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Mark Cohen

Department/Program(s):
  • Near Eastern Studies
Position: Emeritus Faculty
Title: Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East, Emeritus. Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Emeritus
Office: 14 Dillon Court West
Phone: 609-258-5488



I earned my college degree at Brandeis University, studying European and American history and Jewish studies. During a post-graduate year as a Visiting Fulbright Scholar at the University of London I had my introduction to both Islamic history and Hebrew poetry written in Muslim Spain, and that decided my research field: the history of Jews living in Arab lands in the Middle Ages. I completed an M.A. in history at Columbia University, followed by four years of training in classical Judaica at the Jewish Theological Seminary and then my doctoral work at that same institution.

My first book, a study of the origins of an important institution of medieval Jewish self-government in Egypt, is based primarily on Cairo Geniza documents and most of my scholarship since then has centered on that unique source. In 1983 I was asked to contribute a book to a new series of basic introductions to Jewish history and culture to be translated into Arabic for readers in countries like Egypt. I am particularly proud of that publication—an overview of Jewish life in Islamic Egypt through the mid-14th century—for it is, as far as I know, still the only book of its kind in Arabic written by a specialist in Jewish history.

I regularly teach the Department's courses in medieval Jewish history (under Islam and under Christendom), as well as graduate seminars dealing either with Near Eastern Jewish history or Judaeo-Arabic (mainly Geniza documents). I have been instrumental (along with Professor Udovitch) in training graduate students to use the Geniza for general Islamic social and economic history. Examples of dissertations written using the Geniza are Olivia Remie Constable's dissertation published as Trade and Traders in Muslim Spain: The Commercial Realignment of the Iberian Peninsula, 900–1500 (Cambridge University Press, 1994); Hassan Khalilieh's dissertation published as Islamic Maritime Law: An Introduction (Brill, 1998); and Roxani Eleni Margariti’s dissertation published as Aden & the Indian Ocean Trade: 150 Years in the Life of a Medieval Arabian Port (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007). Several other graduate students have done a field in Jewish-Arab history for their Generals or written theses on Jewish history using the Geniza, among other sources.  Soon to be published are Arnold Franklin’s “Shoots of David: Members of the Exilarchal Dynasty in the Middle Ages” (University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming); and Uriel Simonsohn’s Overlapping Jurisdictions: Confessional Boundaries and Judicial Choice among Christians and Jews under Early Muslim Rule”  (University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming). Years ago I taught an undergraduate seminar in the History Department with Natalie Zemon Davis on the Jews in Early Modern Europe; the idea for the book on the autobiography of a 17th-century Venetian Rabbi listed below arose out of teaching that course.

My book, Under Crescent and Cross, a comparative study of Islamic-Jewish and Christian-Jewish relations in the Middle Ages, tries to avoid the pitfalls of much of recent writing about the Jews of Islam. It has been translated into Turkish, Hebrew, German, Arabic and French, with Spanish and Romanian in preparation.  In 2005 I published Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt and The Voice of the Poor in the Middle Ages: An Anthology of Documents from the Cairo Geniza. These days I am working on Maimonides’ Code of Jewish Law in the light of Geniza documents about everyday commercial life, and have begun planning a major book, a “new history” of the Jews of Islam from the earliest times until the 20th century. In 2009, I was named the Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East and in 2010 I was honored to be the first winner of the Goldziher Prize for scholarship promoting better understanding between Jews and Muslims.

Representative publications:

Jewish Self-Government in Medieval Egypt: the Origins of the Office of Head of the Jews, ca. 1065–1126, Princeton 1980.

Al-mujtama` al-yahūdī fī Miṣr al-islāmiyya fī’l-`uṣūr al-wusṭā (Jewish Life in Medieval Egypt 641–1382) (translated into Arabic), Tel Aviv 1987.

The Autobiography of a Seventeenth-Century Venetian Rabbi: Leon Modena's Life of Judah, translated and edited by Mark R. Cohen, with introductory essays by Mark R. Cohen, Theodore K. Rabb, Howard Adelman, and Natalie Zemon Davis and historical notes by Howard Adelman and Benjamin Ravid, Princeton 1988.

Jews among Arabs: Contacts and Boundaries, co-edited with A. L. Udovitch, Princeton 1989.

Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt, Princeton, 2005.

The Voice of the Poor in the Middle Ages: An Anthology of Documents from the Cairo Geniza, Princeton, 2005.

Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages, Princeton, 1994; revised edition 2008.