institutions. By “institution” I mean neither a set of physical structures nor an organization whose existence and perpetuation transcended the individual who ran it. I mean something more intimate and immediate: a set of socially legible practices that constrain human behavior, give it meaning, and tend to get perpetuated because people perceive them as constitutive of social reality. Socially legible practices include handshakes on the one hand and marriage patterns on the other; they are institutions because they are behaviors that are habitual, socially reproduced, normalized, and experienced as natural and binding.31 Scribes developed and perpetuated diplomatic habits, and those habits persisted across time, space, and politico-­religious divides because they regulated and formalized human relations. They worked because they were perceived to work. Administrative habits could formalize human relations only if they were socially legible: on their social legibility depended their capacity to affect power relations. Scribal institutions persisted for other reasons as well. One reason brings us back to the single most important demographic fact of preindustrial societies: lack of literate manpower. The vast majority of people tilled the soil; only a small proportion of the population could read and write at a meaningful level. Literacy was more widespread

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The Storage Capacity of State Power • 63 in cities, but it also came in a range of skill levels: the restricted ability to sign one’s name; what William Harris has called “banausic” (craftsmen’s) literacy, practical knowledge of a limited range of signs and their uses; skill in composing documents; or the capacity to read and make sense of complex, lengthy works (like the ones on which studies of the medieval Middle East have disproportionally focused). Under such circumstances, preserving the old regime’s bureaucratic practices became a matter of practical necessity: few could staff administrative offices, and even fewer could train people to do so. Changes in methods of rule were, then, necessarily slow. They were even slower to seep into the regional and lower levels of governance. All this led to an apparent conservatism among the rank and file of the administration. This slowness is visible at the micro level of documentary production. Consider the two petitions to Sitt al-­Mulk I discussed in the previous chapter. They come from a two-­year period, but while the one from urban Cairo is written in a beautifully calligraphic chancery hand, the one from the rural Fayyūm is written in a hand that for its time period looks archaic. Habits changed more quickly in cities and centers of power. The peripheries were slower to catch up. They therefore also serve as good indexes of rates of change.

THE CUMULATIVE POWER OF WRITTEN DOCUMENTATION Continuity across linguistic divides should, then, hardly seem surprising in the broad perspective of empires and writing. It is even less surprising if one circles back to the question of the geographic and environmental constraints under which certain Near Eastern sovereigns ruled. Rulers in many regions of the Near East had to contend with the proximity and interpenetration of the desert and the tilled, the seminomadic and the settled. Such ­inter­penetra­tion may be good for the preservation of artifacts (they are more likely to survive in dry climates) and the extraction of resources (if the desert encroaches, the population is relatively concentrated and easy to find). But it also makes special demands on food supply and redistribution, on human settlement patterns, and on administrative organization. Under such circumstances, a sovereign who did away with the practices of his or her predecessors was taking an unneeded risk: poor administration could lead a society to the brink of famine in a matter of a single growing season. Every ruler who conquered or inherited Egypt had to face the fact of the country’s human and agricultural orientation around the Nile. To acknowledge this fact is not necessarily to flirt dangerously with Karl Wittfogel’s theory of “hydraulic despotism,” the flagrantly Cold War notion that “eastern” civilizations, the Egyptian, Chinese, and Russian among them, tended toward authoritarianism. One needn’t agree with Wittfogel’s conclusions to accept the premise that the geography of Egypt constituted a basic and extreme environmental constraint, and has for some time. Demographic and geographic specificities apart, continuities should surprise us in the Near East even less than elsewhere. Its ancient empires invented both statecraft

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64 • Chapter 2 and written record keeping. Long before other civilizations, Near Eastern regimes stored and accumulated written records of their territories, resources, and subjects on a vast spatial scale. Statecraft and written record keeping were interlinked: rulers could not run empires at a distance without resort to documents and so had to find ways to produce, store, and retrieve them if they hoped to rule over an extensive terrain or to pass sovereignty on to their successors for more than two or three generations. For most civilizations, orality and memory do not suffice for ambitious distances and timescales. Large, long-­lasting regimes therefore depended, in practice, on archives. Anthony Giddens notes that “the formation of agrarian states is almost everywhere associated with the invention of writing and notation.” He also connects the dimensions of time and space with complexity of record keeping. “Writing seems to have originated in most cases as a direct mode of information storage: as a means of recording and analysing information involved with the administration of societies of increasing scale.” Giddens calls archiving practices the “storage capacity” of state power: it is a prerequisite for governance in settled societies.32 Sedentary civilizations produce wealth, in the first instance in the form of surplus food. Surplus food is a good thing, because storing it abates the risk of a poor yield in the future. But surplus also requires redistribution, and redistribution on any appreciable scale requires record keeping and retrieval. Another way of putting this is that large, durable states are natural loci of “archival memory,” as Patrick J. Geary has written.33 The point remains the same: rulers produced written records to defy distance by dispatching orders across space; their clerks and copyists mitigated the endemic premodern lack of manpower by making orders authenticatable at a remove; and together, they defied time by storing and retrieving records of their administrative acts and those of their predecessors over generations.34 Writing and record keeping were, then, indispensable to the large, multigenerational empires of the Near East. I point out these structural factors not because I believe they are the main determinants of human behavior—if I didn’t believe in the importance of agency, I wouldn’t have written a book about the microhistory of state administration, and I probably wouldn’t be a historian to begin with. But pointing out common necessities and constraints makes for more meaningful comparisons, and one thing from which the history of the medieval Middle East has suffered is its status as outlier in global history. Zooming down to the specifics, the Middle East’s unusually long history of being ruled by very large empires has much to tell us about inheritances across languages and political systems. A persuasive recent attempt to consider the problem of continuity across empires— and, most importantly, across the watershed of the Islamic conquests—is Patricia Crone and Adam Silverstein’s history of lot casting in Near Eastern inheritance law.35 The practice of casting lots helped legal experts to allocate shares of an inheritance by dividing it up by chance and to make difficult decisions about who got what while obligating everyone to abide by the results, since they had arrived supernaturally, or at least without human intervention—like flipping a coin. But lot casting is not really the point, not

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The Storage Capacity of State Power • 65 for me, and not for them either. Their study is even more interesting for its macroconclusions than for the specific case it studies, so its macroconclusions are what I shall emphasize here. Crone and Silverstein trace the institution of lot casting backward in time: they begin with Islamic law and recede through the Petra papyri of the sixth century CE back to neo-­Assyrian and middle Babylonian law. This is an audacious move because it is hardly ever done, and they know it. Bridging the divide between late antiquity and early Islam has happily, in the past two decades, become a more common thing to do, but bridging the divide between the ancient Near East and Islam is still virtually unheard of. The governing question for Crone and Silverstein is to what extent one can “reconstruct the cultural and religious history of the Near East as a single, continuous narrative rather than as disjointed parts studied under the rubrics of biblical, Greek, Roman, ancient Iranian, and Islamic history.”36 To be reductive about it, one could phrase the question this way: how much change does regime change really bring? The impediment to asking such a large-­scale question of the ancient Near East lies in the millennium-­plus that separates the Achaemenids from the Muslims, a period that saw the Achaemenids rule Iran, the heirs of Alexander conquer a great swath of the globe from Cyrenaica to the Indus and Oxus Rivers, and the divided Macedonian realm of the Seleucids and Ptolemies continue on under the Greeks and Romans in the West and Parthians and Sasanians in the East. This was not just a succession of empires; it was a dizzying succession of invaders. “As the foreigners moved in with their own cultural traditions,” Crone and Silverstein write, each successive “high culture of the Near East was unseated and increasingly reduced to a local tradition of limited interest to those who mattered,” namely, the ruling elites. Islands of local tradition in a roiling sea of imperial conquest raise a daunting historical problem: the natural tendency of the victors to write history, or at least preserve more sources, and thus skew the historical record. “By and large, we are forced to study the Near East through the eyes of its conquerors,” who “remained outsiders to the region in the sense that they continued to be orientated towards their own cultural centres even after having made themselves thoroughly at home in the land.” If you were a Roman, Egypt was a province; if you were an Abbasid, it was a province no less than if you were a Roman. If we want to understand what continuity looked like on the ground, then, we are, alas, consigned to study the ancient shards of subaltern civilizations embedded in newer structures, the instances in which “the indigenous tradition”—like lot casting, or Aramaic legal concepts—“begins to be visible in the hegemonic culture.” Under such circumstances, it is unsurprising to find the recrudescences of obsolete languages—what linguists call substrates.37 Empires tend to leave written artifacts in their wake, and where there are written artifacts, there were once imperial cultures. The point that Crone and Silverstein make is that those cultures tend to hang around for much longer than we think, or than anyone is aware of at the time. The documents that have survived from the Islamic Middle East from the Umayyads onward suggest, likewise, that both sides of the documentary economy—the producers

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66 • Chapter 2 and the consumers—had a vested interest in creating systems with predictable procedures and outcomes. That meant perpetuating a set of written tools. Documents were essential tools of everyday life, as much after the Islamic conquests as they had been before. Officials and ordinary subjects with varying degrees of literacy wrote them or had them written on their behalf, exchanged them, mustered them in defense of rights, and preserved them in archives for later retrieval.38 Documents came into being in government bureaus and courts of law, in the course of business partnerships, in commercial exchanges, and in personal relationships. Papyri from Egypt in Arabic, Greek, Coptic, and Aramaic demonstrate the importance of writing from the very beginnings of Islamic rule in fiscal administration, tax collection, trade, and the maintenance of private and public property.39 None of this should surprise us in a region that invented writing, state documentation, and archiving as we know it. The Islamic dynasties of the Middle Ages inherited a tradition of statecraft founded on the production, exchange, and preservation of written instruments. If the early Islamic documents in Arabic come from the tiny class of Muslims who ran the caliphate for the first 120 years, many more come from the conquered populations who possessed technical administrative expertise dating back centuries. The survival of the written administrative languages of the conquered populations after the conquests attests to the persistence of older traditions of technical legal and administrative writing. Some of those practices made their way into Arabic, whether as substrates, calques, or outright borrowings. The Arabs, by contrast, came from a stateless society without imperial administrative traditions. Over the century of the Islamic conquests, they encountered written administration on a scale vaster than anything they had known, in regions that had been using it, in some cases, for millennia. The Christian Church in Egypt had helped raise revenue for the late Roman Empire, and it continued to do so in early Islamic Egypt; Copts would remain prominent in the fiscal administration through the late Middle Ages.40

PRODUCTION VERSUS STORAGE To document increasingly complex systems of extraction and redistribution of resources in an increasingly far-­flung empire, the ready availability of portable writing surfaces was essential. Egypt had three portable media in the Roman period: papyrus; potsherds (ostraca); and linked, waxed wooden tablets (tabulae), the latter the most expensive of the three.41 Systems of documentation outside Egypt faced different challenges. Papyrus had to be produced close to the source of the reeds from which it was made and, in practice, imported from Egypt. Parchment, which was generally made from sheep hides, was expensive and laborious to prepare for writing. Paper, which was uncommon west of the Oxus until the ninth or tenth century CE, could be manufactured anywhere, and from humbler stuff: hemp and other plant fibers, rope, or cotton and linen rags, which were soaked and beaten, literally and etymologically, to a pulp. The results were macer-

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The Storage Capacity of State Power • 67 ated, suspended in water, and then scooped up and laid on a mesh sieve; excess water then drained away, hydrogen bonding did its magic, and the sheets could be laid flat off the sieve to dry. Beside the raw materials, which were pervasive, all that was needed was a supply of water, not always an abundant resource in the Middle East but available enough in the urban settlements. No one knows the precise number of original documentary texts in Arabic that have survived from the first six centuries of Islamic rule. The order of magnitude is six figures.42 This is a healthy number compared with medieval Latin Europe and Byzantium before 1200.43 The Arabic documents that have survived demonstrate that medieval Muslim rulers and the bureaucracies they established issued public decrees and rescripts; that legal institutions produced contracts, bills of sale, acknowledgements of debt, quittances, and other written evidence of partnerships and transactions; that individuals wrote letters and accounts or enlisted scribes to do so and conducted a brisk exchange in written materials; that even people unable to read, let alone write, made recourse to texts as a means of asserting claims, demanding privileges, and forming legal and social bonds or dissolving them; that individuals and institutions alike preserved those documents in archives; and that archives served both probative and cumulative functions. The status of documents in Islamic legal proceedings is a special case. At a certain stage, Islamic law rejected in principle the probative value of documents. But in practice, the courts of law had no choice but to accept it. The alternatives were either to summon witnesses to the original act or, if the witnesses were deceased or nowhere to be found, to annul it. The solution was to accept documents as probative if they were validated by accredited witnesses.44 This is tantamount to an admission that one cannot do business of any complexity without documents. The same goes for archives: legal, administrative, and financial business of any complexity was difficult without them. The Ḥanafī school of Islamic law specified that legal documents had probative value if they had been stored by either a witness or a judge, though not by a party to the transaction. This is nothing less than an Islamic legal mandate to keep archives, and to keep them accessible in case of the need for written proof. But though the Ḥanafīs were the ones who mandated archives, theirs was not the only legal school whose judges kept them. Some documents from qāḍī courts in Egypt, and one from Ifrīqiya, contain registration marks at the top indicating that their contents had been copied and summarized in registers deposited in the archives of the court (fig. 2.1).45 Arabic also developed a specialized lexicon for archiving. The verb the registration marks use for the act of registration itself, thabata or athbata (gerund: thubūt or ithbāt), is a technical term whose range covers authenticating, copying, or summarizing in a central document repository such as an archive. The term appears in legal documents from qāḍī courts, in state documents, and Judaeo-­Arabic documents from rabbinical courts, where it can also indicate submitting a signed testimony as proof. The act of thubūt, then, established a legal fact as admissible by virtue of its being written down in a formalized and accessible manner.46 There is, in sum, a set of technical terms for archiving, and the documents are littered with them: orders to register documents in

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68 • Chapter 2

2.1. Registration marks from Islamic legal documents. Qāḍī-­court officials copied legal deeds into their own registers for their archives then notated the originals. From three bills of sale, eleventh–­twelfth centuries. Cambridge University Library, T-­S Ar. 53.60, T-­S Ar. 53.61, and T-­S 13H4.5.

the archive, confirmations that they had been archived, and references to checking the archives for written proof. But how long were these archives meant to last? I raise the question because previous accounts of how archiving worked in the pre-­Ottoman Middle East have suggested that archives were never meant to last, or else that they would have persisted for centuries had it not been for the catastrophic intervention of political chaos. The documents I’ve studied have convinced me that both of these scenarios require rethinking.

THE QĀḌ Ī ’S DĪWĀN BEFORE THE OTTOMANS Though this book deals with state archives, legal archives are worth considering as a limit case. Since Islamic law limited the use, status, and function of written documents in legal courts, we might expect to see fewer legal documents that survive. But we don’t.

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The Storage Capacity of State Power • 69 Regardless of what the law mandated, judges kept archives, and those archives survived in active use after their death. This is clear from a late eleventh-­century qāḍī-­court case a record of which survived in the geniza. The record relates to a real-­estate dispute, most likely in Ifrīqiya. It describes a disagreement between two families over a ruin, a written judgment resolving the dispute, the death of the judge who issued the judgment, and his successors’ attempt to establish the facts of the case in the archives. The judge died and another judge assumed office. He examined the archive [dīwān] of the deceased [judge] and found that the [payment of ] money [settling the initial case] had been registered [maktūban, literally, written] in it. At the request of the amīr [who had settled the case], he took out the document of quittance and found written that the ruin had come from the estate of Sittāt [whose heirs had brought the initial suit]. But he [also] found in the archive of [a different judge,] the deceased judge of pious foundations [a contradictory record indicating] that it [actually] belonged to the estate of ʿAṭiyya b. Ḥāʾik [whose heirs Sittāt’s heirs had sued]. It was pointed out to [the judge] that this was not the same as the other [record, the one of the first deceased judge]. He said: [the record from the second deceased judge] is clear and binding.47 The rest of the document says that the judge found a third document proving that Sittāt had sold the ruin to ʿAṭiyya. At no point were witnesses called. It was two documents to one, and the two documents won. The case demonstrates the importance of archives to legal proceedings and the validity of documents as proof. It also demonstrates that a judge’s archives were kept on hand and available after his death. Judges kept archives; those archives outlasted the judges themselves; and subsequent judges consulted their contents and considered them binding. But how long did the judges’ archives last? I raise this question because, in the wake of an influential article by Wael Hallaq, it has been widely assumed that the archives of qāḍīs survived for only a single generation. Nearly two decades ago, Hallaq proposed an explanation for the dearth of surviving pre-­Ottoman legal documents. Like me, he concluded that the medieval Middle East was not document poor, but document rich. Unlike me, he concluded that the problem of the survival of documents lay with weak systems of archiving. He argued: If the qāḍī’s records did not survive, or—more accurately—appear so far not to have survived, this does not mean or in any way entail the conclusion that they did not exist. If the musical notations of early medieval singers have not survived the ravages of time, it should not be taken to mean that singers never performed, or worse still, that the singers themselves did not exist. [This would counter an argument that the judges themselves had not heard cases or not existed; the correct analogy would be that the singers didn’t perform from musical notation.] Fortunately, we have a respectable body of evidence to indicate that the [legal]

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70 • Chapter 2 equivalent of Iṣbahānī’s Aghānī, which alone demonstrates the pervasive presence of singers and songs, is also to be found in our case. . . . The survival of the qāḍī’s records or lack thereof is a matter that is in no way causally connected with whether or not pre-­Ottoman qāḍīs established the practice of keeping records in a formal and systematic way.48 Distinguishing between document production and document survival is a good place to begin; I have begun from it too. Pre-­Ottoman qāḍīs, Hallaq argues, kept records, even if those records haven’t survived. Hallaq then goes on to argue that the reason the qāḍī’s archive (dīwān) didn’t survive is that it lasted for only a single generation, and the reason for that is that the qāḍī bequeathed it to his successor, and his successor normally destroyed it. As evidence, he cites, among other things, a detailed description of the contents of court archives by an eleventh-­century Iraqi Ḥanafī jurist and judge named al-­Simnānī, who summarizes the importance of court archives this way: “the court archive [dīwān al-­ḥukm] is the backbone of legal transactions. . . . The dīwān is the qāḍī’s trustee and his substitute [khalīfa]. . . . He should spare no effort to preserve it and keep it in good order, for it is the first thing he looks at and the first thing he receives from [his predecessor] who is in charge of it.”49 Al-­Simnānī describes qāḍīs as bequeathing their archives to their successors. But like our court record, his description appears to cover only a single generation of transfer. What happened after that? This is where the waters are murky, and Hallaq enters to clarify them. According to Hallaq, after this single-­generation bequeathal, the archives simply disappeared. He explains their disappearance as resulting from weak political centralization, weak institutions, and lack of institutional continuity. “The dīwāns,” Hallaq writes, “were in the possession of private individuals, not institutions,” and therein did the problem lie. The private nature of the archives is, he writes, “a central and crucial fact in our enquiry.”50 This part of his argument, I hasten to point out, rests on the same assumption as the argument that the pre-­Ottoman Middle East never produced documents to begin with—the argument he has set out to demolish: weak institutions. Here’s how this worked according to Hallaq. The dīwān of the previous qāḍī, Hallaq posits, would be copied by the incoming one, and once there was a copy, “the original would cease to be public property,” becoming instead “the private possession of the outgoing qāḍī.” The original corpus of documents, having been copied, now became “obsolete, losing its legal—and in fact any other—relevance.” This assumes that the incoming qāḍī copied only a single generation’s worth of transactions. He does not cite evidence here; instead, he goes on to posit a syllogism: Since every dīwān was copied, it follows that all dīwāns, except (in theory) the very last, ultimately became both legally irrelevant and private property, to be disposed of in any way their owners saw fit. By all indications, this private ownership continued until such time when the state dictated that the dīwāns should be deposited in a public domain, which the Ottomans seem to have done. In all of our pre-­Ottoman sources, there is no hint whatsoever that the qāḍīs, upon

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The Storage Capacity of State Power • 71 dismissal or death, were required to deposit their dīwāns, in any form or manner, in a state-­owned building or other public space.51 Thus did pre-­Ottoman legal records disappear. Hallaq sets out to explain two problems: the dearth of original legal documents preserved in archival form, and the disappearance of qāḍīs’ registers. About the dearth of original legal documents, Hallaq argues that the information they contained was transferred to the register format, much like the cartulary in early medieval Europe. As for the disappearance of the qāḍīs’ registers, Hallaq posits that the state never required legal archives to be deposited in perpetuity—an assumption he makes on the basis of those archives’ failure to survive. The reasoning is circular: because documents have failed to survive, they must never have been archived. The problem lies, I believe, in Hallaq’s conception of the qāḍī court as a one-­man, peripatetic operation without continuity or institutional memory. This rests, in turn, on a distinction between the public and private spheres—a distinction that Middle East document specialists have long noted is problematic, and that even European diplomatists have questioned as procrustean.52 It might be objected, as well, that the declaration that “the dīwāns were in the possession of private individuals, not institutions” is a statement that rests on a false dichotomy: between individuals and institutions.53 There is a difference between the way sociologists and historians use the term “institution.” For sociologists, institutions are the sum total of the social codes and practices that human beings hold to be binding and socially legible, and that they reproduce from one generation to the next.54 Institutions are like languages: they facilitate human relations, because there are generally accepted conventions. Pitching individuals against institutions is like pitching speakers against languages. These are not opposites; they are mutually dependent, and neither can exist in social relations without the other. When Hallaq describes the qāḍī as copying his predecessor’s dīwān, he is not describing, as he seems to intend, an ad hoc arrangement. He is precisely describing an institution in the sociological sense—a way of conducting business that, if it was as pervasive and continuous as he suggests, an entire guild considered obligatory and binding. That’s what an institution is. But was the copying of the previous qāḍī’s dīwān in fact so pervasive? This is where Hallaq’s substitution of logical argumentation for historical evidence weakens his claims. Was every dīwān copied? Did every dīwān become “private” property? We don’t know. He makes these claims based not on the presentation of historical facts or sources, but on a chain of deductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning allows him to get from point A—the practice of summarizing documents in registers—to point B— the dearth of surviving pre-­Ottoman court registers. There are evidentiary gaps here that he fills with logical deductions. This may be permissible in legal reasoning, but historical reconstruction is a different game, and to play by the rules, one must have evidence. Perhaps the natural human propensity toward gross physical effort but intellectual laziness motivated qāḍīs to have entire archives moved wholesale from the possession

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72 • Chapter 2 of their predecessors to their own. Perhaps the equally natural human propensity toward physical laziness but intellectual industry motivated qāḍīs to prune their archives in increasingly draconian fashion and make ever briefer and more compressed rec­ ords of cases the older those cases became. But how long was a qāḍī’s dīwān likely to be preserved? This is a question for which Hallaq has speculative answers that he presents as facts. Hallaq has, in a way, set out to defend the medieval Middle East from the charge of resisting historicization by regular means, a cause in which I would enthusiastically join him. But in fact, he has enshrined the accusation as fact. Hallaq asks why everyone thinks there were no judicial archives, explaining that in fact there were. But, he then says, they lasted for only a single generation apiece. His argument is no less an argument from unexamined silence than the one he counters. We have no idea how long qāḍīs’ archives persisted. And we know that original documents survived. If we want to know how and for how long, the only way forward is to examine the documents themselves.55 Nor should Hallaq’s argument be taken to explain more than it sets out to explain. Court registers represented a small percentage of the total documentary output of the pre-­Ottoman Middle East. Explaining their failure to survive would not by itself solve the problem of pre-­Ottoman archives or documents. In addition to registers, there were freestanding deeds handed to the contracting or litigating parties. There were state documents, business and family letters, fiscal and financial records, and deeds of endowment aplenty.56 There is an additional problem. The baseline expectation from which Hallaq writes is that, all things being equal, archives will survive; only in the case of the Middle East, with its weak institutional culture, do we have the problem of their disappearance. But the survival of archives across centuries and regimes is manifestly the exception rather than the rule. Attrition over time is normal. Survival is so exceptional that, as Marc Bloch said about those banal Italian villages, a cataclysm is frequently what is required to make documentary texts survive or to bring them out into the open. To recast the question, then: while it is demonstrable that the medieval Middle East produced documents and stored them in archives, it failed to bequeath most of those archives to the modern age. While some Middle Eastern archives and other caches contain medieval documents or intact medieval subarchives, we will never know how long those archives survived as archives unless we examine the documents themselves.57 The surviving state fragments from the geniza suggest that archives were deaccessioned neither forcibly nor in one blow, but voluntarily and piecemeal; that they were dispersed not in the postmedieval imperial juggernaut but during the Middle Ages themselves; that many documents survived outside archives; and that archives lasted across centuries and regimes. I agree with Hallaq that some dispersal happened before the Ottomans; I disagree with him on what proportion was dispersed. The Fatimid state documents suggest that we should be thinking not about dispersal, but about pruning; and that we should not make assumptions about why that pruning took place. The very act of pruning, as Petra Sijpesteijn has argued, “far from pointing to a poorly developed

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The Storage Capacity of State Power • 73 record-­keeping instinct, paradoxically shows . . . the archival mind at its most diligent and industrious.”58

DECREES AND THEIR AFTERLIVES The image of the diligent and industrious archivist pruning as a matter of course calls into question another widespread assumption about pre-­Ottoman Middle Eastern archives: that they disappeared because of political chaos or other cataclysmic events. It’s remarkable how persistent this notion has been. Recall Bloch’s observation that cataclysms often preserved artefacts that would otherwise have disappeared. Evidence from the Islamic world tells a different story, and so does evidence from outside it. In 1997, Frédéric Bauden of the University of Liège discovered in his own university library an Arabic manuscript of extraordinary importance. The manuscript contained what he observed were “historical details, facts, and events,” as well as “resumés, epitomes, extracts, excerpts, notes, [and] cards” on topics as diverse as “history, numismatics, metrology, genealogy, medicine, and exegesis.” The notebook was a veritable encyclopedia of the medieval Hilfswissenschaften, from a period and place—Mamluk Egypt—known for its encyclopedism and for its polymathic, intellectually omnivorous authors.59 Bauden was one of very few people in the world who could have identified the author of the notebook. Based on paleographic analysis, he determined that it was none other than Taqī al-­Dīn Abū l-­ʿAbbās Aḥmad b. ʿAlī b. ʿAbd al-­Qādir al-­Maqrīzī (766–845/1364– 1442), a Mamluk historian and antiquarian about whom quite a bit is known.60 Al-­Maqrīzī served in a dizzying variety of public positions in the Mamluk administration in Egypt and Syria. He also wrote dozens of historical works: on the history of Egypt, its famines, its scholars (ʿulamāʾ); on coinage, weights, and measures; and—in a surprisingly modern vein—on the urban geography and architecture of Cairo. (The latter work, it turns out, was in part plagiarized, an accusation made soon after al-­ Maqrīzī’s death, but by another author guilty of the same breach.)61 Welcome to medieval Egypt’s version of Europe’s early modern republic of letters, in which polymathy and encyclopedism were prerequisites for admission.62 Al-­Maqrīzī’s historical scholarship was probably inspired to a great degree by the great historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldūn (732–808/1332–1405), with whom he was on terms familiar enough that he once read the elder historian’s horoscope and used it to predict when he would be reappointed to office.63 Al-­Maqrīzī will make numerous appearances in this book because he is the only post-­Fatimid author to have devoted an entire monograph to the history of the Fatimid dynasty and the most voluble of post-­Fatimid authors on them.64 To discover a draft notebook of al-­Maqrīzī was a great event. It eventually led Bauden to try to understand al-­Maqrīzī’s working method—his approach toward quoting, summarizing, reworking, and “stealing” the work of his predecessors and colleagues; and how he constructed his books physically. It also led him to a major collaborative project to publish all of al-­Maqrīzī’s work—a most welcome project given what an extraordinary historian al-­Maqrīzī was (because he was Khaldunian, hence more “like

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74 • Chapter 2

2.2. Pages from a notebook of the historian al-­Maqrīzī (766–­845/1364–­1442). Several pages of the notebook consist of fragments of decrees issued by the Mamluk sultan al-­Nāṣir Aḥmad (743–­46/1342–­45). Bibliothèque de l’Université de Liège, MS 2232, fols. 108r and 110r.

us” than the others). The project has already shifted the field by making it impossible simply to mine al-­Maqrīzī’s works uncritically for information without trying to understand what he was doing in writing them. As Bauden began to investigate al-­Maqrīzī’s draft notebook, he noticed that several of its pages were parts of discarded Mamluk chancery decrees (fig. 2.2).65 These included three land grants (manāshīr iqṭāʿ; sing. manshūr iqṭāʿ) from a single Mamluk sultan, ʿImād al-­Dīn Ismāʿīl (743–46/1342–45). The brevity of this sultan’s reign—typical of the contentiousness and political tumult of this period in Mamluk history— allowed Bauden confidently to date the decrees to a tight window of time, the better to sleuth out his real quarry: al-­Maqrīzī’s writing habits.66 How had al-­Maqrīzī come to possess these four-­decade-­old decrees in the first place? And why had he repurposed them as writing paper? Until 790/1388, Bauden noted, al-­Maqrīzī worked in the Mamluk chancery, responding to petitions and/or signing off on documents and authenticating them. (Al-­ Maqrīzī refers in one of his works to “my days heralding the sultanic rescript,” ayyām mubāsharatī l-­tawqīʿ al-­sulṭānī.)67 Lest you imagine that al-­Maqrīzī walked away from the palace with official documents under his arm, in fact, Bauden tells us, calamity did the dirty work for him.

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The Storage Capacity of State Power • 75 One year after al-­Maqrīzī resigned his position at the chancery, in 791/1390, a group of amīrs overthrew the reigning sultan and forced him from Cairo. In his historical topography of Cairo, al-­Maqrīzī describes this laconically as the period “when the reign of al-­Ẓāhir Barqūq had come to an end [in 791/1389] and was then re-­established [in 792/1390].” We would call this a putsch or a coup d’état depending how long it lasted; for the Mamluk court at this period, it was business as usual. During the interregnum, al-­Maqrīzī tells us, many things were disordered. Among them was the business of the chancery chamber [qāʿat al-­inshāʾ] at the citadel. It was abandoned, and the documents [awrāq, literally “papers”] in it were taken, sold by weight [bi-­l-­qinṭār] and their traces [or: the records they contained] forgotten [nusiya rasmuhā].68 A sultan is forced from Cairo; the palace enters a state of chaos; the keepers of the chancery are nowhere to be found; the chancery archives are emptied and the documents sold by weight on the open market as scrap paper. Al-­Maqrīzī adds—with the wistfulness of the historian, it seems—that “their traces were forgotten,” but the observation may be more political than wistful: rasm can mean “trace” or “record,” but it can also mean “[sovereign] order” or “decree.” He may simply be telling us that the rebel amīrs destroyed the archives so that the privileges they contained would be null and void, and anyone hoping to prove a claim would have to petition the new regime, thus helping cement its power and legitimacy. It was after this coup, Bauden surmises, that al-­Maqrīzī must have bought his quire of land grants. Precisely when is difficult to say: certainly before 811/1408, because he used parts of the same documents for another work, a draft of his topography of Egypt, which he wrote between 811/1408 and 816/1413. Although al-­Maqrīzī tells us that archival material from the chancery was sold off in 791–92/1389–90, as Bauden notes, “it is difficult to ascertain if the recycled paper found in al-­Maqrīzī’s autographs corresponds” to the chancery archives whose destruction he describes.69 It seems like a reasonable assumption: the documents date to 743–46/1342–45, and his reuse to more or less half a century later. Let me pause before forging ahead to consider the meanings and consequences of these acts of deaccession and repurposing. Things, once again, are more complicated than they seem. El-­Leithy has pointed out that the very act of archival destruction of these rebels may have been violent or productive of chaos, but this does not mean it is impervious to historical analysis: “attacking a regime’s archives was one of the most expressive acts of political insubordination. As in other purposeful acts of destruction, violence was not an anarchic or inarticulate explosion of resentment, but a purposeful act aimed at sovereignty by attacking its most important symbols.”70 But, as el-­Leithy also points out, the attack was not only symbolic. The rebels were also destroying their predecessors’ claims on sovereignty and forcing subjects to recognize their own. Given the violence of the act, it might seem outrageous to you that al-­Maqrīzī—a historian, no less—could press archival documents into service as scrap paper on which to draft his chronicles rather than as evidence for the historical narrative he intended to write. As a veteran of the chancery, al-­Maqrīzī knew the function and value of documents and

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76 • Chapter 2 their centrality to the project of sovereignty. He also knew the double-­edged value of a state archive after a change in regime. The rebels would have gone straight for the archives because they contained written documents that secured the sultan’s power and his subjects’ rights. But the lower functionaries, for whom the archives were essential tools of the trade, would have preferred them to remain. Many rulers preferred to keep the old administrators in place to run the state machinery they had taken over. In the early years of Islamic rule, bilingual Greek-­Arabic papyri suggest a preference for continuity and keeping the old Byzantine administrators in their posts. There were plenty of other reasons to keep the old regime’s practices in place, the collection of revenue among them.71 But let us suppose, for the moment, that this is not how these rebel amīrs thought. Let us suppose they thought the opposite way. If documents enable the defense of claims, their destruction, conversely, could be a way to destroy those claims and for subjects to rebuild them under new patronage. If people wanted privileges, they now had to turn to the new rulers to claim them; those new privileges, in turn, became the basis on which the new rulers claimed their authority. But why, then, would the upstart amīrs not simply have destroyed the chancery documents? Why sell them off as scrap instead? Here, Bauden connects the market in used paper to a spike in paper prices at this period.72 A paper shortage would explain both the sale of archival documents and the odd fact of al-­Maqrīzī’s use of them as paper for his notebook. There happened to be a shortage of paper, he argues; there also happened to be a revolt allowing access to a large supply of it from the chancery archives; the line spacing was wide enough to make the paper worth reusing; the laws of supply and demand operated to bring the paper to market. I don’t believe a shortage was needed to convince medieval writers to recycle their paper, but I will postpone this objection for now, because I have a different problem: al-­Maqrīzī doesn’t tell us it was the rebels who emptied the archives or who sold them off. He says simply that the palace was in a state of confusion, that “many things became disordered” (ikhtalaṭat umūr kathīra). Given that state of disorder, was al-­Maqrīzī in a position to know whether documents were removed at all? He no longer worked there; he did not personally witness the act. Were the archives in fact emptied, and if so, was it the amīrs who emptied them? Were the archives even what a cabal of princelings would target? Why not the weapons stores, or the stables, the contents of which would have been of immediate utility or fetched a higher resale value? One might, then, cast some doubt on al-­Maqrīzī’s description of events. We know that he acquired a set of decrees written in a tight window of time in the 1340s; it is reasonable to assume that he acquired them together, and therefore also reasonable to assume that they had been archived together. What we do not know is how they made it to market in the first place. Were they necessarily deaccessioned forcibly, or during the coup in question? Like Hallaq, Bauden imagines that the archives didn’t survive for long.73 For Bauden, the raid on the Mamluk archives was a one-­time event, after which al-­ Maqrīzī bought his quire of land grants. His reconstruction—particularly the connec-

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The Storage Capacity of State Power • 77 tion he draws between the notebook and events that al-­Maqrīzī records in his other works—is ingenious. But I believe a different set of explanations may be required. State archival documents sold by weight on the open market: this is plainly what al-­Maqrīzī tells us. But given that he didn’t personally witness the chancery archives being emptied, he had no way of knowing where what he’d bought had come from. What if his documents were deaccessioned not from the citadel in Cairo, but rather from a bureau of government in the provinces—for example, in the province where the amīrs had received their land grants?74 And what if they were deaccessioned deliberately, piecemeal over time, in the interests of order, relevance, and space management? In short, what if people wrote on used paper (al-­waraq al-­maktūb) not in times of crisis, but in the normal course of business?75 Bauden was, I believe, correct about the fact that scribes acquired discarded and dismembered government decrees via the used-­paper market. On this, al-­Maqrīzī’s testimony can be trusted; there is plenty of material evidence to support his claim, as I will argue in the next section. The connection that Bauden made between al-­Maqrīzī’s recycled decrees and his own description of their sale as used paper by weight cracked the case not only of al-­Maqrīzī’s notebooks, but of many other recycled decrees: the scenario is one plausible explanation of how so many decrees addressed to provincial officials could have ended up in the hands of ordinary scribes. There are other elements of his explanation that I believe draw us in misleading directions: that deaccessioning the decrees required something as dramatic as a coup d’état; that the decrees came from the central archives; and that we need a paper shortage to explain why scribes recycled them. Deaccessioning happened in the normal course of business. The government officials who jettisoned the decrees probably weren’t employees of the central archives; it’s more likely that they were provincial officials who didn’t need to keep the decrees on hand because they had already been archived elsewhere. And just as deaccessioning decrees happened in the normal course of business, so, too, was recycling them a regular part of the medieval scribe’s habitus.

THE EXISTENTIAL VULNERABILITY OF THE DECREE As it happens, al-­Maqrīzī is one among many in the medieval world who used chancery decrees as scrap paper. Reusing state documents for ordinary texts goes back to the very dawn of Arabic chancery practice. An account of the education of the early Muslim jurist and legal theorist al-­Shāfiʿī (150–204/767–820), eponym of one of the four Sunnī schools of law, says that growing up in Mecca, he was so poor that he recorded ḥadīth and points of law on animal bones or on the backs of documents he had requested from the local Abbasid dīwān.76 This tidbit of information needn’t remain adrift without an anchor in material evidence. Petra M. Sijpesteijn has discovered an eighth-­or ninth-­century Arabic ḥadīth text on papyrus written on the back of a government document—an Umayyad or early

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78 • Chapter 2

2.3. Recto: An Umayyad or early Abbasid decree on papyrus, eighth century. Verso: a ḥadīth on prayer, probably late eighth or early ninth century (paleographic dating by Petra M. Sijpesteijn, who also identified the fragment). Vienna, Austrian National Library, AP 259.

Abbasid decree to judge by the script, but too little has been preserved to identify it with certainty (fig. 2.3).77 The recycling habit persisted for centuries. Naïm Vanthieghem has located a paper fragment in Vienna, a fragment of a Fatimid decree on the back of which a Christian scribe has copied the canon of Andreas of Crete in Greek (fig. 2.4).78 The wide line spacing of Fatimid decrees made for a convenient writing surface for scribes outside the Islamic world as well. The register of Giovanni Scriba, a twelfth-­ century notary in Genoa, is composed in part of fragments of a Fatimid decree between whose lines he has written documents dating from 1154 to 1166 (fig. 2.5).79 One of the decrees is a bilingual Arabic-­Latin treaty, presumably negotiated between the Fatimids and the Genoese. The Genoese register suggests that the habit extended beyond the Islamicate world; and the dates on which the notary reused the decrees demonstrate that Fatimid documents did not require regime change to migrate from the archives: the dynasty fell five years after he reused them.

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The Storage Capacity of State Power • 79

2.4. Recto: A Fatimid decree fragment. Verso: The canon of Andreas of Crete. Identified by Naïm Vanthieghem. Vienna, Austrian National Library, G 31956.

The same thing happened outside the Islamic orbit, as well. Some of the Chinese texts discovered at Dunhuang at the eastern end of the Silk Road were written on recycled government documents. A decree issued by the ruler of Dunhuang, probably around 914, with imprints from his seal, gives permission for the ten-­year-­old daughter of an official to enter a monastery; it has been reused for a Buddhist dhāraṇī, a pregnant sort of text that encodes or encapsulates the meaning of a sutra or of the entire Buddhist

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80 • Chapter 2

2.5. Notarial register from Genoa dated 1154–­66. Several of the pages are made from repurposed Fatimid decree fragments. This page is a fragment of a bilingual Arabic-­Latin treaty. The Genoese notary named Giovanni has crossed out the text before adding his copies of Latin documents. Archivio di Stato di Genova, Notai antichi, n. 1, fol. 167.

path, and can be used as a mantra-­like device in meditation or as a vehicle for liberation (fig. 2.6).80 If in reading these lines you find yourself experiencing a certain squirming discomfort, even outright horror, in contemplating the idea that a medieval notary, or a Buddhist monk, or, God forbid, a historian could press archival documents into service as scrap paper, you are not alone. I confess I share this discomfort, and the only antidote I find is to drill into it and explore the presumptions that give rise to it. It is a puzzling fate for an official document to be reused at the hands of ordinary scribes—puzzling on both sides of the supply chain. On the supply side, let’s accept for the moment that the government offices that held documents discarded some of them on a regular basis. Why wouldn’t they then destroy them in view of the sensitive information they contained? On the demand side, how did scribes acquire them? Did scribal scruples ever kick in and prevent them from writing their compositions on official texts? This is partly a question about the “aura” of official documentation, a question I will probe in chapter 15. But it’s also a question of how long people considered it appropriate to wait before a document could go into circulation as writing paper, before it be-

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2.6. Recto: A decree from the king of Dunhuang, with imprints from his seal, giving permission for the ten-­year-­old daughter of an official to enter a monastery, probably 914. Verso: A Buddhist dhāraṇī. British Library, Or. 8210/S. 1563.

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82 • Chapter 2 came, in the phrase made famous by Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” a “dead letter”—or, as a piece of Aramaic documentary formulary from the late antique days of ostraca put it, “like a potsherd in the marketplace with no real value” (ke-­ḥaspa be-­shuqa de-­leyt bey meshasha).81 In a world in which recycling and reuse were the norm, more important than the distinction between new and used paper was the distinction between “live” and “dead” letters. As el-­Leithy points out, we must accept that there was a “logic” to the “life-­c ycle” of documents—one that must be understood and reconstructed on its own terms.82 I will take up all these questions in due course. For now, suffice it to say that we fetishize manuscripts because, as Walter Benjamin famously noted, from the perspective of mechanical (we might add: or electronic) reproduction, manuscripts are unica, auratic, hapax. But does the reuse of state documents necessarily betray contempt for them, absence of the proper reverence due to an archive, or a lack of appreciation for written instruments? It may betray just the opposite of these things. Documents may, in fact, have been so ubiquitous that there was no need to fetishize them at all; or people may have reused them as a way of enshrining defunct documents in living ones. We also intuitively regard the use of spolia—incorporating the monuments of a defunct civilization into one’s own as mere stone—as an exercise of power. Think of the hewn stone inscribed in Greek but placed upside down, with seemingly cavalier disregard, toward the bottom of one of the courtyard walls of the Great Mosque of Qayrawān, or the Roman-­era Latin inscription also upside down in one of the Ottoman walls of Jerusalem. Thus are great and voluble civilizations reduced to mute building material. To subsume an inscribed object into a new text or structure appears to be a statement of the obsolescence of the old: this is what living empires do to dead ones. But perhaps the scribe who had gotten his hands on government paper—on an object that had passed through the palace and through the hands of its officials—would regard it as valuable, to be subsumed into his own text and perpetuated that way. The reuse of decrees as scrap paper predated the Fatimids and outlasted them and was broader than the Islamicate world. To explain the reused decrees, we need neither calamity (rebel amīrs) nor contempt (cavalier disregard for documentation), but something more mundane: the ordinary workings of a documentary culture with conscious archiving practices and a basic will to conserve matter. And though that explanation doesn’t rest on calamity, it shares one thing with the calamities Bloch and Bauden use to explain how ancient artifacts survived: the destruction of documents became an agent of their preservation.

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O

3

The Corpus ITS SHAPE AND COHERENCE

One of the striking things about Fatimid state documents is their coherence as a corpus. This chapter is an attempt to describe, interpret, and explain that coherence, and to ask what it can tell us about the scribes who produced the documents. It is also, by extension, an attempt to establish some concrete, stable criteria on the basis of which to talk about premodern bureaucracies and states. James C. Scott, in a recent discussion of sedentary states and their relationship to grain growing, argues that “the entire exercise in early state formation is one of standardization and abstraction required to deal with units of labor, grain, land, and rations.”1 The earliest states depended on agricultural systems in which grain occupied a central place because it ripens and must be harvested at a specific moment in the agricultural calendar. It is therefore difficult to hide and can be taxed. Systems of written record keeping tend, he notes, likewise to come into being in tandem with states—and only secondarily to enable the creation of literary texts that survive for millennia. One of the reasons historians like to study states is that they are good at creating written records—and more importantly, at preserving them. In Mesopotamia, Scott argues, writing “seems to have been used . . . essentially for bookkeeping purposes for more than half a millennium before it even began to reflect the civilizational glories we associate with writing: literature, mythology, praise hymns, kings lists and genealogies, chronicles, and religious texts.” The cuneiform tablets from Sumer, he argues, were primarily about making a “society, its manpower and its production legible to its rulers and temple officials, and to extract grain and labor from it.”2 Given that sedentary, agricultural, taxation-­dependent regimes use written record keeping as a matter of course, in the long view of history, it is puzzling that anyone could imagine Middle Eastern caliphates to have run without it. Against the backdrop of the Near East’s lengthy imperial history, the Fatimids and their methods of state administration in Egypt were but a tiny dot on the time line, an interlude of less than three centuries in a vast, millennial tract of civilizations. Perhaps precisely for that reason, one would be surprised not to find them partaking of ancient administrative traditions, let alone of more proximate Islamicate ones. But zooming down to the sublunary level, there was still a decision to make: which traditions would they choose, the metropolitan or the provincial? To answer this question, I first have to set out the contours of the corpus.

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84 • Chapter 3

THE CORPS AND THE CORPUS Fatimid state documents share what Wittgenstein called a family resemblance (Fami­ lien­ähn­lich­keit), a “complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-­crossing” in which no single feature is common to the whole group.3 They share clusters of features that are common to most members of the group, though not all members of the group exhibit all of them. They are (1) long vertical paper rolls (2) with expanded or even profligate line spacing, giving the impression of waste between the lines and (3) at the top and right margins. (4) Their baselines—the imaginary line on which the words sit—are fragmented and fall in a stair-­step or (5) boat-­shaped arrangement, with a slightly downward-­and markedly upward-­curving slope from right to left, which leads to (6) intense crowding of words and stacking at the ends of lines. They use a (7) curvilinear, (8) proportioned script with (9) a ductus that alternates between thin and broad strokes, and (10) orthogonal or slightly acute ascenders and generous bowls in the descenders; they are full of (11) abusive ligatures and (12) hairlines (tashʿira); they use (13) dots sparingly, (14) ihmāl (miniature letters above or beneath undotted letters) hardly at all, and (15) a long diagonal stroke above the letter sīn to distinguish it from the identical rasm (basic letter shape) of the letter shīn. This cluster of features was new to Egypt. They make Fatimid documents identifiable as a group, even though they are not absolutely uniform. And since scribes usually rendered documents in a rough (muṭlaq; mursal) style rather than a standardized (muḥaqqaq; muḥarrar) one, this is saying quite a bit: the documents exhibit a relatively high degree of consistency, indicating both deliberateness and institutional cohesion.4 The corpus also evinces a significant set of internal variations in format and script. Paper formats are not entirely standardized, in contrast to the Mamluk period, when document types were strictly standardized down to the size and shape of the paper required for each. The hands of Fatimid scribes are personal and recognizable rather than anonymous and stereotyped; one has the sense that they apprenticed with masters but did not receive centralized training.5 The variation in hands is helpful for estimating the rough size of the cadre of scribes, if not their absolute numbers. Among more than a thousand Fatimid state documents from a 150-­year period, I have only very rarely seen the same hand twice. Recall the two petitions to Sitt al-­Mulk that I discussed in the last chapter: the rural scribe from the Fayyūm wrote in a hand that appeared archaic next to the petition drafted by his contemporary from Cairo, who wrote in a flawless chancery script redolent of the world of the palace and the Fatimid elite. These kinds of differences suggest that the cadre of scribes was neither so small as to permit of absolute uniformity nor so large as to require the establishment of rigid rules. And they suggest that the administration was capillary, with offices not just in cities but in villages. There is a complexity to the corpus, in other words, that reflects institutional complexity but also lack of centralization—delegation of work to the local level. The corpus of Fatimid state documents occupies, then, a middle ground between variation and uniformity: state scribal practice was loosely consistent, but not yet ex-

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The Corpus • 85 plicitly or fully standardized. This situation of loosely consistent praxis unsupported by clear statements of theory or prescription suggests that Fatimid chancery practice was institutionalized but relatively informal. There were norms and patterns, but not yet binding or explicit rules. Nor did anyone find it necessary to offer a standardized description of documents, with the unfortunate result that there are few if any reliable guides to Fatimid state documents, and what we find in the chancery compendia doesn’t fit comfortably with the documentary evidence. The best known of these (though it has still been only superficially studied) is the work of al-­Qalqashandī (756–821/1355– 1418), a massive compendium of chancery practice that runs to seven fat manuscript volumes (fourteen printed). He offers a description of Fatimid chancery production, but as seen through the eyes of a Mamluk chancery specialist and encyclopedist. Since he was an encyclopedist in an age when one’s capacity to create order, taxonomies, and categories was a sign of the sophistication of one’s mind, he imposes order even when there is none.6 Once again, we are thrown back on the documents themselves. The coherence and evolution of scribal norms over the course of the Fatimid period suggest, in sum, that a sizable but not gigantic cadre of bureaucrats received at least some training in the norms of the chancery, but that their training was not so uniform as to squelch individual or local variation.

A SLOW BEGINNING? The corpus is more constrained geographically and chronologically than the regime that produced it, a fact that calls for some explanation. That Egypt is more visible than Syria is logical enough given that the capital was in Egypt and so was the geniza. But it is slightly puzzling that the Fatimid period is not represented evenly. I am not aware of any original Fatimid state documents from the period of rule in Ifrīqiya (297–358/909– 69); the question of how robust the Ifrīqiyan chancery and bureaucracy were is worth investigating based on the copies and references that have survived in narrative sources, but that is a task for another book.7 As to the first decades of Fatimid rule in Egypt, they have left only the faintest of traces in the documentary record. The earliest datable Fatimid state documents are from the reign of the caliph al-­Ḥākim (386–411/996–1021). These include an archive of thirty-­six tax receipts dating to a three-­year period (402–5/1012–15), as well as a petition and a report (or possibly another petition) and a private copy of a decree. The hard evidence picks up only circa 1000, and the corpus is still thin at the early end. How does one explain the paltriness of the early corpus? Is it owing to the fact that the synagogue that housed the geniza came into being only half a century after the Fatimids entered Egypt, so it preserved few texts of any sort from before circa 1025? Or is the seemingly slow beginning of Fatimid administrative documents telling us that a distinctive Fatimid chancery style came into being only gradually? Well, how far back can we trace the Fatimid state style of document production? The Fatimids had a sophisticated bureaucracy in the time of al-­Ḥākim, or so the documents have persuaded me. Take, for instance, the tax receipts. They are relatively

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86 • Chapter 3 tiny things that are damnably difficult to read (having criticized my predecessors for applying the term “illegible” to Arabic state documents, I hesitate to use it here, but I confess that I am tempted); but small though they may be, each of them holds in its tiny little hands a microcosm of bureaucratic procedure, up to five hands and eight officials apiece. Even their illegibility is important information: the fiscal hands remain the most technical and opaque to the outsider because the fiscal officials were writing for each other and—given the pathetically small amounts of money listed on the receipts—probably producing dozens of receipts per day. The thirty-­six early tax receipts once constituted a proper archive—a set of documents deliberately filed together for safekeeping and retrieval in case of need. They belonged to a tax farmer in the Fayyūm named Abū l-­Ḥasan b. Wahb.8 This is the second time we’ve heard from the Fayyūm: one of the petitions to Sitt al-­Mulk that I discussed in chapter 1, in which a villager whose grain had been commandeered by an amīr petitioned Sitt al-­Mulk to get it back, dates to a decade after our tax receipt.9 This early appearance of a few dozen documents, receipts for the land tax (kharāj), and a petition to do with the confiscation of grain suggests that the Fatimids must have been keen to tax the Fayyūm while minimizing their investment in manpower. That’s what tax farmers are for: guaranteeing a fixed annual income to the fisc while outsourcing the trouble of extracting it to some local whose income depends on it. And in a pinch—or in a weak Nile flood year—an outright confiscation could serve the same purpose. This is a relatively robust cluster of documents for the Fayyūm given that it comes from the geniza: in the geniza corpus as a whole, Fustat and Cairo appear as central; Alexandria, the delta, and Palestine loom large; Sicily and Ifrīqiya do not seem far away; and al-­Andalus makes cameo appearances. But the Fayyūm seems as remote as Iraq, off the radar of the usual networks of correspondence. How, then, did these receipts survive in the Cairo Geniza? They may have entered the geniza through a secondary use. I would not have thought this, since they are all either blank on the verso or are themselves secondary uses. But one of them has numerous regularly spaced pinholes at the margin suggesting that it was later bound into a codex—a feature it shares with some other Fatimid tax receipts. All of these, it appears, were bound together as a single book binding—which suggests that they survived together in an archive until they were deaccessioned and used as binding filler.10 Who, then, was the cashier (jahbadh)? He is a Coptic Christian named Mikhāʾīl b. ʿAbd al-­Masīḥ (Michael son of the Servant of the Messiah—there is little doubt about his religion, a hint of the prevalence of Copts in the fiscal administration). Under the Fatimids, the function of jahbadh (pl. jahābidha) was a relatively low-­level, mundane post to do with revenue collection. This is in contrast to Abbasid Iraq, where the jahbadh was a higher-­level job; in the context of the Abbasid court, the term usually means money changer. As for our Egyptian jahbadh, he wrote and signed his name on thirty-­ four of the thirty-­six receipts, suggesting that his job was merely to collect and help record tax revenue, nothing more. Mikhāʾīl b. ʿAbd al-­Masīḥ was not, apparently, able to perform his duties without interruption, because the other two receipts were written and signed by his son, Yuḥannā b. Mikhāʾīl.11 Twice in 405/1014, Mikhāʾīl b. ʿAbd al-­Masīḥ sent his son to work

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The Corpus • 87

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3.1. Tax receipts dated 405/1015 in the hand of a Coptic state cashier (left) and his son (right). Cambridge University Library, T-­S Ar. 35.48 and T-­S Ar. 30.40.

in his stead. His absence turns out to have been a stroke of good fortune for posterity, because his son’s hand is slightly less forbidding than his. For Geoffrey Khan, who solved the puzzle of these receipts, the son’s hand served as a Rosetta Stone for the father’s (fig. 3.1).12 Paleographically knotty though they are, each of these receipts holds the traces of eight separate officials: the tax farmer, the jahbadh, the ʿāmil (tax official, whose office

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88 • Chapter 3 was the dīwān al-­ʿamal), and the mushrif (an official in the office of supervision of taxes, the dīwān al-­ishrāf), as well as four additional officials, two each in the bureaus of taxation and supervision. Each of these four officials is anonymous, known to us only by his hand and his ʿalāma (pl. ʿalāʾim), the cipher signature with which he either requested that the tax be registered in his bureau or else affirmed that it had been.13 The system of registration marks hints at a complex network of officials and bookkeeping. In the top band of the receipts, two officials request the amount of tax registered in their respective offices (of tax revenue and of the supervision of tax revenue), and two registration marks confirm it. The verb they use is athbata, in this case meaning to record the sum of money collected by the tax farmer and listed in his receipt in a register intended for the archives of each of the two dīwāns. Then he countersigned the receipt. What can the receipts tell us about low-­level fiscal officials? The cashiers, in this case père et fils, lifted the pen as little as possible. As with other Fatimid fiscal documents, their work is full of abusive ligatures—canonically unconnected letters the scribe has connected—and they write their numbers (whole numerals, fractions, and dates alike) in ciphers that remain opaque unless you have been trained to read them.14 The officials in the fiscal bureaus left registration marks in the form of ʿalāʾim that are likewise nearly impossible to read unless you already know what they say. Tax receipts are the medieval equivalent of modern doctors’ prescriptions, legible only to pharmacists. The fiscal script style is, moreover, recognizably different from what one finds on other Fatimid state documents. This deepens the impression that the fiscal scribes produced a kind of technical writing legible only to the guild. The other surviving state documents from the period are distinct from these, for instance a petition and an official report from the period of al-­Ḥākim or possibly earlier, reused for two of the thirty-­six tax receipts (fig. 3.2). The petition comes from an ex-­government servant asking for work, and only the upper left quarter has survived. The other is a strip containing the last two lines of a report from a lower official to a vizier (or some other official below the rank of caliph); it could possibly be a petition, since the two genres share some formulary.15 The layouts and, above all, the scripts of these documents differ from those of the tax receipts: the line spacing is wider, as are the left and top margins; the script is curvilinear and proportioned; the ductus alternates between broad and fine strokes; the ascenders are tall, and the bowls are generous, as distinct from the crabbed hands of the fiscal officials. There are differences between these two hands as well: the report gives the impression of having been written quickly, in the normal range of carelessness for a report or for the closing formulas of a petition, which scribes tended to dash off quickly and by rote. The petition is more carefully written and more elegant looking; it shares more features with the high Fatimid chancery style. That said, both are recognizably Fatimid administrative hands. The tax receipts—the fiscal hands—appear by comparison to be written by scribes with difficulty controlling hand tremors. While the fiscal scribes who kept the registers at the central dīwān al-­māl in Cairo also wrote with conspicuous opacity, they employed fewer elbows and more curves.16 The officials on the tax receipts—provincial officials to a man—wrote in hands

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3.2. Two petitions, or a petition and a report. These are among the earliest surviving Fatimid state documents. They were reused for tax receipts dated 403/1013 and 405/1015. Cambridge University Library, T-­S Ar. 34.197 and T-­S Ar. 35.48.

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90 • Chapter 3 that have more in common with the papyri of the early tenth century than with those of their fellow officials at Cairo. The Fatimid chancery style was likely to have been well developed already in the capital, but it took time for it to spread to the countryside. Or take another state document from the period of al-­Ḥākim: an informal, private copy of a caliphal decree addressed to the Rabbanite and the Qaraite Jews “of Fustat and elsewhere.” The chancery in Cairo had drawn up the original text in response to a petition from the two squabbling groups, but this copy is quite evidently not the chancery’s work. The header tells us it is a copy: “A mighty decree [sijill muʿaẓẓam], at the top of which, in the writing of the exalted [i.e., caliphal] hand [there is the Fatimid dynastic motto].” The motto in question is written not in the royal hand, but in the same hand as the rest of the text; that hand happens to be a book hand rather than a chancery hand, complete with a feature typical of Arabic book hands from this period: the addition of ihmāl below undotted letters (in this case, subscript miniature versions of the letter).17 The page is likewise shorter and wider than is typical for a Fatimid state document: this one measures less than 16 × 11 cm (fig. 3.3). All these features suggest a copyist from outside government circles, probably from one of the Jewish communities in question. It is not an original chancery document, and its script style is conspicuously different from that of the chancery style.18 Thirty-­six tax receipts from the Fayyūm, a petition, a report, and the text of a decree is not a bad yield for the period before 1021. But it is nothing compared to the number of documents from the reign of the caliph al-­Ẓāhir (411–27/1021–36), some of which I will discuss immediately below. What do we make of the dearth of documents that survive from the first three Fatimid caliphs in Egypt? Al-­Ḥakim is the caliph notorious for sacking or executing his officials and reducing the bureaucracy in an attempt to introduce a (genuinely) despotic form of government in which all law depended on his whim.19 Could some drastic reduction in government staff explain the dearth of surviving decrees from his reign? Unlikely: al-­Ḥākim’s particular brand of despotic sovereignty depended on the frequent issuing of decrees, and for that, one needed a fully staffed chancery. In fact, the lack of original chancery material before al-­Ḥākim’s reign is likely merely inconvenient rather than significant. If you have a look at the kinds of documents that Patrick Geary calls “phantoms” and Matthew Innes calls “footprints”—documents that have vanished but survive as secondhand mentions in extant documents, or deperdita in medievalist parlance—the early Fatimid period in Egypt begins to look very similar to what we know from al-­Ẓāhir onward.20 This, in turn, suggests that there was a system of state administration in place from the earliest period of Fatimid rule in Egypt—not only a functioning bureaucracy, but also an archiving system.

THE “PHANTOM ARCHIVE” The problem of phantoms, footprints, and deperdita is pervasive in the study of medieval European documents. From the eighth century at the latest through the eleventh,

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The Corpus • 91

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3.3. Private copy of a “mighty decree” (sijill muʿaẓẓam) from the chancery of al-­Ḥākim (386–­411/996–­1021). The original must have been large and impressive. This copy is more compact, written in a book hand with ihmāl, tiny subscript letters below canonically undotted letters. Cambridge University Library, T-­S Misc. 20.92.

charters tended to be copied into cartularies and the originals destroyed. How to read this kind of evidence? The “deboning” problem was no less endemic among Latinists than it has been among geniza scholars. The Latinists have now begun to work differently, taking the cartulary seriously as an object. “Neither the existence nor the purpose” of cartularies, Geary pointed out, “is self-­explanatory. When one considers the question of archival preservation and transmission from the modern perspective of legal evidence, it seems appropriate that originals, not copies, should be preserved with the greatest care.”21 But they weren’t. Cartularies frequently omitted legally important facts such as revenues and property descriptions. “Each cartulary is the result of a

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92 • Chapter 3 process of neglect, selection, transformation, and suppression.”22 The cartulary problem raises the question of why anyone bothered to copy documents from an archive at all, only to omit certain crucial details and then make it impossible to reconstruct them. Before medievalists began attempting to understand cartularies in their own right, they had worked for decades reading records of deperdita as traces of archives as though those archives still existed: the act of copying and destruction of originals had been rendered transparent. In the case of the Fatimid documents before 1021, reading for deperdita is a fruitful method. But there is a difference between the evidence of deperdita that Latin diplomatists face and the ones that a Fatimid diplomatist would, and I’d like to point it out before applying the method. Latin deperdita call attention to their own materiality in that what stands between them and us are a deliberate act of destruction of the original and an equally deliberate one of reproduction of (some of ) its details in a codex. There are codex collections of documents in Arabic as well, and we can safely assume that they didn’t bother including every line of every document.23 But none of these collections came into existence—as far as anyone knows—through a deliberate act of destruction. All the more striking, then, that the Islamicate world emerged as the less careful when it came to preserving archives. Now for the application of the method. There are two small phantom archives in a pair of documents from the reign of al-­Ẓāhir. Each goes back to the beginning of Fatimid rule from Egypt. Each mentions three phantoms, all of them charters or investitures from the caliphs al-­Ḥākim, al-­ʿAzīz (365–86/975–96), and al-­Muʿizz (341–65/953–75). They suggest that the Fatimids had begun issuing privileges as soon as they arrived in Egypt. The first is a decree of 414/1024, written by al-­Ẓāhir’s chancery to a group of Coptic monks in response to a petition (fig. 3.4).24 The date is significant. Though al-­Ẓāhir assumed the title of caliph in 411/1021, he remained in the shadows for more than two years while the government lay in the hands of his aunt, Sitt al-­Mulk. He began ruling only when she died in 414/1024. In 414/1024, petitions began reaching the palace asking the caliph al-­Ẓāhir to restore to dhimmī communities properties that al-­Ḥākim had confiscated or allowed his officials to commandeer. Those petitions were written in the form of maẓālim complaints— requests for redress against the injustice of state officials. Al-­Ḥākim’s decrees against dhimmīs had been reversed by the end of his rule.25 Why the long wait to restore rights? The answer may be that Sitt al-­Mulk was considered to be as arbitrary and irascible as her brother.26 She herself ran a system of redress against official injustices, as demonstrated by the petitions I discussed in chapter 1, from a Fayyūm villager complaining that an official had confiscated his grain and from the administrator of an Ismāʿīlī mosque she had endowed. But the petitions to al-­Ẓāhir go a step further, asking him to undo the effects of al-­Ḥākim’s policies, presumably with reasonable confidence that those policies would not recur. One of the early petitions to al-­Ẓāhir came from the Jews of Tripoli in al-­Shām in 1025. They explained that a communal building had been commandeered by officials

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3.4. Decree from the Fatimid caliph al-­Ẓāhir (411–27/ 1021–36) to the monks of Saint Catherine in Sinai, 415/1024. Cairo, Coptic Museum, no. 2704.

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94 • Chapter 3 and asked that it be returned to them for use as a synagogue. They addressed the petition not to the caliph directly, but to the Qaraite courtier Abū Naṣr Ḥesed al-­Tustarī in an awkward Hebrew. “All the places of the house of Israel have returned to them,” the Tripolitanian Jews explain—“[all] their synagogues, except for [in] our city. . . . We are asking our lord to be kind to us in procuring a rescript from the government.”27 They take advantage of a highly placed courtier rather than petitioning the caliph directly. Given their poor Hebrew, I’m not sure we need to interpret this fact as anything other than their own perceived need for mediation. A group of Coptic monks had lodged their petition a year earlier, and their petition confirms the impression that during Sitt al-­Mulk’s reign, dhimmī communities were holding their breath and waiting to see which way the wind would blow. Once al-­Ẓāhir took up rule, they asked him to renew their long-­standing privileges, and they referred to records of those privileges in the Fatimid archives—concessions that the three previous caliphs had granted them. The decree is torn at the top; I have followed S. M. Stern’s reconstruction of its opening: [You, the monks of Sinai, submitted to the Commander of the Faithful a petition in which you stated that] . . . the imām al-­Muʿizz li-­Dīn Allāh, al-­ʿAzīz billāh and al-­Ḥākim bi-­Amr Allāh, may God sanctify their souls, ordered the writing of decrees to you concerning all [these privileges confirmed below]; you then requested the writing of a decree renewing everything the imāms had granted you. . . . The Commander of the Faithful has therefore decreed that this order be written to deal with you according to that text and in conformity with the explanation that you have written.28 The petition the monks submitted is a phantom; from the summary of it in the decree, it seems to have deployed an argument from dynastic precedent, citing the privileges that the caliph’s infallible fathers had granted. Arguments from dynastic precedent were typical of petitions; they amounted to a form of legal reasoning.29 The three decrees are also phantoms, but the privileges they granted were real enough: the archives of the monastery contained a record of them, the monks cited them in their petition, the chancery (dīwān al-­inshāʾ) had copies as well, and the bureaucrats in Cairo could check them. The three phantom decrees to which this one refers fill a gap in the documentary record that coincides with the first fifty years of Fatimid rule in Egypt. They suggest that there was a functioning chancery and a petition-­and-­response procedure at the latest before the death of al-­Muʿizz in 365/975.30 A second document confirms this. It is a Hebrew letter written in 1025 by the head of the Jewish community in Palestine, Shelomo ha-­Kohen b. Yehosef, gaʾon of the Jerusalem yeshiva—in effect, chief rabbi of the Fatimid realm. He wrote to a group of Jews in Fustat—among them probably Efrayim b. Shemarya, head of the Shāmī congregation and eventually an important intercessor in Cairo whose importance will emerge toward the end of this book (chapters 9, 13, and 14)—asking them to petition the caliph for an investiture confirming him in office as gaʾon. The caliph and his chancery generally

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The Corpus • 95 granted investiture rescripts to any communal leader or judicial expert who could demonstrate the authority of office. Shelomo ha-­Kohen b. Yehosef served in office for just six months, from the spring to the winter of 1025, and while his short reign was unfortunate for him, it is convenient for dating his letter. He writes in a high register of Hebrew, a normal choice for Palestinian geʾonim in this period. But if the choice of language is unexceptional, what he does with it is striking: he writes in formal Hebrew the phrases he wanted his allies to translate to Arabic in the petition. In the section noting the justifications and precedents for responding favorably to his request, he reminds the caliph that three of his ancestors have bestowed their benefaction upon us [gemalunu ṭova]. We possess their rescripts, the rescript of his great-­grandfather, his grandfather and his father. Let him complete them with his own rescript.31 Without naming them, this document, too, has invoked the first three Fatimid caliphs in Egypt, the same argument from precedent that the monks of Sinai had used a year earlier. The phantom archive to which this document refers demonstrates that the Fatimids commenced issuing or renewing privileges to dhimmī communities, and presumably to other petitioners, soon after they entered Egypt. What about beforehand? Al-­Maqrīzī, the Mamluk-­era historian who wrote extensively about the Fatimids, goes so far as to say that in Egypt under the Abbasids, the sovereign tribunals for responding to petitions had fallen into desuetude, and that they were reinstated only when the Fatimids arrived, at which point, he tells us, al-­Muʿizz’s general Jawhar (d. 381/991) sat personally to hear complaints against official injustices (maẓālim).32 It is more likely that the Abbasids and their Ikhshīdid governors (327– 57/939–68) had run a petition-­and-­response procedure in Egypt before the Fatimids arrived, though it may have collapsed in the administrative chaos of Kāfūr’s rule, particularly the last five years of it (352–57/963–68).33 But even so, once the Fatimids arrived, no one cared to refer in petitions to the rescripts of their predecessors: privileges issued before the Fatimids may have been considered null and void and had to be reissued (recall the Mamluk amīrs and their coup d’état). Whatever the state of the petition-­ and-­response procedure in Egypt on the verge of the Fatimids’ arrival, the documentary and literary sources converge in suggesting that for all intents and purposes, the Fatimid conquest marked a new administrative era. If few original Fatimid state documents have survived from before 414/1024, that is not to say none were produced. The documents and phantoms together suggest a functioning sovereign tribunal system, as well as a well-­developed fiscal administration. The literary sources confirm that on their arrival in Egypt, the Fatimids were determined to make sovereign justice available to those they taxed, as a basic quid pro quo of sovereign justice for tax revenue.34 It may not, then, be entirely accidental that the sources we can trace from the first half century of Fatimid rule from Egypt, whether in their physical form or as phantoms, are tax receipts, petitions, and decrees written for the benefit of petitioners: the basic social contract that the Fatimids offered their subjects on their entry to Egypt granted justice in exchange for tax revenue.

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96 • Chapter 3

THE SHAPE OF THE STATE Though the petition-­and-­response procedure was central to what the Fatimids offered their subjects from the beginnings of their rule from Egypt (if not earlier), it was not a full-­fledged method of rule.35 There was more to Fatimid administration than the petition-­and-­response procedure. The point bears emphasis because previous scholarship on Fatimid state documents has focused nearly exclusively on petitions and on the kinds of decrees that the chancery drew up in response to them. The surviving documents of state from 1025 onward fall into a wider range of genres; they suggest a more complex state than has hitherto been documented. That said, the basic categories are the same, but the subtypes have multiplied. The most basic typological distinction is between chancery-­style documents and those of the fiscal officials.36 In concrete terms, this means there was a bureaucracy and a fiscal administration; but they were of greater complexity and scale than I imagined when I began my research. The chancery-­style documents include decrees, petitions, and memoranda and reports among officials. All these partake of the family resemblances I discussed above. The public decrees were grand, calligraphic rotuli that could run as large as half a meter wide and several meters long with extravagant line spacing, a fragmented baseline, boat-­shaped lines and word stacking, a variable-­width ductus, hairlines (tashʿira), and abusive ligatures between normally unconnected letters. Petitions are a rough (muṭlaq) version of the decrees.37 They are roughly half the width at 17–22.5 cm wide, and shorter (up to only half a meter long). The memoranda and reports look like petitions and share some formulas, which stands to reason: both are aimed upward in the hierarchy. Lower officials wrote to higher ones on petitioners’ behalf, styling the petitioners “slaves” (mamālīk or ʿabīd); they refer to themselves the same way in their reports. A report from a midlevel Fatimid official to a higher one dated 509/1115 contains four separate obeisance clauses, one for each change of topic, each one reading “the slave kisses the ground and reports” (al-­mamlūk yuqabbil al-­arḍ wa-­yunhī, fig. 3.5). The main difference between reports and petitions, besides their content, is length: no petition-­writing state intermediary would allow himself to run on for more than half a meter. What is most conspicuous about the petitions, besides their abundance, is their concision. Apart from that, the officials who wrote petitions, memoranda, and reports all wrote in the same basic chancery style. The fiscal hands, by contrast, have sharp angles, unlike the curvilinear and proportioned style of the chancery. They have a ductus that is even more rapid looking, and the scribes seldom lift their pens; they use abbreviations, ciphers, and glyphs for alphanumerals and for monetary units such as dīnār and dirham. All these features give the impression of very quick execution. Documents from the central fisc at Cairo can be distinguished from those of the tax collectors in the provinces: fiscal registers and accounts meant to be archived in the

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3.5. Report to a high Fatimid official dated 509/1115 containing four obeisance clauses of the type also found in petitions. The document (presented here in two segments) measures 120 cm long, longer than petitions but shorter than decrees. Budapest, Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, David Kaufmann Collection, Genizah 256 (XXI).

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98 • Chapter 3

5 cm 2 in

3.6. A fiscal register from Cairo, written in bifolio format for storage in the central state archives. For a sense of the range of fiscal hands, compare this with the tax receipts in figure 3 1. Cambridge University Library, T-­S Ar. 35.106.

palace are like a hybrid between the chancery style (the sprezzatura, broad line spacing, and word stacking) and the fiscal style (abbreviations and general impenetrability to those without training). Each of these two broad types of text came in two formats: freestanding documents and archival registers. The preferred format for archival registers was the compact bifolio. The archival records I have found, at least most of them, are bifolios of a nearly standard dimension: 17 × 25 cm, folded in half the short way (fig. 3.6). So when chancery officials wrote copies of documents for their own archives, they used this standard bifolio size. This was true even of the lengthy decrees they sent out into the provinces. The one archival copy of a decree that has survived measures 17 × 25 cm, folded down the middle the short way, with four pinholes at the fold where the archivists bound it into the file for that month and year (fig. 3.7).38 There are also registers of administrative and law-­enforcement acts written up to be archived; at least some of these went by the name tadhkira, “memorandum” (pl. tadhākir).39 One is a fragmentary record of three arrests that (as a whole piece) would have been nearly the same size, 17.2 × 24.2 (estimated) cm (fig. 3.8).40 This, in turn, is nearly the same size as the fiscal register referred to earlier (see fig. 3.6), and the same size again as what seems to be a fiscal accounting ledger (fig. 3.9), which measures 17 × 25.8 cm.41

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5 cm 2 in

5 cm 2 in

3.7. A Fatimid decree from the reign of al-­Ḥāfiẓ (524–­44/1130–­49) copied into a bifolio register format to be stored in the chancery archives. A scribe or the archivist has summarized the decree at the upper left corner, just before a cipher that reads “it was copied” (nuqila). Cambridge University Library, T-­S Ar. 40.37.

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100 • Chapter 3

5 cm 2 in

3.8. Archival register recording three orders of arrest. Cambridge University Library, T-­S Ar. 42.186.

There are, then, two broad types of Fatimid state document: administrative and fiscal. It would certainly be possible to divide the corpus up into other categories, for instance, documents produced inside the palace (decrees, archival registers) and those produced outside it (petitions, tax receipts, reports). That approach might yield a sharper picture of the different types of work of the central palace administration and the provincial officials out there in the territory. Classificatory schemas are meant to reveal patterns in the data, and the patterns they reveal depend on the questions you are trying to get them to answer. I suspect the division between inside and outside the palace would reveal that palace scribes had a stronger guild identity and conformed to a more uniform set of diplomatic standards, while provincial officials may have been educated (or semieducated) for other professions and pulled into provincial administration because they could write and/or add and subtract. But that distinction is less useful to me in describing the basic contours of the system of state administration. The differences in style between the administrative and fiscal hands suggest distinct spheres of government; and the differences in format between the freestanding documents and archival registers suggest a system of centralized document storage.

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The Corpus • 101

5 cm 2 in

3.9. A fiscal accounting ledger. Cambridge University Library, T-­S Ar. 30.35.

The typology I have just presented builds on the work of S. M. Stern and Geoffrey Khan while departing from it in significant ways. S. M. Stern (1920–69), an exceptional polymath in a field that has had its share of them, was the first to recognize the significance of Fatimid state documents and to study them from the point of view of procedure and diplomatics. He was interested chiefly in decrees as a method of responding to petitions, not as a means by which the state took the initiative to command its officials or communicate publicly with subjects. His work therefore focused on petitions, on the decrees that came in response to them, and on the reports officials wrote as they processed petitions. His work gives the impression that the Fatimids ruled primarily by responding to petitions. He also hewed to the documents’ textual features rather than their material qualities. Stern’s state was passive and reactive. Officials didn’t take much initiative or talk to other officials unless petitioners were involved. And rarely did anyone in Stern’s world collect taxes.42 If Stern’s Fatimid state busied itself with a continual stream of petitioners, Khan’s is complex and interventionist, but not quite conscious or deliberate in its methods. Khan’s work does not discuss the state in general terms; instead, he provides ample and invaluable documentation of its workings, and that documentation is much broader than Stern’s. But while the documents I have identified fall mostly under the rubrics that Khan established, there are, as well, some previously unknown types that suggest

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102 • Chapter 3 a Fatimid state of even greater complexity than his, especially in its methods of internal record keeping. The sheer range and number of documents suggest a state that was longer armed and stronger fingered than I suspected. The abundance of memoranda, reports, and orders in particular—the missives sent across an empire-­wide network of officials— point to an extraordinarily complex organization with specialized personnel who micromanaged a physical infrastructure to an astonishing degree. In their specialization, their micromanagement, and, above all, their constant communication, they follow repeatable procedures that suggest that they had, somewhere along the way, been taught their craft as part of a system.

