Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations

Professor Gojko Barjamovic, Director of Undergraduate Studies 

The Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations introduces students to the ancient and modern peoples, languages, cultures, and societies of the Near and Middle East. Loosely defined as stretching from Morocco in the west to Iran and Afghanistan in the east, the region is home of the world’s great religions and civilizations. Historically, the influence of its languages, literatures, and cultures has extended well beyond these regions to Central, East and Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and North America. Thus, the study of the Near and Middle East is an important area of academic inquiry on account of its political, economic, and cultural significance globally.

The concentration offers students a multi-faceted and inter-disciplinary perspective on Near and Middle Eastern cultures and languages that have been so influential throughout the world. Undergraduate concentrators develop skills in one (or more) of the languages and literatures of the region on their way to choosing from a wide variety of directions of study. The Department offers instruction in a range of ancient and modern languages including Akkadian, Arabic, Aramaic, Armenian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Hebrew, Iranian, Persian, Sumerian, Turkish (Ottoman and Modern), and Yiddish.

One of the strengths of the concentration in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations is the individual attention each student receives in pursuing the student's interests within the broader arena of the Near and Middle Eastern Studies. Students choose one of four specific tracks for concentration: The Middle East in Antiquity, Histories and Cultures of Muslim Societies (Islamic Studies), Jewish Studies, or Modern Middle Eastern Studies. The Director of Undergraduate Studies assists each student to make an informed choice among these options, and assigns a faculty member to serve as the student's mentor/adviser, advising on courses and other work as the student progresses. The department also offers secondary fields in the four areas listed above as well as language citations in several Middle Eastern languages.

The four concentration tracks may be described as follows:

The Middle East in Antiquity focuses on the rich and diverse history of the civilizations of the ancient Near/Middle East, which witnessed the first complex societies and the first major developments in social and political organization, literacy, technology, religious institutions, and many other areas. The legacies of these ancient cultures, represented by Egyptology, Assyriology, Levantine, Syro-Palestinian, and several other fields, remain a critical force in subsequent Middle Eastern—and world—history today. The goal of this track is to give students a rewarding acquaintance with the history and culture of the principal civilizations of the ancient Near East, and to reveal how such history and culture is reconstructed through the critical analysis and synthesis of linguistic, textual, artistic, and archaeological evidence.

Histories and Cultures of Muslim Societies (Islamic Studies). The goal of this track is to provide a basic exposure to fundamental elements of the histories, literatures, philosophy, religious thought, and legal institutions of Muslim societies. As the study of Islam and Muslim societies at Harvard is an interdisciplinary endeavor, the program in Histories and Cultures of Muslim Societies (Islamic Studies) is structured to allow students flexibility in their approach to the field; this is done by incorporating one of the disciplinary perspectives currently available in the Harvard curriculum: Study of Religion, Anthropology, History, History of Art and Architecture, Gender Studies, Comparative Literature and Languages, and Law. Since Islam in the Near East has historic and contemporary connections to Muslim societies around the world, this track encourages a global and transnational perspective. In this regard, our program offers faculty expertise not only in the Middle East, but also sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, and South Asia.

Jewish Studies. This track explores many facets of Jewish religion, law, literature, philosophy, and culture; and the history of the Jews in the Middle East and the diaspora. Through basic courses, it offers undergraduates the framework of knowledge for pursuing further comparative study, and teaches Jewish languages (Hebrew and Yiddish) at several levels for students who wish to pursue independent studies in one or more areas of Jewish civilization. Students in this track have pursued joint programs with many other departments and concentrations, including History, Comparative Literature, Classics, Music, English, Slavic, and Ethnic and Gender Studies.

Modern Middle Eastern Studies. In this track students study the cultures, history and politics of modern Middle Eastern societies. Such study involves a combination of courses in a variety of fields drawn especially from the humanities and interpretive social sciences. The requirements are designed with sufficient flexibility so that students may pursue the field as an introduction to the region as a whole, or as a more narrowly-focused exploration of a particular country or theme, depending on their interests.

It should be noted that concentration in all four tracks may include courses not only from the NELC department, but from other departments and programs in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, as well as from other Harvard faculties, like the Divinity School, the Law School, and the Kennedy School of Government. In choosing such courses, each student will have the guidance and the approval of the faculty mentor/adviser and of the NELC Director of Undergraduate Education. Students are encouraged to begin their exploration of the concentration track that interests them through designated gateway courses. In addition, all tracks have a requirement that involves the study of at least four terms of a language of the region. This is based on our conviction that facility with the appropriate language(s) is the starting point of all serious work in the study of the Near and Middle East. To further this goal, as well as to provide prolonged exposure to the civilizations of the region, the department makes possible, in conjunction with the Office of International Studies, various study abroad programs, from a summer, through one semester, to an entire year. Such programs generally take place during the student's junior year, and will receive concentration credit providing the course work falls within the concentration track and is approved by the student's mentor/adviser and the Director of Undergraduate Studies along with the Office of International Education.

