Scholars in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations have discovered and excavated new archaeological sites and uncovered new perspectives about history in the Middle East that brought new understanding about the civilizations, daily life, and religious and scientific practices of the region.
In recognition of their significant contributions to the field, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) and Middle East Medievalists (MEM) recently honored NELC faculty members Donald Whitcomb and Orit Bashkin, as well as NELC alumnus Ahmet Tunç Şen, MA’10, PhD’16. Whitcomb received the MEM Lifetime Achievement Award for his pivotal fieldwork in historic Islamic archaeology. As the co-winner of MESA’s 2018 Nikki Keddie Book Award for her book Impossible Exodus: Iraqi Jews in Israel (Stanford University Press, 2017), Bashkin explores the difficult transition for Iraqi Jews who migrated to Israel in the 1950s, especially of the women and children. For his 2016 dissertation on “Astrology in the Service of the Empire: Knowledge, Prognostication, and Politics at the Ottoman Court, 1450s–1550s,” Şen received MEM’s Inaugural Dissertation Award.
“These significant awards from the Middle East Studies Association and the Middle East Medievalists—two highly regarded societies—recognize the crucial contributions UChicago scholars are making to Middle East scholarship,” said Anne Walters Robertson, Dean of the Division of the Humanities. “Don, Orit, and Tunç have carved out their own diverse paths to explore previously uncharted territories that advance our knowledge of this critical place in the world.”
Excavating Islamic sites throughout the Middle East in conjunction with the scholars in the Oriental Institute and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Whitcomb has completed extensive archaeological fieldwork, which includes sites at Quseir al-Qadim on the Egyptian Red Sea coast, Luxor on the East Bank of the Nile River in Egypt, the Port of Aqaba in Jordan, and Khirbet al-Mafjar (Jericho) in the Palestine territories with permission of the Palestine authorities.
“Like other fields that grew in the Oriental Institute from comparative analyses of different sites and regions, this new research field illuminates processes of adaptation and development that define this part of the Middle East,” said Whitcomb, who is research associate professor of Islamic archaeology in the Oriental Institute and NELC. “Fieldwork is used to elucidate the rise of Near Eastern civilization through tracing the cities and states, and their religions, especially their relationship to the Biblical tradition. Modern archaeology is very different from past archaeology because we leave what we found for museums in the country of origin to showcase.”
Whitcomb has forged a pioneering path investigating historic Islamic archaeology and demonstrating how the material culture is part of medieval studies. His scholarship provides evidence for the development of Islamic societies and economies through unearthing, studying, and analyzing artifacts that can be compared to relevant textual sources.
“There is a growing awareness that Islamic materials provide connections to the past, showing the continuation of most ancient accomplishments unique to the Near East,” Whitcomb said. “Alternatively, the Islamic archaeology links medieval remains to the present, making archaeology relevant and significant to modern Middle Eastern studies.”
While Whitcomb conducts physical digs for Islamic artifacts, Orit Bashkin’s Impossible Exodus uses documentary evidence to explore what happened to the Jewish community in Iraq when they relocated to Israel during the 1950s. Through sources in the Arabic and Hebrew press, she researched the harsh daily lives of families in transit camps. Iraqi Jewish children were separated from their parents, sometimes during brutally cold winters. However, Bashkin’s research shows the children knew they would eventually be reunited with their mother, father, or both parents.
Most previous scholarly research focused on men and their protests, so Bashkin’s study is noteworthy for its attention to the stories of women and children. For example, one woman went on a hunger strike to ensure her children would be educated. “There was a great deal of tension in Israel between the Jews from the Middle East and the Jews of European descent, and I wanted to flesh out the differences,” said Bashkin, professor in NELC.
Part of her fascination with the Iraqi Jewish community occurred when Bashkin was writing an earlier book, New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq (Stanford University Press, 2012). Also, as a native Israeli, she attended school with children whose parents were Jews from Arab states and became intrigued with them. “I knew that their parents often had more difficulties in their lives than my family did, and I wanted to know the extent of those challenges,” Bashkin recalled.
Zooming back a half-dozen centuries from the era that Baskin studies, Ahmet Tunç Şen’s research is on the Ottoman Empire—its dominant power, vibrant culture, and centuries-long status as a global power. For his award-winning dissertation, he explored what astrologers wrote and what others published about them during the rise of the Ottomans from 1450s to 1550s. Instead of focusing solely on their predictions for the future, Şen uncovered the sophisticated scientific and mathematical techniques these astrologers used to make their calculations and express their judgments on, for instance, when to construct a palace, build a mosque, or wage a war campaign.
“My dissertation’s biggest contribution to advancing Middle East studies was to introduce hitherto neglected sources and their usefulness for historical purposes,” said Şen, now assistant professor of history at Columbia University. “Scholarship on science and divination in the post-classical Islamicate world has lately started to receive due attention, which helped me broaden the readership for my studies.”
Originally, he came to UChicago to study with the renowned Ottoman historian Cornell H. Fleischer, the Kanuni Süleyman Professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. During his graduate studies, Şen learned Persian and classical Arabic, which he says proved crucial to his research for the dissertation. “Compared to my earlier education in Turkey, UChicago has a culture in which language instruction and education really matter to advance scholarship.”
Together these three scholars of Near Eastern History are advancing the world’s understanding of the Middle East, using traces from the past to illuminate its present.