Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations

Egyptian lamps

The Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations introduces students to the ancient and modern peoples, languages, cultures, and societies of the Near/Middle East. NELC currently offers instruction in many languages and literatures including Akkadian; Arabic; Aramaic; Armenian; Egyptian; Hebrew Language (Classical and Modern); Hebrew Literature and History; Persian; Semitic Philology; Sumerian; Turkish; Yiddish and more. Undergraduates may pursue a Concentration with Tracks or Secondary Fields in The Middle East in Antiquity, Histories and Cultures of Muslim Societies (Islamic Studies), Jewish Studies, and Modern Middle Eastern Studies.

Director of Undergraduate Studies: Gojko Barjamovic 
Student Coordinator: Eva Misho 

Gateway Courses

Spring 2022

ANE 106: Ancient Mesopotamian Literature: 2000 Years of Early Storytelling
Laura Hawkins

This course will present an overview of literature from ancient Mesopotamia, the world’s earliest civilization and the birthplace of the first writing system. We will be exploring themes of creation and origins, myths and epics, death and the afterlife, religion, lamentation, humor, and more, as a way to understand some of the fundamental aspects of Mesopotamian society. Comparative texts from other regions or time periods will be brought in to add richness and depth to our discussions. Class sessions are structured heavily around weekly readings and discussions. All texts will be read in translation so no knowledge of Akkadian or Sumerian is required.

ANE 170: Food and Identity in Ancient Israel
Julia Rhyder

Food and eating profoundly shaped social, religious, economic, and cultural life in antiquity. This course will explore how dietary practices established social bonds and ethnic boundaries in ancient Israel, as well as the importance of food in mediating the Israelites’ relationships with God, animals, and the environment. The course will be structured around key themes that concern patterns of eating in ancient Israel and the Near East, including food prohibitions, sacrifice, royal banquets, commensality, and trade. We will be particularly concerned with identifying key historical developments that affected Israelite culinary practice and ideas about food, with a view to understanding how food became closely connected to issues of identity in ancient Judaism. Students will also be introduced to anthropological approaches to food, diets, and commensality, and learn to reflect critically on how such theoretical lenses might be applied to the study of ancient dietary patterns. Hebrew not required. 

GENED 1087: Multisensory Religion: Rethinking Islam
Ali Asani

One need only walk into a church, a mosque, a temple, a synagogue or any place of worship to experience the beauty and aesthetic power of religion. For millions of people around the world, understanding of religion is forged through personal experiences, often embedded in the sound, visual, and literary arts. What does it mean to call some art “religious”? How can interpreting an individual believer’s engagement with the arts help us see “religion” in a new light?

Using Islam as a case study, this course explores the multifaceted relationship between religion and the arts. We will learn to listen, see, and experience Islam by studying Muslims’ engagement with the literary arts (scriptures, panegyrics, love lyrics, epic romances, folk songs, and folk tales), as well as sound and visual arts (Quran and poetic recitations, music, dance, drama, architecture, calligraphy, and miniature painting).  Weaving the voices of poets, writers and musicians with those of clerics, mystics and politicians, we will consider how the arts create a religious tradition and shape the worldviews of Muslim communities around the world.

Given the cultural diversity of Muslim societies, the course draws on material from regions beyond the Middle East, particularly sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia. This course assumes no prior knowledge of Islam.

GENED 1099: Pyramid Schemes: What Can Ancient Egyptian Civilization Teach Us?
Peter Der Manuelian

How much of your impression of the ancient world was put there by Hollywood, music videos, or orientalist musings out of the West? How accurate are these depictions? Does it matter? This course examines the quintessential example of the “exotic, mysterious ancient world” – Ancient Egypt – to interrogate these questions.  Who has “used” ancient Egypt as a construct, and to what purpose? Did you know that pyramids, mummies, King Tut, and Cleopatra represent just the (overhyped) tip of a very rich civilization that holds plenty of life lessons for today? Combine the ancient Egyptians’ explanations of the world’s natural forces with all the social complexity of human interaction and you have a fully formed society—about four millennia of accumulated experience! Can investigating the “real” ancient Egypt unpack our current misconceptions about the land of the pharaohs? Hardly morose, tomb-building “zombies,” the Egyptians embraced life in all its messy details. Piety and corruption, imperialism and isolationism, divinity and mortality all played significant roles in life along the Nile. What can we learn about the nature of politics and society in our time by seeing the parallels between the ancient past and today? We will explore archaeology, modern Egyptomania, repatriation, new digital visualization technologies, and international politics. What was ancient Egyptian racism? What is modern archaeological racism? Who owns the past? Who needs it? We will take excursions into Egyptian art, history, politics, religion, literature and language (hieroglyphs), plus the evolution of Egyptology as a discipline. (Most likely virtual) field trips to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Peabody Museum, and the Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East (formerly Harvard Semitic Museum) are included, along with the famous Giza Pyramids in 3D. Students will gain a transformative appreciation for the outstanding monuments and intellectual traditions of ancient Egypt. And with newly broadened horizons, we will debunk many popular myths.