Basic Requirements: 12 courses (48 credits)

  1. Required courses:
    1. Four courses in a language of the Near/Middle East. The language will be chosen in consultation with the student's mentor/adviser to fit each student's particular focus. If students can show evidence at the beginning of their concentration that they already have two years' knowledge of their language, they will be asked to take the two years at a more advanced level or in another language relevant to their focus. Students are encouraged, in other courses for their concentration, to find ways to use their NELC language.
    2. Five courses to be chosen in consultation with the student’s mentor/adviser, in addition to the tutorials listed below. These should represent a coherent intellectual program. None of these courses may be taken Pass/Fail, with the possible exception of a Freshman Seminar (graded SAT/UNS) already taken by the student, providing that this Seminar is accepted as relevant by the student’s departmental mentor/adviser and the Director of Undergraduate Studies.
  2. Tutorials:
    1. Sophomore year: Near Eastern Civilizations 97 (one course). A group tutorial required of all concentrators, normally given in the spring term. It will comprise an introduction to the cultures and literatures of the Near/Middle East in ancient, classical, and modern times, and will also emphasize major themes and problems that cut across individual cultures and historical periods. The tutorial will be taught by NELC and affiliated faculty members.
    2. Junior year: Two terms of tutorial or seminar work required. The first, in the fall semester, will be a group tutorial introducing and surveying the particular track of the four NELC tracks that the student has chosen. For those in Modern Middle Eastern Studies, this tutorial will be the course The Modern Middle East 100: Introduction to Middle Eastern Studies. For those in The Middle East in Antiquity, Histories and Cultures of Muslim Societies (Islamic Studies), and Jewish Studies, the fall introduction/survey will be arranged as needed, to be taken as Near Eastern Civilizations 98r. In the spring semester, all concentrators will take either an individual or small-group tutorial on a subject within their chosen track or a course beyond the introductory level in that track; they should consult with their mentor/adviser on their choice of tutorial or course.
    3. Senior year: No tutorial required. Students may, however, elect one semester of Near Eastern Civilizations 99, to be arranged with the advice and approval of their mentor/adviser and the Director of Undergraduate Studies. That tutorial normally culminates in a paper or project as worked out with the instructor.
  3. Thesis: Not required.
  4. General Examination: Required. An oral examination based on the student’s work, to be arranged under the supervision of the student’s mentor and the Director of Undergraduate Studies.

Requirements for Honors Eligibility: 14 courses (56 credits)

  1. Required courses: Same as Basic Requirements above.
  2. Tutorials: Same as Basic Requirements except, in the senior year, a full year (2 courses) of Near Eastern Civilizations 99, focused on the writing of the senior thesis, is required.
  3. Thesis: Required.
  4. General Examination: Required. This will be based on the student’s concentration courses and thesis, and will be arranged under the supervision of the student's mentor/adviser and the Director of Undergraduate Studies.

Joint Concentration:

Possibilities for joint concentrations exist and are welcome in NELC. The Department has a joint concentration with the Department of History whose requirements are indicated below. For joint concentration with other Departments, the student must make a case for it to both NELC and the other department or program concerned. Joint concentrators take four terms of a language, the sophomore and one junior tutorials, and at least one other course in Near/Middle Eastern studies, in addition to a senior tutorial in two terms focused on the writing of a senior thesis that combines the two fields. As for undergraduate students with advanced standing, they have the option for applying for a joint A.B./A.M. degree. More details about these and other aspects of the NELC concentration are available in the NELC Undergraduate Concentrator's Handbook.

