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Lecture Notes

PowerPoint presentation texts:

I. Introduction to the Middle East

Map Exercise

How many countries can you fill in?
Answers at:
Now, look up the capitals!

Defining the Region Geographically and Culturally

We include the “Near East” (colonial term) or Southwest Asia,
North Africa, and
Some or all of Central Asia, because of historical contact, colonial experience, cultural affinity, and contemporary politics.
Bounded by natural barriers of mountains, desert, and bodies of water.

West African Muslims pausing during the harvest to pray.

(photo from Senegal)

What is regional culture or a culture area?

In anthropology, we recognize the looseness of all categories, but find it reasonable to study groups of people that have been neighbors for long periods of time, since they are culturally, genetically, and historically related.
Thus, the Middle East/North Africa is treated as a regional specialization, despite links with Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and Europe.
We can decide to what degree we want to study the diaspora of peoples from this region.

Importance of the Middle East

The civilizations of the Fertile Crescent (Mesopotamia) and Pharaonic Egypt were the first to develop agriculture, writing, codified law, and complex social structure.
The Golden Age of Islam brought advances in mathematics, astronomy, literature, and philosophy to Europe, Asia, and Africa.
The dominant monotheistic traditions of today were all originated in the Middle East

Contemporary Issues in the Middle East of world importance

Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
Resource problems: e.g., petroleum, water, land
Ethnic tensions (e.g., genocide in Sudan, oppression of Kurds)
Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Rise of Islamist states and fundamentalist movements

Anthropological Issues

Anthropology focuses on culture (worldview, customs, behavior, art and artifacts, ritual, etc.), society (kinship, marriage, status and social stratification, age and gender, social interaction), and the relation between the concept of the person and the group. We are interested in the ecological adaptation of the people, and of course their history and current issues.

Sources of Confusion

Terminology: Semitic, Arab or Arabic, Muslim (or Moslem, Islamic, Mohammedan, etc.), Persian; “tribe”
Stereotypes and misconceptions
Middle Eastern people in the post-9/11 world (confused with South Asians, too)
Not all Middle Easterners are Muslims or Arabs; not all Muslims are from the Middle East (most are in Indonesia, in fact!)
Terrorism reporting pretty bad

Religion is an important part of people’s identity.

(photo from Senegal)

Language and Ethnicity

Great language families: Afro-Asiatic, Indo-European, Altaic
Cultural history (migrations, contact, and settlements) corresponds to language distribution
Trade linked entire region from ancient times; Greek, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Indic, and European colonial unification
Strong ethnic, tribal, cultural, local identity

Important Topics in the Anthropology of the Middle East

Role of the family and larger kinship units
Status of women
Impact of nomadic pastoralist tradition
City versus country culture
Customs related to power, such as patriarchy, authoritarian leadership, versus non-hierarchical emphasis of Koran
Tension between local culture and pan-Arab/pan-Muslim movements

Polygyny is associated with Islam, but is strongly cultural.

(photo from Nigeria)

Valuable resources

Internet sites:


II. Ancient Peoples of the Middle East

Overview of early peoples and ethnic affiliations

Non-Semites: Sumerians (possibly Dene-Caucasian family), over 4000 B.C.
Semites (Afro-Asiatic): Akkadians, Amorites, Chaldeans, Babylonians, Assyrians, Phoenicians, Ghossamids, Nabateans, Canaanites, Hebrews, Arab tribes (e.g., Shuwa, Bedu), Aramaic-speakers, Berbers, Tuareg, around 3000 B.C.
Hamites (Afro-Asiatic, different branch): Egyptians, Nubians, Cushites, Amhara, other African groups, over 3000 B.C.
Indo-Europeans (various branches): Kassites, Hittites, Hyksos, Armenians, Greeks, Philistines, Nedes, Persians, Kurds, Macedonians, Parthians, Romans, Sassanids, Pashtu, Urdu, over 2000 B.C.
Altaic: Turks, Baluchis, later on other groups
These were the early bearers of ‘civilization’. They assimilated, replaced, or lived alongside the previous hunter-gatherer populations, who were the first inhabitants of the Middle East.

