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HIST4392 The Making of the Middle East

Semester 2 (2023-2024)

Lecture TimeMonday, 14:30 - 16:15

VenueRoom 308, Lee Shau Kee Building (LSK 308)


Lecturer James MORTON (

Teaching Assistant Ma. Donna Solis REBONG (

Course Description


The ‘Middle East’ is a geographical concept developed by officials in the British Empire in the 19th century to describe the lands between Europe and their distant colonies in India and East Asia. In the 21st century, we often associate the Middle East with the Muslim religion and Arab culture, but it is a vast region spanning from Morocco to India and home to countless peoples and faiths. It is the birthplace not just of Islam but also of Christianity, Judaism, and other religions, while its peoples speak not just Arabic but also Farsi, Turkish, French, and more. At its extremities, the Middle East connects China, Europe, and Africa.

This course will provide a broad survey of Middle Eastern history from the last days of the ancient Roman and Persian Empires in the 6th century to the emergence of modern national identities in the 19th. We will look at the most important themes of change and continuity in the region, examining the important historical dynamics that have made the Middle East what it is today. We will also situate it in the wider context of world history, seeing how it has affected, and been affected by, events in Europe, Asia, and even the Americas.

Learning Goals

This course has three main goals:

  1. To acquaint you with the fundamentals of the medieval and early modern history of the Middle East: key sources, events, places, states, religions, etc.
  2. To explore how and why historians have constructed narratives around change and continuity in the Middle East.
  3. To help you develop the fundamental skillset and sensibility of a historian: how to understand primary sources, how to think critically about historical narratives, and how to effectively communicate your analysis to others.

8 Jan

1. Introduction: What Is the Middle East?

Michael E. Bonine, Abbas Amanat, and Michael E. Gasper (edd.), Is There a Middle East? The Evolution of a Geopolitical Concept (Stanford, 2011), Introduction: ‘Is There a Middle East? Problematizing a Virtual Space’; Conclusion: ‘There Is a Middle East!’

15 Jan

2. Rome and Persia at the End of Antiquity

Procopius, History of the Wars 1.17–22

Henning Börm, ‘A Threat or a Blessing? The Sassanians and the Roman Empire’, in Diwan. Studies in the History and Culture of the Ancient Near East and the Eastern Mediterranean (Duisburg, 2016), 615–32.

Beate Dignas and Engelbert Winter, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity. Neighbours and Rivals (Cambridge, 2007), ch. 5: ‘Arabia between the Great Powers’.

22 Jan

3. Islam and the Religious World of the Middle East

The Holy Quran, surahs 12 (Joseph/Yusuf), 19 (Mary/Maryam), 30 (The Romans)

Fred M. Donner, Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam (Cambridge, MA, 2010), ch. 2: ‘Muhammad and the Believers’ Movement’.

29 Jan

4. The Rise of the Caliphate

Theophanes Confessor, The Chronicle of Theophanes, trans. Cyril Mango and Roger Scott (Oxford, 1982), 466–497.

Wadad Kadi and Aram A. Shahin, ‘Caliph, Caliphate’, in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought (Princeton, NJ, 2013), 81–86.

Gerald R. Hawting, The First Dynasty of Islam: The Umayyad Caliphate, A.D. 661–750, 2nd ed. (London, 2000) ch. 1: ‘The Importance of the Umayyad Period and its Place in Islamic History’.

5 Feb

5. Culture and Learning in the Caliphate

Ibn al-Nadim, Kitab al-Fihrist, trans. Bayard Dodge (New York, 1970), 571–586.

Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early Abbasid Society (London, 1998), ch. 1: ‘The Background of the Translation Movement: Material, Human, and Cultural Resources’.

Jonathan Bloom, Paper before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World (New Haven, 2001), ch. 3: ‘Paper and Books’.

12 Feb

Lunar New Year Vacation – No Class!

19 Feb

6. Fragmentation and Subversion

Al-Qadi al-Nu‘man, Iftitah al-Da‘wa, trans. Hamid Haji (London, 2006), 205–213, 230–236.

Christine D. Baker, Medieval Islamic Sectarianism (Leeds, 2019), ch. 3: ‘The Fatimids and Isma‘ili Shi‘ism in North Africa’.

Andrew C.S. Peacock, The Great Seljuk Empire (Edinburgh, 2015), ch. 3: ‘Sovereignty, Legitimacy and the Contest with the Caliphate’.

