From "Near East" to "Western Asia": A Brief History of Archaeology and Colonialism

"When, on high, the heaven had not (yet) been named (and), below, the earth had not been called by name."1
The first couplet of Enuma Elish, the Babylonian Epic of Creation

For peoples of ancient Western Asia, things did not exist until they were named. Names were believed to derive from the intrinsic qualities of things, resonating in perfect harmony with their past, present, and future. At the same time, naming reflected humans' inclination to give an order to the plethora of things, both animate and inanimate, that surrounded them. Being able to name things, then, also denoted control, authority, sovereignty. Over time, this dual nature of naming gave way to the primacy of the latter aspect, as seen in the more popular creation myths (e.g. Genesis 2:19–20), where a name is that which is primarily imposed from the outside, describing or assigning properties as envisioned by the name-giver.

This was particularly the case for the region located largely within the borders of modern-day Iraq and traditionally known by its ancient Greek name, "Mesopotamia," meaning the land "between rivers" (i.e. the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers). In the earliest sources from the third millennium BC,2 the inhabitants of this region called their homeland kiengi, meaning "native land." Today, in the third millennium AD, the commonly-used designations in the West are "Middle East" and "Near East." In order to briefly chart this terminological journey, we should turn to the beginnings of the modern discipline of Western Asian archaeology, the history of which is deeply intertwined with that of colonialism.

The earliest large-scale excavations in Iraq took place in the mid-nineteenth century. The majority of the excavators were European (and later, American) diplomats, military officers, engineers, and missionaries who were motivated chiefly by two interrelated factors. First, this was the era of European colonialism in the region. Western powers sought to exploit both natural and cultural resources, which was intensified by Iraq's geopolitically strategic location on the route to other colonies such as India. Second, early interest in archaeological sites was centered around identifying and excavating the places mentioned in biblical texts, in an attempt to confirm the veracity of scriptures. Over the course of several decades, Western museums were populated by artworks from ancient civilizations of Western Asia, including Sumer, Akkad, and Assyria.

Fig. 1: Map showing ancient civilizations of Sumer, Akkad, and Assyria, with selected archaeological sites. Created by Erhan Tamur, with data from Natural Earth, and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (dataset by Jippe Hoogeveen and Livia Peiser).

This colonialist enterprise was accompanied by a system of classification, giving an order to the "unknown" and framing the related production of scientific knowledge. This is when the terms "Near East" and "Middle East" were introduced, partly replacing the older term "Orient," a vague designation covering Asia and northern Africa. The new terms, denoting the proximity of this region to the Western centers, were first used interchangeably. In the course of the twentieth century, however, "Near East" came to be adopted primarily by scholars working on the pre-Islamic past of this region (pre-seventh century AD), while "Middle East" gained popular traction to connote its later history, up to the present day.

This temporal and terminological incision into the past of the region was not a coincidence. Excavations had revealed that many "firsts" of human history, the most famous one being writing, were invented in this region, now dubbed "the cradle of civilization." These had to be incorporated into the prevailing narrative of socio-political and cultural progress, so effectively promoted in the writings of Hegel and numerous others as deriving from the Greco-Roman world and culminating in the Enlightenment and beyond. Yet, the inclusion of the ancient civilizations of Western Asia could only be materialized by the exclusion of what came after them—by disassociating the later histories and peoples of the same region and lumping together their immense socio-cultural diversity under the single term of "Middle East." This was a timeless, spaceless, people-less myth of origins, made "real" by the act of naming.

We no longer have to adhere to such divisions imposed by a colonial frame of reference, nor name a region (and its artistic production) against the benchmark of a putatively superior, Western center. We acknowledge that cartography has often been an ideological device, as reflected in an ancient Babylonian map radiating out from Babylon, al-Idrisi's map with Mecca in its center, or our modern world maps revolving around Britain and Europe. Taking all this into account, we are pleased to announce the renaming of our Department of Ancient Near Eastern Seals and Tablets to the Department of Ancient Western Asian Seals and Tablets. The term “Western Asia” will encompass the entire history and artistic complexity of the region in line with the Morgan's greater efforts to promote diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion.

Fig. 2: Babylonian Map of the World, sixth century BC, clay tablet, 12 x 8 cm (4.7 x 3 inches). Photo: The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Fig. 3: Al-Idrisi’s world map, 1152, oriented with south toward the top. From a sixteenth-century manuscript. Photo: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. CC-BY-NC 4.0.

For more on this and related issues, see Zainab Bahrani, “Conjuring Mesopotamia: Imaginative Geography and a World Past,” in Archaeology Under Fire, edited by Lynn Meskell (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 159–74. Also see Reinhard Bernbeck, “Structural Violence in Archaeology,” Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress 4, no. 3 (December 2008), 390–413.

End notes

  1. Bottéro, Jean, Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods, translated by Zainab Bahrani and Marc Van De Mieroop (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), 97.
  2. I prefer not to use the supposedly more inclusive “BCE/CE” as it glosses over the deeply-rooted issues that it claims to have solved by a change in notation and not in substance. Rather than succumbing to the comfort provided by this false sense of closure, the very discomfort of using “BC/AD” gives us an opportunity to engage head-on with the prevailing, exclusionary calendar systems and the history and dynamics of their dominance.

Erhan Tamur
Curatorial Research Associate
Department of Ancient Western Asian Seals and Tablets
The Morgan Library & Museum