LEGAL AND ADMINISTRATIVE DOCUMENTS Studying this material has therefore convinced me that the Fatimid state was, in fact, a state. I have therefore departed from the terminology of previous studies in calling the texts “state documents.” Stern initially called his texts “chancery documents” because the government office responsible for drawing up decrees was the dīwān al-­inshāʾ or dīwān al-­inshāʾ wa-­l-­ mukātabāt, literally “the office for drawing up documents,” a phrase most succinctly rendered in English as “chancery.”43 He later realized that this rubric was misleading, since petitions came not to the chancery itself but to caliphs, viziers, chamberlains, governors, and others who rendered decisions and then forwarded those decisions to the chancery to draw up the necessary set of decrees.44 He subsequently used the term “chancery documents” only in discussing decrees and records of the processing of petitions (even though those records were not always products of the chancery, either). Khan deciphered a broader range of documents, was well aware of the complexity of government offices, and so classed the documents under the more general rubric of “administrative documents,” as distinct from the corpus he simultaneously published of “legal documents” from qāḍī courts.45 His distinction between legal and administrative documents emphasized, as any good diplomatist must, their origins in different institutions, in this case, government offices versus the qāḍī courts. The “administrative” rubric was also helpful because it emphasized that all kinds of state documents, from decrees to tax receipts, from orders of payment to reports of death, were, in the end, products of the same system. But as with any act of categorization, the label “administrative” concealed as much as it revealed, specifically, the legal importance of state documents. This boils down to whether you think that there were legal systems in the medieval Middle East that functioned independently from the body of law (fiqh) and jurisprudence (ʿilm uṣūl al-­fiqh) established and theorized by Muslim jurists, which we glibly call Islamic law as though it is the only law created by Muslims. A recent (and ongoing) discussion has confirmed what Emile Tyan argued a century ago, without the benefit of documentary sources: there was a realm of law practiced by Muslims beyond what is commonly

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The Corpus • 103 called “Islamic law,” and one of those legal arenas was law in the domain of the state.46 The sovereign tribunals that the caliphs and sultans ran—the same tribunals that processed petitions—were legal institutions, even though they were not (usually) managed by qāḍīs. To draw a sharp distinction between legal and administrative documents, then, is diplomatically sound in its emphasis on the institutional origins of two different classes of document. But as a typological classification, even for heuristic purposes, it carries some risk: it implies that state documents emanated from institutions without legal force or import—surely not the case in a caliphate in which the imām himself embodied the law. Many of the state documents, and especially the decisions rendered on petitions, were documents with legal force, even if they did not always intersect with the sharʿī system of Islamic law. The classification that I have developed focuses less on what these documents do—administer things or make legal decisions—than on where they come from: state offices or legal courts. Throughout this book, then, I use the rubric “state documents” because it emphasizes the texts’ genesis inside the offices of the palace, among lower officials in the provinces, or in the nexus between the state and its subjects. All the officials who wrote these documents were part of a network of government officials the coherence of which is visible in their work.

WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT “THE STATE” What, then, about the objection that the term “state documents” is problematic because it presumes the existence of an entity called a “state”? Some historians, in referring to premodern political organizations, dispute whether the term “state” should be used at all. I find such skepticism misplaced, and potentially even pernicious, in part because it usually carries a modernist bias, as though the only states worthy of the name are either modern nation-­states or else the early modern variety to which Weber attributed bureaucratic complexity.47 Yet there is abundant evidence of bureaucratic complexity in this corpus of texts, and it has only reinforced my belief that to call the Fatimid caliphate anything other than a state is grossly to misunderstand either the caliphate or the way states work. The Fatimids were running an organization that should be called a state even by the most stringent definition of the term we can apply. That is the definition proposed by Max Weber a century ago. Weber is sometimes incorrectly understood to have argued that the state was an invention of early modern Europe. In fact, he said neither that the state was an early modern European invention nor that state bureaucracies were. Weber argued that states had a number of characteristics of which many historians focus on only one: their attempted monopoly on the legitimate use of coercive force. Even then, many historians leave off the “attempted,” which is central to the definition.48 For Weber, a state is (1) a compulsory political organization (meaning it chooses you, and you cannot opt out of it, sometimes not even by leaving) (2) with a centralized

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104 • Chapter 3 government (3) that attempts to maintain a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical coercion (4) within a certain territory. No state’s monopoly over coercion is ever complete; all states, for practical reasons, must ignore some unofficial, non-­state-­sponsored, or (to use the Weberian term) illegitimate violence, and for reasons so numerous they could fill a book, not all crime (and much non-­crime) is prosecuted. States do attempt to tar certain forms of unofficial violence with the brush of illegitimacy by declaring them outside the law. But the monopoly, Weber wrote, is a claim, and the claim is what’s important. States furthermore (5) extract revenue, (6) redistribute resources, and (7) manage technologies of sustenance. Regardless of where one falls on the spectrum of debate over whether states should regulate economies, the fact is that all states do regulate the economy, at the very least by establishing a monetary system, by issuing coinage, and by extracting revenue. They also redistribute surplus (usually unevenly), manage supply, and manage technologies of sustenance. The Fatimids, for instance, not only minted coinage but maintained irrigation works in Egypt, stored and redistributed grain during shortages and famines, and made strenuous efforts to tax primary production, some sales, the transit trade, and certain individuals. States, further, (8) maintain bureaucracies. These, too, have been the subject of misunderstanding. Weber was perhaps inordinately focused on the origins and expansion of bureaucracy in early modern Europe, especially on the tendency toward what he called “rationalization,” a key term that for him encompassed depersonalization, routinization, and predictability or, in other terms, the detachment of administrative habits and acts from the will, whims, or choice of the people enacting them—the tendency of those habits to assume lives of their own, to manage people rather than people managing them. In fact, Weber argued, these were special characteristics of the bureaucracies of early modern Europe, but bureaucracies also existed elsewhere at other times. Although Weber said that bureaucracy is a characteristic of the modern age, he never said that all bureaucracies were modern. A bureaucracy, according to Weber, is a system of legal norms, “established by agreement or by imposition,” put into practice, observed, and perpetuated “with a claim to obedience at least on the part of the members of the organization.” It comprises “a consistent system of abstract rules” that get applied “to particular cases,” according to “an impersonal order” to which all individuals, even those administering the law, are subject, though they are subject to them only insofar as they are members of the organization: “the members of the organization, insofar as they obey a person in authority, do not owe this obedience to him [or her] as an individual, but to the impersonal order.” There is also, within this order, “a systematic division of labor” supported by “necessary means of compulsion” the use of which “is subject to definite conditions”: if you are a fiscal governor and you collect taxes from people in your region, you are doing your job, but if you confiscate sacks of their grain, you are guilty of oppression, they will complain about you, and the caliph will fine or fire you. The way Weber says this is that “the organization” of these bureaucratic “offices follows the principle of hierarchy,” “each lower office is under the control and supervision of a higher one,” and “there is

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The Corpus • 105 a right of appeal and of statement of grievances from the lower to the higher.” Moreover, and this is key, the rules that the holders of these offices follow can seem “technical” and involve “specialized training” (the fiscal hands!); “it is thus normally true that only a person who has demonstrated an adequate technical training is qualified to be a member of the administrative staff of such an organized group, and hence only such persons are eligible for appointment to official positions” (the prevalence of Copts in the agrarian administration of Egypt). Those officials are distinct from the system itself in that they do not own the “means of production and administration,” including pen, ink, paper, and documents, let alone the revenue they collect. “These are rather provided for their use, in kind or in money, and the official is obligated to render an accounting of their use.” In the ideal or pure type of bureaucratic organization, Weber adds, there is “a complete absence of appropriation of his [or her] official position by the incumbent,” which is to say that the individual is completely distinct from his or her office; but that is rarely the case in the real world, in which there are natural limits on the impersonal quality of bureaucratic work. That is to say that bureaucracy is a type of “rational domination,” but even modern forms of government involve some admixture of its opposite, “charismatic components.” Finally, in bureaucracies, “administrative acts, decisions, and rules are formulated and recorded in writing, even in cases where oral discussion is the rule or is even mandatory.”49 To sum up the bureaucracy question, the state documentation the Fatimids produced is evidence that their bureaucracy was a complex organization with well-­ established procedures. They regularly sacked and replaced officials, and when they did, the state did not cease to function; the bureaucracy’s existence did not depend on the personal charisma of individual officials. Even if it never attained the fully “rationalized,” impersonal quality Weber outlines in the ideal type, few states did, and that is not to say it wasn’t a rationalized bureaucracy. Compared to early modern Europe at the moment of its demographic explosion, all premodern states were short on highly specialized and diversified officials. It is no accident that the rationalized, classically “Weberian” bureaucracy appeared precisely as the population of Europe and its rates of literacy increased exponentially. Not all bureaucracies are, then, fully rationalized. States, moreover, (9) maintain systems of redress, usually legal ones. This is a way of describing a state’s management of legal institutions that defend the claims and rights of subjects. The Fatimids managed an elaborate petition-­and-­response procedure aimed primarily at allowing subjects to complain about their mistreatment at the hands of state officials. This was one form of their redress of injustices, but not the only one. And finally, states (10) attempt to subordinate other legal systems, often by controlling executive power. All Islamic states ran their own legal systems outside the bounds of the sharīʿa, much as their doing so may have vexed the ʿulamāʾ, and much as their ʿālim advisers may have tried to persuade them to fall in line with sharʿī law, a form of compromise and negotiation that the sources call siyāsa sharʿiyya. Islamic law was a legal system outside the state and independent from it, and this was true, conversely, whether or not the state appointed the qāḍīs who manned sharīʿa courts as

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106 • Chapter 3 state officials. As Knut S. Vikør has put it, sharīʿa courts were “an apparatus of the state, but based on a law that is outside the state’s domain,” and at times they were not even an apparatus of the state.50 There were also domains of law not covered by the sharīʿa normally handled by state tribunals; al-­Māwardī (364–450/974–1058) and later theorists call these maẓālim courts because they handled the injustices (maẓālim) that officials perpetrated against subjects, though they also handled more than that. As for the non-­Islamic legal systems, of which the best documented at this period is the Jewish, anyone they found guilty of an infraction was subject to the coercive measures meted out by the state, not by the Jewish community.51 Running a state, in sum, not only meant attempting to monopolize the legitimate use of force within a given territory and extracting and redistributing its resources; it also meant developing a differentiated bureaucracy, systems of redress, legal or otherwise, and, to a weak or a strong degree, attempting to subordinate other legal systems. States were, then, far more than static entities in the business of making policy, conquering other states, and getting chronicled. Rather, states are interesting precisely to the extent that they managed to make something—a recognizable, socially legible, and legitimate-­seeming system—out of nothing: paper, ink, words, pageantry, ideology, and the threat of punishment or warfare. It is impossible, then, to immerse oneself in the documentary legacy of the Fatimid state and not see that what the Fatimids were running was a state. The documents are rife with subsovereign, middling, and lower officials, even if they mostly appear by title rather than by name; they are pervasive, and also just the sort of official about whom the medieval chroniclers offer only paltry information because the uppermost strata of the court and bureaucracy made for better storytelling. S. M. Stern once complained that “in the literary sources there is no description of the outward form of the petitions in the Fatimid period.”52 But so much more is missing from the chronicles—more than Stern could possibly have known. The ordinary, everyday work of provincial and lower officials never attracted the chroniclers’ gaze; the artistry and literary excellence of chancery officials did. Petitions and tax receipts, let alone the officials who wrote them, were likewise too ordinary for the chroniclers to describe. Weber’s paradigm of the state is useful for the study of premodern regimes because it explains the link between states and documentation, and between an abundance of documentation and its internal consistency. The Fatimids ruled in a manner that was neither loose and passive nor brutal and arbitrary. They were also, whether or not they wanted to be, dependent on the regional administrative systems that preceded them. That dependence presented them with a challenge: how, as a new dynasty claiming to have superseded the old, could they govern using proven methods of rule while not appearing merely to be continuing the business of the old regime? The answer they devised was innovative in its traditionalism, and traditional in its mode of innovation: adopt the imperial trappings of the preceding dynasty—the Abbasids—while making ideological claims to an unprecedented monopoly on revealed truth. Therein lay the Fatimid paradox: a noticeable continuity of the administrative idioms of the Abbasids, deployed to ostensibly new ends. 

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The Corpus • 107

THE SHOCK OF THE NEW? The Fatimid caliphs inherited two centuries of accumulated bureaucratic expertise from the Abbasid governors who had ruled Ifrīqiya, Egypt, and Syria before them. When they declared themselves caliphs in Ifrīqiya in 297/909, the place was teeming with administrators who were loyal to the Abbasids. When they entered Egypt and Syria in circa 359/969, their new territories were also teeming with Abbasid administrators. And over the course of the tenth century, the Fatimid and soon-­to-­be-­Fatimid lands absorbed migrants from the central Abbasid lands. The Fatimids could draw, then, on Abbasid administrative traditions from Aghlabid Ifrīqiya, Ikhshīdid Egypt, or Buyid Iraq and Iran. Yet the Fatimids also claimed to be heralding a new—completely, messianically new—dispensation. Shouldn’t their documents reflect this newness? It is here that the desire to herald the new butts up against the continuity of scribal practices across regimes and ruling ideologies—the long imperial afterlives that I discussed in the previous chapter. The Fatimids putatively opposed everything for which the Abbasids stood. But despite their opposition to them, their diplomatic style owed them nearly everything. The documentary record has convinced me that the similarities weren’t accidental, paradoxical though that may seem at first glance. The paradox makes sense: in lodging universalist claims, the Fatimids owed the most to the Abbasids, even though those universalist claims were precisely what fueled their opposition to the Abbasids. Who better to imitate than the rival empire one has conquered and intends to replace?

FATIMID PUBLIC TEXTS Most discussions of Fatimid aesthetics have focused on epigraphic writing—texts carved into buildings or stamped onto coins. There has been a voluble scholarly discussion of what Irene Bierman has called the “Fatimid public text.”53 But because it has focused on inscriptions, it has led the discussion disproportionately in the direction of the quintessential Fatimid epigraphic script: Kufic. Addressing the more pervasive form of Fatimid public writing—flexible, portable documents—inevitably changes the total picture. There are good reasons to focus on Fatimid epigraphy. Inscriptions were nigh ubiquitous at Fatimid Cairo. Caroline Williams and others have commented on the proliferation of monuments and inscriptions in the caliphal city that put forward, for public consumption, political, theological, and aesthetic claims.54 The actual work that Fatimid inscriptions performed is no simple thing to analyze, because their material face—like their theological content—conceals as much as it reveals, and therein lies its fascination both for the historian and, I suspect, for the dynasty as well. For monumental texts, the Fatimids used a style of script that modern scholars have called “floriated” or “foliated” Kufic after the ornamental tendrils, leaves, and blossoms

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108 • Chapter 3

3.10. Detail of an inscription in the southern minaret of the mosque of al-­Ḥākim, Cairo, 393/1003, in floriated Kufic script. K. A. Creswell, University of Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, EA.CA.120.

that wind their way around the letters or subsume them entirely (fig. 3.10). The very essence of floriated and foliated Kufic, as Irene Bierman and Yasser Tabbaa have argued, is ambiguity.55 The script is so ornate and stylized that it challenges even a highly literate reader of Arabic to distinguish letter from ornament. Bierman has gone further, claiming that these inscriptions invited anyone who attempted to decipher them into the tension between the explicit, accessible (ẓāhir) content of theological doctrine and its hidden, esoteric (bāṭin) meanings, a distinction fundamental to the Ismāʿīlī religious ideology that the Fatimid elite developed and espoused.56 Hard-­to-­read inscriptions were hardly a monopoly of dynasties with esoteric inclinations. But the Fatimid caliphs’ articulation of a public space in which writing was ubiquitous suggests that, perhaps even more than the dynasties before them, they intended texts to occupy the center of their subjects’ visual fields. They may, then, also have intended those texts to take on meaning in a particular way. Central to the Fatimid “pub­ lic text” was the dialectic between ostentation and mystery.57 That dialectic takes on special significance when one compares the stone inscriptions of the Fatimids with those of their successors, as Yasser Tabbaa has done. Tabbaa has observed that the Ayyubids and the other Sunnī regimes that followed the Fatimids in Egypt and Syria abandoned the mysteries of floriated Kufic, adopting instead for their inscriptions the reformed, proportioned, clear, and legible scripts of the Abbasid chancery (fig. 3.11).58 They did so in part, he says, as a way of declaring their loyalty to Sunnī Baghdad. Fatimid inscriptions, by contrast, were abundant but resolutely opaque. In that combination of abundance and ornamented Kufic opacity—in the dialectic between ostentation and mystery—there lay a message to believers about the accessibility of theological truth: they should be pervasively aware of its existence, but unable to get at it without mediation. For Tabbaa, curvilinear, proportioned scripts reeked of Sunnī theology and anti-­ Fatimid sentiment. He may be correct that the Ayyubids used curvilinear, proportioned scripts for their “public text” precisely in order to proclaim the death of the Shīʿī past

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The Corpus • 109

3.11. Inscription on the Māristān of Qaymarī, Damascus, 646/1248–­49. K. A. Creswell, University of Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, EA.CA.5558.

in the lands they ruled. The only counterexamples of which I’m aware are two late Fatimid inscriptions in curvilinear script, and an early Ayyubid one in Kufic, and neither has dissuaded me from agreeing with this part of his argument.59 While many have challenged Tabbaa’s thesis on evidentiary grounds, there is little doubt that the Fatimids’ use of floriated Kufic was conspicuous and perhaps, at a certain point, even exclusive when it came to metal, stone, and wood. Consider, for instance, the congregational mosque that the Fatimids built just outside the northern wall of Cairo in the early years of their reign—the mosque of al-­Ḥākim (built 380–403/990–1013, completed by the eponymous caliph). For the first century of its existence, it lay outside the walls of Cairo. As a congregational mosque, it was not restricted to the elites. It also used writing particularly extensively, on a scale unusual for its time and place: a comprehensive selection of verses from the Qurʾān (fig. 3.12).60 In this, it departed from the earlier congregational mosques of Fustat, those of ʿAmr b. al-­ʿĀṣ (641) and Aḥmad Ibn Ṭūlūn (876–79). The same could be said for the first Fatimid mosque within the walls of Cairo, that of al-­Azhar (362–64/970–72), which is festooned with qurʾānic verses. (As for the later, much smaller Fatimid mosque al-­Aqmar [516– 19/1122–25], its facade has been interpreted as symbolic and esoteric.)61 All these inscription programs play on the tension between ostentation and mystery, the pervasiveness of truth and its inaccessibility without mediation. But the sovereign documents are different. If the Fatimids brought innovations to monumental writing by making it more enigmatic, they brought an even more radical aesthetic to their paper inscriptions: legibility. The most pervasive and abundant Fatimid public texts were not inscriptions, but the long, wasteful decrees drawn up at the chancery and sent out to be read aloud, the petitions, rescripts, and tax receipts that lower officials wrote in the provinces and subjects saw and handled on a regular basis, and the dismembered decrees that were sent onto the used-­paper market, which subjects handled perhaps even more frequently than the rest. Unlike monumental inscriptions, documents could be found outside the

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110 • Chapter 3

3.12. The mosque of al-­Ḥākim, which incorporated an extensive program of qurʾānic inscriptions. (See fig. 3.10.) Photo: Bernard O’Kane.

imperial and regional capitals. Unlike inscriptions, subjects could possess them personally. Unlike coins, they could be seen even when not possessed; also unlike coins, they held a significant amount of text. And unlike either coins or inscriptions, the documents did not impose the technical constraints of hard surfaces on their scribes and so could be written in a freer and more legible hand. They were potentially lengthy; they were (usually) not merely symbolic, the way inscriptions on buildings and coins could be; their texts meant things in direct ways; and they could be seen, read, held, studied, pondered, and imitated. But Fatimid documents were also paradoxical. In the documents, the Fatimids embraced the proportioned, curvilinear scripts that Tabbaa argues were a Sunnī innovation. But they took their cues not only from the Abbasids but from the Buyids, who were Shīʿī. Just as paradoxically, the Fatimids tied Egypt’s state document production more closely to Baghdad than it ever had been under the dynasties that were loyal to the Abbasids. And so it is to the Abbasids that I turn in the following four chapters, in order to determine which graphic features the Fatimids inherited from their predecessors, where they innovated, and why. My aims are to gauge what the Fatimid documentary style owed to previous regimes, to understand how the Fatimids saw their debt to the imperial past, and to assess the distinctive stamp they put on that past.

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O

II

Chancery Practice

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O

4

Paper THE SEARCH FOR A SUSTAINABLE SUPPORT

The tenth century, like any period of political chaos, was probably terrifying to live through even if it’s fascinating to study. The Abbasid polity fragmented into smaller states with varyingly large claims on sovereignty. A period followed in which an Imāmī Shīʿī dynasty of mercenaries called the Buyids (945–1055) administered a much reduced Abbasid caliphate on behalf of its foundering rulers. The Abbasid state was effectively in receivership. Patricia Crone—borrowing from a Carolingian description of the Merovingian rois fainéants (do-­nothing kings), who were more interested in their long, flowing hair than in ruling—calls it the Abbasid period of fainéance.1 The Fatimids read the signs as propitious and declared themselves caliphs in Ifrīqiya in 297/909, thus inaugurating what some historians have called the Shīʿī century.2 Sixty years later, they went on to wrest Egypt from the Abbasids, then came perilously close to conquering Baghdad itself. The geographer al-­Maqdisī (d. ca. 990)—a product of a wave of migration westward, since his maternal grandfather had come to Palestine from Qūmis in Iran—didn’t wait long after the Fatimids’ arrival in Syria to announce that Egypt’s capital had abrogated Baghdad “until the day of Judgment.”3 All this is relatively uncontroversial. But supersede Baghdad though the Fatimids might have aimed to do, as they gained political independence from the Abbasids, they also developed a set of administrative norms that were deeply indebted to them. Administrative norms matter because they’re how day-­to-­day governance happens; if you don’t have norms that work, you can’t govern. The tension between the Fatimids’ rejection of the eastern center on the one hand and their perpetuation of its norms on the other is not merely a problem for the historian but inherent in their archival legacy: the documents show it. The links between Fatimid and Abbasid document production were forged in three main stages. I have structured the discussion in this part of the book around them. The first two stages predate the Fatimids’ arrival in Egypt; the third begins with the Fatimid conquest itself. The first stage was the introduction of paper into the Abbasid administration in Egypt. Paper replaced papyrus as the main portable writing support in Syria and Egypt between circa 290/900 and 330/940. This is a remarkably rapid rate of change for a preindustrial society, and its rapidity requires an explanation. The introduction of paper then catalyzed a second change: an alteration of the scripts used for administrative texts and a set of scribal innovations borrowed from the Abbasid bureaucracy. Eventually, Fatimid state documents in Egypt came to resemble

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114 • Chapter 4 documents at the old imperial center at Baghdad more than they resembled the previous Egyptian Abbasid style. This was tantamount to a declaration of intent on the Fatimids’ part. It was a metropolitan style, and that it was metropolitan was more important to the Fatimids than its association with the regime they claimed to have abrogated. The third change, after the Fatimid conquest of Egypt in 358/969, was the introduction of a distinctively Fatimid formulary. The end result was a dynastic diplomatics that drew selectively on Abbasid tradition while departing from it in significant respects. Both tendencies—toward continuity and innovation—served the purposes of Fatimid self-­legitimation: continuity built on the Abbasid imperial past; innovation implicitly rejected it. There are several metahistorical contentions embedded in my argument. One is that ruptures are never quite what we imagine them to be. The Fatimid debt to the Abbasids demonstrates that for a rupture to have meaning—for the present to supersede the past—inhabitants of the old world must find the new dispensation to be legible, and legibility requires continuity.4 The second metahistorical contention has to do with the existence of a Near Eastern administrative tradition based on writing—with my general claim that the region was pervaded by writing and archiving, and that its imperial legacies were bound up with writing and archiving. It is only in a world full of documents and archives that continuities and changes in documentary style can be legible and meaningful as political claims. My third contention has to do with the gravitas and aura that scribes invested in their documents by means of a recognizable code of techniques. That is an argument not only about what writing did for the dynasty, but about how historians should interpret it: if you read the documents for more than their manifest verbal content—for their material features—they yield otherwise unrecoverable historical information not only about dynastic claims, but about ordinary scribes, how they were trained, and to what degree they cohered as a group. Documents therefore yield otherwise unrecoverable information about how states ruled. I mean this particular “how” in the most ploddingly ordinary sense: how they mobilized human beings to extract resources, defend territory, regulate relationships, broadcast a commitment to justice, and maintain their statishness, if one forgives the neologism. The “how” carries both less and more weight than normal: at stake for me are questions of how written instruments came into being and how they worked, how they performed the work of effecting administrative acts. To work, they also had to look like they worked.

THE PRESTIGE OF PAPER In describing Fatimid-­era documents of state, the first thing to note is that they are consistently written on paper. It is worth asking why this should be so.5 If you’ve ever looked at manuscripts from medieval Europe, you might intuitively regard parchment as the more luxurious support. Parchment was indeed expensive. To

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Paper • 115 produce a single codex would have required the skins of vast numbers of sheep, goats, or cows. The smoothing and whitening of skins was a laborious and messy process requiring human time and labor. Many considered the expense justified because parchment was durable, but not everyone could afford it. Many scribes—in the Middle East as in Europe—chose paper for ephemeral texts and reserved parchment for works that they hoped would last generations. To prepare enough surfaces to run an empire, a bureaucracy writing up parchment documents would have required generous outlays of herds, technicians, and hours. To draw the situation in terms of the longue durée, in preindustrial societies of the agrarian type, states were in the business of accumulating wealth and displaying it as a sign of power and as a legitimating argument for it. One might, then, expect state documents to have been written on parchment. Indeed, paper provoked a deep mistrust in some rulers of medieval southern Europe. The Norman king of Sicily Roger II regarded the use of paper for official texts with such suspicion that, in 1137, he ordered charters written on it to be recopied onto parchment and the paper originals destroyed.6 This was as good a pretext as any to disenfranchise some sector of the landholding population; a campaign to recopy charters cannot be motivated solely by the preference for one writing support over another.7 But he was not alone in expressing the preference. In 1231, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II elevated it to law, banning paper for records of state in Naples, Sorrento, and Amalfi.8 It is probably significant that both rulers’ domains were rich with sheep and other parchment-­yielding livestock: banning paper was a luxury they could afford. But Christian rulers were not the only ones who considered parchment a more dignified and durable vehicle for documentary texts. While ordinary Jewish legal documents were generally on paper, most (though not all) Jewish marriage contracts (ketubbot) were written on parchment, presumably because the document had to outlast the marriage: if it ended in divorce, the ketubba guaranteed the woman her marriage settlement; if it ended in death, it helped determine where the marital property went. The sheer prestige value of parchment was also a factor: ketubbot may have been publicly displayed in the home. Some carried decorations at the top and had wide line spacing throughout, suggesting an investment in layout and ink equal to the investment in parchment.9 All this indicates that for certain genres, parchment had prestige.10 But prestige value needn’t be a zero-­sum game. For parchment to be valuable, paper did not have to be seen as cheap. Europe’s fears of paper’s fragility were misplaced. It is quite a bit more durable than Roger II supposed, or so I gather from the survival relatively intact of hundreds of thousands of paper texts from Egypt in substandard storage conditions. Ink penetrates unglazed paper, but it can chip off the surface of parchment, making it a less stable medium; each has advantages and disadvantages. The preference for parchment over paper in Europe had less, I believe, to do with its durability or any other inherent quality of the medium than with a set of conventions foreign to the world of Fatimid administrators, or of the Abbasid administrators on whose practices they drew. Paper had, by the time the Fatimids entered Egypt in 969,

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116 • Chapter 4 assumed prestige because of the Abbasids at Baghdad. But before it reached them, it had traversed a continent.

THE DIFFUSION OF PAPER ALONG THE SILK ROAD The introduction of paper into Middle Eastern state administration dates to the Umayyad period (661–750). This fact has not been widely appreciated. It is usually attributed to the Abbasids (750 onward), who shortly after founding a dynasty are supposed to have founded the first papermaking facilities in the Islamic world. It has also been the received wisdom since the Middle Ages that the Abbasids founded the first paper mills in the Arab world, and that papermaking had been unknown to Arabs before them—a piece of received wisdom on a par with the notion that the Umayyads continued the tribal traditions of the desert, which were oral and face to face. In fact, the Umayyads produced a considerable number of documents of their own—some on paper. The Umayyads began using paper when, in their vast territorial push eastward, they reached Central Asia. And then there is the inconvenient fact of the battle of Talas in 751.11 Most historians have followed Joseph von Karabacek in claiming that papermaking technology reached the Abbasids from China via the battle of Talas in 133/751, when Abbasid armies defeated the Tang and captured Chinese papermakers as prisoners of war.12 The idea that paper came directly from China to the Abbasids is typical of the way medieval etiologies take on lives of their own in modern scholarship, accumulating the weight of fact despite contradictory evidence. The prisoners of war appear in al-­Thaʿālibī’s Kitāb laṭāʾif al-­maʿārif (The book of delightful information), a collection of odd, unusual, rare, striking, entertaining, or otherwise notable anecdotes, among them “peculiarities” (khaṣāʾiṣ, in this case, of various regions) and “firsts” (awāʾil, the first people to do certain things).13 It’s a book of curious facts. Al-­Thaʿālibī composed it for a Central Asian vizier, Shams al-­Kufāt Abū l-­Qāsim Aḥmad b. Ḥasan Maymandī, who served the Ghaznavid amīrs sometime between 404/1013 and 424/1032. Already we should know not to take it at face value. The vizier to whom he dedicated the book had been born in Bust, in Sistān (now in the Helmand province in southwestern Afghanistan), where his father had also served the Ghaznavids as a fiscal officer (ʿāmil). In his section on geography, al-­Thaʿālibī singles out Bust for special praise. Al-­Thaʿālibī’s orientation and sympathy in the work, then, are toward Central Asia—with the exception of Bukhārā, which he roundly mocks. Al-­Thaʿālibī was a court encyclopedist and anthologist; he was a purveyor of quotable verses and charming anecdotes to a class of government officials and chancery scribes in possession of increasingly literary pretensions.14 This much should encourage the exercise of critical scrutiny. Al-­Thaʿālibī comes to paper in the section of his work on the city of Samarqand. In al-­Thaʿālibī’s day, Samarqand was ruled by the Qarakhānids, Turkic-­speaking khāns of Transoxania and Xinjiang. The Qarakhānids were, in other words, the neighbors and

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Paper • 117 rivals of his patron. Despite this, Samarqand fares well in his description, and far better than Bukhārā, which was also under Qarakhānid rule. Al-­Thaʿālibī does not waste the opportunity to note that medieval Arab authors repeatedly compared Bukhārā to excrement. One of the authors whom al-­Thaʿālibī quotes quipped that “the [letters] bāʾ and the first alif in Bukhārā are superfluous.” Take those away and you’re left with kharā (shit). Another claimed that Bukhārā “is the anus of the world,” into which “we [Arabs] have rushed headlong; would that it would fart us forth this minute, for we have stayed there too long.”15 Not so Samarqand. After quoting some verses on the city’s beauty, al-­Thaʿālibī lists the commodities for which it is known. Among them are sal ammoniac (ammonium chloride, used in metallurgy and tinning), a special variety of cotton textiles, mercury, hazelnuts, and slaves. (It never fails to jar the mind when lists of commodities include, undifferentiated as such, human beings.) But chief among its specialties, and first in al-­Thaʿālibī’s description, is paper. The paper of Samarqand, he notes, “has driven out of use the Egyptian papyrus and the parchment that previous generations employed; this is because it looks better, is more supple, is more easily handled and is more convenient for writing. It is made only in Samarqand and China.”16 And then he tells us: The author of the Kitāb al-­masālik wa-­l-­mamālik [Book of roads and provinces]17 relates that [paper] was brought to Samarqand from China with some prisoners of war who were captured by [the Umayyad general] Ziyād b. Ṣāliḥ, and who manufactured paper in Samarqand. Then it was manufactured on a wide scale and passed into general use, until it became an important export and commodity for the people of Samarqand. Its value was universally recognized and people everywhere used it.18 Ziyād b. Ṣāliḥ, the governor of Bukhārā and Sogdia—the regions around Samarqand—was the general who led the Arabs in battle against the Chinese at Talas. The battle was the only time in recorded history that Arab and Chinese armies clashed. The Arabs won, with dramatic repercussions not just for the history of Eurasian civilization but, if we are to believe al-­Thaʿālibī, for the history of technology: Chinese prisoners of war who happened to be papermakers brought papermaking to Samarqand, for which the city then became famous. In its context, the anecdote al-­Thaʿālibī brings is clearly an etiological tale, meant first of all to provide the reader with a curious tidbit about the history of Samarqand (the better to entertain fellow courtiers), and second, to extol its virtues. In the process, the anecdote acknowledges China as the origin point of paper and the Arabs as the ones who spread it. But as with all etiological tales, the point of origin tends to cover up the steps between the past and the present. Jonathan Bloom is, to the best of my knowledge, the first scholar to have challenged the direct Chinese origins of Arab paper, or at least to make the evidence tell a more complex and plausible story. He is rightly skeptical of al-­Thaʿālibī’s report and dismantles it with a technical argument: Arab papermaking methods had more in common with those of Central Asia—Sogdia and Bactria in particular—than with those of China.19

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118 • Chapter 4 The predominant raw material in both Arab and Central Asian paper is quadruple-­ processed flax fiber: from flax to thread, thread to linen cloth, linen cloth to rags, and rags to pulp. In China, Bloom says, the predominant raw material is new fiber, the bast (inner bark) of the paper mulberry. Mulberry bast is easy to find if you happen to be in a semitropical climate with a silk industry, since silkworm larvae need mulberry leaves. But the Central Asian climate didn’t support sericulture, so papermakers had to use other raw materials, and chief among them was linen rag or processed flax.20 If the origins of paper are to be found in China, Bloom argues, the proximate point of the diffusion of paper to the Arabs was not China but Sogdia in Central Asia: that was where rag paper was in fact made.21 In its broadest outlines, Bloom’s hypothesis is incontrovertible: the Arabs made paper like the Sogdians, not like the Chinese, because they adopted paper in Central Asia at a time when they were in close (though not always amicable) contact with the Sogdians. But the story turns out to be more complex: new manuscript evidence requires a slight revision of his thesis.

THE SOGDIANS The Sogdians were a small mercantile people who inhabited the region around Samarqand and maintained a vast reach across the Asian continent until the eighth century, when the Umayyads put an end to their polity. From the beginnings of their documented history, Sogdia and the Sogdians had been bound up with trade. Their sheer geographic reach made them natural vectors of innovation diffusion. Among the inhabitants of Sogdia from the third to the eighth century were caravan merchants who dominated the northern routes of the Silk Road to western China, trading in horses, precious metals, spices, sugar, perfumes, slaves (again, human beings as commodities), and (this being the Silk Road) silk.22 But the Sogdians’ range was even greater than this: Sogdian traders had penetrated deep into India thousands of kilometers to the south as early as the third century, and India would have a profound influence on Sogdian trading culture: some Sogdian commercial terms are derived from Sanskrit and Prakrit, including the words for “caravan,” “price,” “letter,” and at least one term of measurement.23 But if the north-­south vectors are astonishing, the east-­west vectors are all the more so. The Sogdians were key vehicles for the diffusion of Buddhist texts from India to Central Asia, though they weren’t transmitting Sanskrit versions of the texts, but Chinese translations and recensions. This suggests that between the third century and the ninth, the east-­west trade had become more profitable to them than the north-­south, and their interests turned from India toward China. Etienne de la Vaissière has calculated that in the first half of the eighth century, Sogdian merchants bought silk at the desert oasis of Dunhuang in northwest China and sold it for double the price more than three thousand kilometers to the west, in Samarqand—such was their geographic range

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Paper • 119

4.1. Places along the silk routes attested in the fourth-­century Sogdian letters found at Dunhuang. Map by Guy Lecuyot.

and their business acumen (fig. 4.1).24 Sogdian ultimately became the lingua franca of the Silk Road. In Khotanese, another eastern Iranian language of the first millennium spoken in a Buddhist kingdom of the southern Silk Road, the term for Sogdian, sūlī, simply meant merchant, regardless of the merchant’s origin.25 The Sogdian presence in China emerges from a massive trove of tens of thousands of eighth-­century paper rolls found at Dunhuang in western China. The cache includes Buddhist works in Sogdian, in versions of the texts dependent on Chinese rather than Sanskrit originals. This means that the Sogdians’ contact with China was more than desultory: one doesn’t translate highly specialized works of Buddhist scholastic literature without spending time studying with a teacher, in a community of fellow students or monastics.26 Sogdian is a middle Iranian language of the eastern variety, hence a distant relative of Pashto, a language spoken today in Afghanistan and Pakistan—and about as far from Chinese as English is. One of Sogdian’s direct derivatives can still be heard in an isolated valley of Tajikistan at Yaghnob, in the northwestern Tajik province of Sughd, which derives its name from the Sogdians and occupies part of their historic territory. But if today’s “Sogdians” (or Sughdians) are a linguistic fossil in a remote mountain valley (possibly a religious one as well: the Yaghnobis are said to practice Zoroastrian fire rituals despite being nominally Muslim), in their heyday before the Arab conquests, the Sogdians were the great cosmopolitans of the Asian continent. The Sogdians excelled in monetized exchange and utilized sophisticated financial instruments, to the point that in the Central Asian imaginary, Sogdian was inextricably bound up with monetary transactions: the Old Turkic word for “debt” comes from Sogdian, as does the Uyghur word for “coin.”27 The Uyghur script also developed from Sogdian, which suggests that the Sogdians were the state of the art when it came to mercantile and administrative sophistication.28 And Sogdian, in turn, was written in an

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120 • Chapter 4 Aramaic-­derived script—another attestation of the long Achaemenid imperial hangover in Central and West Asian administration, and of the Sogdians’ cosmopolitanism.29 But in a society with a rural hinterland—which is to say, almost any society—­ cosmopolitanism is a blessing and a curse. The Sogdians’ link to trade, money, and writing provoked some classic antimercantile prejudices. A seventh-­century monk named Xuanzang—immortalized in Buddhist legend for his journey to India in search of better versions of Buddhist texts, which he translated and brought back to China, thus earning not only a role in Chinese epic but also three cartoon-­like disciples, one of them a monkey king with a magical pin tucked behind his ear whose quintessentially Buddhist name means “awakened to emptiness”—is reported to have called the Sogdians “slippery” and “tricky.”30 (If this report is correct, Xuanzang may have needed to reread those sutras, or at least their ethical sections.) A tenth-­century Tang history likewise reported that as a baby, the future Sogdian merchant was inculcated with mercantile values when his parents put “honey on his mouth and place glue in his palms so that when he grows up he will speak sweet words and grasp coins in his hands as if they were glued there.”31 The Sogdians were, to be crude about it, to medieval Asia what the Jews were to medieval Christian Europe: networked, cosmopolitan, peripatetic, mercantile, adept in the technical skills required for handling currency, and reviled by everyone else as untrustworthy and greedy. Anxious Christians were afraid of Jewish mercantile competence; the Sogdians seemed to have made the Chinese equally anxious.32 The anxieties of the nonmonetized aside, if travel, trade, and maintaining caravan networks over the vast continent of Asia require bookkeeping and administrative skill, they also require sustainable writing supports. In 1907, a group of eight letters written in Sogdian were dug out of a ruined watchtower in the system of Chinese frontier walls (the forerunner of the Great Wall) ninety kilometers west of Dunhuang. All the letters are on mulberry paper, and they all date to the early fourth century. Three are fragmentary. The near-­complete letters relate to trade (nos. 1 and 5) and family affairs (nos. 1 and 3, both written by women). They were sent by Sogdian merchants and their wives from northwestern China to Samarqand in circa 312–13 CE—a distance of nearly twenty-­four hundred kilometers. Here, again, is the characteristic reach of the Sogdians: in the normal course of affairs, the letters would have traveled thousands of kilometers westward from China had they not gotten lost on the way—unfortunately for the Sogdians back home in Samarqand. But fortunately for posterity, they got lost in the Taklamakan desert, one of the driest places on earth.33 One of the letters (no. 3) conveys news of political turmoil in China, precious information for any merchant hoping to conduct business there—and for any historian hoping to date the letters. It mentions war between the Huns (Xiongnu) and the Chinese, the sack of the cities of Ye (307) and Luoyang (311), the flight of the emperor from Luoyang, and a severe famine (fig. 4.2).34 The Sogdian traders were attempting to convey current events in China back to Samarqand for anyone wishing to trade there and to navigate a rapidly evolving balance of power between the pastoral nomads of Inner Asia and the sedentary empire of China.

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4.2. A Sogdian letter from 313 CE, written on paper. British Library, Or. 8212/95.

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122 • Chapter 4 Navigate a rapidly evolving balance of power is precisely what the Sogdians wanted to do five hundred years later when their kingdom fell to the Umayyads—but I am getting ahead of my story. The significance of the Sogdian “ancient letters” is that they are written on paper—in this case, paper made from the bast fibers of paper mulberry, the “Chinese” way.35 They therefore provide evidence of Chinese paper’s diffusion westward to Central Asia long before the battle of Talas in 751—no prisoners of war needed. Mulberry paper was not, however, the only type of Chinese paper available at the time. The Chinese also manufactured paper from recycled rag fibers. The oldest dated Chinese paper manuscripts, from the turn of the first millennium CE, are made from recycled rags of ramie, hemp, and flax—from manufactured cloth, not raw plant fiber. It was only sometime early in the first millennium CE, before the Sogdian “ancient letters,” that the Chinese developed a technique to macerate plant fibers chemically. Raw plant fibers are tougher and more intractable than rag, so to make paper from new mulberry bast, you had to find a way to break them down. Once the Chinese figured this out, the technique then spread east and north to the parts of China that shared mulberry bushes (and sericulture) with the south, but the older method of rag paper continued unaltered in the parts of eastern Asia that lacked access to mulberry.36 All this information requires a preliminary revision of Bloom’s argument: the Chinese themselves knew rag paper, not just mulberry paper; the Arabs could, then, have gotten rag paper directly from China. But they didn’t: there were, in fact, as Bloom suggests, Sogdian intermediaries. Understanding better how they fit into the story helps explain the uses to which the Muslims put paper early in their encounter with it.

THE TARIM BASIN FINDS Both the Sogdian letters and the thirty thousand paper rolls from Dunhuang to which I alluded briefly above are part of a much larger set of caches from the perimeter of the Taklamakan desert in Central Asia. Egypt may have had a couple of genizot, but the Taklamakan desert had forty and counting. Once again the intersection of the desert and human civilization has worked its magic for historians: most of these texts date from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries. Among many other things, they help us map the borders between mulberry bast paper and linen rag paper, and to determine what kind of paper the Umayyads are likely to have encountered when they conquered Central Asia. A decade after Schechter emptied the geniza chamber in Cairo, while Grenfell and Hunt were still excavating Oxyrhynchos, an Austro-­Hungarian Jew who had converted to Lutheranism, Marc Aurel Stein (1862–1943), explored the perimeter of the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts in China in search of manuscripts. He discovered late ancient and medieval manuscripts, early block-­printed texts, and other objects near Dunhuang, an oasis city between the two deserts. Further discoveries then came to light at Turfan, an oasis city in East Turkestan, today’s Xinjiang (the Uyghur Autonomous Region of China). Several dozen more sites gradually emerged across a two-­thousand-­kilometer-­

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Paper • 123 long diagonal swath at the eastern end of the Silk Road, an area bounded by Dunhuang in the East, Kashghar in the West, Turfan in the Northeast, and Domoko in the Southwest. The sites dotted the perimeter of the Tarim basin, one of the driest places on earth; it is surrounded by mountain ranges on all four sides (clockwise from the north, the Tien Shan, the Altun, the Kunlun, and the Pamirs). More than two hundred thousand items have been identified to date, nearly forty thousand of these from Dunhuang alone, from a Buddhist cave library that, for reasons that remain a matter of speculation, was sealed off at the end of the first millennium CE.37 Of particular interest among the Tarim basin manuscripts are three distinct groups of religious texts that attest to a riotous history of human interchange on the silk routes. The sheer number of religions, languages, and alphabets stuns the imagination. There are Buddhist and Manichaean Christian texts translated from Ṭukharian—an Indo-­ European language native to the Tarim basin but abandoned by the ninth century in favor of Old Uyghur—into Old Uyghur, the alphabet of which is derived from Aramaic via Sogdian. There are Buddhist texts translated from Chinese into Sogdian and Old Turkish (another immediate predecessor of Old Uyghur). And there are early Christian texts translated from Syriac into various Iranian languages, including Sogdian. There are also, of course, Sanskrit and Chinese texts.38 It is a mass of material that attests to an exchange of ideas, religious beliefs, reading materials, commodities, languages, and scripts across a vast swath of forbidding terrain during an otherwise poorly documented period in human history, and that is especially exciting. The finds also allow us to see numerous segments of the Silk Road on their own terms, rather than from the perspective of the Chinese or Islamic empires. The paper of these eastern Silk Road texts runs the gamut from mulberry bast paper from the East to locally produced rag paper made in the desert oases, with various admixtures in between. The Chinese paper tends to be of higher quality, as one might expect of imported stuff. The lower-­quality local rag paper was made without benefit of an abundant water supply, though water is necessary to soak the rags and reduce them to a pulp. Rag that has not been finely macerated will produce a thick, coarse paper. In the caches there are also a small number of texts on palm leaves, birch bark, wood, silk, parchment, and stone. But the vast majority of the texts are on rag paper made from recycled ramie (cloth made from the fibers of a flowering nettle of the same name, native to tropical Asia) or hemp cloth—regardless of the language or origins of the text being copied.39 This suggests that the more common raw material for paper production at the eastern end of the Silk Road was rag. Rag paper died out in eastern China from the tenth century onward because of a shortage of rag fibers and high production costs, after which the mulberry method prevailed; but in the Tarim basin, rag paper continued to flourish. Dunhuang may, in fact, have lain on the watershed between southeastern mulberry paper and northwestern rag paper, just as it lay on the Chinese frontier with Central Asia, although that may be putting things too neatly: people seem to have made paper from whatever they had lying around in sufficient abundance. (Our understanding of historical papermaking materials and techniques is limited by our ignorance of Central Asian paleobotany.)40

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124 • Chapter 4 Sogdian traders did, however, have access to mulberry paper imported from the East. They are even more likely to have had access to rag paper of local manufacture. And that, in turn, raises the possibility that the Muslims had access to both types of paper—and had access to it via the Sogdians. When I say Muslims, I mean Umayyads, who conquered Central Asia in the early eighth century.

THE KING OF SOGDIA, RULER OF SAMARQAND, AND LAST PRINCE OF PANJIKENT The documentary record confirms that the Umayyad conquerors had access to both rag and mulberry paper—that they had a choice between the two. And if they had the choice, the Sogdians were its source. Early eighth-­century Umayyad and Sogdian administrative texts on paper have surfaced locally in Sogdia. These demonstrate that Muslim officials themselves used paper for administrative correspondence several decades before the battle of Talas, and the first paper they used was mulberry. For anyone who works on the history of Arabic documents, the mere fact of Umayyad documents on paper should inspire a sense of wonder: the only Umayyad documents previously known were on papyrus or parchment. Umayyad paper documents have surfaced in two places. The first cache emerged in 2016 from a joint German-­Tajik-­Swiss excavation at Sanjar Shāh, twenty kilometers east of Panjikent in what is now northwestern Tajikistan, near the Uzbek border—the heart of historic Sogdia. The dig revealed parts of a Sogdian city and the complex of what may have been a Zoroastrian fire temple, if that interpretation can be trusted. The Sogdian coins at the site spanned dates between 680 and 730.41 Among the finds are the earliest Arabic texts written on paper, all of them fragmentary letters dating to sometime between 102–3/721–22 and 163–73/780–90 (fig. 4.3). They are earlier than what used to be the earliest known Arabic paper manuscripts by roughly a century.42 The paper on which they are written is of the Chinese variety, made from mulberry bast.43 They demonstrate that the Arabs may have known paper at least two decades before the battle of Talas. The second find is not recent at all, but it has not been adequately integrated into discussions of Arab paper, because while at least one of the documents was written by Umayyad administrators, it was written in Sogdian.44 In 1931–33, excavations by Soviet archaeologists in Tajikistan 120 kilometers east of Samarqand, sixty kilometers east of Panjikent, uncovered a small archive in the ruins of a fortress at Abgar (modern Mount Mug) whose claim to fame is that it was the last redoubt of the Sogdian ruler Dēwāshtīch, prince of Panj (Panjikent) and self-­styled “king of Sogdia, ruler of Samarqand”—though Samarqand was soon taken from him by a pretender to the Sogdian “monarchy,” if such it can be called, a prince named Ṭarkhūn. What kind of ruler, exactly, Dēwāshtīch was is not entirely clear either. (His Persian title may have been Ikhshīd—from Old Iranian khshāyathiya, “king,” “ruler,” related to Mid-

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Paper • 125

4.3. The earliest Arabic documents on paper, excavated at Sanjar Shāh in the upper Zeravshan valley, the heart of historic Sogdia. Datable to between 102/721 and 173/790.

dle and New Persian shāh—a title that would resurface in Egypt two hundred years later when the Abbasid caliph granted it to a Turkish commander and governor, Muḥammad b. Tughj, who claimed descent from the ancient princes of Transoxania.)45 But whatever Dēwāshtīch was, he was struggling to hold on to his principality during the protracted years of great-­power warfare between the Muslims and China that would culminate at Talas. Dēwāshtīch sided with the Muslims. When Umayyad armies came and occupied Samarqand in 93/712, they eliminated the domain of his rival, Ṭarkhūn, leaving Dēwāshtīch in charge of what remained of Sogdia. Well played for Dēwāshtīch. Ṭarkhūn, now bereft of territory, seems to have thrown in his lot with the Chinese. Dēwāshtīch remained loyal to the Muslims. Ṭarkhūn’s two children fled to the court of Dēwāshtīch for safety. But in 103/722, Dēwāshtīch’s subjects—the Sogdians—began to rebel against Umay­ yad rule. This boded ill for Dēwāshtīch, whose power effectively now depended on Umayyad support. He retreated to the fortress at Abgar. Eventually the rebelling Sogdians also joined him there, perhaps having understood that freedom from Arab taxation would bring them little advantage unless they had their own king. Some months later, in 104/722–23, Dēwāshtīch surrendered to the Umayyads and accepted his fate

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126 • Chapter 4 as a vassal. Apparently unsure what to do with him, the Umayyads held him under house arrest in his castle redoubt. The princelings—Ṭarkhūn’s children—were still with him.  Dēwāshtīch’s period as an Umayyad prisoner earned him a cameo appearance in the annals of al-­Ṭabarī (224–310/839–923), the great Abbasid chronicler, who may have found him worthy of mention precisely for his loyalty to the Muslims. Curiously, though, al-­Ṭabarī styles him not a “king” of Samarqand but a “big man” or “landowner” (dihqān), suggesting either that his information was faulty, that Dēwāshtīch’s claims were exaggerated, or that there was some miscommunication between the Sogdian and the Arab sides.46 The local Umayyad governor eventually decided to rid himself of his Sogdian problem by having Dēwāshtīch executed. But the decision was not a simple one, or so I surmise from the fact that the caliphs at Damascus were apparently not very happy with it: the Umayyad governor, Saʿīd b. ʿAmr Ḥarashī, lost his position over it.47 The prospect of keeping a local big man around to help collect taxes must have seemed more attractive from the safe distance of Damascus than from up close in Khurāsān. The Umayyads were, in other words, caught up in the usual dilemma of whether to co-­opt local elites—to make them pay tribute but leave them alone to keep running the old organizational structures—or to eliminate them outright. The rebel Sogdians must have complicated the decision: the Umayyads could have made use of them for their local knowledge if only Dēwāshtīch or his usurper had managed to keep them under control. But when the local elites are weak and their subjects unruly, an empire may well prefer direct rule. There was, however, a brief window of time when the Umayyads preferred co-­ optation. In that window, the diplomatic contacts between the Arabs and Sogdians were more than superficial—diplomatic this time in the senses related not just to document production but to diplomacy. This was the Sogdian period of vassalage to the conquering Muslims. It not only earned the Sogdians a cameo in al-­Ṭabarī; it left documents behind—administrative correspondence in two languages, Arabic and Sogdian. What Soviet archaeologists in the 1930s found at the site at Mount Mug, in the ruined fortress of Dēwāshtīch’s last stand, was his archive and that of his vizier (framāndār, literally “order holder”). Dēwāshtīch may have been under siege, but he was also running something resembling a chancery: he had access to multilingual scribes and a supply of paper, and he kept copies of his outgoing correspondence. Twenty-­two of the texts are on imported Chinese paper; the others are on leather and, improbably because they don’t hold much text, willow-­sticks (such was life under house arrest). Also found at the site were inscriptions on other portable and nonportable surfaces, including ostraca, planed juniper boards, coins, and walls. Seventy-­five of the texts from the archives are in Sogdian, as one might expect from a Sogdian ruler and his vizier. One is in Turkic runes. And one is in Arabic.48 The surviving Arabic document is a petition that Dēwāshtīch (called Dīwāstī in Arabic, suggesting somewhat imperfect communication) sent to the Umayyad governor of Khurāsān, al-­Jarrāḥ b. ʿAbd Allāh, the predecessor of the governor who several years later would lose his job over the decision to execute him.49 But now, the year was circa

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Paper • 127

5 cm 2 in

4.4. Arabic letter of petition from the Sogdian king Dēwāshtīch to the Umayyad governor al-­Jarrāḥ b. ʿAbdallāh, circa 99–­100/718–­19. St. Petersburg, Institute of Oriental Manuscripts, Russian Academy of Sciences, Согд Б 29, В 12.

99–100/718–19. Dēwāshtīch’s rival Ṭarkhūn had been ousted by a rebellion and killed; his successor, Ghūrak, had declared loyalty to the Tang; Dēwāshtīch was loyal to the Muslims, and Ṭarkhūn’s children had taken refuge with him. Dēwāshtīch now had a scribe write a document that, presumably unbeknownst to Dēwāshtīch himself, was among the first Arabic documents classifiable as a petition (fig. 4.4).

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128 • Chapter 4 In this petition, Dēwāshtīch requests of the Umayyad governor al-­Jarrāḥ b. ʿAbdallāh a mount from the postal service. The letter is fragmentary, so it’s not entirely clear why he needs a mount (although a mount is never a bad thing to have). It seems as though al-­Jarrāḥ had summoned Ṭarkhūn’s children, whether to execute them or to set them up as princelings we don’t know, and Dēwāshtīch was in no position to refuse. In reply, he proposes two different ways of getting them to the governor, one of which involves a postal mount. The petition bespeaks in both content and form a relationship of vassalage: Dēwāshtīch—or rather his Arabic-­speaking scribe—styles him a “client” (mawlā) of the governor, and in this case there’s more to the word than the formulaic, self-­styled clientage of all petitioners. Client of the amīr though he was, however, it is impossible to know whether his petition was ever delivered: given that it remained in his archive, he may have thought better of sending it or perhaps had a better copy produced. The document is a typical Umayyad formal letter in all but one sense. The script is drawn in a high register, with the marked elongation of horizontal strokes characteristic of letters exchanged among high-­ranking officials of the period. What is atypical—or at least diplomatically ahead of its time—is the request clause: it contains a raʾy formula, a type of clause that came to characterize Umayyad and Abbasid letters of petition; Geoffrey Khan has traced its use through the Umayyad and Abbasid periods until it underwent a marked change under the Fatimids. The raʾy clause is the only formal element of the early Arabic petition that marks it as a petition rather than just a letter: it is a technical tool, an arm that leverages the mere letter and raises it to the status of a petition. This is the earliest attestation of it.50 That this letter includes a raʾy clause—that it conformed to the diplomatic standard for high-­level Arabic correspondence of the period—can only mean that Dēwāshtīch had help writing it. The formula, as Luke Yarbrough has noted, “must be attributed” not to the Sogdian king but “to the experienced scribe who wrote it.”51 That scribe was versed in writing Arabic documents, and he either was bilingual or had bilingual help. Either is possible. The early eighth century saw increasing Arab settlement in Khurāsān, and less social separation between the Arab conquerors and the Iranian-­ speaking conquered. There were conversions to Islam, and men and women of different linguistic backgrounds were more likely than before to marry and produce bilingual children. Let us, then, posit a bilingual scribe, perhaps of mixed Arab and local parentage, versed in Umayyad diplomatics because if you happened to know how to write in Sogdia in the 710s and 720s, that subset of the skill was a good way to ensure yourself a living wage. Our bilingual scribe wrote, then, in Arabic. But what did he write on? As we just saw, the Arabs had access to supplies of imported Chinese paper and used it for documents as mundane as letters; they had already encountered paper and would not find it unusual to receive a letter on it. As we also just saw, Dēwāshtīch had a supply of paper and wrote most of his documents on it. One of the letters in his archive records commerce in paper (“1 drachma for boots, 8 drachmas for paper, silk and oil and . . . clothes at 15 drachmas”).52 Given that there was a trade in paper locally, it is unlikely that a scribe would not have known about it.

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Paper • 129 But the Arabic petition from Dēwāshtīch to the Umayyad governor is not on paper: it is on parchment. Given the context, this indicates a conscious choice of materials: the rest of the archive is on paper, and parchment was expensive. Why did Dēwāshtīch, or his “experienced scribe,” choose parchment for the occasion? He must have chosen it for the same reason that he chose to write a formal Arabic petition: because the Umayyads preferred it, or thought of it as more formal and respectful. Whether parchment was, in fact, part of the Umayyad administrative tradition at that point we don’t know with any certainty; but we do know that the Abbasids used it a few decades later in Khurāsān, and continued to use it even after they had begun using paper and, perhaps, manufacturing it in Baghdad.53 In other words, Dēwāshtīch, in using parchment, may have been trying to impress his overlords—not a bad thing to try to do when you are petitioning them. Which is interesting, because there is correspondence in the other direction, from the Umayyads to Dēwāshtīch, and it’s on paper. One of the paper letters in the archive is a letter addressed to Dēwāshtīch from an Umayyad amīr, a certain ʿAbd al-­Raḥmān b. Ṣubḥ.54 It is written in Sogdian, indicating that the diplomatic help was mutual: just as Dēwāshtīch had access to a bilingual scribe versed in Arabic diplomatics, so, too, did the amīr have access to a bilingual scribe versed in Sogdian diplomatics. While this is not the earliest surviving Arabic document on paper, it is the earliest instance of diplomatic correspondence on paper by an Arab—even though it is in Sogdian.55 And if Arabs were choosing to write to a Sogdian king in Sogdian, they, too, were probably making the choice of writing support with conscious and respectful intent: the Sogdians had a long tradition of writing documents on paper. The Dēwāshtīch archive and the new finds together demonstrate that Arabs in Sogdia had access to paper as early as circa 720, three decades before the battle of Talas, and they used it for at least two purposes: generic correspondence that was perhaps unworthy of the Umayyads’ prestige material, parchment; and high-­level correspondence with the Sogdians, for whom the prestige material was paper. Parchment was a prestige material for the Umayyads when they arrived in Khurāsān, but in contact with the Sogdians, paper may have became the material of choice. It is even possible that in using paper for royal documents, the Sogdians were continuing a much older tradition: that of the Sasanians. Though I have not been able to confirm that the Sasanian monarchs had Chinese paper imported to Iran, the Sog­ dians’ use of it in the fourth century means that it must have been known as far west as Samarqand during the Sasanian period (224–651).56 If paper had been prestigious for the Sasanians, the Sogdians may have been styling themselves shahs. But this is mere speculation. Truth, in any case, is more awe inspiring than either fiction or speculation. The Umayyads in Central Asia had access both to local Sogdian paper and to imported Chinese paper. The Abbasids had no need of Chinese prisoners of war to tell them how to make it: a local Sogdian would do. The Arabs appear, then, to have taken paper—as substance, technology, and instrument of prestige—from the Sogdians. And they took their name for it from the Sogdians as well: the Arabic term for paper, kāghad, derives from the Sogdian kāγaδā.57

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130 • Chapter 4

WHY A CHINESE ETIOLOGY? When the Umayyads reached Khurāsān, paper had been used there for centuries. Why, then, did al-­Thaʿālibī prefer a Chinese etiology to the Sogdian one? The Samarqandīs may well have deserved their fame as papermakers, having brought improvements to the manufacturing techniques that had long ago come from China. The polymath Abū Rayḥān al-­Bīrūnī (362–442/973–1050) of Khwarazm—a contemporary of al-­Thaʿālibī who served at the Ghaznavid court around the same time—mentions that the paper mill at Samarqand used a hydraulic power hammer similar to the one more commonly used to process rice.58 This would have allowed the beating of cloth fibers to a finer pulp, yielding a smoother writing surface, while still retaining the length of the fibers and thus making for strong paper of the type likely to survive for centuries under piles of dirt and rubble.59 Samarqand’s technical superiority in paper manufacture was, then, well-­known by the time anyone tried to look back to its origins. Why, then, the Chinese myth of origin? Well, who wouldn’t prefer a high imperial myth of origin to a provincial one? The Umayyads had wiped the Sogdians off the face of the map; who wants to be associated with a conquered people? It was al-­Thaʿālibī’s job as a collector of marvelous tales to fob off foundation myths as fact. It is more difficult to explain why a century and a half of scholarship accepted his account uncritically. Had anyone before Bloom compared it with the evidence of documents—the fourth-­century Sogdian letters came to light in 1907, and the Dē­wāsh­tīch archive in 1933—the difficulties might have emerged before he pointed them out. The Baghdadi bookseller Ibn al-­Nadīm (d. 385/995), for his part, had already offered an account of the origins of paper more nuanced and measured than al-­Thaʿālibī’s, and this several decades earlier. Though he wrote from far-­off Baghdad rather than nearby Khurāsān, he remains unassailable on both technical and historical grounds. In describing “the Khurāsānī paper made of linen,” Ibn al-­Nadīm reports: Some say it appeared in the days of the Umayyads, while others say it was during the Abbasid era; some say that it was an ancient product and others say that it is recent. It is said [qīla] that craftsmen from China made it in Khurāsān using the method of Chinese paper.60 I read Ibn al-­Nadīm’s introduction of the Thaʿālibī myth with the passive “it is said” (qīla) as somewhat skeptical. But the documents support the other reports on which Ibn al-­Nadīm relied: the Umayyads adopted paper, the Abbasids manufactured it; the ancient Chinese invented it, but more recent Central Asians reinvented it.61 The type of paper the Muslims encountered, then, may have had its origins in China, but when they encountered it, it had been used in Central Asia for centuries. It had served the Sogdians for documents related to trade and state administration. If the trade was vast and far-­flung, the state administration was princely and local rather

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Paper • 131 than caliphal and imperial. Paper had perhaps not yet acquired the prestige of imperial government. But the Abbasids would change that.

THE ABBASIDS AND PAPER Only relatively late reports pinpoint the founding of the first Arab paper mill at Baghdad. Al-­Jahshiyārī (d. 331/942) attributes it to the second Abbasid caliph, al-­Manṣūr (136–58/754–75). Al-­Māwardī (364–450/974–1058) says it was Hārūn al-­Rashīd (170– 93/786–809), and this is the report that stuck: Yāqūt (574 or 575–626/1179–1229) repeats it, as does Ibn Khaldūn (732–808/1332–1405).62 Given the late reports, the Abbasid paper mill, too, has the whiff of an etiological tale: the greatest of caliphs must have founded the first Arab paper mill. Later authors laid a host of other administrative innovations at the door of al-­Rashīd and his ministers, among them, implausibly because it happened a century later, the introduction of proportioned scripts. Ibn Khaldūn adds the detail that it was al-­Rashīd’s vizier, al-­Faḍl b. Yaḥyā al-­Barmakī, who founded the mill; this is the same vizier to whom Ibn Khaldūn also credited the proportioned scripts, but neither attribution can be trusted.63 Ibn Khaldūn also tells us that paper technology was adopted specifically for the Abbasid chancery and its intensified need for writing supports.64 Karabacek adds that chanceries would have adopted it for its better resistance to erasure, tampering, and forgery.65 The claim is plausible at first blush: manuscript collections are filled with palimpsested parchments—texts whose ink has been rubbed or scraped clean— while paper is virtually nonpalimpsestable, since by rubbing off the ink you also disrupt and damage the fibers, creating weak spots and holes. Palimpsestable writing supports are convenient if you are a scribe who has run out of fresh ones: why bother slaughtering the animals, skinning them, and preparing the skins for writing when you can press old parchment into service? Palimpsests, like recycled paper, are a logical by-­product of the cyclical ecology of textual production before the printing press: as texts fell out of fashion, scribes stopped copying them; the parchment on which they were written yielded to new texts.66 If you are a scribe in need of writing supports, then, palimpsesting is economical. But if you are a chancery official writing up orders and sending them to a provincial governor hundreds of kilometers away, susceptibility to palimpsesting is a catastrophic liability: how do you know that your decree will say the same thing when it reaches its destination as it did when you wrote it?67 Plausible though this may sound, there are too many objections to the theory of paper’s unforgeability for it to hold. Not all medieval scribes believed that paper couldn’t be erased: one of them attempted to erase a Fatimid state document to make room for a Judaeo-­Arabic linguistic treatise (fig. 4.5).68 Imperial decrees could also be sealed to resist forgery, a method al-­Qalqashandī recommended as late as the fourteenth century, when paper was already de rigueur for state documents.69 And government officials may, in fact, have palimpsested their own parchments during a shortage.70

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132 • Chapter 4

4.5. A set of responses to petitions sent to the Fatimid caliph al-­Mustanṣir. They have been reused in three ways: by tracing over the letters, perhaps as an aid to learning calligraphy; by attempting to erase the Arabic text at the end of the first three lines and by adding Hebrew script around the letters, to make use of the blank spaces. The scribe appears to have given up on erasing them and

Most importantly, paper took hold in and around Iraq so slowly that it would be difficult to conclude that government officials believed in its superiority. While Ibn Khaldūn’s recounting of the Abbasid adoption of paper can’t be trusted, he did speak with a craftsman’s knowledge of the necessity of paper in chancery work. Among a string of official posts he held, the first was at the Ḥafṣid chancery in Ifrīqiya in 753/1352 as the kātib al-­ʿalāma, the official responsible for writing the amīr’s cipher signature. He then went on to the Marīnid chancery at Fez before being granted ministerial positions more equal to his capacities. His experience in the chanceries of the Maghrib made him privy to the paper-­parchment debate as a byproduct of Muslim-­ Christian rivalry, and like al-­Thaʿālibī, he may have been reaching to give paper a distinguished pedigree. The same assertion—that al-­Rashīd’s ministers introduced paper—is repeated by another chancery official, one whom Ibn Khaldūn also influenced as a historian: al-­Maqrīzī (766–845/1364–1442), who served the Mamluk chancery until about 790/1388.71 That both of these authors were chancery officials means they were in a position to comment on the utility of paper for chancery work. But that doesn’t mean we should trust them on the Abbasids’ adoption of it by fiat. On the contrary: since paper was the main tool of their trade, they would naturally have wanted to know where it came from historically, technically, metaphysically, and in every other sense. They were aware of the debt late medieval Arabic chancery practice owed to the Abbasids, the natural peg on which to hang all etiological tales about administrative sophistication. Each of them

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Paper • 133

settled for writing around the Arabic text. Cambridge University Library, T-S Ar. 51.49 + London, British Library, Or. 5553A.1 + Or. 5553A.2 + Or. 5553B.2 + Or. 5553B.1.

5 cm 2 in

wrote about paper long after Roger II, Frederick the Great, and other southern European rulers had outlawed it or made it obsolete for royal administration. Precisely as chancery officials—and Ibn Khaldūn as a sometime diplomatic envoy to Castile—they may have felt moved to defend the medium and its prestige in response to its bad press in the North. By their day, paper had been the medium par excellence of Arabic state administration for six centuries. Surely this fact deserved an explanation.

THE ABBASID SEARCH FOR SUSTAINABLE SUPPORTS In practice, the Abbasids continued to use supports other than paper through the end of the ninth century. Pedersen got this right: the administration used parchment, papyrus, and paper in tandem, whether by choice or necessity we don’t know. Local traditions tended to persevere, such as papyrus in Egypt. Alternative supports for administrative records persisted even in Khurāsān. The earliest surviving Abbasid documents, most of them tax receipts from Khurāsān, are on leather (untanned, like parchment, but also unstretched, so unlike parchment). They date from between 132/755 and 160/777—a few decades after the Arabs had encountered paper.72 The use of leather may speak to a scarcity of paper or to mere administrative inertia. Whatever the case, parchment persisted for administrative documents even at the imperial center, and sometimes the demand for it so exceeded supply that palimpsested parchment had to be pressed into service for official

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134 • Chapter 4 documents (pace Karabacek): Ibn al-­Nadīm reports toward the end of the tenth century that during the war of succession following al-­Rashīd’s death (195–98/811–13), the Abbasid archives (dawāwīn) were raided and the parchments they contained erased and reused.73 Note the presence of parchment documents in the Abbasid archives: if there was indeed a paper mill at Baghdad, it must not have been productive enough to satisfy the administration. This is a plausible supposition when one considers that paper, while it was less laborious and time-­consuming to prepare than parchment, still didn’t come easily. Based on fieldwork by G. V. Grigorev in early Soviet Uzbekistan, before the madrasas were closed and the demand for handmade paper dried up, Johan Solberg reports that a single person pulling paper by hand twelve hours per day could produce 240 sheets, or twenty sheets per hour.74 A single scribe could fill that many sheets in an hour if the line spacing was extravagant enough. Note, as well, the recycling of documents from the archives. This may not be the earliest instance of reusing Arabic state documents—recall al-­Shāfiʿī’s ḥadīth on the backs of Abbasid decrees at Mecca, probably in the 780s—but it is the only one I have encountered that reports palimpsesting the archives.75 It suggests that palimpsesting was as common in the world of documents as in that of literature. It was a technique the Arabs must have known from their early days on the peninsula: an early Islamic poet compares the remains (aṭlāl) of the beloved’s abandoned encampment—a standard topos in love poetry—with “books whose pages are filled afresh by reed-­pens.”76 Paper seems to have done to parchment in the Abbasid East by the ninth century what it would do to papyrus in Egypt in the tenth: make it virtually obsolete as an administrative tool.77 But such was the expanding empire’s hunger for writing supports that even papyrus made an appearance in the central Abbasid administration. After 221/836, when the Abbasids moved their capital north to Sāmarrāʾ (where they remained until 279/892), they began to experiment with transplanting papyrus stalks from the banks of the Nile to the Tigris.78 Whether the experiment succeeded is unknown. Two ninth-­century papyri were recovered when Sāmarrāʾ was excavated in 1911–14 (I will return to them below in chapter 7), but the supports may have been imported.79 Egypt probably supplied the empire with papyrus in the early days, an impression confirmed by other papyri that have survived from the Abbasid period outside Egypt, including a financial accounting from a monastery in upper Mesopotamia circa 240/855.80 Some of the papyri from Khirbet al-­Mird in the Judaean desert may likewise date to the early Abbasid period (most are earlier).81 More significant for our purposes are papyri dating to 232–34/847–61 sent from Damascus to the palace at Sāmarrāʾ, and from the palace back to Damascus as well.82 If paper became the Abbasid medium of choice, it did so only slowly. The capital and the founding of paper mills there may have had less to do with the change than al-­Jahshiyārī and al-­Māwardī would have us believe. Indeed, the earliest paper documents after the Umayyad finds I discussed above date from as late as the ninth century. They complicate the simple story that the use of paper in the Abbasid world was centered on the capital cities. They have survived in two groups. The first consists of four paper fragments excavated at Sāmarrāʾ (221–79/836–

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Paper • 135 92). One is a fragmentary piece of Abbasid administrative correspondence concerned with managing the unruly (and unconverted) Turkmens of Dihistān on the far side of the Caspian Sea. Paleographically, it attests to a fleeting stage after the Abbasid chancery had adopted curvilinear scripts but before the reforms in proportioning (see chapter 7).83 But given that the central administration at Sāmarrāʾ was also using papyrus, it seems there was not yet a reliable local supply of paper. The second cache supports the possibility that paper was more entrenched in Khurāsān in the ninth century than it was in Iraq. It’s a mainly Pahlavi archive now at Berkeley—hence from Khurāsān, not just found there—datable to the ninth century. It includes some administrative fragments that tantalizingly mention the land tax (kharāj).84 Though it is difficult to glean more textual information from them, it is significant that the paper on which they’re written is made from linen rags with a small admixture of raw linen fibers.85 This composition reflects the long prior history of paper manufacture in Transoxania, where the raw material of choice was recycled cloth fiber rather than bast or other plant fiber. During the same period, Sāmarrāʾ was still using both papyrus and paper for administrative documents. This is the sum total of our concrete evidence (as opposed to references in chronicles) that the early Abbasids actually used paper for administrative documents in the capital, and it is not abundant. For one thing, it says nothing about Baghdad itself, the place where, supposedly, the Abbasids manufactured paper. Above all, it demonstrates that even in the Abbasid heartland, paper was slow to get started and did not immediately supplant other writing supports. It may, in fact, have taken longer than a century to take hold there. This changes the usual picture in significant ways. If materials other than paper were still in use in Abbasid Iraq in the ninth century and paper was still taking hold, that means that paper didn’t take hold in Iraq much earlier than in Egypt and Syria, where it took hold between circa 290/900 and 330/940. Central Asia remained the stronghold. If al-­Thaʿālibī’s report about Talas reflects a kernel of truth, it is this: not long ago, Central Asia had been the heartland of papermaking and paper use. More intriguingly, if Abbasid Iraq adopted paper later and more slowly than previously believed, the rapidity with which paper overtook papyrus in Egypt calls for an explanation.

THE DIFFUSION OF PAPER FARTHER WEST How, then, did paper spread from Iraq to Syria and Egypt? At first haltingly, and then surprisingly quickly. In the early years of paper in Egypt, in the ninth century, paper was probably imported from the East and used in tandem with papyrus. But while in 290/900, papyrus documents were still common in Egypt, by 330/940 they had become extremely rare.86 Forty years is a remarkably compressed time frame for a process of obsolescence, given both the generally slow pace of innovation diffusion in medieval societies, and given that before this, papyrus had persisted as the main portable writing support in

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136 • Chapter 4 Egypt for more than three millennia. Yet papyrus was virtually extinct as a writing material in Egypt little more than a generation after paper’s arrival, useful only as a convenient wrapper for marketplace fish. If the obsolescence of papyrus in Egypt is not an illusion of archaeological cache bias—did papyrus in the upper layers of sites disintegrate or get composted more thoroughly than paper?—it was conspicuously speedy, and that speed demands an explanation. Ibn Khaldūn and his successors at the Mamluk chancery believed that paper’s affordibility, durability, ubiquity, and imperviousness to tampering were the reasons the Abbasids preferred it to parchment and papyrus. But explanations from convenience and efficiency—technological-­determinist and rational-­choice arguments—assume a limited and transactional set of motives for human behavior. In processes of innovation diffusion, questions of prestige come into play as well. Paper was not merely a local alternative in Central Asia; it was a material used for state administration. In Egypt, where a millennially long tradition of papyrus had path-­dependence on its side and the stuff was inexpensively and easily produced, there have to have been reasons for the triumph of paper beyond convenience and efficiency. By the time Egypt began using paper, its prestige must have lent it that much greater weight: it had already accumulated the undeniable whiff of governmentality. Evidence of paper’s prestige in Egypt around the time of its adoption comes—albeit indirectly—from the Iraqi historian, geographer, and polymath al-­Masʿūdī (before 280–345/before 893–956), who spent the last fifteen years of his life in Fustat and finished writing his universal history there. Al-­Masʿūdī recounts a diplomatic mission from the kings of Asia to the Sasanian shāh Khusrow I (r. 531–79), wildly embellishing an earlier version in al-­Ṭabarī with a catalogue of material splendors that he had probably spotted during his travels in Asia. When al-­Masʿūdī starts recounting the gifts that the “king of India” presented to Khusrow, he describes the letter he brought as written in gold ink on the bark of the kādhī tree. This tree, he explains, comes from India and China, is fragrant and fine, and has bark even thinner than “the Chinese paper that the kings of China and India use in their correspondence.”87 As a factual description of Sasanian familiarity with Chinese paper, this passage is difficult to corroborate. But it does tell us something important about the prestige of paper in Egypt in the mid-­tenth century when al-­Masʿūdī was writing—and when papyrus was dying a rapid and definitive death at its hands. Paper was exotic, it came from China, and, above all, its pedigree was ancient and royal. The Abbasids may have felt the same way about paper: it lent government documents prestige. But in Iraq they had had a harder time procuring a steady supply of it. Once the technical infrastructure for manufacturing paper had been in place for a century or so in the Islamicate world, nothing stopped it from taking over in Egypt. And precisely the sorts of people likely to need writing surfaces cared most about governmental prestige: provincial administrators, jurists, traders, and religious specialists, all of whom had reasons to look toward imperial centers for their models of writing. At the beginning of the tenth century, when paper was relatively rare in Egypt, its association with the Abbasid metropole must have lent it an air of legitimacy. Institutional

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Paper • 137 legitimacy matters in more than the usual way to scribes who write documents: the appearance of legitimacy lends their documents force, and sometimes it is all that lends them force. The material qualities of the text, in other words, carried more weight for scribes than for anyone else. What kind of weight, precisely, is a matter susceptible of interpretation only in consideration of social context. Eva Mira Grob, based on both material and narrative evidence, has determined that papyrus ceased to be manufactured in Egypt by about 950.88 She has confirmed through other means the conclusions Karabacek reached more than a century ago, as well as his observation that the quality of papyrus in the decades when it competed with paper was noticeably poorer.89 These conclusions may, Grob cautions, need to be revisited once more papyrus and paper documents of the tenth century are identified and dated. There is an additional problem, again one Grob discovered: some of the papyri dated to the ninth century should probably be dated to a century earlier or later (the ninth century was for a long time “a default category” for undated Arabic papyri).90 But whatever revisions we can hope for, based on the corpus she has surveyed it seems clear that paper overtook papyrus with conspicuous speed and thoroughness in Egypt. By the time the Fatimids entered Egypt, it was the preferred material for nearly all documents there, with a few exceptions: Jewish liturgical scrolls, which continued to be written on parchment out of religious dictate; certain luxury codices, from a long habit of writing sacred scripture on expensive supports; and some legal acts, in view of the burden of tradition, or perhaps fear for paper’s durability—it was, after all, a new technology. For government documents, however, there was no question that paper was the support of choice. And for scribes, paper continued to have government prestige for centuries. An India trader in Aden in the 1130s, in a letter preserved in the geniza, reports having sent his associate on the Malabar Coast of India “a package with three bundles of Egyptian ṭalḥī paper of the best obtainable quality.”91 It was named after Talḥa b. Ṭāhir (d. 213/828), an Abbasid amīr of Khurāsān. Fine paper was associated with Khurāsān as late as the twelfth century—and with government administration. By the time the Fatimids conquered Egypt, then, paper had acquired an indelible prestige through state sponsorship. But Fatimid scribes also found that prestige alone did not suffice to signal the state’s prerogative of profligate consumption—perhaps because by then, everyone else had begun using paper as well. To satisfy the need for ostentatious consumption, they developed other techniques: format, layout, and script, to which I will turn in the next chapters. And in developing them, they once again drew on Abbasid precedents.

