Cecilia Palombo

Image of a white woman with curly shoulder-length brown hair wearing a dark blue sweater.
Assistant Professor of Early Islamic History
Teaching at UChicago since 2022

Academic Bio

I am a historian of the premodern Middle East specializing in late antiquity and the early Islamic period. I study its documentary cultures, multilingual traditions, and endangered cultural heritages. I gained my PhD from Princeton University in 2020. My dissertation discussed various ways in which Christian religious officials and monastic organizations contributed to building strategies of local government in Umayyad and Abbasid Egypt, looking at local contexts, primarily based on Arabic and Coptic papyri. Previously, I had studied classics and earned degrees in historical and religious studies, archival studies, and Islamic history. Before joining NELC, I worked as a postdoc at the Institute for Area Studies of Leiden University, in the ERC-project “Embedding Conquest: Naturalizing Muslim Rule in the Early Islamic Empire.” I also collaborated at the ERC-project “the Qur’an as a Source for Late Antiquity,” based at Tübingen University. Between 2015 and 2022, I was a member of the academic Programming Committee of the International Quranic Studies Association.  

In my research I explore questions about administrative, scribal, and archival practices involving different religious and linguistic groups in early Islamicate societies, including the documents’ modern musealization and digitization. I am interested in the concept of ‘community’ and in interrogating community-centered historical narratives about the premodern Middle East. My focus has been on documentary and archaeological heritages of southern Europe, the Mashriq, Egypt, and Turkey. I am at home in Rome and in Istanbul. Both in research and in teaching, I often put the emphasis on methodological questions and challenges, such as those connected to the materiality of written sources from the early Islamic period. I have published studies concerning Arabic, Coptic, and Greek papyri, and Christian Arabic and Coptic literary texts. My publications include a critical discussion of the study of trade in the early Islamic period, and a study of late-antique and Quranic formulaicity which interacts with digital scholarship through text reuse detection methods. My current book-project interlaces a study of local communities and localized ruling practices in the early Islamic period with historiographical questions arising from the dispersal of documentary heritages. 

Selected Publications

“The Local Clergy and ‘Ties of Indebtedness’ in Abbasid Egypt: Some Reflections on Studying Debt and Credit in the Early Islamic Middle East.” In Ties that Bind: Mechanisms and Structures of Social Dependency in the Early Islamic Empire. Ed. by Edmund Hayes and Petra Sijpesteijn (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming, 2022). 

"Studying Trade and Local Economies in Early Islamicate Societies." Cromohs - Cyber Review of Modern Historiography 24 (2022), 161–181. 

“Formulae and Repetition in the Medinan Qur’an: The Story of the Golden Calf Between Meccan and Medinan Surahs.” In Unlocking the Medinan Qur’an. Ed. by Nicolai Sinai (Brill, 2022). https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004509702_005.

“Working with Collections" (December 2020). "Embedding Conquest: Eye-Openers", Leiden University (blog). https://emco.hcommons.org/2020/12/21/working-with-collections/

“The View from the Monasteries: Taxes, Muslims and Converts in the ‘Pseudepigrapha’ from Middle Egypt.” Medieval Encounters 25/4 (2019), 297–344. https://doi.org/10.1163/15700674-12340048.

Subject Area: Islamic History and Civilization