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.

Tbourida: A North African Equestrian Performance Art

After several years of advocacy from Moroccan representatives, UNESCO officially inscribed tbourida, a North African cavalry performance, on their Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2021. Let’s take a look at the history and modern presence of this equestrian art. What is Tbourida? Tbourida, also known internationally as fantasia, is an […]

Fatima al-Fihri

Fatima al-Fihri is a 9th century woman credited with founding Al Quaraouiyine University, the oldest in the world. While her life is not recorded in detail, her legacy persists to this day. During Women’s History Month, she stands out as an early example of the powerful leadership role women have played in the Muslim world, […]

The First Caliphs of Islam: Power, Corruption and War in the Rashidun Caliphate

Written by Caleb Strom, Ancient Origins The first caliphs of the Islamic World were the Rashidun, or “rightly guided,” caliphs and they controlled a vast empire. According to the Sunni Muslims, the Rashidun caliphs were chosen by Muhammad’s followers and all four were legitimate caliphs. To Shiite Muslims, on the other hand, the first three […]

What’s Missing in the Teaching of Islam

There has been much misinformation about Islam. Reports in Western media tend to perpetuate stereotypes that Islam is a violent religion and Muslim women are oppressed. Popular films like “American Sniper” reduce places like Iraq to dusty war zones, devoid of any culture or history. Fears and anxiety manifest themselves in Islamophobic actions such as […]

An Historical and Contemporary View of Palmyra (The New York Review of Books)

This compelling overview of the ancient ruins of Palmyra, located in central Syria, recounts the many conquests that took place here, uses 150-year-old photographs of the area, and provides an understated but powerful chronicle of the devastation enacted by players (not only the Islamic State) in the Syrian Civil War to convey the human burden […]

A Review of Relations Between Israel and Egypt

Egypt’s relationship with Israel is complex and has changed considerably over the years. Like all other Arab countries, Egypt protested Israel’s creation at the expense of Palestine. Egypt refused to recognize the state of Israel until 1979. Egypt and Israel have engaged in four wars, the instigators varying from war-to-war. Today, they cooperate extensively, mainly […]

A Closer Look: The Origins and Evolution of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwayn al-Muslimun) is the oldest and most influential Islamist organization in Egypt, most recently in the news when party member, Mohammed Morsi, became Egypt’s first democratically elected president. The Brotherhood’s legacy reaches back to 1928 when it was founded by Hasan al-Banna. Banna, an imam, (Muslim religious officiant or leader) formed the […]

A History of Islamist Movements in Algeria

Algeria’s history and identity is rooted in Islam. Cultural practices, even under French rule, were strongly Islamic. In fact, though Algeria established a secular state following its independence, much of its resistance was couched in Islamic rhetoric and ideals. Revolutionaries would often refer to their struggle against the French as a “jihad,” and those fallen […]

Race and Identity in Iran

‘We are Iranians’: Rediscovering the history of African slavery in Iran Iranian-Canadian scholar Behnaz Mirzai has spent 20 years researching the African diaspora in Iran, a little-known slice of Iranian history. This story is re-posted from the original publication at Middle East Eye. Jillian D’Amours May 9, 2016 ST CATHARINES, Canada – Behnaz Mirzai’s students […]

Timeline of the Middle East in the 20th Century

A printable version of this timeline is available for download at the bottom of this page. 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 [...]

History Resource List

History Resources for EducatorsClassroom ResourcesGeneral Middle Eastern HistoryIsraeli-Palestinian ConflictIslamic HistorySpecific Periods, People and PlacesClassroom Resources Best of History Websites With links to over 1000 sites that have lesson plans, activities, games, quizzes and solid information, Best of History is a rich resource of tools and information. This is a project of the Center for Teaching [...]

Timeline of the Ottoman Empire

A printable version of this timeline is available for download at the bottom of this page. 1469 Death of Aztec leader Montezuma I in modern-day Mexico. 1492 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 [...]

Timeline of Islamic Dynasties

A printable version of this timeline is available for download at the bottom of this page. 661 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 Caliph Mu'awiyah dies. His [...]

Timeline of Early Islamic History

A printable version of this timeline is available for download at the bottom of this page. 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 [...]

Women in Muslim History

Women in Muslim History: Traditional Perspectives and New Strategies This short essay by sociologist Fatima Mernissi, a prominent sociologist from Morocco, is a survey of Islamic texts on women. Mernissi argues that the authors of these texts “did not, as might be expected, talk about them only as the mothers and daughters of powerful men. [...]

Understanding Middle Eastern History: An Interview with William Cleveland

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. A Teacher’s Guide to the interview is included at the end. Interview conducted by Michael A. Toler. This [...]

Lebanon’s Forgotten Space Program

There is a universal fascination with space and Manoug Manougian of Lebanon was one of those youngsters with space exploration on his mind. The BBC spoke with Manougian about the 1960s Rocket Society he began at Haigazian College.

Photographs Tell a History of Palestinian Refugees

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) unearthed an archive of haunting photos documenting the Palestinian refugee experience. The photographs capture the Palestinian refugee experience from the 1948 war onward, giving form to a seminal chapter in Palestinian history, identity and collective memory. The article is shared in its entirety here but you can [...]

Caravan Kingdoms

Caravan Kingdoms: Yemen and the Ancient Incense Trade This online exhibition provides an intriguing and informative look at some of the most fascinating kingdoms of ancient Yemen, including the country’s ancient incense trade. Caravan Kingdoms Interactive provides an intriguing and informative look at some of the most fascinating kingdoms of ancient Yemen, including the country’s ancient [...]

Saudi Arabia’s Cultural Heritage Uncovered

For hundreds of years, popular perceptions of Arab culture have been dominated by Islam. But recent excavations in what is now modern-day Saudi Arabia are revealing evidence of sophisticated and ancient civilizations that are redefining the pre-Islamic era. This basalt tombstone is from Mecca, 9th Century A lucrative trade in spices - particularly incense - [...]

Ottoman History with Resources

Ottoman History: New Questions, New AnswersTEACHING OTTOMAN HISTORY: A PRIMER (with updates and adaptations)Harvard University Center for Middle Eastern Studies, The Outreach Center, 2003. 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 [...]