The idea that the pre-modern Islamic world failed to develop stable institutions has shaped scholarly debates about Middle Eastern societies and their long-term development. But these debates have by and large failed to draw on some of the best evidence we possess for these institutions: the actual documents they produced. Documents and Institutions in the Medieval Middle East (DIMME) aims to build a framework for the systematic study of medieval Middle Eastern legal and administrative documents and to make them legible as historical sources.
Thousands of such documents survived in the Cairo Geniza. Most of them date to the periods of Fatimid and Ayyubid rule over Egypt and Syria (969-1250). These sources provide rich evidence for how institutions worked at an everyday level and how they structured social relations.
The use of Geniza documents is challenging in part because of the technical and linguistic skills they require, and because they are housed in dozens of libraries and private collections worldwide. But they are also underused because they are technical texts, built of specific terms, formulae, and protocols. Many of these technical features have yet to be systematically mapped. This must be done before the documents can become fully accessible as evidence for the workings of the institutions that produced them.
By developing methodologies that will permit systematic analysis of these documents, we aim to lay the groundwork for a new approach to the history of documents and institutions in the medieval Middle East—one based not on the theoretical accounts given by chroniclers and jurists, but on the tangible evidence left by medieval Middle Eastern courts and governments themselves.
The Geniza Collaborative is generously supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities (2014–2017), the American Council of Learned Societies (2015–2017), Johns Hopkins University (2014–2015) and Princeton University (2015–17).
By the end of the project period, we aim to add a corpus of 100–200 new document transcriptions and translations to the Princeton Geniza Project corpus and to co-author a print handbook on the use of documentary texts from the Geniza as sources for institutional history.