In Rural Economy and Tribal Society in Islamic Egypt, Yossef Rapoport transforms a seemingly pedestrian source, a tax register for an Egyptian agricultural region known as the Fayyum in the mid-thirteenth century, into a fascinating panorama of the social and economic issues that affected rural areas in the Middle East from late antiquity through the medieval period. Thus, Rapoport’s book is, first and foremost, a welcome counter-balance to the urban bias of most scholarship in the field and as such provides a much-needed clarification of the ways institutions of taxation and land tenure that centrally involved rural spaces actually worked in those spaces. In tandem with the writing of this monograph, Rapoport collaborated with Ido Shahar to produce a new critical edition and English translation of the source at the heart of the study, al-Nābulusī’s Villages of the Fayyum, also published by Brepols in 2018. This has allowed Rapoport to cast fresh eyes on the text itself and to subject it to meticulous analysis using both quantitative and qualitative methods. Each of the nine well-conceived chapters in Rural Economy and Tribal Society in Islamic Egypt provides insight into an important aspect of the political economy or social structure of the Fayyum and suggests its broader implications. For example, the book sheds light on such issues as subsistence strategies versus cash crops; changing modes of taxation; the workings of iqṭāʿ and waqf systems; the question of tribal and Arab identity; and the push-pull factors leading to the conversion of Coptic Christian communities to Islam. The numerous charts and maps that accompany the text represent eye-catching, effective modes of data visualization, and the publisher should be commended for the presentation of text, notes, and visuals throughout. However, this book achieves far more than simply using numbers to tell an untold story. It stands as an exemplar for how this kind of analysis can challenge prevailing notions about the social, economic, and political history of other agricultural areas in the medieval Middle East and beyond. Simply put, the committee thinks that this book has field-changing implications. For its eloquence, clarity, and breadth of impact, it is our distinct pleasure to award Rural Economy and Tribal Society in Islamic Egypt by Yossef Rapoport the 2019 Middle East Medievalist Book Prize.
This year’s committee was chaired by Zayde Antrim and included Najam Haider, Konrad Hirschler, and Sara Wolper.
Please also check out the other fascinating works on the 2019 Shortlist.
In this impressive, multi-faceted work, Hirschler examines the catalogue of the Ashrafīya library in Damascus, a relatively small and short-lived collection, at least by medieval Damascene standards. Most scholars would find such a catalogue useful largely for determining what works were extant in Damascus in the 13th century, perhaps treating it as a smaller Damascene version of Ibn al-Nadim’s fihrist, and pursue the matter no further. Hirschler, however, digs deeper, approaching the catalogue from several directions to produce a fascinating portrait of medieval Damascene book culture and intellectual life. In addition to identifying most of the books in the collection, including some obscure ones, he is able to trace the provenance of many of these works, determine what became of them after their dispersal from the library, and in some cases even identify the scribes who copied the works, discussing their careers and the significance of their employment to copy particular texts. Hirschler unearths details about the funding and management of the library, the system the curator used to classify and sort books in the collection, and even the arrangement of the books on the shelves. He also offers important insights into the patrons and sponsors of the library and how the collection was used. Hirschler’s analysis of the catalogue is painstaking and impressively thorough. It offers significant new understandings of many facets of book culture and libraries as institutions in medieval Damascus. Yet, this is not all Hirschler offers. He also includes an edition of the catalogue text and a meticulously annotated translation. Hirschler’s work is a significant and, we anticipate, a long-lasting contribution to the field. We are pleased to recognize the importance of this work by awarding the first MEM book prize to Medieval Damascus: Plurality and Diversity in an Arabic Library.
This year’s committee was chaired by Steven Judd and included Zayde Antrim, Nancy Khalek, and Isabel Toral-Niehoff.