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O

5

Layout EARLY ARABIC CHANCERY NORMS A wide space should be allowed between lines. The scribe should be careful not to write unnecessarily elongated or contracted script, or to use diacritical points and signs, because in so doing he belittles the addressee. Such usage gives the impression that the addressee is so deficient in knowledge as to need them in his correspondence. —Hilāl al-­Ṣābiʾ, Rusūm dār al-­khilāfa (104)

In the previous chapter, I discussed the support of choice for Fatimid state documents— paper—and its diffusion westward across Asia and eventual adoption in Egypt. In this chapter and the next two, I will discuss ink: the format, layout, and script of Fatimid state documents. These, too, were indebted to the Abbasid chancery.

A FAMILY RESEMBLANCE In chapter 3, I discussed the Wittgesteinian family resemblance among types of Fatimid document. Wittgenstein developed this polythetic model of taxonomy as a way of challenging classifications via linear typology while still satisfying what he called the philosopher’s “craving for generality.”1 For my purposes, the model of family resemblances is useful in another way: it moves the analysis of Fatimid state documents beyond a simple (and in its simplicity, misleading) model of a single origin. There was no single point of origin for all the features of the documents. Rather, the bundle of features that together were the Fatimid chancery style attests to a number of systems in contact.

SYSTEMS IN CONTACT I mean the word “system” in a specific sense. In this section, I will take a detour into medieval and modern literary systems in order to make a theoretically solid case for what I want to say about Fatimid documents and their relationship to Abbasid ones. Warnings to the impatient and the theory-­averse apply for the next several paragraphs.

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Layout • 139 The literary theorist Itamar Even-­Zohar devised what he called “polysystem theory” as a way of avoiding talking about static “influences” of one literature on another. Those discussions inevitably devolve into pointless rumination on which of two literatures is the “original” that “influenced” the other, which is an “imitation” of the first. Even-­ Zohar intended polysystem theory as an improvement over what he called “static structuralism,” which theorized language as a synchronic network of relations and banished historical and social depth from linguistic analysis.2 To replace a synchronic, ahistorical, and sociologically barren model of literary and linguistic production, he reworked the concept of the “system” into a “heterogenous, open structure,” what he called a “polysystem,” defined as “various systems which intersect with each other and partly overlap.”3 Even-­Zohar traces this line of thought back to structuralism and Russian formalism, though it is a more complex model than either offers. Above all, his commitment to Wittgenstein’s polythetic typology seems clear. A detailed discussion of the literary-­theoretical underpinnings of polysystem theory, the reader may be relieved to know, exceeds the scope not only of this discussion but also of my capacities to synthesize literary theory, despite my having earned an undergraduate degree in the subject. I will therefore limit myself to two observations. First, Even-­Zohar applied “polysystem theory” to the case of the emergence of modern Hebrew literature, which was deeply conditioned by its interactions with Yiddish and Russian literatures. The theory of a Hebrew-­Yiddish-­Russian polysystem was a breakthrough in flexibility and analytical power, because it covered several interacting literary traditions at once, and made sense when one considers that most of the pioneers of Hebrew literature were bilingual if not trilingual. The utility of polysystem theory in handling complex linguistic and cultural situations lies in its embrace of multiple systems with many moving parts that functioned and interacted in a manner too complex to be rendered in a linear model. Since the chancery culture and diplomatic systems of the medieval Middle East were likewise multilingual, which is to say that its scribes often were, this is a good place for us to begin. Many scribes had also worked in multiple political settings. Second, Even-­Zohar’s critique of static semiotic theories marks a decisive turn toward a theory of the social constructedness of meaning. It therefore has special relevance for historians. One of the most basic analytical moves of historians is to focus on what is contingent, unpredictable, subject to change over time, and explicable by resort to a specifically social temporality.4 Historians believe that they can historicize everything, including such seemingly universal human activities as sleep, sex, and eating. Social and temporal contingency is to the historian what a béchamel is to the classically trained French chef: her discipline is unthinkable without it.5 If contingency is our béchamel, Foucault is the eponymous chief steward to Louis XIV: contingency existed before Foucault, but he canonized it. (What was eventually known as sauce béchamel apparently first appeared in Italian renaissance cookbooks, but it was institutionalized only once it reached the court in Versailles.)6 Foucault’s historical writings are experiments in explaining historical change without resort to linear narratives and without, even, resort to narratives focused on individuals. He describes this method of handling multiple contingencies and their interactions in his early work as “archaeology,” and

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140 • Chapter 5 then later, borrowing from Nietzsche, as “genealogy,” which is like the archaeology of knowledge with the problem of power differentials added in (the knowledge/power nexus). Truth itself—what is considered true, or taken for granted as universally or metaphysically true—is, for Foucault, a product of historical contingency and the workings of power. Foucault’s archaeology of history and Even-­Zohar’s polysystem theory share a basic move: each subtracted the essentialist underpinnings of previous discussions in their fields and replaced them instead with constructivist ones. Both moved beyond simple notions of cause and effect or influence, in which an essentialized and static entity affects another but itself remains unchanged. The subject, the verb, and the object of the sentence “x influenced y,” the argument runs, are so static as to have virtually no explanatory power: it is not just that the entities are abstract, the verb poorly defined, and both power and social context absent from the equation. It is also that x is active and y is passive, and the thing of x’s imparted to y still, somehow, considered as x’s even after it gets to y. To give a less abstract example I encountered in my early work: a student of Even-­ Zohar’s named Rina Drory built on polysystem theory in the domain of medieval Jewish literary systems.7 Like Even-­Zohar, Drory spoke of Hebrew literature as but one in a constellation of literary systems, but unlike Even-­Zohar, she did not speak of modern Hebrew literature’s roots in Europe; instead she spoke of the roots of medieval Jewish (not only Hebrew) literature in the Aramaic, Judaeo-­Arabic, and Arabic speaking and writing milieu of the Middle East in the ninth and tenth centuries. This was a period of Arabic book production unprecedented in quantity and variety. The Arabic literary system encompassed subjects such as grammar, history, philosophical theology, jurisprudence, astronomy, and other sciences, arranged like planets in a solar system around either the Qurʾān (if one prefers to think about intellectual production) or religious leadership and charismatic authority (if one prefers social history and politics).8 The tenth century was, in other words, a period of explosive literary and scientific production in Arabic. It was also the period when Arabic pushed out Aramaic as a spoken language in the Middle East, relegating it to isolated pockets in mountainous Kurdistan (and the Mosul plain) and specific types of formal or religious texts.9 This was not a coincidence. The changes in literary production happened as the Arabophone population multiplied exponentially, and it accelerated alongside two revolutions in literary technology: the adoption of the codex, which until the advent of Islam had been an exclusively Christian medium but now became a Muslim and Jewish one as well; and the spread of paper, a particularly good medium for scribes who wished to produce (and sell) books rapidly, relatively inexpensively, or in quantity. New Arabic speakers, most of them bilinguals, outsiders, and recent converts, joined together in a single conversation: the result was a marked increase in the number of works being written, read, and copied—and in the number of linguistic systems in contact. Under such heady circumstances, Drory argues, it is hardly a coincidence that the tenth century was also a major turning point for Jewish literature, with a multiplication of new genres, authors, and texts, many of them geared toward the interpretation of

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Layout • 141 the Bible and the problem of religious authority. Works of Jewish literature in late antiquity and the early Islamic period had been anonymous or collectively written or compiled, an approach to authorship that reflected a tender spot around questions of postbiblical authority and the transmission of tradition: no one currently alive was considered worthy of being singled out as innovative, and anyway originality was not an explicit value (though it was important, but no one liked to talk about it). Much of that mass of anonymously authored and compiled literature is in Aramaic, which in turn became indissolubly associated with classical rabbinic literature and its anonymous, collaborative, and associatively organized genres, such as talmud and midrash. But in the tenth century, those traditional Jewish genres gave way to discrete monographic works by named, individual authors. The new-­style works used not Aramaic but Judaeo-­Arabic and thus represent the beginnings of Jewish literature in any kind of Arabic; or else they were in Hebrew, the language of sacred scripture, in a biblicizing, classicizing register, because (as Saʿadya Gaʾon wrote in the tenth century) if the Muslims can be not just competent but expert in the language of their sacred scripture, the Jews should be in theirs.10 Here is where polysystem theory comes in. While earlier studies of medieval Jewish literary production had focused on individual genres and how Jews had borrowed them from Arabic literature (e.g., the maqāma; the running commentary; the kalām treatise), Drory focused instead on the effects of contact between the Arabic and Jewish literary systems in their entirety. This permitted her to consider authors not as imitators of isolated models in single genres, but as nodes in a broader system built of constraints and possibilities—an entire linguistic and literary world—including generic structures, rhetorical devices, prosodic norms, and the other writerly building blocks across genres, and often across languages. Bilinguals were at the center of much of this literary production. Considering literary systems in contact neatly avoids the problem of artificially cordoning off genres, languages, or systems as though authors and scribes handled any of them singly. I have proposed Drory’s model elsewhere as helpful for understanding medieval document production in the context of multilingual empires striated with overlapping legal and administrative systems. Drory’s approach has explanatory utility not just for literature as a polysystem but also for documents. As Drory writes, major changes to scribal or authorial production often appear as shifts not just in one type of document or feature, but in clusters of features together across the whole landscape. During periods of rapid flux—demographic, political, technological—clusters tend to shift in tandem. The more variables in flux, the more likely clusters of features will shift simultaneously. A critical mass of innovations tends to dislodge old habits. Precisely the period Drory examines—the tenth century—witnessed a major shift not just in the Arabic and Jewish literary systems, but also in the system of Arabic document production. The shift affected not only the number of documentary genres in play—the petition, for instance, emerged as a distinct genre only then (see chapter 8)—but also the supports, formats, layout, script, and wording of the genres, which all shifted in tandem.

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142 • Chapter 5 The tandem nature of the shift suggests the utility of thinking about Abbasid document production and the Fatimid chancery style as two scribal systems in contact. Changes took place across the entire corpus of Arabic documents, in many distinct genres at once: petitions, rescripts, decrees, and documents for internal government consumption including reports, fiscal registers, tax receipts, and legal documents. Tracking those changes across the entire system helps make sense of multiple systems in contact: Arabic with Greek, Syriac, Aramaic, Coptic, and Pahlavi, among others. Changes in scribal practice are best studied in the multilingual contexts in which they occurred, and best studied comprehensively.11 In my previous book, I argued that legal systems did not patrol their borders as carefully as we sometimes like to imagine. “Legal practice was flexible on the ground—as it had to be in order to remain adaptable to a range of situations,” I posited; court clerks, whom we might regard as the “standing armies of the legal schools,” borrowed genres, phrases, and document forms from other schools and religious systems because scribes had to use what worked and what satisfied demand.12 I made this argument in the context of Qaraite and Rabbinate Jewish legal reciprocity—the willingness of scribes of one school of Jewish law to draw up legal documents following the format and, in many cases, the wording of the other. But in retrospect, that argument does not go far enough. Such cross contaminations are evident not just across schools of law within one religion, but across religions, as when one prolific Rabbinate Jewish court clerk went so far as to lift a series of clauses from Islamic marriage contracts and translate them to Aramaic in order to insert them into a Jewish marriage contract, and did so to satisfy the demand of his constituents.13 Such changes were only sometimes propelled from below. Scribes worked flexibly, but above all, technically: they were pragmatic craftsmen who used what worked and adopted a range of tools to make their documents enforceable. Considering how they actually worked causes some of the sharp mental boundaries that we customarily draw between religions to seem a little artificial. The same goes for dynasties. The cluster of features I will be discussing in this chapter include the use of long vertical rolls (rotuli); profligate line spacing; the impression of extravagant waste not only between the lines but at the top and right margins; slightly downward-­and markedly upward-­curving lines, with fragmented baselines; intense crowding of words and stacking at the ends of lines; and a curvilinear, proportioned script that was new in Egyptian document production and ultimately derived from the Abbasid and Buyid chanceries. All these patterns together—the use of paper, of a distinctive layout and of curvilinear, proportioned script—would shift in tandem, or close to it. Other types of documents from the Fatimid period, and some earlier and later documents, use features from this cluster individually or severally. But the point is to shift the discussion of origins or evolution away from single features and, instead, toward clusters of them.14 The three general rubrics that make the corpus of Fatimid state documents distinctive are their format (grand), their layout (wasteful), and their script type (curvilinear and proportioned). The discussion that follows will address each of these features singly, because analysis, by definition, has to break problems down into their component

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Layout • 143 parts. But they constitute an indissoluble whole, so I will proceed cumulatively while focusing on specifics.

FORMAT AND LAYOUT Fatimid state documents adhere to a consistent physical format: they are long vertical scrolls. In codicological parlance, they are rotuli, texts written parallel to the short side of the page, in portrait mode.15 Medieval Arabic also has a technical term for rotuli: durūj (sing. daraj).16 Their arrangement in portrait mode bears explication on two counts. Earlier documents, and even contemporaneous ones from Iraq, were often oblong, but written in a single column with the text parallel to the long side, or in landscape mode. And Fatimid state documents are extravagantly long, quite a bit longer than even the longest papyrus rotuli of earlier periods. Decrees were about 45 cm wide and ran to several meters long. The longest extant Fatimid decree is around eight meters, and was originally longer (fig. 5.1). Petitions, for their part, also conform to a size-­range and shape consistent enough to suggest a scribal convention at work: they generally measure 40–65 cm × 17–22.5 cm. They are like decrees writ small: they are similar in their relative dimensions of overall size to line spacing and letter height. This is the family resemblance to which I alluded earlier. One reason the decrees are so extravagantly long is that scribes left huge spaces between the lines, an ostentatious use of resources in service of the royal image. As Stern put it, “such ‘conspicuous waste’ of paper was a royal prerogative.” El-­Leithy has called this the “sovereign privilege of waste.”17 But there is another way to read it: generous line spacing symbolized the generosity of the caliph’s benefactions. Wasting space was, then, an essential part of issuing a decree, the caliphal image in documentary form. But it was also a convention that scribes turned on and off depending on the circumstances. They defied the usual rule at the divine invocation (basmala), which they wrote, instead, very close to the next line of text (fig. 5.2).18 The lines of text also curve, first slightly downward and then markedly upward, with a characteristic stacking of words at the ends of lines that adds to the appearance of curvature.19 There are complexities and variations to this feature: in some documents, the text appears to be distributed across a series of nested baselines that stack upward across the page like stair steps, while others squeeze only a single word above the line. But the basic impression is of upward movement from right to left. The same is true for the pair of rescripts on the verso in fig. 5.2. It is tempting to explain the line curvature, and even the broad line spacing, as having served a practical purpose—for instance, resisting forgery. While a simple, unjustified left margin and a more crowded text could allow for additions, the consistently boat-­ like line shapes and wide spaces made additions or deviations apparent and thus, in practice, impossible. But once again, purely technical explanations neither exhaust the possibilities nor persuade me completely. Technical features possessed their own

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5.1. Decree from the Fatimid caliph al-­Ẓāhir to the Qaraites, dated 11 Jumādā I 425 (3 April 1034). The top piece is now detached from the rest, and some text has been lost. What remains is eight meters long. Photos by D. S. Richards, now held with S. M. Stern’s papers at the National Library of Israel, Jerusalem.

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Layout • 149

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Layout • 151

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5 cm 2 in

5.2. Petition to a vizier of the Fatimid caliph al-­ʿĀḍid (555–­67/1160–­71) (left), with the rescripts on the back (right). State documents consistently place the divine invocation (basmala) close to the main text despite the general rule of wide line spacing. Cambridge University Library, T-­S Ar. 51.107.

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Layout • 153 semiotics. And, in this case, the curvature of the lines was a distinctive hallmark of documents from the eastern Islamic world.

GRAND FORMATS AND THEIR PRECEDENTS Neither the grand size nor its corollary, broad line spacing, was, by itself, an innovation of the Fatimid dynasty. There are earlier examples of extravagant-­looking imperial decrees in Arabic, and they demonstrate that some features were already rooted in the Egyptian context, while the Fatimids imported others to Egypt themselves. The earliest complete portable Arabic imperial pronouncement of which I am aware—I am excluding decrees recorded in inscriptions, whose terseness and materials distinguish them from the portable state documents—is a splendid official letter on papyrus from the first few years of Abbasid rule over Egypt. It was excavated in 1972 at Qaṣr Ibrīm in lower Nubia, a cliff top city overlooking the Nile valley that was continuously inhabited from the Roman through the Ottoman periods. Since the construction of the Aswan High Dam between 1960 and 1970—the modern nation-­state’s solution to the unpredictability of Egypt’s hydraulic resources—Ibrīm has been an island in the middle of Lake Nasser.20 In the early Islamic period, Ibrīm was a hub of trade and communications between the fledgling Abbasid state and the Christian kingdom of Nubia and Muqurra in what is now northern Sudan. But that interchange was not always smooth. It was supposed to observe the provisions of an early treaty (baqṭ, a diplomatic calque on the Greek πάκτον, pact) granting mutual safe conduct to Nubian merchants in Egypt and Egyptian merchants in Nubia. But the treaty worked decidedly in the Egyptians’ favor: in exchange for their safe conduct, the Nubians were supposed to render an annual tribute to Cairo of several hundred slaves. The Nubians, for their part, had been sending only the lame, the weak, the one-­eyed, and the underage, and given the crushing terms of the treaty, who could blame them? Nor had they been returning runaways. The letter is a piece of diplomatic complaint dated 146/758 in which the Abbasids, a few years into their rule over Egypt, attempted to exert control over their southern frontier. The Abbasid governor of Egypt, Mūsā b. Kaʿb, tries to convince the sovereign (or lord, ṣāḥib, as he is called in the document—like Dēwāshtīch, the Arabs demoted him a rank) of Nubia and Muqurra at Dongola to uphold his side of the baqṭ (fig. 5.3).21 The letter is, compared to the other Arabic papyri that have survived from the period, a magnificent document, a rotulus more than two meters long and a half meter wide—the longest Arabic papyrus ever found. Creating such a long papyrus roll required gluing together twelve standard-­size sheets.22 In addition to the grand size, the line spacing is conspicuously wide, between five and seven times the height of the letters as measured from baseline to headline. The grandeur was in keeping with the high status of both sender and recipient—and, I assume, with the diplomatic sensitivity of the matter at hand. Grand formats and wide line spacing had, then, been features of high-­level cor­ respondence from the earliest Abbasid period. If we widen the purview to include

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154 • Chapter 5

5.3. Letter from the Abbasid governor of Egypt to the ruler of Nubia and Muqurra at Dongola, 146/758 (detail). The line spacing is wide given the importance of the sender and the recipient. Cairo, Islamic Museum, no. 2548.

fragments, we can trace them back even further. Several of the Umayyad-­era papyrus fragments excavated from a monastery at Khirbet el-­Mird in the Judaean desert are even grander, though they are such tiny fragments as to require a generous dose of historical imagination. Seven of them are written in what their editor, Adolf Grohmann, identified as jalīl (“grand”) script, or perhaps in a slightly smaller version of it, with the alif measuring about 10 cm.23 The one legible word is probably BLGH, in the semantic range of “to amount to” or “to be worth”; it is possible that this is a fiscal decree (fig. 5.4). Grohmann argued that these Umayyad fragments supply an otherwise missing link back to Byzantine imperial decrees, connecting the exaggerated ascenders of the jalīl with the uncial script of the Byzantine chanceries. Greek and Arabic crossed paths in the bilingual protocols of the first two Islamic centuries in Egypt (a protocol is the first sheet of a roll of papyrus; the manufacture of papyrus was a government monopoly

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Layout • 155

5 cm 2 in

5.4. Fragments of what may have been an official decree from the Umayyad period, excavated at Khirbet el-­Mird in the Judaean desert. Jerusalem, Rockefeller Museum, Mird. 36.

under the Byzantines and early Muslims alike).24 While it is true that the protocols used very large scripts, they were usually written with a brush rather than a calamus, and it is not always possible to decipher them or even to be sure that they say anything. The jalīl fragments, by contrast, suggest legibility and the grandeur of official proclamations. The same goes for the Umayyad or Abbasid decree fragment that Petra Sijpesteijn recently published (see fig. 2.2).25 Wasteful management of the writing surface and larger-­than-­life script were, then, prerogatives of state administrators from the Umayyad period at the latest. That said, the scripts of the early, grand papyri are nothing like what one finds in the Fatimid documents. I will return to Arabic script styles in the next chapter; for now, I would simply like to compare the documents in terms of ductus. “Ductus” is a term that paleographers use to describe how scribes drew their lines— the way they dragged the nib across the page. Ductus encompasses the order and direction of pen strokes; the angle at which scribes held the calamus relative to the way it was cut; the pressure, speed, and consistency with which they applied it to the page; and the resulting broadening and narrowing of strokes. Sheila Blair measures ductus against criteria of “firm contour, flowing line and tension,” a description that I find illuminating.26

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156 • Chapter 5 The ductus of the jalīl fragments results from using a bias-­cut nib to write the sharply orthogonal script characteristic of Umayyad formal writing. The strokes vary in thickness. The tail of the ʿayn forms an angle rather than a bowl shape. In the Abbasid letter to Dongola, the letter shapes are likewise angular and orthogonal, but there is little variation in the thickness of the pen strokes, particularly when compared to the exaggerated proportions of the ascenders and the horizontal elongations. Also in the Abbasid letter, the teeth of the shīn are drawn as thick and angled strokes but are so triangular as to suggest that the scribe was trying to imitate stone inscriptions. What is most striking about the Qaṣr Ibrīm script is the length of the vertical ascenders and of the horizontal strokes on the baseline. It is a strikingly orthogonal script. The early Abbasid diplomatic script of the Qaṣr Ibrīm letter shares little with the round scripts of later documents on paper. That’s not to say it isn’t grand; it’s just grand in a different way. It achieves its grandeur mainly by lengthening its strokes, with cross strokes rigorously parallel to the baseline and to the papyrus fibers. The exaggerated ascenders and horizontal lines have their origin in the Umayyad chancery. Splendid examples of horizontal lengthening (mashq, as the Arabic sources call it: stretching or extension) for the purposes of grandeur can be found in the official letters sent by an Umayyad governor of Egypt named Qurra b. Sharīk al-­ʿAbsī (90–96/709– 15). Miraculously, the letters he sent to a Christian official named Basileos, who was the pagarch of Aphrodito, a local official responsible chiefly for tax collection, survived at Kūm Ishqāw (Aphrodito) in Upper Egypt (fig. 5.5).27 Alain George has persuasively argued that the script of the Qurra papyri is a formal, proportioned chancery script (fig. 5.6). A rule of proportions governs the size of the letters, and, George has argued, the style is based on generating circles from the alif. The rule of proportions is applied differently from how it would be in Abbasid chancery scripts: the Umayyad chancery script is orthogonal while the Abbasid is curvilinear; the Umayyad script doesn’t take into account the width of the nib in generating its proportions, while in the Abbasid case, the alif is a certain number of nib widths high. But each employs rules of proportionality nonetheless. It is proportional because the chanceries periodically reformed scripts by reproportioning them. Proportioning was a perennial phenomenon, an attempt to regulate the means of the production of political legitimacy.28 The basic problem to solve was how to maintain proportions while going grand. You can see the struggle in an Abbasid papyrus from a century later, a fragmentary petition to the caliph al-­Muʿtazz bi-­llāh (252–55/866–69) at Sāmarrāʾ, where the Abbasid capital was then located. The petition uses curvilinear script, in keeping with the late ninth century Abbasid chancery style (to which I will return in chapter 6). But it resorts to a drastically lengthened horizontal stroke in the first line of text after the basmala (fig. 5.7).29 Here, the grandeur has gone horizontal, breaking the proportions. In the jalīl fragment from Khirbet el-­Mird, it is the vertical lengthening that achieves the effect of grandeur. So grandeur of both support and script had earlier precedents. But while the Umayyad documents waste more horizontal space, the Fatimid documents waste it vertically. The Abbasid documents waste it both ways, but less of it.30 The grandeur of

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5.5. Letter from the Umayyad governor of Egypt Qurra b. Sharīk al-­ ʿAbsī to Basileos, the pagarch of Ishqawh (Aphrodito), written in 90/709 in a metropolitan chancery hand. University of Chicago, Oriental Institute, E13757.

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158 • Chapter 5

5.6. Script proportions in the letter of Qurra b. Sharīk (see fig. 5.5). The basic unit of measurement is the alif (‫)ا‬. Most letters are half an alif tall; some of the curved letter shapes have the diameter of one alif.

5.7. The opening of a papyrus petition to the Abbasid caliph al-­Muʿtazz bi-­llāh (252–­55/866–­69). The script achieves the effect of grandeur through wide line spacing and the lengthening of some horizontal strokes. Egyptian National Library, Tāʾrīkh no. 2807 (P.Cair.Arab. 172).

support and script had precedents, then, but the Fatimid documents are the earliest surviving documents to bring them together. Other features of the Fatimid decrees appear to be conspicuous departures from earlier practice: line curvature, stacking of words at the ends of lines, and the rule of proportions they followed in sizing the letters. Fatimid documents used a script that was both curvilinear and proportioned. That meant that there was a strict limit to how long the horizontal strokes could be, so the script achieved the effect of grandeur by other means. One was disproportionately wide line spacing, a feature even more noticeable in the Fatimid documents precisely because of the proportioning of the script. There is less space between letters and more between lines. The ductus varies markedly between the broad and narrow strokes of the bias-­cut nib, but in a curved rather than an angular script. And in a beautifully exaggerated effect of the variable-­width stroke, the scribe adds hairline ligatures between unconnected letters, tracing the movement of the pen over the paper in the blank spaces and giving the impression that he hasn’t lifted his hand from the page (fig. 5.8). This makes the ductus reflect speed and freedom, rather than the cramped movement and seemingly painstaking execution of the or-

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Layout • 159

5.8. Detail of the Fatimid decree to the Qaraites of Fustat-­Cairo, 425/1034 (see fig. 5.1), in proportioned, chancery-­ style calligraphy with a variable-­width ductus and hairline ligatures.

thogonal styles. It gives the impression of a confident chancery, writing smoothly and with ease, across the surface of a smooth writing support. Each of these “new” features was, in fact, new only to Egypt. They all had precedents in Abbasid Iraq. As innovations, they were related to two earlier changes: the adoption of paper and of curvilinear script, to which I will turn next.

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O

6

Script THE IMPACT OF THE ABBASID EAST

There is next to no information about the bureaucrats responsible for the Fatimid diplomatic system. Our only hope of learning something about them is to study their work. Chroniclers weren’t terribly interested in low-­level functionaries. We know the names of some of the heads of the Fatimid chancery, and have some of their works, such as the chancery description of Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī (d. 542/1147), who worked there for nearly five decades; S. M. Stern has persuasively identified one of the decrees he composed.1 But because that decree was transmitted in a medieval collection, we still don’t know what his handwriting looked like. Some Fatimid chancery heads also wrote works in the adab al-­kātib genre, detailing the ethical and personal qualities that chancery scribes should ideally possess. But they, too, tell us nothing about the lower functionaries who worked in the central chancery, let alone in the provinces. The signatures of a short-­lived vizier and other high officials have surfaced in the documentary record, affording the historian a rare opportunity to connect people known from literary texts not just with documents but with their handwriting.2 Who, then, were the scribes? In what follows, I will attempt to navigate around the silence of the sources by following the evolution of their script. My hope is that their metaphorical fingerprints will provide clues we cannot gather from other types of evidence—clues, especially, as to where the Fatimids looked for diplomatic models.

FROM ANGULAR TO CURVED SCRIPT One of the most momentous changes in Arabic writing across the early Islamic centuries—on a par with the shift to paper—was the move from angular to curvilinear script. The two developments may in fact be related: paper and curvilinear script came in close succession to both Iraq and Egypt, but on different timescales. In Egypt, the shift to paper took place between roughly 290/900 and 330/940. The final shift from angular to curvilinear script happened soon after. There was also an intermediate phase during which Egyptian scripts were characteristically cursive (not to be confused with curvilinear; I will explain the difference below, but suffice it to say for now that cursive Arabic documents are filled with short diagonal strokes while curvilinear ones are filled with long, curved, flowing ones). By comparison with this protracted process, it becomes all the more clear that the advent of the Fatimids

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Script • 161 a­ ccelerated the adoption of proportioned scripts—yet a third development—in sum, that the Fatimid chancery was really doing something, making conscious choices about how its scribes wrote. The most important fact, for the moment, about the dual shift to paper and to curvilinear script is that it happened first in the East and then in Egypt. And just as paper took about a century to gather momentum in the Abbasid East but took over rapidly in Egypt, so, too, the curvilinear, proportioned scripts of the Abbasid chanceries got a slow start in the East and then rapidly transformed Egypt’s administrative hands. We are in a rare position to be able to trace the crucial inflection points in the surviving evidence: the advent of cursive script, of curvilinear scripts, and of proportioned scripts.

CURSIVENESS AND THE PAHLAVI SUBSTRATE First, cursive scripts. During the last stage of papyrus in Egypt and the first stage of paper (ca. 240–330/850–940), a highly cursive script style suddenly came on the scene. “Cursive” is a term that, in general parlance, describes writing in which the letters are connected. But in this sense, all Arabic writing is highly cursive: most letters connect to the letters before and/or after. So in Arabic, the term “cursive” needs to be defined carefully. Here is what “cursive” does not mean in Arabic paleography. Many documentary scribes fill the page with what Eva Grob (delightfully) calls “abusive ligatures,”3 which connect normally unconnected letters (for example, alif ‫ ا‬to the following letter, which makes it look like a lām ‫)لـ‬. In deciphering a hand, it is essential to know whether the scribe connects the alifs at the left or you will read your alifs as lāms. Calling that “cursive” would be too vague, so I follow Grob in referring to these as abusive ligatures. Cursiveness includes abusive ligatures, but it is also more than that. Here is what cursive does mean among medieval Arabic paleographers: it has become a technical term describing scripts characterized not only by their connectedness, but by their obtuse angles, open curves, and diagonal strokes, especially in the descenders (e.g., rāʾ, zāyy, and lām; fig. 6.1). Khan and Grob have each described cursiveness as comprising three characteristics: (1) the transformation of angles into curves and curves into straight strokes—that is, a general flattening of letter shapes; (2) less lifting of the pen between strokes (“abusive ligatures”); and (3) a general compression and reduction in the distance the pen covers across the page—a crowding of letters into the line of writing.4 By cursiveness, in other words, they mean an increase in the amorphousness of the characters and their increasing similarity to each other. Cursive documents are, in other words, extraordinarily challenging to decipher. Allowing (always!) for the venting of paleographic frustrations, the important point here is not only the difficulty of cursive hands, but the radical change they represent from earlier documentary styles. They come along like a bolt from the blue and come

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6.1. A legal decision on papyrus, third/ninth century, excavated in the Fayyūm. The script is highly cursive, with obtuse angles, open curves, and diagonal letter shapes. Vienna, Austrian National Library, A.P. 3388.

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Script • 163 to characterize ninth-­century Egyptian papyri nearly ubiquitously. “The radical nature of this shift,” Khan observes, “makes it unlikely that it developed in Egypt by natural evolution.”5 How to explain this radical change? Khan explains it as an effect of systems in contact. Cursiveness appeared in Arabic documentary texts in Abbasid Khurāsān at least a century before it appeared in Egypt. The key pieces of evidence are a corpus of leather documents from Khurāsān dating to the very early years of Abbasid rule, when Arabic-­ language administration was relatively new and the skilled bureaucrats and fiscal operatives still spoke Middle Persian and wrote in Pahlavi script in addition to Arabic.6 Pahlavi, like Sogdian, is written in an Aramaic-­derived alphabet—again the long Achaemenid imperial hangover, complete with imperial Aramaic loanwords. The cache in question is a family archive, unearthed in some unknown fashion in northeastern Afghanistan in the aughts of this century, or perhaps slightly earlier. The archive is in three languages: Bactrian, Pahlavi, and Arabic. There are legal settlements, testimonies, and letters related to debts and other business matters written in all three languages; and there are fiscal texts in Arabic, such as tax receipts and a cadastral survey, from the early Abbasid administration of Khurāsān.7 The Arabic texts date from 138/755 to 160/777, the early years of Abbasid rule. We’re a few decades past the fall of Dēwāshtīch, the ruler of Sogdia (see chapter 4), and just a few years after the Abbasid diplomatic letter from Egypt to Nubia (see chapter 5)—but these documents look like they come from another planet. The Dēwāshtīch petition and the Nubia letter still look recognizably Umayyad, from the same sort of chancery as the letters of the Umayyad official Qurra b. Sharīk (see fig. 5.5): they share the same orthogonal script, long horizontal lines, and large horizontal spaces between words. In the Arabic texts from Khurāsān, by contrast, the script is compressed, and it is extremely cursive. The curves and angles of the letter shapes have flattened conspicuously along the diagonal, to the point where if no one told you they were written in Arabic, you might think you were looking at Pahlavi, some as-­yet-­undeciphered script, or the footprints of a rodent dipped in ink (fig. 6.2). The Khurāsān corpus was the smoking gun that enabled Khan to explain the sudden appearance of cursiveness in Egyptian papyri, because the Arabic script documents— tax records written by bilingual administrators—are strikingly similar to the texts from the same cache written in Pahlavi: the most striking feature of both is the abundance of flattened curves and diagonal strokes, all produced with what appears to be the same roughly cut calamus. The similarities are all the more striking given that the texts use different alphabets. Some claim that in Khurāsān, this bilingual heyday came to an end in 78/697, when, according to al-­Jahshiyārī (d. 331/942), the governor al-­Ḥajjāj imposed Arabic on the eastern territories, at which point a Persian tax official and convert to Islam named Ṣāliḥ b. ʿAbd al-­Raḥmān (d. 99/717) translated the tax records to Arabic.8 But on the evidence of the Khurāsān cache, which dates to several decades later, Pahlavi survived as an administrative language for longer. This much is clear from the documentary evidence—and even the Abbasid administrative technical lexicon is suggestive.

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164 • Chapter 6

6.2. Document from early Abbasid Khurāsān. The script is highly cursive: letters have flattened along the diagonal. Tax receipt issued circa 158/775 by Manṣūr b. Sulaymān, a financial administrator working for the governor Muḥammad b. Ḥabīb, for taxes paid by Qārwāl b. Mīr. Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, Arabic and Bactrian Documents, Inv. no. 34 (AR 22).

Two Pahlavi-­derived terms, for instance, are core concepts in Islamicate fiscal administration: kharāj and jāliya. The word kharāj has a complex history, because it denoted different types of tax in different periods.9 That is a topic for another context; in this one, the interesting bit is that the word kharāj entered Arabic twice. The word first appears in the Qurʾān in the form kharj (18:94, 23:72), meaning “expenditure,” presumably by lexical assimilation to the Arabic lemma kh-­r-­j, “to exit.” Its second appearance was in the administrative documents of the early Abbasid period, in which it means “tax.” It was brought into the lexicon by the Pahlavi-­speaking administrative class of early Abbasid Khurāsān.10 This double entry has occasioned some confusion. Claude Cahen derived the term kharāj from the Greek χορηγία, understood here in the general meaning of “tax,” via Syriac.11 Khan derives it from Middle Persian harāg (tax). This would be yet another example of the long Achaemenid shadow: according to a theory first put forward by W. B. Henning in 1935, harāg comes from the imperial Aramaic halākh—despite the apparent lack of similarity. Old Iranian had only one liquid phoneme, hence the shift of /l/ to /r/; the /h/ hardened into the initial /kh/; the final /kh/ became /g/ and then /j/—thus demonstrating the truth of a nasty quip attributed to Voltaire, apocryphally as it turns out: etymology is “a science in which vowels matter little and consonants

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Script • 165 less.”12 Pseudo-­Voltairian archness aside, I find the etymology convincing: in the book of Ezra (4:13, 4:20, 7:24), halākh denotes some type of tax, and in the Babylonian Talmud, the word for capitation tax is kerāgā, which is harg in Pahlavi and harāg in Manichaean Middle Persian. From there, the word entered Arabic via our early Abbasid bilingual administrators.13 Notice that a superstrate language (imperial Aramaic) was reduced to a substrate (Middle Persian), and then flipped to superstrate again (imperial Arabic). As for jāliya, the story is similar but weirder. If you have ever wondered why Arabic has two words for capitation tax, and both are feminine nouns beginning with the same consonant—jāliya and jizya—here is your answer. Like kharāj, the word entered Arabic twice, in two different forms. Both came from the imperial Aramaic root g-­z-­ʾ meaning to cut, but after the Achaemenids, the word took a forking path. The first time, it came into late antique Aramaic—of the sort that would have been spoken in the Levant in the seventh century—from the root g-­z-­y or g-­z-­ʾ, to pay or to recompense, and thence into Arabic, appearing in the Qurʾān as jizya (9:29), and in instances too numerous to list, in verb form, meaning “to pay a satisfaction, make sufficient, pay a debt, contend, compensate.” The second time around, it came from Aramaic to Arabic via the bilingual Iranian administrators, from the Pahlavi gazīdag (cf. Bactrian γαζιτο, Aramaic gezita).14 Again the long (and double) shadow of the Achaemenids. In the ninth century, these Pahlavi-­speaking bilingual administrators became the administrative elite of Egypt. Their way of writing gained prestige; their technical terminology infiltrated the administrative lexicon of the state; and their rendering of Arabic script made a visible impact on the papyri from the period, which are conspicuously “cursive” in the technical sense: the curves are flattened, the straight strokes are diagonal and the letter shapes are difficult to distinguish from each other. The shift to cursive writing in Arabic occurred as an effect of bilingual administrators in the scribal class in Khurāsān in the eighth century. Khan observes that the same shift happened in Egypt a century later, and for the same reason: large numbers of bilingual Persian and Arabic speakers migrated from Khurāsān to Egypt and served the administration. Narrative sources corroborate the migration of administrators from Khurāsān to Egypt. Some of them were bilingual, as is evident in their use of administrative terms derived from Pahlavi, and some such families served in Egypt for multiple generations.15 In the ninth century, Iranians appear in Egypt increasingly as district and higher level governors. In 856, al-­Kindī (ca. 185–252/801–66) reports in his chronicle of the qāḍīs of Egypt, what had been a trend became policy: Arabs were excluded systematically from governorships.16 The administrative prestige of Khurāsān was longer lived than that: in 327/939, the Turkish commander and governor Muḥammad b. Ṭughj, who claimed descent from the ancient princes of Farghāna in Central Asia (now eastern Uzbekistan, a couple of hundred kilometers northeast of historic Sogdia) received from the Abbasid caliph al-­Rāḍī the title ikhshīd, the same title some chroniclers claim the Sogdian kings to have held, from the Old Persian khshāyathiya (king, ruler).17 Cursiveness may be the bane of paleographers—as Khan laconically notes, it results “in many of the Pahlavi letter shapes becoming similar in appearance”18—but in this

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166 • Chapter 6 case, it is enormously helpful to the historian, because it is a marker of a social process attested only fleetingly in other sources. Decades after their arrival in Khurāsān, the Arabs were still making use of local administrators. More than a century later, the traces of their scribal and administrative habitus transformed the Arabic documents of Egypt. Khan calls this phenomenon a Pahlavi “paleographic substrate.”19 I would like to extend his argument and identify an entire diplomatic substrate. This would allow me to include another scribal tool that the Arabs acquired from a different Iranian-­ language-­speaking group: paper from the Sogdians. The Iranian diplomatic substrate encompassed technical terminology, script style, and writing support: the cursiveness of the Khurāsān documents (which, however, are on leather) dates from the same fateful period of contact as the adoption of paper for the letter to the king of the Sogdians (which, however, is in Sogdian). The use of the term “substrate” bears some explanation. Embedded in it is an implication of higher and lower prestige—of “the indigenous tradition,” as Crone and Silverstein have it, resurfacing “in the hegemonic culture.”20

SUBSTRATES IN GENERAL Linguistic substrates are fascinating phenomena: they are like a fossil record of births and extinctions, of political conquests and the survival and reemergence of indigenous cultures. A linguistic substrate is born when elements of a language or dialect of lower prestige or utility become embedded in a language of higher prestige or utility, like the old empire’s rubble reused for the new empire’s building projects.21 Substrates are, in other words, an effect of languages in contact specifically in the context of human conquest and migration. Technically speaking, they are a form of linguistic interference, but the whole notion of interference betrays the modern, ethno-­nationalist assumption that most people are monolingual. Substrates frequently appear in imperial and colonial contexts, in which multilingualism is common. They thus contain valuable historical information about human mobility, political power, and cultural prestige. Substrates—like calques, another form of linguistic interference—can pop up in phonemes, loanwords, or grammatical structures. To take an example completely unrelated to Arabic, Florentines (and more generally, central Tuscans) tend to aspirate their plosives, so that /k/ comes out sounding like /h/, and /p/ and /t/ can approach it, with a barely perceptible fricative.22 Some linguists read this as evidence of an Etruscan substrate. Others connect it with a more widespread tendency of western Romance dialects to turn plosives into fricatives. This very debate is an instance of a question historians think about constantly: is a set of historical relationships genetic (caused by a specific and contingent event, such as migration) or structural (caused by a more generalizable set of circumstances, such as human physiology)? Italian dialects provide a particularly rich field for the analysis of substrates because of the peninsula’s long

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Script • 167 premodern history of conquest and its very short modern history of linguistic homogenization. Linguists have identified a Greek substrate in the Sicilian dialect, though they still debate whether it is a holdover from ancient Magna Grecia or from greater medieval Byzantium. Still others have identified a Celtic substrate in northern Italian dialects—in fact, this was the first theory of a linguistic substrate in the scholarly literature.23 An example that is related to Arabic is the still audible traces of Syriac or Aramaic in Syrian colloquial Arabic. The substrate has survived despite the virtual extinction of Aramaic as a spoken language over the course of the past millennium.24 As for paleographic substrates, they are Khan’s breakthrough, though he traces them to the Hebrew paleographer Colette Sirat. But Khan has gone further in using them as historical evidence.25 Paleographic substrates occur when a group of features from one script enters another via scribes who are not only bilingual but biliterate—able to write in two different writing systems. Biliteracy may seem like an impressive feat to us, perhaps not as impressive as bilocation among medieval Christian saints, but certainly more impressive than the kind of bilingualism one acquires haplessly as a child. But in premodern conditions, and particularly in large, multilingual empires, as a proportion of all literate people, biliterates doubtless were more common than they are today. Of the relatively limited number of people who could read and write at all, a higher proportion were able do so in more than one script because the real barrier was writing to begin with. Advancement to the administrative classes presupposed learning the language and script of the imperial center even if one was from the periphery. Writing involved not only learning a set of signs and symbols, but also mastering specialized techniques of the hand, including carving a pen, cutting and recutting a nib, and mastering the flow of ink.26 Having cleared those technical obstacles, one quickly encountered both the need and the opportunity to learn a second writing system. In other words, the difficult bit was learning to read and write at all; once you mastered this skill, you were well on your way to doing it in more than one script. There could be other reasons for biliteracy, including the tendency of schooling to be handled by one’s religious community. This explains the existence of Judaeo-­Arabic and many other “Judaeo-­languages” written in Hebrew script. But imperial politics come into play as well. Both religion and conquest explain why Urdu and Hindi are the same language, but one is written in an Arabic-­derived script via Persian and the other in the same Devanagari script that had become the dominant system for writing in Sanskrit. It explains why the Slavic languages are divided into Cyrillic script in the Orthodox East and Latin script in the Catholic West. Multilingual empires are, then, veritable incubators of linguistic substrates. Paleographic substrates come into being when scribes import features from the provincial or minority script into the texts they write in the high imperial one—or the converse, but then it would be called a superstrate. This is a situation parallel to John Wansbrough’s diplomatic conventions crossing languages, or Drory’s literary systems in contact, but with a twist: in substrates, the holdover language is of lower prestige. Put another way, the theory of substrates is nuanced toward the sociolinguistic, because it

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168 • Chapter 6 considers social power. In the case of Khan’s Pahlavi substrate, Pahlavi-­writing and Pahlavi-­speaking scribes used the administrative language and norms of the Arab governing elite while retaining vestiges of their old ways, including the ductus and—to return to the main argument—the degree of cursiveness of their letter shapes, even in Arabic. The Pahlavi substrate was, in a sense, the revenge of the subaltern scribe on the hegemonic ruling culture (not to mention on the modern scholar attempting to decipher his work). To take another step back and enjoy the wider view for a moment, the Pahlavi substrate is but a single manifestation of a larger early Islamicate phenomenon: successive waves of scribal praxis from the East reaching Egypt after a lag time of about a century. What, then, does the Pahlavi substrate tell us? It tells us, for one, that scribal habits could take as little as two generations to travel from the Abbasid East to Egypt. The generational “time drag”27 comes into play with all the scribal shifts that I discuss here— in chronological order: the Pahlavi substrate; the use of paper; the advent of curvilinear script; and the adoption of the proportioned scripts of the Abbasid chancery. Methodologically, it tells us that the physical features of documents contain valuable information if one interprets them the way linguists interpret phonemes, lexica, morphological structures, and other linguistic phenomena: as historical evidence. The existence of paleographic substrates is a good argument for understanding diplomatic traditions in their imperial and multilingual contexts. But doing so poses a challenge to scholars who, by training or temperament, attempt the laboratory-­like isolation of their object of study and so look at single languages rather than clusters of them. Scribal practice does not develop in laboratory-­like conditions, imperial administrations all the less so. All the more reason, then, to collaborate with other scholars, and to remain on the lookout for comparative diplomatic phenomena like substrates: the traces of old or defunct empires lodged in new ones that have, in part, subsumed the old administrative class.28

FROM CURSIVE TO CURVILINEAR, FROM DIAGONAL TO CIRCULAR PEN STROKES At this point in my argument, I would like to pause, circle back, and return to the concept of “cursiveness.” Analyzing it carefully can help us better to understand both the Pahlavi substrate and the next major paleographic shift—from cursive to curvilinear script. I have followed the papyrologists in describing Arabic documents from ninth-­ century Egypt as highly “cursive.” In less technical and more intuitive terms, cursiveness can be described as the impression of diagonal writing, with letter shapes approximating strokes down and sideways toward the lower left-­hand corner of the page. Grob herself points out that “cursiveness,” even in the technical sense of using open curves, diagonal lines, and similar letter shapes, is not really a very precise let alone quantifiable phenomenon. She has therefore devised a more exact system of measuring

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Script • 169

Overall writing line

Baseline

Slanting

6.3. Eva Mira Grob’s illustration of the hanging of the baseline and the angle of writing in an Arabic papyrus of the tenth century. Vind. inv. A.P. 1440v.

cursiveness by isolating two essential criteria: the angle at which the baseline “hangs” relative to the horizontal; and the angle between the vertical strokes and the baseline (“the angle of writing”; fig. 6.3).29 Grob uses this system to measure the changes in script over the three centuries when Egypt used papyrus for Arabic texts, circa 640–940. This is another way of saying that she has developed an explicit and scientific way of dating Arabic papyri paleographically—a pathbreaking method in a field in which paleographic dating has tended to proceed via intuition and connoisseurship, and not always accurately. Intuition is not pedagogically reproducible; angle measurements are. And running old intuitions through new measurements is bound to change our ideas. Grob notes that one of the implications of her method is that many papyri dated to the ninth century should be redated to the tenth, a statement I can confirm independently from the other side of the chronological watershed. I have found it useful to extend Grob’s dissection of cursiveness from the first three centuries of Arabic documents to the fourth—a century that saw not one scribal revolution but three: paper replaced papyrus, curvilinear script overtook Egypt, and the Fatimids then conquered it. Grob’s method has made it possible for me to identify a crucial inflection point in the development of Arabic documentary hands in Egypt: the adoption of curvilinear and proportioned scripts from the Abbasid chancery. I will offer the specifics of Grob’s method first, and then my adaptation of it.

HANGING BASELINES During the first three Islamic centuries, Grob writes, the baselines in most Arabic documents hang off the horizontal axis, down and to the left at an angle of five degrees or less—barely noticeably. But the later one goes, she says, the broader this angle becomes. In papyri of the ninth century, hanging baselines of up to ten degrees are common, and in the early tenth, of fifteen degrees or more. The latest papyrus documents datable to the tenth century bear a conspicuous fifteen-­degree slant of the baseline relative to the horizontal axis.30 With the advent of paper, I would add, that slant increases even more, reaching inclinations as great as twenty degrees, a broad angle unprecedented in the papyrus

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170 • Chapter 6

6.4. Detail of the petition to a vizier of the Fatimid caliph al-­ʿAḍid (see fig. 5.2). The baseline on which many of the words were written “hangs” at an angle of up to thirty degrees from horizontal. Cambridge University Library, T-­S Ar. 51.107.

corpus. And with the maturation of Fatimid documents of state in the eleventh century, it can approach thirty degrees (fig. 6.4). The changes are even more marked when one crunches the documents according to Grob’s second criterion: the angle at which the vertical ascenders slant relative to the baseline. In early papyri, the vertical strokes (the alif ‫ ا‬and the ascenders of the ṭāʾ ‫ط‬, ẓāʾ ‫ظ‬, and lām ‫ ;ل‬kāf ‫ ك‬is a special case) typically slant backward, up to 105 degrees from the hanging baseline (fig. 6.5) or about one hundred degrees from horizontal. In papyrus documents of the ninth and tenth centuries, the slant widens to 105–15 degrees from a ten-­to-­fifteen-­degree baseline, so that the script leans noticeably and moves downward toward the left.31 This is the maximum extent of what Khan and Grob call cursiveness— Khan’s Pahlavi substrate. Many letter shapes appear as unidentifiable diagonal lines (woe unto the decipherer). Confound us though they may, for ninth-­century scribes, the diagonal downstrokes may also have served a practical function. Scribes writing on papyrus in Arabic generally began on the side with vertical fibers. (Greek scribes began on the horizontal side, but toward the late end of the Roman period switched to the vertical side, and the Arabs followed that practice.) Scribes writing in Arabic on a vertically grooved papyrus faced a special challenge: there are many vertical strokes in Arabic, and the vertical strokes could get their pen stuck in the grooves. Like a cyclist attempting to cross a trolley track, they would have found it easier to cross the grooves at an oblique angle, or to move the calamus diagonally across the vertical fibers. I confess that I like this theory, in part having learned the hard way that one must cycle across trolley tracks obliquely. But it is equally possible that there was no practical reason for the angle whatsoever— that it was a convention—or even that it represents the remains of a Syriac substrate. The same diagonal strokes appear in early Qurʾān manuscripts on parchment, a much smoother surface.32 Whatever the reason for the widening angle and increasing slant of the ascenders on papyrus, toward the middle of the tenth century—right around the switch to paper in Egypt—the tendency toward increasingly broad script angles abruptly ceases. While

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Script • 171

6.5. Grob’s illustration of the hanging of the baseline and the angle of writing in an Arabic papyrus of the fourth/tenth century. Vind. inv. A.P. 318r, 9th c; Heid. inv. A.P. 189r, 9th c.

a few of the early documents on paper continue the old habits, carrying forward the obtuse angles relative to the baseline,33 most paper documents now liberate themselves from the diagonal, sloping effect of the Pahlavi substrate (fig. 6.6). The baseline continues to hang, but the vertical strokes have now rotated in the other direction: some have straightened themselves and become perfectly orthogonal to the baseline, which they could not have done as easily on papyrus, while others now lean in the opposite direction, forming an angle to the baseline that can reach eighty-­five degrees.34 In other words, with the advent of paper, the angle of writing changes markedly, in tandem with the liberation of the scribe’s hand across the surface of the smoother page.35 This brings us back to Drory and the utility of considering features in clusters. Changes in writing material can precipitate a broader concatenation of transformations in scribal practice. The adoption of a new medium helps to loosen old habits.36 The smoother writing surface seems to have facilitated or catalyzed a rapid series of changes to script angles within the space of a few decades. But that was not the end of the transformations. There is a third and final set of changes visible in Fatimid documents of state: the baseline now subdivides. The scribe, instead of following a single baseline from right to left, uses a series of nested baselines—sometimes as many as one baseline per word. This is what creates the impression of line-­curvature: the words are placed step­wise. This feature emerges most clearly at

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172 • Chapter 6

6.6. Detail of the petition to a vizier of the Fatimid caliph al-­ʿAḍid (see fig. 5.2). Instead of following a single baseline from right to left, the scribe uses a series of nested baselines, sometimes as many as one baseline per word. Cambridge University Library, T-­S Ar. 51.107.

the ends of lines, where the baselines are stacked vertically upward, but it is true across the entire length of the line (fig. 6.6). While in late papyri, then, the overall impression is of the scribe’s hand moving downward diagonally toward the lower left corner of the page, in the early paper documents, the scribe’s hand moves in spirals clockwise toward the upper left corner of the page, completing the rotation at the top of the circle before moving down again. This basic change in the movement of the hand is in keeping with a smoother writing surface and the curvilinear, proportioned styles of the type originally introduced at the Abbasid chancery, to which I will now turn.

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O

7

Imperial Norms THE ABBASID CHANCERY

Before the Fatimid conquest of Egypt, Arabic document writing began to take its first discernible steps toward a fully curvilinear script, then toward a proportioned one. These are two separate developments, and I’ll analyze them separately before I put the argument back together about how chancery norms moved westward. The history of curvilinear proportioned scripts is bound up with the imperial center in Iraq, though it is not yet clear precisely how.1 Ask any Arabist about proportioned script, and they will say the name of the Abbasid vizier Ibn Muqla (272–328/885–940). But like the battle of Talas, the chroniclers’ sound bites are covering up something more complex, interesting, and plausible. This chapter is an attempt to find more complex answers to the question of who instituted the proportioned scripts and when, and why it seemed to anyone important to do so.

THE CURVILINEAR SCRIPTS OF THE ABBASID CHANCERY For the origins of the round scripts, the first place we must look is to Abbasid documents—those produced not in the provinces, this time, but in the chanceries of the capitals: Baghdad and Sāmarrāʾ. With a caveat, though. The Abbasid archives have not survived. There are, to the best of my knowledge, only a handful of surviving documents from the central Abbasid administration. Nothing like the abundance of documents that have emerged from Egypt has come out of Iraq. We are immediately at a disadvantage, then, in trying to trace the chancery’s work. We have plenty of direct evidence of how government officials wrote in Khurāsān and Egypt; but from Mesopotamia there is, to borrow from S. M. Stern, but a “pitiful” haul. That said, writers in or near the Abbasid bureaucracy have left us treatises on writing. Although their works are not always as specific as we’d like and must be used with care, they are of use in tracing the development of round and proportioned scripts. The treatises point to the fact that at Baghdad and Sāmarrāʾ, chancery scripts were characteristically round, and that they had achieved this roundness by circa 290/900 at the latest (though there is evidence of roundness at least half a century earlier).2 After that, they underwent a further set of changes involving regularizing their geometry and proportions: curvilinearity, then proportion.

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174 • Chapter 7 Some of the narrative accounts ascribe those changes to the Abbasid vizier Ibn Muqla. But the full story is more complex.3

THE REFORMS ATTRIBUTED TO IBN MUQLA Abū ʿAlī Ibn Muqla was appointed to the Abbasid bureaucracy at Baghdad in 296/908, when the regime was foundering. He was only twenty-­four years old but was made director of the office of sealing (the caliph’s letters) and breaking of the seal (of incoming letters, dīwān al-­khātam wa-­l-­faḍḍ), a post that also included filing and copying letters. He rose to the vizierate and served 316–24/928–36, under three separate caliphs, with interruptions due to court intrigue.4 The period was chaotic, and things were about to get worse. In retrospect, a chancery that wrote its documents in an orderly, proportioned, and regular script must have served as a bulwark of regularity and predictability amid political chaos. The biographical encyclopedist Ibn Khallikān (608–81/1211–82) claims that Ibn Muqla’s contribution to chancery practice was a rule of proportions, or proportioned script (al-­khaṭṭ al-­mansūb), an invention he shared with his brother, Abū ʿAbdallāh.5 The rule prescribed both the relative size of each letter and their sizes relative to the width of the nib: the alif (‫ )ا‬was a certain number of nib widths high depending on the script; the diameter of the bowls of the descenders (e.g., ‫ ح‬and ‫ )ع‬was a certain proportion of the length of the alif (fig. 7.1).6 But the attribution of this reform to Ibn Muqla comes in a source too late to be trustworthy, and the etiology—given the canonicity of proportioned script in the thirteenth century, when Ibn Khallikān wrote—sounds too neat to be believable. More than a century later, the chancery expert al-­Qalqashandī (756–821/1355–1418), who was deeply attentive to information on the history of his craft, must have felt that the hagiography had gone too far, if not the attribution to Ibn Muqla itself, because he took pains to emphasize that Ibn Muqla applied his rule of proportions to existing scripts rather than inventing new ones.7 As Nabia Abbott pointed out in 1939 and Alain George has more recently emphasized, it was common for medieval authors to attribute specific chancery scripts to individual calligraphers, even when the scripts had appeared much earlier, or appeared gradually.8 This, again, is the béchamel problem: the sauce existed before its eponym. There were plenty of other noted calligraphers at the Abbasid court and in the bureaucracy around the same time.9 Ibn al-­Nadīm (d. 385/995), a copyist and bookseller (warrāq) in Baghdad and himself a calligrapher—hence, again, someone attentive to the craft—thought Ibn Muqla’s hand was excellent, but not as good as that of his brother, Abū ʿAbdallāh, who was the real star of the family. But Ibn al-­Nadīm also tells us that Abū ʿAlī wrote in midād, carbon ink, the usual medium of bureaucrats, while Abū ʿAbdallāh used ḥibr, iron-­gall ink, which has a brownish, metallic look, is more caustic and more difficult to use, and was usually reserved for Qurʾāns and other prestigious literary texts.10 The preference for one brother over the other may merely reflect Ibn al-­Nadīm’s preference for codices over chancery documents—unsurprising given his voracious love of books.

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Imperial Norms • 175

7.1. Size of the alif and the bowls of proportioned, curvilinear Arabic letters as shown in two Fatimid decree fragments. The alif is eight or nine nib widths high; the diameter of the bowls is half that. Cambridge University Library, T-­S Ar. 1a.140 and New York, ENA 4045.2 (details).

Ibn ʿAbd Rabbih (246–328/860–940), a contemporary of Ibn Muqla’s but from the other side of the known world—the newly declared caliphate of Cordoba in al-­ Andalus—also names several skilled scribes, Ibn Muqla among them, but does not seem to think that Ibn Muqla was unique.11 And even Abū Ḥayyān al-­Tawḥīdī (ca. 320–414/ ca. 932–1023), who was Iraqi and would have known first-­or secondhand who the important calligraphers were in Baghdad, names a large number of experts in the field among whom Ibn Muqla is only one.12 Al-­Tawḥīdī does this in a brief treatise on the technicalities of writing, al-­Risāla fī ʿilm al-­kitāba (The epistle on the science of writing), which is a veritable handbook of Arabic scripts in an age of transition and ferment. The experts he discusses are adept at writing both documents and codices, and there are more of them than we will ever be able to identify. Reading his work gives the impression that proportioned script was the invention not of a single person, but of an entire class—and that this whole Ibn Muqla business reflects the way medieval sources compress gradual evolutionary processes under the rubric of a single historical person. While the proportioned scripts appear to be the stock-­in-­trade of this entire cadre of scribes, al-­Tawḥīdī attributes a different innovation to Ibn Muqla: the variable-­width ductus. We saw it earlier with the Abbasid letter to Nubia, but this is a different animal. This one is created by angling the cut of the calamus so as to “nib the point obliquely and to the right, for the point determines the handwriting.”13 I can confirm from my own experiments that the nib does determine the handwriting. As for the substance of the contribution attributed to Ibn Muqla, let us hypothesize that the rule of proportioning came into existence around the time of his vizierate, so circa 320/930. We might, then, expect documents from the central Abbasid administration before the reforms to be written in unproportioned but curvilinear script. At the same period outside Iraq, and in general outside the state administration, formal scripts were still angular, including the formal hands used to write Qurʾāns and monumental

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176 • Chapter 7 texts, as well as the cursive scripts of administrative documents. But inside the Abbasid chancery, there had to have been curvilinear scripts to which the proportioning could then be applied. And indeed this is what we find: evidence from Iraq of an unproportioned, curvilinear script. When Ernst Herzfeld excavated the Abbasid capital at Sāmarrāʾ in 1911–13, he discovered two papyri and several paper fragments, all from the central Abbasid administration. Despite their importance, the only papyrologist who has written about them, to the best of my knowledge, is Lucian Reinfandt in an article published in 2012.14 Herzfeld’s expedition was the first time anyone had excavated an Islamic-­era site using scientific methods, and the site was rewarding for its importance and its easy dating scheme: it had been in use for less than six decades (221–79/836–92). The excavation unearthed three Abbasid palaces, as well as polo grounds, hunting grounds, race courses, and two congregational mosques, one of which was adjacent to the famous cone-­shaped spiral minaret, the largest minaret the world knew until the modern age. One of the buildings was the dār al-­khilāfa, which contained the caliph’s private residence (al-­jawsaq al-­ khāqānī), and it was there that Herzfeld found the papyri and paper fragments.15 The sole surviving Abbasid official documents of which I am aware, then, happen to predate Ibn Muqla’s vizierate. Their script is curvilinear but unproportioned. The first is a fiscal account on papyrus related to tax revenues from—of all places— Egypt (fig. 7.2).16 We don’t know whether it was written in Egypt or Iraq, a point I’ll get back to in a bit. The entries are listed in dīnārs and converted to dirhams, yielding a total of one million dirhams of tax revenue. The sheet is quite large, as befits a document from the central administration: 38 × 26.5 cm (a standard A4 sheet is 29.7 × 21 cm). Some features of the curvilinear script are typical of provincial Abbasid documents: the small foot or spur at the left of the base of the alif (‫ )ا‬is virtually universal on papyri from Egypt, though rarer on later documents; the elongation (mashq) of the kāf is typical of early Arabic book hands and some documents as well, and it would linger on through the middle of the tenth century depending on the scribe and the genre. And the baseline hangs at an angle that occasionally approaches ten degrees, as Grob argues was typical of ninth-­century papyri from Egypt. In all those ways, the account from Sāmarrāʾ is similar to contemporaneous Egyptian documents. But apart from those details, it inhabits a different paleographic universe. The script is fully curvilinear, even if the curves are still flattened and fairly open. The ductus varies in width, alternating between thin and broad lines—the innovation that al-­Tawḥīdī would attribute to Ibn Muqla, who hadn’t yet come on the scene. The line spacing is conspicuously broad. Most significantly—because these are features unattested in Egypt in the same period—the ascenders have rotated to the slightly acute angle characteristic of later paper documents; and the baseline has fragmented from a single plane to ascending stair steps. We are not yet at the boat-­shaped lines of the Fatimid state document corpus, but we are getting there. In other words, Egypt would have to wait until the mid-­tenth century to approach anything like this document from the mid-­ ninth. It may well have been written in Egypt, but if so, the scribe was probably a high level administrator—someone in the upper echelons of the state, and possibly an Iraqi.

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Imperial Norms • 177

7.2. A chancery document on papyrus from the central Abbasid administration. This is a ninth-­ century fiscal account related to tax revenues from Egypt, excavated from the Abbasid palace at al-­ Sāmarrāʾ (221–­78/836–­92). It is a rare example of a curvilinear but unproportioned hand. Berlin, Museum of Islamic Art inv. I.7750.1.

Curvilinear script, wide line spacing, and upward-­sloping lines: these must have been features of Abbasid chancery documents by the ninth century, at least to judge by this single exemplar. A single, fragmentary document is not, alas, sufficient evidence with which to reconstruct a script. But there is supporting evidence. One is an imperial order on papyrus from ca. 220–40/835–54, the beginning of the Sāmarrāʾ, period, but probably found in Egypt. It’s written in a high imperial chancery script, instructing a district administrator to punish with lashes and fines some group of peo-

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178 • Chapter 7 ple for nonpayment.17 It’s the earliest example of the Iraqi round script I have seen on a firmly datable document. Not only is the script curvilinear, but the lines slope upward, the baselines are fragmented, and the ductus fluctuates between narrow and broad strokes. It’s more loosely executed than the fiscal account from Sāmarrāʾ, but it’s in the same ballpark. One of the paper fragments excavated at Sāmarrāʾ, likewise, is a piece of Abbasid administrative correspondence, this time concerned with managing the Turkmens of Dihistān on the borders (thughūr) of the empire, on the far side of the Caspian Sea. Paleographically, it, too, attests to a fleeting stage after the Abbasid chancery had adopted curvilinear scripts but before the reforms in proportioning.18 The other papyrus excavated at Sāmarrāʾ—also a fiscal document—is not as radically curvilinear as these three: it combines the angles and slants characteristic of the Pahlavi substrate with the broad line spacing and hanging baselines characteristic of the evolving chancery style.19 It appears, in other words, to be the missing link between the early Abbasid tax receipts from Khurāsān and the central Abbasid style. The mix of papyrus and paper also suggests that the central administration at Sāmarrāʾ did not yet have a steady supply of paper. The Sāmarrāʾ finds appear, then, to represent at least two missing links between the sloping, diagonal style of the Pahlavi substrate and the proportioned chancery style: an evolution toward a fully curvilinear script. Though this is, indeed, but a pitiful haul, given the dearth or perhaps total lack of other documents from the early Abbasid capitals and, above all, given the corroboration the literary evidence provides, one would be justified in taking these few exemplars seriously. A fifth Abbasid official papyrus provides a valuable point of comparison, because while it, too, comes from the upper echelons of the Abbasid administration, it is from Egypt, and so can serve as a control and also help gauge how long curvilinear script took to move west. It is a list of expenditures that probably dates to the ninth century (fig. 7.3).20 The line spacing of the letter is wide, roughly seven times the height of the letters without hastae, as was typical of official correspondence. Paleographically, it allows us to map another point on the continuum: it shares many of the features of the chancery document from Sāmarrāʾ, but the ascenders are still slightly oblique, as in the Pahlavi-­style documents from Egypt in the same period. The ductus moves between broad and fine strokes, as in other early upper-­echelon Abbasid state documents like the diplomatic complaint from Qaṣr Ibrīm. While the fragmentary condition of the papyrus does not permit the observation of much detail, it seems that in some places the baseline hangs at ten to fifteen degrees from the horizontal and appears to fragment, especially toward the ends of lines. But that is where the similarities with the central Abbasid style end. The script is flattened along the diagonal—a typical Egyptian feature of the period due to the impact of eastern hands and the Pahlavi substrate; and it is not yet fully curvilinear. Elements of the central Abbasid layout had, then, begun to infiltrate into Egypt, but the script is not the script of the Abbasid chancery. I would like to posit, then, that unproportioned, curvilinear scripts characterized Abbasid chancery documents before the reforms attributed to Ibn Muqla. The chancery documents from Sāmarrāʾ and the high Abbasid official document from Egypt suggest that the closer one got to the Abbasid capital and the higher one moved up the echelons

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Imperial Norms • 179

5 cm 2 in

7.3. End of an official letter on papyrus, eighth–­ninth century. Cambridge University Library, Mich. Pap. A 791v.

of state, the more likely one was to write with wide line spacing, curvilinear script, fragmented and stacked baselines, and upward line curvature. This is the cluster of features that would be carried over from the Abbasid East into Fatimid state documents. Yet we are not quite at the Fatimid documents yet. Two things are still missing: proportioned scripts and a markedly hanging baseline.

THE ADVENT OF PROPORTIONED SCRIPTS According to al-­Qalqashandī, there were a number of proportioned scripts in use in the Abbasid chancery.21 He describes them at length and offers samples of them, and if we can trust him, some are strikingly similar to the scripts of Fatimid state documents (fig. 7.4). He offers samples of two scripts of great interest: qalam al-­riqāʿ (“petition script”)

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7.4. Al-­Qalqashandī’s samples of qalam al-­tawqīʿ, the script used for decrees, as drawn in the printed edition of 1914.

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Imperial Norms • 181 and qalam al-­tawqīʿ (decree script). They look remarkably like the script on Fatimid petitions and decrees. There are similarities in the ductus; the seriffed, curved, and sinuous alif (‫ )ا‬and lām (‫ ;)لـ‬the triangular, open (but sometimes blind) head of the initial mīm (‫ )ﻣ‬and fāʾ (‫)ﻓ‬, of the wāw (‫ )ﻭ‬and the medial and final ʿayn (‫ﻌ‬, ‫ ;)ﻊ‬the generously bowled descenders; the stacking of letters on top of the jīm (‫)جـ‬, ḥāʾ (‫)حـ‬, and khāʾ (‫;)خـ‬ the relative openness or flatness of the dāl/dhāl (‫ ;)د‬the little wave at the beginning of the sīn/shīn (‫ )ﺳ‬when it lacks teeth; and the final hāʾ and tāʾ marbūṭa (‫)ﮧ‬, which are more like waves than like teeth.22 But more than the rendering of any single letter, never by itself a determining factor in the description and identification of script styles, it is the script’s aspect, ductus, and proportions—the tension between its strictly regulated geometry and the free flow of the hand—that make it distinctive.23 And its consistency is significant: one might expect a documentary hand to be rendered in a rough (muṭlaq) rather than standardized (muḥaqqaq) fashion.24 But I hasten to add that caution is in order: it is difficult to know whether the script samples in al-­Qalqashandī’s compendium are an accurate rendering of early Abbasid scripts, or whether his drawing of them was filtered through centuries of Egyptian chancery practice, from the Fatimids through the Mamluks. Moreover, in the printed edition of 1913–19, the calligraphy samples were copied by hand from the manuscript, so there is an early twentieth-­century Egyptian filter as well.25 When the edition was printed, it was presumably still possible to find a trained calligrapher in Cairo who could copy the sample faithfully from the manuscript; Frédéric Bauden has also pointed out to me that a specialized and extraordinarily long work such as al-­Qalqashandī’s would have been copied only by chancery scribes, who would be capable of reproducing calligraphic samples, down to the ʿalāʾim.26 At the same time, chancery officials are likely to have the strongest of opinions on good script, so perhaps they are less likely to reproduce samples faithfully. What I would need to cement the case for the similarity between the Abbasid and Fatimid chancery styles is a central Abbasid chancery document that postdates Ibn Muqla and the reforms in proportioning. There is none in the offing, as far as I know. But there are some significant pieces of circumstantial evidence that support the picture that emerges from al-­Qalqashandī, and some early samples of eastern proportioned scripts from outside the Abbasid chancery. I will take them in chronological order, beginning with a vague but significant piece of literary testimony.

A CHANCERY MANUAL The testimony comes from Abū Bakr Muḥammad b. Yaḥyā al-­Ṣūlī (d. 335/946), by no means the first author to produce a work on bureaucratic writing, but significant for the specificity with which he discusses it.27 Al-­Ṣūlī was not a bureaucrat himself. He came from an illustrious bureaucratic family but made his living from writing panegyrics and other poetry—but just barely, to judge by his complaints to his patrons. He spent time at the Abbasid court, having been admitted for his expertise in chess, and eventually became the tutor to two of

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182 • Chapter 7 the sons of the caliph al-­Muqtadir (295–320/908–32). One of them then rose to the caliphate as al-­Rāḍī (322–29/934–40), and it was during his rule that al-­Ṣūlī wrote his manual—oddly so, since he wasn’t gunning for a position in the chancery: having stumbled into the post of drinking companion (nadīm) to the caliph, which required time but no real work, the last thing al-­Ṣūlī now needed was an appointment in the bureaucracy, which required real work and left no time for drinking. But bureaucrat though he wasn’t, his curiosity in all matters to do with writing extended even to bureaucratic norms, as did his interest in standards, or perhaps in being their chief repository and upholder. As Paul Heck has emphasized, the work is “addressed to the entire administrative corps, regardless of rank,” an attempt to create a social group by imposing on it a set of practices and norms.28 The work is, then, less a chancery manual than an anthology of technical knowledge, statements and sayings about bureaucratic ideals, many in the form of poems and anecdotes. Above all, everything al-­Ṣūlī is telling us about how to write, he says, “is different from the manner of the book-­copyists” (wa-­kharaja ʿan namaṭ al-­warrāqīn).29 So one purpose of the work is to distinguish chancery hands from book hands and to standardize them. But the statements are vague: al-Ṣūlī likens script styles to musical modes, telling us that “the different descriptions, structures and names of scripts group together into categories, just as in melody and song.”30 The work’s utility for reconstructing the chancery style is limited. But every so often, a detail emerges that helps one to understand what an Abbasid state document must have looked like in the period just after Ibn Muqla’s vizierate. Al-­ Ṣūlī tells us, for instance, writing in the 930s, that a group (qawm) of scribes, when writing official documents, places the invocation (basmala) close to the following line of text. This would become the usual practice in Fatimid state documents.31 Who this group (qawm) of scribes is, he doesn’t tell us, but his presentation suggests that this was not the universal practice. Al-­Ṣūlī also has much to say about proportioned script. Scribes have asked what makes a script good, he says, as though these scribes are just now becoming self-­ conscious as a class and mindful of their own norms. A script is good, says al-­Ṣūlī, if its parts are balanced—or proportioned, one might say. A script is good if its alif (‫)ا‬ and lām (‫ )ل‬are tall, if its ascenders and descenders are similar (in size), and if its (final) nūn (‫ )ن‬and rāʾ (‫ )ر‬are distinguishable from one another (unlike in most papyri). Its “eyes” (ʿuyūn) should also be open—by which he means not just the letter ʿayn (‫ـع‬, ‫ )ـعــ‬but any letter with a loop.32 Its writing support should be of the highest quality.33 Each pass of the calamus between dips in the inkwell should be dark.34 The ligatures should merge—an unclear statement that seems to mean that canonically ligatured letters should flow together, not that abusive ligatures are praiseworthy.35 Its renderings with a fine and a broad pen should be proportionate (to one another; he’s already covered proportioning within a single script).36 All these features are in keeping with round, proportioned scripts of the type we know from the Fatimid documents.37 Finally, al-­Ṣūlī says, the rows should be straight (istaqāmat suṭūruhu)—a statement that seems to recommend against the practice of letting the lines curve upward, but,

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Imperial Norms • 183 as we shall see from contemporaneous evidence, that practice was making some inroads.38 This remained the case for a couple of decades, to judge by the earliest known securely dated manuscript in a curvilinear, proportioned script. It is an Abbasid codex on paper, a treatise called al-­Muqtaḍab fī l-­naḥw (which one could translate as “Epitome of grammar” or as “The Improvised [work] on grammar”) by a ninth-­century grammarian of Baṣra, Abū l-­ʿAbbās Muḥammad b. Yazīd al-­Mubarrad (ca. 210–86/826– 900).39 The manuscript is dated 347/959, twenty years after al-­Ṣūlī’s treatise. It was copied by a certain Muhalhil b. Aḥmad al-­Baghdādī, and corrected by his teacher, Abū Saʿīd al-­Sīrāfī (ca. 289–368/ca. 902–79), a qāḍī at Baghdad and son of a Zoroastrian.40 And while it is, once again, methodologically promiscuous to use the script of a codex to reconstruct the documentary scripts of a chancery, the style is so consonant with all the information we have seen about the Abbasid chancery as to suggest that its norms were spreading—and that the distinction al-­Ṣūlī draws between chancery scribes and book copyists may have eroded somewhat. The ascenders are perfectly vertical (fig. 7.5). The baselines are fragmented, and arranged in stair steps going up toward the left, and they hang at as much as twenty degrees (in the Fatimid documents they can reach an angle of thirty degrees). The curves of the descenders are generous and bowl-­like, and their diameters are sometimes—though not always—equal to the height of the alif. The alifs and lāms are tall. All this demonstrates that there were rules of proportioning at work, and that they were being applied to curvilinear scripts. The differences between this script and the Fatimid chancery script are, furthermore, relatively minor: (1) The lines slope upward only, rather than taking the boat-­like shape they do on the Fatimid documents (al-­Ṣūlī would be somewhat satisfied, but not completely so). (2) The initial and medial kāf (‫ كـ‬and ‫ )ـكـ‬shapes are long and squat double hairpins, as on the papyrus from Sāmarrāʾ, while the Fatimid chancery hand would draw them taller and narrower (and often leave off the top stroke). (3) The final mīm (‫ )م‬has a short tail, and the bowl of the final nūn and ʿayn(‫ـع‬, ‫ )ن‬usually do not make it back up to the baseline as they later would, though the rāʾ and final nūn are distinct enough to satisfy al-­Ṣūlī. All the bowls are flatter and less deep than they would later become. Apart from those differences, all the principles of the Fatimid chancery script are already there—even if the execution is more constrained and less flamboyant, and even if the page is more crowded since, as a good grammarian must, our scribe has provided abundant vowels and diacritical points. But these last two differences are simply a question of genre: formal book hands were generally more compact, constrained, and rule bound (muḥaqqaq; muḥarrar) than documentary ones, which tended to be rough and freer (muṭlaq; mursal). The Muqtaḍab fī l-­naḥw of 347/959, then, is to the best of my knowledge the earliest sample we have of a curvilinear, proportioned script. Because it was written in Baghdad but before the Fatimid conquest of Egypt, it has helped to convince me that the curvilinear, proportioned scripts that became common in the Fatimid dawāwīn of Egypt got their start in Abbasid Iraq.41 Confirmation of that idea comes in the form of a second chancery manual, this one by Abū Ḥayyān al-­Tawḥīdī (ca. 320–414/ca. 932–1023), a multigenre author and

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184 • Chapter 7

7.5. Grammatical manuscript copied in Iraq, dated 347/959. This is one of the earliest dated examples of the Buyid/Abbasid chancery style. Istanbul, Köprülü 1507–­8.

