History of the Modern Middle East, 1800-2017

If you are a student in McMaster's Modern Middle Eastern Societies class, please click here


This course is an introductory survey of the political and social history of the “modern” Middle East, from the early 19th century to the present. The first half of the course will contextualize developments in the late Ottoman Empire, European colonialism, and the advent of nationalism. The second half of the course will focus on thematic issues particularly relevant to today: the Arab-Israeli conflict, political Islam, and the struggle for democratic change.

Because this course is a survey that spans over two hundred years and multiple continents, there will be a great deal left out. This is unfortunate, but it’s also a good reason to do your readings and come to class and tutorials prepared (beyond the impact on your grade) since our time together is limited.

Course Objectives

  • Introduce students to basic geopolitical and social forces – both from within and without – that have helped shaped the contemporary Middle East.

  • Challenge essentialist assumptions about the people of the region, while also placing their history within a trans-regional or global perspective.

  • Encourage students to read primary and secondary sources critically; to formulate coherent scholarly arguments in response to a historical question; to articulate these arguments in persuasive fashion. Namely, to become better historians.

Textbooks, Materials & Fees

You will, on average, have two sets of readings assigned to you each week. The first will be sections of a textbook written by William Cleveland and Martin Bunton. These readings will form the basic historical narrative, supplemented by lectures.

The second set of readings will be either primary source texts or academic articles. Both of these readings will be made available to you either online or through Avenue to Learn. The primary source texts will be important in showing you what historical figures thought, said, or wrote in their own words. This second set of readings will be the focus of your tutorial sessions so make sure to read them closely. Additionally, I will be posting a series of texts that will help you produce a better term paper. You do not have to read them. But if you’re interested in becoming better historians or better writers in general, I suggest you peruse them at your leisure.

Required Texts

A History of the Modern Middle East (Sixth Edition) Edited by William L. Cleveland and Martin Bunton, (Westview Press, 2016).

Method of Assessment

Your grade will be calculated according to the following criteria:
1. Attendance and participation in tutorials (20%)
2. Research exercise due on October 3 (5%)
3. Midterm exam on October 20 (20%)
4. A short paper due November 24 (25%)
5. Final exam in December (30%).


Lecture 1: Introduction: What are we talking about?
Lecture 2: What is the “Modern” and the “Middle East”?

Lecture 3: Empires of the Middle East
Lecture 4: The Ottoman Empire

Lecture 5: The Ottoman Empire (cont.)
Lecture 6: Nationalisms in the Middle East

Lecture 7: The First World War
Lecture 8: The Republic of Turkey, and Iran

Lecture 9: The Inter-War Period (Sykes-Picot)
Lecture 10: Zionism to 1948

Mid-term break

Lecture 11: Palestine to 1948
Lecture 12: Mid-term Exam

Lecture 13: Nasserism and Arab Socialism
Lecture 14: Autocracies in Syria and Iraq

Lecture 15: The 1967 War
Lecture 16: Movie

Lecture 17: Political Islam I: The Egyptian Case
Lecture 18: Political Islam II: The Iranian Revolution

Lecture 19: Lebanese Civil War
Lecture 20: The First Intifada

Lecture 21: The Peace Process (Arab-Israeli Conflict since 1989)
Lecture 22: The War on Terror

Lecture 23: “The Arab Spring”
Lecture 24: Mass Displacement and Migration

Lecture 25: Term Review


This course was first taught in 2012 and though it has gone through a number of iterations since then; I want to acknowledge the initial sources of inspiration for this syllabus. First, Professor Paul Sedra taught “Introduction to the Modern Middle East” at the University of Toronto in 2003-2004. I was a student of his and his syllabus is the initial reference point for what was the first version of this course. For the lecture topics related to the Arab-Israeli conflict, I am indebted to Professor Laila Parsons of McGill. Lastly, while this syllabus differs from her’s, Professor Virginia Aksan of McMaster has taught this course for many years and was instrumental in my initial syllabus design.