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

Before Islam:  Overview

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Framing the Issues

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The Creation of Ethnicity

Some ethnic identities have lasted over thousands of years—Jews, Palestinians, Arabs, Persians, Nubians, and others have been defined groups for thousands of years. It is interesting to reflect that a statement such as this may in itself be seen as highly provocative, for ethnic identities draw some of their claims to strength and to particular places from their history. These histories are often contested in the modern world.

At the same time, many ethnic groups have formed in some situations and disappeared in others; where are the Hittites, Kassites, or Amorites today? How are ethnic groups formed, and what are some of the circumstances in which they disappeared?

Although we may tend to think of isolated groups as having the strongest ethnicity, in historical terms it is actually in situations of contact and interaction that ethnic identity forms. One typical case is migration—Hittites moving into central Anatolia, Kassites moving from the mountains of Iran onto the Mesopotamian plain, and even the biblical Israelites moving out of Egypt into Canaan are all possible examples of migration in which the migrating group maintained its identity for at least several centuries. There are as many cases, however, in which ethnic groups simply assimilated into local culture over several generations.

Another way in which ethnic identities can become differentiated is through conflict or conquest. Ancient Egyptians defined themselves in opposition to their traditional enemies (Nubians, Libyans, and Asiatics), with whom they frequently fought. Similarly, one could argue (although not all scholars agree) that Sumerians identified themselves as a group only once they began to struggle against Akkadian conquest of their territory.

Migrating groups, or groups in conflict, sometimes maintain their identity and sometimes do not. The reasons for a group choosing one or another of these strategies are varied, and depend on differences in power and wealth between groups. There is not yet a general formula for understanding the creation and disappearance of ethnic groups.

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