26 Feb

7. The Crusades

Urban II, Five Versions of the Speech at the Council of Clermont (1095)

Usamah ibn Munqidh, Kitab al-It‘tibar, trans. Philip K. Hitti (New York, 2000), 161–170.

Niall Christie, Muslims and Crusaders: Christianity’s Wars in the Middle East, 1095–1382, from the Islamic Sources (London, 2014), ch. 3: ‘The First Crusade and the Muslim Response, 1095–1146’; ch. 6: ‘War and Peace in the Twelfth-Century Levant’.

4 Mar

Reading Week – No Class!

11 Mar

8. The Mongols and the End of the Abbasid Caliphate

Ata-Malik Juvaini, The History of the World Conqueror, Vol. I, trans. John A. Boyle (Cambridge, MA, 1958), 3–19.

Peter Jackson, The Mongols and the Islamic World: From Conquest to Conversion (New Haven, 2017), ch. 12: ‘The Onset of Islamization (a)’.

Bruno De Nicola, ‘The Role of the Domestic Sphere in the Islamisation of the Mongols’, in Islamisation: Comparative Perspectives from History (Edinburgh, 2017), 353–376.

Midterm Essay Due

18 Mar

9. The Middle East and Global Trade

Janet Lippmann Abu-Lughod, ‘The World System in the Thirteenth Century: Dead-End or Precursor?’, in Islamic and European Expansion: The Forging of a Global Order (Philadelphia, 1993), 84–95.

Patricia Risso, Merchants and Faith: Muslim Commerce and Culture in the Indian Ocean (Boulder, CO, 1995), ch. 3: ‘Merchants of Faith in the Middle Era, Circa 1050–1500.’

John Chaffee, ‘Diasporic Identities in the Historical Development of the Maritime Muslim Communities of Song-Yuan China’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 49.4 (2006): 395–420.

25 Mar

10. Byzantium and the Rise of the Ottoman Empire

Michael Kritoboulos, History of Mehmed the Conqueror, trans. Charles T. Riggs (Princeton, NJ, 1954), 9–18, 60–89.

Speros Vryonis, The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh to the Fifteenth Century (Berkeley, CA, 1986), ch. 8: ‘Recapitulation’.

Hasan Çolak, ‘Tekfur, fasiliyus and kayser: Disdain, Negligence and Appropriation of Byzantine Imperial Titulature in the Ottoman World’, in Frontiers of the Ottoman Imagination: Studies in Honour of Rhoads Murphey (Leiden, 2014), 5–24.

1 Apr

Public Holiday – No Class!

8 Apr

11. ‘Gunpowder Empires’: Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals

Douglas E. Streusand, Islamic Gunpowder Empires: Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals (Boulder, CO, 2011), ch. 1: ‘Introduction’; ch. 2: ‘Common Heritage, Common Dilemma’.

Rohan D’Souza, ‘Crisis before the Fall: Some Speculations on the Decline of the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals’, Social Scientist 30.9/10 (2002): 3–30.

15 Apr

12. Epilogue: From Imperialism to Nationalism

Mary Wortley Montagu, The Turkish Embassy Letters (Peterborough, ON, 2013), Letters 26, 28, 36–38, 42.

Howard Eissenstat, ‘Modernization, Imperial Nationalism, and the Ethnicization of Confessional Identity in the Late Ottoman Empire’, in Nationalizing Empires (Budapest, 2015), 429–460.

29 Apr

Final Essay Due

Assessment & Assignments


Your performance in the course will be assessed on the cumulative basis of different types of assignment (described in more detail below) and your attendance. There will not be an exam or quiz component. The weighting of the different factors is as follows:

Final Essay                                         40%
Midterm Essay                                  20%
Reading Summaries (x10)               20%
Participation                                      20%

Your final letter grade will be determined by your overall course percentage. You will not be graded on a curve. Grades will be assigned according to the following set thresholds:

A         90%                              C+       65%
A-        85%                              C         60%    
B+       80%                              C-        55%
B         75%                              D         50%
B-        70%                              F          <50%

Grade Descriptions

A                     Exceptional: Exceeds expectations. Demonstrates impressive knowledge, clarity, analytical ability, and a firm grasp of                          course material.

A-                    Strong: Has most of the qualities of A-grade work but has some minor areas for improvement.

