The ancient Middle East was linguistically diverse. Many of its languages fall into the Afro-Asiatic family, like ancient Egyptian and the various Semitic languages including Akkadian, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. But other language families were also represented (Indo-European, Nilo-Saharan, and Caucasian), as well as several languages that appear to have been linguistic isolates with no clear relationship to other known languages. These larger language groupings did not serve as a basis for identity.
It is often tempting to understand history as if speakers of a given language considered themselves to be a coherent or unified group, but it would also be an oversimplification. There are some languages for which that would be more or less true, like ancient Egyptian, Hittite, or Hebrew. In those cases, speakers of a language made up a more or less unified political system, and the political unity reinforced the sense of linguistic and cultural identity. In many other cases, however, the equation is not nearly as simple. Sumerian, for example, is a language that was spoken in early Mesopotamia by people living in a variety of different city-states and was probably not a primary basis for identity—texts of that time never refer to people as “Sumerians.”
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?