­ hilosopher. Al-­Tawḥīdī had studied grammar with al-­Sīrāfī, like Muhalhil b. Aḥmad p al-­Baghdādī, who copied the grammatical manuscript of 347/959, so he ran in the same circle. Al-­Tawḥīdī spent most of his life in Baghdad, minus a brief and calamitous stint serving the Buyid vizier of Rayy al-­Ṣāḥib Ibn ʿAbbād in 367/977, who supposedly dismissed al-­Tawḥīdī when he refused to “waste his time” copying Ibn ʿAbbād’s monumental letter collection.42 Al-­Tawḥīdī was conceited, difficult, and died impoverished and embittered after burning his own books in protest of their neglect.43 In sum, he hovered at the margins of the hothouse of the Buyid world, observing it, mocking it, alternately aspiring to it and wanting no part in it, and ultimately embodying it. Al-­Tawḥīdī’s numerous works must have circulated widely enough to have survived his literary self-­immolation. Among them is a treatise on calligraphy, al-­Risāla fī ʿilm al-­kitāba. It is surprising to see this unsympathetic and cynical man lavishing such loving care on the production of beautiful handwriting—until one remembers that in penmanship as in all things related to writing and thinking, he fancied himself better than

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Imperial Norms • 185 any of his contemporaries. The treatise must be seen as an aesthetic brother to the codex of 347/959: his fellow student Muhalhil’s work exemplifies the calligraphic ideals that al-­Tawḥīdī describes in his treatise. In the first part of the treatise, al-­Tawḥīdī summarizes the ideals of proportioned script and the changes that had come to calligraphy, and better yet, he summarizes them in rhyme. The developments that are significant for my purposes can be reduced to six. 1. Taḥqīq, making the letters regular or rule abiding, “so that it looks as if they smiled and showed front teeth that are wide apart one from another, or laughed and displayed beautifully cultivated gardens.”44 2. Taḥdīq, making eyeballs: keeping the eye-­shaped letters (‫جـ‬, ‫حـ‬, and ‫ )خـ‬open, “so that they are like wide-­open eyes.”45 3. Taḥwīq, surrounding or embracing: making the circular letters (‫ق‬, ‫ف‬, ‫)و‬ rounded. 4. Takhrīq, piercing: maintaining the openness of the looped letters (‫ـغـ‬, ‫ـعـ‬, ‫ )هـ‬so that “even weak eyes” can distinguish them.46 5. Taʿrīq, veining or marbling: giving prominence to the letters at the end of words such as ‫من‬, ‫عن‬, ‫يف‬, ‫متى‬, ‫اىل‬, ‫عىل‬, “so that it is as if they were woven upon a single loom.” I take this to mean extending the final letters outward or downward with a flourish and using hairlines to connect them to the following word—Grob’s abusive ligatures.47 6. Tadqīq, making thin, which al-­Tawḥīdī explains as “demarcating the tails of the letters by letting one’s hand go, and by employing the edge of the calamus and turning it around either with its front, or with one of its edges, or with both edges, either with application of pressure or without, so as to increase the beauty, splendor, sparkle, and brilliance of the letters”—which I understand to mean adding hairline ligatures.48 And then there is an old-­school feature on which scribes in al-­Tawḥīdī’s day were apparently divided. He cautions—with a quotation from Ibn Sīrīn, one of numerous calligraphers whose words he transmits—against “the constant application of mashq,” the horizontal lengthening of strokes, a technique used abundantly in the early Abbasid documents from Egypt and Khurāsān that I presented in chapter 5, as well as in the Abbasid chancery document from Sāmarrāʾ. Plenty of the people whom al-­Tawḥīdī cites have an opinion about mashq. Most think it “improves the handwriting,” which explains why we’ve seen so much of it thus far. But Ibn Sīrīn disagrees. Ibn Sīrīn thinks that using mashq forces the writer into “uninterrupted movement” of the hand “with a disregard for the right proportions.” In other words, the horizontal extension of letters disturbs the proportioning; to his eye, it makes the text look disorganized, old-­school, or both. The Qurʾān, above all, should not (anymore!) be written with mashq, because “this entails coarseness and clumsiness.”49 Mashq—a feature so robustly characteristic of Abbasid scripts until this point—now had its detractors, and they avoided it because it hindered the new proportioning of scripts. Al-­Tawḥīdī’s younger contemporary Hilāl al-­Ṣābiʾ likewise cautions against the use of mashq, in the

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186 • Chapter 7 same sentence in which he urges the sparing use of dots lest they insult the reader’s intelligence.50 Finally, al-­Tawḥīdī quotes another calligrapher of Iraq to whom he attributes the saying, “Neither the people of the East nor those of the West have a handwriting that deserves to be described.”51 This suggests that what was going on in Iraq was new, and that it was specific to Iraq, at least in the mind of the Iraqis. The other qualities that al-­Tawḥīdī singles out have likewise to do with proportion and equilibrium. “Handwriting,” he tells us, “is spiritual geometry by means of a corporeal instrument,” no less: there are classical ideals to be respected, and these have a foundation in what is pleasing to the soul. So now we know more or less what the curvilinear, proportioned script of the Abbasid chancery must have looked like: Fatimid decrees. Scribes who wrote codices appear to have used something like it as well, so we learn from the codex of 347/959, from the Ibn Muqla brothers, and, possibly, from al-­Tawḥīdī’s lack of differentiation between the two types of calligraphers. How, then, do we know that it was thought of as a chancery script at all? Here, we have the testimony of Ibn al-­Nadīm (d. 385/995), who was not only a literary encyclopedist but himself a calligrapher, which means that he probably knew what he was talking about, and a bibliophile of epic proportions, which means that he had seen plenty of manuscripts, many of them, presumably, quite old. He was, in sum, in a position to judge scripts, to distinguish among them, and to place them in generational (perhaps even historical) context. He was also—like Muhalhil and al-­Tawḥīdī—a student of al-­Sīrāfī, and he was steeped in the crossover culture of the book trade and the bureaucracy. In his Fihrist (377/987–88), a catalogue of all the books available to him in Baghdad and one of the most precious literary sources to have survived from the period, Ibn al-­Nadīm discusses two scripts in use in the Abbasid chancery: qalam al-­riqāʿ (“petition script”) and qalam al-­tawqīʿ (“rescript script”). These are two of the scripts alQalqashandī would later bring. Qalam al-­riqāʿ, he tells us, derived from a script called khafīf al-­thuluth (“light thuluth”); the larger version of qalam al-­riqāʿ was used to write rescripts (tawqīʿāt).52 Behold once again our Wittgensteinian family resemblance (not that Ibn al-­Nadīm needed Wittgenstein to see it): Abbasid petitions and decrees, he tells us, were written in the same script, one writ small and the other writ large. Oddly, rescripts (tawqīʿāt) were written not in “rescript script” (qalam al-­tawqīʿ) but in “petition script” (qalam al-­riqāʿ). I don’t know what qalam al-­tawqīʿ was if it was not for writing rescripts, but I like the oddity of the situation, because to my mind, it increases the chance that Ibn al-­Nadīm was representing a real practice rather than an idealized one (truth generally being stranger and less symmetrical than fiction). Al-­Qalqashandī, by contrast, says five hundred years later that qalam al-­tawqīʿ was the script with which “caliphs and viziers used to write their decisions on the face of petitions”—rescripts, in other words. Compared with Ibn al-­Nadīm’s description, al-­Qalqashandī’s sounds too perfect to be true.53 Ibn al-­Nadīm’s testimony opens up the possibility that Muhalhil b. Aḥmad al-­Baghdādī, who copied the codex of 347/959, had chancery training, if not in the Abbasid/Buyid bureaucracy itself, then from someone who had worked there.

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Imperial Norms • 187 Muhalhil’s codex is the earliest but not the sole early codex written in a chancery hand. I would be remiss not to mention a manuscript that has gone virtually undiscussed in studies of the Abbasid chancery, but helps to map the standardization, spread, and development of its scripts: the unicum of al-­Ḥumaydī’s manual of epistolography in Istanbul (fig. 7.6).54 Al-­Ḥumaydī was born before 420/1029 in Majorca; his father was from Cordoba; at some point he moved to Baghdad, where he died in 488/1095. It is not the content of the manuscript that interests me here: the work is devoted to private letters rather than chancery documents, with chapters offering salutations by rank, model letters of congratulation and condolence, and what to write on various other occasions. If we all studied al-­Ḥumaydī’s manual and wrote the kinds of letters it prescribes, the world would be a better place. What interests me here, however, is the script in which the manuscript was copied. Adam Gacek has correctly identified the script as qalam al-­tawqīʿ. Finding anything other than a chancery document in qalam al-­tawqīʿ is, as Gacek rightly notes, nothing short of astonishing.55 If, in reading this chapter, you have asked yourself how a chancery scribe might write on his (or her?) day off, this is the manuscript for you.56 Can one write a nonchancery text in a chancery hand? Is it, in fact, possible to crowd a beautifully executed qalam tawqiʿ into an average-­sized codex format—complete with upward curvature of the lines?57 What happens to the letter proportions, the fragmented baselines, the line curvature, and the stacking of words at the ends of lines when the scribe is not skipping three or four fingers’ breadth between lines? The answers: yes, yes, and very little. The script, ductus, and mise-en-texte are chancery-like. The key features are all there: the letter proportions, the variable-­width ductus, the boat-­shaped lines, the stacking of words at the ends of lines, and the treatment of the baselines, which are fragmented into word-­sized units and, in some words, even into letter-­sized units, giving the impression of speed and freedom within basic constraints. It is precisely the tension between the rigorously precise regularity of the letter proportions and the waviness and freedom of the baselines that lends this script its special beauty, and this particular execution of it pulls at that tension from both sides: the proportions are regular to the millimeter, but the baselines vary with each page, each line, each word, and in some cases, each letter. Playing with the baseline to this extreme degree also produces a feature we have not yet seen outside the Fatimid orbit: curved, nearly boat-­shaped baselines. The main difference between this codex and the Fatimid state documents, besides the spatial compression, is the generous addition of dots. As Hilāl al-­Ṣābiʾ would say, no chancery scribe would use so many diacritical points and signs “because in so doing he belittles the addressee.”58 Al-­Tawḥīdī would also have disapproved and told a cautionary tale about someone who “submitted a petition [rafaʿa qiṣṣa] to ʿAbdallāh b. Ṭāhir,” who replied by rendering this somewhat schoolmarmish decision on its verso (waqqaʿa ʿalā ẓahrihā): “How beautifully has he written it! Except that he used too many diacritical points.”59 But who copied the al-­Ḥumaydī manuscript? Fuat Sezgin dates the manuscript speculatively to the thirteenth century, no doubt in view of its unusually regular, beautiful, curvilinear, and proportioned script.60 But this judgment is hasty. I would not rule

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188 • Chapter 7

7.6. The unicum of an epistolographic manual by al-­Ḥumaydī (circa 420–­88/1029–­95), a rare instance of a book copied in the chancery script qalam al-­tawqīʿ. Possibly eleventh century. Topkapı, Ahmet III, MS 2351, fol. 260v.

out a date within the lifetime of the author or shortly after—the eleventh century—and the hand of an experienced chancery calligrapher at Baghdad, where al-­Ḥumaydī spent most of his life—someone clearly of uncommon skill. Regardless of when the manuscript was written—the late Buyid, Seljuk, or later Abbasid period—it attests to the reach of chancery hands in the East and their overlap with book hands, particularly in the circles of scribes who cared about epistolography. In exploring those official circles, there is one vein I haven’t yet mined. Alain George has ingeniously drawn on a set of eyewitness accounts in reconstructing the

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Imperial Norms • 189 advent of proportioned scripts in Qurʾān manuscripts in the tenth century: the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity and Friends of Loyalty (Rasāʾil ikhwān al-­ṣafāʾ wa-­ khullān al-­wafāʾ).61 This work is, in fact, so rich and so suggestive that it deserves its own section.

THE BRETHREN OF PURITY (IKHWĀN AL-­S ̣ A FĀʾ) AND THE CHANCERY The work now known as Rasāʾil ikhwān al-­ṣafāʾ is an encyclopedic compendium running to fifty-­odd v­ olumes containing a welter of Neoplatonic and other neoclassical (especially Pythagorean) philosophical ideas. It came into being circa 960 in Baṣra, at the time a stronghold of non-­Fatimid Ismāʿīlism. Of the many subjects the work covers, and there are hardly any it doesn’t cover, one is proportioned script. The authors cover proportioned script in their epistle on geometry, and then once more (with feeling) in their epistle on music. They discuss calligraphy in the context of symmetry, proportion, and mathematical relationships. In the musical scale, they say, there are symmetrical proportions when one measures the length of a bisected string or pipe producing a certain interval. They liken symmetry and proportion in music to symmetry and proportion in poetry and calligraphy. And about calligraphy, they have this to say: The best-­formed products and the most perfect combinations are those in which the conjunction of the parts and the structural basis both accord with the proportional ideal. Another example of this is provided by calligraphy, the most noble of the arts. . . . [In any language] the foundation of the letters of scripts . . . is based in every case on the straight line which is the diameter of a circle and the curved line which is its circumference. All letters, then, are compounded from these two and composed in the way we have elucidated in the epistle on geometry.62 Here we have an explicit statement of the alif circle rule as applied to script: “all letters and scripts,” Arabic, Syriac, and Hebrew included, they say, “are derived from a straight line” that generates “the diameter of a circle” whose circumference bounds the letter shapes. Therefore: He who wishes to have an excellent hand and a correct style should give it a basic measure according to which his letters are constructed and a standard [qānūn; another translation would be “rule”; cf. al-­Tawḥīdī’s taḥqīq] to which his strokes are correlated. An example of this in Arabic script would be first to assign an arbitrary unit of measurement to the letter alif (‫)ا‬, making its width in the proportion of one eighth of its length, then to make the alif the diameter of a circle. The remaining letters are then structured in proportion to the length of

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190 • Chapter 7 the alif and to the circumference of the circle whose diameter equals the length of the alif.63 Basing writing on these two simple shapes, they argue—line and circle—produces “the most excellent of scripts, the soundest style of writing that is the best composed,” because “the measurement of the letters relative to each other stands in the most perfect proportion” (cf. fig. 7.1).64 The Brethren are, in short, describing precise rules for proportioning scripts. But like al-­Tawḥīdī in his Risāla, the Brethren also acknowledge that this proportioned style is not (yet) universal. What we have enunciated about the proportions of the letters and the measures of their dimensions relative to one another is determined by the laws of geometry and ideal proportions. However, what is generally acknowledged by people and approved by scribes is not congruent with the measures and proportions we have enunciated, because they have selective preferences according to the subject-­matter about which they are writing [bi-­ḥasab mawḍuʿātihim], as determined by long experience and force of habit.65 When the Brethren were writing, in other words, the rule of proportions was observed not in every text, but only in certain texts. Scribes in general do not use proportioned scripts. Calligraphy, rather, is something in which “ministers, scribes and cultured courtiers all take pride.”66 Those who copy books for money are not among those who take pride in proportioned script; nor are students who write down texts they have heard orally. No: proportioned script is the domain of government officials. But which ones? Can we narrow down the milieu of the Brethren? At first glance, our attempts to answer these questions will be frustrated by a lack of specific historical information. While al-­Tawḥīdī cites a plethora of calligraphers by name, the one proof text the Brethren quote on the matter of proportion in calligraphy comes from an anonymous “skillful calligrapher and geometer” (al-­muḥarrir al-­ḥādhiq al-­muhandis; the word muhandis covers architect, engineer, mechanic, geometer, craftsman, and surveyor—experts in geometry all). This is frustratingly vague and allusive.67 George proposes that the knowledge they derived from this muhandis wasn’t codified in writing, or they would have named him. On this argument, what the muhandis shared with them was banausic knowledge.68 Owen Wright, who edited the risāla on music, assumes the muhandis to be Ibn Muqla, but as we’ve just seen, there is no reason for us to allow later medieval lionizations of the vizier to eclipse the other technical experts who, to read al-­Tawḥīdī, populated Iraq and Iran in conspicuous abundance.69 The muhandis could well have been any of the scribes working in and around the various courts of the East in this period. The Brethren wax equally coy when, instead of discussing specific scripts and attributing them to specific calligraphers, they say that calligraphy is simply something “in which, with its many forms and varied styles, ministers, scribes and cultured courtiers all take pride.” Yet precisely in this seemingly obfuscatory statement lies a clue,

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Imperial Norms • 191 because the “taking pride” bit links up with the possibility that the proportioning of script was a product of the hothouse of the palace, where knowledge became ever more technical, courtiers became ever more cultured, and their social and professional advancement depended on increasingly thorough technical skill and learnedness. This passage seems to say, however vaguely, that proportioned scripts were products first and foremost of the official classes—not of one particular person in that class. More than Ibn Muqla and his brother, we need to be looking at an entire culture.

IMPERIAL SPLENDOR AS A BUYID IDIOM That culture was the Abbasid court in crisis and, eventually, in receivership. In 334/945, the caliphate was taken over by newcomers who happened to be Shīʿī: the sons of Būya b. Panāh Khusrow, a Zoroastrian convert to Islam who came from Daylam on the Caspian coast, a region that had been Zoroastrian in living memory, had then come under Zaydī, Ismāʿīlī, and Twelver Shīʿī influence and still harbored deep hostility toward Sunnī Islam and the caliphate. Two of Būya’s sons conquered Fārs and Jibāl, establishing capitals at Shīrāz and Rayy; in 334/945, the third took over Baghdad itself. The rise of the Buyids was spectacular, and while the Abbasid court had little choice but to accept their proxy rule, the Buyids made a deliberate decision, and arguably a surprising one, not to abolish the caliphate. In fact the Buyids proved to be a textbook Khaldūnian dynasty in one respect: they emerged from the periphery, took over a vast stretch of terrain, reached their pinnacle quickly, and, eventually, petered out. But in between, a very strange thing happened: they came within a hair’s breadth of reviving the symbols and substance not of Zoroastrianism, not even of Shīʿī Islam, but of the pre-­Islamic imperial world that the Arabs had conquered three hundred years earlier. The Buyids proclaimed their Sasanian ancestry, they visited the ruins of the Achaemenid capital of Persepolis, they had a Zoroastrian mōbadh (priest) translate its Pahlavi inscriptions for them, they added inscriptions of their own, and they assumed the defunct Sasanian title shāhanshāh (king of kings). Any Muslim, in the words of Wilferd Madelung, would have considered the title shāhanshāh “obnoxious and blasphemous,” or, in the words of the Prophet Muḥammad, akhnā, “most obscene.”70 If the Buyids’ tactics on the chessboard of imperial legitimacy account in large part for the fascination they hold, the Abbasids’ eventual countertactics account for the other part. The Buyids were experimental in their approach to the game; this freed the Abbasids to act in an even more radical fashion. Toward the end of the Buyids’ reign, in 430/1038, the Abbasid caliph al-­Qāʾim actually bestowed the title shāhanshāh on them officially. He did so, Madelung argues, not in order to legitimate their rule as kings, but to reduce them to the status of vassals. He was the one bestowing the title, because only he could do so.71 In the tenth and eleventh centuries, then, the Islamic world was bookended by Shīʿī dynasties with large ambitions. Each also required a set of imperial symbols. The Buyids reached into the tool kit of ancient Near Eastern kingship; the Fatimids made

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192 • Chapter 7 off with the prize of ʿAlid descent. But both had to attend to the prosaic business of rule, and in both cases, their officials found a documentary idiom worthy of the dynasty’s ambitions. Who, then, in fact attended to the prosaic business of rule—who were these officials? Here we return to the Brethren’s reticence in disclosing the identities of the scribes and courtiers who proportioned their script. Perhaps it was precisely the same reticence they harbor in disclosing their own identities. In other words, it’s not impossible that the authors of the epistles, in describing the “ministers, scribes and cultured courtiers” who took pride in writing in “many forms and varied styles,” including proportioned script, were, in fact, describing themselves: philosophical adepts who were acutely interested in the harmonious proportioning of script, the proportioning of everything, in fact, not only for aesthetic or practical reasons but for philosophical ones. What, then, do we know about the Brethren? A core group of the Brethren was active in Baṣra in Iraq in the late tenth century. We know this because—once again—of al-­Tawḥīdī (d. 414/1023). The Buyid vizier at Baghdad Ibn Saʿdān (d. 374/984–85; vizier from 373/983) once asked al-­Tawḥīdī about the patron who had brought him to the Buyid court in 370/980, Zayd b. Rifāʿa. Al-­Tawḥīdī described him like this: [Zayd b. Rifāʿa] lived in Baṣra for a long time, and there he met a group of people devoted to all kinds of sciences and arts, among them Abū Sulaymān Mu­ ḥammad b. Maʿshar al-­Bustī, known as al-­Maqdisī; the qāḍī Abū l-­Ḥasan ʿAlī b. Hārūn al-­Zanjānī; Abū Aḥmad al-­Mihrajānī [also known as al-­Nahrajūrī]; Abū l-­Ḥasan al-­ʿAwfī; and others. He kept their company and served them. The group was characterized by harmonious relations and pure friendship and met on the basis of holiness, purity, and sincere advice. . . . They composed fifty epistles on all parts of philosophy, both theoretical and practical, and attached an index [fihrist] to them, calling them the “Epistles of the Brethren of Purity and Loyal Friends.” . . . Keeping their names secret, they circulated their epistles among the book-­dealers, and instructed people in them.72 Al-­Tawḥīdī tells us, then, that the Brethren were learned men in Baṣra, that they were an esoteric group determined to keep their identities secret, and that their work got around; but he does not tell us more. For more specific information, we have to turn to an archnemesis of theirs: the Muʿtazilī philosopher ʿAbd al-­Jabbār al-­Hamadhānī (ca. 325–415/936–1025). ʿAbd al-­Jabbār was qāḍī at the Buyid capital of Rayy at the end of the tenth century.73 If there is one thing ʿAbd al-­Jabbār really loathed, it was heretics, and if there was one kind of heretic he could abide even less than the others—or so he says in a polemical work directed, above all, at the Ismāʿīlīs—it was people who pretend to be Ismāʿīlīs but, in fact, secretly harbor radical antireligious views. He then names names, introducing the group as followers of the qāḍī al-­Zanjāni—one of the Baṣrans on al-­ Tawḥīdī’s list—“among whose followers there are secretaries and highly placed men.” Among the names he names are Zayd b. Rifāʿa—al-­Tawḥīdī’s patron at the Buyid court—and three of the four people al-­Tawḥīdī also names (as well as a sixth, Abū

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Imperial Norms • 193 Muḥammad b. Abī l-­Baghl). There are other members of the group, ʿAbd al-­Jabbār says, outside Baṣra as well.74 In sum, the Brethren, in whose circles al-­Tawḥīdī ran, were Buyid officials, or at least some of them were. They were intellectually omnivorous and theologically promiscuous, and they had devised proportioned script. And, I would add, what they devised when they proportioned the chancery scripts was a graphic bulwark against disorder amid a newfound freedom in experimentation. Proportioned script was disciplined and rule bound; but it was also beautiful and pleasing to a soul unfettered from orthodoxy. If you put all these testimonies together, we learn that some of the Brethren were Ismāʿīlī; that they were active in Baṣra between circa 350/961 and 370/980; that they were high officials of the Abbasid/Buyid court; that they were devoted, among many other things, to proportion in calligraphy; and that their work circulated beyond their immediate circles.75 We have, I believe, more than the beginnings of a circumstantial case: Ismāʿīlī secretaries of the Abbasid/Buyid court who know a lot about proportioned script and probably wrote in it issued documents and sent their works out onto the book market. But did their writings make it all the way to Egypt?

THE RASĀʾIL IKHWĀN AL-S ̣ A FĀʾ IN FATIMID EGYPT Although many of the Brethren were likely Ismāʿīlīs, their impact on the world of the Fatimids has been doubted.76 In fact, it is beyond dispute. It might seem reasonable to doubt the reception of the Brethren among the Fatimids: after all, one of the reasons the Rasāʾil ikhwān al-­ṣafāʾ came into being was to unify the non-­Fatimid Ismāʿīlīs in light of the expansion of the Fatimids to Egypt in 969.77 Construed narrowly as members of the dynasty, it may be true that there was no reception of the Rasāʾil ikhwān al-­ṣafāʾ among the Fatimids. But it is a small step (or an hour’s walk) from the synagogue in Fustat and its discarded manuscripts to the palace in Cairo and its philosophical majālis.78 The Rasāʾil ikhwān al-­ṣafāʾ were well-­known in the world of the geniza. At least ten fragmentary geniza manuscripts have come to light containing passages from the Rasāʾil, in addition to the two book lists on which the work or some part of it appears. We don’t know who copied or read them, with the exception of the two physicians whose book lists have survived; but we do know that they were copied and read. One of the book lists enumerates, in Arabic script, a number of medical and philosophical texts, including “the fifth part of the Ikhwān al-­Ṣafāʾ.” Though the list is undated, on paleographic grounds I would put it in the eleventh century.79 As for the copies of the Rasāʾil that survived in the geniza, all are fragments, two are in Arabic script, and a handful more are in Judaeo-­Arabic. The Arabic ones are surprisingly early: at least two of them are plausibly from the second half of the tenth century.80 And one of them shares too many paleographic features with our grammatical treatise of 347/959 not to have also been written by an Iraqi of the second half of the tenth

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194 • Chapter 7

7.7. A page from the epistle on music by the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwān al-­ṣafāʾ) preserved in the Cairo Geniza, possibly copied by an Iraqi in the second half of the tenth century. Cambridge University Library, T-­S Ar. 41.23. 5 cm 2 in

century (fig. 7.7). I don’t think that it would be a stretch from here to argue that this very manuscript was one of the vehicles of transmission of the Rasāʾil ikhwān ṣafāʾ from Iraq to Egypt in the late tenth century. The Judaeo-­Arabic manuscripts include fifty-­one pages of the Risāla al-­jāmiʿa (whose originality has been disputed, but it probably did circulate with the rest of the work from the beginning). This copy has a likely provenance in one of the Qaraite synagogues of Cairo rather than the Ben Ezra; it is currently listed as the oldest surviving manuscript of the work.81 There is also a part of the risāla on magic, part of the risāla on the soul and its ascent to the realm of pure intellect, and a smattering of other quotations and allusions.82 For an Arabic work to have circulated in Judaeo-­Arabic, it has to have been read. It’s not just that the Hebrew script domesticates an Arabic work. It’s that most geniza manuscripts were user produced—copied by their own readers—and even

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Imperial Norms • 195

5 cm 2 in

the commissioned ones were rarely written for more than one person. Seldom was a geniza manuscript copied for show, unless it was a Bible. None of this is to suggest that the Ikhwān recognized the Fatimids as true imāms; they were eastern, not Fatimid, Ismāʿīlīs. But there is some circumstantial evidence that the Rasāʾil circulated even in Fatimid circles, close to the court. Oddly, it is evidence that Godefroid de Callataÿ presents against a Fatimid reception of the Rasāʾil. He argues that only among the “offshoots” of the Fatimids did the Rasāʾil come “to be known and so well loved that the authors were counted among their patriarchs.”83 Those offshoots include the Nizārīs of Syria in the late eleventh century: a Nizārī missionary (dāʿī) wrote admiringly of people who had “collaborated in composing long epistles, fifty-­two in number, on various branches of learning.”84 Fifty years later, in the middle of the twelfth century, there were approving

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196 • Chapter 7 references to the Rasāʾil and long quotations from them among the Ṭayyibīs in Yemen, who eventually claimed that their author was the second Ismāʿīlī imām.85 The work spread among the “offshoots” of the Ismāʾīlī movement indeed. But it was also read in Egypt, as the geniza demonstrates, and if it was known among the offshoots, read in Egypt, and also known as far away as Cordoba by the eleventh century at the latest, it’s unlikely that the polymathic bureaucrats of the Fatimid palace didn’t know about it as well.86 I don’t think, however, that I have more than a circumstantial case: I can’t claim that Fatimid officials at the palace in Cairo were sitting around reading the rasāʾil on music and grammar or copying out the passages on calligraphy. Such a scenario is far from impossible; whether there is real evidence for it is a question I’ll let others handle. Likewise the question that follows: did Fatimid officials adopt proportioned script because of the Rasāʾil, or more precisely, because of their commitment to the philosophical principles of neoclassical proportion such as those found in the Rasāʾil? This, too, is not impossible, but it also isn’t necessary. It was enough for them to harbor aspirations to diplomatic legitimacy, and to satisfy them by making their chancery documents look like Abbasid ones. There’s one other possibility: that Fatimid chancery officials saw Buyid chancery documents. While this would be evidence of contact between the two chanceries, the evidence itself isn’t as direct as I’d like. In circa 367/977, the second Fatimid caliph in Egypt, al-­ʿAzīz, conducted an exchange of diplomatic correspondence with the Buyid vizier ʿAḍud al-­Dawla. Fatimid chancery officials would, then, have seen Buyid chancery documents. But seeing a document isn’t the same as learning a script, which requires technique and apprenticeship.87 To sum up my argument to this point: proportioned scripts were a product of the Abbasid/Buyid chanceries of Iraq and Iran in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The officials who were the biggest proponents of the script worked for the Buyids and were Ismāʿīlī. The scripts may or may not have spread to Egypt at their hands. But spread to Egypt they did. And Egypt was not the only place to which they spread. They also spread eastward, to the stomping grounds of al-­Thaʿālibī among the Ghaznavids—to come full circle back to Khurāsān, the heartland of paper manufacture and the “engine room of Islamic sovereignty.”88 Fatimid state documents are not the only samples we possess of Abbasid-­ style chancery script from outside the central Abbasid heartland. There are others, and they have emerged from Afghanistan in the past twenty years.

THE “AFGHAN GENIZA” In the early 2000s, pages from a cache of manuscripts began appearing in the hands of antiquities dealers, and photographs of them in the email inboxes of manuscript researchers. Collectively, the cache has become known as the “Afghan Geniza.” It is impossible to determine whether the cache came from a geniza that was stored for the purposes of respectful oblivion, from an archive or library stored for the purposes of

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Imperial Norms • 197 retrieval, from the rubble of a medieval building, or from a rubbish tip. But like what the Bodleian acquired from its dealers in Egypt between 1888 and 1910, Hebrew script was enough to earn it a presumed geniza provenance. This cache was said to have been found in a cave in the Bāmiyān province at the western fringe of the Hindu Kush, home to the colossal sixth-­century Buddhas that the Taliban destroyed in 2001. The cave is such a standard topos in Near Eastern manuscript discovery stories that I immediately found myself skeptical. The topos may have corresponded with reality at Qumrān and Nagʿ Ḥammādī, but such stories are a little too convenient on the supply side when they give an alibi to plunder, thwart the search for a cache’s origins, and contribute to keeping manuscript prices high.89 Afghanistan has been in a perennial state of war for the last three decades—again, perversely, the goddess Catastrophe smiling on the historian’s hunger for new sources. But it’s also a part of the world from which so few medieval documents have come that there was virtually nothing with which to compare the find—and nothing to stop curious experts from commenting on the manuscripts’ historical value, thus driving up their prices and keeping them in the hands of dealers for nearly a decade and counting.90 In the end, the cave story may not have been fiction: behind the Buddhas there were cave shrines to which residents of the Bāmiyān valley retreated under Taliban attack. Whether the manuscripts were there before they retreated or they brought them along is matter of speculation. The manuscripts seem to have emerged when the Taliban controlled Bāmiyān, before they were ousted in 2001 and the region was governed by the local commander of the Hazara minority (the kind of person the Western press categorizes as a “warlord”), Karīm Khalīlī, who went on to become one of the vice presidents of Afghanistan under Hamid Karzai.91 Wherever the cache survived, it turned out to contain manuscripts whose ultimate provenance was medieval archives, official and private, as well as a Jewish library. There are qāḍī-­court records, rabbinical court records, Jewish manuscripts containing liturgy and rabbinic literature, and Arabic-­script tax records and letters. One of the miniarchives probably belonged to a medieval Jewish family at Bāmiyān: there are dated documents from between 395/1005 and 418/1027, the span of a generation, and the texts concern a single family of Bāmiyān.92 They are written on similar cream-­colored and nearly transparent paper, with similar black ink. The paper, the ink, and the nib recall one of the fragments from Sāmarrāʾ—strikingly so to my eyes, which are accustomed to brownish Egyptian paper.93 The Afghan cache is estimated to contain hundreds of texts in all. Some are still in the hands of antiquities dealers and private collectors. In 2013, after much effort, the National Library of Israel purchased twenty-­nine of the texts, and those texts left little room to doubt that the family archive originated in Bāmiyān, especially after the painstaking labor of Ofir Haim, who wrote an excellent master’s thesis on them.94 In 2016, the National Library of Israel purchased another two hundred texts from the cache. These have been catalogued and digitized and are just beginning to be studied. There are dozens of legal documents in Persian, as well as what appears to be an extensive accounting ledger. The date range of the second set of texts from the cache is broader: eleventh through thirteenth centuries.95

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198 • Chapter 7 The region around Bāmiyān and north of it—Bactria and Ṭukhāristān—stands out in the entire vast Islamic realm for having been predominantly Buddhist when the Muslims conquered it. In the words of Kevin van Bladel, it was “the only area that was firmly incorporated into the [Islamic] empire where Sanskrit studies were pursued up until the conquest.”96 Bāmiyān itself remained a major Buddhist and Hindu cultic center even in the early Islamic period. By the turn of the eleventh century, it had come under the rule of the Ghaznavids (ca. 366–581/977–1186), a dynasty of Turkic slave-­soldier condottieri from central Asia whose administrative and literary culture—and bureaucratic personnel—were Persian speaking.97 They were like the Buyids but farther east. The Ghaznavids were like the Buyids in their humble military origins, in their shared rule of the Persian-­speaking lands, and in their eventual displacement by the Seljuks. But they were also linked by rivalry. The Ghaznavids were generally reticent and comparatively ascetic when it came to adopting titles, yet panegyrists flattered them by calling them shāhanshāh, “to combat Buyid pretentions in western Persia,” as Bosworth puts it.98 But there was no need to combat Buyid pretensions with titulature when an honest land grab would do. In 420/1027, the Ghaznavids seized Rayy from the Buyids, followed by Isfahan (temporarily) in 420/1029. The Ghaznavids quickly sought an imprimatur from the Abbasid caliph, and it soon came in the form of rescripts of investiture that the Ghaznavids promptly sent out and displayed in Khurāsān and Ṭukhāristān.99 One wonders about the chancery scribes at Baghdad who wrote the decrees: perplexed though they may have been, a job well done at one chancery, depending which way the wind blew, could be parlayed into an appointment at another. In the period from which most of the first Bāmiyān cache dates—circa 1020—the Ghaznavids were busy solving the problem of the fragmentation of the eastern Islamic world by uniting it under their rule.100 Theirs was an expanding empire. Bāmiyān itself was mostly a prosperous place: circa 990, al-­Maqdisī describes it as the great commercial entrepôt of Khurāsān and the treasure house of Sind (the Indus River valley)—although its residents didn’t always feel the same way, to judge by a letter from the cache.101 We don’t know much about the eleventh-­century Jewish family whose names appear repeatedly in one of the miniarchives from Bāmiyān, but we do know this. They owned land. They were the subjects of poetic encomia. They maintained a library of fine literature—including a very early copy of the Judaeo-­Arabic commentary on Isaiah by Saʿadya Gaʾon (882–942), which had been considered lost until this cache came to light. They kept accounts, transacted business with Jewish and Muslim clients alike, and sought legal mediation and documentation in Islamic courts, suggesting that they had serious business to conduct—hence the significant quantity of legal documentation they left behind. They were, in sum, an important provincial family.102 Wealthy though they may have been, they were not hugely cosmopolitan. One of the family members apparently berated a relative or close associate who had gone off to work at the capital in Ghazna and was far from his wife, who remained in Bāmiyān, 250 kilometers away. Or so we learn from his surprisingly troubled reply, in which he defends his choice for eleven lines of thirty-­six: Were I able to make a living in Bāmiyān, I would have acted as you wish long ago. Also, if it weren’t for this portion of the alms taxes and what has to be given to

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Imperial Norms • 199 people [i.e., my debts], I would have come there immediately, whether or not I could work at some other post. God knows that the years when I went [to Bāmiyān] two [or] three times each winter—I am still paying the gold [coins] and the debt for it. . . . You know that [in] this business and work of mine, if I am away from the shop for one day, that’s a day I will be without profit. So how am I supposed to be without work for half a year [while] the door of the shop here is closed and the supplies are running out, and I sit there [in Bāmiyān] without work?103 Such was the apologia of a man who had moved to the capital to make a living. That he needed to explain himself at all suggests that moving to the capital was unusual, but not unheard of. Apart from the Judaeo-­Arabic materials, most of the documentary texts from the cache are in New Persian (as distinct from Pahlavi; New Persian is written in Arabic script), with some formulaic phrases in Arabic. This is itself striking: these are the earliest qāḍī-­court documents written in Persian rather than Arabic. Qāḍī courts, it turns out, produced documents in Persian several decades earlier than anyone knew, and also more prolifically than anyone expected.104 Most of the legal documents I have studied are acknowledgements of debt (iqrārāt), a genre that emerged in Egypt in the tenth century but may have appeared earlier in the East. Ofir Haim, in his pathbreaking study of the first Afghan cache, concluded that the lexicon and structure of the debt documents (iqrārāt)—at the macro and sentence levels alike—are calqued on the Arabic iqrār, or else simply lifted from it outright in Arabic. From one perspective, this is a straightforward case of the language and legal norms of the high culture, the Arabic-­language system of Islamic practical law, shaping scribal practice in the peripheries: it is a superstrate phenomenon. From another perspective, though, the use of Persian for Islamic legal documents remains surprising. That the formulaic language (such as the witness clauses) is rendered in Arabic rather than Persian suggests that the Arabic procedural norms were in place before the Persian fungible “filler” or free text emerged—a situation parallel to the case of Jewish legal documents from the Cairo Geniza in Aramaic (in this case, the superstrate) and Judaeo-­Arabic. The legal corpus will require a significant revision to how we think about qāḍī courts in this period, as well as the role of local vernaculars in shaping Islamic legal practice. What, then, about the script? It is as though Iraq were a double-­sided mirror, because it’s an eastern version of Egypt’s in the same period. It’s curvilinear and proportioned, a marked departure from the Pahlavi-­influenced script of Khurāsān nearly three centuries earlier. There are hairlines and flourishes of the pen of the type that al-­Tawḥīdī and his circle would have praised. The baselines are fragmented and the lines boat shaped. The script reflects the free flow of the scribe’s hand across the paper surface. In sum, though these are Persian-­language qāḍī-­court documents, they follow Iraqi chancery norms. But if the Arabic script of the Bāmiyān cache shows the mark of the imperial center and its recent innovations, the hands in the Hebrew-­script texts are distinctively archaic—closer to the scripts of the Aramaic papyri from Bactria in the Achaemenid period more than a millennium earlier, and to the eighth-­century Judaeo-­Persian fragments from the Tarim basin, than to the Hebrew hands of the Cairo Geniza that are its

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200 • Chapter 7 exact contemporaries.105 This suggests that across the Silk Roads, Jewish diplomatic culture remained relatively isolated, even as the Islamic, Arabic-­script one marched in lockstep with the vanguard of metropolitan chancery norms. So this was a situation in which the substrate and superstrate did not seem to encounter one another. The provincial, local, and archaic scribal praxis of the Hebrew highlights the cosmopolitanism of the Islamicate diplomatic norms in the Arabic: even in a relatively provincial town, there was a class of literate administrators who wrote the way one wrote in Baghdad, even if they did it in Persian. What are we to make of the fact that these documents in an innovative Arabic chancery script are, in fact, in Persian? The bilingualism itself is not the most remarkable part of this: as Bosworth points out, the Ghaznavids ran a bilingual chancery, receiving letters from Baghdad in Arabic and translating them into Persian for local consumption, and sending letters in Arabic when they needed to.106 The script is much more striking. If in terms of language, the documents are a rough amalgam of Arabic legal praxis with the ambient Persian-­speaking culture—shaken, not stirred, as the mixologists might have it—in terms of their formal elements, they are normative and cosmopolitan all the way down. The boat-­like shape of the lines is such a regular feature of even the most demotic of the texts as to seem normal and unremarkable. That suggests that by circa 400/1010, the Abbasid chancery style had gained traction in the East as a general diplomatic style, not just a chancery style. Even in such forbiddingly mountainous terrain—and despite the guilt-­trip-­inducing longing a man from Bāmiyān might feel for his relative or friend in Ghazna—the metropolitan chancery, legal, and other diplomatic norms had a way of getting around. How they got around we can only imagine: did those Buyid administrators in fact read the writing on the wall (to paraphrase Daniel’s prophecy about the advent of the Medes and the Achaemenids)? Did they move east and procure positions at the Ghaznavid court? This was precisely the period during which al-­Thaʿālibī was serving the Ghaznavid vizier Shams al-­Kufāt (404–24/1013–32), purveying marvels to the administrative class and transmitting his etiological tale about how the Abbasids had learned papermaking from Chinese prisoners. Ghazna was, then, cosmopolitan and reflected cosmopolitan norms.

FRAGMENTS OF GHAZNAVID DECREES The links between Iraq and the official documentary style of the East are clear when you examine the documents.107 I’ll offer three examples. The first comes from one of the documents in Arabic (fig. 7.8). From the point of view of diplomatics, it boxes above its weight. Here I will restrict myself to observations on its physical features, and hold off on diplomatic commentary. It is a set of accounts dated 411/1020–21, written for one of the members of the Jewish family, Abū Isḥāq.108 The document calls him “the Jew,” a detail that confirms what the script style suggests: the account was drawn up in an Islamic court by a Muslim legal professional. The lines

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Imperial Norms • 201

7.8. A set of accounts drawn up in 411/1020–­21 for a Jew named Abū Isḥaq, probably in Bāmiyān. National Library of Israel, 4°8333.23.

consist of nested and stacked baselines, with a boat-­like shape. The format of the page is landscape rather than portrait, which appears to have been generally more common in the East than in Egypt (to judge, for example, by letters of the geʾonim of Baghdad from the Cairo Geniza).109 The script is strikingly curvilinear and proportioned, but also with a downward diagonal slant—as if the Abbasid chancery reforms of the alif-­ circle script had been crossed with the diagonal Pahlavi-­style Arabic script of the tax receipts from Khurāsān. These are hardly the footprints of a rodent dipped in ink. But apart from the near total subsumption of the curvilinear, proportioned style of script, there is something in the substrate that recalls the Pahlavi-­style documents, particularly in the open, flattened curves of some of the final letters. The scribe also extends his strokes (mashq; al-­Tawḥīdī would have disapproved), particularly in numbers and units of currency. In Egypt as well, mashq seems to have held on in fiscal and private accounts as horizontal lines to mark off entries. The last line is the closing formula of official documents (the ḥamdala).110 But with the other two Bāmiyān documents, we enter another world. They are tantalizingly fragmentary—parts of only three lines survive of each. But they, too, box above their weight, providing missing information about the spread of Abbasid/Buyid chancery norms to the East. One of the fragments has been catalogued as a trial of the pen, understandably so since the second and third lines repeat part of the same phrase, as pen trials tend to

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202 • Chapter 7

7.9. Fragment of a Ghaznavid chancery decree found at Bāmiyān. National Library of Israel, 4°8333.27.

do (fig. 7.9).111 But I have seen enough Fatimid state documents catalogued as “scribbling” or “illegible” or “jottings” that the designation “trial of the pen” instantly kindles within me the hope that we are actually dealing with a state document.112 And indeed, I believe we are. The surviving text includes a double order clause in Persian of the type that comes at the end of documents, enjoining the addressees to abide by the decree. Each ends with “if God wills” (in shāʾ allāh), hence the repeated words. After this, there is a date clause, “and it was written on . . .” (wa-­kutiba fī . . .)—the standard closing formula for Fatimid decrees, marking off the text proper from the date and closing formulas (ḥamdala and taṣliya). There is also wide line spacing, stacking of words toward the ends of the lines, and a kollesis (glue seam) through the middle of line 3, suggesting that the document was once long enough to require at least two sheets, if not more. The date has been cut off—Murphy’s Law strikes again—but taking the rest of the cache as a terminus ad quem, the decree probably predates 1020. I submit, then, that this is no mere trial of the pen, but a decree fragment, and given the languages, the find spot,

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Imperial Norms • 203

7.10. State document in Persian found at Bāmiyān. National Library of Israel, 4°8333.90.

and the archival context, I would venture to guess that it emanates from the Ghaznavid chancery. The second fragment—from the second Afghan cache—supports this hypothesis but from a different chronological direction.113 It, too, comes from a chancery: the heading reads “the lofty bureau” (al-­dīwān al-­ʿālī), followed at a profligate distance by an ʿalāma, a cipher signature with which officials authenticated, registered, and ratified state documents (this ʿalāma reads, “glory belongs to God alone,” al-­ʿizza li-­llāh waḥdahu). This, too, appears to be part of a state document—but which state (fig. 7.10)? It may not be Ghaznavid. It is considerably smaller than the first fragment—10 cm wide as against 30—and on different paper. The title “most lofty lord’ (sālār-­i ajall), visible on the third line, suggests that the recipient was a large landowner with an army

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204 • Chapter 7 (the Western press would call him, too, a warlord), but this does not narrow things down. Nor does the honorific muḥtaram (revered) or the title Zayn al-­Dīn, which I have been unable to trace. Since most of the second Afghan cache is later than the first—circa 550–600/1150–1200—we would be justified in looking beyond the Ghaznavids. If I had to guess where to place this document, I would look to the Ghūrids (r. 390–612/1000–1215).114 If you have never heard of the Ghūrids, you’re not alone: early medieval Muslims were singularly uninterested in the region of what is now central Afghanistan from which they came, which housed no major urban centers or trade routes and served mainly as a reservoir for captives to sell in the slave markets of Herat and Sistan.115 But that all changed in the eleventh century. The Ghūrids became vassals to the Ghaznavids and served them by buffering them in their much-­reduced state from the encroaching Seljuks. But in 501/1107–8, they switched sides and began paying tribute to the Seljuks and, starting circa 1150, emboldened by this alliance, began sacking key parts of the Ghaznavid empire. They finally took Ghazna itself in 569/1173–74. A branch of the Ghūrid dynasty remained in Bāmiyān and made it their capital; the other branches pushed on as far as northern India.116 It is not impossible that we are looking at a Ghūrid state document, though admittedly the evidence is (once again) circumstantial. If my hypotheses are correct, these may also be the earliest original new Persian chancery documents to have survived. The Ghaznavid and Ghūrid decree fragments, if I may venture to call them that, bear a striking resemblance to the Fatimid chancery decrees, even though they are in New Persian (with a heavy dose of Arabic). The wide line spacing, the upward-­sloping lines, the nested baselines, the stacked words at the ends of lines, and the formulary are too large a cluster of common features to be shared accidentally. This cluster of attributes accords with what we can reconstruct of the Abbasid/Buyid and Fatimid chancery documents that are their rough contemporaries. That both the Central Asian and Egyptian state documents drew on Abbasid precedents strengthens the hypothesis that the new chancery style originated at Baghdad and spread from there—eastward to the Ghaznavid realm and westward to Fatimid Egypt. The administrative class of the Buyid realm brought these norms into being; they then met different fates in the Abbasid successor states. In Ghaznavid Khurāsān, they penetrated Arabic-­script writings of many kinds, including qāḍī-­court documents. In Fatimid Egypt, they remained restricted to state administrators.117 From one perspective, this stands to reason. One wouldn’t expect qāḍīs in the Fatimid realm in the eleventh and twelfth century to write their documents the way the state did: they exercised independence from the state apparatus, at least in their capacity as qāḍīs (though not as governors).118 The Ghaznavids, by contrast, maintained and ostentatiously displayed their loyalty to Sunnī Islam and generally (though not exclusively) appointed Sunnīs to the judiciary.119 In the Ghaznavid East, then, legal documents might well adhere to the graphic norms of the central chancery. In Fatimid Egypt, the eastern chancery style spread among the upper echelons of the state administration and only more rarely to the ranks of the judiciary (among qāḍīs who were themselves governors).120

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Imperial Norms • 205 The Bāmiyān cache, then, provides an echo of the lost Abbasid/Buyid chancery archive, and evidence of its reach, but in the other direction: eastward. The evidence here, too, is circumstantial, but it points the same way. If I were to reconstruct a hypothetical Abbasid state document, I would guess the line spacing would be generous, the baselines would fragment and hang, the lines would be boat shaped, the ascenders would be vertical or rotated slightly counterclockwise, and the ductus would be of variable width and the hairlines pervasive. Let me restate this conclusion from the other direction. When the Fatimids conquered Egypt, they brought together a cluster of diplomatic features. Most were derived from earlier documents from the East, with some echoes of high official documents from Egypt and Syria: monumental lettering (the Umayyad papyri from Khirbet al-­Mird), expanded line spacing (the Abbasid letter to Nubia), large vertical scrolls (again the Abbasid letter to Nubia; the Ghaznavid decree from Bāmiyān), curvilinear scripts and nested baselines (the Abbasid document from Sāmarrāʾ; the grammatical codex of 347/959; the Ghaznavid decrees), proportioned scripts (the narrative sources; the Bāmiyān documents), slightly downward-­and markedly upward-­curving lines (the Abbasid document from Sāmarrāʾ; the Bāmiyān documents), and stacking of words at the ends of lines (again the Bāmiyān documents). The earliest surviving examples of all these features used together in Egypt are Fatimid state documents, but the immediate source was probably the Buyid/Abbasid chancery. The Buyid/Abbasid chancery style appears to have spread to Egypt at the same rate as other diplomatic innovations of the Abbasid metropole: with a time drag of a couple of generations.

THE FATIMID ADOPTION OF EASTERN CHANCERY NORMS From the Fatimid end, too, there is one additional angle to pursue. Once they were in Egypt, the Fatimids based their documents on the Abbasid style because it was the high imperial model par excellence. But following Abbasid chancery practice was, from another perspective, an odd choice. The Abbasids were Sunnī, the Buyids Imāmī, the Fatimids Ismāʿīlī; and while school of thought needn’t be a barrier in administrative practice, it tends to be in claims to caliphal legitimacy. By bringing a signature Iraqi style of state document to Egypt, the Fatimids tied Egypt’s chancery practice more closely to Iraq than it had been when it was ruled from Iraq—precisely at the moment when it stopped being Abbasid. The dimensions and complexity of the diplomatic changes the Fatimids wrought to Egyptian document production suggest a combination of factors at work. If in these chapters, I have posited technological changes (papyrus to paper) and geographic ones (a migration of styles outward from the imperial center), the final factor to consider is regime change itself. From that perspective, the Fatimids’ adoption of the metropolitan Abbasid style was, paradoxically, a rupture. In the context of Egypt, Iraqi metropolitan diplomatic standards were something entirely new. Some Egyptian documents had reflected the

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206 • Chapter 7 norms of the capital: the letters of the Egyptian governor Qurra b. Sharīk al-­ʿAbsī used a script that Alain George has persuasively identified as the formalized, proportioned script of the Umayyad chanceries.121 But in Abbasid Egypt, state documents had been written in a provincial style—even if by the ninth century, that style was an amalgam of local traditions with the scribal habits of Khurāsān. When the Fatimids entered Egypt, by contrast, they began not from local Egyptian norms but from metropolitan Abbasid ones. The new state had made a deliberate choice about the semiotics of political legitimacy. But they didn’t carry over Abbasid traditions in every type of document, and there was a logic to the choice. The Fatimid chancery adhered most closely to the metropolitan Abbasid style for its sole export product, the only document type that it produced for mass consumption: decrees. They put these to work convincing their subjects, and the lands beyond, that the new government was as grand and serious as the old. When it came to the petition, however, they did something entirely new—an argument I will make in the next chapter.

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O

8

The Fatimid Petition-­a nd-­R esponse Procedure Caliphs were not merely sovereign heads of state but also imāms: infallible guides and vicegerents of God on earth. This meant something particular in Ismāʿīlī doctrine. The imām-­caliph was divinely endowed with infallibility (ʿiṣma). Not only was he God’s sole representative on earth; the succession could take place only via his active designation (naṣṣ) of an heir. This designation, according to Ismāʿīlī doctrine, had occurred in each generation in an unbroken chain leading back via ʿAlī to Muḥammad.1 The emphasis on the unbrokenness of the succession explains why the Ismāʿīlīs have had schisms and splinter groups over the centuries. The Daraziyya (Druze) believed the caliph al-­Ḥākim was a manifestation of the divine Oneness and that when he disappeared in 411/1021, he resumed his transcendent form. The Nizāriyya (Nizaris) held that the succession to the caliph al-­Mustanṣir belonged to his son Nizār, not to al-­ Mustaʿlī, the son who in fact succeeded him. The Ḥāfiẓiyya similarly split off in Yemen, leaving the Ṭayyibiyya behind—though part of the issue may have been the port revenues of Yemen; and, in sixteenth-­century India, there was the Dāwūdī/Sulaymānī split.2 A doctrine of infallibility acts like fertilizer: it helps the seed of a schism grow roots and entrench itself in the political life of a group. At stake is nothing short of absolute truth. Given the special place accorded to the imām in Ismāʿīlī doctrine, one might expect to see a specifically Ismāʿīlī or Fatimid type of text in the corpus of decrees. But there is very little in the decrees that is specific to the Fatimids. Not so for the petitions. The petition is the one genre the Fatimids appear to have reinvented. In this chapter, I’ll offer a brief history of the Arabic decree, then an account of the Arabic petition and how—and why—the Fatimids reshaped it. Though the earliest surviving original Fatimid petitions are from the reign of al-­Ḥākim (386–411/996– 1021), literary evidence suggests that the Fatimids began thinking about the petition-­ and-­response procedure as early as the 950s, when they were still in Ifrīqiya—and when they were making plans to take over Egypt.

THE EVOLUTION OF THE ARABIC DECREE The early Arabic decree was a surprisingly straightforward document. The earliest surviving Abbasid decrees have five parts. After the invocation (basmala), they continue like any early Arabic letter, with “This is a document from X to Y. Peace be upon you. I praise God, than whom there is no other” (hādhā kitāb min fulān ilā/li-­fulān salām

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208 • Chapter 8 ʿalaykum fa-­innī aḥmadu llāh allādhī lā ilāha illā huwa). It’s a simple announcement, using the generic term “document” (kitāb), not decree; what type of document is handled by the deictic “this is” (hādhā), which refers to the decree itself. The opening also identifies the sender and recipient as simply and straightforwardly as possible, using the markers “from” (min) and “to” (ilā or li-­). Regular letters open the same way, minus the brief eulogy (“I praise God . . .”), which happens in formal letters only.3 Then, with no fanfare, the third section announces the order, in the first person (singular or plural) of the high official: “I/we have ordered . . .” (innī amartu/innanā amarnā), then, in the fourth section, enjoin whoever has heard it to obey it. There are shorter and longer versions of the injunction clause. The longer one runs: “Whoever is read this document of mine from among [the following specific people] shall know it and shall not give himself any reason [to be admonished] by infringing it or going against it in any way, God willing” (fa-­man quriʾa ʿalayhi kitābī hādhā min [al-­fulāniyyīn] fa-­l-­yaʿlam dhālik wa-­lā yajʿal ʿalā nafsihi fī taʿaddī dhālik wa-­mukhālafatihi sabīlan in shāʾ allāh). And, finally, it closes by recording the date on which it was issued: “it was written on . . .” (kutiba fī . . .).4 And that is all. Some Abbasid decrees may have ended with the closing injunctions of official Arabic correspondence, the ḥamdala and the ḥasbala, but the early decrees that have survived omit these. The early Abbasid decree is, then, little more than a standard high-­register letter with an injunction (what the Latin diplomatists call a dispositio) tucked into the middle. It is a simple, almost generic form of communication. Fatimid decrees add little to this structure. The surviving ones add a section at the opening explaining why the decree was issued and add one at the end enjoining the recipients to observe their commands, followed by brief instructions as to where they should be archived and registered. There can also be a section on why decrees were issued (in Latin diplomatics, the expositio— its proximate cause), for instance, “When it was reported to the caliph that such-­and-­ such had occurred,” he issued this order. The expositio can be preceded or followed by further explanation “on deep background,” as the journalists say: the caliph is doing this because he possesses unrivaled wisdom, is pious, is the protector of his subjects, and so forth. In Latin diplomatics this is called the arenga, the set of justifications a sovereign cites for issuing an order, such as his or her justice, generosity, or goodwill. While in Latin documents, the arenga is grammatically and sometimes visually a separate section, in Arabic decrees, it is part of the flow of the opening.5 All these make the Fatimid decree feel longer than the Abbasid one, but not much more intricate or elaborate. But even this difference may be a mere illusion of source bias. The dispositio and the expositio survive in original Fatimid decrees, but not Abbasid ones, but then again, few pre-­Fatimid decrees have survived as original documents rather than copies in narrative works, and none of them come from caliphs. All are from provincial officials— mainly late Umayyad or early Abbasid ones that predate circa 800. The Fatimid decrees, by contrast, are originals issued by caliphs and viziers and postdate 414/1024. The differences can’t, then, be taken to mean much. A better comparison would be between the Fatimid decrees and the Buyid/Abbasid decrees that survive in narrative sources. These, too, include the two additional clauses. So in fact, what looks like it could be a Fatimid innovation is, once again, merely a continuation of Abbasid chancery practice.

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The Fatimid Petition-­a nd-­R esponse Procedure • 209 For instance, in a decree that the Abbasid chancery director Hilāl al-­Ṣābiʾ quotes in his History of Viziers, there is a set of closing injunctions like the Fatimid one.6 Another two decrees with closing injunctions are quoted in al-­Qalqashandī’s compendium. The first is from the Abbasid caliph al-­Muṭīʿ (r. 334–63/945–73), and it follows the “Fatimid” format precisely: toward the opening there is an expositio saying why the caliph has issued the decree (in this case, in response to a petition); at the end, there are instructions about its registration and archiving, using a number of technical terms that I’ve offered in brackets: The commander of the faithful has ordered that this document [kitāb] be registered/copied [ithbāt] in the archives [dawāwīn], and that it be deposited [iqrār] in your hand as a proof [ḥujja] for you, your successors after you and their successors, your heirs and their heirs.7 The second is from the Buyid vizier Ṣamṣām al-­Dawla issued circa 373/984, giving sovereign land as an iqṭāʿ to Muḥammad b. ʿAbdallāh b. Shahrām. It ends nearly verbatim as the Fatimid decrees would: Take cognizance of this order and command of the commander of the faithful, al-­Ṭāʾiʿ li-­llāh; and [know] that we [the vizier] have obeyed it and executed it. Let it be acted upon according to everything established in this document by all the ranks of clerks [kuttāb], officials [ʿummāl], supervisors [mushrifūn], appointees over the administration of the land-­tax, law enforcement and the general welfare [mutaṣarrifūn fī aʿmāl al-­kharāj wa-­l-­ḥimāya wa-­l-­maṣāliḥ], and so on. Beware of transgressing it, and let it be thoroughly executed for Muḥammad b. ʿAbdallāh b. Shahrām and all his successors, and let it be incumbent upon anyone whom it obligates. Let this document be deposited in his hand and the hands of his successors as a proof for him and for them, and let it be copied in all of the archives/ offices, God, may he be exalted, willing.8 Most of the extant Fatimid decrees contain similar closing injunctions to officials to register and/or copy the document in various government offices and archive it. The penultimate section of a decree that the future caliph al-­Ḥāfiẓ issued to the monks of Sinai in 524/1130—possibly the work of Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī himself—has, just before the date: Take cognizance of this order [in other decrees: of the Commander of the Faithful] and act accordingly [wal-­yuʿlam hādhā min amr amīr al-­muʾminīn wal-­ yaʿmal bih]. Let it be kept in their hands after it has been registered in the Offices of the Chamber and the Privy Purse [dīwānay al-­majlis wa-­l-­khāṣṣ], and where similar [documents] are registered, God, may he be exalted, willing [wal-­yuqarra bi-­aydīhim baʿd thubūtihi fī dīwānay al-­majlis wa-­l-­khāṣṣ bi-­ḥaythu yuthbatu mithluhu in shāʾ allāh taʿālā].9 In sum, there is nothing in Fatimid decrees that was not already standard in official Arabic correspondence in Abbasid/Buyid decrees. 10 What, then, about the content of the Fatimid arenga? Does it contain anything specific, perhaps to do with the Ismāʿīlī imām and his justice and mercy? No: the caliph is styled as just, and he is styled as having been entrusted with the government of his

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210 • Chapter 8 subjects, Muslims and dhimmīs alike. But this might be said of any Muslim sovereign (or, with the appropriate variations, of any medieval ruler).11 Once again, then, we have a conspicuous degree of continuity between the Abbasids and the Fatimids. A regime opposed to the Abbasids to the core of its very being nonetheless reproduced many of the administrative and diplomatic traditions they had established or refined—and did so in the document that embodied the caliph’s authority before his subjects, the decree. The continuities are even more striking when one widens the purview to include not just decrees to subjects and lower officials, but epistles to Fatimid vassals abroad, such as the corpus of letters to the Ṣulayḥid amīrs in Yemen. They survived in a later medieval codex copy now in London, so we don’t know what the originals looked like.12 But they are striking nonetheless for their use of formulae: they have preserved some archaic Umayyad and early Abbasid rhetorical forms. This is largely because they are high-­level correspondence, so they use the most formal possible register (perhaps the way English legalese preserves archaisms such as “hereinunder” or “witnesseth”). They open with the plain greeting of the Umayyad and early Abbasid decrees: “This is a letter from X to Y. The Commander of the Faithful thanks on your behalf God, other than whom there is no god” (fa-­inna amīr al-­muʾminīn yaḥmadu ilaykum allāh allādhī lā ilāha illā huwa). Khan has observed that this phrase is “a vestige of an old epistolary formula” that had been used “in all types of correspondence in the first two centuries AH,” not just decrees. During the third Islamic century, it was restricted to official correspondence. The Abbasids had instituted the change; the Fatimids followed them. Other Fatimid decrees also use the plain formula “from X to Y.”13 The later Fatimid decrees are more specific and elaborate, for example: “This is a decree the order for the writing of which was given by [the vizier], the servant of our master and lord the imām, commander of the faithful” (manshūr taqaddama bi-­katbihi fatā mawlānā wa-­sayyidinā l-­imām fulān, amīr al-­muʾminīn), followed by elaborate titulature and blessings.14 It seems, then, that the Fatimid decree started out from the Abbasid decree, and the two forms developed in tandem. The continuity between the Abbasid and Fatimid decree suggests that the Fatimid chancery made a conscious decision to imitate the standards of the chancery at Baghdad. It may also suggest the migration of officials from east to west, bringing the updated standards of the Abbasid chancery with them to Cairo—or at least I find this a more plausible scenario than bureaucrats imitating a decree that had arrived from Baghdad, but without actual contact between eastern and western scribes. A significant migration of literate easterners to Egypt just before and after the Fatimids entered is hardly out of the question, and my feeling is that the diplomatics don’t lie. But the case will have to be argued carefully, and this is not the place to do it. What I want to do here instead is to ask how Fatimid chancery officials looked at the Abbasid chanceries. Is there evidence of admiration and imitation? This is a question to which there is a ready answer. Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī, who composed a treatise on the practices of the Fatimid chancery in 524–25/1130–31, two or three years after he rose to its directorship, proclaims flatly that “Iraq has the best clerks” (wa-­f īhi al-­kuttāb al-­afāḍil).15 He is not talking about the flavor of Abbasid clerk that

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The Fatimid Petition-­a nd-­R esponse Procedure • 211 he might have met on a journey to Baghdad, which was then under the receivership of the Seljuks. He is talking, rather, about the flavor of Abbasid I discussed in the previous chapter: the Buyids. The models he cites for official comportment and document production alike come from the world of the Buyids. He tells a story about the virtues of Abū l-­Faḍl Ibn al-­ʿAmīd, the chief scribe of Rukn al-­Dawla b. Būya.16 He makes it clear that he has carefully studied the works of the Buyid bureaucrat and chancery expert Hilāl al-­Ṣābiʾ (359–448/969–1056).17 Nor is he embarrassed about any of this. Although the incarnation of the Abbasid caliphate that he held as an ideal had been defunct for a century, as a model of legitimacy, it was still alive and well in Egypt. The structure and formulary of Fatimid decrees was, then, essentially taken straight from the Buyid and Abbasid chanceries. The petition (and its close cousin, the official report) was, by contrast, entirely new.

THE FATIMID PETITION The petition was the Fatimids’ original contribution to Arabophone chancery diplomatics. The dynasty saw itself as the bringer of sovereign justice to Egypt; the petition was the document that structured the relationship between subjects and the state. First, the theopolitical background. Islamic political theory held that the caliph was the substitute for God on earth; the basic view, which some qualified but most accepted, was that there could be only one at a time. The others were by definition pretenders or usurpers (or, in the words of the Prophet, “obscene”). The Fatimids dared to proclaim a caliphate in 909; once they had, they poured an enormous amount of political and philosophical energy into ensuring that their caliph was the cornerstone of justice and the protector of his subjects. So when, in 393/1003, al-­Ḥākim placed a marble plaque on the exterior of the congregational mosque that his grandfather, the first Fatimid to rule from Egypt, had built just outside the north wall of Cairo, he did it not so much to dedicate the building as to announce his own dedication to his subjects. The plaque speaks in the voice of God via a verse from the Qurʾān (28:5): In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate. “And we wish to confer favor upon those who were oppressed in the land [of Egypt], and make them guides [aʾimma], and make them the inheritors.” Made on the order of God’s servant and vicegerent Abū ʿAlī al-­Manṣūr, the imām al-­Ḥākim bi-­amr allāh, commander of the faithful, God’s prayers be upon him and upon his pure family, in the month of Rajab 393.18 The context of the verse is God’s redemption of the Israelites from Egypt. But al-­ Ḥākim was no Moses: he wasn’t leading anyone out of Egypt. On the contrary, he wanted people to come to Egypt in droves, as they had in fact been doing by now for several decades, Cairo being, as al-­Maqdisī had it, the new Baghdad. Although there is no Pharaoh in the inscription, there had been an oppressor in the land, both the

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212 • Chapter 8

8.1. Dedicatory marble plaque, now lost, from the exterior of the mosque of al-­ Ḥākim in Cairo, dated Rajab 393/1003. Drawing from J. von Hammer-­Purgstall, “Inscription coufique de la mosquee de Hakim bi-­ Emrillah,” Journal Asiatique, 3rd ser., 5 (1838): 389–­90.

Abbasid caliphs whom the Fatimids displaced and the defunct dynasties that preceded their rule: “Pharaoh exalted himself in the land and made its people into sects [shiyaʿan], oppressing a group [ṭāʾifa] from among them, slaughtering their [newborn] sons and keeping their females alive. Indeed, he was among the corrupters” (Q28:4). The Fatimid dynasty had, then, come to deliver the people of Egypt from oppression—not just one group (ṭāʾifa) of them but all of them—and to turn them into guides and inheritors of the land. The word for “guides,” aʾimma, is the plural of imām, the caliphal title. The inscription implied that the caliph would turn the oppressed of Egypt into guides, perhaps even that he will turn them into himself—though it would be going too far to argue that this was the Fatimid equivalent of the title-­page engraving of Hobbes’s Leviathan, in which the sovereign’s actual body comprised his subjects.19 Nonetheless, the craftsman who inscribed the plaque appears to have placed the word aʾimma carefully at the end of the second line of the inscription for greater visibility (fig. 8.1). It was, then, the Fatimid caliphs’ will to redeem their subjects. In keeping with this plan, once the dynasty entered Egypt in 969, their procedure for hearing subjects’ grievances became central to their rule. Justice became accessible via a purpose-­built document. Geoffrey Khan’s landmark and exhaustive studies of the Arabic petition demonstrated that the Fatimids altered its wording and structure.20 But two questions remain unanswered: why the petitions came to look the way they did—chancery decrees writ small—and why the Fatimids rebuilt the petition in the first place. The answers are related. In the rest of this chapter, I will build on Khan’s thesis about the Arabic petition and the significance of the Fatimids in its development—not just its verbal content, but its visual semiotics, social meaning, and political use.

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The Fatimid Petition-­a nd- R­ esponse Procedure • 213

THE ARABIC PETITION TRANSFORMED Before the Fatimids arrived in Egypt, Arabic petitions had looked no different from common letters. At first blush, this stands to reason: if a document as grand as the government decree had been a mere variation on the letter, why would the petition look any grander? But from another perspective, the relative flatness and inconspicuousness of the petition are surprising: wouldn’t a dedicated form and format produce better results, or persuade the palace to meet one’s request with favor? In fact, there was only one feature that marked early Arabic petitions as petitions: a formulaic request clause buried in the belly of the document. Khan calls this the raʾy clause, because it is where the petitioner requests an opinion or a decision (raʾy) of the patron, as in, I am asking you to do this for me, but the decision is entirely in your hands. The raʾy clause serves as a request softener. It appears consistently in early Arabic petitions. But apart from the raʾy clause, early Arabic petitions were identical to plain letters—same verbal structure, same layout. Anyone who knew how to write a letter could also write a letter of petition: you needed no special training beyond intermediate literacy. This was true even when petitions were addressed to caliphs and high amīrs.21 The problem deepens when you consider that in Egypt, there had been a well-­ developed formal vocabulary for petitioning before the Muslims arrived in 640. Jean-­ Luc Fournet has demonstrated that petitions in Roman Egypt in the sixth and seventh centuries displayed a marked tendency toward verbal and graphic inflation.22 They are full of rhetorical language flattering the recipient, abasing the petitioner, and demonstrating his or her pressing need. And they are graphically conspicuous: the name of the patron appears in a solemn, outsized, and vertically elongated uncial, as though the script itself were written in the ceremonial style of the court (fig. 8.2). It is a form of graphic obeisance.23 Like modernist architects, late antique scribes strove to match form to function. By the year 530 CE, the rhetorical inflation had grown so excessive that the imperial administration issued a law, preserved in the Justinianic code, censuring the prolixity of petitioners and urging their scribes to exercise greater concision and restraint.24 The tendency to “exalt the recipient with a very stylized type of writing,” Fournet writes, constituted “a graphic rhetoric” that matched the rhetorical dimensions of the text.25 Arabic documents were no strangers to this kind of graphic rhetoric. Some of the earliest Arabic state documents employed an exalted style of writing when the grandeur of the sender or the recipient (or both) merited it. This is true of the letters of Qurrā b. Sharīk, the Umayyad governor of Egypt; it is true of the diplomatic complaint from the Abbasid amīr of Egypt to the Nubian sovereign at Qaṣr Ibrīm—the papyrus scroll of more than two meters’ length that I discussed in chapter 5 (see figs. 5.5 and 5.3). These communicated their message by means of their grand format, wide line spacing, and markedly elongated horizontals, as befit governors of Egypt.

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214 • Chapter 8

8.2. A late Roman petition. The name of the addressee is rendered in an outsized script, as if in obeisance. The Justinianic code later incorporated a law urging scribes to tone down the rhetoric they used in petitions. P.Oxy. LXXXI 5289 (ed. A. Syrcou).

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5 cm 2 in

The Fatimid Petition-­a nd-­R esponse Procedure • 215 In the same period, however, petitions were barely distinguishable from other letters.26 In chapter 4, I discussed the earliest Arabic document that could be classified as a petition. It was from well east of Egypt: the letter from Dēwāshtīch, the last prince of Panjīkant, king of Sogdia and ruler of Samarqand, to the Umayyad amīr of Khurāsān, al-­Jarrāḥ b. ʿAbdallāh (see fig. 4.4).27 Dēwāshtīch styles himself a “client” (mawlā) of the amīr, acknowledging his vassal status; so we might expect his request to look grand, or at least to glorify the name and titulature of his lord. But no: it is a typical Umayyad letter in every way. The script is drawn in a formal register, with marked elongation of horizontal strokes; even so, the elongations are not as marked as in the letters of Qurra b. Sharīk to his underling Basileos. It is a letter in a formal register to be sure, but a letter nonetheless; there is nothing about the physical form of Dēwāshtīch’s petition that marks it as a petition rather than a letter, and barely anything about the structure—only the request tucked in via a raʾy clause. If a petition to an Umayyad governor of Khurāsān could read like a generic letter—albeit a formal one—how, then, did the petitions to the Abbasid governors in Egypt look? Perhaps the finest such document thus far identified is a letter on papyrus addressed to Aḥmad ibn Ṭūlūn, the Abbasid governor of Egypt and Syria (254–70/868–84), that Khan identified in the Princeton University Library but remains unpublished (fig. 8.3).28 It is one of the two latest securely datable petitions of state I know before the Fatimid period.29 (There may be later ones, but to the best of my knowledge, none of them is securely datable.) It is a secure point of comparison to the Fatimid petitions on two counts. First, al-­Maqrīzī tells us that Ibn Ṭūlūn was the first ruler of Islamic Egypt to hear petitions against official injustices (maẓālim). He judged petitions twice weekly; in other words, he took his function as the guarantor of justice to ordinary subjects seriously enough to hear cases regularly (as the Fatimids would) and publicly (as the Fatimids wouldn’t—but I am getting ahead of my story).30 I’m not arguing that we need to believe al-­Maqrīzī, who is writing five hundred years after the fact. But I do feel obliged to take his description into account, given the access he had to earlier chronicles and, possibly, archival documents. Second, Ibn Ṭūlūn exercised enough independence from Baghdad that he founded a dynasty of rulers who were technically Abbasid governors but behaved like independent rulers. He was, as amīrs go, powerful and at least intermittently successful in keeping the tax revenue of Egypt in Egypt. The more revenue he collected, the more local power he wielded, and the more local power he wielded, the more obeisance his subjects could be expected to give. We might, then, think a petition to Ibn Ṭūlūn would look quite grand. But this one doesn’t. It is, to be sure, a structured, official piece of correspondence. It is a larger than normal piece of papyrus (49.5 × 17.5 cm)—not as large as the Qaṣr Ibrīm letter, which runs to over two meters, but larger than normal, and larger than the Roman petition I just discussed, which is 38 cm long. The petitioner addresses Ibn Ṭūlūn in the honorific third person, a common convention in letters to those of high rank. And it contains a raʾy clause. But that’s where its distinctiveness ends. In every

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5 cm 2 in

8.3. A letter of petition to Aḥmad b. Ṭūlūn, governor of Abbasid Egypt and Syria (254–­70/868–­84). The size is grand, but the format, script, and formulary are similar to those of the plain letter. Princeton Papyri Collections, Accession no. 2002–­136.

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The Fatimid Petition-­a nd- R­ esponse Procedure • 217

8.4. Top part of a petition from Egypt to the Abbasid caliph al-­Muʿtazz (252–­55/866–­69). Egyptian National Library, Tāʾrīkh no. 2807 (P.Cair.Arab. 172).

other respect, it’s a typical early Abbasid formal letter. The script and layout of the petition are indistinguishable from those of other ninth-­century formal letters. It could have been written by anyone literate enough to write a letter who had also bothered to learn the raʾy clause. To write a petition, even to the governor of Egypt himself, there was no need for a specially trained scribe. Any scribe would do. What, then, about a petition to the caliph in Baghdad? Would a petition to a caliph look different from one to a governor? Luckily, we have one from the same period: a petition to the Abbasid caliph himself, al-­Muʿtazz billāh (252–55/866–69), one of the caliphs of the Sāmarrāʾ period. It dates from just before (or perhaps the beginning of ) Ibn Ṭūlūn’s governorate, and it is probably a draft (fig. 8.4).31 If it dates from just before Ibn Ṭūlūn, al-­Maqrīzī may not be off base in claiming that Ibn Ṭūlūn was the first to sit for petitions locally: before him, petitions had to be sent to far-­off Iraq. This petition came from two men in Egypt whom it describes as “stipendiaries of the [caliph’s] chamber” (muqāṭaʿayn ʿalā majlis . . .). This probably means they had received grants of sovereign land. If so, they were dependent on the caliph for their livelihoods and had every reason to approach him abjectly and with maximum flattery. Like the petition to Ibn Ṭūlūn, this petition occupies an unusually large piece of papyrus, 34 cm wide, length unknown. (Only the top 11.5 cm have been preserved, but the width is impressive enough to suggest a commensurately outsized length.) Yet the document introduces itself in the plainest conceivable manner—as a letter: “This is a document [kitāb, which I have translated as neutrally as possible; a less neutral translation would be ‘letter,’ as in the letters I quoted above] to the servant of God Abū ʿAbd Allāh, the imām al-­Muʿtazz bi-­llāh, commander of the faithful, may Go[d] prolon[g his] l[ife], written to him by Muḥammad b. Abī Jaʿfar and Ismāʿīl b. Dāwūd.” No opening formulary marks the letter as a petition. The caliph gets no titulature other than his actual titles, no blessings, no flattery, only the laconic “This is a letter from X to Y,” the usual letter opening of the period, followed only by “may God prolong his life”—a “sliding” blessing also typical of Arabic letters of this period. As letter openings go, this is about as pedestrian as they come.