B (+/-)             Good: Shows a solid understanding of course material. Has some flaws in writing or argumentation and may contain                           minor errors or misunderstandings.

C (+/-)             Satisfactory: Demonstrates an acceptable level of knowledge but suffers from lack of clarity, misunderstandings,                                  historical errors, or weak argumentation.

D                     Unsatisfactory: Achieves the minimum passing grade but fails to meet most expectations of knowledge and                                            argumentation.

F                      Fail: Does not meet basic expectations of knowledge, understanding, and/or timeliness in submission.

Course Readings

Each week you will be assigned approximately 50–60 pages of reading. This will be a mixture of primary sources and academic literature that explore important aspects of the week’s theme. All required course readings will be posted on the Blackboard course website at the beginning of the semester. You will not need to purchase or acquire any course materials yourself.

For a general introduction to the subject, I can recommend the following (non-compulsory) books, all of which are available in the CUHK library system or online:

Choueiri, Y.M., ed. A Companion to the History of the Middle East. Malden, MA, 2005.

Crone, P. Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World. London, 2015.

Dalrymple, W. From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium. London, 2005.

Goldschmidt Jr, Arthur. A Concise History of the Middle East. Boulder, CO, 2016.

Hitti, P.K. History of the Arabs from the Earliest Times to the Present. London, 1967.

Park, H. Mapping the Chinese and Islamic Worlds: Cross-Cultural Exchange in Pre-Modern Asia. Cambridge, 2012.

Silverstein, A.J. Islamic History: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, 2010.

Reading Summaries (x10)

After each lecture, you will complete the readings assigned for that week and then write a short summary (approx. 250–500 words) that you will submit in hard copy at the end of the next week’s lecture (e.g. you submit the summary of Week 4’s readings in Week 5’s lecture, etc.). This is a reading comprehension exercise that will help to develop your skills in analysing and explaining texts. It will also help you remember the readings during tutorial discussions.

You should describe both the content of the readings (what they are about) and the authors’ central arguments. You can find sample reading summaries and a short how-to guide on Blackboard. I will only ask you to write summaries for ten out of the twelve weeks of readings. This means that you can skip two reading summaries of your choice.


I will ask you to write two essays during the course: a midterm essay (1,500–2,000 words) due on 14th March and a final essay (2,000–2,500 words) due on 29th April. I will assign the topic of the mid-term essay in week 4. For the final essay, I will provide you with a selection of five topics at the end of the lecture in week 11. You will choose one of the five topics to write about. Both essays will require you to reflect on the major themes of the course and to use historical examples to make an argument that relates to a significant debate within scholarship on the history of Christianity.

You should submit your essays before 11:59pm on the specified dates by uploading them to the Blackboard course website along with a signed declaration of academic honesty from VeriGuide (which you can find at If possible, please upload your essays in MSWord .docx format (the VeriGuide receipt can be uploaded in .pdf format).

Tutorials and Participation

Active participation in class discussions is an important part of the course and your learning experience. Whenever you engage in discussion in either lectures or tutorials, it will count towards your course participation score. To be clear, participating in discussions means that you will actually have to speak. Sitting in silence is not participation and will not count. But don’t worry! You don’t have to be an expert (or even knowledgeable) about a topic to join in the discussion. Any kind of contribution, even if it is just a simple comment or a question, will count as participation and will thus add to your course grade. So don’t be shy!

World History Seminar

This term, the History department will be holding the fifth series of its ‘New Approaches to World History’ seminar. This will take place online on Zoom every Wednesday for a lecture by a leading world historian. At the end of the lecture, members of the audience will have the chance to engage in a Q&A with the speaker.

Since this seminar has a clear relevance to our course, I would like you to attend no fewer than three meetings of the New Approaches to World History Seminar. You should also ask at least one question during one of the Q&A sessions. Your attendance and participation in this seminar will form part of your overall participation grade for this course.

Extensions and Lateness Penalties

Scheduling conflicts and unforeseen circumstances can sometimes make it difficult to meet deadlines. If you are unable to submit your work on time, please contact me as soon as possible and I will be happy to grant you an extension if you have a legitimate reason to require one.

If you fail to submit work on time and I have not granted you an extension, you will incur a daily lateness penalty of 1 percentage point. For example, if you submit your final essay (worth 40%) 3 days after the deadline, you will lose 3 of the 40% available for that assignment; if you submit it 5 days late, you will lose 5 of the 40%, etc. I will not accept any further submissions after 7 days have passed unless I have granted special permission.

