top of page


Middle East - from Egypt to Iran

Responsible Team-Members: Alexandra Cuffel, Barbara Roggema, Neda Darabian

State of the Field

The Cairo Geniza has proven to be a treasury of information for the history of Jews and Muslims in Cairo and the surrounding regions. Nevertheless, little has been done to utilize it in studying Jewish-Christian relations in medieval Egypt and beyond it across the trade-centers of medieval West and East Asia, notwithstanding the path-breaking studies by S.D. Goitein in the 1960s. Goitein was the first to point out that Jews and Christians shared property, lived and worked as close neighbours, sold personal and community property to one another, even transforming churches into synagogues, and collaborated in business initiatives across the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.  Other aspects of Jewish-Christian relations, such as proselytizing and conversion, long identified by Goitein and others as an area for further investigation, still await deeper exploration.

Subsequent research has demonstrated that possessing the same status under Islamic law, and living side by side, Jews and Christians in the Middle East developed parallel communal and legal organizations, often exhibiting similar strategies for coping with dominant Muslim power structures. Jews and Christians also faced similar difficulties, for example, under the rule of the Fatimid Caliph al-Ḥākim (996-1021), who ordered the destruction of both synagogues and churches. Yet, research on pre-modern Middle Eastern Jewish and Christian communities has concentrated on their internal dynamics separately, largely ignoring their social and institutional co-existence. Jewish-Christian interactions – communal or individual – are mentioned in passing, in studies concerned with other aspects of Middle Eastern society.  Studies directly addressing Jewish-Christian relations, such as those by Griffith, Fiey and Rosenkranz, have been relatively rare for the Islamic Middle East.  Even in these cases, research on Jewish-Christian polemic in the Middle East during Islamic rule has tended to focus on the earlier, Umayyad and Abbasid eras.  Canon law collections for various Christian communities about socializing with Jews have not received the same detailed scrutiny as analogous sources in late antique and medieval Western Europe or even Byzantium. Muslim chronicles reinforce a picture of regular contact and mutual openness, for example when mentioning Christians borrowing Jewish clothes in order to escape persecutions by the Mamluks. While legal texts often include laws attempting to separate communities, research on intellectual trends in the Islamicate world has stressed the great openness among Coptic learned elite towards Jewish philosophy.


Similarly, evidence from the Cairo Geniza indicates that Jews were curious about Christian writings, and collected them in a variety of languages. Sometimes, however, it is unclear whether these fragments were intended for reading or scrap.  The fact that polemical works by Christians found in the Cairo Geniza outnumber those of Muslims suggests that Christians were of greater concern to Jews in the Middle East than Muslims.

While once thought to be few in number or insignificant, Jewish anti-Christian polemic within the Islamic world and Jewish interest in Christian texts has received increasing attention. These have often been placed in the context of Muslim-Christian polemic, discussions of genre, and exchange of knowledge, rather than examined systematically for what they reveal about Jewish-Christian relations under Muslim rule.  The realization that the Jewish anti-gospel tradition, the Toledot Yeshu, was popular among Arabic-speaking Jews in the Middle Ages,  and later, Persian-speaking Jews, plus the existence of numerous manuscripts of this text plus Christian anti-Jewish polemical texts later than the tenth-century CE, necessitate a re-evaluation of Jewish-Christian relations and Jewish polemic in the Middle East during the Fatimid-Mamluk periods. Likewise, eastern canon-law texts from various Christian communities, and discussions of daily Jewish-Christian interaction in the Middle East need to be examined together and re-evaluated for the overall picture of how multifarious Christian and Jewish communities thought of one another and interacted.

Ongoing and Planned Research

Part of the Middle East Team’s efforts will be focused on searching for, analyzing, and in some cases, editing and translating polemical sources, in the form of overtly polemical treatises, but also within hagiographies, historical narratives, etc. written by Jews, Christians, and sometimes Muslims in the Middle East.  Barbara Roggema is concentrating primarily on Syriac and Arabic Christian texts, especially unedited Christian polemical treatises, and Alexandra Cuffel is currently focusing on the Toledot Yeshu.  Barbara Roggema anticipates publishing a selection of heretofore unedited Christian anti-Jewish polemical treatises, and together they are working on the Judeo-Arabic texts of the Toledot Yeshu.