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218 • Chapter 8 It’s difficult to judge how long the plainness of the petition persisted because no original petition that I know of is securely datable to the tenth century. But al-­Ṣūlī (d. 335/946), the chess-­playing courtier of Baghdad whom I quoted in chapter 7 on proportioned script, confirms that petitions continued to be plain well into the next century: he tells us that letters from the common people (al-­nās) to the caliph, the regent, or the vizier should begin, “To the servant of God so-­and-­so son of so-­and-­so, to so-­ and-­so, Commander of the Faithful, the peace of God, his mercy and his blessing be upon the Commander of the Faithful. Indeed, I praise God, other than whom there is no god, for the Commander of the Faithful, and I ask him to bless Muḥammad, his servant and messenger, God’s peace and blessings upon him,” followed by wishes that God prolong the caliph’s life (aṭāla llāh baqāʾ amīr al-­muʾminīn).32 This is nothing other than the generic letter opening, the same that was used for the early Arabic decree. This plainness of petitions to the Abbasid caliph is about neither the petitioners’ insouciance nor the scribes’ lack of sophistication. It’s rather that the petition hadn’t yet emerged as its own genre of text—not even when it was directed to a caliph. The simplicity of Umayyad and Abbasid petitions—their generic quality, their similarity to letters, their lack of diplomatic specificity save the raʾy clause—is puzzling given their elaborateness in late antiquity. Fournet has suggested a linked pair of explanations for the austerity of early Arabic petitions as against the exaggerations and prolixity of late Roman ones: mise-­en-­scène and method of delivery.33 First, mise-­en-­scène: Submitting a petition in Roman Egypt required an in-­person audience before the pagarch or other local authority one addressed. The late Roman petition was the written vehicle of an encounter that took place in a setting entirely specific to petitioning. It was a specialized genre because it was targeted to a specialized mise-­en-­scène. The Umayyad and Abbasid petitions, by contrast, were not lodged in person. They arrived via the mail, and the piece of mail par excellence was the letter. So the trappings of the letter took precedence over the formal specificity of the petition—again, form following function. This theory is plausible, but it does not fit so well with what al-­Maqrīzī tells us about Ibn Ṭūlūn: that as governor of Egypt he handled petitions twice weekly in person. Maybe his in-­person audiences explain the grand size of the petition addressed to him, but it’s still basically a letter. The genre may have continued to reflect its predominant method of transmission—the mail—even when submitted in person; and presumably even under Ibn Ṭūlūn some people still mailed petitions. While we hear about dedicated personnel handling petitions under other dynasties, Ibn Ṭūlūn appears to have had none. Perhaps there was no specialized formulary precisely because there was no specialized staff to manage the petitioning process, or even to write petitions for petitioners. The lack of a dedicated petition format may, in other words, have reflected Ibn Ṭūlūn’s lack of investment in the petition-­and-­response procedure. That is not to say that the Abbasid governors of Egypt didn’t care about petitioning. On the contrary: Mathieu Tillier has demonstrated that the Ṭūlūnid and Ikhshīdid governors of Egypt used the petition-­and-­response procedure as a means of strengthening their independence from the caliphs in Iraq. They cared about petitioning, but for

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The Fatimid Petition-­a nd-­R esponse Procedure • 219 a different reason from the Fatimids. In pre-­Fatimid Egypt, Tillier argues, appointing judges over grievance tribunals was how the newly autonomous governors carved out their own judicial and administrative authority: the caliphs off in Baghdad “still claimed to be the only source of qāḍīs’ appointments,”34 but the governors in Egypt used them to run a provincial sphere of law, insisting on hearing petitions locally as a way of co-­ opting the power of the jurists. That sheds light on the process of vetting petitions: by having qāḍīs hear petitions on behalf of the governor, the governor exerted control over the qāḍīs. But it doesn’t shed light on the process of writing petitions. Just because you want to break the imperial monopoly on legal recourse doesn’t mean you’ll lay down an infrastructure to help subjects petition. And here, too, the form of the document may have been determined by its method of delivery: anyone in pre-­Fatimid Egypt could appeal directly to a qāḍī court, and therefore anyone who could write could write a petition. While the Fatimids, too, made it clear that anyone could submit a petition to the caliph, they abolished in-­person audiences for petitioners. Instead, petitions were handled behind the closed doors of the palace.35 The Fatimids let written petitions do the work that the qāḍī courts had done before them and also banished the in-­person performance from the proceedings. That meant that the written petition had to do more work. That’s a partial explanation for their grand appearance, but there’s more to it. If you think, as Fournet has done, about form following function, that may be what’s happening here, too. Under the Fatimids, palace officials presented petitioners’ cases to the vizier. That’s why the document, too, took the character of an internal state document—a report from a lower to a higher official. Not just anyone could write one of these: you needed training. I’ll get back to this. Having grievances written by trained officials was also a way to vet them before they reached the palace. Vetting them limited their number. It also helped develop a local administrative class on whose loyalty the caliphs in Cairo could count—and whose loyalty would have to be proven via diplomatics. Writing specialized petitions served to discipline officials in the same way that holding public maẓālim sessions had served to discipline qāḍīs: every literate local big man who learned to write a petition in the Fatimid style would hear, transcribe, and internalize stories about the kind of oppression that might drive subjects to go over their heads and seek caliphal justice; and they wrote out those stories in the Fatimid style. I’ll get back to this, too—the way in which the petition-­and-­response procedure under the Fatimids served to discipline lower officials. To review my argument so far: petitioners in Roman Egypt had submitted petitions in person, but in increasingly obsequious and elaborate documents, and scribes helped them along by infusing their petitions with a ceremonial look and graphic signifiers of obeisance. Abbasid petitioners, on the other hand, had sent theirs via the mail to Baghdad, which required the letter form, or else to local qāḍīs, which required no special form, so they were plain. Fatimid petitioners didn’t submit their requests in person, and they didn’t send them to some faraway place. They brought their complaints to local scribes, and local personnel wrote them up and conveyed them to the capital via

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220 • Chapter 8 a system of internal government messaging, the same one that carried the decrees, memoranda, reports, and fiscal documents with which the rest of this book is concerned. That, in turn, helps explain why Fatimid petitions look the way they do: form followed function. Fatimid petitions took their graphic cues from their means of conveyance—the government messaging service. So they looked like other internal government messages in their form (internal government communiqué), formulary (document of obeisance), and format (grand, but not too grand—the real grandeur was reserved for decrees). One of the strategies of the Fatimids as newcomers to the old world of Egypt was, then, to turn petitioning into a tool of state, but in a different way from Ibn Ṭūlūn: having added a new layer of government to Egypt—the lofty echelons of a caliphate—they now had to face the problem of midlevel officials. So they redesigned petitioning as a system that made use of them and also disciplined them at the same time. In the narrative and prescriptive sources, Fatimid authors emphasize the importance of encouraging ordinary subjects to air their grievances against officials. Allowing them to do this served the ruler as a way of keeping officials in check and served the interests of dynastic legitimacy by promising justice and benefactions to the weakest subjects. Together with this new purpose for petitioning came a purpose-­built document. But we are still only at the surface of the problem. The Fatimids were doing something new and different, rendering justice in a new way. But how?

MAKING PETITIONS LOOK LIKE DECREES As a new type of Fatimid document, petitions had to adhere to certain formal constraints. They had to be recognizable as petitions and worthy of a caliph—hence the curvilinear, proportioned script and the wide line spacing. But they could not be as grand as caliphal decrees, because the caliph was not speaking but being supplicated. The formal constraints had to be commensurate with both the patron’s and the client’s place in the political hierarchy. In chapter 7, I briefly noted the odd fact that the script in which Fatimid petitions are written is not qalam al-­r iqāʿ, the script that, according to Ibn al-­Nadīm and al-­ Qalqashandī, Abbasid scribes in Baghdad used for petitions (riqāʿ, sing. ruqʿa). In qalam al-­r iqāʿ, the alif is unseriffed; the curves are not as generous as they are in Fatimid petitions; and the teeth are flatter. Fatimid petitions use a script that is closer to the Abbasid qalam al-­tawqīʿ, the script devised for decrees (tawāqīʿ, sing. tawqīʿ). The verb waqqaʿa, from which tawqīʿ is derived, has a semantic range that covers signing off on a document, notating it, authenticating it with a signature (ʿalāma, pl. ʿalāʾim), or adding a registration mark (thubūt or ithbāt). Qalam al-­tawqīʿ was also the script with which Abbasid officials must have made annotations on documents of all kinds: rescripts (as its name implies), registration marks, signatures, and ʿalāʾim.36 Qalam al-­tawqīʿ was, in other words, the script of government officials at the palace tout court. It was the principal tool of scribes who signed off on documents (waqqaʿa).

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The Fatimid Petition-­a nd-­R esponse Procedure • 221 When the Fatimids arrived in Egypt and adopted qalam al-­tawqīʿ for petitions, then, they opted for the Abbasid script that had been devised not for petitions but for decrees. In other words, Fatimid petitions used a script associated with officials working inside the palace, not with the petitions or petitioners who might come from outside it. Why? Because they, too, are the products of an administrative class connected to the chancery. This was not a style in which just anyone could write. It was not a style in which the scribes of the Abbasid provincial government in Egypt wrote, and they could not adopt it immediately once the Fatimids established their rule there because it required technical training. It took some time to master, or so I gather from the conspicuous difference between the petition to Sitt al-­Mulk from the Fayyūm and the one from the capital that I discussed in chapter 1 (see fig. 1.8).37 So I gather as well from an exercise that has survived in the geniza in which an apprentice scribe attempts to learn qalam al-­tawqīʿ by imitating his teacher (fig. 8.5).38 Writing a Fatimid petition was manifestly not like writing a letter or any other kind of note: it was like writing a chancery decree. To do that, one needed specialized training—not just literacy to the point of being able to write a letter. That, in turn, suggests that the Fatimids invested in training a new administrative class—or in retraining the old one. If, then, the Fatimids held petitioning to be so important to their mission that they invested in shaping a new administrative class to its needs, why wouldn’t it do simply to carry on with the old provincial elite, as so many rulers of Egypt before them had done? The answer has to do with the circumstances under which the Fatimids took Egypt.

THE PILLARS OF ISLAM The project of taking Egypt was immeasurably easier in 969 than it might have been—or than it had been on the dynasty’s three previous attempts. Contingencies well beyond the Fatimids’ control had intervened: several low Niles in succession; deepening contention among the Ikhshīdid governors; dysfunction of the local administration; and the weakness of Abbasid Baghdad, now under the control of the Buyids and too feeble, fiscally and otherwise, to take on problems as far afield as Egypt. Egypt was already looking to the Fatimids of Ifrīqiya for deliverance a decade, plus or minus, before they arrived there: three Fatimid coins were minted and circulated in Egypt between 341/952 and 353/964.39 Al-­Maqrīzī tells us, moreover, that after Ibn Ṭūlūn’s death in 270/884, (public?) petitioning against grievances (maẓālim) had died out in Egypt, and that it did not again revive until the rise of Kāfūr al-­Ikhshīdī, the eunuch who ran the Ikhshīdid governorate from behind the scenes before being declared governor himself (355–57/966–68). If al-­Maqrīzī is correct, sixty-­five years is a very long time to be without a petitioning procedure: by the time Kāfūr revived it, only the very old would have remembered that it had taken place at all.

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5 cm 2 in

8.5. A writing exercise from the Fatimid bureaucracy. The teacher writes a line, and the apprentice copies it. The apprentice is an advanced practitioner but has gone back and repeated words on lines 3b and 9b. Cambridge University Library, T-­S Misc. 5.148 + T-­S Ar. 30.316 + T-­S Ar. 42.196.

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The Fatimid Petition-­a nd- ­R esponse Procedure • 223 And then it all changed. Starting in 340/951, al-­Maqrīzī says, Kāfūr sat for petitions every Saturday in a session attended by the vizier, the qāḍīs, the jurists (fuqahāʾ), witnesses, and other “leaders of the land” (wujūh al-­balad).40 If said “leaders” remain nebulous, it is nevertheless clear that this was an investment of official resources, which makes sense as a strategy for staving off the larger problems that generalized discontent can breed. Given that most maẓālim petitions were directed at officials, having them attend the session served the purpose of disciplining and shaming them—just as it would later, with the Mamluk khidma, a regular public procession and tribunal hearing—though it is also possible that in describing the Ikhshīdid procedure, al-­Maqrīzī is borrowing from the much later Mamluk procedure he knew firsthand.41 Whether any of this, in fact, happened is difficult to know. If it did, Kāfūr had revived the petition-­and-­response procedure in Egypt just as the Fatimids were making serious plans to come and take it over—just as the court of the Fatimid caliph al-­Muʿizz (341– 65/953–75) was carefully preparing the dynasty’s expansion eastward and Egypt’s deliverance from chaos. Kāfūr tried to save it by instituting a public ritual devoted to justice. The Fatimids took a more radical approach: annexation. The first two Fatimid caliphs had each made attempts on Egypt, but failed. This time the court was determined to get things right. The last round of preparations seems to have begun in the 340s/950s. It was around this time that al-­Muʿizz charged his chief qāḍī and chief propagandist (dāʿī), al-­Qāḍī al-­Nuʿmān, with preparing a code of Ismāʿīlī law. The work was called Daʿāʾim al-­Islām (The Pillars of Islam), and it was complete by around 346/957. It is a surprisingly readable work, even though its textual history is complex.42 Its commission must be seen as part of the Fatimid preparations for expansion, not because the new dynasty wanted to impose Ismāʿīlī law on the population of Egypt—it never did—but because one part of the work, Kitāb al-­jihād (The book of jihād), reads like nothing short of an advice manual for an official class on the verge of territorial expansion. But while Kitāb al-­jihād is a mission statement for the conquering Fatimid state, those looking for a treatise on warfare will be partly disappointed: at least half the work is devoted to the ethics and pragmatics of administration, the procedural circuit board without which no state can hope to keep running. You will read not just about conquest and booty, but about tax assessment. The work is not, then, a mirror for the sovereign—and anyway, the imām, the conduit of God’s will, had no need of mortal advice—but for his officials.43 I’m going to hone in on the sections devoted to state administration—a phrase that makes the eyes glaze over unless, like me, you find glimpses of medieval organizational thinking to be absolutely fascinating, the more detailed the better, because only thus do we learn how states actually managed to function. The section on state administration is a blueprint for the transformation of desiccated Abbasid institutions into rejuvenated Fatimid ones. It also answers a pair of questions that would have been burning themselves into the brains of any Ifrīqiyan official entering the new realm of the Ismāʿīlī daʿwa on the Nile: first, what should we do with the old Abbasid bureaucrats we will encounter on our arrival? They won’t like us very much, but we need them. Second, how can we convince our new Egyptian subjects that we are prepared to render them justice, more prepared than the rulers who preceded us—and that they should therefore render us their taxes?

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224 • Chapter 8 Among other things, then, the Pillars of Islam explicitly links the political economy of revenue extraction and the moral economy of justice—the two sides of the virtual social contract. The petition-­and-­response procedure began to play a role in Fatimid politics around the time of the work’s composition, during the waning years of the dynasty’s rule in Ifrīqiya. Some years before al-­Muʿizz entered Egypt in 359/969 and founded Cairo, he had already consolidated a policy on petitioning and begun acting on it, most likely in response to al-­Qāḍī al-­Nuʿmān himself. Al-­Qāḍī al-­Nuʿmān also includes in one of his other works a copy of the investiture decree he received from al-­Muʿizz appointing him over maẓālim in Ifrīqiya in 343/954. The petition-­and-­response procedure began its transformation in the 950s. 44

SOFTNESS AS A METHOD OF RULE Record of an early instance of maẓālim justice has survived from Ifrīqiya, the case of a Fatimid governor in the Atlas mountains, the delightfully named Ṣāfī al-­Ikrīkī of Qaṣr al-­Ifrīqī. The incident could have taken place at any point between about 334/934 and 359/969. Ṣāfī had punished a group of Berber tax farmers, not because they had failed to render the agreed-­on amount of revenue, but because they had dared to submit a petition complaining against him for jailing one of their fellow tax farmers. The petition went to the caliph via his eunuch Jawdhar. Ṣāfī was behaving like a mafioso, and this, as far as the caliph was concerned, constituted a double measure of injustice: Ṣāfī had jailed the first tax farmer, and now he wished to deny his comrades the right to petition against the injustice. The caliph wrote to Jawdhar, vizier in all but title, linchpin of the administration in Ifrīqiya, and first recourse for subjects’ complaints, advising him how to handle the situation and explaining that the Berbers had good reason to dislike Ṣāfī. We have already sent [Ṣāfī] written instructions [to free the prisoner and recompense the other tax farmers]. If he follows them [the instructions], he will find happiness, and will put an end to these abhorrent circumstances and bring back prosperity in the country [wa-­ʿāda al-­balad ilā ʿimāratih]. We have ordered Ḥusayn [perhaps one of Ṣāfī’s henchmen?] to come up to the palace. If he responds to this [order], God will restore the matter [mentioned] in the letter [that Ṣāfī had written to Jawdhar]. Otherwise, [our] cavalry and force will reach him very promptly. We are waiting only to see what happens after he receives our letter.45 The caliph then instructed Jawdhar to write to Ṣāfī warning him of all this and schooling him on the “measures of softness and gentleness and sound resolutions that he must take in keeping with the needs of the situation.” The caliph’s letter survived in Jawdhar’s archive; Jawdhar’s secretary and successor copied it into his biography of Jawdhar, and that is how it has reached us. Three things bear notice about this incident. The first is Ṣāfī’s miscalculation in approaching the caliph—more than once—convinced that he would receive the sover-

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The Fatimid Petition-­a nd- R­ esponse Procedure • 225 eign’s support for his harsh methods of governance. The caliph turned out to be singularly uninterested in backing the governor over his subjects. The second is the tax farmers’ equal confidence that the caliph would take their side over that of the oppressive governor—hence their persistence in petitioning against Ṣāfī’s misdeeds, even after he had punished and jailed their comrade. The third is the caliph’s explicit linking of prosperity and justice. If Ṣāfī followed the caliph’s order in releasing the tax farmer—whose job, after all, was extracting revenue for his fisc—the caliph promised him that he would “bring back prosperity [ʿimāra] in the country.” This statement—and the Pillars of Islam, to which I will turn next—followed a mounting tradition of Islamic political philosophy according to which revenue cannot fill the coffers unless justice fills the land. More than a century earlier, Ibn Qutayba (213–76/828–89) had written that there is “no revenue without prosperity [ʿimāra], and no prosperity without justice and good government.”46 Al-­Ābī (d. 421/1030), a Buyid vizier of Rayy, would reiterate the same idea to his patrons much later: the state’s prosperity depends on the people being given their due.47 This was the idea enshrined in law in al-­Qāḍī al-­Nuʿmān’s Pillars of Islam, the founding blueprint of the Fatimid state. The incident of Ṣāfī sniffs of a transitional moment. He expected the caliph to take his side, perhaps because he thought that whatever had happened in the past would continue to happen now—elites supporting elites, presumably. But the regime was no longer playing that game. The game they now played was checking the power of the old elite and showering their beneficence instead on nobodies and minor administrators such as tax farmers—defending the weak against the powerful. “The conduct in which the ruler should engage is the conduct that most ensures the satisfaction of the common people,” wrote al-Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān, for “the resentment of the common people destroys the satisfaction of the elite, while the resentment of the elite can be endured when there is the satisfaction of the common people.” This was in keeping with the link the dynasty drew between fiscal health and general justice. For al-­Qāḍī al-­ Nuʿman, “the emaciated of the flock have more need of just treatment and solicitude than do the plump ones.”48

MIRRORS AND TESTAMENTS The Fatimids used the petition-­and-­response procedure because it allowed them, as newcomers to Egypt, to gain their subjects’ trust—and, in turn, their tax revenue—by listening to their complaints. It helped them to keep a tighter leash on the officials of the old regime—and, eventually, of the new—by allowing subjects to complain about their misdeeds. And it allowed them to confiscate the ill-­gotten gains of corrupt officials. Was this preference for the ʿāmma (the people) over the khāṣṣa (the elite) merely a matter of pragmatics? Or did it reflect genuine ethical concern for the moral economy of the state and the welfare of the body politic? This is, I will argue, a question mal posée insofar as it presumes ethical and transactional motives to be distinguishable or even recoverable. But it’s worth considering,

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226 • Chapter 8 because it’s not specific to the Fatimids. Islamic political philosophy, perennially over a period of several hundred years, rehearsed explicit statements of the reciprocal relationship between subject and sovereign. The sovereign, so the sayings tended to run, could not run a state without extracting resources from the peasantry, and the peasants would neither produce those resources nor willingly yield them unless the sovereign granted them access to justice. Reading through this literature does not help to answer the question of motive: pragmatic or ethical? Precisely in its undecidability, I believe, lay its effectiveness: it was the kind of policy that could convince the cynical and the high-­minded alike.49 The surprisingly persistent form the saying took was that of a circular statement, a chain of links the last of which implicitly leads back to the first, like certain children’s songs. It could also take the form of what is called an “open envelope,” in which the last connection isn’t stated but can easily be inferred by the listener. Here is one version of it: there can be no sovereignty without soldiers, no soldiers without revenue, no revenue without the prosperity of subjects, no prosperity without justice (and the closure of the envelope would be: no justice without sovereignty).50 Joseph Sadan has documented the form of the ethical chain in late Sasanian sovereign testaments—works of political advice that rulers addressed to their successors, children, and appointees—as well as in early Arabic mirrors for princes.51 Ibn Khaldūn (732–808/1332–1406) cites this particular ethical chain, quoting in the process half a millennium of Arab political philosophers.52 He doesn’t like them—in his estimation, they’ve all gotten carried away with the literary form instead of engaging in the serious business of social analysis, so he dismisses them with an imperious wave of the hand, whereas “We, by contrast, were inspired by God, who led us to a science whose truth we ruthlessly set forth.”53 I won’t quote them all. The authors that concern me here are those from just before and after the advent of the Fatimids. They are all Iraqi and ­Iranian, and compared with their use of the maxim, al-­Qāḍī al-­Nuʿmān’s was original. His improvement on them may have bespoken the Fatimids’ growing anxiety over the impending conquest of Egypt: the chief architect of Fatimid sovereignty, in setting forth a philosophy of justice, glanced perhaps nervously toward Iraq and Iran and outdid them. One of these eastern authors is the Iraqi historian and geographer al-­Masʿūdī (before 280–345/before 893–956), who spent the last fifteen years of his life in Fustat and rewrote his universal history there—too early to see the Fatimid takeover but early enough to witness the failed attempts. This is the same al-­Masʿūdī who, with surfeit of imagination and economy of fact, recounted a diplomatic mission from the kings of India and China to the Sasanian shāh Khusrow I (531–79; see chapter 4). Al-­Masʿūdī thought a great deal about the Sasanians. He drew in his work on Arabic translations of the classics of Pahlavi literature; and he thought about the Sasanians well before the Buyids claimed descent from them.54 Just before the Buyid takeover of Baghdad in 332/943, al-­Masʿūdī completed the first version of his universal history, Murūj al-­dhahab wa-­maʿādin al-­jawhar (Meadows of gold and mines of gems). In it, he adduces the following anecdote. The Sasanian shāh

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The Fatimid Petition-­a nd- ­R esponse Procedure • 227 Bahrām II (274–93) is passing by a ruined village and hears two owls hooting. He asks his companions what the owls are saying. They explain, delicately I hope, that the female owl is asking the male for a wedding present: twenty ruined villages, just like this one, in which she can roost, and that the male is responding: if Bahrām continues in his unjust ways, I could give you a thousand. Bahrām’s advisers then present the moral of the story: The strength of a realm rests on the law, obedience to God and the execution of his will. The law can be upheld only by the king, and the king owes his power to the soldiers, but what supports soldiers is revenue, which can come only from the flourishing of agriculture; and prosperity cannot exist without justice.55 What I find fascinating about al-­Masʿūdī’s iteration of the maxim is not its Sasanian framing device but its incoherence. One has to think to find a connection between the last phrase of the maxim and what precedes it: why, exactly, can’t prosperity exist without justice? It may well be that he took the connection for granted—injustice causes ruined villages—though it still bears spelling out, because maybe the point is rather that angry peasants won’t pay their taxes. But it is also possible that, just as Ibn Khaldūn says, al-­Masʿūdī had gotten tangled up in the straitjacket of the literary form. Of the Buyid authors who came hard on al-­Masʿūdī’s heels, there are two who seem to be aware of the maxim, the first vaguely, the second acutely. The first is al-­Ṣāḥib Ibn ʿAbbād (d. 385/995), a truly fascinating figure, not least because of his literary capacities. Ibn ʿAbbād was born and bred for the palace and the bureaucracy: he was a son of the first Buyid vizier in Iṣfahān, the protégé (ṣanīʿa) of a Buyid vizier of Rayy (Ibn al-­ʿAmīd), and eventually himself vizier of Rayy. He left a collection of letters that circulated widely and was preserved, largely for their style, though they’re also unafraid to get down to the unglamorous business of administration. One of the letters is to a tax collector, and he began it—rather pompously—with this version of the saying: “The land tax [kharāj] is the fundament of the kingdom [māddat al-­mamlaka], the backbone of the army [qiwām al-­jaysh], the worth of possessions [qīmat al-­amlāk], the soul of the populace [arwāḥ al-­raʿīya] and the support of the ruler [ʿumdat al-­sulṭān].”56 In view of the recipient’s profession—tax collector—it is logical that Ibn ʿAbbād makes taxation the basis of all civilized life and organized rule. But he omits justice from the equation, thereby completely missing the point of the maxim.57 The second is Ibn ʿAbbād’s protégé Abū Saʿd Manṣūr b. al-­Ḥusayn al-­Ābī (d. 421/1030), to whom I briefly alluded above. Al-­Ābī, like his patron, was vizier in Rayy, but unlike his patron, he did not miss the point of the maxim. In his encyclopedic Nathr al-­durr (The scattering of pearls), he gives us a plain answer to the question of how justice is linked to prosperity. His version of the circle, like his mentor’s, is unadorned and highly pragmatic, but unlike it, has justice as its telos. Know that the preservation [qawām] of your realm depends on the flow of the land-­tax [kharāj], and the flow of the land-­tax depends on the flourishing of the

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228 • Chapter 8 land [ʿimārat al-­bilād], and the greatest success in this [task] depends on cultivating the people [who pay it—literally, “its people,” i.e., the people of the kharāj] through justice [ʿadl] and aid [muʿāwana].58 This, finally, is the practical import of the circle, spelled out for the literal minded: only when the sovereign provides justice and support to the taxpayers—against oppressive officials and other thieves alike—will tax revenue flow. Running the state depends on giving people their due, because without justice they will not willingly part with their land tax (kharāj), and collecting the kharāj from the unwilling is, for a state, essential to rule but expensive if coerced, while collecting it from the unable is impossible. It took two Buyid viziers to draw the connection between justice and taxation—to close the political-­ethical circle—and this is, I believe, no accident. All the previous mirrors had been written with caliphal consumption in mind. Caliphs, being sovereigns, have a way of attracting lofty and sovereignly aphorisms from their retainers— from their would-­be retainers all the more so. Patricia Crone emphasizes that all the Arabic mirrors are distinctly sovereign-­centric, seeing the world from the ruler’s point of view rather than that of his courtiers or subjects.59 What better thing to tell a ruler than what had been told to rulers before—maxims with a pedigree? And what better model of ruler than a shāh? The Buyid viziers, by contrast, were operating independently of the caliph, in a thoroughly Persian, intermittently neo-­Sasanian milieu; paradoxically, it was they who had the freedom the other mirror writers lacked to part from the Sasanian legacy, from the suffocatingly rigid model of social hierarchy embedded in it, and take from it what was useful to them. The Buyid viziers were writing not for caliphs but for administrators whose function was to manage state affairs in the caliph’s stead, while the caliph’s function was to be the shadow God on earth. The caliphs needed legitimation; the viziers needed to run a state. It is also no accident that only the second of the two viziers—Ibn Ābī—made the link between taxation and justice explicit and convincing. Between the death of Ibn ʿAbbād and the ethical chain of Ibn Ābī, there circulated in Iraq what had reached Ifrīqiya some decades earlier: a political testament (ʿahd) that would change the shape of the argument. This ʿahd was an ancient mirror for princes attributed, this time, not to a Sasanian shāh but to the first imām of the Shīʿa, the fourth Muslim caliph, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib (d. 40/661). The ʿAhd ʿAlī, as it is called, exists in two versions. One appeared in al-­Qāḍī al-­ Nuʿmān’s Pillars. The second appeared a half century later, in an Iranian work of 400/1009 called Nahj al-­balāgha (The path of eloquence), a collection of sayings, sermons, commentaries, letters, and testaments of ʿAlī, compiled by a Buyid official named al-­Sharīf al-­Raḍī (359–406/970–1016). That he, too, was a Buyid official is relevant. Ibn ʿAbbād and al-­Ābī, both viziers, dabbled in the ethico-­political maxim, but only al-­Ābī seems to have understood it. Between the two viziers came Nahj al-­balāgha, and this may explain the difference between them.60

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The Fatimid Petition-­a nd-­R esponse Procedure • 229 There are a lot of philological details I’ll have to offer to make this case, and if philology and textual criticism aren’t your thing, please feel free to skip the next section.

THE ISMĀʿĪLĪ AND IMĀMĪ USES OF THE ʿAHD In Nahj al-­balāgha, the text of the ʿahd comes attached to a specific scene, when ʿAlī as caliph appointed a governor over Egypt, Mālik b. al-­Ḥārith al-­Ashtar al-­Nakhāʿī (d. 38/658). That frame story is absent from al-­Qāḍī al-­Nuʿmān’s Pillars of Islam, which is a shame, since he was using the ʿahd to prepare to take over Egypt, and the frame story sets it in Egypt. The frame story can be traced back a bit earlier, to the 380s/990s, also in the Abbasid East, but in a text that quotes only bits and pieces of the ʿahd as isolated units of tradition (akhbār) rather than a complete text. For complicated reasons, I believe that the recension of the ʿahd in the Nahj al-­balāgha (the Iranian, Imāmī version), which dates to 400/1010, is not dependent on the one in the Pillars of Islam (the Ifrīqī, Ismāʿīlī version); in other words, I believe al-­Qāḍī al-­Nuʿmān, al-­Sharīf al-­Raḍī, and, possibly, al-­Ābī had access to a common source.61 Why would these authors have quoted the ʿahd and expanded on it? The answer matters less to me for the Nahj al-­balāgha than for the Pillars, but thinking about the Nahj al-­balāgha will help me get there. The Iranian, imāmī recension in the Nahj al-­balāgha presents the ʿahd as ʿAlī’s testament to the governor he had appointed over Egypt, al-­Ashtar, whose title was amīr. This is a striking fact, because this recension emerged when the Buyids were ruling as amīrs of the Abbasids in Iraq and Iran. It would have served nicely as a political testament legitimating the Buyids as more than mere mercenaries: just as ʿAlī advised al-­ Ashtar on the pragmatics of rule, so, too, is he now advising us Buyids. If you were an Imāmī, you couldn’t hope to find better political legitimation. The compiler of the Iranian recension, al-­Sharīf al-­Raḍī (né Muḥammad b. Abī Aḥmad al-­Ḥusayn), was a court brat steeped in the life and mores of Baghdad and Rayy. More than that, he was unusually sensitive to the problem of subjects submitting petitions against official injustice—a topic on which the ʿahd is voluble. In 380/990, at the age of twenty-­four, he inherited from his father the supervision of the Buyid sovereign tribunals (maẓālim courts). His stint as director of maẓālim was followed by a string of impressive titles: in 388/998, when he was thirty-­two, he received from the Buyid amīr Bahāʾ al-­Dawla the title al-­Sharīf al-­Jalīl, “the venerable noble one”; by forty-­one, in 398/1007, he had received the title al-­Raḍī, “the pleasing”; and, a year after he composed the work in which his recension of the ʿahd ʿAlī appears, in 401/1011, he was called al-­Sharīf al-­Ajall, “the most venerable noble one.” Al-­Sharīf al-­Raḍī, the compiler of the Iranian recension, knew the importance of helping the ruler make common cause with his subjects by allowing them to complain about official injustices. The message of the ʿahd is that there is no prosperity without justice. A Shīʿī Buyid amīr would have appreciated the advice—coming as it did from ʿAlī to his amīr—no less than a Fatimid

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230 • Chapter 8 caliph would have appreciated Muḥammad’s for ʿAlī, which is how al-­Qāḍī al-­Nuʿmān presents it. The ʿahd ʿAlī—with a subjective or an objective genitive, composed by ʿAlī or addressed to him—was the best and most authoritative testament that a tenth-­century Shīʿī official could find for his sovereign patron, the best possible mirror for his prince. This was as true of al-­Sharīf al-­Raḍī as it was of al-­Qāḍī al-­Nuʿmān. But it was not enough, because the circumstances had changed. They had changed on many counts, and in similar ways for the Fatimids and the Buyids, both heirs to the Abbasid realm, both committed to developing a different ruling ideology from the defunct Abbasid one. It is not likely to be an accident that high-­ranking members of the Buyid and Fatimid courtly elites both made use of this text within half a century of one another: they probably felt themselves in hot competition with one another, in a struggle for the legitimate leadership of the post-­Abbasid world. This text helped to ground them in tradition while still telling them how, on a practical level, to rule. It was also a text that was astonishingly fitting to their situation. Like ʿAlī’s governor over Egypt, the Buyids in Iraq and Iran and al-­Muʿizz while contemplating Egypt from Ifrīqiya faced a mass of subjects who adhered to a different religious dispensation from theirs. Al-­Ashtar’s Egyptians were Christian, while he was a Muslim. Al-­Muʿizz’s were Christian and Sunnī, but he was Shīʿī. The Buyids’ were by and large Sunnī, and they, too, were Shīʿī. But only two of these rulers faced a phalanx of bureaucrats who had worked for the old regime and had every reason to be hostile to them: Romans in al-­ Ashtar’s case, Abbasids in al-­Muʿizz’s. The Buyids had deftly linked themselves more tightly to the courtly and bureaucratic elite. And like ʿAlī, al-­Muʿizz was ruling over an empire in the course of rapid conquest. Foremost among the prizes for both was Egypt. ʿAlī had just conquered it, and al-­Muʿizz was actively planning on it. But unlike ʿAlī, who was a caliph advising a governor, al-­ Nuʿmān was a mere qāḍī advising a caliph. While in the kernel tradition of the ʿahd, the addressee is a sovereign appointee—a midlevel official—in the Pillars he is the sovereign himself. The ʿahd kernel tradition is a testament in the Sasanian tradition, delivered downward in the hierarchy; al-­Nuʿmān’s is advice to the sovereign, delivered upward. In both the tenth-­century recensions, the testament addresses its recipient first as a ruler (malik, a rank below caliph in any case) and later, twice, as a governor (amīr); both titles could refer to al-­Ashtar and trace back to the earliest kernel of the tradition.62 But only in the Pillars version is the addressee also styled the heir of “the kings and the sons of kings from among your enemies who have been devouring the world (al-­dunyā) since its beginning.”63 This is no way to describe the governor of a province. It sounds more like the description of a sovereign who has ousted his enemies from rule, or was imminently planning to do so. Likewise, the addressee in both recensions is warned of the viziers he will appoint: “Keep in mind that the worst among your confidants and your viziers are those who earlier were confidants and viziers of the wicked, who participated in their crimes and rendered them any kind of service.”64 The governors of Egypt under the Rashidūn caliphs did not have viziers; and compared to the Buyids, the Fatimids had more reason to worry about the loyalties of theirs.

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The Fatimid Petition-­a nd- R­ esponse Procedure • 231 Al-­Muʿizz, then—more than the Buyid amīrs—was a sovereign consolidating his state and expanding his territory in the face of potentially hostile subjects and, worse, potentially treacherous officials. And for that reason, it is here that the Fatimid theory of maẓālim—the rights of subjects to complain to the sovereign about officials and their abuses and failings—received its first and most detailed articulation.

THE LINK BETWEEN PROSPERITY AND JUSTICE The section of the Pillars of Islam devoted to hearing the needs of subjects is the one place where the text breaks rank and addresses not the governing class as a whole or in parts, but a single individual among them, the caliph himself. The rest of the Kitāb al-­ jihād is addressed to a tight circle of Ismāʿīlī administrators, soldiers, and supporters: it outlines the procedures of battle and conquest to be observed by military and administrative personnel. The ʿahd, by contrast, is addressed to the sovereign. The way for the sovereign to serve the interests of the people, says al-­Qāḍī al-­Nuʿmān, is to provide them with a forum to speak their minds. Begin with the most vulnerable: “enquire about the needs of the poor and destitute whose wants may not have become known to you, whom the notables (ʿuyūn) do not deign to notice, and who are not thought important enough that their needs are brought before you.”65 But giving voice to the voiceless is not a job for the sovereign alone. Instead, he must “establish as a guardian for them someone on whose advice you can fully rely, someone most scrupulous in accomplishing good deeds and most humble before God, one of those who do not despise the weak and magnify the powerful.”66 This appears to be nothing less than a prescription for an official who can manage a sovereign tribunal for complaints: “Take good care of the administration of justice among the people,” because God has established the judicial office on earth “to be fair to the offended against the offender [li-­inṣāf al-­maẓlūm min al-­ẓālim], to defend the weak against the strong.”67 This is a blueprint for a maẓālim tribunal where petitioners can lodge complaints. And once you have discovered what the complaints are, command the official in charge of maẓālim “to bring their affairs to your attention, and take good care of these.”68 What then follows is a detailed description of how the defense of the weak should be carried out for each class of people, beginning with the kharāj payers, on whom I will focus here because the land of Egypt that the Fatimids were on the verge of conquering was, above all, a vast domain of kharāj-­paying productive agricultural laborers. Al-­Nuʿmān offers three methods for linking the political economy of extraction to the moral economy of justice. The first is to maintain the infrastructure on which the peasants’ productivity depends—especially irrigation canals. The ruler should care for the land of the kharāj payers “more than for the easy collection of their kharāj” because there is no kharāj without the well-­being of the kharāj payers. “Tax collecting,” he says, “is impossible without land cultivation”—an obvious enough point, but then he goes further: “anyone

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232 • Chapter 8 who wishes to collect taxes without cultivation lays the country waste and destroys the people, a thing which cannot continue for more than a short time.”69 So far, the pragmatics of sustainability, with a whiff of the ethical. The second method is to listen to the kharāj payers and understand their living and working conditions. Al-­Nuʿmān urges al-­Muʿizz to “call together those who pay the kharāj from each locality and bid them make known to you the conditions in their localities, their welfare therein and the state of their land.” In case it is not clear whether he is recommending a cadastral survey to take stock of cultivatable land (making the peasants talk) or a sovereign court of complaints to hear peasant grievances (letting them talk), the next sentence gives weight to the second possibility: the caliph must understand “their perception of the kharāj” by allowing them to “complain to you about a heavy kharāj,” and also to complain “about damage they have suffered through the cutting off of irrigation water, or soil destruction by inundation, or desiccation, or some devastating plague.”70 Lines of communication should remain open; and if they complain of these damages, “alleviate their burden,” “give orders that they be assisted in the restoration of their affairs,” and “remove the burden [muʾna] from them.”71 Here the recommendations have taken a decisive turn toward the ethical. The third method is to reroute the potential networks of patron-­client relations through the centralized node of the state, thus drastically curtailing the potential for official abuses.72 Officials are susceptible to the lures of self-­interest, and thus corruption. They must not act arbitrarily, on their own initiative, especially if they are tax collectors. To do so would be to invite personal patron-­client relationships with individual kharāj payers, which could easily lead to their pursuit of their own self-­interest over that of the peasants. Officials come and go; techniques of tax collection should be systematized so that with the proper technical skill, anyone can collect taxes properly. Thus does the state transcend the interests of individual officials. (We are now, I feel obliged to note, firmly in the realm of Weberian rationalization.) Assuming that officials have mastered the technical skills to collect tax revenue, al-­ Qāḍī al-­Nuʿmān (via the ʿahd ʿAlī) then persuades them to play the long game instead of lining their own pockets: they should support the sovereign in granting the kharāj payers tax remissions when needed. Persuading officials to play the long game no doubt required some doing: tax farmers were usually paid from the amount they rendered the fisc, and if they failed to collect a sufficient amount, they went unpaid. But “all they have to do is recognize that granting [peasants] freedom from [tax] burdens and [in consequence] granting rest to the soil this year will mean profit the next.”73 Allowing fields to lie fallow and forgiving the kharāj was an investment on future returns. So was offering cultivators “the necessary expenses for the soil,” since this “will insure easy collection of the kharāj” that comes from it.74 Supporting the cultivators was not only good for the cultivators; it was “better for the good name” of the official.75 But a tax official would naturally object that postponing the collection of this year’s kharāj until next year is a bad idea. He would, naturally, make this objection for selfish reasons: he cannot, he might claim, be sure that next year he would still work in the

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The Fatimid Petition-­a nd-­R esponse Procedure • 233 service of the state, and he would be left carrying a debt to the state. Al-­Nuʿmān finds this point of view “really amazing.” In reality, he cautions, if the official postpones the collection of the kharāj, one of two things will happen: either the official will still be in office the following year and “will have ameliorated his land and made his subjects prosperous, in which case he will see the favorable results of his measures”; or else he will have discharged his duties early for this year, in which case he deserves praise (though it is not clear whether he would also get paid).76 If he presses the cultivators, however, he will get sacked for his harsh ways, in which case “he has gathered into his treasuries for somebody else the spoils he won by laying the country waste and by destroying its subjects.” He loses two ways: “the profit will go to this other person and the sin involved will fall upon himself.”77 Officials in the agricultural administration should therefore work strategically and sustainably rather than playing the short, selfish game of maximum and immediate profit. For it is more “useful” to have a “flourishing state of the country” than a flourishing state of the treasury, because the basis of the fisc is the land, “and if the land is laid waste, the source of the treasury is cut off, destroyed by the destruction of the soil.” And the destruction of the soil and the ruin of those who live on it “come about when the minds of the governors are turned towards accumulation.” But the problem, al-­Qāḍī al-­Nuʿmān adds, is one not only of greed, but of whether the officials can depend on the institutionalization of their roles. The short game happens when officials “have misgivings concerning the duration of their office.”78 The long game can happen when you trust us to renew your contract. These three points—maintaining the infrastructure of rural lands, listening to the complaints of those who maintain it, and favoring the long-­term prosperity of both over the short-­term interest of official profit—amount to a social economy of reciprocal benefit on a statewide scale, from the peasants up to the fisc. Benevolence breeds prosperity; oppression breeds destruction. This is no mere philosophical hand waving amounting to some vague theory of the relationship between prosperity and justice. It is a concrete and pragmatic rendering of the links between them, from official benevolence on the one side to peasant justice on the other. There is no zero-­sum game: it is not peasants versus officials, but both in the service of the whole. “Do not care for the riches you may collect,” the ʿahd advises, “but rather care for the good deeds you may accumulate and for the alms you distribute.” Only these bring honor and benefit, “for he who benefits [someone else] is also helped” (fa-­inna l-­muḥsin muʿān). Likewise, any governor who has “generously granted a right [ḥaqq]” to his subjects will benefit from so doing.79 Patricia Crone has drawn a contrast between taxation in medieval Europe and medieval Islamicate societies, following the tendency of a long strain of historiography. In the Islamicate world, she writes, “stable revenues were provided by peasants,” while in Europe, monarchs “had no right to impose taxes without their subjects’ consent.”80 On the basis of the documentary evidence from the Islamicate world, this view should be debated. Islamic states ruled and extracted revenue by consent (though perhaps the debate will hinge on what one means by consent). And they did so because the model

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234 • Chapter 8 of patronage on which they relied assumed a positive-­sum game between peasant and ruler: the interests of the peasants were, ultimately, held to be the interests of the ruler, because on the peasants’ prosperity rested the prosperity of the kingdom. The state needed revenue, of course, and needed officials willing to extract it. But al-­Qāḍī al-­Nuʿmān recognized that persuasion was preferable to coercion, predictability to arbitrariness, because through persuasion and predictability the Fatimids as newcomers could win the consent of subjects who had enjoyed neither for some time, while through coercion and arbitrariness they would only continue the status quo ante, which clearly hadn’t worked very well. Soft power was, in the long term, more effective and less expensive than the hard variety. How to extract revenue without making people feel oppressed to the point where they might consider open rebellion? Allow kharāj-­paying peasants tax remissions as needed; and allow them to petition the caliph. Excluded, however, from this equation were the interests of individual officials. These were to be subordinated to the collective good. Likewise, the propensity of local officials to patronize their subjects had to be checked. The only legitimate patronage was that of the caliph and vizier; and to them should petitions be addressed.81 Petitions to the caliph should be met with caliphal benefactions; petitions to lower officials should likewise be met with caliphal benefactions. On an empire-­wide scale, the petition-­and-­response procedure was a form of institutionalized patron-­client relations that, because it was institutionalized rather than ad hoc, centralized the redistribution of benefactions and garnered legitimacy for the regime, satisfaction for its subjects, and predictability—perhaps even a sense of solidarity—for both, while ensuring the subordination of the interests of the bureaucracy to the common good. And so, the ʿahd cautions, officials should observe these rules with good cheer, rather than considering “as wearisome the fact that you eased the condition” of your subjects, for easing their condition amounts to “a reserve store you have with them”: they will cultivate the land better and “thereby collect reserves for your tomorrow.”82 But the ʿahd is still bothered by the potential for abuses inherent in patron-­client relations. How does one handle the tax official who wants to benefit only himself and his family? How does one avert the kind of “amoral familism” that gives honor cultures a bad name—the myopic focus on one’s kin to the exclusion of one’s wider social network?83 The ʿahd answers by advising patrons to grant benefits to clients, but to avoid granting benefits to kin: “Do not grant to anyone of your family or of your retinue [ḥasham] a landed estate [ḍayʿa], nor permit him to acquire one, if thereby it damages anyone over whom he wields authority [idhā kān yaḍurr fīhā bi-­man yalīhi min al-­ nās].”84 Like the Hebrew Bible forbidding Temple priests from owning land and mandating instead that they live off the pooled offerings from the rest of the Israelites, the ʿahd attempts to blunt the potential for the abuses of reciprocity with the equalizing effects of solidarity.85 So much for the defense of the people’s interests. With the defense of their interests comes a concomitant concern: that the biggest mischief makers in the polity are the officials whom the sovereign himself has no choice but to appoint.

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The Fatimid Petition-­a nd-­R esponse Procedure • 235

THE PROBLEM OF APPOINTEES Why does the ʿahd spill so much ink convincing officials to transcend their selfish interests? Because they are, if not necessarily evil, then a necessary evil. Here is the problem. The sovereign must choose for himself “a retinue [khāṣṣa] to be your companions in private and to be present with you at your council.”86 And yet there is no one “more burdensome to the ruler” (ashadd ʿalā l-­wālī), more irksome to his designs, than “the retinue” (al-­khāṣṣa). No one is “of less help to him in distress” than his officials, and no one “feels more annoyance with equity.”87 Besides, some officials are just plain obsequious. It behooves the sovereign to “detest most those among your companions and your viziers who are most fulsome in praise of your actions or seek to adorn you with merits you have not earned. Bid such to be silent about your accomplishments.” Instead, you should “give greatest honor” not only “to those who speak most truly,” but, above all, to those “who take most care in preserving equity among your subjects.”88 It is in the nature of the official class to be “full of pride, arrogance and self-­conceit, and quickly get angry with people, disgusted with litigation and impatient about persistent entreaties. Yet the people cannot but seek to present their demands.”89 Where, then, can one find someone to help run a sovereign court of complaints in “conformity with the interests of the rulers, help to the government and hatred of the enemy?” The place to seek such an official is among the “common people [al-­ʿāmma]. Therefore lean toward them exclusively, as long as they obey you and follow your command.”90 Find loyal subjects for the task—learned ones to be sure, but not seasoned officials. To dispense judgment among the people, choose among your subjects the one who seems to you the best and is the most learned, forbearing and pious, who will not grow impatient under the strain of affairs, get angry with the contenders [al-­khuṣūm], or be exasperated at the halting speech of stammerers. [Let him be] one who will show no remissness with regard to the tyranny of the oppressor [jawr al-­ẓalūm] . . . , who makes every endeavor to get knowledge [of the matter] in case of uncertainty, who is most eager to find proofs, does not get annoyed at the exchange of arguments, shows the utmost patience in uncovering the facts and in bringing out clearly the explanation of the two contenders. . . . Such is the man you should entrust with the office of qāḍī.91 He should be thorough, he should be patient, and above all, he should never favor the strong merely because of their strength. He should, of course, be subject to oversight—“watch carefully over his behavior in office and the way he administers justice.”92 He should, furthermore, be paid well enough not to be susceptible to bribery: “Grant him liberally such means as will allow him to live without [indulging in] corruption and without needing [to rob] the people.”93 And above all, “see that his judgments are carried out and executed.”94

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236 • Chapter 8 But who should this person be? One option was for the governor to hear complaints in person. For “even if you show great zeal in granting everybody the right to which he is entitled [wa-­in ijtahadta fī iʿṭāʾ kull dhī ḥaqq ḥaqqahu], it is unavoidable that some of them should want to talk with you personally about their necessities.”95 As much of a “burden” as this is “on governors,” they should “give the needy a part of your attention and a time at which you receive them in audience and listen to any matter they may address to you, soothing them with your protection [tulīnu lahum janāḥaka] and supporting patiently the diffidence of the diffident among them and the stammering of those who stammer, without showing either scorn or anger.”96 This applies not just to fielding complaints but to showing one’s face in general: “Do not prolong your concealment [from the public—lā tuṭil al-­iḥtijāb], because this will render you suspect and cause you trouble, since people are human beings who do not know what is hidden from them [wa-­l-­nās bashar lā yaʿrifūn mā ghāba ʿanhum].”97 The esoteric mission of the daʿwa also requires an exoteric face: a dawla. The ideal of having the governor or sovereign personally present to field complaints will, however, prove to be impracticable and will not last long. Delegates were also needed. But again, who? The second option was to choose officials based on how they had discharged their duties in the past. “Select them on the evidence of their record in connection with the functions they have had to perform before your time, for this is a sound basis on which men may reach a judgment about each other’s affairs.”98 Where, in fact, might one find men who had performed these functions in the past? In the Egyptian case—if one wanted to collect taxes properly and to avoid provoking the peasantry’s mistrust—there was only one choice: Abbasid officials, either central or provincial. After all, the ruler should not “abandon a beneficial custom [sunna ṣāliḥa], which has been maintained by good men before you, has secured concord [ulfa], and worked for the welfare of the common people.” He should not “introduce a new custom which violates in any way the ancient traditions of justice that have been established before you, lest the reward go to him who founded them and you will be guilty of sin by destroying part of them.”99 Where the Abbasids have administered effectively, the ʿahd seems to be saying, do not hesitate to adopt their administrators as your own. But here, too, trouble crouches at the door. Relying on Abbasid officials is a risky strategy, the ʿahd says, now waxing truly vitriolic: “The worst among your confidants [dakhāʾil] and viziers are those who used to be confidants and viziers of the wicked, who participated in their crimes and rendered them service.”100 You should avoid taking such men into your service, for they “are the companions of tyrants [ikhwān al-­ẓalama] and the aides of criminals [aʿwān al-­athama], and they are like ravening wolves.”101 It is precisely the officials of the previous regime who oppressed you “not long ago” when “you belonged to the mass of the people and were wont to blame the pride, insolence, haughtiness, lack of compassion and harshness [jafwa] of kings,” not to mention “their eagerness to take and their reluctance to give what is due [al-­wājib].”102 In short, al-­ Nuʿmān is saying, the officials of the regime are precisely the problem, and precisely why we are here. And yet, we can’t govern without them.

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The Fatimid Petition-­a nd-­R esponse Procedure • 237 A different set of options was needed, and here, al-­Nuʿmān (still via the ʿahd) suggests two. The first is to create a new administrative elite. Instead of the governor fielding complaints himself, and instead of leaning on the officials of the previous regime, the thing to do is to raise up a class of officials who will be loyal to you because they owe you their upward mobility. You will find among the people [fī l-­nās] those to supersede them, men superior to them in knowledge, who will give better advice, and who have already given affairs more careful attention, so that they have recognized their harmful aspects and have thought over how they should proceed therein. These will give you less trouble and better help, will be more affectionate toward you and less inclined toward others. They will not help a tyrant in tyranny [ẓāliman ʿalā ẓulmin] nor a sinner in sin.103 This is the problem in a nutshell. The governor could not attend to all functions; practicality demanded delegation of some duties. And efficiency demanded appointing men of experience. But the men of experience were also the men of the old regime, and men of the old regime could not be trusted. They could not be trusted, that is, unless they proved their trustworthiness. Which brings us to the second option. One way to make them prove their trustworthiness was to make sure they knew how to draw up documents not like men of the old regime but like men of the new. This explains the contours of Fatimid scribal practice for both petitions and decrees: it was rooted in the Abbasid chancery in its support (paper), script style (curvilinear and proportioned), ductus (varying in width), and layout (boat-­shaped lines with fragmented, nesting baselines, and stacking at the ends of lines); it carried over some long-­standing provincial Egyptian practices in the limited matter of line spacing; and it was entirely new in its combination of all those with the new Fatimid titulature, blessings, formulary, and structure, as well as two updated letters: kāf (no longer exclusively the double hairpin of the tenth century; the angle has opened, producing an ascender, and there is often no roof on it) and alif (no longer footed). If you look back at the master-­apprentice writing exercise from earlier in this chapter, you can actually see the retraining of an Abbasid-­style hand: the apprentice is still making the double hairpin kāf while the master is making a new-­style kāf, with a more open angle and no roof (fig. 8.6). The Fatimid chancery style was a shibboleth: to be trusted as an official of the new regime, you had to write like one. In constructing a theory of sovereignty, then, the Fatimids had several sets of tools on which they could draw. The Middle Persian mirrors for princes and their ideas about social stratification proved useful in placing kingship at the center of the polity, comfortable in a dispensation for which the imām was the organizing principle of the state and its nomos. But the Persian mirrors were mere sketch outlines of the social system, offering little by way of practical advice on administration. The ethico-­political maxim was another tool in the cumulative regional supply of governance tools. By the tenth century, the ethico-­political maxim had, as Marlow has

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238 • Chapter 8

8.6. Detail of the exercise in fig. 8.5. The apprentice makes a double hairpin kāf, while the master makes a chancery-­style open kāf with no roof. Cambridge University Library, T-­S Misc. 5.148 + T-­S Ar. 30.316 + T-­S Ar. 42.196.

put it, “come to constitute part of the common stock of materials employed in the didactic literature of the Muslim courts.”104 It provided another template of sovereignty and statehood, one in which each part of society depended not on the sovereign but on the others. But the links between the points on the circle had never been made explicit, as Ibn Khaldūn would later huff. One can easily imagine why a state could not persist without the military, and the military without tax revenue. But where, precisely, did the populace come in, and what, in real time, linked their prosperity, or the practice of extracting their resources, with the ideal of justice? Wasn’t extraction by its nature an inegalitarian business, if not a downright unjust one? Al-­Nuʿmān presented two answers to these questions. The first was to invest in the prosperity of the peasantry through irrigation works, seed advances, and just taxation, including tax postponement. The second was his theory of maẓālim, which invited subjects and the sovereign to close ranks against untrustworthy officials—against the old administrative elite, or that part of it that resisted the new dispensation. In drawing up the specifics, al-­Nuʿmān, the architect of Shīʿī sovereignty, found the consummate implement in the ʿAhd ʿAlī. It allowed him to siphon off some of the Persian emphasis on the sovereign and return it to the people. He explained in detail how the parts of the system worked together—with the conspicuous omission of the fuqahāʾ. He emphasized the utility for the polity of the ruler making common cause with his subjects against corrupt officials. And he did all this by bringing in a pedigreed text whose isnād reached back to ʿAlī, if not to the prophet himself. The political thought of al-­Qāḍī al-­Nuʿmān marks a turning point in the Fatimid approach to rule, a pragmatics of the state worked out on the cusp of territorial expansion, of the regime’s transformation from a small, ideologically motivated polity centered on the central Mediterranean to a conquering state with designs on the Abbasid East.

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The Fatimid Petition-­a nd- R­ esponse Procedure • 239 But the grandness of the designs did not prevent al-­Nuʿmān from thinking through the nitty-­gritty of running a state. On the contrary: part of his genius was to recognize that ideology alone cannot make a state, that there had to be a user’s manual; that in drawing up that user’s manual, there was no shame in relying on the work of one’s defeated predecessors, or an amalgam of their work, hoary ʿAlid tradition, and men of the new regime; but that in relying on men of the old, one needed to ensure their loyalty.

FROM THEORY TO PRACTICE If all we had was al-­Qāḍī al-­Nuʿmān’s code of law, we would have no idea how—or whether—any of this worked in real time. But we have documents, and they attest to both sides of the reciprocal arrangement: the rendering of taxes and the provision of justice. The tax receipts of the Fatimid period preserved in the geniza reflect the systematization al-­Nuʿmān recommends via the ʿahd.105 They are technical documents that follow standard procedures and protocols, and those protocols are consistent across the corpus. There are generally five hands per receipt: that of the cashier (jahbadh) in the territory who wrote the main part of the receipt, and, above, requests for registration from each of two fiscal bureaus in the field: the dīwān al-­ʿamal (finance bureau) or the dīwān al-­jāliya (bureau of the tax on dhimmīs), and the dīwān al-­ishrāf (the bureau of tax supervision). And then there are registration marks from the bureaus in question. The sums were recorded by both the cashiers and the bureaucrats who added registration marks; the sums were also recorded in fiscal registers kept centrally in the archives, as a way of ensuring that the amount of tax money that reached the fisc was the same the taxpayer or tax farmer had brought to the jahbadh. There were checks and balances in multiple. It is also not entirely irrelevant, I believe, that the tax receipts are legible only with great difficulty unless one already knows what they say. They are full of abusive ligatures, written in an unproportioned script with fragmented but irregularly spaced baselines, and the strokes are jagged. In sum, the scribes refuse to lift the pen and prefer speed over regulated movement of the hand—the riot of pen strokes to which I referred in chapter 5. This is not the orderly, proportioned script of the Abbasid/Buyid chanceries. The sense of chaos may not, however, have been accidental or haphazard. These were technical texts, shibboleths for a cadre of technically trained administrators of the type one finds in bureaucracies in which predictability is at a premium, specialization a mark of power, and irreproducibility of documentation essential to its authenticity— to the weight and institutionalization of the office. The officials may well have been local—Copts with rural roots dominated the fiscal administration during the Fatimid period and beyond—but their work is similar enough to suggest a class of officials with some centralized training. As for the petitions, the phantom archive I discussed in chapter 3—the petitions written to the first three Fatimid caliphs in Egypt, al-­Muʿizz, al-­ʿAzīz and al-­Ḥākim,

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240 • Chapter 8 which have survived only as ghost mentions in later documents—demonstrates that on the dynasty’s conquest of Egypt, or at most within five or six years of it, there was a fully functioning petition-­and-­response procedure. If the Abbasids or their Ikhshīdid governors had been running a petition-­and-­response procedure in Egypt just before the Fatimids arrived, no one cared to refer to it in their petitions or decrees: the privileges their chancery had issued were null and void, and the rights and documents worth citing began with al-­Muʿizz. The pre-­Fatimid archive had vanished even as ghostly mentions in later privileges: it had suffered both administrative death and final exorcism, and were it not for the papyri, we would know nothing of it. This may also be why no securely datable petitions have come to light from the period between Ibn Ṭūlūn and the Fatimids: perhaps there were simply fewer of them. It may be why al-­ Maqrīzī emphasizes that after Kāfūr, maẓālim tribunals ceased in Egypt until the Fatimids arrived and revived them. The interval between Kāfūr and the Fatimids was only one year. But al-­Maqrīzī makes it seem like a vast interregnum. And it may have felt that way, too. Petitions permit a finer-­grained view of how subjects demanded justice, and of the lengths to which officials had to go to appease them and to collect revenue for the fisc. There are plenty of petitions against corrupt officials—so many that even when the complaint was about something else, petitioners and their scribes found a way to phrase it as a complaint against officials. The scribes knew that the corruption cases were likely to interest upper officials.106 The cases complaining about property confiscations are numerous. There is our villager in the Fayyūm petitioning Sitt al-­Mulk for the return of seventy sacks of his grain that a local governor had commandeered from his son. His request? That a decree be issued to the local governor intercepting the grain before it reached the grain port of Cairo.107 Now we are in a position to understand how a mere villager from the Fayyūm—or his archaic-­handed scribe—could possibly have had the temerity to request such a thing. Then there was the group of Jews in Tripoli in 1024 complaining, similarly, that the churches and synagogues of other congregations had been returned after al-­Ḥākim’s men had commandeered them, but their synagogue still lay in the possession of a greedy official.108 From the other end of the Fatimid period, 1153–54, we have the petition of an otherwise unknown peasant to the vizier al-­ʿAbbās requesting an increase in the quantity of grain released to him annually for seed.109 This is the very policy al-­Qāḍī al-­Nuʿmān had recommended two centuries earlier. The Fatimid chancery official Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī (463/1071–542/1147), in his chancery manual of 524/1130–31, almost reluctantly inserts a chapter on responding to petitions, justifying the decision this way: “Since rendering decisions [tawqīʿ] in the name of the ruler has become the current practice in this land, and over the years has become part of the state chancery and well established as such, it is necessary to mention it in this book.”110 What is this grudging acceptance of a procedure the Fatimid chancery had been following for 160 years before Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī rose to head it?

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The Fatimid Petition-­a nd-­R esponse Procedure • 241 That he says it has “become the current practice in this land” (qad ṣāra ʿalā l-­ʿādati l-­jāriyati fī hādhihi l-­diyār) suggests that there was a time within oral or archival memory when it wasn’t. He may well have been aware that the Fatimids had revived petitioning. But make no mistake about his belief in its importance. On issuing “rescripts in response to petitions concerning grievances [al-­tawqīʿāt fī riqāʿ al-­maẓālim] in particular,” he has this to say: This aspect of [issuing] decrees is an important matter for many reasons, since it involves people claiming just treatment [muqtaḍiyan inṣāf] from one another and the establishment of justice [iqāmat nāmūs al-­ʿadl] in the realm. Also, most of those with a grievance [al-­munẓalimīn] are powerless people [ḍuʿafāʾ], paupers [ṣaʿālīk], and women without patrons [ḥuram munqaṭiʿāt], most of whom arrive from distant parts of the realm believing that they are approaching someone who will help them and redress their grievances and assist them against their adversaries.111 Women without patrons (ḥuram munqaṭiʿāt) were the paradigmatic powerless people in need of the state’s protection, and protecting the powerless was a shorthand for the justice of the regime.112 The Fatimids took petitioning very seriously, made it a regular part of state business, and integrated it into the apparatus of the state. One of the strategies of the Fatimids as newcomers to the old world of Egypt, then, was to recognize the importance of petitioning as a tool of state. They invited the subjects over whom they now ruled to petition all the way up the hierarchy to redress the wrongs and injustices of midlevel officials. Doing so enabled the dynasty to play the role of patrons and protectors of their subjects by redressing the complaints of commoners while keeping their officials in check. The new emphasis on petitioning is reflected in the way they marked off the genre. With the new centrality of petitioning came a purpose-­built document.

LOOSE BUT IDENTIFIABLE NORMS The Fatimid chancery style was a loose but identifiable set of norms that recur across much of the corpus. There are intricacies of the petition formulary that fit this description: scribes used them flexibly but recognizably. This was also true of the layout. There is an instance of this coherent flexibility that I haven’t yet discussed: the lavish space at the right and top margins—one of the features that convey the impression of ostentatious sovereign wastefulness in both decrees and petitions. The right-­hand margin of Fatimid decrees can take up as much as one-­third of the width of the page, and the top even more than that, with a corresponding pro­ portion of space to text in petitions. (In both genres, the left margin is practically nonexistent.) Some chancery officials referred to the wide, blank top margin as a ṭurra (“border” or “edge”). But the term requires caution on two counts. First, as a term applying to

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242 • Chapter 8 documents of state, it appears only in the Ayyubid period, and even then, it was used in two related but distinct senses: a summary of the document included in the top border; and the ṭughrā, the official signature of the sovereign or vizier (in practice sometimes written by a chancery official). The ṭughrā was a Seljuk innovation; Arabic speakers at some point conflated it with ṭurra. The ṭughrā behaved differently from the sovereign motto that the Fatimids used at the top of their documents (the ʿalāma)—but even medieval Arabic chroniclers themselves sometimes confused the two terms.113 The point is that while there was no specific Fatimid nomenclature for this broad ṭurra at the top of chancery documents, the practice of leaving space at the top was consistent to the point of seeming an official component of state diplomatic practice. Yet there is nothing about it in the manuals for the Fatimid period. The situation with the ṭurra is typical of much of Fatimid diplomatics: lack of a consistent or even explicit definition in chancery compendia despite a discernible set of patterns in the surviving documents—or, to say the same thing with the glass half-­ empty, definitions in the literary works that do not correlate well with the documentary evidence. Scribal practice was loosely consistent, but not explicitly or fully standardized. This is one reason that throughout this book I have attempted to derive my descriptions of Fatimid documents from the documents themselves. This situation of loosely consistent praxis unsupported by clear statements of detailed diplomatic prescription suggests that Fatimid chancery practice was institutionalized but relatively informal. Norms had been established as patterns, but not yet as binding or explicit rules. This loose coherence further suggests that the cadre of scribes was neither so small as to permit of absolute consistency, nor so large as to require the establishment of rigid rules, as it would become in the Ayyubid and especially the Mamluk periods. The looseness and gradual evolution of scribal norms coupled with their relative coherence suggests, in turn, that a midsize corps of bureaucrats received at least some training in the norms of the chancery—even those who worked in the provinces—but that they received it in apprenticeships, not a central, formalized context such as a school or a scriptorium. If that’s the case, can we learn anything else about the scribes from whom the petitions emanated? There is so little specific information about them in the long-­form texts that the best I can do is to rely on the physical cues of the documents. What, in the end, can they tell us? Among other features, the Fatimids had a mix of experienced officials and newcomers to the bureaucracy. They may have divided up on predictable lines: the more experienced ones clustered in the capital—especially in the chancery and the fisc—and the less experienced ones in the provinces. In the early Fatimid period, the differences between the provinces and the capital emerge most clearly. Like a fossil record, they help us to gauge the rate at which metropolitan chancery norms penetrated the outlying districts. Recall the differences between the two Sitt al-­Mulk petitions of the early 1020s (see fig. 1.8): the one from the Fayyūm looks archaic for its period, while the one from the capital is written in a perfect qalam al-­tawqīʿ. There were, in other words, less experienced, less flexible, or older scribes working in the provinces writing petitions; the point is that they were working in the provinces, and one didn’t have to go to Cairo to find them.

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The Fatimid Petition-­a nd-­R esponse Procedure • 243 All this supports the idea that the dynasty took some care in establishing the petition-­ and-­response procedure as an empire-­wide resource. They did not establish a dedicated public tribunal, for complicated reasons that I won’t cover in this book; the vizier preferred to vet petitions in absolute privacy, and he had his reasons. But they did develop a specialized genre, and establish scribes who could write in it as much in the provinces as in the capitals. And this, in turn, suggests that the dynasty cultivated a distinct cadre of trained experts to write them—a class of intermediaries between subjects and the state. That petitions survive from many different parts of the empire suggests that those intermediaries were accessible in rural and urban contexts alike. To summarize this chapter: Documents that came from outside the palace at Cairo— petitions addressed to high officials—were conspicuously different from their Abbasid predecessors; they looked like palace documents, not plain letters as they had under the Abbasids. The Fatimids developed the petition-­and-­response procedure as a link between subjects and the state because petitioning was central to their plan for establishing their legitimacy. But if the Fatimids believed their legitimacy to depend, at least in part, on the right of subjects to complain about official injustices, who would write these petitions, if not the administrative cadre who had worked for the old regime and against whose abuses the Fatimids wished to protect their subjects? One way to test and ensure the loyalty of the old civil servants—given that the Fatimids had no choice but to rely on them if the coffers were to remain full and the country orderly—was to expect them to write documents in a new style: the style of the imperial center. As the regime entrenched itself and the decades passed, midlevel officials who wrote petitions would have been not so much declaring their loyalty to a new regime as internalizing the boundaries between behavior that was acceptable and unacceptable to subjects. Fatimid petitions, then, were innovative. But the morphology of their innovations was traditional in that it drew on court ceremonial for its innovative terms of obeisance, as the Abbasids had done, and the script and layout were either taken from the Buyid/Abbasid world or shared with it. The incorporation of elements of Abbasid chancery practice into Fatimid diplomatic style suggests that what the Fatimids brought to Egypt was not so much an Abbasid style as a metropolitan one: this is how documents get written in an imperial center. Considerations of imperial semiotics trumped ones of religious ideology. The watersheds along the evolutionary trail of the Arabic state document in Egypt all tilted toward the Abbasid East. The eastern innovations the Fatimids absorbed were (1) the use of paper as the preferred writing support for documents of state, which had the effect of loosening up old diplomatic habits, and especially the older, “cursive,” nonproportioned script; (2) scripts that favored curves and round strokes, executed with a more broadly cut nib, a variable-­width ductus, and carefully drawn proportions; (3) elements of formulary that used the written communiqué as a substitute for the physical presence of the sender, and that may have echoed court protocol. The Ayyubids would maintain the diplomatic protocols and many of the government structures the Fatimids had established—as the Fatimids had done with the Abbasids before them. For the Ayyubids, Fatimid diplomatics were never an exclusively Shīʿī affair, tainted or off-­limits to the self-­styled proponents of the Sunnī revival. It was all,

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244 • Chapter 8 for the Ayyubids and Mamluks, part of an imperial koiné, and the Fatimids had partaken of it and helped to develop it. Fatimid state documents are therefore the earliest evidence we have of a style of Arabic state document production that had a long half-­life, and that helped build a set of administrative institutions that persisted across changes in regime and ruling ideology for another millennium. Within this context of adaptation of Abbasid norms, the Fatimids introduced a bold innovation: the petition. The petition-­and-­response process was not a Fatimid innovation, but they reworked the Arabic petition in their effort to make petitioning pervasive and accessible empire-­wide. In keeping with this, they established a system of petitioning that subjects could use not just to complain against the injustices of officials, but to seek help in any social conflict, and in any case of need. The result was that even mundane social conflicts could produce long paper trails—the Fatimids were if nothing else a regime of the paper trail—which brings me to my next chapter, on the excommunication affair of 1029–34.

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O

III

The Ecology of the Documents

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9.1. Gushtāsb, a legendary king of ancient Iran, seated on a throne and surrounded by attendants. To his left, a chancery scribe writes out a long decree with wide line spacing. Rashīd al-­Dīn (circa 645–­718/1247–­1318), Jamīʿ al-­ tawārīkh (Compendium of chronicles), copied during the author’s lifetime. Edinburgh, Or. MS 20, fol. 14v (detail).

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O

9

Supply A PROLIFERATION OF DECREES And in every province, whithersoever the king’s commandment and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes. —Esther 4:3

And in every province, and in every city, whithersoever the king’s commandment and his decree came, the Jews had joy and gladness, a feast and a good day. —Esther 8:17

The number of Fatimid documents that have survived as reused supports suggests that they’re the tip of some larger iceberg. The survivors—their sheer range of genres and hands—offer a sense of the dimensions of the Fatimid state and the pervasiveness of its documentation. What’s less clear is the rate at which officials produced those documents, or the rate at which they’ve survived. This part of the book—this chapter and the following four—is an attempt to get at the question of rates of production and survival from different angles. Here, I’ll drill into a single episode to gauge the rate at which social conflicts produced documentation, and how much of it survived. I’ll then drill further into the question of supply by going straight to the source of document production: the chancery, where we’ll remain for three chapters until we find our way out again via the statewide system of archiving and registration. In this chapter, ancient Iran casts a long shadow. The episode I recount here is about two Jewish factions in eleventh-­century Palestine lodging a series of petitions to the Fatimid caliph against one another, and receiving decrees in return. The episode suggests that the Jewish leadership had a subtle understanding of Fatimid administrative process and how to deploy it to their own ends. Perhaps surprisingly, however, when they wrote to each other about it in Hebrew, the administrative lexicon on which they drew was derived from imperial Aramaic. They knew the Achaemenid technical terms via the Hebrew Bible. But it’s nonetheless striking that they use them with such precision as to raise the question of whether they saw themselves as inhabiting a latter-­day Achaemenid empire—just as when the fourteenth-­century illustrator of Rashīd al-­Dīn’s universal history depicted a legendary king of ancient Iran, and chose to place a chancery scribe to his left copying a long, wasteful decree (fig. 9.1).1 It’s with such a decree that we’ll begin.

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248 • Chapter 9

MORE MANUSCRIPT HUNTING IN CAIRO The first person to get interested in Fatimid state documents was a Gilded Age orientalist named Richard James Horatio Gottheil (1862–1936). During the period of document discovery in late nineteenth-­century Egypt, they had gone entirely unnoticed. But Gottheil’s continuing search for medieval texts once the Cairo Geniza had been emptied brought him to the archives of the Jewish community of Cairo. He was professor of Syriac, then rabbinic literature, then Semitics at Columbia University and the scion of a wealthy German-­Anglo-­Jewish family; his wife, Emma Leon Gottheil, was born in Beirut to Russian Jewish and Sephardi parents from Hebron, Palestine, which facilitated his travel to Ottoman lands.2 Like Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, he had the personal wealth, imagination, expertise, and commitment to travel to the Near East in search of undiscovered manuscripts; like Abraham Firkovich and Solomon Schechter, he had the connections and gravitas to talk his way into the closed chambers of the Jewish community. Gottheil’s approach to manuscripts was omnivorous and charmingly dilettantish: he would work on anything he found and moved from topic to topic with few preconceptions. And so it was that he went to Egypt after Schechter had already emptied the geniza chamber, in search of yet more material. In Cairo, Gottheil found two caches. The first he described as stored “in the counting-­ house of the Presidential firm, Messrs. Moïse Cattaui et Figlii.”3 This was the archive of the Jewish community, and it reached back to the eleventh century. The countinghouse in question belonged to the president of the Jewish community, Moïse Cattaoui (Qaṭṭāwī, 1849–1924), who was a modern-­day raʾīs al-­yahūd: like some of his medieval counterparts, he tenaciously held onto his position for three decades despite bitter resentment and organized opposition to his leadership, which some considered authoritarian.4 The texts to which Cattaoui gave Gottheil access consisted of “several hundred” pieces “stowed away in a large trunk, where they lay folded and rolled in various bags.” Gottheil claimed falsely, and in high orientalist dudgeon, that the local community had “no sense of their real value.” But unlike Schechter, he left the manuscripts he found in the community’s hands.5 From this cache, Gottheil chose the oldest Rabbanite document “with which to court criticism”: a record, “interminable in verbiage and in size,” of a court case that had unfolded before the Fatimid qāḍī al-­qūḍāt in 429/1038 over the antiquity of one of the many medieval synagogues of Cairo.6 It’s a complicated document; it may be a late medieval copy that incorporated the date of the original, and it still awaits sustained diplomatic study.7 The second cache he found was a small archive of Arabic documents kept “in the strong box” of the Qaraite community offices in Cairo. Most of these documents were late Mamluk and Ottoman real-­estate deeds, but there was also a single, original Fatimid decree of 425/1034.8 The decree belongs to a physical type that, before Gottheil, had been totally unknown: an eight-­meter-­long vertical scroll—acephalous and broken in one section, so

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Supply • 249 originally longer—nearly half a meter wide. Gottheil knew he was onto something important, given the document’s size and age. He remarked in a footnote on its rarity and value given “how few documents from the Egyptian chancelleries have come down to u[s]” and how few decrees “are given in their entirety by the Muhammadan annalists.”9 At the same time, precisely its uniqueness made it impossible for him to know quite how important it was: he had nothing with which to compare it. It would be another half century before the Fatimid decrees at Saint Catherine in Sinai were photographed. For one thing, Gottheil mistook the paper—the only material on which the Fatimids wrote state documents—for parchment, describing it as “a scroll of thick skin, browned with age.” He also had considerable help with the transcription: in 1902, two years before Gottheil saw it in Cairo, the Qaraite scholar Murād Farag had published an edition of it in the Qaraite communal newsletter.10 The document contained only fifty-­two lines of text, written in large, calligraphic letters with vast amounts of blank space between the lines (see fig. 5.1). It is a public decree (sijill manshūr) written at the chancery of al-­Ẓāhir on 11 Jumadā I 425 (3 April 1034; Gottheil misread the date by a decade, mistaking ʿishrīn, twenty, for ʿashar, ten). The decree orders the governor of Palestine, Anūshtekīn al-­Duzbarī—here referred to by his title amīr al-­juyūsh, military governor—and other local officials to punish anyone who “interferes with the Qaraites in their synagogue.” This lavish scroll was one of several official copies drawn up in the chancery. This one was meant to be held by the Qaraites, and the document orders them to keep it in their archive. Thanks to dozens of geniza letters, we have more information about the run of tensions leading up to this decree than we have about some events of the twenty-­first century. The mass of corroborating narrative, together with the surviving state documents, allow us to gauge the volume of state document production in this period. In what follows, I will attempt to get at the rhythm of document production through the prism of a single case study, the Jewish communal conflict of the 1020s and 1030s that yielded this decree. My goal is to gauge the ease with which one could obtain a decree and, by extension, how many must have been floating around at any given moment. I will also try to understand the decree as a family of documents often bearing the same text but written in different forms or formats depending on its intended audience and archive. And I will try to get at the problem of rate of survival: of the documents state officials produced, how many survived?