Attendance and Absences

You are expected to attend all lectures and tutorial sessions. For every class that you miss without my approval, 1% will be deducted from your final course grade. If you have a valid reason for being absent from a seminar or tutorial (such as a doctor’s appointment, a family emergency, or similar), please contact me as soon as possible to ask for permission.

Add/Drop Period

During the second and third weeks of term (15th–26th January), students are allowed to change their course enrolments by adding and dropping courses. You are welcome to either add or drop this course during that period for any reason. Please note that it is not possible to drop the course after the add/drop period unless there are exceptional circumstances (e.g. if a medical emergency or similar makes it impossible for you to continue the class).

Plagiarism and Academic Ethics

Studying at the university level requires a high standard of professionalism and honesty in your academic work and personal conduct. This falls under the broad category of academic ethics, a matter that the History Department at CUHK takes very seriously. I expect you all to behave in an honest and respectful manner in class and in your assignments. Unethical behaviour, including plagiarism, will not be tolerated. You can find more information on university policy at

Use of Generative A.I.

In the past year, so-called ‘generative A.I.’ tools such as ChatGPT, Sage, Claude, and others have become extremely popular. You may be tempted to use these to help complete your course assignments. Do not give in to this temptation. A.I.-written essays are not as good as you might think and they are very easy to detect. If you submit A.I.-written work under your own name, then I will treat it as a case of suspected plagiarism, with all the consequences that go with it (see ‘Plagiarism and Academic Ethics’ above).

Grade Appeals

You can find information on the grade appeals process here:

I deal with grade appeals on a case-by-case basis. If there has been a technical error or some other important oversight (I try to avoid this, but it can happen occasionally), then I will be happy to correct your grade. Otherwise, you should be aware that grading is entirely at my discretion; I do not accept appeals just because a student disagrees with their grade.

Open-Door Hours

I am normally in my office from 2 to 5pm on Friday so that anyone can come in and speak to me about anything they want. If you would like to chat with me about any aspect of the course, your university studies, career development, favourite historical books and movies, or anything else, feel free to drop in. If you would like to talk to me but can’t make it to my open-door hours, just send me an email and we can set up an appointment at a more convenient time.




Choueiri, Y.M., ed. A Companion to the History of the Middle East. Malden, MA, 2005.

Crone, P. Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World. London, 2015.

Dalrymple, W. From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium. London, 2005.

Goldschmidt Jr, Arthur. A Concise History of the Middle East. Boulder, CO, 2016.

Hitti, P.K. History of the Arabs from the Earliest Times to the Present. London, 1967.

Park, H. Mapping the Chinese and Islamic Worlds: Cross-Cultural Exchange in Pre-Modern Asia. Cambridge, 2012.

Silverstein, A.J. Islamic History: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, 2010.


Need Help?

It’s ok to ask for it! I know that you have probably not studied this subject before. If you have any difficulties with the readings, assignments, discussions, or any other aspects of the course, let me know and I will be happy to help you – that is what I am here for. You can always email me, come to my open-door hours, or just ask a question in class.

Honesty in Academic Work

Attention is drawn to University policy and regulations on honesty in academic work, and to the disciplinary guidelines and procedures applicable to breaches of such policy and regulations. Details may be found at

With each assignment, students will be required to submit a signed declaration that they are aware of these policies, regulations, guidelines and procedures.

  • In the case of group projects, all members of the group should be asked to sign the declaration, each of whom is responsible and liable to disciplinary actions, irrespective of whether he/she has signed the declaration and whether he/she has contributed, directly or indirectly, to the problematic contents.
  • For assignments in the form of a computer-generated document that is principally text-based and submitted via VeriGuide, the statement, in the form of a receipt, will be issued by the system upon students’ uploading of the soft copy of the assignment.

Assignments without the properly signed declaration will not be graded by teachers.

Only the final version of the assignment should be submitted via VeriGuide.

The submission of a piece of work, or a part of a piece of work, for more than one purpose (e.g. to satisfy the requirements in two different courses) without declaration to this effect shall be regarded as having committed undeclared multiple submissions. It is common and acceptable to reuse a turn of phrase or a sentence or two from one’s own work; but wholesale reuse is problematic. In any case, agreement from the course teacher(s) concerned should be obtained prior to the submission of the piece of work.

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