Archaeology, Antiquity, and the Making of the Modern Middle East: Global Histories 1800–1939
25-26 May 2023, Global History and Culture Centre, University of Warwick
CALL FOR PAPERS
This conference will explore the role played by discoveries and debates about the ancient past in the development of ideas about the Middle East in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. What competing imperial, national, and transnational narratives about the present and future of this geopolitically crucial region were fed by archaeology, philology, and history? How were these emergent disciplines themselves forged through Middle Eastern contexts they purported to study? How were temporalities of modernity and progress constructed in relation to the ruptures, continuities and heuristic challenges suggested by the excavation and exegesis of traces of ancient civilisations? Were there overlaps between how this region was simultaneously transformed by the construction of new transportation networks, the unearthing of oil in commercial qualities, transforming its present and future, and archaeological projects which dug up new dimensions to its past? How did the return of the remains of the past assist Western and Eastern empires, and new Middle Eastern countries in understanding their own national destinies?
Recent studies in intellectual history around imperial temporalities and teleologies provide a set of reference points informing this conference’s research aims. As Priya Satia has recently remarked in relation to the place in the British imperial imaginary of the Middle East in the decades around 1900, travel to the region ‘was conceived as a journey into a past that was not merely further back on the secular time scale of history but on a different scale altogether, outside secular time’. This was at once a ‘biblical region’ but also a ‘mythological landscape’, in some ways ‘outside the space of history’ and yet also one which would ‘matter deeply to the historical fulfilment of empire’, not least as a space offering ‘the chance to resurrect the cradle of civilization’ (Satia, Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire, 2020: 156–7, 174). Yet examination of the region’s ancient past could equally inspire a sense of the uncomfortable resemblances bridging empires ancient and ‘modern’, and attendant anxieties about the sustainability of contemporary empires.
If outsiders came to the Middle East to find their own origins (and perhaps their futures), various Middle Easterners themselves sought pasts that they could claim as their own: whether to consolidate new national identities, or to build over-arching and wide-ranging connections across the region. As Timothy Mitchell has written in regard to modern Egypt, a characteristic of the modern nation state was that ‘for a state to prove that it was modern, it helped if it could also prove that it was ancient’ (Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity, 2002: 179).
We are interested in the concept of the ancient past as a means of constructing modern identities: of ‘the Middle East’ as a region, of diverse new nations within it, and of Western nations whose colonial projects and political interests in the region became part of their own modern identities. While much valuable work has been done on archaeology, imperialism, and nation-building in the Middle East, it is rare for scholars to have a chance to consider different imperial, national, and regional contexts together, as part of a broader reshaping of historical consciousness about this region, one forged through competing visions and agendas. This conference will bring together scholars with a range of interests to examine this question at a variety of scales. We are interested in studies that examine uses of the past in specific national/imperial/regional contexts, and also in contributions that take a broad view of how the ‘Middle East’ became a region with a certain kind of past (original, imperial, monumental, liminal?). Bringing this range of papers together will allow us to discover habits of thought that were common across times and places, and those that were unique or unusual as empires, nations, and people within them sought to create their own distinctive identities through references to the past and its remains.