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The history of the Middle East is a complex skein woven of peoples, religions, economic forces, and the natural environment. It is often claimed that history matters more in the Middle East, that people don't change easily and that they hold on to ancient identities, customs and even hatreds in a way that is particular to the region. While it is certainly true that groups in the Middle East, like people everywhere, tell their histories in ways that are meaningful to them and that reinforce their identities, it is a mistake to think that everyone tells the same stories, or that the stories we think we know are the only ones that matter.
Much of what scholars in the West long thought they knew about the Middle East was based on essentializing assumptions about the region: it is a uniform and timeless place, where people are guided almost exclusively by primordial religious texts that guide everything about their lives, where women are oppressed and the society is ruled by cruel authoritarianism and mired in fatalism. This set of assumptions, called Orientalism, not only doesn't reflect the complicated and very modern realities of the region today, it also skews our understanding of its diverse and complex history. When we see everything that happens in the region through the prism of religion, for example, we miss the critical role of larger economic, political and social forces. These include things like change within societies, outbreaks of disease, inflation and other economic trends, innovation and adaption, Western imperialism and local resistance, and the rich internal life of communities.
We will look for essays and materials to share that fill out the picture that dominates our news and our textbooks, giving us a richer sense of the historical fabric woven by the peoples of the Middle East over thousands of years.
In this article the influential Moroccan historian, Mohamed El Mansour, provides a history of the role of the United States in the Middle East and North Africa. The essay provides and excellent introductory survey, beginning with the recognition of the young American republic by Morocco in the 19th century through recent events.
This brief survey by Peter von Sivers, Professor of History at the University of Utah, traces the spread and development of Islam in the northern part of the African continent, particularly from a religious perspective or, more accurately, with regard to the role of Islam in governance of the region.
Why Study the Ottomans?
The Ottoman Empire was an innovative and multicultural state that lasted for over 600 years. In its heyday, its economic power and military successes made it feared as well as admired in Europe and elsewhere.
An interview with William Cleveland, professor of history at Simon Fraser University and author of the widely used textbook A History of the Modern Middle East, on the importance of understanding the historical context of the Middle East.
822 BCE: The Phoenicians establish the historic city of Carthage (in present-day Tunisia) and set up trading posts along the North African coast. c. 208 BCE: Massinisa becomes king of Eastern Numidian Massyli (east of current Algeria), succeeding his father Gala.
661 BCE: Ali is murdered, presumably by a Kharijite extremist. His son Hassan loses a battle for succession to Mu'awiyah and retires to Medina. Mu'awiyah establishes the Umayyad dynasty and transfers the imperial capital to Damascus. 680 BCE: Caliph Mu'awiyah dies. His son Yazid succeeds him as Caliph.
1492 BCE: Muslims and Jews are expelled from Spain at the behest of the Catholic Inquisition. The Muslims return to North Africa. The Spanish Jews, known as the Sephardim, scatter throughout North Africa, Italy, Turkey, and the Middle East. Those who reach the Ottoman Empire receive a warm welcome from the Ottoman ruler, Bajazet
1901: Oil is discovered in Iran. 1905: Death of the great Muslim reformer, Muhammad Abdu. 1906: The Algeciras Conference, organized with the help of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, prevents war between France and Germany over colonial rights in Morocco. Control of Morocco is granted to France and Spain.
This is an excerpt from Kenneth Cragg's "The Arab Christian: A History in the Middle East" that provides an understanding of Lebanon's history. The primary focus of this essay is looking at the roots of the Lebanese Civil War and its strong religious orientation and the effects on Lebanese society and government.
In this interview, Azzedine Layachi, Professor of Political Science at St. John’s University, discusses the recent history of the Arab World, including the ideology of Arab Nationalism and its decline, the rise of "Political Islam" Western representations of the Arab World and the status of democratization and liberalization movements in the region.
This documentary combines recent and archival interviews, newsreel footage and recently filmed footage from Algeria to trace the origins of the violence that has left as many as 200,000 dead since 1988.