Cecilia Palombo

Hi NESers! I am writing this entry from Holland to share with you some of the exciting new projects that I have come across this Semester while spending time at Leiden University.

I came to the Netherlands principally to ruin my eyesight trying to read things that look like this:

Palombo_Blog Photo 1

(Please meet P.Brux.Bawit 39.)

To tell the whole story, I also spend time talking about state formation and papyri at places like this:

More interestingly, I came to Leiden as a “guest researcher” at the Leiden Institute for Area Studies to join a newly started ERC project, directed by Prof. Petra Sijpesteijn (who herself was a graduate student in NES, Ph.D. 2004.) The project is called “Embedding Conquest: Naturalising Muslim Rule in the Early Islamic Empire”. The project’s own website is not up yet, but it will include study tools and bibliographic lists. For the time being you can read a nice description of it here:  https://www.universiteitleiden.nl/en/research/research-projects/humanities/embedding-conquest.

In a nutshell, the members of this project are studying the relationship between Muslim rulers and indigenous elites in various contexts, from Egypt to Khurasan, to highlight the practical mechanics of consolidation of Muslim rule at a local level. I contribute “collaterally” by studying the role of Church institutions like monasteries in the “embedding” of the conquest. One of the long-term goals of the project is to build a new online database of documentary sources, which should highlight especially expressions of social relation and hierarchy. Basically this project has all the ingredients to make me happy: papyri, microhistory, social conflict, different religious groups, and a bunch of different alphabets.

The LUCIS department (where the “Embedding Conquest” project has its headquarters) hosts also various projects on Arabic linguistics directed by Prof. Ahmad al-Jallad. For those of us who are interested in late-antique Arabia and/or the development of “Middle Arabic,” we should keep an eye on the activities of the Center for the Study of Ancient Arabia (http://www.hum.leiden.edu/leicensaa/.)

Something that I really wanted to share with you, though, is a new project called KITAB - Knowledge Information Technology and the Arabic Books. Maybe you have heard about it, I suspect this is going to be exceptionally useful for a lot of us in Arabic and Islamic studies in the near future. Prof. Sarah Bowen Savant is one of the creators of the project, she is spending part of the Spring Semester at Leiden and giving masterclasses, so I had the chance to learn about KITAB. Here is a link to the project’s website: http://kitab-project.org/kitab/. In short, the researchers of KITAB are working at building a gigantic, interactive database of Arabic literature based on printed editions and manuscripts alike. They are using algorithms and applying the methods of Text Reuse Detection to do pretty exciting things like detect and represent graphically (unexpected) relationships between texts, identify and explain textual variations, chart the diffusion of texts over space and time, break up the components of majmu‘at, and so on. The database is not open for everyone to use just yet (you need to contact them by email if you want to have access to their data,) but I think it will be online by next year or so.

KITAB is connected to Prof. Maxim Romanov’s projects in Arabic and the Digital Humanities, and especially to the Open Islamicate Texts Initiative (OpenITI.) Here is the website of the OpenITI: http://iti-corpus.github.io/. (And here is a link to Maxim Romanov’s blog if you have never come across it: http://maximromanov.github.io/.) I did not know about OpenITI before coming to Leiden, but I would say it is one of the most promising and important projects in our field at the moment. The idea behind it, if I understood correctly, is to create open-access tools to digitise, analyse, compare and chart the relationship between texts from all the literary traditions of the Middle East.

The last news is that the OpenITI research team at Leipzig University has recently fine-tuned an open-source OCR (Optical Character Recognition) for the recognition of Arabographic scripts – thus applicable to Arabic, Persian, Ottoman, and some forms of “Garshuni.” Here you can find a link to the full report: http://www.dh.uni-leipzig.de/wo/important-new-developments-in-arabographic-optical-character-recognition-ocr/. To be honest I have not yet understood exactly how the OCR works (I have very limited IT skills) but I will be able to tell you more after my time at Leiden. What is clear, however, is that this software will expand enormously the amount of texts digitally available for research (way beyond programs like Shamila!) and in the future will provide data for computational analyses from manuscripts and documents as well as printed editions.

Met vriendelijke groet!