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Q&A Wednesday: a Genizah Street View with Moshe Yagur

T-S Ar.53.61
T-S Ar.53.61 (recto)
Melonie Schmierer-Lee and Moshe Yagur
Wed 21 Jul 2021

Hi Moshe, what are you working on at the moment?

In my new project I’m working on dwelling patterns of Jews, Christians and Muslims in medieval Egypt (and a bit elsewhere). We know they lived side by side, but to what extent? How did it effect notions of communal identity, religious practices, inter-religious contacts and sympathies, and so on?

Which kinds of Genizah manuscript are you utilising for this?

There are several kinds of documents to look at:

1. Deeds of sale or rent, written either in Jewish or Muslim court, documenting properties being sold or rented, occasionally between members of different confessional communities or documenting neighbours of different faith, or public buildings on the boundaries of the property discussed (e.g., mosques, churches, endowments). For example, in T-S Ar.53.61, a deed of sale in Arabic script (published by Geoffrey Khan), a Jew buys part of a courtyard from three Coptic sisters. He is already the owner of most of the courtyard; the sisters’ father is still the owner of the adjacent courtyard; and the buyer later wills the courtyard to his grandson. So, we see here multi-generational relations between neighbours and co-owners of different faiths. If they were not happy with this proximity, they wouldn’t buy, sell and bequeath this property to each other.

2. Legal documents mentioning houses, like wills, marriage documents, and partnership deeds.

3. Private letters mentioning houses, neighbours or incidents.

When a property is mentioned in a legal context, it will be identified by stating which other properties it borders and who lives there, right?

Yes, exactly. Sometimes, however, legal documents referring to property say things like ‘the famous house, whose borders need not be mentioned...’. 

That’s helpful! Might data from archaeological excavations be of any use to you for this project?

For now, I’m using the geographical descriptions of Ibn Duqmaq and Al-Maqrizi to try and locate building and streets, and to trace the change in street names, but I will use archaeology later, to contextualize and explain what a house, dar, or courtyard looked like and functioned and also to map the major parts of Fustat, and some structures, like churches, mosques, and markets, that are mentioned in Genizah documents.

If the streets in Fustat have remained stable enough (and given the ancient churches and mosques there, I assume they have), might we be able to work out from your mapping research where some of the Genizah personalities lived?

This is something I hope to achieve – at least in part. We know where the official residence of the nagid was, at least during the late 12th-early 13th centuries – so that was the home of Maimonides and his son. But we may be able to locate the area where others lived as well, though probably not the houses themselves. Even if it’s not possible to create a correlation with current streets and buildings, or with 14th-15th centuries writers like Maqrizi, we can still create a schematic map of how life looked from the street level: small mosques or churches not known from other sources, hammams, markets, mills, etc., – a ‘Genizah Street View’ of how life looked and what a street or neighbourhood consisted of.

What have you found so far? Or what are you expecting to find?

I have found that the phenomenon of mixed neighbourhoods was even more pervasive than what one might understand from Goitein’s brief discussion of this issue, to the point that one needs to ask what are we actually talking about when we say ‘the Jewish neighbourhood’ in Fustat and of course more generally? Are we looking for demographic dominance? Are we looking for communal institutions? I suspect that we should rescale our thinking on the subject. In a reality of shared courtyards and alleyways, what mattered was that you have some Jewish neighbours among your immediate neighbours, not that you live in a ‘Jewish neighbourhood’.

Presumably Jews needed to live within walking distance of a synagogue, so that would cause some clustering in certain places.

That is correct, but there were several synagogues in several neighbourhoods, as well as several bathhouses and slaughterhouses. So perhaps we should look more at clustering of Jews in certain streets, with a considerable spread of Jews in other streets in the same neighbourhood, as well as in other neighbourhoods. We should also remember that in the same clustering of streets around the Jerusalemite synagogue, where the Genizah was located, in the ‘Fortress of the Rum’ in Fustat, also stood the most important and ancient Coptic churches and institutions, including the residence of the patriarch.

In your third point above you mentioned private letters, and incidents. Are these particularly revealing about the nature of the intercommunal relationships?

Letters are particularly useful and insightful, but they are also harder to find. For example, a letter complaining about the misbehaviour of a family relative towards the writer, says ‘and all the gentile neighbours saw this’. Or ‘my husband has forsaken me to live among the gentiles, and no one helps me but these gentiles...’

Just a little throwaway comment in a letter, but very revealing.

Exactly. There are also cases of women insisting that a condition of their marriage be that their husbands should find them a home ‘with Jewish neighbours’. Sometimes a husband requests permission to ignore his own commitment to such a condition.

Do you think the average resident of Fustat would have had a very good understanding of how people from other religious communities lived?

Of course, I cannot say, at least at the moment, anything about the average person in Fustat. Assumptions are that around the 10th-11th centuries as many as half a million people lived in Fustat, and Goitein estimated that only 3000 Jews lived there at the time. But there was certainly no segregation. People lived side by side, rented from each other, shared the same courtyards – which means they shared water installations, shared the responsibility for the upkeep of public spaces in the courtyard, and there are even many examples of shared ownership of a whole courtyard, ‘undivided’ – it is mentioned explicitly in legal deeds. People of different religions also lived next to public buildings as well as workshops, shops, etc., so one could live in the same courtyard with a Jew and a Muslim, with the courtyard bordering a church on one side, and an Islamic waqf on another side, and a market on the third.

Living in those circumstances, people might have found it difficult to keep their personal lives and relationships separate.

Yes. I assume so. For example, we find this complaint in another private letter: ‘he harassed me using his gentile neighbours’. From this, we can deduce that this person had Muslim neighbours and could try to use them against his fellow Jew; that these Muslims at least had sympathies towards their neighbour and agreed to act on his behalf; and that the writer, a Jew, knew exactly who they were – the contacts between the parties were known. Moving beyond the question of religious and communal identity, these kinds of examples allow us to reconstruct a reality in which such intercommunal contacts were continuous and on a daily basis; the norm and not the exception.

Thanks for your time, Moshe. I’d like to be able to have the Genizah Street View in mind the next time I’m wandering around Fustat.

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