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The Question of Identity: Ethnicity, Language, Religion, and Gender

Before Islam:  Overview

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Ethnicity and Race

Ethnicity is a broad term for a group defined by an idea of common kinship among its members and a history (which is sometimes more fictional than not) that evokes a common origin. Like other identities, ethnic groups are only coherent if their membership is recognized by those inside and outside the group.

Ethnic groups can differentiate themselves from others in a wide variety of ways. In the ancient Middle East, physical difference (“race”) was rarely a source of differentiation, and language more often (but not always) distinguished groups. Material culture, such as styles of clothing, art, or architecture, also sometimes differentiated ethnic groups, and can be a clue to archaeologists and historians about ancient identities.

Ancient sources, when they mention it at all, view ethnicity as a long-lasting and unchanging identity. Some ethnic groups that existed in antiquity—Arabs and Persians, for example—still exist today. But more often, ethnic identities changed over the course of history; Sumerians, Gutians, and Hittites have all disappeared from the Middle East, but their culture is preserved to some degree by ancient texts and artifacts.

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