The Sumerians

Earliest known civilization of ancient Middle East; occupied Fertile Crescent until Akkadian conquest 3000 B.C.
Established city-states under one king, wrote in cuneiform, extensive legal and market system, religious ideas and practices familiar to us through Bible.
Not a Semitic people. Beautiful poetry. Possibly earliest invention of wheel.

The Egytians

At least 5000 years before the present, an agriculture-based society was established along the banks of the Nile.
The Egyptian dynasties left monuments to themselves in the form of the pyramids, the Sphinx, and other monoliths.
They had a complex religion and mythology, a legal system, and traded across long distances.
Egyptian hieroglyphics are one of the oldest known writing systems. The Rosetta Stone (at right) enabled scholars to translate some of it.

The Akkadians

Semitic invaders of Mesopotamia, settled west of Sumer on the Euphrates. King Sargon and his sons established first empire in 3rd millennium B.C.
From the Mediterranean to the Oman became the empire, fed by planned economy based on agriculture.
By 2000 B.C. had collapsed (“Curse of Akkad”), followed by brief Sumerian renaissance.

The Babylonians and Assyrians

Competing city-states, with Babylonians dominated by priests and Assyrians by generals.
Lived in plains between Tigris and Euphrates, wrote cuneiform, famous for their legal/judicial system.
Art, architecture, rug-weaving, pottery, and many other skills highly developed.
Ishtar, Marduk, other deities important.

The Phoenicians

A Semitic maritime trading people of ancient Canaan (modern Syria-Jordan coastal territory), their capital was Tyre.
Their alphabet is the ancestor of almost all known modern alphabets.
Most significant during period of about 1200-900 B.C., colonized N. Africa and got as far as Erythrean Sea (Red Sea).

The Hittites

Indo-European speakers of northern Anatolia around 14th C. B.C.
One of earliest iron-working peoples.
Their empire bordered Egyptian-controlled Canaan and Assyrian Mesopotamia.
First constitutional monarchy, collapsed by about 1160 B.C.

The Nabateans

Aramaic-speaking people of Canaan and Jordan who became important after 586 B.C. (Babylonian captivity)
Invented North Arabic script that evolved into modern Arabic script
Capital city of Petra fabled for advanced building techniques, ‘discovered’ 1812
Allied with Romans to fight Herod’s army (Judea), later switched from war to trade and agriculture

The Persians

Rulers of Iranian plateau and beyond 500-200 B.C.
Indo-Iranian branch of Indo-European family; Hellenistic influence.
Zoroastrian religion (Olympian), powerful mythology and priesthood.
Followed by Parthians, then Sassanids, who had huge empire, finally conquered by Islamic invaders.

Later Civilizations

The Thracians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantine Empire, and many others conquered and settled the Middle East of the early Christian and medieval periods, and were then displaced or defeated by others.
Up to the present day, the ME has been the scene of great dramas of trade, conflict, contact between cultures, religious events, inventions, and art.


Notes on Belief Systems


Theories of religion (depending on your definition)

- evolutionary

- psychological

- sociological/structural

- semantic/symbolic

 - biological

Ritual and duties include

a) rites of passage

b) rites of intensification

c) periodic rites (seasonal, calendric)

d) sacrifices, propitiation

e) taboos

f) general prayer

g) pilgrimages, alms, etc.

h) many other rules, usually

 i) way of life

Classification of belief systems (very fuzzy)

1. shamanism

2. animism

3. Olympian, polytheistic

4. monotheism - so-called 'world religions'


Religions can be analyzed in the following terms:

1. beliefs, lessons and myths

- they also have philosophical statements related to ontology, eschatology, ideology, and epistemology or causation

2. ritual, duties

3. methods, magic, sorcery, witchcraft, prayer, etc.

