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Alison Vacca

Associate Professor, Director of Graduate Studies

Biography

I teach courses on the History of the Middle East and Islamic World (covering 600-1050 in the Fall and 1050-1500 in the Spring), as well as World History to 1500 and topics courses related to early Islamic history such as medieval Iran or Muslim-Christian Relations.

I am a historian of early Islam working on the caliphal provinces Armenia and Caucasian Albania. According to ʿAbbasid-era Arabic geographies, Armenia included what is now the modern Republic of Armenia and eastern Turkey. The neighboring Caucasian Albania (Arrān) stretched over the modern Republic of Azerbaijan and eastern Georgia. My primary goal is to integrate these medieval provinces into the broader history of the Iranian cultural sphere and early Islamic world. I do this through the investigation of several themes, including intercultural transmission of historical texts, quick-changing alliances in moments of intercommunal violence, and intermarriage across ethnic and religious lines.

My first monograph, Non-Muslim Provinces under early Islam: Islamic Rule and Iranian Legitimacy in Armenia and Caucasian Albania, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2017 and received the 2018 prize from the Central Eurasian Studies Society. In this book, I rely on Armenian and Arabic sources to investigate the regional memories of the pre-Islamic Sasanian past as a way to discuss the regions’ participation in the Iranian cultural sphere. Despite the nominal recognition of the ʿAbbasid Caliphate, local Iranian families de facto ruled much of the Islamic world from the ninth to eleventh centuries. Their use of various titles including “King of Kings” (malik al-mulūk in Arabic, mep‘et‘ mep‘e in Georgian, shāhanshāh in Persian, and šahnšah in Armenian) demonstrates that these families each expressed power through the reinvention of pre-Islamic Iranian vocabulary. This adoption of Sasanian-inspired political expressions is a shift in perspective. Before the Iranian intermezzo, Arabic and Armenian sources alike portrayed the caliphs as the heirs to Sasanian might. During the intermezzo, though, these local élite exerted control over the past, writing and rewriting the history and legacy of the Sasanian-era Caucasus to bolster competing claims to contemporary power.

I am currently working on my second monograph project, Vardapets of Satan: Gender and the Construction of Otherness in the Medieval Caucasus, which explores how medieval (male) authors deployed stories about women from Sasanian rule to the arrival of the Seljuks in the eleventh century. While eastern Anatolia and the South Caucasus were home to famously diverse populations, extant sources rarely explicate the negotiation of this diversity except through the descriptions of élite women. Whether these women were Arab, Georgian, Armenian, or Khazar, the stories that men chose to circulate about them inscribe difference between communities and reveal deep-set anxieties about communal mixing. The most vibrant stories about women appear in texts that modern scholars have marked as “corrupted” or “popular.” Accordingly, one of the main methodological concerns of this monograph project is the rationale for employing such “unreliable” texts.

In addition to my second monograph project, I currently participate in two collaborative projects to edit and translate texts. The first project includes an edition and translation of an eighth-century Armenian history of the early Caliphate based on the oldest extant manuscript. This text covers the rise of Islam from the death of the Prophet Muḥammad in 632 to an abrupt end in 788. As an offshoot of that project, I am part of a second collaborative project to publish editions and translations of all five extant versions of the correspondence purportedly exchanged between an Umayyad caliph and Byzantine emperor in the eighth century. This Muslim-Christian polemic attests to conversations between Muslims and Christians in Arabic, Armenian, Latin, and Aljamiado. 


Education

Ph.D. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 2013

MA in Near Eastern Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 2010

BA, Nazareth College of Rochester, 2006


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