Hagiographic and Anti-Hagiographic Exchanges
The entire JewsEast team is examining the transmission and impact of Christian anti-Jewish hagiographic traditions and Jewish counter-narratives to such traditions, throughout the regions under study.  Currently efforts in this area are focused on the transmission of anti-Jewish Marian miracles and rituals and iconography associated with the Virgin Mary in the Middle East, Ethiopia, the Caucasus and W. Europe, legends of the finding of the True Cross, and the relationship of the Toledot Yeshu with these traditions.  Also under investigation is the memory and impact of  tales of the martyrs of Najran and the incusions of the Jewish warlord, Dhu Nuwas in Arabia during the 6th century on Jewish-Christian relations in the Middle East and Ethiopia.

Shared Religious Practices
Alexandra Cuffel is working on a monograph, Shared Saints and Festivals among Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Medieval Mediterranean.

Social Relations
The entire JewsEast team is reevaluating evidence for various aspects of social and economic interactions between Jews and Christians in the regions under consideration.  Because of the importance of the Cairo Geniza in such research, the Middle East team plays a significant role in these investigations.  We are currently focusing on evidence of conversion to and from Judaism, Christianity, and, potentially, Hinduism within the Middle East and the Indian Ocean and on evidence of trading partnerships between Jews and Christians in the Middle East, the Indian Ocean, and Central Asia.


Further Reading

  • Alexander, P. “The Toledot Yeshu in the Context of the Jewish-Muslim Debate”, in Toledot Yeshu (“The Life of Jesus”) Revisited, ed. P. Schäfer et al (Tübingen, 2011) 137-58

  • Boddens Hosang, F.J.E. Establishing Boundaries: Christian-Jewish Relations in Early Council Texts and Writings of the Church Fathers (Leiden, 2010)

  • Bowman, S. The Jews of Byzantium 1204-1453 (Tuscaloosa, 1985)

  • Cohen, M.  Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages (Princeton, 1994

  • Goitein S. D.  and M. Friedman, India Traders of the Middle Ages: Documents from the Cairo Geniza “India Book 2 vols. (Leiden, 2011)

  • Goldstein, M. “Judeo-Arabic Versions of the Toledot Yeshu”, Ginzei Qedem, 6 (2010) 9-42

  • Griffith, S.H. “Jews and Muslims in Christian Syriac and Arabic Texts of the Ninth Century”, Jewish History 3 (1988) 65-94

  • Fiey, J.  “Juifs et Chrétiens dans l’Orient Syriaque”, Hispania Sacra 40 (1988) 933-53

  • Pines, S. “Judaeo-Christian Materials in an Arabic Jewish Treatise”, Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 35 (1967) 187-217.

  • The Polemic of Nestor the Priest: Qissat mujâdalat al-usquf and Sefer Nestor ha-Komer, eds. D.J. Lasker and S. Stroumsa. 2 vols. (Jerusalem, 1996)

  • Riera I Sans, J.  Els poders publics i les sinagogues segles XIII-XV (Girona, 2006)

  • Roggema, B.  The Legend of Sergius Baḥīrā: Eastern Christian Apologetics and Apocalyptic in Response to Islam (Leiden, 2009) 196- 99

  • Rosenkranz, S. Die jüdisch-christliche Auseinandersetzung unter islamischer Herrschaft. 7-10 Jahrhundert (Bern, 2004)

  • Rustow, M.  Heresey and the Politics of Community: the Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008)

  • Schwarb, G. “The Reception of Maimonides in Christian-Arabic Literature”, in Maimonides and his World, ed. Y. Tobi (Haifa, 2014) 109-75

  • Simonsohn, U.  A Common Justice: The Legal Alliances of Christians and Jews under Early Islam (Philadelphia, 2011)

  • Stilt, K.  Islamic Law in Action. Authority, Discretion and Everyday Experiences in Mamluk Egypt (Oxford, 2011)

  • Szilágyi, K. “Christian Books in Jewish Libraries: Fragments of Christian Arabic Writings in the Cairo Geniza”, Ginzei Qedem, 2 (2006) 107-62

  • Toledot Yeshu: The Life Story of Jesus: Two Volumes and Database.  Ed. and trans. Micahel Meerson and Peter Schäfer (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014)

  • Weltecke,  D. Die “Beschreibung der Zeiten” von Mör Michael dem Grossen (1126-1199) (Louvain, 2003)

bottom of page