THE LOST ARCHIVE is a documentary series (in development) exploring the medieval Islamic world through a unique lens – the centuries-old letters of Jewish traders. We travel from Cairo to India in search of a vanished society that bears striking resemblances to our own.
The series is hosted by Dr. Marina Rustow, a Princeton History Professor and 2015 MacArthur fellow who has spent her career exploring the Cairo Geniza, a lost archive that offers a remarkable record of past lives. The Geniza was a storeroom in a Cairo Synagogue where for a thousand years the Egyptian Jewish community dumped their unwanted papers. Guided by antique letters found in the Geniza, Rustow takes us on a remarkable journey across modern landscapes, based on the words of medieval merchants who shipped spices, textiles, and metals across the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean.
Episode One begins with Marina Rustow in Cairo, the bustling modern city, before boarding a boat up the Nile River. Traveling a thousand kilometers south of Cairo, she reaches the Red Sea to search for medieval wrecks of the Geniza traders. We follow Rustow to the critical way-station of the India trade: the port of Aden, Yemen, on the tip of the Arabian peninsula. The journey concludes on India’s Malabar Coast, where Rustow seeks out the real lives of medieval traders who crossed continents and cultures in a globalized era long before our own. Episode Two explores daily life in medieval Cairo, while Episodes Three and Four show the world of medieval traders extending to Java and Sicily.
Rustow will tear down myths about the medieval world and show history from the vantage point of ordinary people: travelers struggling far from home, families divided by vast distances, and ships lost at sea. Through this vast cache of documents, Dr. Rustow will draw links between present and past, illuminating a world of hustlers and homemakers, tyrants and traders.