A PROLIFERATION OF DECREES Over the course of the late 1020s and 1030s, the Qaraite and Rabbanite Jews of Palestine turned to the state several times for dispute resolution. It typically went like this. After some disagreement over marketplace supervision, or access to a synagogue, or after a public fracas, a group of congregants or one of their leaders would petition the caliph or local governors complaining about the

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250 • Chapter 9 ­ pposing ­faction. Though the complaints weren’t about corrupt officials, they were o submitted through the standard petition-­and-­response process. The petitioners would contact a Jewish official in Fustat or Cairo to help expedite the response, presumably through connections in Cairo. Though the petitions usually asked that the opposing faction be restrained, they do not typically specify how—whether through a decree, law enforcement agents, or the mediation efforts of a Jewish official; any or all these outcomes were possible. The state responded by ordering local officials to keep the peace between the factions, by sending a decree to the factions themselves, or by doing both. There were Qaraite-­Rabbanite conflicts and intra-­Rabbanite ones. I have written extensively about them in the context of Jewish community politics in eleventh-­century Palestine. But when I did, I knew little about the nitty-­gritty of how the Fatimid state worked, and I dispensed with the petition-­and-­response process in half a paragraph that I had gleaned from Khan, Stern, al-­Maqrīzī, and al-­Qalqashandī.11 Once I finished that project, I found myself curious. Al-­Qalqashandī and al-­Maqrīzī turned out to be unreliable. Filling in the rest of the picture is what got me started on this book. So here, I’m returning to the scene of the crime—a conflict between the Qaraites and the Rabbanites that dragged on for about five years—to resift the evidence from the other end: not for what it can tell us about Jewish community politics, but for what it can tell us about the Fatimid state, the ecology of state documents, and how the exchange of petitions and decrees worked in real time. The conflict erupted in 1029, at the fall pilgrimage to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. A throng of agitated Rabbanite Jewish worshippers demanded that the gaʾon, Shelomo b. Yehuda, excommunicate the Qaraites, who were also at the pilgrimage festival. The formulation the Rabbanites chanted was a ban against the “eaters of meat with milk,”12 a reference to the Qaraite interpretation of the Jewish dietary laws. The ban was tantamount to an accusation of heresy—which is to say: it was ineffectual unless someone was willing to back it up with consequences. For the elders of the Rabbanite yeshiva, this was precisely the problem: a ban left unobserved tended to weaken not the people it banned but those who had declared it. Excommunication was a “double-­edged sword.”13 The gaʾon and the Rabbanite elders didn’t want to risk alienating the Qaraites: three were serving the Fatimids in Cairo, two at court and one in the bureaucracy, and a fourth was one of the governors of Syria. Knowing their followers were out for blood and fearing a public scene, the elders had asked the governor of Jerusalem to attend the pilgrimage service with his men close to hand. But then there was the agitated throng. Three young Rabbanites—all members of the yeshiva, or ḥaverim—responded to the crowd’s demands by standing up and declaring the ban. Among them was the gaʾon’s son. The governor’s men stepped in and jailed the other two. Over the next five years, the conflict smoldered and erupted in turn. It also produced a run of state documents. In what follows, I will keep a running tally of them. Of these— in myriad copies—only a fraction survived: not all were meant for the archive. Most

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Supply • 251 are what Patrick J. Geary calls “phantoms” and Matthew Innes calls “footprints”: lost texts that have survived in ghostly form as summaries or fleeting mentions in other texts.14 We may never be able to put our hands on them, but we know they once existed, what they looked like, and what they said. When the two men were jailed, the gaʾon did what any other communal leader would do: used his connections to have them freed. His first move was to petition the caliph—document 1. The person he asked to have the petition written and sent was one of his main Rabbanite supporters in Fustat, Sahlān b. Avraham. The petition itself has not survived; it is a phantom. (See below for a list of the documents the affair generated, phantom and real.) The petition yielded only partial results. This becomes clear in a letter the gaʾon wrote to Sahlān b. Avraham some months later (fig. 9.2).15 (I am not tallying the letter since it isn’t a state document.) The letter is in Hebrew, in which this gaʾon tended to write when he wrote ex officio; eighty-­five of his Hebrew letters have survived, all written in the line of duty, as against fifteen or so in Judaeo-­Arabic with a mix of personal news and business.16 A Hebrew letter about a petition to the Fatimid caliph raises a question: how would an eleventh-­century Jew writing in Hebrew handle terms related to state administration? Was there a lexicon for discussing such topics—apart from the usual Arabic? Postbiblical Hebrew is different from the biblical variety. The way rabbinic Hebrew is written (and it wasn’t spoken after the second or third century CE) reflected long centuries of contact with Aramaic. But surprisingly, medieval Hebrew letters from the geniza are written in a register that is not quite postbiblical: it is mostly biblicizing in morphology, grammar, and lexicon. There is a palpable infusion of rabbinic Hebrew, and through it, of late antique Palestinian and Babylonian Aramaic, but what people knew and heard in their heads when they sat down to write in Hebrew was the Hebrew of the Bible. Ben Outhwaite has studied medieval epistolary Hebrew and concluded that “three-­quarters of the vocabulary” that the Hebrew letter writers from the geniza used “is biblical in origin”; the rest is rabbinic, but the rabbinic lexicon tended to appear only in the context of certain topics: Jewish (as opposed to Israelite) religious practice; trade and commerce; and everyday administration—all areas of life on which the Bible had considerably less to say than classical rabbinic texts.17 The lexical pool of rabbinic literature, then—forged in two spheres, that of Roman-­ ruled, Greek-­and Aramaic-­speaking Palestine and that of Sasanian-­r uled, Persian-­and Aramaic-­speaking Iran—could well have provided some terms for Fatimid administrative procedures. Instead, when Jews who were dealing with the Fatimid state wrote about it in Hebrew, they borrowed from the Bible, and a specific slice of it: the books set in Achaemenid Iran, especially Esther, Ezra, and Daniel. All were rich in imperial administrative terms from Old Iranian via Aramaic. Some had even been Hebraized. That is a particularly fascinating bit of information, because it brings us back to the persistence of the ancient Near East in the medieval Islamicate world, or the broken shards of it lodged into later edifices, or the long shadow of the Achaemenids—take your pick.

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5 cm 2 in

9.2. Letter of Shelomo b. Yehuda, gaʾon of the Jerusalem yeshiva (1025–­51), to the communal leader Sahlān b. Avraham in Fustat on the matter of a petition to the caliph. Cambridge University Library, T-­S 13J13.28 + T-­S AS 120.62.

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Supply • 253 If I were Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, I might say that medieval Jews recycled biblical vocabulary because of an engrained habit of typological thinking. Under duress, many medieval Jewish writers used the Hebrew Bible as a template for history, reaching for the ancient vessels and pouring some very big new wines into them. And Jews drew on biblical paradigms nowhere more than in talking about the other “nations” under which they lived in dispersion, which tended to amalgamate into a single, perennial enemy—Amalek redivivus, from the terrifying despot Nebuchadnezzar to the marauding crusaders of the Rhineland. This was the politics of powerlessness: biblical paradigms sanded down the contours of a cruel past and smoothed it over into a single, undifferentiated, monstrous but also faceless evil against which an equally timeless people had held firm.18 But Yerushalmi’s medieval sources were overwhelmingly from Latin Christian Europe. When Jews in medieval Egypt and Syria chose Hebrew biblical terms for Fatimid administrative vocabulary, they did not engage in the politics of powerlessness via typological thinking. Quite the contrary: they spoke the language of power. They were reaching back into an age when the descendants of their Temple priests, like Ezra, had also served as scribes in the imperial palace, when ordinary Israelites, like Mordechai, “sat in the king’s gate” as his close counselors (Esther 2:21). That age was not so far from them—witness the three Qaraites serving the Fatimids. (Mordechai would later become as real to modern epigraphers as he was to medieval Jews: his name is a Hebraized version of the ancient Mesopotamian name Marduk, and in the surviving clay administrative texts from the Achaemenid capital at Persepolis—excavated by the same Ernst Herzfeld who excavated the Abbasid palace at Sāmarrāʾ—there are four officials named Marduk, any one of which could have been the model for the biblical Mordechai.) As for the Hebraized administrative terms from Achaemenid Iran, they have the flavor of straightforward calque translations. They give the impression that the medieval Jews who used them understood what they were doing: rummaging around for precision instruments in the toolbox of one of the greatest, most extensive, and most bureaucratically sophisticated empires of the ancient world. The only real competitor was the Romans. But all the parts of the Islamicate world that had been Roman had been peripheries of the empire, whereas what was now under Islamic rule was the ancient Iranian metropole. The bureaucrats of Fatimid Cairo could not possibly devise anything more complex than Achaemenid Persepolis; and as with Achaemenid Persepolis, Fatimid Jews had sent their share of men to the palace. The very bureaucratic sophistication of Achaemenid Iran may have emboldened medieval letter writers in Hebrew, but ancient Hebrew authors handled it differently. The Achaemenid administration makes two kinds of appearances in biblical literature: as the towering edifice of a monumental imperial complex—the invisible, all-­powerful sovereign behind the retaining walls of Persepolis and Ectabana, kingmaker of smaller nations—or else as officiousness personified, a scurrying bureaucracy scribbling constantly, sending out absurdly innumerable decrees none of which could be repealed. In Esther, the Achaemenid state is so rigidly bureaucratic that no royal decree could ever

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254 • Chapter 9 be cancelled, “for the writing that is written in the king’s name, and sealed with the king’s ring, may no man reverse” (Esther 8:8). The only way to annul a decree was to issue another one. The potentially preposterous consequences were the point: the book of Esther’s take on Achaemenid Iran is like Kafka’s take on modernity. But the possibility that sovereign power might be reasonable and desirable emerges just as palpably in the Iranian books of the Bible. The Achaemenid shāhanshāh Arta­ xerxes I appointed Ezra, a Jew of the priestly caste and his scribe, as governor of Judaea, ordering him to produce a code of law, a decree that may have indirectly established the text of the Torah. That was just one decree; there were others, and the book of Ezra refers to them with an administrative precision that suggests inside knowledge of the bureaucracy. There was Artaxerxes’s investiture decree for Ezra, called parshegen ha-­ nishtevan (“copy of the letter”; Ezra 7:11–26). The book likewise records two separate versions of Cyrus’s decree ordering the Judaeans to restore their temple in Jerusalem. One is in Aramaic (Ezra 6:3–12), the administrative language of the Persian Empire; it is an internal government memorandum (dikhrona) addressed to the royal treasurer and stored at Ectabana “in the archive of the treasury” (be-­veit sifraya di ginzaya mehaḥatin, Ezra 6:1–2; note that the word for treasury, ginzaya, is a forerunner of the word geniza). The second version is in Hebrew, and it is a proclamation addressed specifically to the Jews, a qol (literally “voice,” or “something heard”) announced publicly by heralds, “and also [put] in a document” (ve-­gam be-­mikhtav; Ezra 1:2–4; cf. 2 Chronicles 36:22–23).19 The Achaemenid shāhanshāh, the kingmaker of the ancient world, maintained his imperial reach via a complex system of documentation, archiving, and multilingualism. And imperial Aramaic was such a finely honed tool for bureaucracy that it is usually possible to identify the Arabic term a geniza writer had in mind when he reached for its equivalent in biblical Hebrew. This brings us back to the gaʾon’s letter to Sahlān b. Avraham recounting the results of the petition to have the two members of the yeshiva freed from prison. You sought intercession before the caliph and the vizier [mi-­lifney ha-­malkhut u-­min ha-­rozen], may they live eternally, in the matter of freeing the prisoners, may God bring them out into the light. We were hoping for their release from darkness and shadows and for their bonds to be sundered, but lo and behold, documents [ketavim] have come from Damascus [saying] that they are still in prison, although their chains and yokes have been removed. But their jailers are punishing them daily, and they are suffering. May the King of Glory send his word, heal them, and take them out into the light, and may [the government officials] come to see [the prisoners’] righteousness.20 The documents (ketavim), we learn later, came from Damascus, from ʿAdaya b. Menashshe Ibn al-­Qazzāz, one of the military governors of Syria—who happened to be a Qaraite. These ketavim (what precisely they were I will take up in a moment) were disappointing: the young men had been offered only a conditional release, and the stipulation was that they “swear by God and by the life of the caliph, may he live eternally, that they will never again be called by the title ḥaver and never serve the house

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Supply • 255 of Israel in all of Palestine, in greater or lesser service, neither in law nor in any other matter”—in sum, that they renounce their positions in the yeshiva. The gaʾon says that news of the stipulations reached him via “documents” (ketavim) sent by the governor, and these “documents” apparently quoted a “note” (peteq). All are phantoms, but before I put them on the list, what are they? Ketavim is the most generic possible Hebrew word for anything written. It can cover letters (also called mikhtavim), legal documents, or virtually any other type of text. Since these ketavim came from Damascus rather than Cairo, there probably wasn’t a caliphal decree among them; and the usual Hebrew word for decree, nishtevan (see further below), appears nowhere in the letter. A glance at a linguistic parallel may help: an eleventh-­century letter from Damascus to the Jerusalem yeshiva complaining about a corrupt official in the context of water rights and taxation uses both ketavim and nishtevan, in a way that suggests that they are, indeed, different animals: We sent our emissaries to Egypt to request a document [ketav] and a decree [nishtevan] from three notables. . . . Our emissaries came back and brought the decree [ha-­nishtevan] obtained through the three above-­mentioned notables. A group of us went straight from him to the governor, Ḥaydara. [The governor] took the decree [ha-­nishtevan] and the documents [ha-­ketavim] that we had brought to him from Khaṭīr al-­Mulk and the high officials of the realm [gedoley ha-­malkhut]. He [the governor] read them and threw them out of his hand. For everything mentioned in them, he asked for a bribe [shoḥad].21 The pairing here of ketavim and nishtevan suggests that a ketav might be one of two things: either a rescript—a petition endorsed with an administrative order on the verso, from which the decree (nishtevan) resulted—or else a copy of a decree intended for the petitioners themselves, not that either helped in the face of the corrupt governor Ḥaydara. Because the official who wrote the ketavim, Khaṭīr al-­Mulk ʿAmmār b. Muḥammad, was the son of the vizier al-­Yāzūrī (440–50/1050–58), it seems likely that they contained decisions.22 That would make them rescripts. This range of meanings fits with the ketavim from Damascus in the gaʾon’s letter: they seem to be rescripts, and that means they have come in response to a petition; since they contained stipulations against the Rabbanites, the petition must have been from the Qaraites against the prisoners. That’s document 2 (the petition) and 3 (the rescript). As for the “note” (peteq) that the ketavim quoted, I assume this is the petition itself. Peteq comes from the Greek pittakion, a tablet for writing, a label, or a ticket, via the Aramaic pitqa, tablet, ballot, or note. That would make peteq the straightforward calque translation of the Arabic ruqʿa, literally, “note,” but as a technical term, “petition.” The Arabic administrative lexicon also has a derivative of the Greek word pittakion: biṭāqa, note, ticket, or tag, which Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī uses in the sense of a label that archivists used to mark files, perhaps the medieval equivalent of the English “tab” (which is apparently not from the Latin tabula, a small board covered with wax for writing, or tabellion, a scribe or petty notary, but from Middle English tag, meaning “tab”—go figure).23 The Qaraites, in sum, had petitioned the caliph outlining the

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256 • Chapter 9 conditions under which the prisoners should be freed, many of them to do with control of the market of the Jews in Jerusalem. The petition may well have been submitted to Damascus rather than Cairo, since that is where the reply came from. What the gaʾon describes as coming from Damascus, then, were two more phantoms: rescripts (ketavim) for the Qaraites, copies of which were given to the Rabbanites with the petition (peteq) attached. But should I count these ketavim separately from the peteq to which they were a response? This depends whether one prefers, as the base unit of measurement, the individual text block or the physical artifact. The rescripts are likely to have been written on the same page as the petition, so the artifact contained many text blocks, written by different hands at different times. Is that one document or many? This is an intricate (and ongoing) methodological question in the field of geniza studies. How you answer the question bears implications in two directions: digitization and diplomatics. The digitization question is for data nerds; if that doesn’t describe you, feel free to skip to the next paragraph. The problem has to do with the architecture of databases: should a basic entry consist of the physical artifact, recto and verso; the shelfmark, sometimes consisting of more than one physical artifact, or sometimes of less, if the document is fragmentary; the document, sometimes composed of more than one shelfmark, as with joins; or a single image of recto or verso of one shelfmark, but not both together? The sensible answer here is probably aporia: there can be no single base unit. Rather, there is a set of possible relationships among all these items. By giving this answer, I don’t mean to imply that I haven’t been thinking about the question for the last seven years; it’s not a simple problem. But this is where I stand at the moment.24 The diplomatics problem lies at the heart of this book: are documents vehicles for texts or material artifacts? If documents are vehicles for texts, they can be considered in isolation from each other—even if they occupy a single writing support. If material artifacts, there is valuable information not only in the texts but in how the physical artifacts accumulated additional texts along the way. I hope it’s clear by now that I’m in favor of the second approach: the way textual artifacts change hands is valuable historical information that should not be lost. Severing the texts that occupy a single support destroys data or makes it more difficult to recover. To remain above any suspicion of methodological promiscuity, then, I would have to count the ketavim (rescripts) from Damascus and the peteq (petition) on which they were written as a single document. On the other hand, the ketavim (rescripts) were sent in multiple copies. We don’t know how many. Let’s assume one was on the peteq itself; there was a copy for the official responsible for enforcing it; and there was a copy for the archive. So, that makes four documents so far—all phantoms: the Rabbanite petition (document 1), the Qaraite petition (document 2), and the rescripts in response to the latter (one on document 2, and separate documents 3 and 4). Back to our story. When the imprisoned brothers heard the news of their conditional release, they immediately rejected the stipulations the Qaraites had imposed, saying, “We want to hear the words of this petition [ha-­peteq ha-­ze] from the mouth of its au-

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Supply • 257 thor, and we will answer according to what . . .” (there is a small hole in the manuscript here).25 Months had elapsed since the pilgrimage festival. By now it was late 1029 or early 1030. The brothers had been languishing in prison, which also usually meant being kept in chains and beaten. Sahlān’s petition to the caliph (document 1) had been blocked by the Qaraite counterpetition to Ibn al-­Qazzāz in Damascus (document 2); the next step, the gaʾon decided, was to go to Damascus in person to plead his case before the governor. But his visit came to naught, as we learn in a separate letter.26 The only remaining course of action was to petition the caliph directly. For the gaʾon, this meant bypassing his usual Jewish allies in Fustat, because they were Qaraites. And so he submitted a petition on behalf of the entire Jewish community (document 5—a phantom), in response to which the chancery drew up a decree (document 6—also a phantom) granting his request: the prisoners were now free. We know about this decree (document 6) because a subsequent decree that has survived (document 9—I’ll get to 7 and 8 below) quotes it. It calls document 6 “the noble decree written for [the Rabbanites]” (al-­sijill al-­mukarram al-­muktatab lahum) in response to a petition (the gaʾon’s, document 5).27 There is some ambiguity here in the Arabic adjective muktatab: it may mean “copied,” in which case the lost decree (document 6) was probably an official scroll that the Rabbanites kept in their archives; or it could mean “registered,” in which case the lost decree (document 6) was most likely a compact register kept in a state archive.28 Whatever its form, the lost decree (document 6) enjoined the Qaraites to treat the Rabbanites according to a set of stipulations of their own, embedded in a surviving decree (document 8): that their ḥaverim [aḥbāruhum] be able to fulfill the requirements of their religious practices and their ancient customs [furūḍ diyānatihim wa-­sālif sunanihim] in their synagogues and to serve their communities in Jerusalem, Ramla, and other places; and that those who interfere with them should be stopped, as this is not compatible with the justice of the dynasty [ʿadl al-­dawla]; and that they [the interferers] should not be given a free hand to do what is not in accordance with established usage; and that they should not be disturbed on their holidays or while they hold their services on them; and that those among their adversaries who do such things should be checked.29 I do not know when document 6, the phantom sijill mukarram, was issued. We learn of it because the Rabbanites eventually protested that the Qaraites had not heeded its stipulations. So they petitioned the caliph yet again—document 7, a phantom petition, a record of which is embedded in the decree issued in response, document 8, also a phantom, but copied into a compact Judaeo-­Arabic copy that survived in the geniza—document 9. This is the first document in the case that is not a phantom (fig. 9.3).30 This copy of the decree (document 9) is one of several private copies of Fatimid state documents that survived in the geniza, as distinct from archival copies made at Cairo and meant to be stored there, or from the grand rotuli like Gottheil’s decree.31 That subjects made private copies of state documents is itself worth noting: through the very

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5 cm 2 in

9.3. Hebrew-­script copy of a decree from the chancery of al-­ Ẓāhir regulating a conflict between the Qaraites and Rabbanites, circa 1030. Part of the decree is addressed to the Rabbanites and part to the governor of Syria. Cambridge University Library, T-­S 13J7.29.

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Supply • 259 act of copying, they gained cumulative knowledge of state diplomatics, knowledge that would eventually come to shape the production of documents Jewish officials wrote to each other, and Christian officials to each other as well.32 Whether they copied them for their own archives I don’t know. The decree (document 8) of which we have a copy (document 9) consists of two distinct sections. The first section (lines 1–32) is written in a stentorian tone, addressed to anyone in Palestine who happened to hear it read aloud.33 It explains that a petition (ruqʿa; document 7) had been submitted to the caliph headed with the name of the Rabbanite Jews (mutarjama bi-­jamāʿat al-­yahūd al-­rabbānīn) in which they asked to be treated in keeping with a previous “noble decree” (sijill mukarram—document 6).34 The result was our decree (document 8, copied as document 9): Therefore the Commander of the Faithful has ordered the writing of a decree [manshūr, document 6] to the effect that each of the two Jewish groups, the Rabbanites and the Qaraites, should not interfere with one another; and all who belong to one of these two schools [madhhabayn] be allowed to conduct themselves according to the customs [ʿalā sunanihim] taught in their denominations [diyānātihim] without the harassment of one of the two parties against the other. The Qaraites should not harass the leaders of the Rabbanites by expelling them from the districts of Jerusalem and Palestine, and the merchants of the two parties should conduct themselves according to their customs with regard to transactions of buying and selling or abstaining from such according to their wishes on their holidays. Each of the two groups shall beware of acting against the provisions of this order [ḥukm]. Let it be known that anyone who disobeys or trespasses will receive heavy punishment, which will check him and deter others.35 In its second section, the decree switches to the second-­person singular, addressing not the Jewish factions but the governor of Syria, al-­Duzbarī: It was deemed necessary to address you so that you should exercise the utmost care not to show any preference or partiality, and so that you should not set anyone free who contravenes this edict [hādhā l-­maʾmūr], but rather inform me of his situation. Be cognizant of what the Commander of the Faithful has communicated to you and pay attention to what he has commanded you, and act in accordance with it and on the basis of it, if God wills.36 The last sentence is the standard closing line of all Fatimid decrees. That much is not surprising. What is surprising is the abrupt change of addressee. The shift is unusual: this is the only Fatimid decree I have seen that addresses a group of subjects in the second-­person plural and an official in the second singular, seriatim. In the original (document 8—a phantom), the two sections may have been distinct graphically, but since the closing boilerplate appears only at the end of the second section, we are almost definitely dealing with a single decree. And from the change in addressee, we also know it was sent out in multiple copies: a grand rotulus to the Rabbanites (document

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260 • Chapter 9 8, the phantom), a grand rotulus to the Qaraites (document 10, also a phantom—we’re getting there), a third grand rotulus to the governor (document 11, also a phantom), and a compact bifolio copy for the archives, which will resurface later in the story (document 12, a phantom). True, documents 8–12 all say the same thing; but remember, we are counting physical artifacts rather than texts. And so—twelve state documents later—we come to the second of two surviving documents in our narrative. The following fall, in 1030, the pilgrimage to the Mount of Olives passed without incident and without excommunications, as the gaʾon explained to his close associate in Fustat, Efrayim b. Shemarya, head of the Shāmī congregation and one of the community’s main links to the palace in Cairo. Why the gaʾon hadn’t relied on Efrayim b. Shemarya all along I don’t know; it may be because of his close contacts with one of the Qaraite bureaucrats whom I mentioned earlier.37 The gaʾon writes to Efrayim b. Shemarya in Hebrew, attributing the peaceful holiday to an “edict” (Heb. patshegen) that “came from the government and the baʿal ha-­maḥanot [literally, lord of the camps, for the Arabic amīr al-­juyūsh, i.e., al-­Duzbarī] to the governor of Ramla warning [the faction from the previous year] not to declare the ban.”38 This “edict” (patshegen) is document 13, also a phantom. The gaʾon tells us that it came in the name of the central government in Cairo (be-­shem ha-­malkhut) and of the governor of Palestine (al-­Duzbarī), and that it was directed not to the public but “to the governor of Ramla” alone. It was a decree, in other words, to a midlevel official, ordering him to keep the peace between the two groups, and to be on vigilant alert at the pilgrimage festival. That this “edict” (document 13) was directed at a midlevel official may explain the term the gaʾon chooses for it, patshegen. An Old Iranian loanword, it appears three times in Esther, and five times in Ezra in the closely related form parshegen.39 In all instances, it means an official copy of a decree—not the decree itself, but a copy intended for dissemination. Of each decree the Achaemenids issued, according to the book of Esther, there were numerous copies: Then were the king’s scribes called on the thirteenth day of the first month, and there was written according to all that Haman had commanded unto the king’s satraps [aḥashdarpanim], and to the governors [peḥot] that were over every province, and to the rulers [sarim] of every people of every province according to the writing thereof, and to every people after their language; in the name of king Ahasuerus was it written, and sealed with the king’s ring. And the letters were sent by post into all the king’s provinces. . . . The copy of the decree [patshegen ha-­ketav] was to be issued as an order [dat] in every province and made known unto all people, that they should be ready for that day. The posts went out, being hastened by the king’s commandment [devar ha-­melekh], and the order [dat] was given in Shushan the palace.40 This is a dizzying array of administrative terms—in keeping with the farcical intent of the book of Esther. But the use of the word patshegen is consistent: it means a copy

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Supply • 261 of a decree. Likewise, the copy of the investiture decree that Artaxerxes gives Ezra appointing him governor of Judaea (Ezra 7:12–26) is called parshegen ha-­nishtevan (“copy of the letter”; Ezra 7:11). “Copy of a decree” is precisely the meaning the gaʾon intends. Had he wanted to mention the original decree, he would have used a different Old Iranian loanword: nishtevan, the standard word for “decree” in medieval letters in Hebrew and Judaeo-­ Arabic alike (sometimes with the Arabic definite article prefixed to it, al-­nishtevan).41 A nish­tevan was a decree; a patshegen was a copy, possibly one made in a chancery in the provinces.42 Medieval epistolary Hebrew appears, then, to have deployed administrative terms with surprising precision. Most of these are Old Iranian loanwords, though there are some native Hebrew terms (such as ketav, document), as well as the Babylonian terms that became peḥa, governor, and sar, ruler, lord. But the converse formulation is striking: nearly all the Old Iranian loanwords in the Hebrew Bible are administrative terms. There are nine of them: decree (O. Ir. dāta > Heb. dat), message (pati-­gāma > pitgam), letter/decree (nishtāvana > nishtevan), copy (pati-­čagna > patshegen), palace (apadāna > apeden), satrap (xšaθra-­pāvan > aḥashdarpan), nobles (fratama > partemim), treasurer (ganza-­bara > gizbar) and—worth noting in the context of this book—treasury (ganza > genazim).43 The Fatimids were as prodigal with decrees as the Achaemenids. For each decree the chancery wrote, there might follow a capillary and proliferating series of decrees: those sent to the provinces and read aloud; those written for local governors; those for the subjects whom it affected, who were given copies or else made private copies of the local copies they saw, as the Jews did in this instance; and compact copies for the state archives in Cairo. Those decrees provoked further petitions, to which decrees came in response; and so forth. Four years later, in 425/1034, Gottheil’s eight-­meter decree (document 15) appeared, in circumstances that remain murky. We must assume the affair had smoldered or staggered along all this time. When it flared up again, it was now the Qaraites petitioning for fair treatment. We learn about their petition (document 14, a phantom) from the decree (document 15—the third document that has actually survived from the affair). Gottheil’s grand decree (document 15), unlike the copy of the previous decree (document 9), was preserved in the archive of the Jewish community rather than the geniza. The private copy (document 9) is a compact text in Judaeo-­Arabic, measuring 27.9 × 10.1 cm; the grand decree (document 15) is eight meters long. The wording of the two texts is, however, parallel in many places—so closely parallel as to suggest that the chancery scribe who drew up the real decree (document 15) consulted a copy (document 12, a phantom) of the previous decree (document 8, also a phantom) in his archive.44 Like the previous decree (documents 8–12), this one (document 15) is addressed both to the communities in question and to al-­Duzbarī, by his title only, amīr al-­juyūsh.

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262 • Chapter 9 But unlike that decree, this one (document 15) addresses other local governors as well. It orders both groups of Jews in your madhhab to follow your custom and continue in the direction that is familiar to you in your religion [ fī diyānatikum], without one section interfering with the other or one community committing aggression against the other; and that the craftsmen among both of them be allowed to follow their custom according to their own wish and choice as to whether they buy and sell on their festivals or not; and that all of you be warned against committing aggressions against each other or daring to contravene this command by transgressing or breaking it; and that both you and they restrain any evildoer among you from dissension that might lead to undesirable actions and to prevent them from quarreling and discussion that could provoke riots between you; and that all of you, whosoever in his folly transgresses this ordinance and is inveigled into presumption by boldness unbefitting someone like him will receive severe punishment and harsh chastisement so as to restrain him in the future and deter all those who in their folly might follow in his footsteps. At the same time, let no one interfere with the Qaraite community in their synagogue, which is their own exclusive property.45 The decree ends with the same boilerplate sentence that one finds at the end of most decrees, but then adds some information about the conditions of its circulation and preservation: Let it be known that this is an order [amr] and injunction [rasm] of the Commander of the Faithful, and let action be taken accordingly. Let all [al-­kāffa] obey it by executing and closely following it. Also, let the amīr al-­juyūsh, may God help him, give him victory and provide him with assistance, and all the governors [wulāt] of the provinces protect the two communities [ṭaʾifatayn] of Jews who live under the protection of Islam and are encompassed by the rule of justice in the provinces of this kingdom, so as to turn them away from evil, keep them away from undesirable actions, hold them in the beaten track and cause them to follow the judgment [ḥukm] of this decree [sijill manshūr]. Let them [the officials] also give orders to protect them [the Jews] and care for them, and to keep harm and injustice [istiḍāma] from them. Let it [this decree] be kept by those in whose favor it was written, if God wills.46 Three separate groups of people are addressed here: the collectivity (al-­kāffa); a set of officials, including the commander of the armies (amīr al-­juyūsh) and governors of provinces; and the two communities of Jews in question (ṭāʾifatay al-­yahūd). This suggests the following scenario. The Qaraites had petitioned the caliph (document 14, a phantom), complaining of their unfair treatment at the hands of the Rabbanites, and of the Rabbanites’ “interfering with the Qaraites in their synagogue, which is their exclusive property” (as the decree, document 15, summarizes it). The vizier endorsed the petition (document

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Supply • 263 14); a decree was then drawn up in several copies: a long, impressive rotulus to be “kept by those in whose favor it was written”—the one that survived in the archive of the Jewish community of Cairo (document 15); a long, impressive rotulus to be read aloud publicly in Fustat (document 16, a phantom); and a compact bifolio to be deposited in the archives of the chancery in Cairo—or so we learn from a registration mark stating that the document “was copied in the chancery.” This is document 17, a phantom. There may well have been other copies drawn up to read aloud in other provinces, given that the conflict had spread to Syria. But enough. This is the last we hear of the conflict. And to reward your patience, here is a chart tallying the documents in the affair. It is sufficient evidence to begin drawing some conclusions (table 9.1).

Table 9.1. Documents (Surviving and Phantom) from the Affair of 1029–34. Phantom documents are marked with an asterisk. 1. * Petition from the gaʾon via Sahlān b. Avraham to the caliph and vizier asking to free the prisoners. (Mentioned in gaʾon’s letter to Sahlān b. Avraham.) 2. * Petition (peteq) from Qaraites with stipulations for the prisoners, written by Ibn al-­Qazzāz. (Mentioned in same letter as document 1.) 3 and 4. * Rescripts (ketavim) from Damascus, in response to document 2. (Mentioned in same letter as document 1.) 5. * Petition from the gaʾon in name of Jewish community directly to the caliph, proposing counterstipulations, resulting in document 7. (Mentioned in document 8.) 6. * Decree in response to document 5, freeing prisoners and confirming counterstipulations, “copied for them” (al-­sijill al-­mukarram al-­muktatab lahum). Either a scroll in the Rabbanites’ archive or a compact register in the state archive. (Mentioned in document 8.) 7. * Another petition to the caliph in the name of the Rabbanite Jewish community (ruqʿa mutarjama bi-­jamāʿat al-­yahūd al-­rabbānīn) reiterating the stipulations of document 4 and document 5 resulting in document 6. (Mentioned in document 8.) 8. * Decree in response to Rabbanites. Public copy? (Private copy in document 9.) 9. Copy of document 8 (T-­S 13J7.29). 10. * Copy to Qaraites of decree (document 8). 11. * Copy to governor of decree (document 8). 12. * Copy for the archives of decree (document 8). 13. * “A copy of an edict [Heb. patshegen]” that “came from the government and the amīr al-­juyūsh [al-­Dizbarī] to the governor of Ramla to warn [the faction] not to declare the ban.” 14. * Qaraite petition of 1034, which resulted in document 15. 15. Gottheil’s eight-­meter decree. 16. * Public copy of document 15. 17. * Archival copy of document 15.

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264 • Chapter 9

RATES OF PRESERVATION A single affair over five years produced seventeen state documents, of which two are still extant. One survived in the geniza, the second in an archive. Counting both find spots together, that is a rate of preservation of under 12 percent. What we have is the tip of a much larger iceberg. And this is true not only of the geniza. It’s also true of the state archives: of the fifteen documents here, only three (documents 6, 12, and 17) were intended to be stored in perpetuity. The rest were fair game to be destroyed, dismembered, sold as scrap, reused, put into limbo, or forgotten. That is the state of preservation. (I’ll come back to it momentarily.) What about the production end of the pipeline? Among the Jews in the eleventh century, there were many such affairs, and each produced a small dossier of documents. A Jewish communal leadership struggle less than a decade later, in 1038–42, produced several petitions to the caliph of which only one has survived (in eight drafts).47 I could give that episode the same treatment here, but it would exhaust you and me both and add little to what we already know: dispositive documents tended to produce more dispositive documents in an ever proliferating chain. That raises the question of the ratio of documents produced not just to those preserved, but to the actual business transacted. In some cases, it seems that the more documents the conflict produced, the less got done to resolve it. Eve Krakowski has suggested something similar for the rabbinical courts of Fustat: a red flag goes up when you see an ever-­expanding dossier for a single legal case, at least if you are a social historian. It indicates not so much a deadlocked plaintiff and defendant as the reluctance of the judges to render a decision in some socially delicate matter. The Jewish courts were less interested in how conflicts got resolved, or even resolving them at all, than in keeping both sides of the conflict engaged in the process of resolution. To decide for one party against the other risked finalizing a social rupture, turning one side away from the rabbinical courts, or, worse, alienating them both from the communal legal system. Keeping them engaged in the resolution process, by contrast, was preferable to resolution itself: the judges and witnesses were members of the same small community as the plaintiff and defendant, everyone was there voluntarily, and the worst punishment they could mete out was a fine or social ostracism (excommunication), which, given the community’s lack of hard power, was not much of a deterrent. As long as both sides kept coming back, the court avoided rendering a decision it had no real power to enforce and exposing itself to being ignored if the parties didn’t like the way they had resolved it.48 Something similar, but perhaps more extreme, seems to be going on in the conflicts that subjects tried to resolve by petitioning the state. The Fatimid rulers rarely, if ever, told the dhimmī communities how to run their own business, and they never took the initiative in intervening in internal affairs. The only way they knew what was going on

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Supply • 265 was when petitions arrived, and in resolving conflicts, they followed the lead of petitioners. The Fatimid bureaucracy tended to respond to petitions with a certain affable ease: sure, we’ll renew your privileges; we would be delighted to grant your judge an investiture; of course, why wouldn’t we support your stipulations against your enemies? Oh, you didn’t like the stipulations in the decree we gave them? Here’s a decree of your own. The more petitions the palace received, the more documents it issued; the way to fight a decree was to petition for a reciprocal and opposing decree. All this kept subjects involved in the process of resolution, but more importantly, it made the state the perpetual protector of the weak. That is not to say that the state was laissez-­faire. True, it didn’t mind so much about the details, but the petitioning and responding to petitions were constitutive of its legitimacy.

A CONVERSATION ABOUT POWER Some negotiation and discussion of social power seems to have been on the agenda of petitioners. Some didn’t shy away from broaching the subject directly. Around the same time as the ban against the “eaters of meat with milk,” in the early 1030s, the gaʾon Shelomo b. Yehuda was fighting a war on another front: a rival power base headed by a certain Yūsuf al-­Sijilmāsī, head of the Iraqi-­rite congregation in al-­ Shām. That al-­Sijilmāsī was head of an Iraqi congregation in al-­Shām would have been fine with everyone had it also been fine with al-­Sijilmāsī, but it wasn’t fine with him because he wasn’t happy that the Shām was the gaʾon’s administrative turf while all he got to do was lead a congregation. Why shouldn’t he, too, have the privilege of appointing judges, writing responsa, and leading not just a prayer rite but a communal administration? That was the question on Yūsuf al-­Sijilmāsī’s mind when he submitted a petition to the caliph al-­Ẓāhir asking for a decree of investiture. In the petition—a phantom— he made sure to point out that he had followers: followers were a sign that your community had chosen you, and it made for a convincing argument in a petition for investiture because the state wanted to patronize local elites, not to create them. But what kind of investiture was he asking for? We don’t quite know. It may not matter for the story and may not have mattered to him, either. Could he have petitioned for recognition as a second gaʾon? A second, Iraqi-­r ite gaʾon in Palestine is hard to imagine even in the contentious realm of eleventh-­century rabbinic politics. Perhaps he petitioned the caliph for investiture as a judge, even though appointing judges was theoretically the gaʾon’s prerogative.49 But all this is speculative, because al-­Sijilmāsī’s petition hasn’t survived. The gaʾon’s dismayed response to it has—or at least some version of it. The gaʾon’s parry came in the form of a petition to the caliph—also a phantom, of which a copy has survived—in which he attempted to block al-­Sijilmāsī’s thrust with counterarguments of the following sort.50 The Iraqis were attempting to secede from

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266 • Chapter 9 his administrative control, but this was quite unheard of, since they had been under the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem yeshiva for as long as anyone could remember. They had separate synagogues, yes, but this was only because they happened to “have the custom [rasm] of observing a second day of holiday [yuʿayyidū yawm thānī] after they have observed [the first day] with us.” This referred to the rabbinic division, which goes back to the second or third century, between the Jews of diaspora and the Jews of the land of Israel, who celebrated a single day of holiday because only they were close enough to the hilltops where the relay of flares and fires announced that an approved witness had seen the new moon. The Jews of the land enjoyed a certainty about the calendar that the others did not, so the others had to do double duty just to be safe. Jews outside the land therefore celebrated two days (and still do).51 All that was fine and well. But the separate synagogues were a concession that “the leaders of Jerusalem” in the days of yore had “permitted them as a privilege” (ʿalā ṭarīq al-­tafaḍḍul). No one had ever permitted them to choose “a judge [ḥākim] or any other” official, and no one had permitted them to establish institutions other than synagogues. Iraqi-­rite courts of law were out of the question. There were Iraqi-­rite courts in Egypt, but Egypt was Egypt: diaspora. Palestine was the gaʾon’s preserve. The Iraqi synagogues were “solely for prayer” and should remain that way. And besides, the gaʾon strongly implied, al-­Sijilmāsī was merely power hungry and not to be trusted. His followers “have decided with him that, should he succeed in procuring a rescript [tawqīʿ] from the [caliphal] Presence securing leadership for himself, this would strengthen them in what they intend to do for the renown of Yūsuf [al-­Sijilmāsī] and his supporters.” It is somewhat surprising to see a dhimmī schooling the caliph on how to handle an investiture controversy, lodging claims based on tradition, crafting arguments as to why his rival should be denied an appointment equivalent to his own. Granting al-­Sijilmāsī an investiture, the gaʾon argued, would “bring into disorder [tashaʿʿuth, literally “dishevel”] what has been bestowed upon” him. And what had been bestowed on him was his own rescript of investiture, which dated to 1025 (it, too, is a phantom). It was the caliph’s prerogative to bestow investitures—“The pure Presence has granted privileges in numerous decrees [sijillāt] to many leaders over time”—but splitting an investiture would go against precedent. Not only that: the investitures that he and his predecessors had received from previous caliphs were a fact to which “the archives testify” (al-­ dawāwīn tashhud bi-­dhālik). This dhimmī communal leader knew the state kept archives, knew what they were for, knew which documents were in them, and brandished those documents rhetorically. This is a way in which phantom documents intruded into the realm of the living—zombies—and could be as valuable for those who lived then as they are now for us, as historians. The phantoms demonstrate, the gaʾon argued, that the caliph “has not made for any [leaders] a partner in what he has bestowed upon them by means of it [a decree].” A partner (sharīk) in investiture would weaken the first investiture and, reciprocally, weaken the caliph’s powers of investiture. This time, investiture was a double-­edged sword.

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Supply • 267 This is the proliferating decree problem in a nutshell. The palace issued decrees at petitioners’ initiative. It was liable to issue contradictory decrees in the same matter. Petitioners requested decrees; decrees provoked more petitions; those petitions, in turn, requested further decrees; and so on, ad infinitum. Not all these petitions and decrees survived; some can be reconstructed. The phantoms can be conjured; the specters can be raised. But finally, it is the letters and not the state documents alone that allow social temporality to roll forward and narratives of flesh and blood to come into being. Social temporality (as William Sewell calls it, adding that it is uniquely the historians’ expertise) is the clay with which historians fashion their narratives and give them life.52 No social time, no Galatea. But the archives and genizot were heedless of you and me.53

BEYOND PETITIONS AND DECREES When I began studying Fatimid state documents, I assumed their range of genres had been mapped. I assumed this because four out of the five people who had written about them (Gottheil, Stern, Richards, and Goitein; the exception is Khan) had focused on petitions and decrees. So I assumed that these were the genres that made the state run—that decrees had come mainly in response to petitions, and that the Fatimid state relied on the petition-­and-­response procedure as a method of rule.54 All the decrees that Stern had published were of a single type: each had come in response to a petition, calling itself a sijill manshūr (“open decree,” as Stern translated this still opaque term). Each was a long scroll meant to be registered in local offices and then kept by the petitioners.55 He did not study decrees upper officials sent to lower ones in the normal course of administration. And he published only documents preserved in Jewish and Christian repositories: the archives of the Qaraite synagogue in Cairo, the monastery of Saint Catherine, the commune of Pisa, and the Ben Ezra Geniza. He thus put forward the misleading impression that Jews and Christians were the only groups interested in archiving. What about the state archives themselves? Stern knew they had existed, in spades: medieval chroniclers and chancery experts described them, and no one had read more medieval accounts of the Fatimids than he.56 But what was in those archives, what happened to them, and what had been deemed unworthy of them? Decrees to lower officials—like the decrees to the provincial governors Ibn al-­Qazzāz and al-­Duzbarī—are disproportionately represented among the fragments that got sent back into the world as dead letters and reused as scrap paper. These are a different subspecies from the decrees meant to be filed as living documents, to be kept in archives as proof of the rights of their beneficiaries. In this chapter, I, too, have focused on decrees in response to petitions. I would have liked to avoid doing so, now that I see the bigger picture, but I had to do so for a reason different from Stern’s: my decrees happen to cluster together to yield a palpable and

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268 • Chapter 9 (I hope) plausible reconstruction of how some state documents came into being in the first place. Hearing petitions was important to the Fatimid state and its subjects. But having studied more than a thousand fragments, I now realize that I had missed an even more abundant type of state document: decrees the government issued on its own initiative, without the impetus of petitioners.57 I mention them here as a reality check, because they cast the state in a different light. If you read them, it’s difficult to see the state as the passive, thin mist of rule stretching out over a bleak landscape sparsely populated by officialdom, the “laissez-­faire” regime that Goitein imagined and Stern also, though perhaps less consciously, held in mind as he trawled for documents and wrote about them. If you read the documents, you’ll see a state that managed infrastructure; extracted resources; remained perpetually challenged by distances; produced documents and put them into motion over impossibly large stretches of terrain; and sent them out into the territory together with runners, messengers, officials, supervisors, tax collectors, and, when needed, enforcement agents—a territory full of documents and officials handling them. The fragments I was finding were different from the tablets and seals incinerated at Persepolis when Alexander the Great burned the Achaemenid archives—the goddess Catastrophe, incinerating and thus preserving an archive, guided there by the armies of Macedon.58 Fatimid state documents owe their survival not to Catastrophe but to mundane, efficient, and persistent pruning by officials. The irony is that what they wanted to keep hasn’t survived and what they jettisoned has. What we’re left with is a negative imprint of the state archive. But like the archives of Persepolis, the Fatimid documents are legible (mostly), abundant, and coherent, and they reverberate with the chatter of state officials, a din of documentation if one listens for it. There are decrees about maintaining canals, about battles with the Franks, about collecting the kharāj on sugarcane and taro despite attempts of the local landholders to prevent this from happening.59 There are orders to local officials about where to send the bricks and furnishings of a ruined mosque and mill.60 There is a draft report about people blocking one of the lakes in Fustat with a chain and stones brought in from Jazīrat al-­Fusṭāṭ to impede access to anyone from the ships of an unnamed seafaring enemy, “may God, may he be exalted, make them limp,” and a second report in the same draft about Christian foreign merchants who had run out of the proper currency with which to make their customs payments, requiring a fiscal official to meet with them, with a currency broker (simsār) in tow.61 Listening for the din of the state—all of it—has necessarily changed the scenery I found myself holding in my imagination as I deciphered the texts: this was, above all, a very busy state. Geniza collections are teeming with fiscal documents, too. Officials write tax demands, issue receipts, occupy themselves with fiscal ledgers (a genre that awaits its Goitein, Stern, or Khan: the paleography is for the intrepid, or for those who love a good puzzle, but it can be learned). The fiscal officials encountered subjects not via petitions but via the rendering of coin and kind. They did not all spend their days reading subjects’ complaints and thinking about how to help them in the face of oppression or quell their discontent. They busied themselves with the keeping of accounts, the

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Supply • 269 management of personnel, the upkeep of roads, the gathering of produce, of product, of money—with the art of the possible. Clifford Ando has argued that among the surviving Greek papyri, rescripts in response to petitions are disproportionately represented as compared with decrees from the emperor. This skewed focus has resulted in the persistent perception of the Roman state as administratively passive, with the bulk of the real governance getting done in response to petitioners’ requests. That perception has nonetheless not quite displaced the opposite image: that of brute militarism, of a state whose tax revenues supported coercive measures against the populace.62 The same thing has happened with the Fatimids: they’ve been depicted as laissez-­ faire by some and as terrifyingly authoritarian by others. What needs to happen now is to restore some balance. That’s not to deny the centrality of petitions, the importance that Fatimid political philosophy itself gave to the link between extracting resources and rendering justice, or, on the subjects’ side, between paying one’s taxes and having the right to justice. The kharāj-­paying sector of the economy—this is al-­Qāḍī al-­Nuʿmān’s argument—would not render taxes to the fisc unless they enjoyed a prosperous growing season, and they would not prosper if their needs went unmet, and those needs included well-­maintained irrigation canals, sufficient seed crop, and the occasional tax reduction, and, as importantly, being heard against corrupt officials and enjoying certain safeguards and guarantees. The deeper I have gone into petitioning, then, the more clearly I have come to see that it must be understood as part of a broader system. That system includes, perforce, political economy. The more government memoranda I have tried to decipher—the more din and chatter I have heard about tax extraction—the more I have come to believe that the really pressing task now is to understand the Fatimid system of taxation. There is source material to fill more than one full-­length study. The fisc imposed capitation taxes (the jizya or jāliya); taxes on land, produce, and primary production (kharāj); taxes on sales; taxes on the transit trade; and special one-­time taxes. Local middling elites extracted taxes for the fisc, religious leaders no less than tax farmers. And there are at least four kinds of sources to be decoded. There are the fiscal documents properly so-­called: tax receipts, fiscal registers, ledgers, and memoranda related to taxation— among the most daunting Arabic documentary texts to decipher because tax officials wrote for their own kind, not for me and not for you, and their job was above all technical. There are fiscal treatises, some of which are still in manuscript.63 There are letters written by traders that tell us how taxation looked in real time, including people’s strategies for avoiding it. And there are the letters of Jewish and Christian congregants and communal officials managing their capitation tax obligations, which frequently ate up more income than they could comfortably (or even uncomfortably) spare. All this together will yield, in a future that I hope is not very far off, a picture of how the Fatimid state managed extraction and how people managed its burdens. It would get at the state Janus faced: from above and below. After that, I would gather as many of the internal government memoranda I could and try to sort them into piles. How many were passed around the palace and

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270 • Chapter 9 accumulated notes in multiple hands?64 How many were sent from afar?65 Who reported to whom? Will we ever be able to identify officials by more than just their titles? But that is all for the future. Taxation and administration aside, previous studies of Fatimid documents have leaned hard toward petitioning, so they have overshadowed two qualities of the decrees as a genre. First, the vast majority of them circulated not in response to petitions, but in the normal course of business. Provincial officials in Ramla, or Alexandria, or Damascus, received long, impressive scrolls from Cairo on strictly internal, quotidian, uninspiring matters: dredging canals; water rights; the need of new personnel to show their investiture scrolls to the boss of the dīwān on their first day of work or risk not being able to work at all; justifying a draft of funds from the fisc; drawing up state contracts with laborers whose bargaining power in the transaction everyone knew was a charade; handling bids from tax farmers and, just as frequently, handling tax farmers in arrears.66 Most of the calligraphic banners of Arabic blazoned across outsized sheets of paper around which Jewish scribes wrapped and crowded their Hebrew writing are the remains of orders issued to provincial officials on matters so ordinary they might never make it into the history books, unless there were so many documents as to make quantitative studies possible, or unless one simply wanted to understand how the state worked, and at what scale. These scrolls were never read aloud to subjects and never intended to be. If they were read by anyone other than their intended recipients, they were rarely read whole, unless they were read as models of good written style. And even then, they may have been read mainly as fragments, because they arrived in the hands of those who reused them already sliced down the middle. Most confoundingly, few of those from the geniza have anything to do with Jews, except that Jews eventually did the sensible thing and reused them. But once you find yourself caught in a storm of fragmentary state documents, as I suddenly did, all due caution applies. The hum of the state can crescendo to a thrum and drown out the other questions beginning to form themselves in your tentatively inquiring mind. The storm of fragments tends to dampen the din of the alleyways of Fustat and Aleppo, the footfall of the shoemaker rushing home at dusk, the clink of the metalsmith striking his mallet against tin, the chatter of the midmorning shade of the market, the haggling over wares and wine, the wafting scents of mulūkhiyya, garlic, coriander, and rosewater, the turbaned grands marchands on the strand arguing over bolts of cloth and bales of flax, the static of the bookkeeper’s cut-­reed calamus scratching its way over the rough Egyptian paper of his account ledger.67 To the extent that this storm of state fragments forms an actual weather system, you’ll find yourself looking up to the skies and wanting to understand where they’re all coming from, to grasp the system whole, to estimate its extent, to measure it from the satellite-­cam and know how far it will spread over the length and breadth of the map before dissipating. You may grasp it whole, but you are nonetheless still among parts, each its own irreproducible snowflake, none quite like the others, but all recognizable as such: two and half lines of a seven-­meter decree, seven half lines of an unidentifiable text of unknown dimensions, the jagged scrawl of a fiscal ledger listing who-­knows-­

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Supply • 271 how-­many dīnārs paid to who-­knows-­whom on who-­knows-­what date, a report regarding fourteen of something issued to someone on Tuesday 23 Jumādā II of you’ll-­never-­ know-­which year, a jumble of interrupted or, for that matter, unbegun sentences that drift in and out of and off the page, and then, by some documentary sleight of hand, call attention to their materiality in a last-­ditch maneuver to distract you from the very, very economical proportion of information per square centimeter of document, which is now stymieing your efforts at storytelling. It’s a frustrating business, dealing in fragments. This brings me to the second thing overlooked about decrees: because the Ben Ezra Geniza was an organ of the Jewish community—a living, breathing thing, waxing and waning with its own systole and diastole as it filtered the nutrients and toxins of the body communal—precisely because of the geniza’s work as filtration mechanism, those petitions and rescripts it has preserved, it has tended to preserve whole, or mostly so, while the decrees have survived whole only when they came in response to petitions. Wholeness, even almost-­wholeness, will be your shelter in this storm of fragments, protecting you from the pounding angst of aporia as you sit bewildered, searching the fragments for a narrative worth writing, wracking them and your brain both in a desperate quest for the kernel of a story, a question worth asking, a character worth following. Meanwhile, an eleventh-­century Jewish scribe, a long-­standing fixture around the congregation known for his quiet probity, is keeping good notes on an unfolding social drama and decides to copy into Hebrew script the decree that has just now arrived in response to repeated petitions, and he is head down and transcribing so as to inoculate himself against the poison of people’s barking about the affair in urgent tones in the courtyard, laying down comfortingly orderly formulas and almost-­known phrases into smaller, humbler formats, into Hebrew script, onto rougher paper, attempting diligently to gain mastery over this high-flown genre, and then, for good measure, copying the petitions as well, the comforts of officialdom and structure against the unsettling disruptions of human conflict and vitriol—and then, when the conflict blows over, trying to forget the episode by consigning his copies of the official documentation to the geniza. He knows the narrative; he is your link to it. But he is not telling you what it is. Or the lavish rotuli that for centuries waited quietly and perhaps forgotten in orderly piles in some closed chamber of the Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai, or the mysteriously locked room of the Jewish communal offices of modern Cairo—these, too, are whole, or nearly so. Wholeness speaks. The Sinai decrees, too, had, or so I imagine, fairly descended on the abbot, the archivist, and the monks like manna from heaven, answers not just to written petitions but to prayers, repeated ones, accruals of every line of communication the monastery’s elders could muster, written down and directed toward the palace in Cairo. (The Coptic History of the Patriarchs tells of a group of petitioners who finally managed to reach the ears of a vizier via his Christian groundskeeper.)68 These decrees came like bounties from above, and the abbot, archivist, and monks handled them with awed reverence, stored them carefully in small piles of scrolls

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272 • Chapter 9 that gradually, over centuries, flattened under the weight of accumulating time and half-­forgotten dynasties. These, too, are whole, or mostly so. The events that produced the documents tend to surface most clearly in letters and petitions. A narrative heard in the synagogue courtyard with swaying-­headed disbelief gets repackaged in five lines sandwiched between the opening blessings and the raʾy clause of a petition, then transmitted across distances to some office of the government. The events that produced courtyard chatter and clusters of documentation lent themselves to narrative then, and they lend themselves to it now. I feel fortunate, it goes without saying, to have anything whole at all. But the whole decrees are exceptional. They are exceptional because they survived whole and because they came in response to petitions; they show that subjects had convincingly narrated their social conflicts or their needs and made them legible to the state, that they and the scribes who wrote for them had crafted narratives that had reached unseen official ears—that they had seduced the state with narrative. Petitioners try to seduce the state with narrative just as whole documents try to seduce the historian into writing one. The whole texts that cluster around petition cases offer you ready-­made historical narrative just when you are hungriest for the meat of case studies and most impatient to debone. They will tempt you with the promise of a meal so delicious that you will eagerly and delightedly tear into what is before you, tossing away the skeletal formulas and consuming only the flesh of narrative until, unsuspecting, you fall into a deep oblivion. The skeletal formulas will surround you in your stupor, discarded and forgotten. Bones do not lend themselves to storytelling. But no. You must resist. It is the bones that interest me here. They interest me even though I can’t always determine which animal they belonged to. Can we work the bones against some mental image of the whole animal? Can we take a step back and understand the scope and scale of the problem of bones in the first place? How many state documents circulated at any given moment, and what were they? How much of what they said was dictated from on high, and how much was the invention of the scribe? What was copied, what was archived, what scrapped? Why is most of what has come down to us fragments, shredded before it was reused? And why have many more not survived at all? It will not, as Khan recognized in his first published study on Fatimid state documents, suffice to answer that “the original contents of the archives of the medieval Egyptian chanceries . . . have perished almost without a trace” and leave it at that.69 It’s the almost that counts here. The almost comes in several forms. There is the almost of the phantom texts, spectral, immaterial, haunting the living, just out of reach. There is the almost of the copies of state documents that a quiet and diligent communal scribe has transcribed and then consigned to the pile. There is the almost of the compact, official copies—texts that would otherwise sprawl over grand, wasteful rotuli now squeezed onto a compact bifolio and further compressed among other bifolios in the archives at Cairo, some small number of which eventually strayed over to the synagogue, who knows how. There is the almost of dismembered decrees, the bones now entombed and enshrined in some

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Supply • 273 scribe’s draft of a Hebrew liturgical poem, sloppy and unwitting mausoleum, unseen and unnoticed reliquary of the state. After all I’ve just said, I’d like to sort through the bones to try to construct a taxonomically arranged catalogue of the genus Decretum. Objects are mute until coaxed into speaking. And to coax the genus Decretum into speaking, to lure these silent, fragmentary specimens out of their dismembered diffidence, we have a ruse: inviting them to speak to us in groups, and to speak to us of actors’ categories and makers’ knowledge.

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O

10

Administrative Manuals and Nonmanuals Chancery manuals were not, alas, in the business of telling other clerks how to compose documents. Nor do they always give you, the reader, what you want. Some focus on writing excellent Arabic prose when what you really want is to understand how scribes worded petitions. Some offer recipes for ink, and endless variants on them, when what you’d like to know is how one ran a chancery and appointed its personnel. Some offer an organizational chart when you’d prefer to know which paper sizes were used for which genre of document. There are as many types of chancery manual as there were skills demanded of chancery employees: balāgha (eloquence), good character, probity, industriousness; ink mixing, pen cutting, a steady hand, fine calligraphy; decrees, investitures, land grants, missives to other sovereigns. Some focus on diplomatics, others on fine style; some on proportioned script, others on efficient administration; some on orderly filing techniques. And there were as many reasons to write a chancery manual as there were chancery scribes wanting to make names for themselves, to become known as men of the pen—known by name, not only by post. Some of them should not be called chancery manuals at all. The earliest known Fatimid chancery work, Mawādd al-­bayān (The substances of clear exposition), written in 437/1045–46 by the Fatimid clerk (kātib) ʿAlī b. Khalaf, is not really a chancery manual.1 It’s more like a book of stylistics. It offers no pragmatic description of writing practices, no taxonomy of document types. The author avoids sullying his hands with the grit and ink and sweat of the work itself and, instead, puts forth everything he knows or can gather on good prose style, the art of rhetoric, proper correspondence, appropriate education, and the character traits required of chancery officials. It’s a bit dainty, certainly idealized, not at all practical. And even then, ʿAlī b. Khalaf has taken nearly all of it from the Abbasid and Buyid chancery clerks—a Fatimid clerk following the eastern models, though he might have known them only from collections in codex form.2 He tells us absolutely nothing about the Fatimid chancery. There is nothing on its daily grind, on the writing of copy. I suspect his reticence on the current habitus had to do precisely with how closely he hewed to the models of the Abbasid past (which wasn’t dead, and wasn’t even past): it’s as though he’s still living in that past, as though he thinks the Fatimids had nothing original to contribute to the chancery tradition, neither in stylistics nor in administrative organization. He appears to believe that the highest pinnacle of his art lay in the East. The best he can do is to quote from it, write like it, convince everyone else to do the same, and in the process convince them of his mastery of it.

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Administrative Manuals and Nonmanuals • 275 I don’t want to be unfair to ʿAlī b. Khalaf: he does note that he has also written a more practical work on the scripts and tools of the scribal trade (Ālāt al-­kuttāb) and another on the fiscal administration (Kitāb al-­kharāj), and these are doubtless more practical, concrete works.3 They are also the ones I would most like to read. But they have not yet surfaced, to my knowledge—which is also instructive. It suggests that no one after the Fatimid period was really interested in them. Only the stylistics had some value once the dynasty fell. But even his stylistics book, Mawādd al-­bayān, had a checkered reception history. He completed it in 437/1045–46, and it was almost immediately forgotten.4 It survived in an early but incomplete unicum in Istanbul that omits the chapter “on good conduct in government [siyāsa]”—the only chapter that might have told us anything about the Fatimids that I might have wanted to know, though even there, how useful it would have been is still questionable: for all we know the message there, too, was an idealized Abbasid one.5 There was, once upon a time, at least one other manuscript of the work, or there must have been, because the intrepid, encyclopedic, and obsessive Mamluk chancery clerk al-­Qalqashandī (d. 821/1418) had a more complete copy than we do, which permitted him to quote even more model letters and documents than he already does. But it’s possible that hardly anyone cared about the book until him; and in any case al-­ Qalqashandī was so omnivorous that his interest can’t be taken as the tip of some putative iceberg of readers of ʿAlī b. Khalaf. Even al-­Qalqashandī dubs him “one of the great secretaries of the [Fatimid] dynasty,” which sounds like damning with faint praise.6 But if ʿAlī b. Khalaf offers none of the information about the chancery that I might want him to, nearly a century later, Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī (463–542/1071–1147) offers almost too much of it. Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s Qānūn dīwān al-­rasāʾil (The rules of the chancery) contains the fullest description we have of the Fatimid chancery, of what got done around the office and how.7 It’s very useful, even if it, too, is not exactly a chancery manual: it includes neither model documents nor explanations of document types nor specific instructions on how to write them. But unlike ʿAlī b. Khalaf ’s, Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s is a practical work.

IBN AL-­S Ạ YRAFĪ Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī was one of the many medieval officials born and bred for government service. His grandfather had been a Fatimid official; his father was a banker or moneychanger (his laqab, the equivalent of a surname, means “son of the moneychanger”).8 Before he was thirty, he had risen to head of the military administration (dīwān al-­ jaysh), a high post and a heavy responsibility for a relatively young man. Just after al-­ Āmir’s accession to the caliphate, in 495/1102, he was appointed to the chancery by the vizier al-­Afḍal b. Badr al-­Jamālī, and he became its director in 522/1128.9 Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī wrote his Rules of the Chancery in 524–25/1130–31. The year is significant. In 524/1130, the caliph al-­Āmir was murdered, provoking a succession crisis.

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276 • Chapter 10 Al-­Afḍal’s son, a megalomaniacal vizier named al-­Afḍal Kutayfāt, exploited the interregnum to seize absolute power. Kutayfāt’s vizierate lasted just over a year—and it was the very year that Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī spent codifying three decades of chancery habitus in written form. He did this, I assume, to demonstrate his utility to the running of the state and thereby retain his post, whether under Kutayfāt or a successor. And he succeeded: he held onto it until his death in 542/1147, long after Kutayfāt’s demise. The pen had proven mightier than the sword.10 Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī, in sum, served in the Fatimid chancery for nearly fifty years. He and his work have their feet firmly rooted to earth. The Rules of the Chancery, as a description of chancery practice, is a strictly in-­house operation. This is, however, both good and bad. Its in-­house quality is good because it has freed Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī of the tendency to brazen myth making in which the chroniclers indulge, the sleights of hand that allow them to pass off speculation, clever invention, wishful thinking, and invented dialogue as fact. Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī is not interested in spinning a good yarn. He quotes virtually nothing. He includes hardly any examples of good style, though he emphasizes its importance. He omits even his own sample texts, too, probably because he had other outlets for memorializing his fine style: dozens, if not hundreds, of his chancery documents and poems circulated as models and, eventually, made their way into anthologies.11 Compared to al-­Qalqashandī’s massive encyclopedia of all Arabic chancery practice, ever, Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s work is less thorough, less omnivorous, and, God help us, less long. It’s pragmatic, not encyclopedic. It’s also less ambitious: in addition to quoting virtually no one—save a Buyid official or two—Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī declares pointedly and sensibly that in this work, he has “clarified such matters according to the required practice in Egypt [ʿalā mā yaqtaḍīhi ḥukm al-­bilād al-­miṣriyya] and what is known there now, not at any other time [al-­amr al-­mutaʿāraf fīhā l-­ān, dūna ghayrihi min al-­ awqāt].”12 It’s not a work of antiquarianism, like parts of al-­Qalqashandī’s compilation. It’s a handbook. The work is, moreover, of a manageable size. The text runs to thirty-­seven folio pages, at thirteen lines per page. It’s business-­like because Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī intended it precisely as a manual: this book, he instructs his readers, must “always remain fixed in place in the chancery, and everyone who works there should be guided by it.”13 All “the officials of the chancery should be required to understand it and memorize it.”14 It was a shop manual. This is good, because it tells us about the shop Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī ran for the Fatimids. But precisely because it was a shop manual, it answers certain questions and remains silent on others. It offers copious details about the daily rhythm and grind of the chancery. This is, from one angle, wonderful. The chancery sounds, in Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s hands, not at all like a medieval scriptorium, that silent chamber of the tonsured and industrious. It sounds like the open-­plan office of a modern daily newspaper, abuzz with a bustling and harried staff on perpetual deadline. His officials produce copy, edit it, proof it, set it (calligraphically) in final form, make copies of it and file them, and care a lot about getting the facts and the details right, finding supporting documents in the ar-

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Administrative Manuals and Nonmanuals • 277 chives, getting their grammar and their style in order, keeping up the high standards for which their operation and the best of their guild are known—and they are always racing to the finish line. When you read his book, you can sense the intensity of his men as they work under pressure; see the sweat condensing on their brows as they search for the right phrase; hear the scraping of nibs on paper, the recutting of calami that have gone recalcitrant and won’t lay their ink down smoothly; feel the impatience of the scribe cooking his ink for the fifteenth time that week, annoyed that it won’t behave as expected, that the gum that held it together keeps clumping, or that it keeps running out just when he seems to need it most.15 But how many of his men are there? Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī doesn’t tell us. His manual may be pragmatic, but precisely because it’s a shop manual, it’s written for those who already know the kinds of things we might most like to learn from it. Where, for instance, was the chancery chamber, and what did it look like? Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī doesn’t tell us this, because anyone reading the work already knew, because the only place they could read it was in the chancery, and the well-­thumbed copy of the book that was among its furnishings may have been the only one in existence. If you were holding the book in your hands, you didn’t need to be told where the chancery was or what it looked like because you were standing in it. There is another problem with the work. He dedicated it to the megalomaniac Kutayfāt, probably in an effort to save his career. This gives him all the motive he needs to offer a neater and cleaner version of how the chancery ran than messy reality might have allowed. You come away from the book thinking, well, this man runs his shop impeccably. His employees must fear him and give of their best to him. But then you think: wait, what is he covering up? In any organization, there is inefficiency. Anyone running something, a department for instance, knows this, but no one running a department wants to discuss it, to identify its weaknesses, its dilemmas, and its insoluble structural problems, or if they do, they certainly don’t want to identify them to the chief executive officer of the larger organization—especially if that chief executive officer just happens, earlier that year, to have seized absolute power. But we needn’t merely suspect the book of being self-­serving. It is patently so. Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī tells us that its purpose is to serve as “a guide as to who should be chosen as the head of the chancery.”16 He will inform Kutayfāt of the qualities required of a good head of the chancery and how the organization is supposed to run; he will also be describing himself and his own shop. While many will find his book useful, he says, above all it is for the ruler (al-­malik), by which he means the vizier, Kutayfāt, whose formal title was al-Malik al-Afḍal. “If he studies its content, if he appoints to the secretaryship of the caliph [kitābat ḥaḍratihi] someone whom this book deems worthy and who possesses the conditions that this book specifies he must possess, it will safeguard him against the disturbance of many affairs of his state.”17 If the vizier uses this book as a set of guideposts, he says, the state will run smoothly; and those guideposts point toward the book’s author, namely, Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī. One might well, then, also suspect that his description of the myriad tasks of the chancery is padded, especially his repeated claim that the director has so many im­ portant tasks to attend to that he absolutely must delegate responsibilities to this or

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278 • Chapter 10 that other official or he’ll be sunk. He’s just too busy not to have a full complement of competent staff helping him out. And if padded it be, who can blame him? University departments that happen to want to preserve their budgets if not augment them do this in self-­studies all the time. And it’s actually to posterity’s advantage that Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī padded: we want to know about the fullest possible complement of staff, not the skeleton crew. But—and this is a very large caveat—I strongly suspect that far from padding, Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī is in fact understating the size of his staff. This is not because the surviving chancery products, the decree scraps, are so numerous as to have required a larger staff than he describes: we don’t know how long it took an excellent calligrapher to produce a grand rotulus, and maybe it was a faster business than we imagine. It’s because the number of individual calligraphers responsible for the surviving scraps from the period of his directorship exceeds the number of them he gives, which is one. I’ll get back to this later. Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī appears, then, to be lowballing the size of his staff. He may have wanted to present the workings of his chancery as efficient and machine-­like, all meat and bones, no fat. Why is a question that will be easier to answer once we consider the material evidence.

THE MANUSCRIPT Like ʿAlī b. Khalaf ’s nonmanual, Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s, too, has survived in only one manuscript copy (fig. 10.1). But just as the work is of a different sort from ʿAlī b. Khalaf ’s, so, too, is the manuscript. While its audience was just as narrow and self-­selecting—they are both unicums—it must have been narrow in a different way. ʿAlī b. Khalaf ’s book lived on in the meticulous and obsessive mind of al-­Qalqashandī, and perhaps, as well, among a small circle of prose stylists and chancery professionals who wanted to get their hands on the book for its copious citations of Abbasid chancery compositions. Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s book, by contrast, remained on the shelf of the chancery at Cairo. It was available to those who already found themselves in the chancery precincts—namely, chancery officials. It remained available there for at least three generations, to judge by the date when the surviving manuscript of it was copied: 16 Dhū l-­ Ḥijja 597 (17 September 1201; fig. 10.2).18 This was not only half a century after the death of the work’s author. It was three decades after the fall of the Fatimids. The Ayyubids had already been ruling from Cairo for a generation. Copying a description of the Fatimid chancery well after the fall of the dynasty is not an obvious move. Had the work been lying on the shelf of the chancery since the Fatimids fell in 1171, gathering dust for thirty years, superseded meanwhile by the new dynasty and forgotten as a relic from the past? Was the copyist engaging in an act of antiquarianism—preserving a piece of the past while fully conscious of its pastness, believing that that pastness deserved to be salvaged precisely because it was long gone? But was that past, in fact, long gone?

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5 cm 2 in

10.1. Beginning of Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s chapter on the archivist, from the only surviving copy of his guide to the Fatimid chancery, composed in 524–­25/1130–­31. The copy is dated 597/1201. Cambridge University Library, Qq. 244, fol. 30r.

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5 cm 2 in

10.2. Colophon of Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s guide to the Fatimid chancery, this copy completed on 16 Dhū l-­ Ḥijja 597 (17 September 1201). Cambridge University Library, Qq. 244, fol. 37r.

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Administrative Manuals and Nonmanuals • 281 To judge by the similarities between Fatimid and Ayyubid chancery documents, it wasn’t long gone at all. Fatimid chancery practice continued on both as an ideal and as a set of practices after the last Ismāʿīlīs had left Egypt, driven their ideological loyalties deep underground, or abandoned them completely. This is evident in the formulary and physical characteristics of Ayyubid state documents, which look and read like late Fatimid ones in every way except they never mention a caliph (fig. 10.3).19 The Ayyubid-­ era users of Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s manual did for the Fatimids what the Fatimids had done for the Abbasids before them: welded them to the chain of an Arabic administrative tradition that bound together dynasties with different ruling ideologies. Who, then, copied Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s chancery manual, and why? I don’t know, but I’m going to take a stab at an answer anyway. The institutional memory of Fatimid chancery practice outlived the dynasty, and it outlived it mainly in the person of one man: Abū Alī ʿAbd al-­Raḥīm al-­Baysānī, known as al-­Qāḍī al-­Fāḍil (529/1135–596/1200), who served as head of the chancery under the last Fatimid caliph, al-­ʿĀḍid (555–67/1160–71), and continued on in the post after the suppression of the caliphate. He was a living link to Fatimid chancery practice and then became personal secretary to Saladin and continued in that capacity under the next two Ayyubid sultans.20 But he cannot have copied Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s book: the manuscript came into being a year after al-­Qāḍī al-­Fāḍil died. But al-­Qāḍī al-­Fāḍil’s death must have made somebody mighty nervous about the future of chancery praxis in Egypt—anxious that the accumulated technical knowledge of the previous generations would slip away and be gone, the standards of the guild in peril. That this was no mere antiquarian project is clear from the other work the anonymous scribe chose to copy: the Qawānīn al-­dawāwīn (Rules of the bureaus) of Ibn Mammātī (542–606/1147–1209; fig. 10.4).21 These are two very different works that have found themselves cheek by jowl between two covers.22 If Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s chancery manual has the virtue of being readable and moderately interesting to an outsider, Ibn Mammātī’s work is neither. It’s a deadly compendium of the details of agricultural administration, taxation, and finance, as dry and boring and, often, as impenetrable as it is thorough. (As you might guess, that makes it all the more fascinating to me, but I won’t focus on the technical details here.) Ibn Mammātī wrote the work under Saladin sometime between 578/1182 and 589/1193 but had received his entire education and training under the Fatimids. Born and raised as a Copt, he wrote this work after his first appointment, to the dīwān al-­ jaysh in 1182, and was eventually appointed to the dīwān al-­māl and finally to the naẓar al-­dawāwīn. Helpful in all this was that he had a powerful protector: al-­Qāḍī al-­Fāḍil, éminence grise of the administration, the Ayyubids’ lifeline not only to the Fatimid past but to competence and efficiency.23 If the Ayyubids were a plug-­and-­play dynasty—zero set-­up required—this was only in part because Saladin had been a Fatimid vizier and was a military man. Taxes also needed to be collected, documents written, and the state run. These were the spheres of al-­Qāḍī al-­Fāḍil. The Qāḍī had received his earliest training, at thirteen or fourteen years of age, at the Fatimid chancery, just after the death of Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī. His apprenticeship began in 543–44/1148–49, when all the chancery

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10.3. A petition or report mentioning the Ayyubid sultan al-­Malik al-­ʿĀdil (596–­615/1200–­1218 or 635–­37/1238–­40; two Ayyubid sultans went by this regnal title). Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, F 1908.44s + Mainz 2.

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5 cm 2 in 10.4. Two colophons, in different hands, from the earliest surviving copy of Ibn Mammātī’s book on the early Ayyubid fiscal system, copied by the same scribe who copied Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s guide to the Fatimid chancery. Cambridge University Library, Qq. 244, fol. 79r.

