The history of the Middle East is multi-layered and labyrinthine, influenced by a variety of factors including a multitude of empires, a diverse collection of cultures and religions, economic forces, and the natural environment. The modern Middle East has retained many of its honored traditions and identities, and today’s conflicts and relationships are based on centuries-old connections and enmity. The region has generally embraced new technologies and development in ways that are consistent with local values but some, both individuals and groups, have bristled at the fast pace at which Middle Eastern society is progressing. Within that context, there has been renewed appreciation of and attention on the rich cultural and historical heritage of this vast and diverse geographical area from the arts and languages to revered folk heroes.
Much of what scholars in the West long thought they knew about the Middle East was based on a general sense of superiority and assumptions about the region and its people. The Middle East was caught in a time and space where people were guided almost exclusively by primordial religious texts that instruct everything about their lives, where women were uniformly oppressed, and where society is fiercely and unquestionably loyal to tribal or despotic leaders. This set of assumptions, known as 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. Social media has helped dismantle many of these damaging stereotypes but more needs to be done. 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, conflict and movements of people across borders, inflation and other economic trends, innovation and adaption, Western imperialism and local resistance, and the rich internal life of communities.
In this section, we will share essays and other materials to shed like and on the rich historical fabric woven by the peoples of the Middle East over thousands of years.