Concentration requirements for the Joint Concentration in Near Eastern History: 14 courses (56 credits)

  1. Near Eastern Language Courses (4 courses): Four courses of study of a Near Eastern language.
  2. Additional Coursework (8 courses)
    1. History 97.
    2. NEC 101.
      Both 97 tutorials are offered in the spring term only; students may choose to take both during their sophomore spring, or to take one in the sophomore spring and the other in the junior spring.
    3. One seminar focused on Near Eastern History or an equivalent type of research seminar in NELC that meets with the approval of the Undergraduate Office and culminating in a 20 page research paper involving primary source research. Must be completed by the end of the junior spring, in preparation for the senior thesis.
    4. One course that focuses significantly on U.S. or European history.
    5. One course in pre-modern Near Eastern History.
    6. One course in modern Near Eastern History.
    7. Two additional electives within Near Eastern History
  3. Senior Thesis (2 courses): Students who wish to pursue a joint concentration in Near Eastern History must write a Senior Thesis, which also requires enrollment in one of two year-long Senior Thesis Seminars: either History 99 or Near Eastern Studies 99. Students may select either seminar.

Please also note the following information:

Two types of courses count automatically toward NELC/History concentration requirements:

  1. Courses listed in the course catalogue's "History" section and approved courses in the catalogue's "Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations" section, as determined in consultation with the History DUS.
  2. Courses taught in the General Education and/or Freshman Seminar programs by full members of the History or NELC Department Faculty. Students wishing to count such courses toward their concentration requirements should consult the Undergraduate Office, as they may need to file a petition requiring approval by the Director of Undergraduate Studies. Students may also apply to do an independent study, or History 91r, with a member of the Department; History 91r can be used to fulfill one of the elective course requirements.

The joint concentration also regularly accepts credit from both Study Abroad and Advanced Standing toward concentration requirements. With the exception of certain Freshman Seminars taught by History or NELC faculty (see above), courses taken on Pass/Fail basis may not be counted for concentration credit.


Joint concentration with other Departments: 9 courses

  1. Required courses: Four courses in a language of the Near/Middle East, plus at least one other course in the Near/Middle East dealing with literature, religion, government, economics, or society, as approved by the student's NELC mentor/adviser and the NELC Director of Undergraduate Studies.
  2. Tutorials:
    1. Sophomore year: Near Eastern Civilizations 97 (one course) required.
    2. Junior year: One course of Near Eastern Civilizations 98 or The Modern Middle East 100, or another course to be chosen with the guidance and approval of the student's NELC mentor/adviser and the NELC Director of Undergraduate Studies.
    3. Senior year: Near Eastern Civilizations 99 (two courses, one per each semester) or two terms of tutorial in the other concentration. Should be registered with the primary concentration, and have the approval of the allied concentration.
  3. Thesis: Required. Thesis must be related to both fields. Both concentrations will participate in the grading of the thesis.
  4. General Examination: Same as Requirements for Honors Eligibility; however, it will normally involve faculty from both concentration departments/programs.


Sophomores and other new concentrators meet first with the Director of Undergraduate Studies, with whom they discuss their interests and arrange to meet with a member of the faculty who will serve as mentor/adviser in the concentration. Junior and senior concentrators meet with their mentors on a regular basis.

For up-to-date information on advising in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, please see the Advising Programs Office website.


Harvard’s library resources in the various fields of Near and Middle Eastern Studies are virtually unparalleled. Widener Library, for example, has vast holdings in Arabic, Armenian, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish, and Yiddish literature. The Andover-Harvard Library of the Harvard Divinity School also has excellent resources available to students.

Students wishing to specialize in modern Near Eastern political or social studies should familiarize themselves with the resources and personnel of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Those interested in Jewish studies should become familiar with the resources and personnel of the Center for Jewish Studies. The Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Islamic Studies Program coordinates the study of Islam and Muslim societies across the University and has useful resources on its website, including a comprehensive listing of all Islam-related courses being offered in all of Harvard's departments and schools.

The Harvard Semitic Museum, in which the department is housed, has a superb collection of ancient and medieval artifacts representing many of the cultures of the Near East. As a University teaching museum, the Semitic Museum is dedicated to providing access to these materials for study and teaching.

For concentrators interested in Biblical or other ancient Near Eastern studies, or in the archaeology of the Near East, a variety of opportunities for archaeological work in the Middle East are available. These include the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon, which is conducted by the Harvard Semitic Museum under the directorship of Professor Lawrence E. Stager of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.


First-year students interested in a concentration in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations should arrange to meet with the Director of Undergraduate Studies, Professor Gojko Barjamovic ( Students are also encouraged to obtain a copy of our brochure online, as well as our undergraduate handbook —The Concentration in Near Eastern Studies at Harvardonline, by mail, or in person from the department office at 6 Divinity Avenue, 617-495-5757.

Number of Concentrators as of December

Concentrators 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations 13 10 14 17 21 18 13 8 4 8
Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations + another field 1 1 0 0 0 1 2 4 5 2
Another field + Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations 4 2 2 2 1 2 3 4 7 7