As a college student, I find the question that I most often get asked is “what do you study?” My answer—Near Eastern Studies—almost invariably provokes the same response: “Oh…” (stares off into space with a perplexed look for a moment) “That’s really neat! What is that?” After I do my best to explain, I usually encounter the follow-up question, “but what do you DO with that?” or my personal favorite: “but… but WHY?” This post is my attempt to answer all these questions.
First and foremost, I should differentiate between what I study at Cornell and what I’ve been studying so far at Oxford. At Cornell, my major is called “Near Eastern Studies”. This encompasses the history, literature, and cultures of the Middle East from the beginning of human history to the present day. At Oxford, I have been taking courses from the Egyptology (Ancient Egypt), Assyriology (Ancient Mesopotamia), and Theology (particularly early Christianity) departments. In my studies, both at Cornell and at Oxford, I have mostly focused on the history of Iran and on the civilizations of the pre-Islamic Near East.
I should note that there is often a lot of confusion regarding the terms “Near East” and “Middle East”. The Near East, with some slight geographic differences, basically refers to the Middle East before the start of Islam in approximately 620AD (although some departments, like Cornell, do not make a distinction between the two terms).
What I study is fairly straight-forward. Why I study it is a little more convoluted. For as long as I can remember, I have always been fascinated by ancient cultures. My room is littered with books of history and myths. I think this fascination is also what lies behind my love of fantasy novels, because most of them are set in medieval periods or earlier. One of my favorite computer games growing up was Age of Mythology, in which you could either play as the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Norse, or the Atlanteans. One of the reasons I loved the game so much (and still do) is that you could click on a unit and learn the history and myths behind it. Overall, I just loved learning about how societies behaved and functioned before modern conveniences, and how different civilizations arose before collapsing or evolving into something new.
When I first arrived at Cornell, I was determined to study something ‘practical’, so I avoided classes on ancient civilizations in favor of exploring more modern-oriented fields such as psychology, government, and economics. I even dabbled a little in computer programming. As my foreign language requirement, I opted to take modern Persian (after being talked into it by an Arabic professor), since I figured that a Middle Eastern language would probably have the best career prospects aside from Mandarin. This is where my love for the ancient Near East really began. Until my freshman year of college, I mostly read about the ancient Greeks and Romans, medieval castles, and Old Norse myths. In my Persian class, however, the professor exposed us to all sorts interesting history from ancient Iran and Mesopotamia. Noting my interest, my professor suggested that I take his History of Iran course the following term, because he thought I would love it. He was right. From the very first lecture on the Achaemenid Persian Empire, I was hooked. I decided I would study the Middle East.
My decision to focus on the ancient Near East did not occur until my studies here in Oxford. When I was applying, I discovered that Oxford University does not have an all-encompassing ‘Near Eastern Studies’ program. Rather, the Oriental Studies department is split into various modern languages—Arabic Studies, Persian Studies, Turkish Studies, and Hebrew Studies—as well as encompassing Egyptology and Assyriology. At that point, I decided I would give Egyptology and Assyriology a go and try them out for a term. After all, I loved a course I had taken the previous semester on the myth and religion of Mesopotamia, so why not? As the term went on and I learned more about ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt (and ancient Israel through my course on Old Testament Texts), I’ve learned that this is where I belong. I still wake up every morning excited to go to lecture, and I love all of the topics that I have to research for my papers, to the point that I get so distracted by some of the reading assignments that I end up checking the books out to finish reading them for fun. I’ve had other courses that I’ve been excited about, of course, but none that have been able to hold me in utter fascination for months on end, as Egyptology and Assyriology have managed to do.
Those are the ‘what’ and the ‘why’; the answer to what I will do with my degree remains to be seen. There is no doubt in my mind that I will apply to grad school to get an advanced degree in my studies; if I want to have any hope of a career in this field, I need at least a Masters, if not a PhD. At this point, I have a decision to make. Most, if not all, grad programs require that I choose either modern Middle Eastern or ancient Near Eastern studies. Although studying the modern Middle East would offer more jobs, especially in government or corporate work, the ancient Near East is where my passions lie. There are actually more jobs in this field than first meet the eye. Although the typical career path would be to work for a university, there are also many museums and private collections looking for curators who understand ancient Near Eastern artifacts and texts, and there are literally tens of thousands of extant texts that have yet to be properly catalogued and published. Far from being a dying field, the study of the ancient Near East is still in its infancy (or at most, its preteens). There is still an unfathomable amount left to be discovered, both buried in museum and university archives, and lying beneath the shifting sands of the Middle East. Just the thought of it is enough make me feel like a little kid, excited to go on a treasure hunt.