4. organization, congregations, and specialists

5. social control methods



Society should be understood in relation to the environment, culture, and other societies.

Special features of ME economic systems (historically and ethnographically):

Pastoralism the myth and the reality; pastoralism and patriarchy
Importance of trade (due to settlement and movement patterns)
Raiding and structural distance
Strict division of labor (sex assymmetry); the gendered economy
Strict definition of domestic sphere

Economy and society

Unstable distribution of material wealth (not the same thing as socioeconomic class)
Harsh environment (not everywhere)
Interpenetration with symbolic world; Koran establishes legality of exchange
Conflicting values (success vs. asceticism); beggary as lawful institution
Idea that women have no formal economic role
The most significant social fact about the ME is the interlacing of cultural and local differences with Islam and other ‘great traditions’ (called syncretism).

Modern situation (not for all)

Energy exporters, food importers
Autarkic development strategy
Small manufacturing/industrial sector leads to dependency
Low labor force leads to imported labor, including domestic labor for wealthy
Excess wealth represents investment problem

Senegalese boy in Koranic school Fundamental units of Middle East society (groups and links): kinship

Major elements of kinship: Patrilineal filiation and descent, patriarchal
Patrilocal residence
Arranged marriage with brideprice; some dowry
Polygynous marriage ideal
Extended family, clans, tribe (segmentary fission and fusion), up to nation-state
Patrilateral parallel cousin marriage
Descent regulates inheritance, succession, group membership
Group identity important (honor)

Differential status and power by age, gender, kinship

Access to wealth, authority, prestige
Rights of movement, sexuality, marriage …
Economic roles
Distribution of goods, resources, control of them (hoarding or sharing)
Ascribed characteristics
Expectations for achievement
Access to opportunity structure

Associations of diverse sorts

Friendship an important concept and practice
Sibling bonds close
Neighborhood relations important
Regional identification for sedentary peoples; territory for nomads
Social life based on gender, age, kinship and marriage alliances, local community, religious associations

Rural local communities are still important in the ME, even though more population is urban

Eickelman study of Bui Bataw in Morocco found 95 ways of forming alliances, through shrines, marabouts, patronage, and other links
Ambiguous status of Bedouin (archetypal Arabs): problem of sedentarization
Transition from subsistence to commercialization (ancient oasis economy)
Ideology and social form may conflict
Along the borders of the Sahara, you can still see the ancient caravan trade – trucks and camels.

Religious associations provide group membership and ritual experience. Ritual life of communities:

Life cycle rituals (rites of passage) emphasize birth, naming, initiation, marriage, death for both men and women; marriage probably most important; controversy about circumcision, veiling, seclusion
Rites of intensification and seasonal rituals include holy days based on mytho-historical events, religious requirements, sacrifices, pilgrimages, participation in group harvest
Individual prayer and observances

A fealty ceremony among the Islamic Kanuri of northern Nigeria

Law as social act and ritual requirement

Correct behavior vs. haram (sin)
Governs washing, dress, ornamentation, greetings, relations between sexes and other groups (e.g., generations, kin…), sex itself, speech, movement …
Concept of baraka (grace)
Islam, Judaism, Christianity, other ME traditions very legalistic (lots of rules)
Individuals belong to a complex web of relations based on their group memberships.

Nationalist movements

Emergence from colonial period (whether European or Ottoman)
Four-stage revolution:
1. national independence (except Saudi)
2. economic independence
3. liberation from indigenous corruption
4. struggle against neo-imperialism
Problem of energy-exporters, food importers

Problems of modern nation-state

Islamic resurgence in post-colonial framework; problem of sharia law in heterodox society
Classic colonial states held together by strongman
Issues of women’s position and human rights; ‘reactionary’ from standpoint of Western humanist tradition; ‘revolutionary’ from nationalist perspective
Environmental problems urgent: eco-system damage, population explosion, land, water

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