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Towards a Jewish History of Medieval Africa


This article is written by Craig Perry, Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Jewish Studies

With support from a Judith London Evans Award, I presented a paper at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, England in July 2023 on “Political Insurgency and State Formation in Northeast Africa.” My talk discussed a letter written in Judeo-Arabic in the eleventh century that reports a stunning international incident. A Jewish merchant informs his colleagues that a rogue African army faction has commandeered a large diplomatic embassy in the city of Aswan that was on its way from Yemen to the new imperial capital of Cairo. The Jewish correspondent detailed the lavish gifts that the embassy bore for the Egyptian caliph. His letter is the sole documentary record describing this major event, which intensified a civil war between rivals in Islamic Egypt. This research forms part of my new book project, Jewish Histories of Medieval Africa, which will use the documents written and preserved by Egyptian Jews to illuminate new histories of the African Middle Ages that show how African men and women were a part of medieval Jewish life.

The International Medieval Congress has become one of the premier sites for scholarly presentations and collaborations in the growing sub-field of Medieval Africa, and my attendance allowed me to participate in six linked panels on the theme of “African Entanglements” in the Middle Ages. While there, I also enrolled in a wool-spinning workshop, and while my experience spinning thread from raw merino wool was humbling, I now have a few feet of golden thread to show for my labors. This semester I am also integrating flax and wool spinning into my first-year Jewish Studies seminar “Everyday Life in Medieval Egypt.” Fortunately, the class program will be run by a local expert in the fiber arts.

My experience at the International Medieval Congress complemented an experience I had in May 2023 at the conference “Ethiopians Abroad in the Middle Ages,” which was held in Rome and sponsored by the European Research Council in conjunction with the École Française de Rome and the Pontifico Istituto Orientale. The paper I presented there, “Objects of Desire and Subjects of Knowledge: Enslaved Ethiopian Women in Fifteenth-Century Arabia,” described the lives of a group of women who were trafficked to the cities of Mecca and Medina, where they served as child-bearing concubines and courtesans for an elite stratum of Arab-Muslim society. This paper, too, feeds into my new book project, which studies different African diasporas that were coercively integrated into societies in the medieval Middle East.

This new project builds on my first monograph about slavery and the slave trade in the medieval Egyptian Jewish community (final title TBD), which is under contract with Princeton University Press and is expected to appear in 2025.

Published 12/5/23