MEM Dissertation Prize


The jury is pleased to award the 2020 MEM Dissertation Prize to Fien De Block for her dissertation, “(Re)Drawing the Lines: The Science of the Stars in the Late Fifteenth-Century Sultanate of Cairo,” completed at Ghent University.

De Block’s study draws on original and significant archival research on the history of astronomy in Mamluk Cairo in order to put forward two incisive critical arguments. The first is that the history of science and other forms of knowledge in pre-modern Islamicate societies must be a material and archival history and should move away from traditional frameworks of intellectual history that ignore the material and institutional circumstances of knowledge production and its social functions. The second is that Islamicate time-keeping practices and the astronomical knowledge that developed alongside them should not be thought of as a strictly religious, astronomical, or astrological discipline, but that this domain of knowledge and the discourses that served it shared what we would think of as religious, astronomical, and astrological concerns and that it is anachronistic and distorting to isolate these as discrete epistemes. De Block’s work is an important addition to the important and exciting work being done on 14th–15th century Islamic intellectual history, which has already done so much to upend conventional scholarly views of the period.

Honorable Mention

The jury is also keen to make special and honorable mention of two further dissertations:

Paula Caroline Manstetten, “Ibn ‘Asākir’s History of Damascus and the Institutionalisation of Education in the Medieval Islamic World” (SOAS, 2018)

Rachel Nicole Schine, “On Blackness in Arabic Popular Literature: The Black Heroes of the siyar sha‘biyya, Their Conceptions, Contests, and Contexts” (University of Chicago, 2019)

Manstetten has used Ibn ‘Asākir’s voluminous text to understand more precisely the settings and networks in which educational activities took place in the Medieval Islamic World and has made a significant intervention in a long-running and important debate in the field. Schine brings her nuanced, insightful, and theoretically informed analysis to the figuration of Black characters in the siyar sha‘biyya corpus and in doing so, brings the study of Arabic cultural history into dialogue with important debates in the history of race, ethnicity, and difference. Both dissertations demonstrate the excellence, vitality, and innovation that characterize the work of early-career MEMbers.

Adam Talib (Durham University; chair of the 2020 dissertation prize committee)

Committee members for 2020: Amina Elbendary (American University in Cairo), Marion Katz (New York University), and Helen Pfeiffer (University of Cambridge).


The 2018 MEM Dissertation Prize was awarded to Ahmet Tunç Şen for his work, “Astrology in the Service of the Empire: Knowledge, Prognostication, and Politics at the Ottoman Court, 1450s–1550s” (University of Chicago, 2016). It is the committee’s distinct pleasure to award Ahmed Tunç Şen’s dissertation “Astrology in the Service of the Empire: Knowledge, Prognostication, and Politics at the Ottoman Court, 1450s–1550s” (University of Chicago, 2016) with the inaugural Middle East Medievalists dissertation prize. His excellent dissertation is well-written, using primary sources from Arabic, Turkish and Persian on a largely neglected topic: namely, the role and site of astrology and astrologers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, particularly in the Ottoman Empire but not exclusively. Şen uses largely ignored astrological yearly almanacs, archival documents, literary sources, classifications of sciences, astronomical tables, and many more sources to challenge the sidelining of astrology among historians of science and Ottoman historians. Moreover, he uses the examples from astrology to illuminate and draw larger conclusions concerning the intersection of science, politics and culture in the late medieval and early modern period of the Ottoman Empire. The dissertation is very nuanced and takes advantage of recent studies that have challenged: a) the traditional decline narrative of the history of science and knowledge production, and b) the marginalization of the occult and astrological sciences. He parses numerous works to see how and where astrology was attacked, by whom, and for what purpose, while simultaneously showing how it was taught, cultivated, patronized and transformed as a science. Şen’s pathbreaking work is a strong intervention into the field of medieval and early modern astrology.

Kristina Richardson (Queens College, City University of New York; chair of the 2018 dissertation prize committee)

Committee members for 2018: Nahyan Fancy (DePauw University), L. Gershon Lewental (Shalem College, Jerusalem, Israel), Boris Liebrenz (Saxon Academy of Sciences), and Stephennie Mulder (UT-Austin).