ISLAMCIV 110: Major Works of Islamic Civilizations
Khaled El-Rouayheb

This course offers a reading of a number of major works of Islamic Civilization, for example from the universal chronicle of al-Tabari (d. 923), the forty hadith of al-Nawawi (d. 1277), a work on the lives of the Shi’i Imams by al-Shaykh al-Mufid (d. 1044), the autobiography of al-Ghazali (d. 1111), the Gulistan by Sa’di (d. 1291), the famous Introduction to History by Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), a manual on Sufism by Aisha al-Ba’uniyya (d. 1516), and the description of Paris by al-Tahtawi (d. 1873). The course aims to give students an exposure to different, co-existing cultural traditions within Islamic civilization, including chronicles and hagiographies, Islamic creeds, Sufism, belles-lettres, popular folktales and travelogues.

JEWISHST 131: The Jewish Library: Four Jewish Classics
David Stern

Judaism is a famously text-centric religious culture, founded not only on a single book, the Hebrew Bible, but profoundly involved in the study and ritual use of other classic texts like the Babylonian Talmud, the Prayerbook, Biblical commentaries like that of Rashi, and the Passover Haggadah.  This course will study the development of these four books and their transformation from texts into books with distinct physical and material features.  In the case of each book, the text will be studied historically-- “excavated” for its sources and roots, and its subsequent development over the centuries—and holistically, as a canonical document in Jewish tradition.   Class time will be devoted primarily to learning to read the primary sources in translation; supplementary secondary readings will provide historical and cultural context   The seminar will also include regular visits to Houghton Library to look at manuscripts, early printed editions, and facsimiles of these books in order to study the changing shapes these books have taken as a key to understanding how they were studied and used, and to consider the relationship of materiality to textuality.   While each book will raise its own set of issues, we will repeatedly deal with three basic questions: What makes a “Jewish” text?  How do these books represent different aspects of Jewish identity?  What can these books tell us about the canonical books of other religious traditions?No previous background in either Judaism or Jewish history is required.   All readings in English translation.  While this course is not a formal introduction to Judaism, it does aim to introduce students to Judaism and Jewish culture from inside its classic texts.

NEC 101: Historical Background to the Contemporary Middle East: Religion, Literature and Politics
Gojko Barjamovic

What defines the Middle East? What long-term historical and cultural developments can we trace in the region? How do these affect contemporary global order and policy? This team-taught course in the NELCdepartment will address these three fundamental questions of great present relevance by introducing students to the ancient and modern peoples, languages, cultures, and societies of Western Asia and North Africa. The study of this diverse region is uniquely aided by a deep-time perspective afforded by thousands of years of vibrant art, writing and cultural artefacts. Relying on the classic expertise integral to area studies, the course brings together faculty from a variety of disciplines – from history and archaeology to literature and philology, and from sociology and economy to the political sciences – in a common endeavour to explore the rich cultural complex of the region through four key topics: history, religion, literature and politics.

NEC 107: The History of the Book: Using Harvard's Greatest Treasures to Study the Material Text
David Stern

You have been reading books since first grade if not earlier, but how much do you actually know about the physical object you’ve been reading—the book, the material artifact?  Drawing on a great deal of recent scholarship and the incredible treasures in Houghton Library’s Special Collections, this course will study the history of the book in Western culture from its earliest stages in cuneiform tablets through ancient scrolls, hand-written medieval manuscripts of all types, early and late printed books down through children’s books of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and modernist artists’ books of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries including recent ones utilizing digital technology.   The heart of the course will be weekly assignments in which students in groups of three each will be asked to intensively examine books in Houghton’s reading room and then report on them in the weekly seminar.  Books studied in class will include papyrus fragments of Homer and the Old and New Testaments; Hebrew scrolls; early Qur’an leafs; Greek and Latin codices; Books of Hours and many other illuminated and decorated medieval manuscripts; the Gutenberg Bible; Copernicus, Galileo’s and Vesalius’ scientific works; censored books; the First Folio edition of Shakespeare; Alice in Wonderland; and Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés.  For the final paper, each student will choose a book from Houghton’s collection and write a biographical study of its “life.”  

No previous background in book history is required for this course.

· Note: Because of space requirements in Houghton, the class has to be capped at fifteen students. The course is primarily intended for undergraduates but depending on enrollment, graduate students may be admitted if there is room; if they are interested, they should contact the instructor. All students wishing to take the course should write a short (one paragraph) statement explaining their interest and send it to the instructor BEFORE JANUARY 19, 2022 at