From archive to archival practices: rethinking the preservation of Mamluk administrative documents.

Author:Hirschler, Konrad

    The supposed scarcity of documentary material for Arabic-speaking societies prior to the sixteenth century has been intensively discussed in the field of Middle Eastern history. (1) With the publication of Michael Chamberlain's Knowledge and Social Practice in 1994 and his suggestion that the non-survival of documents reflected a social logic of how actors in medieval Middle Eastern societies decided to use and, more importantly, not to use documentary evidence, the debate gained additional fervor. (2) His argument found little sympathy and was described as "empirically untrue," (3) a "non sequitur," (4) and making "a virtue of a false necessity." (5) Repeatedly the critique focused on the argument that many more documents survived than hitherto assumed and would one day be found. (6) While this is a valid observation, it misses a crucial point concerning these societies' attitudes toward document preservation. To understand why documents have not come down to us in the form of archival collections, it is not enough to show that documents have survived--rather, we must explain the "archives' silence." (7)

    The present article suggests a new angle for reconsidering the question of document preservation, taking the Arabic Eastern Mediterranean during the Mamluk period as point of departure. It starts from the premise that the category "archive" itself needs to be problematized and that the assumed coherence and centralized character of what might be called the "Mamluk state archive" needs to be questioned. (8) Rejecting this idea of the centralized archive enables us to reconfigure research into attitudes toward document preservation in terms of archival practices. These practices, for their part, were inscribed in specific cultural and social fields well beyond the central bureaucracy in Cairo. Seen thus, the Mamluk "archive" is not a stable spatial entity and a product, but rather a multifaceted set of processes spread across the Mamluk realm. Against this background the article will consider the range of archival practices that existed in Egypt and Syria during the Mamluk period in order to take a fresh look at the preservation of documentary evidence in medieval Middle Eastern societies.

    Reappraising the archive as a set of cultural and social practices rather than a spatial category is supported by the surging interest in the archive in historical studies at large. This focus on archives is to some extent a legacy of post-modernist appropriations of the term, such as, most famously, in Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge and Derrida's Archive Fever. (9) Their largely ahistorical reading of the theoretical archive inadvertently contributed to the upswing in historical studies on the archive. (10) Post-colonial studies in particular took a vivid interest in the category of the archive and decisively contributed to the turn from archive-as-source to archive-as-subject, which subsequently filtered into the study of medieval and early modern history. (11) One of the most enriching trends in this scholarship has been the focus on the multitude of actors involved in archival practices. (12) Homing in on administrative documents from Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Syria during the pre-Ottoman and especially the Mamluk era, this article takes up this archival turn and makes two main arguments on archival practices: the first, in a methodological vein, is to continue to move away from the dominance of narrative (mostly chronicles) and normative (mostly administrative handbooks) sources and focus on the documents themselves, especially notes on manuscripts; (13) and the second is that by questioning the archive as a stable entity and reconfiguring it as a process we will be able to capture a wider array of administrative archival practices. A multitude of decentralized practices and archival actors existed not only within the central Mamluk administration in Cairo but also, and perhaps more importantly, outside the city, reflecting very different archival concerns.


    The turn from archive to archival practices is of particular usefulness for Middle Eastern history owing to the particular contexts in which premodern Arabic documents have reached us. While there is little doubt that much documentary material has survived, (14) the Middle Eastern material is special in that the organic relationship between the record and the generator of that record is almost always broken; i.e., documentary records have more often than not survived devoid of their original archival context. They are not held as part of larger collections; rather they have often been preserved, ironically, as a result of counter-archival practices, to be discussed below. This absence of original archival collections has relegated the field of Middle Eastern history to the margins of wider historical discussions on archives, yet the focus on archival practices opens new possibilities of transregional debate since it sits very well with the way documents have been preserved in the Arabic Eastern Mediterranean. Rather than searching for what was clearly of limited importance for those societies--the archive--the very rich documentary evidence calls for a rethinking of the phenomena-archival practices--that were at the very heart of many cultural and social processes. In consequence, the field of Middle Eastern history will not only be in a position to contribute to wider discussions of archival issues, but can also evolve by engaging in discussions with other regional histories.

    Turning away from the fixed spatial category of the archive, in what frameworks then might the preservation of documents, and thus archival practices, have been useful and purposeful? In other words, at which social loci did institutions, groups, and individuals decide to preserve (or discard) the documents that were produced in their lifetime or that they had inherited from previous generations? In Mamluk Egypt and Syria--and arguably elsewhere in the premodern Middle East--there were five main social sites, partly overlapping, where the preservation of documents clustered and where at least temporary archival practices developed: where justice was dispensed (legal archival practices); where transactions referring to one specific kin group were documented (family-centered archival practices); where institutional experience was administered, such as endowed madrasas and monasteries (institutional archival practices); where knowledge was transmitted (educational archival practices); and where the state's resources and transactions were managed (administrative archival practices).

    These archival practices are traceable despite their not always being aimed at ensuring a document's future accessibility. The most famous result of such counter-archival practices is the Geniza collection--decisively not an archive (15)--in the Ben Ezra Synagogue of Cairo, which was not inscribed in practices of document preservation, but in a religiously acceptable disposal of "sacred trash." (16) Such practices were widespread--the Damascus Papers from Qubbat al-Khazna in the Umayyad Mosque are the best known Syrian example in an Islamic context. (17) In the same vein, other documents--as discussed below--survived owing to similar counter-archival practices, such as recycling scrap paper or reusing documents in textiles.

    With regard to legal archival practices, Wael Hallaq has argued that their central site was the judge's diwan, the sum of his records. (18) From the Mamluk era the most important surviving collection of legal documents is in the Haram collection in Jerusalem. With their folding marks and holes these documents give an idea of the physicality of such legal recordkeeping; Ulrich Haarmann has posited that the creases on some indicate that they were sewn, bound, and filed, (19) and in the same vein, holes might indicate an alternative way of storing the material by binding them together with string. (20) Filing notes on the documents' margins (in the case of estate inventories indicating the name of the person concerned, the month in which the inventory was conducted, and an indication whether heirs were absent or present), as well as registration notes, also are evidence of archival practices. (21) As Christian Muller has convincingly shown, however, the Haram collection in its present state is not the remnant of an archive, as has been assumed. (22) The documents show no sign of a coherent filing or binding system, and, more importantly, only a small fraction is court-certified; without this oral attestation, the rest lost validity and were thus of little interest for long-term archiving. The collection was assembled in the context of an inquiry triggered by a corruption allegation leveled at a judge in the late eighth/fourteenth century. (23) While there is thus little doubt that archival practices existed in the legal sphere, the fact that we have lost, as it were, our main Mamluk-period legal archive shows that the matter of the legal archive is less straightforward than hitherto assumed. Surviving pre-Ottoman legal documents are thus not found in archival collections linked to the individuals or institutions that generated them; rather, they survive either because they have been preserved in the archives of their recipients (often religious minorities) (24) or as a result of counter-archival practices. (25)

    In contrast to pre-Ottoman legal and administrative archival practices, kinship-centered archival practices produced compact collections that have occasionally survived the centuries--elite households had a strong incentive to preserve documents relevant for legal matters, especially those relating to issues of estate ownership, (26) e.g., the third/ninth-century papers of the Banu Abd al-Mun'im in the Fayyum, (27) the papers of the Coptic Banu Bifam in the same region from the Fatimid period, (28) the Ayyubid paper fragments...

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