History of the Modern Middle East—Lecture 1 (Introductory Concepts) (1)

The following are notes from the lecture series done by Dr. Richard Bulliet for the History of the Modern Modern Middle East course held at Columbia University (Columbia Course Catalog No. W3719) in the Spring semester of 2009.  

There are two problems in covering the “History of the Modern Middle East”; one is the concept of “modern” and the other is the “Middle East”.   There are no histories written before the 1950s which would suggest putting these two terms together.

1.   The concept of “modern”

The word “modern” has ambiguities.   Is modern history of the concept of “modernity” in a certain area or does it simply refer to a time period.   In the past, if you asked a Professor who taught Modern Middle Eastern history at one point in history they start their course, most would reply “starting with the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon Bonaporte in 1798”.   Nowadays, this would get you labeled as an Orientalist, because what you are doing is defining the start of the Modern period in the Middle East based on the point in time when it was invaded by an outside power.   In reality, the French were only there 3 years.

But if not with the invasion by Napoleon, when does it begin?  How do you define what is modern?   Does the modern intrinsically mean “Euro-American”?   Does it come from the Industrial Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, the French and then the American Revolution?   Does it start in Europe and the United States and then spread to other areas?   In that case, the term “modern” can actually refer to different time periods when you deal with different areas, because these ideas diffused to different parts of the world at different times.

In effect, this means that “modern” means “the point where the Europeans politically and economically start to impact the region”.

Or, does it refer to ideas or movements that occur within each region, and to which one can assign the label “modern”?    For example, A Modern History of the Muslim World, by Reinhard Schulze, according to the review on Amazon, “provides a clear overview of the ways in which twentieth century modernism affected the societies of the Islamic world and how modernism was developed from an Islamic perspective.”

The use of the word “modern” as applied to Western scholarship regarding the Middle East, first applies to individual countries, and then it applies to Islam before it is applied to the entire region.   For example, a work in 1908 called Modern Egypt was written by Evelyn Baring Cromer or Lord Cromer, who was the British consul-general in Egypt.   His history is basically that during the period of his administration of Egypt.

Another example, is the book Four Centuries of Modern Iraq written in 1925 by Stephen Helmsley Longrigg.   Prof. Bulliet always thought this was one of the most intriguing titles of a book on the Middle East:   how could Modern Iraq go back as far as 1525, at the time of Suleiman the Magnificent?   In reality, the title means that he is considering the area that consisted of three separate provinces of the Ottoman Empire that was then designated by the victorious Allied powers as “Modern Iraq” in the aftermath of World War I.   He discussed the historical events happened within that area during the previous four centuries, so in reality it is a history of the portion of the Ottoman Empire that is now considered Iraq.

Although these are two examples of books with the term “modern” applied to individual countries, there were no books that discussed the concept of the “modern” that covered the entire region.

2.  The concept of the “Middle East”

Another term rarely used before the 1950s was the “Middle East”.   The “Near East” or “Levant” were terms that were far more commonly used to refer to the region.   “Near East” was used primarily to refer to the countries that had been under control by the Ottoman Empire prior to World War I:  Turkey, portions of Europe, and the portions of the Arab World not under control by Britain or France.   The term “Middle East” became standard after World War II.   It came about in the following way:  in the course of the war, the Germans came to occupied countries in southeastern Europe such as Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Albania that had previously been part of the Ottoman Empire.  When the British were defending the region, they didn’t want to use the term Near East, because part of the Ottoman Empire was under control by the Germans.

To support Turkey which was neutral in the war, and the English-dominated Arab countries, the British set up something called the Middle East Supply Center in Cairo, Egypt.  This became the key administrative center for the British and later on the American war effort against the Germans in the region.   That was not the only source for the popularity of the term “Middle East”, but it was an important one.    So the term “Middle East” came into more general use after World War II.

The notes for this lecture are continued on subsequent posts.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: