Princeton University Historian Wins MacArthur Genius Grant

Photo courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Photo courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Marina Rustow, a professor of history at Princeton University, has been awarded a 2015 MacArthur Genius Fellowship.

Rustow is among 24 scientists, artists, scholars and activists who each will receive  a $625,000 grant over a five-year period from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The MacArthur Fellows Program awards unrestricted fellowships to people who have shown “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Fellows are selected for exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.

Rustow’s area of specialization is the medieval Middle East, particularly texts from the Cairo Geniza. The more than 300,000 pages of legal documents, letters and other materials span more than a millennium and were preserved in an Egyptian synagogue. They now reside in about 200 library and private collections around the world.

“Marina Rustow is an extraordinary scholar whose groundbreaking research provides fascinating insights into the politics and society of the medieval Middle East,” said Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber. “We feel fortunate that she is at Princeton, and we are delighted by the news of her selection as a MacArthur Fellow.”

Rustow joined the faculty this summer from Johns Hopkins University, where she had been an associate professor since 2010. Rustow previously taught at Emory University.

In its announcement, the MacArthur Foundation cited Rustow for research on the Geniza texts “that shed new light on Jewish life and on the broader society of the medieval Middle East. Rustow’s approach to this archive goes beyond decoding documents, in itself a formidable task, to questioning the relationship between subjects and medieval states and asking what that relationship tells us about power and the negotiation of religious boundaries.”

She used information from the Geniza for her 2008 book “Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate,” which sparked her interest in further study of the manuscripts’ importance. She is working a book on Fatimid documents of state preserved in the Geniza.

Rustow earned her bachelor’s degree in literature from Yale University and two master’s degrees in history and religion from Columbia University, where she also earned her doctorate.

“What I love most about my work is the moment when I’ve finished deciphering a set of documents, and there’s the possibility of discovering something new, or some overlooked detail that unlocks a bigger problem,” Rustow said in an interview with a member of Princeton University’s Communications Office. “Not every new piece of information about the past is worth knowing, but sometimes you hit on something that solves a problem, or poses a problem you hadn’t considered before.”