The IIS organised a panel presentation at the 45th Middle Eastern Studies Association (MESA) conference held in Washington DC, USA. The panel, entitled Fatimid Studies, continued on from the previous year’s panel, Approaches to Governance in the Fatimid Period, and reflected the Institute’s ongoing work in the fields of Ismaili and broader Shi‘i Studies.
The panel was chaired by IIS Co-Director, Dr Farhad Daftary, and organised by Professor Paul E. Walker, Deputy Director for Academic Programmes at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Chicago.
The field of Fatimid studies has seen a surge in the availability of materials on Fatimid history, thought and material culture over the last twelve years. The work of researchers has made available critical editions of major and minor texts, annotated translations of existing and new sources, as well as studies on documents from the Cairo Geniza and doctrinal works by the Ismaili da‘wa in the Fatimid period. The recovery and analysis of elements of the material culture of the same era, particularly in art and architecture, has also been developing exponentially during this period. Thus, the principal purpose of the panel was to provide an assessment of these new resources produced over the last decade and to discuss the work that is currently being undertaken by scholars and institutions in the field.
The presentation by Dr Shainool Jiwa, entitled History in the Making: Reviewing the Study of Fatimid History, highlighted how the history of the Fatimids is as vast and varied as both the geographical span of the empire (909-1171 CE) and the social, religious and ethnographic diversity of its people. While Fatimid rule began in North Africa and expanded to Egypt and parts of Syria, its influence over the course of its two and a half century rule radiated across Iraq, Iran, India, Hijaz and Yemen.
Yet, for a variety of reasons, the Fatimids remain relatively understudied in comparison to their peer dynasties such as the Abbasids and the Umayyads of Spain, as well as the successor dynasties in Egypt, such as the Ayyubids and the Mamluks. Nonetheless, Dr Jiwa elaborated, the turn of the century has witnessed the increasing recovery of primary sources, which have begun to attract scholarly attention. She discussed the growing pool of annotated editions as well as secondary studies which bring a new focus on facets of Fatimid history.
Professor Paul E. Walker’s paper discussed Ismaili Doctrinal Works from the Fatimid Period: How Much Have We Now Recovered? He began by explaining that for far too long Ismaili doctrinal writings produced by its da‘wa in the Fatimid period have remained largely inaccessible, even after Wladimir Ivanow and Ismail K. Poonawala published detailed lists of what might exist. However, according to Professor Walker, the situation is now not nearly as dire, thanks in part to the efforts of a growing number of scholars in the field and the efforts of various institutions including The Institute of Ismaili Studies.
Professor Walker discussed the Institute’s holdings of an extensive collection of works in manuscript form, many acquired fairly recently and reflected in the IIS' published catalogues. Professor Walker also highlighted how the work of the IIS and others is starting to replace older, often untrustworthy, printed versions with critical scholarly editions, some accompanied by translations.
This was followed by a paper by Dr Fahmida Suleman of the British Museum, who was unfortunately not able to travel to the conference. Her paper, entitled Princes, Potters and Pioneers: The Art and Material Culture of the Fatimid Period, was read by Prof. Walker. Dr Suleman’s paper begins by noting that in the year 1998 a renaissance was witnessed in the study of Fatimid art and architecture as a result of a conference in Paris, L’Egypte Fatimide: Son Art et Son Histoire, and two accompanying exhibitions on Fatimid art in Paris and Vienna as well as the publication of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection of Fatimid art.
The paper then reviews the developments since the late 1990s and whether publications, such as Professor Jonathan Bloom’s Arts of the City Victorious: Islamic Art and Architecture in Fatimid North Africa and Egypt, have reinvigorated the topic. It also examines the new sources that have come to light in the last decade to assist in the re-interpretation of older theories or to establish new ones, and whether Fatimid art is finally being accepted as a mainstream topic in the study of the arts and material culture of Egyptian, Mediterranean and Muslim civilisations.
Finally, Professor Marina Rustow, of Johns Hopkins University, presented on Fatimid Administrative Documents from the Cairo Geniza: The Status Quaestionis. Professor Rustow reported how hundreds of Fatimid chancery documents, fragmentary and whole, found their way into the Cairo Geniza of the medieval Syro-Palestinian synagogue at Fustat. Several dozen have now been published (mainly by S. D. Goitein, S. M. Stern, and Geoffrey Khan), whilst more have been identified and many still remain to be discovered.
Though a good proportion of these documents concern Jewish individuals or groups, Professor Rustow noted that a significant number relate to Christians and Muslims. Professor Rustow’s presentation also surveyed existing publications on the subject, with glances at comparable editions of material from the Melkite monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai, the Qaraite synagogue in Cairo, and other Fatimid-era archives. She also discussed document typologies (petitions, decrees, internal chancery directives), their physical characteristics and uses, and offered some explanations as to how non-Jewish administrative material may have entered the Geniza. In her conclusion, she discussed the significance of these documents for Fatimid and Middle Eastern history.
The panel, which was well attended by scholars and researchers, was complemented by a display of IIS publications as part of MESA’s book exhibition.