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The Politics of Heritage in the Middle East


Admission requirements

Admission to (one of) the programme(s) listed under Part of in the right information bar.
If you are interested in taking this course, but NOT a student of (one of) the listed programme(s), please contact the Coordinator of Studies.


Originally a concept coined by the nation-state, heritage has become the object of political appropriation by national and local authorities and stakeholders. Institutional and non-institutional social actors in the Middle East are increasingly involved in debating the legitimacy as well as the need to ‘safeguard’ different expressions of heritage. Analysing the dynamic of the various types of public, institutional and private actors engaged in the current negotiations on heritage practice across the Middle East will be the topic of this new course.
Current attitudes towards cultural heritage can be better understood if they are situated first in a historical perspective. The political and power practices in the Middle East are crucial to recognising how heritage was romanticised or defined as marginalised in the colonial context. That is why, the course will offer a special focus on the ways the modern concept of cultural heritage was introduced to the Middle East during the colonial period. The first initiatives to conduct large-scale archaeological expeditions, to start collecting newly-excavated objects and to initiate restoration campaigns led by European archaeologists, architects and art historians, set the tone for subsequent legislation and practices. As part of global competition among world empires for supremacy over the protection of cultural heritage, the colonial policies behind these projects can be considered an integral part of the overall restructuring of the colonised space across the Middle East.
Political independence after the Second World War marked the postcolonial states’ attempts to build specific national narratives and forge national identities based on the traces of powerful empires. Another trend was to promote popular religious traditions and folklore, considered to be the ‘authentic’ expression of the Arab, Persianate or Turkish cultural essence which was to define these modern societies. As a counterbalance to these discourses incorporated into state heritage practice, the course will look at the transformative nature of cultural heritage as derived from individuals and communities who attach meaningful memories to and identify feelings towards the physical traces of their own past.
Cultural heritage, and especially its materialisation in objects, buildings and sites, has become a magnet for tourists across the Middle East. While in the nineteenth-century, tourists were fascinated by the constructed idea of an ancient cultural landscape unchanged since the Biblical times, the controversial questions of authenticity have been negotiated at present by preserving the material traces of the past and by reconstructing heritage sites that have been deliberately shattered by war conflicts or looting. Since a large number of the heritage sites in the Middle East have been considerably damaged in recent war conflicts, their reconstruction has become a complex political conundrum.
The course is organised around a cluster of lectures and workgroups, during which students will be actively engaged in presentations, discussions, and paper writing. Each class will cover a case study dealing with the political aspects of cultural heritage in the Middle East; most of the sites to be discussed are listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Course objectives

Upon successful completion of the course you will:

  • gain insight into the entanglement of heritage discourses and practices that mediate the past in the present across the Middle East;

  • recognise key issues and theoretical concepts related to the articulation of power, and critique of the West’s cultural hegemony in the Middle East;

  • articulate your own understanding of heritage by developing a case study on the politics of tradition in the Middle East in which you will analyse how heritage is associated with religion, power and modernity; you will explore the transmission of beliefs, values and collective acts of religious practice and forgetting;

  • address issues of power and inequality, evaluate and engage critically with the debates on heritage as an arena for social struggle among disadvantaged communities.


The timetables are available through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

Attendance and active participation are obligatory for seminars. Students are required to prepare for and attend all sessions. The convenors need to be informed without delay of any classes missed for a good reason (i.e. due to unforeseen circumstances such as illness, family issues, problems with residence permits, the Dutch railways in winter, etc.). In such cases, it is up to the discretion of the convener(s) of the course whether or not the missed class will have to be made up with an extra assignment. The maximum of such absences during a semester is two. Being absent without notification and/or more than two times can result in exclusion from the term end exams and a failing grade for the course.

Assessment method

Academic Integrity

Students are expected to be familiar with Leiden University policies on plagiarism and academic integrity.
Plagiarism will not be tolerated. It is assumed that students' work is their own work with all sources used properly indicated and documented in the text (with quotations and/or citations). Students may not substantially reuse any work they have previously submitted in this or other courses. Minor overlap with previous work is allowed as long as it is duly noted in citation.
Assignment(s) must be submitted to Brightspace through Turnitin, so they can be checked for plagiarism. Submission via email is not accepted.

Partial Assessment Weighing
Active Participation in the class meetings and discussions 10%
Critical analysis of literature and source information, including weekly written assignments (300 words) 10%
AQCI written assignment: Argument, Question, Connections and Implications (1000 words) 20%
Research proposal case study (1000 words) 20%
Term paper (5000) words 40%

The final mark for this course is formed by the weighted average.
In order to pass the course, students must obtain an overall mark of 5.50 (=6) or higher.
The course is an integrated whole. All assessment parts must be completed in the same academic year. No partial marks can be carried over into following years.

Term paper submission

The final paper is written in two stages: a first (draft) version which will be commented on by the instructor and a final version. Students who do not meet the deadline for the first version will lose the right to get comments and will only be graded based on their final version.
All assignments should be submitted through Brightspace.


Only if the total weighted average is insufficient (5.49 or lower) and the insufficient grade is the result of an insufficient paper, a resit of the paper is possible (40%). In that case the convener of the course may assign a (new) topic and give a new deadline.
A resit of the other partial assessments is not possible.

Exam review

How and when a term paper review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the course results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the course results, a term paper review will have to be organized.

Reading list

Students can read one of these books or some of the chapters of these edited volumes as an introduction to contemporary academic debates on the politics of heritage in the Middle East in consultation with the lecturer. Additional readings for each class will be listed in the syllabus and provided via Brightspace.

  • Meskell, L. 2018. A Future in Ruins. Oxford: OUP.

  • Harrison, R. 2009. Understanding the Politics of Heritage. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

  • Bevan, R. 2006. The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War. London: Reaktion Books.

  • Daher, R. and I. Maffi (eds). 2014. The Politics and Practices of Cultural Heritage in the Middle East

  • Positioning the Material Past in Contemporary Societies. London: I.B.Tauris.

  • Blömer, M., Lichtenberger, A. and R. Raja. 2015. Religious identities in the Levant from Alexander to Muhammed: continuity and change. Turnhout: Brepols.


EEnrolment through My Studymap is mandatory for:

  • MA Middle Eastern Studies students: the number of places is limited and the principle is first come, first served. Priority is given to students who started with the MA programme in 2022-2023.

  • MA Middle Eastern Studies (research) students who opt for the Research MA version of the course. The number of places is limited and the principle is first come, first served.

Students from MA programmes listed under Part of in the right information bar, need to contact their Coordinator of Studies for information on the enrolment procedure. After admission they will be registered by the Education Administration Office Vrieshof.


  • For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: De Vrieshof.