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284 • Chapter 10 scribes at whose hands he trained had still known Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī personally. The Qāḍī was head of the chancery when the Fatimid caliph al-­ʿĀḍid appointed Saladin as vizier: he personally wrote the diploma of investiture titling him al-­Malik al-­Nāṣir.24 So when Saladin proclaimed himself sultan, he kept al-­Qāḍī al-­Fāḍil in his post. Al-­Qāḍī al-­Fāḍil came with his own stable of protégés. One was Moses Maimonides, and another was Ibn Mammātī—despite what the Copts record as al-­Qāḍī al-­Fāḍil’s distaste for Christians.25 Al-­Qāḍī al-­Fāḍil didn’t just tolerate Ibn Mammātī; he came to consider him so eloquent that he dubbed him bulbul al-­majlis, the “nightingale of the [royal] chamber.”26 Majlis was also a metonymy for the sultan, which suggests that apart from his highly technocratic work on agrarian administration, Ibn Mammātī at some point may have composed royal correspondence in addition to poetry. Ibn Mammātī also dedicated some writings to al-­Qāḍī al-­Fāḍil, though only five of a possible twenty-­ nine of his works have been found, but to judge by the titles, there are works of poetry among the missing ones.27 Ibn Mammātī, then— former Copt, technocrat, nightingale of the chamber—had his feet firmly planted in the Fatimid era. In choosing the title Qawānīn al-­dawāwīn, he echoed the title of Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s Qānūn dīwān al-­rasāʾil, presumably deliberately: he took the first two words of Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s title and rendered them in the plural and then left off the third word entirely, thus promising to describe the rules of all bureaus, not just the chancery. This suggests, first, that Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s reputation was undiminished well into the Ayyubid period. It also suggests that Ibn Mammātī was ambitious enough to think he could do Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī one better—or that he had something to prove. But in fact, Ibn Mammātī didn’t describe the rules of all the bureaus. Instead, he focused on one branch of the government: the fiscal administration. Ibn Mammātī’s is a very different sort of work from Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s, and despite the tribute in his title, he is a very different sort of author. Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī is a great prose stylist. His work is not so much a guide to administration as the virtuosic performance of a seasoned upper administrator who was conscious of his guild. He had studied the letters of Hilāl al-­Ṣābiʾ. He not only knew how to run a tight department; he knew how to write about it. And he knew how to survive in the complicated and terrifying world of court intrigue, as the very existence of his manual—a letter of application addressed to an autocrat—and his longevity as an administrator both demonstrate. Ibn Mammātī, by contrast, did not survive court intrigue. Quite the contrary: it sent him into exile in Syria. He was a pure technocrat, apparently inept at the game of political survival. It’s actually astonishing how technocratically he writes, despite having headed the two most important bureaus of government in his day, those of the army (al-­jaysh) and finance (al-­māl), and despite al-­Qāḍī al-­Fāḍil’s praise for his poetry and prose. There may be a performative aspect to his technocracy, but in this work, at least, his writing is decidedly workmanly. It’s a manual, now in the narrow sense, a practical guide in a world in which books that claimed to be guides more often than not turned out to be showpieces of the author’s elegant prose. Ibn Mammātī is anything but afraid of getting into the weeds. Anyone who has read his treatise will know what I am talking about. It’s a veritable solid-­state structure of weeds. It’s packed with descriptions of the land tax, from every direction: assessing it,

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Administrative Manuals and Nonmanuals • 285 levying it, collecting it, calculating it; the criteria for its assessment, which were complicated and changed annually with the Nile flood, while somehow managing to remain complicated; crop rotation and the solar (“Coptic”) calendar; canals and dikes—the only complete list of them from the period—and their maintenance; seed advance and its quantities; sowing, harvesting, and yields; when specific crops are sown and harvested; the timetable of tax payments; the cadaster, which happened before and after the Nile flood; and so on. It’s a gazetteer and an administrative manual in one, and it’s virtually impossible to understand unless you have mastered a huge lexicon of technical terms—a lexicon, I may have forgotten to mention, for which there is no dictionary.28 That makes the title all the more confounding: how can this book claim to be a “manual of administration” when it’s only a manual of agrarian administration? Then again, agrarian administration was the largest part of finance in the period, and finance, for the Ayyubids, was the largest part of governance. Ibn Mammātī must have focused on agrarian finance because the Ayyubid administration itself was focused on it. And fiscal finances were complex. In order to coax the maximum yield from the land for the state, you had to sift the entire system of land tenure and primary production through a fine mesh, sort it, subject it to microanalysis, and capture what you could. If you wanted your men to be there at every harvest to collect what you had assessed, you had to know what was grown where, and when it would be harvested. As James C. Scott has persuasively argued, sedentary states love to tax grain because they know when it ripens and they can find out where it grows.29 Grains have been the basis of sedentary states for literally millennia—as have, by extension, writing and archiving—because grains are caloric and inexpensive, and grow cyclically and visibly above ground. They provide efficient energy to humans and beasts alike, and the tax collector can find them. Root crops will also do in a pinch, but not as well, because they can be stored in the ground for long periods, so they are easier to conceal from the assessor. Despite this, there is talk among Fatimid officials about taro (Latin colocasia, whence the Arabic qulqās) and sugarcane (Arabic qaṣab; the pressed juice, once hardened, is raw sugar, qand, etymologically related to candy), but since cane grows from the cut stalks of harvested cane and ripens year-­round, it could be taxed in the field only with extra effort and some risk of confusion, and so had to be taxed at the press, and as for taro, the research isn’t there yet.30 But taxes were payable in cash and grain, not cash and cane, or taro or legumes.31 The point is, like any other sedentary state whose fiscal strategy rose or fell on its capacity to tax, the Ayyubids didn’t want to miss anything out there in the fields. That meant that they couldn’t discard accumulated knowledge. Hence the importance of Ibn Mammātī’s detailed book—as well as the relevance of the man himself and the long survival of his work. Ibn Mammātī was thirty-­five years old on his first appointment, in 578/1182. This was eleven years into the Ayyubid regime. He had been twenty-­four when Saladin suppressed the Fatimids and declared the Ayyubid sultanate. His formation and training had taken place under the Fatimids, but you wouldn’t know it to read his treatise, which has the fingerprints of a reformer all over it. His innovations include the first ever cadaster of all Egypt, with a list of four thousand estates and their acreages and yields. That part is now lost—Richard S. Cooper surmises that it was omitted from the early

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286 • Chapter 10 copies of the work because it contained classified information.32 But amazingly, despite the work’s mind-­numbingly technical nature, it circulated and was copied and recopied nearly continuously through the Mamluk and even Ottoman periods, another difference between Ibn Mammātī’s work and Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s. Ibn Mammātī’s was copied a total of nine times in eight hundred years, which for a technical work of use only to specialists is an impressive track-­record.33 Or perhaps Ibn Mammātī’s work circulated and was copied precisely because of its highly technical nature, like the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which has been published annually in the United States since 1792, an extremely long time for anything to be published continuously in North America. These things have long publication histories, I suppose, though I am no farmer, perhaps less because nature and agriculture are unchanging (they aren’t) than because the subjects they treat remain at the subspecialty level of practical but not-­quite-­technical knowledge. They also repeat at cycles of a year, which is a longer bracket of time than the human mind can remember well, so just the kind of thing for which a set of notes is needed, and gets passed down. Still, some expert in the Mamluk or Ottoman period of Egyptian history must tell me what use Ibn Mammātī’s work would have been three hundred, five hundred, or even seven hundred years later—especially without its section on the cadaster. It’s almost like reprinting a military flight manual from the 1940s, without the relevant diagrams: it’s of value as a curiosity, but dangerous if taken as a practical guide. The work, allow me to repeat, bristles with technical terms. Technical terms in Arabic related to government administration are beastly, because they were among the most unstable and slippery parts of the lexicon. There are terms Ibn Mammātī uses completely differently from Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī less than fifty years earlier (like sijill). That’s just one problem with making sense of it. Some of the copyists don’t seem to have understood it completely, either.34 But then again, other challenges of agricultural administration were apparently long-­ standing. Ibn Mammātī’s chapter on how to conduct a cadastral survey attempts to correct some of the “abuses and inequities arising from faulty formulae,” as Cooper puts it—there’s the reformer—and “both the practices and abuses mentioned in this chapter are not strikingly different from those in the time of the Ptolemies.”35 So maybe the Ottomans faced the same problems: the kind of continuity that Cooper presumes may not be the “timeless orient” thing rearing its ugly head. It may merely be about the severe constraints of a corner of the Mediterranean that depended for a very long stretch of its history on one great river and one decently sized oasis, whose vast tracts of desert restricted its fertile, habitable, and taxable land to a skinny ribbon topped by a fan, with a smallish cluster off to the left, whose entire agricultural cycle depended on a single moment in the month of Tūt or Bābih (September–October), the crest of the Nile flood. I don’t know whether there will ever be a longue durée study of Egyptian agrarian history—like, a seriously longue durée history, back to the pharaohs, and I’m not talking here about a Wittfogel-­like theory of hydraulic despotism (see chapter 16). There is, however, a critical mass of published papyri and studies that could feed into one. Chris Wickham has recently opened the conversation for the Fatimid period, and he begins by noting that those who have studied land tenure in Egypt have tended to

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Administrative Manuals and Nonmanuals • 287 take the eras they study as paradigmatic of the whole when they’re not.36 It will be illuminating to see where the inflection points lie. But there was continuity in the centrality of fiscal administration, and in path ­dependence, even if the Nile and the irrigation system were not entirely path dependent themselves. As for the centrality of fiscal administration, Ibn Mammātī apparently made a persuasive case for it in the Qawānīn. He eventually rose to head the bureaus of both finance (al-­māl) and the army (al-­jaysh), a consolidation of administrative power that reflected the two main arenas that mattered to the Ayyubids, whose military expenses served the cause of fighting enemies in Syria, the Franks among them. The more efficient their agricultural administration, the better their fisc could feed the gaping maw of their military machine. Ibn Mammātī was not the first to conflate agrarian administration with all administration; nor was that conflation an Ayyubid innovation. The ninth-­century Abbasid official Ibn Qutayba—who as a Persian and a polymath came by the statement honestly and believed in it—quotes “the Persians” as saying: Anyone who doesn’t know the art of irrigation, of digging canals and making dikes; how [water] increases and decreases daily; how to sight the new moon and its effects; how to use a scale; how to measure a triangle, a square and different angles; how to build arches, pontoon bridges, or a water pulley; [anyone who] doesn’t know the tools of the artisans and the minutiae of arithmetic—such a person does not have the necessary knowledge to become an official [kātib].37 An official worth his salt, in sum, had to be a polymath. He had to be an estate holder, an astronomer, and an engineer (muhandis—recall the Buyid officials’ concern with the geometry of the Arabic script and the Ikhwān al-­Ṣafāʾ’s anonymous informant) all in one. Technicalities were not merely an inconvenience to be overcome; they were the official’s stock-­in-­trade. But even Ibn Mammātī’s commitment to material expertise and wallowing in the weeds is not as uncompromising as that of a contemporary of his in the fiscal administration: al-­Makhzūmī. 38 I don’t mean to overwhelm you with names, and he’s the last official I’ll introduce in this chapter. But al-­Makhzūmī is important because he’s the third in a triumvirate of officials (the others are Ibn Mammātī and al-­Qāḍī al-­Fāḍil) responsible for the continuation of Fatimid practice into the Ayyubid period. Like Ibn Mammātī, al-­Makhzūmī had served the Fatimids but—unlike Ibn Mammātī—had learned the taxation system from the ground up, while running Alexandria’s. Although Ibn Mammātī and al-­Makhzūmī were working with what Cahen calls “similar documentary sources for some points” of administrative practice, and although they “present almost the same form of administration (that of the later Fāṭimids prolonged under Saladin),” they “differ profoundly.” By Cahen’s lights, Ibn Mammātī “presents a clear, methodical account” of the fiscal system, an overview shorn of the minute technicalities for which a senior official would have no practical use (which suggests either that Cahen had a low threshold for clarity or that al-­Makhzūmī is truly impenetrable). Al-­ Makhzūmī, by contrast, focuses on “the concrete activities performed by the employees of the tax office.”39 In brief, while al-­Makhzūmī presents the work of the agricultural

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288 • Chapter 10 administrator from the perspective of the estate and the field, Ibn Mammātī presents it from Cairo. Likewise, while al-­Makhzūmī had come from the provinces, Ibn Mammātī’s life, livelihood, and worldview were centered on the capital. And therein, perhaps, lies a clue to the genesis of Ibn Mammātī’s work. His treatise is full of hard-­won knowledge, but it’s not quite pragmatic and not quite useable—much like Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s. It’s systematic, but semiopaque. You wouldn’t take it with you into the provinces; you would take al-­Makhzūmī’s. Perhaps, then, Ibn Mammātī’s work, too, was an attempt to secure the author’s role in the administration at a vulnerable period, to assure the ruler he served that his expertise was indispensable to the functioning of the state.

CONTINUITY ACROSS REGIMES I’ll pause to take stock before forging ahead. I’ve taken us into a world familiar to most medieval Arabists but less familiar to me, the world of texts of more than one page, of signed works transmitted in codices. I’ve departed for the moment from anonymous document scraps, though it must be admitted that some of the codices just barely survived, and that they, too, can be read as artifacts with biographies and afterlives. So far, we’ve seen Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī, the eloquent lover of fine style, who looks back to the Buyids, who served the Fatimids for half a century, who wrote his not very practical and perhaps not particularly well-­thumbed but beautifully written manual that, if we are to believe his note in the work, he left on the shelf of the chancery when he died. We have al-­Qāḍī al-­Fāḍil beginning his apprenticeship at the chancery the next year, nary a hair on his chin, probably reading Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s work and certainly carrying the old ways forward until, once the Ayyubids abolished the Fatimid caliphate, he became the éminence grise of the administration, the repository of knowledge of the way things had been done. And then we have one of al-­Qāḍī al-­Fāḍil’s protégés, Ibn Mammātī, the bean counter (perhaps literally) and reformer, systematizing the agrarian administration with his endless appetite for technical detail, but doing so from the comfort of Cairo rather than the muck and dust of the Ṣaʿīd his family had left behind. And therein lies another clue. Both Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī in the Fatimid period and Ibn Mammātī in the early Ayyubid had pressing motivations to demonstrate their utility to the state. Both were third-­generation government officials. But Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī came from the old guard and the elite, while Ibn Mammātī was a Copt whose family came from Asyūṭ. True, Ibn Mammātī’s grandfather had worked in the bureau of the army (al-­jaysh) under Badr al-­Jamālī, but he was still a Copt; true, his father, also a Copt, had served in the same bureau and possibly also in the land grants bureau (dīwān al-­iqṭāʿāt). But this same father had remained in his post under the Ayyubids only because a year or two before they came to power, he had converted to Islam. Few would have regarded Ibn Mammātī’s pedigree as an advantage, despite the pervasiveness and (as the regime itself might have admitted) utility of agrarian administrators of Coptic origin.

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Administrative Manuals and Nonmanuals • 289 Ibn Mammātī was, then, born a Copt. Although he had the protection of the éminence grise al-­Qāḍī al-­Fāḍil, that same éminence grise was also known to dislike Christian administrators when they happened to be too highly placed, a distaste he shared with Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī among others. Ibn Mammātī eventually rose to head not just the bureaus of the army (al-­jaysh) and finance (al-­māl) but also the naẓar al-­dawāwīn, a bureau of supervision possibly equivalent to the Fatimid dīwān al-­taḥqīq—all of which made him vulnerable to envious rivals. He was a parvenu. If Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī wrote his chancery work to demonstrate to the megalomaniac vizier for whom he worked that he was the one who should head the bureau, Ibn Mammātī wrote his to demonstrate that cumulative knowledge of the fiscal administration was a form of technical knowledge indispensable to the state, even if you were a Copt. Ibn Mammātī was, then, the parvenu who had managed to make himself indispensable—until he wasn’t anymore. And that brings us back to the manuscript real estate the two men share. In 597/1201—a year after the death of al-­Qāḍī al-­Fāḍil—someone decided to copy the works of both Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī and Ibn Mammātī, the one a model of prose style and erudition, the other a monument to technical knowledge. The scribe says he finished copying the first work, Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s, on Monday, 16 Dhū l-­Ḥijja 597 (17 September 1201).40 The copy of Ibn Mammātī is undated, but it’s in the same hand, so assuming it was copied around the same time, it was copied well within the lifetime of its author. It’s not unheard of for an author’s work to be copied during his lifetime, but it’s not that common, either, especially for a work of this sort, so narrow in its readership that it wouldn’t have brought its author fame, only an aura of administrative expertise. That suggests the scribe wasn’t engaging in mere antiquarianism in copying Ibn al-­ Ṣayrafī, because if he had been, he would not have copied him together with Ibn Mammātī, a current work by a living author. There must have been some practical use for it. Ibn Mammātī was still alive. Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī was long dead. Al-­Qāḍī al-­Fāḍil had just died a year earlier. Foremost, then, among the people who would have had a practical use for such a manuscript was Ibn Mammātī himself. This is where the chicken comes home to roost—where the timing of the manuscript is, I believe, significant. The year the manuscript was copied, 597/1201, happened to be a disastrous one for Ibn Mammātī. He was a reforming technocrat in the Ayyubid agrarian and military administration and a protégé of the man who was the personified institutional memory of Fatimid chancery practice. And in 596/1200, that man, al-­Qāḍī al-­Fāḍil, died, leaving Ibn Mammātī, the parvenu, without a living source of information to whom he could turn with questions about chancery practice—and without a patron at court.41 To make matters worse—so much worse—in that same year, 596/1200, the reigning sultan, al-­Malik al-­Manṣūr, died, and his successor, al-­Malik al-­ʿĀdil Sayf al-­Dīn, appointed a new vizier who was Ibn Mammātī’s sworn enemy. His name was al-­Ṣafī ʿAbd Allāh Ibn Shukr, and he was so intent on making life difficult for Ibn Mammātī that he

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290 • Chapter 10 didn’t sack him, but instead, kept him on at his post so that he could devise ever more terrible professional and psychological tortures for him—so terrible that Yāqūt al-­ Ḥamawī (574 or 575–626/1179–1229), the encyclopedist who conveys the information, won’t even specify what they were. Whatever Ibn Shukr did to Ibn Mammātī, it was apparently unspeakable. He put Ibn Mammātī constantly on the defensive, until finally one day he accused Ibn Mammātī of embezzlement, using the accusation as an excuse to do what he had probably been planning to do all along: turn the army against him. Ibn Mammātī could not afford to repay what he had been accused of stealing, so he fled. Another version of the story holds that numerous officials were mulcted for their fortunes that year, so the accusation may have had nothing to do with the personal rivalry between the new vizier and Ibn Mammātī, but no matter. Either way, Ibn Mammātī was reduced to hiding in the Qarāfa cemetery in Cairo for an entire year. A year is a long time to hide anywhere, let alone in a cemetery, especially if one happens to be alive and thus susceptible to the effects of poverty and physical discomfort. But eventually Ibn Mammātī came to realize that Ibn Shukr not only knew his whereabouts, he had been keeping tabs on him all along solely for the pleasure of knowing that he was suffering like a dog. So Ibn Mammātī fled to Syria. On the way, according to Yāqūt, he received from Ibn Shukr the following little note: Don’t think that your disappearance from me was such that I did not know where you were. News of you was brought to me daily, informing me that you were at the tomb of al-­Mādharāʾī since such-­and-­such a day. When you fled I knew all about it and could have brought you back if I had wanted. If I knew you had any money left, I would not have left you alone. I don’t consider your offense such that I should destroy you for it. My only wish is for you to be eking out a living, fearful, poor, exiled, and banished. Don’t think you have escaped my stratagems.42 Chilling, isn’t it? Ibn Mammātī made it to Syria, where he received a warm welcome and a pension from Saladin’s son in Aleppo, al-­Malik al-­Ẓāhir. He died seven years later. The manuscript containing both Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s manual of the chancery and Ibn Mammātī’s manual of agrarian administration came into being after Ibn Mammātī’s exile from the citadel but before he fled to Syria. And it must have been a state official who copied it. It’s unlikely that anyone else would have had access to those two works, known of them, or, perhaps, cared to know of them. So who copied them and why? I don’t have the answer, but the hypotheses are worth exploring for what they might tell us about the manuscript. One is that Ibn Mammātī himself copied both works to present them to the Ayyubids of Syria. If so, they would have made for an odd choice: if he really had another couple of dozen works to his name, why bring one that was specific to Egypt? But then there is the matter of the missing cadaster. The part of the manuscript containing Ibn Mammātī’s work is clearly incomplete: the text begins in the middle of the eighth chapter, on the various types of officials involved in tax collection. The full chapter would have listed seventeen such officials; the surviving part of our manuscript begins in the

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Administrative Manuals and Nonmanuals • 291 middle of the sixth. The chapter just before it would have been the cadaster.43 Its absence suggests that Cooper may be right; someone may have shorn the work of its classified information—even though Cooper didn’t consult this manuscript for his edition. And while the missing parts of the manuscript could, of course, have gone missing in the normal course of affairs, as parts of so many manuscripts have done, this is a special case: the fragment of Ibn Mammātī is bound into a single codex with a complete copy of Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī, and they are in the same hand. But while a single scribe copied them both, whoever bound them together (whether it was the scribe himself or a later owner) seems to have had only the final chapters of Ibn Mammātī. I feel obliged at least to consider the possibility that it was Ibn Mammātī himself who had shorn the text of the cadaster and everything that came before it—and that he had done so in haste, hence right in the middle of a chapter. If you’ll allow me to continue entertaining this admittedly speculative scenario, I’d like to go a step further with it. If it was Ibn Mammātī himself who carried his own work out of the citadel, did he leave the cadaster behind because he didn’t dare leave the citadel with it, or because those who were still there needed the cadaster and the chapters before it (on land classification, irrigation, and the agricultural calendar, including what to sow and reap when), or because he needed the chapters after it (on the functions of the ministry of finance and on weights and measures), or because he couldn’t afford to provide Ibn Shukr with yet another misdeed to feed his campaign of persecution? Or could Ibn Mammātī or a supporter of his have copied the manuscript on the eve of his departure from Egypt to ensure that the technical information he had so painstakingly learned over the years was not lost—as an insurance policy, perhaps, against his name and work being obliterated from the bureaucracy—and then, as extra insurance, bound it together with his copy of Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s book because two administrative manuals were more likely to keep circulating than one, and the more elegant work might protect its deadly, technical mate from oblivion? Or did these two works in particular represent—to someone—the legacy of the Fatimid era that was now in danger of being lost?44 Whoever the copyist was, he must have been well aware that Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī was long gone, that al-­Qāḍī al-­Fāḍil had also just died and taken an era with him, that Ibn Mammātī was unlikely to return, and that the administration would never be quite the same. He must also have known that Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s manual would have limited practical utility and serve mainly as a monument to the man’s eloquence and organizational capacities. But as an anchor for the more technocratic manual, Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s power performance would have served nicely.

MAKER’S KNOWLEDGE I began this detour into signed, multipage works—as opposed to the anonymous one-­ page variety on which the rest of this book focuses—to point out the improbable contingencies involved in Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s work having survived at all. But by its end, I’ve discovered more about the continuity of administrative practices across ruling houses

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292 • Chapter 10 and religious ideologies. I have not, as of yet, found a named, biographed Buyid official who fled to the Fatimid court or a George of Antioch, who left the Fatimids and Zīrids to make a name for himself in Norman Sicily.45 But Ibn Mammātī’s story demonstrates that high administrators had a way of jumping ship to ship, not ship to sea. I find it strange that Ibn Mammātī’s work continued to circulate and be copied down through the early Ottoman period, but it does seem that collecting the land tax was a complex enough business that keeping a manual like his on hand might well have saved the fiscal staff many hours of reconnaissance. Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s work’s survival is less easily explicable. If it attests anything, it’s the continuing interest of the early Ayyubid administration in the way things had been done under the Fatimids. The strangeness of Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī having survived at all is that it is neither a technical manual—this is how you write a document—nor a compendium of models—here are the best documents that have ever been written. It’s an organizational chart, and a faulty one at that—just how faulty I will attempt to judge presently. The utility of Ibn Mam­ mātī’s work explains the survival of Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s, which was impractical. Ibn al-­ Ṣayrafī’s ultimately survived by piggy-­backing onto Ibn Mammātī’s because Ibn Mam­ mātī’s was useful, but no one in Ibn Mammātī’s day knew that it would prove more useful than Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s. For all they knew, Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s had more prestige as a product of the chancery and its commitment to eloquence than Ibn Mammātī’s as a product of the fisc and its commitment to accounting. If Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s work was practical at all, then, it was practical not as a guide to chancery practice but as a set of claims about its author, its copyists, and its owners. If you were trying to reconstruct a Fatimid decree based on Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s Qānūn dīwān al-­rasāʾil, there is no way you could do it. Its intended audience was other palace officials who already knew perfectly well how to write a document. Its author’s goal was not to instruct his colleagues but to claim a role as first among them. The person who copied it may have done so for the same purpose.46 The obliqueness of Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s work, or its focus on the chancery team and its division of labor, is, however, a problem for me personally. There are exhortations to probity, eloquence, and good grammar; a chancery employee should be scrupulous, reliable, cultured (muʾaddab), and, God forbid, not Christian; and a seasoned administrator should delegate roles as clearly as Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī did while retaining ultimate responsibility for everything his office produced. But what, in fact, did his office produce? The kinds of document his chancery drew up are mentioned glancingly but never described. There is no mention of who wrote the petitions that sometimes trickled and sometimes poured into it and sometimes bottlenecked it. The work is, instead, an exhaustive catalogue of the kinds of copyists the chancery employed—all unnamed—and a description of the assembly line into which they were organized and of the flow of paper from draft to final copy to archive. The vizier’s questions about the chancery were his, not ours; they may not even have been those of Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī or his underlings unless one of them wished to follow him as director. Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s manual could, in other words, teach you how to run a bureau of government, how to run the chancery specifically, and how to convince the vizier that you were the right man for the job. But it tells you nothing about the content or form

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Administrative Manuals and Nonmanuals • 293 of the documents the chancery produced. It doesn’t classify them or describe them by type. This is a great shame for many reasons, chief among them that many (though not all) the technical names for document types are still poorly understood, and al-­ Qalqashandī is of limited utility in reconstructing them, because the Fatimid usage is not the Mamluk usage, and where al-­Qalqashandī claims to know the Fatimid usage, the Fatimid documents that have survived roundly contradict him. Nor does Ibn al-­ Ṣayrafī tell you about formats of paper, formulas of address, line spacing, types of ink, or the other material technicalities that it would be nice to know about so we could compare them with the corpus of surviving documents. If you were an apprentice and wanted to know what words to write in a chancery document, then Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s was not the work to consult. If what you needed was something as pragmatic as that, you had to put your hands on a different source of information: the documents themselves. You had model documents in abundance, and you had masters who could make models for you, as with the writing exercise in which master and apprentice alternate lines (see fig. 8.5), as with al-­Qāḍī al-­Fāḍil’s apprenticeship at the Fatimid chancery. If you had exhausted the model documents you had, you could always find more in the archives. And if those didn’t suffice, then you could find anthologies of other officials’ work, including collections of Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s own decrees. I suspect that al-­Qalqashandī may even have pulled some of his Fatimid model documents from anthologies rather than from the archives of the chancery, although that is an argument for another context. The point is that if you wanted a model of good prose, what you needed was not a guide to the chancery like Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s, but an archive or a diplomatic anthology. Al-­Qalqashandī’s genius was that he brought between fourteen covers (twenty-­eight printed) a number of distinct genres: his compendium includes collections of model documents, an encyclopedia of administration, and a history of Arabic chanceries all in one. His massive work was the Swiss army knife of chancery manuals. He lived in an age of encyclopedism; in his time, he was the unrivalled master of chancery practice, and exhaustive information gathering and organizing was the basis of any serious written work.47 From Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s chancery manual, by contrast, you could learn how to run the bureau, and you could learn how impressively he ran it. But you could not learn how to produce what it produced, let alone in the proper calligraphy, on the proper format of paper, with a good layout and mise-­en-­texte, or even why you should bother to do so in the first place. Executing a chancery document that looked like a chancery document was a skill handed down not in manuals, but from master to disciple. It was practical knowledge, makers’ knowledge—knowledge you assimilated into your body and your hands and your eyes through hours of making and doing.48 Chancery calligraphy was a tradition that grew organically and changed incrementally, as was the wording of documents. There were watershed moments—the arrival of the Pahlavi substrate; the proportioning of round scripts; the elevation of the petition from the plain letter—but apart from those, it was a craft learned in rank and one that developed organically. In fact, you can see from the documents that there was no manual on hand at the Fatimid chancery. You can see it from the Wittgensteinian Familienähnlichkeit to which I referred earlier in this book. The hands of state documents are related, but not all

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294 • Chapter 10 exemplars exhibit all the features that characterize the family. It’s as though the practice of the chancery had by now—in contrast to the tenth century in Baghdad, when it was still evolving and there was a “group” (qawm) that proportioned its script and apparently another group that didn’t—become so thoroughly assimilated into the minds and hands of Fatimid officials that it carried on below the radar of official regulation. The arbiters of practice, Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī among them, didn’t dictate diplomatic practice. They cared more about their status as arbiters than about the uniformity of the results: they wanted to be seen expounding and defending their expertise, but they didn’t really mind about the details. Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī claimed that his book, secreted away (makhzūn) in the chancery, would serve those who worked there “as their teacher [ka-­l-­muʿallim lahum], their ethical purifier [al-­muhadhdhib li-­akhlāqihim] and their guide to correct norms [al-­hādī lahum ilā sunan al-­ṣawāb],” but he never claimed that it would teach them how to write documents.49 The norms to which he referred were not diplomatic; they were organizational. For diplomatic norms, you needed to sit and work in the chancery. It was training, a physical discipline that required its ten thousand hours of practice to master. Even if the boss ran a tight ship, there was no lockstep of the hand, and none could be imposed. Can we, then, link prescription with product, connect Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s description of this tight division of labor with real documents? Doing so is, I’m afraid, our only hope if we want to enter the holy of holies. It’s not just our only hope for understanding his book, but our only hope for gaining a reliable picture of the chancery it purports to describe and understanding how its surviving documents came into being. Each type of evidence needs the other. But entering the holy of holies has one drawback: myopia. It’s too easy to forget the world outside. So before I start in on Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s Qānūn, a reminder of the chancery’s place in the wider universe of the state. Chancery documents were but a small subset of the state’s total document production. Innumerable provincial officials wrote other types of texts. Cashiers (jahābidha) wrote tax receipts. Governors, subgovernors, fiscal enforcers, overseers, and other officials whose job titles we barely understand wrote reports back to Cairo. Whoever wrote the petitions on behalf of subjects wrote petitions on behalf of subjects. Only in the case of the tax cashiers (jahābidha) can we correlate texts with named scribes, because they were obligated by formulary to tell us who they were and to name the other officials involved in tax transactions. Even from inside the palace, where we would expect the names to matter more, there are but few memoranda signed by viziers with their names; most sign with their ʿalāʾim.50 The reports from the territory are likewise generally unsigned, the petitions all the more so. It’s rarely possible to correlate any of these with named officials, or even to guess at what positions those officials occupied. Who wrote the petitions? Given their similarity to reports, it was probably the same provincial officials who wrote the reports. There is an argument to be made that petitions and reports even constitute a single genre, with the same component parts. The petition writers, instead of reporting some situation on the ground to do with agrarian administration or the like, report on the complaint of the subject standing before them, and they do so in the form of a re-

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Administrative Manuals and Nonmanuals • 295 port, with an inhāʾ section (which describes the problem as succinctly as possible), a qiṣṣa (the request proper), and a raʾy clause sandwiched between the opening and closing formulas. But the only reason I know this is that I have deduced it from the diplomatics of the documents themselves—not by reading treatises or identifying scribes by name. From the treatises, the best we can do is to understand what went on inside the palace. We can’t always even understand what was sent outside it. Even so, the chancery is its own mystery. We have two problems. The first is precisely that the different types of document the chancery produced are still blurred behind a fog of technical terms, so even when Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī lists them, we don’t always know what they were. The second is that we rarely, if ever, know who wrote them, or how many people were responsible for writing in a single genre. We can’t, therefore, know how honest Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī was in his description of what actually went on behind the chancery walls unless we can somehow correlate what he said with physical documents—and, more importantly for my purposes, we can’t know the scale of the operation that produced those documents unless we know whether we can trust Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī. In the next chapter, then, I will take up the problem of scale.

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O

11

The Source THE CHANCERY

Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s Qānūn dīwān al-­rasāʾil is devoted to describing the personnel responsible for the chancery’s production of state documents. But what he describes is a skeleton crew, either because he worked with a staff of nine, because he is describing jobs rather than individuals, or because, for whatever reason, he understated the size of the operation he ran. But we have a control: real documents that came from his shop. In this chapter, I’ll discuss the manual and the documents together and attempt to gauge the size of the staff and its rate of document production.

THE PYRAMID Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī begins with his own set of responsibilities. These, he tells us, are mainly quality control and signing off on documents, itself a form of quality control: to sign off (waqqaʿa) meant to notate, to process, or to authenticate. He also tells us that the head of the chancery wrote addresses on outgoing letters, because in doing so he demonstrated that he had approved of their content and that they could be sent out. On documents with no address, such as decrees (manāshīr), he says the head of the chancery should instead write the date in his hand, a sign of authentication confirming that he had seen and approved them.1 Was the date in fact a means of authentication on the surviving decrees? The decrees that have survived whole from the archives of Saint Catherine and Fustat have the date in the same hand as the rest of the text. But if Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī was describing a practice that he himself regularly maintained, it could explain a problem I have lamented above and will have further occasion to lament below: most of the fragments I have found of grand, public rotuli just happen to cut off before the date clause (despite the fact that the clause comes toward the end of the document rather than at its very end, on the outside of the rolled-­up document, where it might have deteriorated). Perhaps the rip that mocks me with tantalizingly incomplete information was not, after all, an act of Murphy’s Law hunting down the historian the way Ibn Shukr hunted down Ibn Mammātī, or an act of sabotage by time, which reduced the documents to fragments and pulverized them faster than the magnanimous dust of Cairo could save them. Perhaps it was merely that the date was one of the most sensitive parts of a document because it was an authentication mark, a closely guarded secret

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The Chancery • 297 whose presence out there in the world could invite the unwanted attention of forgers. The fact that the dates were missing, conversely, could explain why the chancery didn’t seem to mind its confidential communiqués circulating as writing paper. Not only were they already dismembered; they could never be valid without the date in the chancery chief ’s hand. On the other hand, on the few fragments that do preserve the dates, they are in the same hand as the rest of the document, so the speculation in this paragraph could be truly idle—or Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī could be overstating his own role in quality control. Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī then goes on to describe the other personnel, in what he repeatedly points out is descending order of rank: 1. The official in charge of summarizing incoming letters for the caliph, which may or may not have included petitions.2 2. The official in charge of drafting correspondence (inshāʾāt). He must be eloquent, persuasive, learned, and have many lines of poetry by heart, because he is writing in the caliph’s name.3 I will return to him below. 3. The official in charge of corresponding with foreign rulers, who appears to have been like the previous official, except in charge of foreign rather than domestic correspondence. Eloquence was required of him, too, except in one circumstance: when writing letters to rulers who spoke foreign languages, it was frowned on to include metaphors and circumlocutions, which were liable to be translated badly and create inconvenient diplomatic misunderstandings. This official, Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī tells us, should ideally translate his own correspondence before sending it, or have it translated by a known pool of translators whom he trusts.4 4. The official in charge of writing documents to other state appointees, including governors (wulāt), provincial or military officers (wujūh min al-­ajnād),5 judges (qāḍīs), clerks (kātibs), supervisors (mushārifūn), and tax officials (ʿummāl). He is also responsible for writing the investitures of minor functionaries (taqlīdāt dhawī al-­khidam al-­ṣighār), safe-­conducts (amānāt), oaths (aymān), and vows (qasāmāt), of what type I don’t know.6 I will return to him below. 5. The next official—Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī doesn’t name his position, so I am forced to call him kātib number 5—was responsible for producing clean copies and passing them on to the calligrapher (see below). The passage isn’t entirely clear; I will have to treat it separately in chapter 12. 6. The calligrapher (mubayyiḍ). I will return to him in chapter 13. 7. The proofreader, who must possess an excellent level of Arabic language, grammar, and eloquence (mutaṣaffiḥ ʿālī al-­manzila jiddan fī l-­lugha wa-­l-­ naḥw). The head of the chancery must sign off on each proofread document.7 8. The official responsible for notebooks (dafātir) and memoranda (tadhākir). This official is a registrar: he keeps records of the heads of all the government bureaus, not for posterity’s sake but so that no one writing a document would commit an error. He keeps on hand a calendar of all the events happening in the kingdom—two, in fact, and makes sure they agree; he keeps track of

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298 • Chapter 11 courtly ceremonies and their dates, investitures and their beneficiaries. He also registers incoming and outgoing documents by date and gives them to the archivist. And he supervises the translators from Armenian, Greek, Frankish (i.e., Latin), and other languages and summarizes the documents in those languages in Arabic on their versos.8 9. The archivist, to whom I will return in chapters 12 and 13.9 Specimens have survived in the geniza of the work of (2) the official who drafted correspondence (the munshiʾ), (3) the official who wrote documents for foreign dignitaries, (4) the official who composed decrees for other state appointees, and (6) the calligrapher. I will discuss each of these three categories in turn, saving (5) kātib number 5, (8) the registrar, and (9) the archivist for the following two chapters, and for each of them, I will muster samples of their work. I will not discuss (1) the summarizer. Nor will I discuss (7) the proofreader, that oft forgotten yet nigh (maybe not even nigh) indispensable hero of the publication process. I do, however, assume that good proofing lurks behind all the documents of the chancery and would never give this task short shrift or, heaven forefend, malign a proofreader the way Mark Twain did (among other things, he called his a “damned half-­ developed foetus”): on my view, proofreaders are the unsung print-­shop philologists.10 Only a bad proofreader’s work is noticeable. But that also means that I can’t discuss the proofreader here, because here, rules of evidence apply. The proofreader of the chancery may be one of the few historical subjects for which absence of evidence really isn’t evidence of absence: the more he did, the less we see him. But that is a different epistemological problem from the one facing me now: whether Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s anatomy of the bureau helps cast light on the decree fragments, and vice versa.

THE MUNSHIʾ: INVESTITURES AS TWO-­W AY MIRRORS OF ADMINISTRATIVE POWER To begin with a tautology, the official in charge of drafting correspondence (al-­munshiʾ) was in charge of drafting correspondence (inshāʾāt). This says even less than it appears to, because we don’t quite know what kind of document inshāʾ covers. To figure it out, we have to forge on in the text, where Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī says that the munshiʾ must be eloquent, persuasive, learned, and know many lines of poetry by heart, because he is writing in the ruler’s name.11 The munshiʾ is, then, the voice of the ruler and writes letters in his name. Note the homology that Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī is articulating. The sovereign is the pinnacle of the state; so the voice of the sovereign must be the pinnacle of eloquence (balāgha). The link is not an obvious one. In fact, the logic is backward. The scribes regarded balāgha as the key to administrative power. They were the ones telling us the sovereign must speak with an eloquent voice. But no one was asking the sovereign what he

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The Chancery • 299 thought. One could just as easily argue that the ruler (malik—Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī was writing for the vizier, not the caliph) should be a man of few words, and that each word should instill awe and dread (hayba) in its readers. Of men of the pen, we might expect balāgha; of men of the sword, we would rather expect a studied, hayba-­inducing silence. Here as elsewhere, then, Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī makes a mildly self-­serving argument by writing not so much to describe a hierarchy as to institute one. What, then, got written in this “voice” of the sovereign? One of the munshiʾ’s specialties was drafting diplomas of investiture (taqlīdāt). This was a genre that ran prolix but finely wrought. It was full of rhymed prose (sajʿ) and lofty quotations, and it had to be entrusted to a functionary with excellent style. The munshiʾ also drafted announcements about momentous events “whose content one reads publicly in front of witnesses.”12 An investiture document was a performance of role and status for the official writing it no less than for the one receiving it, and a performance of expertise no less than Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s manual itself.13 That made the investiture a good type of document to lean on as a model of good style: it was a literary commodity. Investitures circulated. They had social value because they were status-­ enhancing devices from all sides. Composing one in good style honored the caliph; receiving one honored the one receiving it; and borrowing one, copying it, assimilating it, writing more like it, metabolizing it—all this could help to make one’s status. And so we find drafts and copies of investitures in circulation. Khan edited six investitures from the Cairo Geniza, five of them from the Fatimid period. Shulamit Sela edited a sixth, and I have edited a seventh. Of the seven, three are fragments of real decrees of investiture—“real” because they were written up as wasteful and ostentatious products of the chancery. Another two are copies; two are drafts.14 The three fragments of originals are all splendid specimens of the art of the chancery. Chancery decrees ran very large; what is but a fragment of one can still dwarf complete but less ceremonial documents. One of the three is a fragment of an investiture for a soldier or a military commander (fig. 11.1). Investitures granted positions, titles, or both to officials who served the state. Such decrees must have been one of the most frequent products of the chancery. Once granted, they remained in private hands. This one must have been magnificent when whole, running to at least five meters. The ascenders are nearly 2 cm tall, with about 8 cm of spacing between the lines. This isn’t far off from the proportions that the Ayyubid chancery official Ibn Shīth (d. 625/1228) would later codify, “about three or four fingers between two lines,” perhaps 9–11 cm.15 This decree is half as wide as the grand public decrees I discussed in chapter 9 (20.7 cm as against 40–45 cm across); so are the other surviving investiture fragments.16 So there seems to be a standard emerging from this evidence: investitures were half the width of decrees, with three-­quarters of the line spacing. Of this investiture, only four partial lines have survived. The text speaks first in the voice of the Qurʾān, and then in the name of the sovereign, just as Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī prescribes. The surviving bit begins in the middle of a unit of verse:

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11.1. Fragment of an investiture for a soldier or a military commander, possibly circa 1098. Cambridge University Library, T-­S H5.111.

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The Chancery • 301 . . . from the abomination of death on the frontier and the affliction of annihi­ lation. A person will die only with God’s permission, at the time decreed [Qurʾān 3:145]. When I recompensed you for your support in the affair of the Turks . . . .17 Which affair of the Turks? This could be significant or not, but betting my historian’s craft on the first option seems prudent: it may be referring to this military man’s participation in the civil war between the Sudanese and Turkish regiments in the 1060s or the Fatimid recapture of Jerusalem from the Seljuks in 1098.18 The beneficiary had proven his loyalty and utility to the regime, and one way of keeping him loyal to it was to reward him for service with status. The munshiʿ, with his quotation from the Qurʾān, has attempted a degree of balāgha commensurate to the grand and wasteful gesture of the decree. The preference for lofty language in investitures explains why Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī calls the munshiʾ “the most lofty of the scribes working in this bureau, since he himself is entrusted with composition,” not just copying. “A single word is thrown at him, and a single idea”—all he is told is that this man has fought valiantly against the Turks—“and on its basis he writes a long document, with many words.”19 His job was to be prolix, to include verse, to have a store of words at his disposal with which to fill many lines, to turn the document into a demonstration of scribal virtuosity and state power, and to praise the recipient with enough resort to formula that he needn’t waste time but enough creativity that the investiture would seem weighty. Precisely because the genre leaned toward balāgha, it also has the lowest ratio of fixed to free text of any state document genre. You could not be made eloquent by copying a single investiture, whereas you could become a competent jahbadh by copying a single tax receipt. And you could not learn to write an investiture by copying tax receipts, or even memoranda. The only way to learn to write an investiture was to copy investitures, to internalize as much of the work of previous munshiʾūn as you could. I assume that this meant internalizing not only the words, but also the graphic style, and supporting these with a good dose of literature. The second fragment falls into the same template: half the size of the public decrees, grand to look at, and good to copy. It’s a fragment of an investiture for a certain “rightly guided, prosperous and just qāḍī” (al-­rashīd al-­muwaffaq al-­sadīd) Abū Isḥāq, of school unknown (fig. 11.2). The document picks up at the tail end of what was probably its most eloquent part: the munshiʾ is just finishing his description of the judge’s excellence, ending by calling him “trustworthy regarding people and property: it was necessary to find a name that gathers together all these qualities so that he may be distinguished with these characteristics.”20 Again the long-­winded, circumlocutory way of saying: you have served us, now we recognize you. The text picks up just at the end of the description—or rather, most of the description ended up elsewhere. The missing section was where the munshiʾ was most likely to have plied the craft of his eloquence, to have done so with care and devotion. It was therefore a segment likely to have circulated as a freestanding model of rhetoric. That might explain how it ended up in the hands of the Jewish scribe who reused the verso

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11.2. Undated fragment of an investiture for a qāḍī. Cambridge University Library, T-­S H5.115.

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The Chancery • 303

5 cm 2 in

11.3. Fragment of an investiture decree for a judge. Cambridge University Library, Moss. VII,10.1.

for Hebrew poetry and part of the recto for notes on the Jewish calendar. The same goes for the previous fragment, the military investiture, which also has Hebrew liturgical poetry on the verso: investitures circulated because they were valuable as models of good prose style, and they got reused by those to whom it mattered, the poets. The third fragment is perhaps the most glorious and lofty in script style, even if hardly any of it has survived. It seems to have been an investiture for a judge; it was reused for a Jewish legal text in the early twelfth century, suggesting that it was written around the same time as the military investiture, the late eleventh century (fig. 11.3).21 As for the copies, one of them is no less splendid than an original, but its format is decidedly odd. It was issued to a Christian leader; like the previous three investitures, it has nothing (obvious) to do with Jews. Also like them, it is but a small part of a much, much longer text (fig. 11.4).22

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5 cm 2 in

5 cm 2 in

11.4. First (right) and final (left) pages of a private copy of an investiture for a Christian leader. This may have been the practice copy of a chancery scribe in training. Cambridge University Library, T-­S Ar. 39.453 + T-­S 39.452.

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The Chancery • 305 What has survived is the end of the decree, written across four sides of two separate pages, recto and verso. Three of the four sides together make up the longest arenga I have seen in any Fatimid decree surviving outside a chancery work.23 The length would have made the original a good model for emulation: more text for the practicing scribe to metabolize. The hand suggests beyond doubt someone trained in the chancery. It is not, however, an official copy for the chancery archive: it is not written in a register format, but rather across separate pages of a stack of long, narrow sheets of identical shape, with parallel patterns of wear and staining, which suggests they formed an unbound copybook. The sheets of paper are also unusually narrow for official texts in chancery hands (25.2 × 8.5 cm); this further suggests a practice text. Neither folio bears signs of officialdom such as the cipher for “copied” (see chapter 12), registration marks (see chapter 13), or a biṭāqa (see chapter 13). There is also a strange error in the text. At its end, it says that the verso (of the original) “contains an endorsement by the lofty presence al-­Afḍal.” This could be one of several Fatimid viziers. The original also contained, “at its top, the sublime ʿalāma with the form ‘praise be to God for his gifts [al-­ḥamdu li-­llāh ʿalā ālāʾih].’ ” This is the ʿalāma of al-­Afḍal b. Badr al-­Jamālī, the vizier under al-­ Mustanṣir, al-­Mustaʿlī, and al-­Āmir, from 487/1094 until his assassination in 515/1121.24 So far so good. But the scribe recorded the date of the document as 20 Rabīʿ II 454/1064 (lines 5–6, after in shāʾ allāh). This is at least four decades too early to be correct, judging by the regnal names in the document: 454/1064 was two years before al-­Afḍal was born, thirty before his accession as vizier, and more than thirty before the accession of al-­Āmir (490/1096), whom the document mentions by name. The reading of the date is clear— or clear if, like Khan, you’re used to cracking chancery ciphers—20 Rabīʿ II 454/1064 (kutiba li-­ʿashar baqīn min rabīʿ al-­ākhir sanat arbaʿ wa-­khamsīn wa-­arbaʿimiʾa). The scribe may simply have written 454 for 494 (khamsīn for tisʿīn); or else the original from which the scribe was copying bore no date, and he added one at random to practice his ciphers. A date could also have been missing from the original if he was working from a second-­generation copy, or if the original from which he was working was still awaiting the addition of the date in the hand of the chancery director. Either way, the inaccurate date, the odd format, and the chancery hand combine to suggest that whoever copied the document did so not for the archive, but for writing practice. All four of these texts suggest that investitures circulated as models, and that scribes in training copied them. The fifth investiture—which is also a copy—supports both points, though it is a slightly strange case (fig. 11.5).25 It is a draft of an investiture on parchment—the only Fatimid chancery document I have found on parchment, and the only one written on a used support rather than a fresh one. Both choices suggest the document was written for practice only. It occupies part of the back of a qāḍī-­court document dated 13 Safar 554 (6 March 1159) that contains witnesses’ signatures (so the legal document was a final copy, and the investiture a draft). The lines are grouped into couplets, presumably to save space while leaving spaces between half the lines—splitting the difference between the sovereign privilege of waste and the pragmatic necessity of conservation.26

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306 • Chapter 11

5 cm 2 in

11.5. Draft or practice copy of an investiture, written on parchment rather than paper, on the back of a qāḍī-­ court document dated 13 Safar 554 (6 March 1159). The scribe groups the lines into couplets, perhaps to save space, splitting the difference between the sovereign privilege of waste and the pragmatic necessity of conservation. Cambridge University Library, T-­S Ar. 53.44.

Investitures were, then, the most artful of the chancery’s products, the documents you’d assign your most eloquent scribes to compose, and the ones a chancery official in training was likely to copy more than other document types. But not only a chancery official: as models of eloquence, they had value beyond the chancery. Precisely because they are a high register genre, one might be unlikely to place the burden of their composition on a single scribe.

A GENOESE NOTARY’S REGISTER The third official Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī discusses is the one in charge of writing letters to other sovereigns (al-­mustakhdam li-­mukātabat al-­mulūk). To some extent, eloquence was required of him as well—except when it wasn’t, as in letters to foreign rulers.27

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The Chancery • 307

11.6. Diplomatic correspondence or treaty, probably between the Fatimids and the republic of Genoa, reused by a Latin notary, 1154–­66. Archivio di Stato di Genova, Notai antichi, n. 1, fol. 167v.

We have less of his handiwork than of other officials, which stands to reason given that most of it was directed outside the empire. But some of it has come to light abroad.28 A Fatimid decree has survived in transmuted form in the Italian Archivio di Stato in Genoa (fig. 11.6): a bilingual Arabic-­Latin treaty regarding “the inhabitants of Christian lands who leave and arrive” (al-­rūm al-­ṣādirīn wa-­l-­wāridīn), presumably from and at some Fatimid port, and a parallel group of inhabitants of Islamic lands in Italy. The Latin reads, “[no] new custom will be imposed on you” (consuetudines nove vobis imposite sint).29 If one imagines the entire decree on the basis of eight of its surviving words—not unlike the munshiʾ himself, who had to build an entire document on the basis of a word or an idea—it suggests that the treaty was safeguarding the Genoese flavor of Rūm (al-­ rūm is a collective noun literally meaning “Romans,” by extension any inhabitant of Christian territory), allowing them to trade in Muslim-­r uled ports, while the Latin safeguarded Arabic-­speaking merchants in the port of Genoa—or so I deduce from the treaty’s find spot: a twelfth-­century Genoese notary named Giovanni embedded it as a blank page in his notarial register, which he filled with legal documents and letters dated 1154–66.30 Like al-­Shāfiʿī in early Abbasid Mecca or al-­Maqrīzī in Mamluk Cairo, our scribe has profited from the blank space between the lines by incorporating the page into a codex; unlike them, he has crossed out the Arabic and the Latin text.31 That he got a hold of them suggests that state officials in the Republic of Genoa were in the habit of pruning their archives no less assiduously than the officials of the Fatimids were.

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308 • Chapter 11

THE WRITER OF DECREES TO LOWER OFFICIALS The official whose work we have in the greatest abundance is the fourth on Ibn al-­ Ṣayrafī’s list: the one charged with drafting texts addressed to the dignitaries of the government (rijāl al-­dawla), its “great men” (i.e., officials; kubarāʾ), and its governors (umarāʾ)—in other words, the kinds of decrees to lower officials of which myriad fragments have survived in the geniza. These are the bulk of the grand rotuli that were later dismembered. Despite the fact that they are fragments without exception, they have preserved a clue as to who must have received them: individuals who merited second-­person address rather than the more formal and respectful third. Modes of address are a serious business, as any speaker of a language other than English probably knows. The epistolary formal in medieval Arabic letters was third-­ person address because it was indirect. Like Italians using lei—the formal “you” is actually “she”—the third person avoids the presumption of addressing someone directly, speaking instead about him in his presence; and the “him” was the feminine “her” (as it is in formal Italian) because it referred to the ḥaḍra (the caliphal Presence), which was feminine (as in Italian; only toward the eighteenth century did the adjectives modifying it cease to be invariably feminine).32 The honorific ḥaḍra was not just respectful but also oddly spectral, as though one were addressing not a person but the entity who happened to be occupying the same physical space and social role. Like a veil or a robe of honor, the third-­person pronoun cloaked the addressee in an inviolable mantle that could not be breached. That’s why Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī sternly warned his underlings to keep a list of honorifics on hand, with notes as to which pronoun was appropriate for whom, the “you” of direct speech or the formal “(s)he.”33 And apparently they used it. Many, if not most, of the decree fragments that have survived are addressed in the second-­person singular. This might seem odd for such a grand type of document: why bother gluing together all that paper and calling in the calligrapher when you were writing to your own lower official, someone you’d address in the second person, no less? Precisely because he was your lower official. An early specimen of such a text has survived—or half of two lines of it (fig. 11.7).34 It comes from the period of al-­Ẓāhir or earlier, circa 1020–30, or so I deduce from the fact that Efrayim b. Shemarya (whom we will get to know in chapter 14) reused it for a draft letter to the gaʾon Shelomo b. Yehuda (whom we got to know in chapter 9). The Arabic text, a decree to a lower official, contains a simple second-­person singular greeting at the end, “Peace to you” (al-­salām ʿalayk). That is a striking lack of fanfare for the end of a decree. It suggests a quotidian-­style order read privately rather than publicly or aloud: it is missing the usual closing injunctions. The lack of fanfare suggests that this wasn’t a rare type of document. At the same time, it is 30 cm across as it stands; before it was cut, it must have been the larger of the two standard widths of decree, 40–45 cm. That’s quite a bit of paper to expend on an informally written text.35

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The Chancery • 309

5 cm 2 in

11.7. Fragment of a decree to a lower official, reused by Efrayim b. Shemarya in Fustat to draft a letter to the gaʾon Shelomo b. Yehuda in Jerusalem, circa 1030. Cambridge University Library, T-­S 13J26.24.

The chancery wrote grand rotuli to officials whom it addressed in the second-­person singular, suggesting familiarity; it closed with brief and unceremonious greetings, suggesting frequency of contact; yet it still wrote them on large sheets, nearly half a meter wide by up to several meters long. Conclusion: the chancery produced an impressive number of these and left a lot of space blank, the better to reuse. But they were abundant enough that the officials who received them had to discard them or risk drowning in a sea of paper.

ERGONOMICS AND THE ART OF WRITING QUICKLY That brings us to the calligrapher. Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī describes the calligrapher (al-­mubayyiḍ) as producing copies of grand rotuli for royal and public consumption: high-­level letters (inshaʾāt), decrees (sijillāt), investitures (taqlīdāt), and correspondence among sovereigns (mukātabāt al-­mulūk). His handwriting had to be fine, the most beautiful of his age—a requirement even more emphatic in Arabic (an yakūn ḥasan al-­khaṭṭ ilā l-­ghāya al-­mawjūda lā yakād yūjad fī

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310 • Chapter 11 waqtih aḥsan khaṭṭan minhu).36 But just as importantly, he must write quickly (literally, must be “quick” or “nimble of hand in writing,” sarīʿ al-­yad fī l-­kitāba).37 But wait: How can one be quick, nimble, or fluent of hand and beautiful of script (ḥasan al-­khaṭṭ) at the same time—especially if one is writing constantly and under time pressure? The genre specialists who drafted copy were numerous. A bottleneck in the calligrapher’s workflow would have been catastrophic, like a shortage of movable type in an early modern print shop.38 How, then, can speed and beautiful calligraphy go together? I would like to propose two answers: ergonomics and additional personnel. First, ergonomics. The simultaneous requirements of beauty and speed explain the ubiquitous presence of abusive ligatures and hairlines (tashʿira) in the work of the most experienced scribes who wrote the fanciest-­looking chancery documents. To pick the abusive ligatures out of a document, you must know how to read Arabic and know which letters are canonically connected. But to pick out the hairlines, you don’t. So whether or not you do, have a look at the writing exercise of the master and disciple in figure 8.5. Try to follow the pen strokes and the ligatures until you can pick out the hairlines. All those hairlines are connecting letters that in proper Arabic calligraphy should not be connected. They are controlled. In the hands of most scribes, those hairlines and abusive ligatures would not be allowed. In Fatimid chancery hands, they are signs of expertise. This is not because you had to know the rules to break them. Even those who knew the rules tended not to break this one—with the exception of scribes who produced large numbers of Arabic documents for legal courts and state offices. They break it because hairlines are the mark of the guild—as al-­Tawḥīdī would have agreed (see chapter 7). They are also the solution to a technical problem. Speed and efficiency favor abusive ligatures, but beauty favors proportion, and these don’t always go together. The problem is hardly exclusive to medieval Arabic calligraphy. The search for the perfect marriage of efficiency and beauty dominates the artistry of musicians, rock climbers, swimmers, golfers, and the Tetris obsessed. It is an obstacle any instrumentalist must overcome before advancing to difficult repertoire. As Patricia Crone has observed, while most preindustrial professions “required little in the way of special knowledge,” the exceptions were “highly skilled occupations such as painting, music, calligraphy, craftsmanship or horsemanship,” in which “training from an early age could result in mastery of the kind nowadays rarely displayed outside the ranks of great musicians.” The marriage of efficiency and beauty requires physical relaxation achieved through long (and early) years of practice. Translation: pianists, do not stiffen your fingers and hold them higher than necessary above the keys, because you will have to travel farther to strike them, the distance will limit your speed, and the muscular tension required to hold them will break the momentum of gravity and limit the efficiency of the fall. The same goes for strings, winds, and percussion with minor variations. Golf players famously relax so as not to break the momentum of their own swing.39 The solution is much the same for anyone undertaking a highly technical endeavor: minimum wasted motion, maximum flow. The trick is not to get in your own way—not to tense up unnecessarily, which will both slow you down and require you to overcome

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The Chancery • 311 inertia. The more relaxed your hand muscles, the less muscular tension will slow down the tremolo of the lute plectrum (rīsha), the more deftly you will wield a paintbrush (rīsha), and the faster you will move your pen (rīsha in modern Arabic, though medieval pens were made of reeds, not quills, and called qalam, from the Greek κάλαμος, “reed”). The more relaxed you are, the more efficient your technique, and the smoother and rounder the strokes of your pen, the bowls of your letters, the curves of your ligatures. A relaxed hand moves quickly over the surface of the page. And—this is the point—an efficient hand lifts the calamus the bare minimum from the page between strokes, just enough not to draw a full-­weight stroke, but not so much that the pen loses contact with the paper. Hence, abusive ligatures and hairlines: the scribe lifted his hand enough to lighten the flow of ink but not so much as to break contact with the writing surface. Ideally, all abusive ligatures would be hairlines. If you look back at figure 7.6—the book written in a chancery hand—you will see that the scribe has approached this ideal. We do not, of course, live in an ideal world, and if I have learned anything from undisclosed hours of watching the work of modern Arabic calligraphers via their Instagram feeds, it is that Arabic calligraphy, when done well, is done slowly.40 The scribe who copied that codex probably took his time doing it. Not so in the chancery: in the chancery, there was no time. That’s where abusive ligatures come in. It’s also why it was important to have personnel.

THREE DECREE FRAGMENTS AND A TRADER Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī seems to suggest that the calligrapher (al-­mubayyiḍ) is a single person.41 But when you compare a group of decree fragments from a single decade, they are not all written in the same hand. Likewise, I have studied hundreds of decree fragments from a 150-­year period, and I have never found two hands that were identical unless they were parts of the same decree. This suggests that at any given moment, several calligraphers were producing the grand rotuli—which stands to reason: decrees were sent out in more than one copy, and a single calligrapher could not spend all day copying the same text and producing the kinds of decrees that have survived, which are often addressed to individuals or copied in multiple. This, in turn, hints at the size of the operation. In chapter 1, I briefly discussed fragments of three decrees of al-­Ḥāfiẓ that an India trader reused for letters to his brother between 1131 and 1140. Here, what interests me is not the trader who reused them, but the chancery that produced them. All three decrees date to Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s directorship of the chancery, a period when, Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī implies, he had a single calligrapher producing the grand rotuli for dissemination. But the three fragments are not all in the same hand. Either calligraphers came and went frequently, which seems unlikely given that Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī was seeking “the best in the land,” and to be the best in the land you have to have been trained for it from an early age; or, more persuasively, there was more than one calligrapher. And

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312 • Chapter 11

5 cm 2 in

11.8. Decree from the 1130s. Only the closing boilerplate and a date (without the year) have survived. This section was reused by the India trader Abū ʿAlī Yeḥezqʾel b. Netanʾel in Qalyūb for a letter to his brother Ḥalfon in Alexandria, 1139. Cambridge University Library, T-­S NS J470 + T-­S 12.774 (join: M. A. Friedman and Amir Ashur).

if there was more than one calligrapher, the size of Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s staff is larger than what he describes. Each of the three fragments comes from a decree that was, in itself, of standard width, line spacing, and letter height. Yet each of the copyists executed his qalam al-­ tawqīʿ with enough individuality that he can be distinguished from the others. To make the case, I’ll have to engage in a bit of ekphrasis. Of the first decree fragment (fig. 11.8), we have just the closing boilerplate and a date (without the year, naturally). There is a long, beautiful hairline connecting the tail of the ʿayn of “seven [days]” (sabʿ) and the following word, “remaining” (baqīn). The only words of this document that have survived are the same words that appeared on every public decree the Fatimids issued.42 The date is in the same hand as the rest of the decree, notwithstanding Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s claim that the chancery director wrote the date as a way of signing off on a document. So is the closing invocation (ḥamdala), though it is fainter and more compact than the lines above, and compressed to respect the unstated rule that the closing invocation should occupy only one line. The ḥamdala is

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The Chancery • 313 typically written with less care and more abusive ligatures than the rest of the text because everyone already knew what it said and it was a phrase scribes wrote dozens of times per day. The page is 20 cm across; even accounting for the torn margin, this was the smaller of the widths of Fatimid decrees. These three narrow decrees happen to cluster in the reign of al-­Ḥāfiẓ (though his chancery also used wider sheets).43 It may be that in certain periods, or for some genres, the chancery split standard 40–45 cm decree papers in half to save materials and money.44 The line spacing is a dramatic eighteen times the letter height without hastae, but not the most dramatic we have: in Stern’s corpus, a decree from al-­Ḥāfiẓ to Sinai in 524/1130 (during his regency) has the same size letters as this but even more space between the lines, making the line spacing twenty-­eight times the letter height without hastae.45 The mubayyiḍ managed to achieve precisely the same proportions in another decree, issued to Sinai in 530/1136: the line spacing is 27.5 times the letter height without hastae (fig. 11.9).46 This suggests that the mubayyiḍūn managed to achieve a high degree of consistency in proportioning, despite the differences in the width of the paper scrolls onto which they were copying, and also despite the fact that there seem to have been more than one of them. If this one spaced his lines only eighteen times the letter height, there may have been a reason for it. Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s claim that there was only one mubayyiḍ is looking increasingly suspect. The second al-­Ḥāfiẓ decree fragment from the geniza is written in yet a fourth hand (fig. 11.10).47 It gives us the great gift of nearly two lines of free text before the closing boilerplate, and those lines permit me to claim with some confidence that this is an order to a lower official. It mentions two congregational mosques: the mosque of al-­Ḥākim, which by this time was inside the new north wall of the Fatimid palatine city; and the mosque of al-­Ḥāfiẓ—either a previously unknown Fatimid structure that is no longer extant (a phantom mosque!), or else a known one called by a different name during the reign of the eponymous caliph (a phantom name).48 What was going on with these two mosques is anyone’s guess. The decree uses the less formal second person. After the preclosing, “The caliph’s order [amr] has gone out to the dīwān,” and the final exhortation, “Let this [hādhā: the deictic refers endophorically to the contents of the decree] be known as a command [amr] and an order [rasm] of the commander of the faithful,” it cuts off (naturally) just before the date. Like the previous decree fragment, this one is half-­width (21 cm). The script is of nearly the same dimensions as the other decrees: the alifs are 1.7 cm high, the letters without hastae average 0.5 cm in height. And the line spacing is nineteen times the letter height without hastae (there are 9.5 cm between the lines)—nearly the same as on the first decree fragment. Their conformity to the same proportions raises the possibility that the first one, too, was issued to a lower official, and this would, in turn, explain its appearance on the paper market within a few years of its having been issued—but I am getting ahead of my story. The point for now is that officials with different hands wrote with strikingly similar proportions—to within millimeters. To do that, you needed training, and if you did it well, with precision, perhaps it made sense to refer to you as a single mubayyiḍ when in fact you were a team of them.

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11.9. Decree of al-­Ḥāfiẓ to the monks of Saint Catherine, 530/1136 (detail). Washington, DC, Library of Congress, Microfilm 5014 (original at the Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai, Egypt).

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5 cm 2 in

11.10. Fatimid decree fragment (circa 1131–­40) reused for a letter from Abū ʿAlī Yeḥezqʾel b. Netanʾel, Qalyūb, to his brother Ḥalfon, Alexandria, in early 1140. Cambridge University Library, T-­S 20.80.

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316 • Chapter 11

5 cm 2 in

11.11. Fragment of a decree of al-­Ḥāfiẓ, in a different chancery hand from the decree fragments in figs. 11.9 and 11.10. Cambridge University Library, T-­S 10J9.27.

The third decree fragment is written in yet a fifth hand, with sharper elbows all around (fig. 11.11).49 The hand is highly stylized, conceivably one of the “finest of its age”: the ductus alternates between very narrow and very broad strokes; there are hairline ligatures, both canonical and abusive, across many of the word breaks; the hairlines are slender and give the impression of great deftness, as does the lack of roof on the kāf (who has time to go back and add one?). There appears to be a “eunuch” (ustādh) in the second line, and he may have performed a duty described with the technical term “to annotate” (waqqaʿa), meaning to make an official annotation on a document, such as a registration mark of the sort you would use to approve a request or an outlay of funds. It is government business, matters discussed within the closed ranks of officialdom; we were never meant to listen in.50 The dimensions of this decree, once again, conform to the smaller set of standards: the paper is roughly 19.8 cm wide, the alifs are 1.7 cm high, the letters without hastae

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The Chancery • 317 average 0.45 cm tall, there are 9–10 cm between the baselines, making the line spacing twenty to twenty-­two times the letter height.51 Again we have a remarkable conformity of proportions with yet a different hand from the other four mubayyiḍs. So we have fragments of three separate decrees to lower officials, of virtually identical width and layout, written in three different chancery hands. One certainly dates to the reign of al-­Ḥāfiẓ; and all were recycled over the course of a three-­to-­four-­month interval by one man: Abū ʿAlī Yeḥezqʾel b. Netanʾel, an India trader in Qalyūb, just north of Cairo where the Nile opens out to the delta, a town about which we hear in geniza documents more than one might expect—mostly complaints about how difficult it was to earn a decent living there.52 The India trader wrote to his brother, Ḥalfon b. Netanʾel, who was in Alexandria, and in whose archive the letters survived, whence he or his heirs consigned them to the geniza. We have dozens of pieces of his correspondence linking the urban entrepôts of Alexandria and Cairo with provincial markets as far apart as the delta, Sicily, Yemen, the Malabar Coast of India, and, occasionally, the eastern Indian Ocean.53 So he sat astride a sprawling network like a fat spider in a giant web while his brother sat in godforsaken Qalyūb conducting business on his behalf. The date of the first letter, converted to the Julian calendar, is Friday, 29 December 1139. This means that the decree was written before December 1139, but we don’t know by how much. The second letter, containing what Goitein called “a complicated report about the sale of a great quantity of Sicilian cheese,”54 helps with the question of timing: it was written two or three months after the first, in early 1140, and since it mentions the phantom mosque of al-­Ḥāfiẓ—when the decree was reused, al-­Ḥāfiẓ had been caliph for less than a decade—we have that elusive prize in studies of reuse, termini a quo and ad quem. The range is 1131–40. This is a tight turnaround time. The decree was jettisoned relatively quickly—had a short “contractual time,” as Wansbrough put it.55 The contractual time of the decrees intended for officials appears to have been short across the board: the officials had no reason to keep them on hand. (I’ll get back to this in chapter 15.) The third letter was written only a month or two after the second, on Monday, 22 April 1140 (3 Iyyar in the Jewish calendar). Given that the timing of the letters was within months of each other, and given that all measured roughly 20 cm wide, they were likely to have been stocked together by a used-­paper seller and bought as scrap at the same time. Sometime in the 1130s, then, Abū ʿAlī Yeḥezqʾel b. Netanʾel in Qalyūb acquired a stack of used government paper roughly 20 cm wide, perhaps already cut down to varying lengths. Every so often he would use a sheet of it to write to his most intimate business correspondent, who might well have appreciated his brother’s parsimony when it came to wasting fresh sheets, or perhaps even been impressed that in a “wretched” little town like Qalyūb—though it was twenty kilometers north of Cairo, it was still a backwater—one could acquire used chancery fragments. Someone in Qalyūb may have been selling them in bulk, or they’d been bought in Cairo. Three conclusions emerge from these fragments. First, the contractual life of decrees to lower officials was short—less than a decade between receipt and reuse. That suggests

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318 • Chapter 11 that officials didn’t archive them. Second, decrees to lower officials could be bought for a price: they left the world of government property, which was priceless, and entered that of exchange and commodification.56 Third, there was more than one calligrapher at the chancery, and while they did not all write in the same hand, the measurements of their supports and lettering are remarkably similar. Each of the mubayyiḍūn who specialized in the grand, rhetorical script called qalam al-­tawqīʿ executed it with enough individuality that he can be distinguished from the others, but he followed not just a set of basic guidelines but a precise set of measurements. This goes back to what I am calling loosely consistent praxis despite a lack of clear statements of theory or prescription. There are internal variations across the corpus, even among documents that were produced in the same office by copyists occupying the same rank at roughly the same time, but the script and layout are remarkably closely standardized. Two millimeters (the alifs measure 1.5–1.7 cm high for the smaller size of decree and 2.3–2.5 cm for the larger) is a very small deviation for an artisanal culture. I found myself, while measuring the letters, exclaiming: “But these guys are machines!” But of course they are not machines: they are craftsmen whose bodies—hands, arms, and eyes—are attuned to a system, just as the hands, arms, and ears of musicians are attuned to a standard set of modes and microtonal measurements. Geometers, all. As for Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s description of the chancery, when he enumerates the titles of nine official posts in the singular—the calligrapher, for instance, is al-­mubayyiḍ, singular—he is not, in fact, describing a single individual. Rather, he is using the term generically, describing a position that numerous appointees could fill at any given moment. That, in turn, sheds some light on the scale of the chancery. From a staff of ten—the head of the chancery, the summarizer of letters to the sovereign, the specialist in long-­ winded eloquence (al-­munshiʾ), the diplomacy expert, the official in charge of writing decrees to other state appointees, kātib number 5, the calligrapher, the proofreader, the in-­house administrator, and the archivist—we have now expanded to a staff of potentially two, three, or four times that.57 That, in turn, brings us back to the newsroom floor analogy I introduced tentatively in the previous chapter. It was like a newsroom floor, not like a small, quiet atelier. A potentially unwieldy corps of chancery officials could explain why Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī felt he had to run a tight ship and then boast about it: there were a lot of moving parts to manage. It also explains the sheer volume of decree production, the number of surviving fragments and of documents that have not survived but can be inferred from other texts. The Fatimid state was a regime of paper. It also explains the need for a good filing system, to which I will turn in the next chapter.

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O

12

Copying, Storage, and Dissemination The theoretical chancery of Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī—the one he depicted in his manual—was a highly efficient operation that produced impressive numbers of documents. How efficient an operation he actually ran is a separate question. If you accept, at least provisionally, my estimate of the size of his staff at thirty to forty, that’s quite a few people and quite a bit of paper to manage. This hoped-­for state of efficiency depended on the management of information: archiving documents, keeping lists of them, registering them when they entered and left the chancery, copying them, directing copies to the right officials and officials to the right copy—in sum, keeping track of the influx and outflow of paper, and organizing it in such a way that the clerks of the chancery could lay their hands on any document they wished in a minimum amount of time. Anyone running an organization has to think at some point about information storage. What good could the chancery’s tight assembly line of document production do if its staff didn’t also keep good records? The first step to keeping good records was to have a good copyist. The second was to have a good archivist. This is where things get complicated. What Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī says about the copying system isn’t completely clear, and it requires some exegesis. After assiduously reading and rereading the relevant passages, I am delighted to report a conclusive finding: the operation rises and falls on the hitherto anonymous, ignored, and taken-­for-­granted kātib number 5—perhaps the proofreader’s stiffest competition in the category of the long-­suffering and underappreciated. Before we turn to the copyist, a word on why Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s manual—like all medieval Arabic texts—requires some exegesis, and how to approach the task.

TECHNICAL TERMS IN ARABIC Arabic is a fantastically complex language. Medieval Arabic speakers and writers themselves knew this. Prose stylists reveled in it as much as poets did. They also strained against it, striving against all odds for clarity. It isn’t always easy to write in a classical language of which one speaks the vernacular—a language read and intoned rather than spoken in mundane communication. Like Latin, classical Arabic exists in its own universe of the educated. If you have read this far, even if you haven’t read much about medieval Arabic literature, you already know this: think of the repeated emphasis Ibn

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320 • Chapter 12 al-­Ṣayrafī puts on good writing, clear expression, and eloquence (balāgha). He is far from alone in this.1 Why was it such a big deal to write clearly in Arabic? First, because writing was a class marker. Writing well was a ticket to advancement, a generator of social capital. One of the most common topoi in medieval Arabic biography is the boy who got himself noticed at court with his pellucid writing and stylish penmanship and shot meteorically through the ranks until he became vizier. The topos is so common that it appears even in the biographies of the subaltern migrated across the border to Christendom: Abraham Ibn Daud of Toledo in his Hebrew chronicle Sefer ha-­qabbala (1160–61) uses it for Shemuʾel ibn Naghrella (d. 1056), Hebrew poet and eventual vizier of Granada.2 Writing clearly in Arabic is also a big deal because it isn’t easy. This is where the literacy, and literary vanity, of our medieval subjects abuts our own methodological quandaries. The more precise they were with their word choices, the less likely we are to catch the nuances they are trying to convey. Certain words in Arabic bear a huge semantic weight, accreted and accumulated over centuries of use across disciplines and texts, transmitted and transmuted over an enormous swath of the globe. Few of these meanings ever truly died or became obsolete; people liked to read and hear old texts, and odd ones, and such was (and is) the pleasure of the language. Some words became like freight trains laden with precious cargo, their meanings hitched together, some receding into the distance and hardly discernible, others right before you, most somewhere in between; and you’re not always sure how far you need to go before you spot the one you want, or how deep into dictionaries. For anyone reading an Arabic text from the distant past, polysemy is an unavoidable condition. You must learn how to manage polysemy, or you will drown in a sea of undifferentiated meanings. Managing polysemy in Arabic is like handling numbers in astrophysics, blood in medicine, or horses in polo: don’t try the one if you are squeamish about the other. When Jacques Derrida—I hope you’ll forgive my mentioning him, but let’s not forget that he was born and raised in an Arabic-­speaking country—spoke of written language’s endless deferral of meaning, he could well have been speaking of classical Arabic, though he wasn’t.3 You try to rein it all in with resort to that time-­honored corpus linguist’s trick, the semantic field, but sometimes even that is too weak a lasso for a wildly flailing animal. The challenge is to decide which meaning of a word fits in context—or, just as commonly, whether the one meaning that might fit is unavailable to you at the moment because it doesn’t happen to appear in any of the seven dictionaries that you are forced to consult with alarming frequency despite your decades of experience with the language. The dictionaries are where Derrida comes in: you turn to them seeking comfort in definition, but what they offer you instead is the anxiety of proliferation. The other thing about Arabic that is alluring and addictive to those who love it, and confounding, or, worse, a cause of errors to those who love it from a distance, is the capacity of its words to develop technical meanings—of those laden freight trains to carry very specific kinds of freight, but to carry them in unmarked containers. None of this would be a problem if the technical terms were labeled as such—printed in another

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Copying, Storage, and Dissemination • 321 color, for instance. Wouldn’t that be nice? But sadly, they’re not. They go incognito, camouflaged as normal semantic units, so one might think they are harmless and anodyne when in fact they are trapdoors to another dimension, only you can’t quite find the key. If all possible technical meanings could be found in dictionaries, none of this would be cause for alarm, anxiety, or even the standard precautions: it would only be a matter of research guided by logic, instinct, and years of reading. But the technical meanings you need will never all be found in dictionaries, because they have never been stable and they will never be, and will continue to evolve so long as there are authors, texts, genres, and subject matter. That is why, when al-­Maqrīzī wanted to get the attention of his older and more experienced contemporary al-­Qalqashandī, he asked his opinion on a technical term relating to the chancery.4 The technical term he chose was marsūm (order). He asked whether it was synonymous with amr (order): “What is the meaning of this in the technical lexicon of the chancery [mā maʿnā dhālika fī ṣṭilāḥ al-­inshāʾ]?” he asked. Al-­ Maqrīzī is unlikely not to have known the answer himself. But by asking the question, he acknowledged al-­Qalqashandī’s depth of experience and also demonstrated his mature understanding that technical terms are slippery and have nuance. That’s one reason Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s description of the chancery requires some exegesis. There are technical terms. To pin down the meaning of an ambiguous word, you have to go back and read his entire text and see how he uses it, and then hope that narrowing down the semantic field, limiting your search terrain, will help you find the key that will unlock the trapdoor to that particular dimension. I say all this by way of introduction so that you stay with me while I fumble for my keys on this excursion into the alternate dimension of the chancery. I promise you that we will come out the other side with a clearer understanding of it—if we can just find a way to enter the room.

