Photos by Dan Dry
AT CHICAGO, THE STUDY of the Near East began when the University did. Arabic and Hebrew courses were first offered in 1893, during the inaugural quarter of instruction. Founding president William Rainey Harper, a prominent scholar of Hebrew and the Old Testament, worked energetically to assemble a world-class faculty, a superb collection of antiquities, and an ambitious research program in Near Eastern studies at the University.
Attracting top scholars remains a priority in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC), the largest department in the Humanities Division in terms of faculty and PhD students. The current cadre of assistant professors is a global group whose research and teaching cover topics from Babylonian poetry to the Arab-Israeli conflict. “Ancients” who study long-extinct languages and civilizations have their offices in the Oriental Institute. “Moderns,” who focus on anything from the medieval period onward, are housed at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies in Pick Hall.
Despite their different fields and backgrounds, NELC faculty often look across specializations for common ground and work collaboratively to solve intellectual problems. That attitude fosters what professor and chair Theo van den Hout calls a longue durée view of the Middle East and creates a collegial academic environment. “No society lives in isolation,” he says, “and in our own little way we exemplify that in our big department.”
Faculty hiring over the last decade has sought to cover a wide range of disciplines, geographical areas, and time periods and to encourage new approaches. “You always hope with young faculty to rejuvenate the field,” says van den Hout. As examples, he cites assistant professors who use digital technologies in ancient Egyptian archaeology or apply modern linguistic theory to the study of dead languages. “You hire them because you want them to be innovative—and each of them does it in a different way.”
Orit Bashkin grew up in Israel, where at an early age she became interested in Arabic language and culture. As an undergraduate at Tel Aviv University, she began studying the culture and history of Iraq. At Princeton, her PhD dissertation retained that focus and led to her first book, The Other Iraq: Pluralism and Culture in Hashemite Iraq (Stanford University Press, 2009). Based on extensive archival research, the book challenges the common misconception that modern Iraq was always a totalitarian state torn by sectarian violence.
In her teaching—which includes courses on Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict in literature and film, and Middle Eastern culture and history—Bashkin also challenges preconceived notions. By presenting the region’s layered intellectual and social history, she hopes to provide students a view that is “richer, more interesting, and more complex,” she says, “that goes beyond narratives of nationalism and conflict, and provides them with tools to be even better citizens.” Recently promoted to associate professor of modern Middle Eastern history, Bashkin is working on a second book, Others and Brothers: Iraqi Jews and the Iraqi state, 1921–1951.
"When I was 12, I wanted to become an Egyptologist,” says Ahmed El Shamsy, an assistant professor of Islamic thought. As he grew older, his interests shifted from ancient ruins to ideas. “Whenever I was in Egypt, the fact that there was a living classical Muslim tradition still being taught really appealed to me—that you could go and see a madrassa that was 1,000 years old but also study the same texts that were originally taught there,” he says.
A dual Egyptian and German citizen, El Shamsy holds degrees from the School of Oriental and African Studies, the London School of Economics, and Harvard. His doctoral dissertation—on the origins and early development of the Shafi’i school of law in ninth-century Egypt—won the Middle East Studies Association’s 2009 award for the best dissertation on a Middle Eastern theme in the humanities. El Shamsy is working on a book about the emergence of Islamic law and the formation of the four orthodox schools of Sunni legal thought.
While most professors in NELC speak at least two or three languages and use another half-dozen for research, linguist Petra Goedegebuure has mastered some you may not have heard of. She mainly studies Hittite, one of the extinct languages of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) and the earliest attested Indo-European language.
But she also works with Luwian, Lycian, Lydian, Palaic, Etruscan, Hattic, Hebrew, Phoenician, and others—analyzing their grammars and using typology to better understand how the languages were used.
Goedegebuure, who is Dutch, became interested in the structure of ancient languages while pursuing MA and PhD degrees at the University of Amsterdam. At Chicago, she continues to apply modern linguistic theory to dead languages, collaborating with NELC colleagues Christopher Woods and Rebecca Hasselbach. “We independently arrived at the same method for analyzing extinct languages and, in the end, we may even develop a school of thought,” she says. As an assistant professor of Hittitology and contributor to the Chicago Hittite Dictionary Project, she teaches elementary courses in that language as well as two Core courses: Anatolian history and Language and the Human.
Born and raised in Germany, Rebecca Hasselbach holds degrees from the University of Heidelberg and Harvard. Her scholarship applies linguistic methodologies to Semitic languages such as Arabic, classical Ethiopic, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Akkadian. “I use every Semitic language I can get ahold of,” she says. As an assistant professor of comparative Semitics, her teaching and scholarship crisscross classical and modern topics.
Hasselbach’s early research—including her dissertation and first book on Akkadian, a language spoken in ancient Mesopotamia—was in historical linguistics. “I worked on reconstructing the presumed ancestor or proto-language of the known Semitic languages and traced changes and developments in individual languages,” she explains. More recently, her interest has shifted to linguistic typology: “This means I use comparative material from languages around the world to understand how Semitic languages evolved.” Her current book project deals with the case system of Semitic languages.
For most people, Egyptian archaeology is synonymous with pyramids, temples, and pharaohs’ tombs. But for Nadine Moeller, an assistant professor of archaeology, the most fascinating aspect of ancient Egypt is its “neglected” towns and cities—and particularly, the 3,000 years of urban history she has helped to uncover at Tell Edfu in southern Egypt.
Moeller got an early start in her field; as a young child in Germany, she says, “I used to dig up potsherds in the small stream near my parents’ house.” She went on to study Egyptology at the University of Heidelberg and earned two degrees at Cambridge. In 2005, she began directing excavations at Tell Edfu, where she and her team discovered a large administration building and seven grain silos—a rare source of archaeological evidence that cast light on daily life in a provincial city. The National Endowment for the Humanities has supported the project with grants for excavation, analysis, and digital documentation. Moeller is working on a book, The Settlements of Ancient Egypt, and hopes to organize a conference on settlements and urbanism.
In her scholarship, Na’ama Rokem combines two fields that long remained mostly separate: Modern Hebrew and German-Jewish literature. Her forthcoming book, Monuments of Prose: Heinrich Heine and the Zionist Remaking of Literary Space, looks at the role that prose played in the literary foundations of the Zionist revolution. For a newer project on German-Hebrew bilingualism, she is focusing on poetry and particularly the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.
An assistant professor of Modern Hebrew literature, Rokem holds degrees from Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Stanford. After arriving at Chicago in 2009, she organized an international conference, “German and Hebrew: Histories of a Conversation,” to expand understanding of the intersection of German and Jewish culture by “putting the dialogue between the two languages and literatures—German and Hebrew—at the center.” Rokem teaches courses on Israeli poetry, bilingual authors in Hebrew literature, and Readings in World Literature: Autobiographical Writing.
Andrea Seri is an assistant professor of Assyriology whose research interests include the history and literature of ancient Mesopotamia. Her interest in cuneiform studies began in Argentina, where as an undergraduate she met and began to study Akkadian—sending grammar exercises through the mail—with the Belgian cuneiformist André Finet. She went on to pursue graduate degrees at the Colegio de México and the University of Michigan.
Before coming to Chicago in 2008, Seri was a lecturer in Assyriology at Harvard. She published Local Power in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia (Equinox Press, 2006) and recently finished a second book manuscript, The House of Prisoners: Slavery and State in Uruk during the Revolt against Samsu-iluna. For her research, she has drawn upon cuneiform tablets from around the world. She is using the Oriental Institute’s collection to teach a new practicum course on reading tablets with advanced graduate students.