Why Study the Near East?

Why Study NELC?
Image courtesy of the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism & Antiquities

Majors in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) at the University of Chicago pursue rigorous knowledge about a region of the world that is known as “the cradle of civilization” and the home of several important religious and cultural traditions, as well as one of the most important geopolitical areas of our contemporary world. NELC majors acquire languages; learn how archaeologists, economists, historians, linguists, literary scholars, and careful readers of legal, religious, economic, and other kinds of texts critically evaluate evidence; and acquire, largely in small class settings, analytical writing, thinking, and research skills that will help prepare them for a variety of careers.

Geographically centered on the Nile to Oxus and Danube to Indus region, NELC also embraces North Africa and Islamic Spain, as well as Central Asia and the Balkans in its ambit, from the dawn of History to the recent era of revolutions.  Students can gain expertise in a wide variety of languages, including the living spoken tongues of the modern Middle East and Central Asia (Arabic, Armenian, modern Hebrew, Kazakh, Persian, Turkish, and Uzbek) or languages that open gateways onto the ancient past (Aramaic, Babylonian, Biblical Hebrew, Coptic, Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Elamite, Ge’ez, Hittite, Middle and Old Persian, Ottoman, Syriac, Ugaritic, etc.).

In an interdisciplinary area studies department like NELC, majors learn about the region through primary sources (material, oral, or textual) and scholarly analysis, structuring their curriculum around various disciplines and methodologies, including stratigraphy and paleobotany, comparative literature, cultural and civilizational studies, economics and numismatics, gender studies, history (economic, political, religious, and social), human rights, public policy, and digital humanities approaches. 

Areas of specialization within NELC include:

  • Arabic Studies
  • Armenian Studies
  • Archaeology and Art of the Ancient Near East
  • Classical Hebrew Language and Civilization
  • Cuneiform Studies (including Assyriology, Hittitology, and Sumerology)
  • Egyptian Languages and Civilization
  • History (Ancient Near East, Islamic History, Modern Middle Eastern History)
  • Islamic Thought (including Law, Sufism)
  • Israeli and Jewish Studies (including Biblical and Modern Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac)
  • Persian and Iranian Studies (Culture, Language, Literature, History, Religion)
  • Semitic Languages and Literatures (Comparative Semitics, Northwest Semitics)
  • Turkish and Ottoman Studies (Culture, History, Languages, Literatures)


NELC majors who are interested in learning one or more of the primary native languages as a means of access to the cultures of the ancient Near East and/or the modern Middle East can do so in the Language and Culture track, while students who are more interested in developing their knowledge of the material cultures of the Near East and of the concepts and techniques of Archaeology can do so in the Archaeology track. In consultation with the Director of Undergraduate Studies, each student chooses an area of specialization and devises a program of study that provides a sound basis for graduate work in that area or for a career in business, education, government, journalism, law, museology, public policy, public service, or a variety of other disciplines and professions.