THE LINCHPIN OF THE CHANCERY: KĀTIB NUMBER 5 As I was saying before the linguistic digression: kātib number 5 is the linchpin of the chancery, the stable rod that keeps the wheels from flying off the operation. True, without the archivist, there would be no retrieval of documents from the archive. But without kātib number 5, there would be no documents in the archive to begin with. He is the link between document production and retrieval, between the present and the future, or the present and the present when it’s past; he is the practical and metaphysical prerequisite for the state and its capacity to build and perpetuate institutions over time. When Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī first introduces kātib number 5, his position does not appear to be very well defined—hence my resort to the inelegant name-­by-­number. He seems to be a bit of a generalist. Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī starts by explaining that kātib number 5 catches some of the runoff from his immediate superior, kātib number 4, the long-­winded one, the clerk responsible for writing investitures and the like. Kātib number 5 also summarizes any incoming correspondence that bears implications for the fisc and passes it on to the land-­tax bureau (dīwān al-­kharāj)—passes on the summaries, not the original

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322 • Chapter 12 correspondence, because the originals contain sensitive information that should not be let out of the chancery, he explains, and must be stored there. Kātib number 5 must, then—like the archivist himself—be of unquestionable probity and discretion. At the same time, Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī emphasizes that kātib number 5 must write well and have excellent handwriting. He must be as “fine of hand” as a calligrapher, “or [at least] to the extent possible” (wa-­yakūn ḥasan al-­khaṭṭ aw bālighan fīhi ilā l-­qadr al-­kāfī).5 Is kātib number 5, then, a copyist? Yes, although not only: kātib number 5 is responsible for “making a written record” (yajʿal bi-­rasm tasṭīr) of three types of document, each of which I will define in turn: (1) decrees (al-­manāshīr); (2) files submitted to the caliph’s retainers (al-­fuṣūl al-­ mutaqaddima ilā l-­muqīmīn bi-­l-­ḥaḍra), presumably when a case needs researching; and (3) memoranda for high-­level officials (kutub tadhākīr al-­mustakhdimīn).6 Thus far, he is like a registrar: he makes sure all parts of the operation have access to information from the others. But what are these three types of document? I will begin from the end, with the simplest type. Memoranda for officials are in-­house summaries of cases or administrative acts. Memorandum (tadhkira) is a technical term in the Fatimid state system. A Fatimid state document I found in a geniza collection that calls itself a tadhkira is the summary of a fiscal case, written on a small square of paper and intended for another official.7 The second type, the “file” (faṣl, pl. fuṣūl), is also probably an in-­house memorandum. This, too, is probably intended in a technical sense. The word fuṣūl can mean “sections, chapters,” and also “judgments”—a sense that appears frequently in legal documents.8 But none of those meanings quite fits here. The word appears a bit further on in the text in the sense of “files separated by month,” and that seems to be what we are dealing with: kātib number 5 had to make a written record of entire files of chancery documents, perhaps meaning that he summarized them so they could be directed to other high officials. As for the first—the decrees (manāshīr)—the term is clear and admits of no ambiguity by this point in the text. The trouble is rather that Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s rundown has already covered them so amply that one wonders why we need another writer of them: writing decrees is the responsibility of three other officials (numbers 2, 3, and 4). How, then, has it also become the responsibility of kātib number 5? It is more likely that kātib number 5 is “making a written record of ” decrees in the sense of writing down their texts. And indeed, Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī emphasizes sternly that none of these three document types—decrees, files, and memoranda—are kātib number 5’s own composition. He cautions in the very next sentence: “He must transcribe them from what the head of the chancery gives him” (wa-­naqalahā mim-­mā yumaththiluhu ṣāḥib al-­dīwān). An equally valid translation would be “what the head of the chancery shows him as a model.”9 The head of the chancery is, in other words, handing kātib number 5 written texts to copy, not letting him compose them himself. Kātib number 5 does not have the discretion to write texts. He transcribes (naqala) them word for word based on what he is shown, as a registrar would. What does this mean in the case of the decrees? Kātib number 5 transcribes decrees, but why, and what does he do with them?

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Copying, Storage, and Dissemination • 323 He passes them on to the calligrapher (al-­mubayyiḍ), who renders the text into the long, lavish, wasteful format we have seen. But he does not transcribe the decrees so that the calligrapher can draw up grand rotuli on their basis: if this were the only reason he transcribed decrees, it would be an unnecessary intermediate step, and the chancery had no time for wasted motion. Rather, the purpose of his transcriptions was to be filed in the archives. That is what the next sentence says: “He must copy [nasakha] everything that is written in this dīwān or issues forth from it in copies [nusakh] that will be filed here [or: serve as a permanent record here, mukhallada—i.e., be archived].”10 Kātib number 5 is, in short, the official who makes the bifolios I discussed in chapter 3—the compact copies intended for the chancery archives. This passage is essential to understanding both the work of the chancery and the life cycle of the Fatimid decree. But before I draw conclusions, there are four Arabic words that we have to explore. First, when Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī says that kātib number 5 has to copy everything written in the chancery “in copies that will be filed here,” the word I have translated as “filed” is a technical term, mukhallada. The verb khallada means “to fix, to make final,” and also “to render permanent.” It appears in chancery works with the technical meaning “to file”—to insert a copy of a document into the archive for storage and thus to make it permanent—in short, to archive it.11 So what kātib number 5 is producing are fixed, final, permanent records of decrees: archival copies. The link between filing and making permanent is not just conceptual. It is also physical. The Fatimid archives—like many medieval archives—consisted of documents not just stored next to each other, but bound together into quires or codices. So when a document is “made permanent” and “filed” in the chancery archives, it is also fixed there, materially. I’ll come back to this in a bit. Second, there are different Arabic verbs for copying texts. Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī, true to his métier, deploys two of them here with what I believe to be ironclad precision: naqala and nasakha. Naqala means “to copy,” in the sense of receiving a text and transcribing it. Nasakha means “to copy” in the sense of taking a text that one has received and producing a copy of it. This might seem like a distinction without a difference: both words can be accurately rendered into English as “copy.” But the emphasis and purpose of the acts are not quite the same. Naqala is about receiving a text, taking one’s place in the chain of its transmission by accepting it from someone before you in the relay, and then taking on the responsibility of transferring it from one written object to another—being its bearer, in a sense, the way transmitters of ḥadīth are bearers of tradition. Naqala is the verb to use when you are talking about transcribing a text, transferring it from one support to another. Nasakha, on the other hand, has nothing to do with whether someone handed you the text, or you wrote it yourself, or it fell from the skies with a thunderclap and unfurled itself before you: it’s about producing a physical exemplar of a text, any text. This exemplar can be calligraphic, but it doesn’t have to be. It can exist before the moment you copy it, or you can make it up as you go along; the point is that you’re producing it. The noun form of the root, nuskha, means “a physical exemplar of a text.” A nuskha is not necessarily a copy, although it can also mean “copy,” and that’s how it’s usually

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324 • Chapter 12 translated. But there is another attested meaning that is quite the opposite of copy: “the final version of the text, from which all further copies should be made.” The most neutral and safe translation of nuskha is “physical exemplar” or (to borrow from Lach­mann­ ian textual criticism) “textual witness.”12 So when kātib number 5 receives the documents that “the head of the chancery gives him” or “shows him as a model,” and then “transcribes them” (naqalahā), what he is doing is receiving the drafts that have made it through the other segments of the assembly line, taking them from the head of the dīwān, and transferring them, in this case to a bifolio—transforming them into an archival record. When Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī says that kātib number 5 “must copy [naskh] everything that is written in this dīwān or issues forth from it in copies [nusakh] that will be filed here,” he means that kātib number 5 must produce physical exemplars to be stored as permanent records. Immediately following this, Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī adds, for emphasis, that the physical exemplars (nusakh) that kātib number 5 produces must be verbatim from what he has received: “The final copies [mubayyaḍa] must not differ by even a letter, so that they are available when needed” (lā tughādir al-­mubayyaḍa bi-­ḥarf li-­takūn mawjūda matā uḥtīj ilayhā).13 They must be verbatim precisely because they are going in the archives. But he doesn’t file them yet, or pass them to the archivist: first, he passes them on to the calligrapher. This turns out to be the key to understanding the whole system; I’ll get back to it momentarily. This brings us to the fourth technical term: mubayyaḍa, fair (or “white”) copy, as distinct from musawwada, draft (or “black”) copy. The distinction between final and draft copy is standard in any literary culture, and in Arabic manuscript culture no less. That is precisely why Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī deploys it: he is using the word the way the author of a literary text would. Mubayyaḍa is final text. The text of which kātib number 5 needs to produce a physical exemplar, so that it will be available in the archives in perpetuity, is the final text of the decrees—the mubayyaḍa. Why am I making such a big fuss over this? Well, were the grand rotuli considered mubayyaḍa? This is certainly what I came into this research project thinking. The grand rotuli were the fancy ones, after all. They look like final copy, what with their fancy calligraphy and wasteful expenditure of paper. They are not informal notes intended only for insiders. They are presentation copies. To put this another way: were the compact bifolios drawn up for the Fatimid archive the “copies,” and the grand rotuli the “originals,” or vice versa—were the grand rotuli “copies” of the archival bifolio, which was, in fact, the “original”? It would not be unreasonable to think, as Stern and Khan did—and as I also assumed for many years—that the rotulus was the original and the bifolio was the copy. The intuitive assumption would be that the calligrapher wrote up the grand decree, and then, just before the runner came to take it and deliver it to its addressees out there in the provinces, a clerk like kātib number 5 took it and copied it into a compact bifolio format for the archives, gave it to the archivist to file, and then gave the rotulus back to whoever would give it to the runner. The grand rotulus was the public face of the state, after all: it must have some inherent value. But no: Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī is telling us the exact opposite. He is saying that the compact bifolios were produced first, and the grand rotuli copied from them. Then the bifolios were archived.

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Copying, Storage, and Dissemination • 325 Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī spells this out in the passage in which he describes the filing system in the chancery archive: When the chancery letter-­composer [al-­munshiʾ—kātib number 2 from the previous chapter], or the official in charge of the diplomatic correspondence [al-­ mustakhdam li-­mukātabat al-­mulūk—kātib number 3], has written a document, he hands it over to the clerk in charge of copying [al-­mandūb li-­l-­naskh—kātib number 5], who copies it letter for letter [makes a physical exemplar of it]. At the top, he writes: “physical exemplar [nuskha] of such-­and-­such a letter, going out at such-­and-­such a time,” giving the date—day, month, and year. The archivist [al-­khāzin, kātib number 9] then takes it and files it [fa-­shakkahu] together with similar items in the file [shakka] of that year. Similarly, when the clerk charged with the correspondence of dignitaries of state, its great men, and its amīrs [al-­kātib al-­muʾahhal li-­mukātabat rijāl al-­ dawla wa-­kubarāʾihā wa-­umarāʾihā—kātib number 4], or the official in charge of drawing up decrees and the like [al-­mustakhdam li-­katb al-­manāshīr wa-­ ghayrihā—also kātib number 4], writes anything for which either of them is responsible, the copyist [al-­nāsikh—kātib number 5 finally has a title!] takes it and copies it letter for letter and writes the aforementioned formula on top. The archivist puts together all the copies of the same type, keeping each year separate, divided into twelve sections [fuṣūl], each month enclosed in a separate file [kull shahr ʿalā ḥidatihi muḍammanan shakka wāḥida], so that if he looks for anything he finds it with the least effort.14 Three comments here. First, let us not pass over in silence the momentous thing that has just happened: Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī has granted kātib number 5 his own title. Henceforth I, too, shall call him by this title: the copyist (al-­nāsikh), he who produces physical exemplars of texts, as distinct from the calligrapher (al-­mubayyiḍ), he who produces fancy-­looking versions of texts. Second, there’s another technical term buried here, and it is particularly juicy because you can find an example of it in an extant document. When the archivist files the bifolios that the copyist produces, the word Ibn al-­ Ṣayrafī uses for “file,” the noun and the verb, is shakka: “he files it [fa-­shakkahu] . . . in the file of that year [fī shakka tilka l-­sana].” The verb shakka means—well, it means many things, including to doubt and to distrust, but the meaning that makes sense here is “to pierce, impale.” What does impalement have to do with filing? Lest you worry about the safety of the archivist, rest assured that what we are dealing with here is not impalement with lances, but binding with an awl or a large needle, and binding not merely any file, but a bound and sewn file: quires consisting of bifolios are not nested but laid together, front on back, and sewn together—hence pierced. Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī elsewhere, and al-­Qalqashandī in describing the same system, both use another term that points in a similar but not identical direction: iḍbāra (pl. aḍābīr), a “bundle,” from ḍabara, “to gather” or “to tie together.” This suggests that the pages are not necessarily pierced and sewn, but could, perhaps, be tied in a bundle instead.15 There may well have been two distinct methods of filing: binding and bundling. Either way, there was string involved. And either way, the Fatimids bound their files

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326 • Chapter 12 with this string, whether by piercing them or tying them or both. Incontrovertible proof: there was a state archive, and now we know what it looked like. Third, and finally: Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī makes it clear that the raison d’être of an archive was the probative value of the documents it contained. The archivist, he tells us, files documents according to a certain logic, by type, time, and place, in order to facilitate retrieval—to enable one to find them “with the least effort” (bi-­ahwan saʿy). The copies of decrees copied onto bifolios were purpose-­built for archives, and they show it.

AN ACTUAL DOCUMENT COPIED BY THE NĀSIKH An actual archival copy of a Fatimid decree, copied by the nāsikh, survived in the geniza (fig. 12.1). Geoffrey Khan first published it; he and S. M. Stern established what it was.16 Comparing it with the passages in Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī and reading them closely adds a new dimension to it. The document is a bifolio, arranged in booklet form right to left (the outer side contains pages 1 and 4, the inner side pages 2 and 3). It measures 17 × 25 cm, which is a standard size for archival bifolios of state documents. This one is an unassuming and not particularly attractive specimen—again I have made the sort of value judgment that professional paleographers avoid; I will put it on firmer analytical footing in a moment. But “unattractive” though it may be, it’s also a decree of al-­Ḥāfiẓ dated 21 Rabīʿ I 528/19 January 1134. Not only is it datable; it dates to the same decade as the decree fragments I discussed in the previous chapter. All of them come from Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī’s shop in the decade following his composition of The Rules of the Chancery: documentary evidence against which to measure the claims made in a literary text. To judge by this particular nāsikh’s work, he was a lesser specimen of calligrapher. He was not as “fine of hand” as Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī would have liked; the boss had to settle for “to the extent possible” (bālighan fīhi ilā l-­qadr al-­kāfī) because someone with a genuinely beautiful hand (ḥasan al-­khaṭṭ) was not, apparently, available, although even then, I imagine Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī could have done better.17 The hand is conspicuously different from the hands of the grand rotuli. There is no variable-­width ductus, no bias-­cut nib. There are no hairlines. Instead, the copyist has made an unconvincing attempt at sprezzatura by running off the side of the page with his bowls and descenders, though the results look more like slashes, marks of Zorro, than like hairlines. His hand is from the same general universe as the other state scribes—he arranges his words on nested baselines that descend slightly and then ascend markedly; he stacks his words at the ends of lines. He has clearly been trained. But the curves of his bowls are angular, with sharp corners where there should be flowing, round strokes. It is as though someone from the fiscal administration, all elbows and corners, has attempted to learn a graceful, round chancery hand but never quite made it to the advanced apprenticeship. It is like watching a skeleton or a marionette attempt classical ballet.

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5 cm 2 in

5 cm 2 in

12.1. A Fatimid decree copied onto a bifolio for the chancery archives. The first page, at the top left, bears a summary of the decree for the archives and a cipher that extends more than halfway down the page noting that the decree has been copied (nuqila). Cambridge University Library, T-­S Ar. 40.37.

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328 • Chapter 12 Then again, the way the nāsikh copied was bespoke, if not for public performance then for the archives. His line spacing is not nearly as broad as on the rotuli—and that is as it should be, because his copy was meant to be stored and retrieved, so compactness was a virtue. The overflow on page 4 makes it clear that he copied the document with the booklet closed, and maybe even already bound; he was accustomed to working within space constraints and didn’t need to work on an open bifolio. The fold is exact—in contrast to the folds of letters, which are more like the lines on the palm of a hand, chains of smaller folds forming one larger one. It is so exact as to suggest he was copying onto quires that had been prefolded for this purpose, and carefully so. The quasiregular size of some bifolio state documents that have survived suggests that there may well have been copybooks for the archives.18 The assembly line may have included unpaid apprentices (ghilmān) whose duties included paper folding. Or perhaps the copyist and the archivist took advantage of lulls in the writing and paperwork to do some folding themselves. They may have used a bone tool to do it, as hand bookmakers do today: that’s the way to get a precision fold. If you’re the kind of person who asks questions about a document’s material qualities, all these points may seem obvious to you: this is the hand of the copyist; it’s not as good as the calligrapher’s; it’s compact because the copy is for the archives. But if you’re not accustomed to asking those questions, because, for instance, you haven’t grown up on a steady diet of color television or Instagram and you’re used to looking at texts rather than pictures, none of this might seem to matter. But matter it does.

MISSED CLUES One person who didn’t grow up with color television or Instagram is Samuel Miklos Stern. Stern knew of this bifolio and cited it, referring to it in passing as a “contemporary copy of a decree” by al-­Ḥāfiẓ. He does not, however, seem to have known that it was precisely the kind of copy that Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī describes.19 Stern did, however, know that the archival copies of decrees were more compact than the grand rotuli, and he corrected Gottheil on this point.20 He had also read and transcribed this very bifolio, and his transcription has survived in his Nachlass, which is now in Jerusalem (fig. 12.2). He never published it, and it is consoling and inspiring to see one of the world’s greatest and most imaginative Arabic documentary paleographers struggling to read a text, going back over it in pencil and (on a different page from the one I have photographed) tracing over some of the difficult Arabic ciphers. Stern knew, because these words he read with ease, that it announced itself as “a gracious decree” (manshūr karīm). But he did not know, because he never deciphered this word, that it also claimed to be “its written exemplar” (nuskhatuhu).21 In other words, he knew it was a copy, but he didn’t know that this copy was from the Fatimid archives. Like most papyrologists of his generation, he was interested in the verbal contents of documents, not in their physicality or their use. The blind spot may have been about the difficult hand; it may have been a blindness to the material features of documents. But I suspect it was also about Stern’s mental image of the Fatimid state.

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Copying, Storage, and Dissemination • 329 Stern concluded from his Sinai corpus—correctly—that petitioners kept the decrees they received for “future use, and finally preserved them in their archives.”22 This was certainly true of the monks of Saint Catherine and the Qaraites, who received the types of decrees that “were not addressed to the authorities who had to act upon them, but to the beneficiaries.” When petitioners received a decree, he argued, “it was up to [them] to submit” those decrees “to the authorities.” But “the documents were not filed by the latter,” Stern claimed, “but returned to the beneficiaries who kept them for eventual future use as evidence for the privileges granted in them.”23 It is extremely surprising, in retrospect, that Stern could have imagined a state placing the burden of archiving exclusively on its own subjects. The kind of passivity Stern attributed to state officials—not so far from Goitein’s claim that the Fatimid state’s “laissez-­faire” was motivated by “indolence”—was also in gross contradiction of the decree’s contents, to which I will turn in a moment. Geoffrey Khan was the first to recognize that this was a copy of a decree from the Fatimid chancery, intended for storage in its archives—to discuss the document’s status as an object.24 (I make no claims about Professor Khan’s childhood television habits, however.) He noticed four pinholes at the fold where the bifolio had once been bound into a file, and he drew a connection to the descriptions of the chancery archives in Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī and al-­Qalqashandī. Hence he established that this decree was not just produced in the chancery, but produced for its archives.25 And this makes sense: if the copies of decrees drawn up for the state archives were modest and compact, the grand rotuli, with their extraordinary length, calligraphic script, and extravagant line spacing, were public copies only—to be issued to petitioners, provincial governors, and other officials. This was only sensible: what archivist in his or her right mind would file an eight-­meter-­by-­half-­meter scroll when the alternative was a 17 × 25 cm bifolio? For that matter, what provincial official would file a huge scroll of an order when there were compact ones in the capital? Any provincial official who did would in short order have turned his office into something resembling The Tax-­Collector’s Office (ca. 1615) by Pieter Brueghel fils: strewn floor to ceiling with paper, the tattered remains of an organizational system barely visible beneath the clutter. The production of dedicated types of document for different purposes speaks to a degree of complexity and a more robust version of the state. That version of the state is, in turn, congruent with the interventionist policies suggested by the contents of the document itself. I’ll discuss the contents for a moment, then return to the physical form.

THE STATE AGAINST ITS OWN OFFICIALS The decree is evidence on behalf of the links between the Fatimid petitioning process and fiscal policy for which I argued in chapter 8: the palace was willing to go after midlevel officials when they oppressed tax-­rendering subjects. One of the most consistent sources of revenue the Fatimids enjoyed were taxes on the transit trade. The converse is also true: anything that disrupted seaborne commerce

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12.2. S. M. Stern’s unpublished transcription of the bifolio decree copy from the Fatimid archives (see fig. 12.1), circa 1960–­69. National Library of Israel, Arc. 4°1656, folder 517.

also disrupted their revenue from it. It is to such a disruption that we owe the existence of our bifolio decree. If you travel from Cairo north and then slightly west, before you arrive at the Mediterranean coast, you will hit a lake—really more of a lagoon—that is about a quarter as long as the delta is wide at its fan. It is called Lake Burullus, but the water in the lake is

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not quite fresh, and not quite salty; the technical term is brackish, indicating a level of salinity less than that of the sea beyond. The water is shallow. The lake is a fantastic breeding ground for fish and wetland birds; today it hosts at least five species of bird I had never heard of before I did the research for this paragraph (wigeons, shovellers, boots, whiskered terns, and pochards). In the twelfth century, too, it was prime fishing ground—whence our decree.

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332 • Chapter 12 If you keep going north across Lake Burullus, you will hit a strip of sandy barrier that divides the lake from the Mediterranean. This is al-­Nastarāwiyya. Our decree came about because a group of subjects from the environs of al-­Nastarāwiyya had petitioned the palace to complain that government officials were requisitioning the boats of local merchants (tujjār arbāb al-­marākib), depriving them of their means of livelihood.26 The petitioners may have been the merchants themselves—we are not told—or else they were the merchants together with local tax farmers collecting revenue on the state’s behalf; the tax farmers appear later in the text. Were tax farmers state employees, and if so, could they join a petition against state officials? In fact they were what we would now call private contractors, who won their concessions by bidding or promising the fisc they would collect a certain amount of revenue annually.27 Their future concessions depended on their collecting what they had promised—hence their interest in joining the petition against the higher officials who were making it impossible for the merchants on whose revenue they depended to make any money at all. The merchants’ usual routes were along the coast of Egypt and inland all over the delta (“to the shores of al-­Buḥayra, al-­Sharqiyya, al-­Gharbiyya and the frontier of Alexandria”). This is where they sold fish, perhaps acquiring other goods in exchange. It’s always better to travel with a boat full of wares, to keep one’s capital in motion. Even if they sold off part of the haul along the way, it would be sensible to avoid traveling with an empty boat, because it wasn’t worth the expense to run one unless there was cargo to sell. So they probably bought and sold along the way. The government agents, however, had been confiscating their boats and dumping their merchandise onto the shores. These agents are described as governors (wulāt), law enforcement agents (shāddīn), and other appointees (mustakhdamīn) of the state.28 This suggests a concerted effort by local officials to commandeer the boats. All these officials for some reason preferred to use the merchants’ boats as means of transport rather than to collect revenue on the cargo. This would be sensible if the boats were proper ships: tax revenue helped the state, but ships would have helped it even more, particularly if wood imports were scarce and there happened to be Crusaders in the Syrian ports against whom one might wish to campaign. But Lake Burullus is not deep enough for ships: its depth runs between half a meter and 1.5 meters, and it could hardly have been much deeper in the Middle Ages. What was needed were boats with a relatively shallow bottom. And these could hardly have been worth the local officials’ efforts to requisition them. There must have been some other reason why the local officials had it out for the boatmen—vindictiveness, perhaps—or else the boats were not only lagoon boats but also ships practicing cabotage along the Mediterranean coast.29 Either way, the officials were engaged in a conspiracy of large proportions. The petitioners complained that, to make matters worse, fishermen from outside the Gharbiyya district were now living there and fishing along the shores of Lake Burullus, and this was ruinous to commerce in some unspecified way. Perhaps these outside fishermen had bribed the local officials to allow them to work there. “All this is causing damage to the tax farmers and to the finances of the dīwān,” said the decree, paraphrasing

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Copying, Storage, and Dissemination • 333 the petition, which obviously tried to make the case interesting to the fisc and thus to the palace. As indeed it was. This situation “displeased” the caliph. Therefore “his exalted order was issued for this decree to be written and for it to be read out in public.” The decree enjoins the officials of the province to safeguard the traveling merchants, defend them and protect them, prevent the requisitioning of the boats that are carrying their goods and are loaded with their merchandise, grant them the power to deliver what they wish to sell, check anyone who harms the tax farmers [ḍummān] in their concession [ḍamān], prevent people who are not their business associates [min muʿāmilihim] from encroaching upon the shore of the province, and outlaw those who seek to gain access to what is forbidden to them or disallowed, and those who regard as permissible what is not permissible for them.30 Government corruption, in sum, was bad for business and bad for tax revenue. But to whom was the decree issued? If all the government officials in the region were in cahoots against the shipowners, whom could the central administration trust to defend the cause of justice and enforce the decree? That was precisely the question bothering someone else in the chancery.

AN OMISSION, AN AFTERTHOUGHT, AN INSERTION . . . AND A GRAMMATICAL CATASTROPHE The final injunctions—the part of the decree instructing local officials to execute its contents—begin on the second line of the final page (top right): “Let the amīr al-­ mukhtār, the diligent representative of his diwān, may God save it, ensure that the commands and prohibitions contained in this decree are carried out.” But what good was a single amīr carrying out the wishes of a decree against an entire conspiracy of “governors, law enforcement agents and other officials”? Apparently this question also occurred to someone in the chancery, but too late. The official who drafted the decree does not seem to have considered the problem. Nor did the head of the chancery—Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī—when he gave the text to the nāsikh (kātib number 5). But someone noticed it, because the nāsikh has added a line of text between lines 2 and 3, so that the text now reads (with the addition in boldface): Let the amīr al-­mukhtār, and all the amīrs, governors [wūlāt] and officials [mus­takh­damīn], the diligent representative [sic] of his [sic] diwān, may God save it, ensure that the commands and prohibitions contained in this decree are carried out. Let him [sic] stand within the bounds of his office in loyalty and absolute obedience, and let him seek to ameliorate the lot of the merchants, protect them from all harm and damage, set right the affairs of the ḍāmins in

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334 • Chapter 12 their ḍamān and levy their dues in full according to the praiseworthy and prospering law.31 The afterthought turned the decree into an exhortation to the officials who were confiscating the boats rather than the single amīr responsible for enforcing the order— but then all the singular pronouns referring back to the amīr marched on as though the specification had never taken place. The grammatical catastrophe that has ensued—singular pronouns being used for plural antecedents, a total suspension of the rules of eloquence (al-­balāgha), clear expression (al-­bayān), and grammar (al-­naḥw)—is reason enough to suspect an insertion. But it isn’t the only clue. If you look closely at the final page (see fig. 12.1, upper right), you will see that the lines are spaced at regular intervals with the exception of line 3, which mars that regularity, and is also written with a nib cut more broadly and at a sharper angle. Unlike the nib the nāsikh used for the rest of the decree, the nib used for the insertion was capable of producing variable-­width strokes. It’s either a different qalam, or the nib has been recut in the interval. But is it a different hand? It, too, is all elbows, with the same faux-­sprezzatura of the final bowls: the final nūn in mustakhdamīn extends all the way to the edge of the page. It may, then, be the nāsikh himself. But it is an insertion nonetheless, at a time other than the original time of copying—and presumably at someone’s behest. Khan concluded that the bifolio was a slightly abridged copy of the “original decree,” the large-­format one.32 But if this were a copy of the grand rotulus, this insertion could never have been made. Had the insertion been made to correct the copyist’s omission of words in the text from which he was copying, we would have had pronouns that agreed with each other. It is a clarification, and adding a clarification of this sort to an archival record is pointless if the rotulus intended for the officials and the public is already finished. The grand, calligraphic scrolls that were sent to the provinces were, then, copies of the bifolios drawn up to be stored in the archives. The bifolios contained the final version of the text; the rotuli were mere reproductions, albeit on a grand scale. And this has implications for the ecology of documents in the Fatimid realm.

ORIGINALS AND COPIES The order in which the decrees were copied brings us back to the afterlives of Fatimid documents. I’ve just established that once a compact copy was made for the chancery archive, it was the original on the basis of which the long, lavish rotuli were drawn up. The rotuli were drawn up in multiple copies for dissemination across the empire. These, in turn, were the decrees that were dismembered and sent back into circulation as writing material. They were performative in nature and ephemeral in intent and ended up as neutral commodities. And they lacked the juridical value of probative documents unless their

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Copying, Storage, and Dissemination • 335 beneficiaries had been told to keep them on hand and there were registration marks to prove it. Why did I expect otherwise? Why did I—or anyone else—imagine that the archival copy was the copy and the rotulus was the original? This is not, I believe, an unreasonable assumption. The lavish, grand rotuli give off an aura of importance. They are larger than life. A prodigal expenditure of raw materials was required to make them. They must, therefore, be ontologically more important than the bifolios. And yet these were the ones discarded, dismembered, fragmented, demoted to dead-­letter status, reduced to writing material. The compact bifolios, written in a conspicuously sloppier script, looking considerably less impressive, were earmarked for posterity. I am not the first to grapple with the question of which was the original and which the copy. The opinions are now split fifty-­fifty: Stern and Khan thought the bifolio was a copy of the rotulus; but Gottheil, who probably didn’t think very hard about the issue at all, thought the rotulus was a mere copy. I agree with him, though I disagree with his reasoning. Gottheil thought the rotulus was a copy because of a registration mark at the bottom of the eight-­meter decree to the Qaraites of 425/1034, which reads: “It has been copied [nusikha] in the chancery,” followed by an ʿalāma, “Praise be to God, master of all benefactions” (al-­ḥamdu li-­llāh walī kull niʿma) (fig. 12.3). He read this—correctly—as meaning that the rotulus had been copied (nusikha) from some other text. Stern, by contrast, read this as meaning that some other copy had been made of the rotulus for storage in the chancery: “it has been copied in the chancery” meant “a copy of this has been made in the chancery.”33 So which is it—“nusikha in the chancery” meaning the chancery was the physical location of its being rendered into compact archival form (Stern), or “nusikha in the chancery” meaning “this very copy was produced in the chancery” (Gottheil)? The cumulative weight of the evidence supports the latter reading—but a few disparate pieces of evidence need to come together before we can make sense of the matter of “original” versus “copy.” First, there is the lexical evidence I introduced above. The verb nasakha means to produce a physical exemplar of a text. In this case, it happens to mean a calligraphic one, but it doesn’t have to mean that: it simply means to produce what the philologists would call a “textual witness.” And the note on Gottheil’s grand rotulus saying “it has been copied” is in the same hand as the rest of the rotulus: it is the calligrapher signing off on his handiwork, saying that he produced this scroll in the chancery. But: he is not saying whether he copied it from an official mubayyaḍa, on the oral instruction of the head of the chancery, from an old scrap he happened to find lying around, or directly from the caliph’s pure and noble utterance. He is merely saying that he wrote it out. On the basis of the note, then, Gottheil did not have sufficient evidence to conclude that this was a copy of some prior witness of the text. He happened to be correct about this, but the evidence comes from elsewhere: the archival bifolio. The markings on the front of the bifolio do not speak clearly to the “original” ver­ sus “copy” question either, but they yield to the cumulative weight of comparative

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12.3. Detail of the eight-­meter decree issued to the Qaraites of Fustat in 425/1034 (see fig. 5.1), showing the registration mark between the date and the closing formula.

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Copying, Storage, and Dissemination • 337 e­ vidence. They are also probably what created the confusion in the first place. Those markings use the twin words for “copy”: naqala and nuskha. But they use them in specific senses. In figure 12.4, I have divided the front of the bifolio—the top portion before the main text—into five distinct zones. I will take each of the first four in the chronological order in which the copyist wrote them, saving the fifth for the next chapter. 1. “A gracious decree,” in large, horizontally extended letters. This is the heading of the text. 2. Placement of the ʿalāma (two lines). This is not the actual ʿalāma of the caliph or vizier. It is the copyist saying, “This is a gracious decree. It has been authenticated at its top with the pure ʿalāma.”34 3. The heading “its nuskha,” its “physical exemplar”—in this case, its final version (mubayyaḍa), from which all further copies should be made. The copyist then wrote out the decree text and handed the bifolio to the calligrapher. The calligrapher then wrote out the grand rotulus and gave the bifolio back to the copyist. 4. This is the record confirming that the calligrapher had copied the bifolio onto a rotulus. The note reads: nuqila, “it has been transferred.” Whoever wrote the note—whether the copyist or the archivist—has taken the tail of the final lām and dragged it more than halfway down the page. When scribes and archivists drew markings intended for others of their kind, they tended to give them a stylized appearance and turn them into ciphers, challenging even the most intrepid of modern paleographers. (See immediately below.) 5. This is an archival notation, to which I will return in chapter 13. The cipher reading “it was copied” is so stylized that it took the tiny field of Arabic documentary studies twenty years to decode it. Frédéric Bauden deciphered it in 2008, when he found the same mark in the draft notebooks of al-­Maqrīzī, who wrote it next to passages he had transferred into his final text.35 Nuqila is, in other words, a mark meaning that this passage or text has now been reproduced elsewhere. The mark means “it has been copied” in the sense of “it has been transferred to a different physical support.” So once the calligrapher had copied out the rotulus, this mark was added to the bifolio, saying, the text has been transferred to its public format and can now go to the archive. I am assuming it was the copyist (nāsikh) who wrote this cipher, but I don’t know for sure; I will return to it in chapter 13. Khan published a second document with the same cipher: a fiscal account dated 551–52/1156–57 (fig. 12.5).36 It, too, is a bifolio, with almost exactly the same measurements as our decree (at least it had the same measurements when it was whole: 16.2 × 25 cm), which makes sense because you’d want the archive to look orderly. The account relates to payments owed on a tax farm by a tax farmer named Basṭiyya b. Marqūra, a Copt, to judge by the name. On the verso, in the same hand, there is a summary (faṣl)

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338 • Chapter 12

4 5 1

2 3

12.4. Archival copy of the decree of al-­Ḥāfiẓ from 528/1134 (fig. 12.1) with distinct zones marked off attesting to the process of producing, copying, registering, and filing decrees in the chancery. Cambridge University Library, T-­S Ar. 40.37.

of the account on the recto. Above it, toward the top of the document, there is the cipher for nuqila, now faded and nearly invisible.37 The symbol means that the information contained in the account had been transferred to some other format, probably a memorandum for the fisc or a receipt for the tax farmer himself. Nuqila, then, means not simply “it has been copied,” but rather, “the information contained here has been transferred to another document.” The copyist’s bifolio was the first and main exemplar of the decree. It preceded the grand rotulus—and was meant to outlast it.

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Copying, Storage, and Dissemination • 339 That’s why we needn’t be surprised, dismayed, alarmed, or scandalized to find fragments of the grand rotuli reduced to mere scrap: they were never meant to be permanent records of state.

VISUAL MATTERS: AN ILLUSTRATION OF A CHANCERY SCRIBE A manuscript now in Edinburgh contains an illustration of the process of drawing up a decree. It is from the East and more than a century after the Fatimids, but it supports the interpretation I have just offered so nicely that I cannot resist introducing it into the discussion. The manuscript is an exemplar (a nuskha!) of a universal history by Rashīd al-­Dīn (ca. 645–718/1247–1318), an Īlkhānid historian who was born in Hamadān to a family of Jewish physicians and converted to Islam at the age of roughly thirty. He eventually rose to the vizierate under Ghāzān Khān (r. 1295–1304), who commissioned him to write the work, which goes by the title Jāmiʿ al-­tawārīkh (The compendium of chronicles).38 The Edinburgh manuscript was produced during the author’s lifetime in the Īlkhānid realm—in 714/1314 in Tabrīz. It contains the second part of the work. The illustrations come from more than one hand—three different illustrators, it seems. Some depict epic scenes of battle, others moments of prophetic revelation, and still others, enthroned rulers—pre-­Islamic and Muslim alike. Each of the three illustrators appears to have been a specialist in one type of genre scene. All the throne scenes have the ruler at the center of the composition, surrounded by entourages to his left and right. In nearly all of them, a chancery scribe is seated just to the left of the sovereign, wearing a turban and writing a decree on a long rotulus, leaving vast space between the lines. If this were a Fatimid manuscript, I would call this turbaned man the calligrapher (al-­mubayyiḍ). The Mongol-­era illustrator quite clearly believed that the long rotulus with the wide line spacing to be the paradigmatic representation not just of a sovereign decree, but of the men of the pen and the ruler on whose behalf they wrote. The sovereign, surrounded by the apparatus of state, possesses the power to command and prohibit via written decree. Nearly all the throne scenes in this manuscript are similar, and nearly all have a chancery calligrapher. Nearly all the calligraphers are writing out their grand decrees as if from memory, or perhaps directly from the mouth of the ruler—though the ruler often appears more interested in the entourage to his right (and perhaps their interesting headgear) than in the chancery scribe. But one of these scenes is different (fig. 12.6). In this one, the king in question is the Seljuk sultan Berk-­Yaruq b. Malik Shāh (r. 1093–1105), who was contemporaneous with the Fatimids and ruled Iraq and Iran—former Buyid territory. The illustration

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340 • Chapter 12

5 cm 2 in

12.5. Fragment of a fiscal account, summarized on verso and marked with the cipher “it has been copied” (nuqila), barely visible on the upper left of the verso. Cambridge University Library, T-­S Ar. 39.395.

depicts his chancery scribe, brass pen box to his left, inkwell facing him. The rotulus he is writing sits on his right thigh. (All the chancery scribes in the manuscript are depicted writing without a table, as was common practice in the medieval Middle East.) He writes with a reed pen in his right hand, leaving large spaces between the lines. The first line of text ascends conspicuously from right to left with words stacked at the end of the line, as had become universal in state decrees by the period of the illustrator, the author, and even the king depicted. The first and second lines are more widely spaced than the second and third, either because the artist has attempted foreshortening or else because one of those lines contains the sultan’s tughrā, the Turkic equivalent of the ʿalāma, and so is spaced differently from the rest.

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Copying, Storage, and Dissemination • 341

5 cm 2 in

This mubayyiḍ is copying out a long rotulus neither from memory nor from an oral decree, but from another text that sits before him. The text is to the right of his pen box. It is open. It looks like a codex. But look again: it is a pair of bifolios, or perhaps a split stack of them. They aren’t bound like a codex; there are strings threaded through the center of the pages. This is an attested method of provisional binding called tacketing.39 Tacket binding is a way to collate bifolios temporarily, to keep them organized before sewing the gatherings or quires together, like basting for fabric.40 The thread is poking through the middle of each stack of pages and snaking its way underneath the quires. And the scribe’s visible eye—the left—is trained on them. The calligrapher, in sum, is copying his grand rotulus from the exemplar in the bifolios. What is in front of him is the “bundle” (iḍbāra) that Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī and al-­ Qalqashandī describe. Even without the textual evidence I have just discussed, the

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342 • Chapter 12

12.6. A sovereign with a chancery scribe sitting to his left copying the text of a decree from a compact bifolio onto a rotulus with wide line spacing. Early fourteenth century. Rashīd al-­Dīn, Jāmiʿ al-­tawārīkh (Compendium of chronicles), Edinburgh, MS Or. 20, fol. 139v.

i­llustration s­ uggests that the bifolio copy contains the official version of the text for storage and reference, while the grand rotulus is but a copy of it—the will of the sovereign represented larger than life for his subjects’ consumption. And that’s how so many decree fragments survived in the Cairo Geniza. Stern’s decrees, secreted away by the monks of Sinai for centuries, as precious to them as the document in their archive that they claim is a letter of protection granted to the monastery by Muḥammad himself in the year 1 of the hijra (623 CE), have taken on a sacred feel because of their size, their antiquity, and, above all, the care with which the monastery has archived them.41 They’re important because they state the monastery’s rights and thus can be mustered in its defense. The decrees intended to convey ephemeral information to provincial officials, by contrast, weren’t meant to be stored.42 How the archival bifolio survived in the geniza is a question with a different set of answers. Could the copyist have been unsatisfied with it once he was forced to insert the extra phrase, so he discarded it? Could he have been Jewish, hence his having discarded it into the geniza? Both these scenarios are possible. But they are not my main concern. My main concern is how so many of the rotulus fragments made their way into the hands of Jewish scribes, and the larger ecosystem of Fatimid state documents. To understand that fully, we must turn to the archivist.

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O

13

The Probative Value of Documents ARCHIVING AND REGISTRATION

If the grand rotuli were the will of the sovereign rendered manifest through wasteful display, the bifolios, by contrast, were purpose-­built for the archives. First off, they were small. But then there was their format: the similarity to the quire and the codex was no accident. The quire and codex bundle pages together. Bundling documents—accumulating them and ordering them—is how an institution gives them probative value. To retain their probative value, they must remain together, arranged logically. Coins, when they are minted in exiguous numbers or only a small scattering of them have survived, offer the historian a certain type of evidence: the self-­representation of the sovereign, a feel for the world of expenditures on quotidian staples, or even trade ventures gone wrong. You can discuss them in narrative, at the human level of social temporality and microhistory. A large accumulation of coins, by contrast, brings you into another realm: the world of political economy. Identical though coins may be (or nearly so: numismatists can perform astounding feats of interpretation by comparing, for instance, deteriorating die strikes), they take on deeper historical meaning in numbers. The structures of the state begin to come into view. Likewise, documents in exiguous numbers offer the promise of narrative history, the overheard footfall in the alleyways of medieval Fustat, the hammer of the shoemaker striking the last, the roar of the glassmaker’s furnace, the anxious consultations of the bride’s family with the scribe drawing up her dowry list, the calculated drama of the plaintiff angling for a fair hearing before the legal court, or the rancor of factions shouting over the din at a pilgrimage festival. But an accumulation of documents, bundled and ordered, lets the institutions that produce and house them come into view. The systole and diastole, the accumulation, retrieval, and discard of documents, characterize a living archive, and a living archive is the pulsating heart of institutional power. All this depends on the work of the archivist.

THE WORK OF THE ARCHIVIST Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī couldn’t be more explicit in saying that the archive’s raison-­d’être is the probative value of its documents. He knew, as well, that this statement had implications for the work of the archivist, and an opportunity to describe it brought him to one of his preferred zones: the crossroads of technical description and moral regulation.

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344 • Chapter 13 The archivist (khāzin) of the chancery, Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī tells us, must be of the utmost scrupulousness and trustworthiness: “the reins [zimām] of everything are in his hands.” 1 He chooses the word zimām with great care: it means not only reins—or more properly, a camel’s nose rope—but also a register, a method of checking and cross-­checking. The archivist is the bit, bridle, and reins restraining state officials from arbitrary whim and subjects from invented claims. The archivist is the enabler of justice. The Abbasids had a dīwān al-­zimām, a bureau of supervision; the Fatimids replaced that with similar offices by names both synonymous and different (dīwān al-­naẓar or dīwān al-­taḥqīq, both meaning bureau of supervision; or dīwān al-­majlis, the bureau of the chamber).2 The notion was the same: the state was a living organism that needed restraint and guidance, like a colt being broken. The archivist held one set of reins, and the archive was his bit and bridle. (The Arabic word for statecraft or governance, siyāsa, comes from a verb meaning to break a horse.)3 But if the reins of the state were in the hands of the archivist, the moral character of the archivist was in the hands of the chancery director. His probity, Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī tells us, must be beyond dispute. “If he is untrustworthy, a bribe may influence him to remove a document from the dīwān, or to surrender one to someone who will use it for harm, or to someone who will gain [unfair] advantage from it.”4 Only the archivist could furnish or withhold proofs prejudicial to a case; and only he knew whether a crucial register (daftar) had been removed from the dīwān or mislaid.5 Ibn al-­ Ṣayrafī’s description of the archivist is part manual, part morality play, and more than half of what ensues is taken up with the story of an incorruptible Abbasid archivist who refused to succumb to bribery and held fast despite the deployment of successive ruses.6 For every act of moral rectitude, there was a technical apparatus governing the proper habitus. This included the sequence of proper annotations, all rendered into a small package—a notation system developed by scribes for other scribes.

ARCHIVAL MARKINGS This brings us back to the upper left corner of the bifolio I discussed in the previous chapter (see fig. 12.4). When we last left the copyist, he (or perhaps the archivist) was scrawling the word nuqila over the face of the bifolio decree, noting that the text had been transferred onto a grand rotulus. After so marking the bifolio, he may have added the summary of the document to the upper left corner, or he may have left this up to the archivist. Either way, it is here that we have an opportunity to see the archivist at work. The summary of the document is placed in the upper left corner because that is the outer corner relative to the binding, hence the first thing the archivist’s eye would fall on as he flipped through the bundles of bifolios. Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī calls this label a biṭāqa, from the Greek pittakion (cf. Syriac pitqa and piṭqa, spelled two different ways), a note, ticket, or tag.7 In this case, the biṭāqa is the label that goes on archival files—not, in this case, a separate slip of paper but a nota-

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Probative Value of Documents • 345 tion—and it is the key to understanding the logic of the state’s system of storing and retrieving written records and, in turn, organizing the archives by space and time—the two dimensions the state hoped to control, governing extensive terrain and passing sovereignty to their successors. In describing the work of the archivist, Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī says that he must “make a file” (iḍbāra—literally, bundle) for each month of the year; and within each month, a bundle for each region of the empire. Within each region, he gathers together the documents of each administrative official—the head of the province, whose title was military governor (mutawallī l-­ḥarb), the overseer (al-­mushārif), the tax farmer (al-­ḍāmin), the fiscal officials (al-­ʿummāl), the chief of staff (mutawallī al-­tartīb—I am unsure how to translate this title), and the judges.8 Someone from that district who could even potentially correspond with the dīwān, or lodge a petition relating to the district’s officials, should be filed in the same dossier. This is why the tarjama, the notation in the upper left of petitions, usually includes the district (nāḥiya) of the petitioner: petitioners were the royal road to oversight, the channel by which the dīwān heard about the corruption of officials. Best to keep good notes on them, and on brewing conflicts before they erupted into official complaints, and best to keep them accessible. To each of these bundles, the archivist added a biṭāqa for quick reference. On our archival bifolio, the biṭāqa is written differently from the rest of the text. It may be the kātib formerly known as number 5 with a recut nib; or it may be the archivist. If the copyist had to trim his nib, then some time has passed between his finishing the bifolio and his handing it to the archivist—presumably the time it took the calligrapher to write out as many grand rotuli of the text as needed. Enthusiast for experimental archaeology though I am, I will not dare estimate how much time this was, because there are too many variables on both sides: the calligrapher wrote quickly and expertly, but how many copies did he need to produce, and how many of him were there? If the copyist had to trim his nib, perhaps he had written a few more archival bifolios in between, but how often he had to recut depended on the thickness and quality of the reed with which he’d begun. I can’t measure any of this. But some time did pass. And in the interim, he added the extra line to the last page. The biṭāqa seems to be a straightforward summary of the case, but it is carefully drawn. It compresses into a small space precisely the information that an official would need, not merely to identify the case but to laser in on its relevance to the state: its spatial dimensions and the social coordinates of those deemed to have suffered or committed an injustice. An order has been made concerning the protection of the shipowners in al-­ Nastarāwiyya and a prohibition on requisitioning their vessels and on the people from al-­Gharbiyya fishing along the shore.9 Any official who read this had the following information at his disposal. The vizier has made a ruling in the case (“an order has been made”), and the document herein contained the resulting decree. The case had been raised by petitioners, “the shipowners of al-­Nastarāwiyya.” The arena of the troubles was the lower delta. There had been two complaints, one about officials requisitioning boats, the second about fishermen

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346 • Chapter 13 from outside infiltrating the lake. One thing that isn’t spelled out is who the people requisitioning the shipowner’s boats were. They were, in fact, officials of the state, but that much is implied from the context, since the petition-­and-­response procedure was about complaining against the injustices of officials. If the petition had implicated anyone else, there would be further specification, as in the next clause (“the people from al-­Gharbiyya”). Also passed over in silence is the direct threat to the fisc, though this can be inferred from the fact that the case received a response. Nor does the note mention the names and ranks of the officials against whom the complaint is addressed, an omission that I find glaring but may simply mean that provincial appointees were fungible and needed to be watched no matter who they were. It may, in fact, be another sign of Weberian rationalization. The other bifolio we have with nuqila across the top is a fiscal account related to a Coptic tax farmer in Dayqūf, in the province of al-­Bahnasā in Middle Egypt (see fig. 12.5). It, too, contains a biṭāqa, only on the verso rather than on the front of the bifolio. Unlike our decree, the verso of the account was blank, so the placement stands to reason, but it may also be that the fisc had a different filing system from the chancery. The summary is also written in a text block smaller than the text on recto, which was the usual practice in qāḍī courts, either for summaries or for supplementary transactions, but I don’t think this can be taken to indicate overlap between the personnel of the courts and the fisc. The fiscal biṭāqa, too, extracts the salient points: “Account pertaining to Basṭiyya b. Marqūra for what he owes on the tax concession on the fallow, fertile lands in Dayqūf for the fiscal [kharājī] year 550 [551–52/1156– 57].”10 This tiny text contains, then, everything the archivist or any other fiscal official might wish to know: the genre of document (an account, muḥāsaba); the territory (Dayqūf ); the fiscal relevance of the case (money owed on a tax concession); and the date (550 kharājī). In a very small package, the biṭāqa accounts for the vectors of time, space, and money. Here, however, the biṭāqa is in the same hand and the same nib as the account on the recto, suggesting that the summary was handled by the same fiscal official who wrote up the case. This, too, stands to reason: work in the fiscal administration was the most technical of all, as you probably gathered from the discussion of Ibn Mammātī and al-­Makhzūmī, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see fiscal officials handling their own archiving. You can infer the technical nature of the work even from the way this official has written out the first word, “account” (muḥāsaba), with the letter bāʾ lengthened across the entire breadth of the line of writing, marking off what comes beneath it. Other fiscal receipts and accounts contain similarly lengthened characters that double as section dividers, like the lines we write beneath simple arithmetical calculations. The baṭāʾiq were, then, tools of the archivist’s trade. They facilitated retrieval; the raison d’être of the archive was retrieval; its organizational logic was geared toward retrieval. The logic of the archive should, as Ibn al-­Ṣayrafī put it, enable anyone in the chancery who needed a document to find it “with the least effort” (bi-­ahwan saʿy).11 Such organizational schemata were tools for handling information, minimizing the limited time at the archivist’s disposal, and also managing the space and time of the

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Probative Value of Documents • 347 state: long-­distance communication over the breadth of empire and long-­term memory over the depth of generations.

ARCHIVING BEYOND THE STATE But the archivist was not the only one for whom written texts served as precedents. If you had rights to defend, you needed to know that your documents were accessible. Archives were there to be consulted not just by state officials, but by the beneficiaries of decrees, and the documents themselves make this clear. Petitioners, for instance, refer to decrees granted in the past with the confidence one normally reserves for throwing down a royal flush in poker. The gaʾon of Jerusalem Shelomo b. Yehuda (1025–51), protesting the fact that the Fatimid caliph al-­Ẓāhir (411–27/1021–36) had issued an investiture to his rival Yūsuf al-­Sijilmāsī, reminds him that “the pure Presence has honored (taṣaddaqat) many leaders over time with numerous decrees [of investiture, sijillāt]. The archives testify to this [al-­dawāwīn tashhud bi-­dhālik].”12 An Ayyubid petition from the monks of Sinai to the Ayyubid sultan al-­Kāmil in 609/1212–13 bears on its verso the report of a chancery clerk who had searched the archives for a decree the monks had received eleven years earlier, in 598/1201–2, which itself seems to have been mentioned in a new petition—hence the need to refer back to it and check it: “The dīwān indicated that on 23 Shaʿbān 598, an exalted decree had been written for the aforementioned [bishop] and his brethren the monks outside Ḥims . . . on the back of a petition in which they reported as ­follows,” followed by a full quotation of the petition. Documents were meant to be accessible. The word for archive in both of these documents, dīwān (pl. dawāwīn), is the same as the word for government bureau, with the implication that all government bureaus kept archives. But the etymology was, in fact, the converse of this: the word meant archive before it migrated to its metonym, the government bureau, and like many administrative terms, its technical meanings changed over time. The word is—it should come as no surprise—probably of Old Iranian origin, from *dipi-­pāna, someone or something that guards documents, a quasiattested formulation (hence the linguist’s asterisk: the form is hypothetical).13 In New Persian, the cognate is dibīr, “state scribe,” but in Middle Persian, dēwān was already archive.14 In early Arabic texts, a dīwān was a fiscal register, especially the register of military pay, but that was a secondary usage: at least one pre-­Islamic poem, of the mad lover Majnūn, uses dīwānu maʿrifatin (dīwān of knowledge) to mean “intelligence report.”15 This suggests that the primary meaning of dīwān is register or archive—a set of documents stored by a government—and that dīwān as military register was an adaptation to the administratively skeletal early Arab state: the dīwān was the register par excellence, which connected revenue with the pay of the conquering armies who brought in more revenue. (Likewise, the terms derived from dīwān in Romance languages, aduana in Spanish, douane in French, and dogana in Italian, refer only to customhouses.) Under the Umayyads, the term expanded again

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348 • Chapter 13 to include not just registers, but other offices of administration that kept registers, such as the land-­tax bureau (dīwān al-­kharāj) and the chancery (dīwān al-­rasāʾil). Presumably the expansion of the term from register or archive to bureau was a simple function of the early state’s growth: mere gatherings of documents became entire offices with staff devoted to their management. This is not just synecdoche (the word for the part now describes the whole); it is also Weberian rationalization in action. Each office continued to keep registers that went by the old, core name, so the term dīwān came to encompass a register, a bureau of government, and an archive. (The use of dīwān for a collection of poetry by a single author is another derivation, probably from the base meaning of register.) Government offices were, in sum, quite literally synonymous with record keeping. There are twenty-­two Fatimid dīwāns that I happen to have noticed in the geniza corpus, and there are more, I am sure, in undeciphered documents, narrative sources, and documents I’ve overlooked or failed to register.16 Each of these offices had its own system of record keeping; and many of them had capillary offices in the provinces that also kept registers of incoming documents. The chancery also explicitly encouraged private archiving, with the full understanding that subjects would present documents that might support them against the state’s counterclaims. The private archives were an extension of the state’s archiving program. An earlier gaʾon, Shelomo ha-­Kohen b. Yehosef, in petitioning the same caliph for an investiture in 1025, tells him that “three of his ancestors granted us their benefaction [gemalunu ṭova; this is a Hebrew calque on the Arabic taṣaddaqū, as in the previous petition]. We possess their rescripts [nishtevanam]: the rescript of his grandfather, his great-­grandfather and his father.”17 The argument here was from precedent, one of the strongest (and most frequent) types of arguments that petitions made, and it could not be made without an archive.18 Rescripts and decrees likewise mandate their own private preservation: “Let the proof of this remain in their hands” is the usual refrain to petitioners at the end of a decree. Hearing it intoned in the voice of the state must have been spur enough to comply.19 But even these three archiving systems—the central one in Cairo, the registers in the provincial offices of the state, and the private ones that subjects kept—were not enough. Decrees also had to be registered in multiple government offices—or else “registered where such documents are registered,” as some documents unhelpfully tell us.20 Other decrees bear the physical evidence of having passed through numerous offices of the state, accumulating the technical marks of the officials through whose hands they passed, in Cairo and the provinces alike. Fiscal documents are some of the best examples of this: tax receipts, for instance, bear multiple registration marks, accumulated as they made the rounds from bureau to bureau, where any information of relevance was extracted and kept in records before the documents passed to the next office. Archiving must, then, be understood not as the end of a document’s contractual life and the beginning of its death by a thousand years of dust, but as part of a living process. First it was multiplied by being registered; then it sat in limbo like a hot ember waiting to be reignited.

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Probative Value of Documents • 349

REGISTRATION Decrees in response to petitions enjoin their beneficiaries to register documents with local officials before depositing them in their archives. But what does registration actually mean, and how was it done? Did provincial officials simply make a notation in a blank quire in their bureau saying they had seen it? Did they write a summary of it and file the summary? Or did they copy the text in full and then archive the copy? Stern discovered a wealth of registration marks on the decrees from Sinai and performed some extraordinary feats of decipherment on them.21 (Since they’re signatures and authentication devices, they’re far from easily legible.) But the process that put them there still isn’t clear. Three of his ten decrees tell the beneficiaries to keep them “after their registration” (baʿd thubūtihā) in various provincial offices.22 But who took them from place to place? Another two decrees specify full copying in the provinces: one says it was copied (nusikha) in the offices of the Inspection of the Frontier Fortresses, al-­Ṭūr and the Eastern Province; the other orders itself to be copied (li-­yunsakh) in the Office of the Chamber (dīwān al-­majlis) once it reaches Cairo.23 But how did the decrees reach these offices, and in what form, and how did they then find their way back to the beneficiaries, having been festooned with the ʿalāʾim of provincial officials? I am not sure that this question is answerable, for a good reason: registration included many levels of record keeping, and how it was done depended on the degree of scribal industry locally, or perhaps on more than that. It may well be that officials could interpret the command of thubūt as restrictively or expansively as they wished, save the last official in the circuit, who had to file a full copy of the document. One copy of a decree makes this explicit when it says, “Let this decree [manshūr] be filed [yukhallad] in the office of supervision (dīwān al-­taḥqīq) after its registration [thubūt] in all [other] offices.”24 The ambiguity of the registration process is also inherent in the Arabic terminology. Once again, the semantic freight train is long and laden. The verb that I am translating as “to register” (thabata, thabbata, or athbata), true to the style of formal Arabic, encompasses a wider range of nuances than can be rendered in a single English word. Among them are “to establish” or “be established” (as a fact in a case); this is the semantic core of the word. But there is also “to prove” or “be proven,” “to confirm” or “be confirmed,” for instance a legal act, a document, or signatures; “to authenticate” a document; “to record” a fact or an entry in a ledger, or “to enter” or “register” it; and “to set [something] down in writing.” It is one of the most muscular terms in the medieval Arabic administrative lexicon, because it performs in microcosm the very work that legal and administrative documents are meant to perform in macro: structuring human acts by writing them down in formulaic ways, distributing those records across institutions, and making them accessible for the future. Without thubūt/ithbāt, documents couldn’t have probative value. The set of terms for registration was fundamental to how documents functioned—to their muscularity—in two ways. First, filling the margins of a document with successive

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350 • Chapter 13 registration marks (ithbātāt) rendered it valid, whereas a document without registration marks could be subject to suspicion. Second, for each registration mark, there was a reciprocal entry in the register of the bureau. Accumulated registration marks on a document demonstrated that the apparatus of the state had ingested and metabolized the information it contained, that a record of the transaction had been disseminated across multiple nodal points in the network of state administration. So when, in 537/1142, in recognition of an amīr’s loyal service, the caliph al-­Ḥāfiẓ granted him a book from the palace book treasury (khizānat al-­kutub), a record of the act was kept in at least two places. The caliph’s son, al-­Ẓāfir, wrote the official decree releasing the book on the frontispiece of the book itself (lit. “the noble hand issued forth upon it,” kharaja bihi al-­khaṭṭ al-­sharīf), and did so in an outsized hand: “let it be granted,” yuṭlaq dhālik (fig. 13.1).25 A record of the grant was also taken down in a central office of the state—a fact you can ascertain only if you look at the upper right margin of the page, where there is a registration mark written sideways (fig. 13.2). This registration mark consists of two parts: a statement that the document’s contents had been registered; and an ʿalāma, the authenticating cipher-­signature of the official doing the registering. The first part, the registration proper, reads: “it was registered in the capital” (thubita bi-l-­ḥaḍra), with the tail of the tāʾ in thubita elongated nearly to the upper edge of the page: a scribal flourish, like the long tail down the page, for “it has been transcribed” (nuqila), the horizontal bar under “an account” (muḥāsaba), or the similar horizontal line on a different kind of account, the makhzūma, obtained by elongating the khāʾ across the pages.26 These are the graphic signs of scribal industry making secondary marks on the documents that came through their hands on their way to the archives, like graffiti on ancient monuments. The second part is the ʿalāma “praise be to God alone” (al-­ḥamdu li-­llāh waḥdahu), which belonged to the official who registered the transaction. That brings us to another way in which this registration mark is typical: the verbs are unfailingly in the passive voice or phrased in an impersonal construct: “let it be registered,” “it was registered,” or “let it be kept” by the beneficiaries “after its registration” (baʿd thubūtihi). This has the unfortunate result that we have absolutely no idea who the officials were who registered documents. Their only markers of individual identity were their handwriting and their ʿalāʾim, but even there, two or more officials from different offices could share the same ʿalāma. When I set out to understand how registration marks worked, I assembled a corpus of 133 documents containing 163 separate uses of ʿalāʾim to see if I could find any logic to how they were used, or how scribes chose them (see appendix to this chapter). There are eighteen different ʿalāʾim that have survived in Fatimid documents. Some are restricted to the caliph and his family; but the others seem to have been randomly distributed, perhaps like the jersey numbers of athletes: the sign marked you as a member of the team and stuck to you over the length of your career; but as a sign, it bore no absolute meaning (beyond the pious phrase it contained), only meaning relative to the rest of the team and their signs.

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5 cm 2 in

13.1. The future Fatimid caliph al-­Ẓāfir grants an amīr a book from the caliphal book treasury. The grant is recorded in the frontispiece of the book itself (shown here, left), and in a government register, as indicated by the registration mark (see fig. 13.2). Dated 537/1142. Cambridge University Library, T-­S Ar. 40.41.

13.2. Registration mark on the frontispiece of the book. Cambridge University Library, T-­S Ar. 40.41 (detail).

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352 • Chapter 13 I almost regretted having spent three weeks in this rabbit hole of charting ʿalāʾim on a giant spreadsheet that I half suspected would amount to nothing. But then I realized that the conclusion to draw was one I hadn’t anticipated: the random distribution of the ʿalāʾim—like the passive construction of the verbs for registration—was precisely the point. ʿAlāʾim were about the erasure of scribal identity. The officials were fungible; the system plugged on. This, too, points in the direction of Weberian rationalization, or, if you prefer, the detachment of the system from social contingencies and its abstraction to the sphere of self-­regulation and predictability. In the process of making documents muscular and official and distributing them widely over the breadth of the state, registration marks also obliterated the individuality of the scribe and turned him into a link in the chain of bureaucratic acts—the better to create a machinery of the state that depended not on him but on a system that existed before him, would exist after him, and had meaning apart from him—the better to create an organization.

MULTIHANDED DOCUMENTS The documents that have preserved the richest veins of information about the process of registration are decrees in response to petitions and tax receipts. This is no accident: both deal with questions of rights and dues, political and monetary, and with the balance between what is due to the state and what is due to its subjects. At first blush, these are very different sorts of texts—as different in appearance as they are in intent and wording. Decrees are the archetype of the high chancery style. They are beautiful, grand set pieces meant to unfurl impressively before their listeners, to command the attention of the eye as much as the ear. They are wasteful in every way. The line spacing is ostentatiously prodigal. The top and right margins are huge. The bowls of final letters are generous, round, and full. There are copious ligatures, and where they are abusive, they are hairlines (tashʿira) of the type prized in high-­level documents because their light grace and consummate control contrasts with the enormous and confident words drawn with a broad-­nibbed pen. They give off the unmistakable scent of sovereignty. Tax receipts, by contrast, are small, ungainly, and clumsy. Fiscal hands are distinctive and recognizable, the most liable to appear to the untrained eye as mere “scribbling,” to quote my scholarly forebears. They are the type of script likely to provoke in their frustrated readers the burning desire to call them recalcitrant, even hideous (I myself would never feel such hostility toward a document, even one I couldn’t read—heaven forefend). The script is angular and uneven; the lines are jagged. The harried tax official rarely lifts the pen or even varies the weight with which he applies it; the text he writes is virtually impossible to decipher unless you already know what it says. The jahābidha who wrote the receipts were low-­level provincial administrators who were not expected to possess the penmanship or literary skills of a chancery official. But they also wrote in code because they wrote for each other. The document’s illegibility served a

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Probative Value of Documents • 353 function; it was deliberate and semiotic. Fiscal documents are technical texts, shibboleths among a cadre of technically trained administrators who could read them because they already (dare I say: always already) knew what they said. It is one thing to write the formulas illegibly. Doing so assumes experience on the part of the intended reader and a bit of boredom on the part of the copyist. But here, everything is illegible. Even the names, locations, fractions, and numbers are rendered in ciphers opaque to the untrained eye. Illegibility itself is a sign that operates on multiple levels: it says that the text is technical, that it is not for the average subject to read or understand, that the officials who wrote it possess a very special sort of expertise, and that the administrative procedures they represent are complex and should not be questioned by the average taxpayer. Technical writing and training in bureaucracies solve three problems at once: how to make procedures predictable to officials, semiopaque to subjects, and—to come full circle—authenticatable. The aim of predictability, of making current transactions look like transactions from the past, of trusting that future transactions are reasonably likely to look the same way, is institution building in a nutshell: creating a system of conventions that transcends any one individual’s capacity to play a role in it. That is not to say that the Fatimid state was a perfectly impersonal Weberian bureaucracy. No bureaucracy is, not even modern ones—not even the modern bureaucracy par excellence, Kafka’s oppressively intangible Law. The gatekeeper in Kafka’s “Before the Law” stands at his post for years beyond number, mechanically answering the nameless man’s questions until finally, magnificently, with tragic indifference, there comes roaring into the man’s ear the secret of the legal system: “No one else could gain admittance here, because this entrance was meant solely for you. I’m going to go and shut it now.”27 On the contrary: every bureaucracy has its relative proportions of impersonal predictability and the ad hoc, arbitrary judgment of irreproducible individual opinion—what Weber called Kadijustiz, though the resemblance to any actual qāḍīs, living or dead, was strictly coincidental.28 If historians of the medieval Islamicate world have made the states they study appear either arbitrary and despotic or else ad hoc and poorly institutionalized, in both cases it’s because of a problem of deboning: we’ve ignored the formulary and focused on the fungible anecdotes, the free text, the one-­off cases. But it’s precisely the “boilerplate” parts of the document—the diplomatics—that are richest in procedure and hence in institutional history.29 That brings me to what decrees and fiscal receipts have in common. First, they were all export products: state officials drew them up to be handed to ordinary subjects and kept in case of need. Second, before being handed to their beneficiaries, they accumulated requests for registration and registration marks, indicating that local offices had made records of them for the archive. Third, they are multihanded documents: between when they were written and when they were archived, they accumulated the marks of multiple officials, in regular patterns. The trail of registration marks attests to a process, a system, a predictable method of administration that was repeated from document to document. Registration marks attest, in other words, to institutions.

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354 • Chapter 13

A TAX RECEIPT AND A SMOKING GUN Fatimid tax receipts may be brutal to decipher, but the news is basically good: if you can read one, you can read them all. Sure, you have to work on reading the numbers. The amounts and the dates will be challenging at first. OK, maybe not just at first. There is the tendency of the cashiers (jahābidha) to write numbers as ciphers, just kind of trailing off at the end or omitting entire sequences of letters in the middle and creating their own symbols. The number four (arbaʿa, ‫)اربعة‬, for instance, tends to appear with its middle letters missing and an abusive ligature in their place: ‫لع‬. You will find these ciphers frustrating but then, in the end, I promise you, you will find them exhilarating. I am using the word “cipher” in a deeply etymological sense. It comes from the Arabic ṣifr, “zero,” and ultimately from the Sanskrit śūnyatā, “nothingness, the void”—behold the diffusion of Buddhist thought in the mundane labor of the philologist. Ṣifr made it to Old French as cifre and late Middle English as cipher, meaning either number or indecipherable symbol—take your pick, because here, they are both. This may have been due to some medieval European’s inconclusive attempts to read the numerals in an Arabic tax receipt. So you will not be alone. But you will survive this, and in the end, you will feel absolutely fantastic and think that as a paleographer, you are indomitable. Your ego will be a zeppelin. And then, then, you will be in for it, because then you will try to understand the pragmatics of the Fatimid tax receipt, who wrote it and where it went after that and who brought it there and why the quantities rendered are so incomprehensibly tiny, and you will be back to your beginner’s mind and your Buddhism and you will wish that deciphering ciphers were your biggest problem. You will long for the days of good, honest reading. So here is an anatomy of the Fatimid tax receipt. I am deeply indebted to two of my colleagues for it: Geoffrey Khan, who deciphered twenty of them, for which he deserves a humanitarian award, and Naïm Vanthieghem, who studied Khan’s editions carefully and also brought to bear his experience reading tax receipts in Greek and Coptic from Roman Egypt.30 Each Fatimid tax receipt holds, in principle, evidence of five scribes (fig. 13.3). 1. When the taxpayer or tax farmer delivered payment, the cashier (jahbadh) received the money and wrote the receipt proper. The jahbadh began writing one-­third of the way down the page, leaving space at the top for the registration marks. He began with the basmala, then noted the taxpayer’s name, the amount rendered, the name of the judge in front of whom he issued the receipt—the cashier only recorded the transaction, whereas the judge validated it—the name of the official in charge of supervising the province, the date, and, finally, his own name. 2. The receipt then found its way (how? did it walk? I will return to this question below) to the tax office (dīwān al-­ʿamal, dīwān al-­jawālī), together with the money. An official at that dīwān then wrote a request for registration in the upper left corner of the page.

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Probative Value of Documents • 355 3. A second official from that dīwān counted the money, noted the quantity rendered, registered it, and then added his registration mark beneath his colleague’s request in the form of an ʿalāma. This is the first check and balance against embezzlement or other funny business: the amount here had to match the amount the jahbadh had written in the main body of the receipt. 4. The receipt and the payment then go (how? stay tuned) to the bureau of supervision (dīwān al-­ishrāf ), where the same procedure was repeated. An official wrote a request for registration, then passed the receipt and the money to his colleague. 5. The second official of the dīwān al-­ishrāf counted the money, noted the amount in the register, and, beneath the request, noted his registration by signing off with his ʿalāma. The amount here had to match the amount noted previously twice on the receipt. Enclosed in this tiny documentary space, then, are the signs of five officials in three different places speaking to each other in code. This precise structure, or close variants of it, appears in several dozen Fatimid tax receipts. The procedure and the order of personnel are regular and predictable. There is a protocol, and it barely varies. The sums, names, and dates all permit future reference. The amounts are written by three officials and have to match, to demonstrate that the quantity of money the jahbadh received is the same quantity of money rendered to the fisc. The anatomy of the documents is, then—again, thanks to the yeoman’s work of those who cracked them—clear enough and reflects a predictable process. But how much do we really understand about it? Let’s circle back and retune. What actually happened on a human scale? Let’s start with the dīwāns. Each tax receipt had to be checked and registered in two separate offices. Where were these offices, in Cairo or the provinces? Where, geographically, did the receipts have to be registered before being passed back to the taxpayer? And how did the receipts travel from place to place? Unless I am missing something, tax receipts don’t travel on their own. If you were a tax farmer in the Fayyūm rendering part of the money you’d promised the fisc, that is, paying part of your contractual installment for your concession, did you have to go to Cairo to pay it? Or, could you pay in the Fayyūm, and if you could, did you then have to bring your receipt to Cairo for authentication, or did someone else bring it, or did you have it authenticated locally? Repeated trips to Cairo, if you are a tax farmer in the Fayyūm, may be within the realm of the plausible, but they are inconvenient. If you’re a farmer in the Fayyūm, they’re impossible: you have animals to feed and fields to tend. Luckily for both, the one data set we have to test such a scenario thoroughly disproves it. An archive of thirty-­six Fatimid tax receipts has survived issued to a single tax farmer in the Fayyūm, a certain Abū l-­Ḥasan b. Wahb, between 402/1011 and 405/1015. Geoffrey Khan published twenty of them, all from geniza collections, performing the heavy and pioneering paleographic and philological labor that enabled a few more of us to develop in his wake a strategy for deciphering the damn things. Naïm Vanthieghem,

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5 cm 2 in

13.3. A receipt from the archive of the tax farmer Abū l-­Ḥasan b. Wahb, in the hand of the fiscal cashier Mikhāʾīl b. ʿAbd al-­ Masīḥ, dated 405/1015. Cambridge University Library, T-­S Ar. 35.48v.

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Probative Value of Do cuments • 357 Tamer el-­Leithy, and I found fifteen more from the same archive, also in geniza collections; Khan then told us of a sixteenth at the National Archives of Egypt in Cairo.31 Whether or not they all come from the Ben Ezra Geniza is a question we can probably never answer, but at least some of them are likely to have been preserved in a book binding.32 Thirty-­three of the thirty-­six receipts are in the hand of a jahbadh named Mīkhāʾīl b. ʿAbd al-­Masīḥ—to judge by his name, yet another Copt working in the agrarian administration. Three are in the hand of his son, Yūḥannā, because his father was ill, or traveling, or indisposed that day. Each receipt is for a sum so tiny and fractional as to make the prospect of regular trips to Cairo completely impracticable and pointless— unless one wishes to imagine this tax farmer as Kafka’s K. or, worse, as Sisyphus. Having pretty much failed to understand the physical choreography of the validation process on the basis of the receipts themselves, I was prepared to give up on this opaque little problem when a smoking gun appeared from the geniza collection of the Jewish Theological Seminary. I had actually known of the document for years but didn’t realize that it held out the promise of a solution until el-­Leithy, Vanthieghem, and I spent an undisclosed number of hours working through its technical terms. Decipherment was not, for once, the problem: the document is written in a clear, flowing, beautiful chancery hand, with generous pointing compared to most state documents—such generous pointing that I began to feel that the scribe was insulting my intelligence, until I realized it wasn’t my intelligence he was insulting, but that of his intended readers, who were his underlings in the fiscal administration. The challenge, rather, was understanding the text, which bristles with technical terms, not to mention the fact that it is fragmentary, which by this point in the book you may find unremarkable, but by that point in my research I found deeply frustrating. But it did yield information. The fragment is, I believe, part of a field guide to taxation (fig. 13.4). I say it is a field guide because there is a seam (kollesis) plainly visible where the scribe has glued together two sheets because one did not suffice for the length of scroll he needed. Rotuli were the format of choice not only for decrees, but also for informal, personal copies of literary texts used as notes and not meant for circulation, or else intended for circulation among a limited and targeted set of readers. Long-form works copied for circulation to the impersonal public were written as codices, not rotuli. So this was a fiscal field guide, not a technical manual like Ibn Mammātī’s or al-­Makhzūmī’s. The author of this rotulus must have worked high up in the Fatimid administration in the early eleventh century. That he was an early Fatimid official I deduce from the hand on the verso, which belongs to Efrayim b. Shemarya, a known quantity of whom we will be seeing more in chapter 14; that he was a high official I deduce from his elegant, perfectly proportioned hand and from the pedagogical intent of the guide. It is plainly a didactic text, written to instruct lower officials and to tighten the running of the fiscal ship.33 The text begins—obviously—in medias res. It ends there as well. What comes in between are fragments of two separate sections. The upper part is the end of a section explaining the tax levying cycle relative to the agricultural year. The question at hand is under what circumstances one may delay one

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358 • Chapter 13

5 cm 2 in

13.4. Fragment of a field guide to taxation in the hand of a high official, probably the director of a fiscal bureau. Written before 1055. New York, ENA 2747.16.

of the levies until the next cycle. It’s complicated, but it’s also important because this was a central question in Fatimid political economy. Al-­Qāḍī al-­Nuʿmān devotes some space to it in his Pillars of Islam, where he recommends that tax collectors delay a levy or skip one entirely instead of coercing peasants into paying, thus risking their discontent and their refusal to render taxes in the future. A delayed levy was a benefaction to the kharāj payer and an investment on future returns for the state, because a happy peasant was a tax-­rendering peasant. On a long-­term basis, coercion was more expensive than persuasion, and less efficient, though that is not how al-­Qāḍī al-­Nuʿmān phrased it: his sounds more like an ethical argument. If you want to take revenue from peasants, give them justice, or at least some way of settling disputes with the fisc and filing complaints about abusive officials.34

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Probative Value of Documents • 359 The field guide’s approach to tax concessions is different from al-­Nuʿmāns. There is not an ethical consideration anywhere in sight. If there is a philosophy behind it, it does not appear in the surviving sections. The document is not a meditation on justice or social hierarchy. It is a technical guide, more interested in the efficient and regular functioning of the fiscal administration than in the happiness of the tax-­rendering peasant. But if delays are permitted, how can the fisc maintain a regular and efficient schedule of tax collection? The answer our fragment offers is this: under some set of circumstances spelled out in the missing section, “permission will not be given to delay one of the levies until the following levy. For by collecting the payment of the installments of the levies on time, the collection of revenue and its cross-­checking may be achieved by the end of Misrā [the last agricultural month of the fiscal calendar]—with God’s permission and volition.”35 And that is all: dry, officious, methodical, unimaginative, rigid, and perhaps a tad inhumane. But after all, there were taxes to collect (with God’s permission and volition, of course). But the bottom part of the text contains the beginning of a section on the logistics of tax collection, and this is where things get interesting for us. It is like a Rosetta Stone for the multihanded tax receipt: it tells us what we want to know, and what we want to know is where the registrations happened. “The collection” of taxes, it begins, “will take place by the hand of the cashier [jahbadh] appointed by the fisc [dīwān] for performing that [function].” So far so good: the fisc appoints a cashier, the cashier collects the taxes. I can handle this. But the jahbadh cannot just go out and collect taxes. In fact, he must not collect anything until “he has shown [his] document [of appointment] to the shaykh [of the district dīwān], may God prolong his st