The Question of Identity: Ethnicity, Language, Religion, and Gender
Identity is a complex phenomenon in the modern world—we all have a variety of identities that may be based on our age, gender, cultural background, physical difference, religion, nationality, profession, political views, wealth, personal style, or other traits.
We relate ourselves to larger groups through these traits, which provide us with connections to a wide range of people. We are also assigned to groups by others. The fact that identity is created by self-identification as well as identification by others means that there are inherent possibilities for conflict and tension over who belongs and who doesn’t belong to these groups.
As a further complication, some of these identities are more important in some situations, while others become more important at other times, a process known as “situational identity.” We navigate our own identities many times each day with relative ease, but it can be more difficult to understand how identities work in other cultures. Yet the effort is essential to the study of history—to understand identities in a particular time and place is to understand what it meant to be a person in a particular time and place.
Identities, particularly ethnic identity, can become a source of political power. Ancient empires recognized this threat when they attempted to conquer and control foreign groups. In many cases, empires attempted to destroy local identities by moving conquered populations great distances from their homeland or by forcing them to assimilate into the empire.
In the ancient Middle East, identities were complex just as they are today, but the divisions were different and require some explanation. This module discusses ethnicity and race, language, and religious identities. More specific examples of identity in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia are covered in separate modules.
Former Chief Curator, Oriental Institute Museum of the University of Chicago
1. What kinds of things relate to or contribute to a person’s sense of identity? How is an understanding of identities crucial to the study of history?
2. What were some of the various ways that people in the ancient Middle East identified themselves?
3. Why is our tendency today to use religious affiliation as a main part of one’s identity a misleading approach when looking at the ancient Middle East?