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Viewing: NELC 111 C1: Mid East Water in Hist

Last approved: Mon, 04 Feb 2019 19:59:47 GMT

Last edit: Wed, 23 Jan 2019 16:36:58 GMT

First Name Last Name Userid Title Home School Org Short Name
Emily Hammer ehammer ASST PROFESSOR A School of Arts and Sciences Near Eastern Languages and Culture
Fall 2019 (Deactivations ONLY)
Spring 2019
Mid East Water in Hist
Water scarcity is one of most important problems facing much of the Middle East and North Africa today. These are arid regions, but human and natural systems have interacted to determine relative water scarcity and abundance at different times and places. This course examines the distribution of water resources throughout the Middle East and the archaeology and anthropology of water exploitation and management over the last 9000 years, looking at continuities and changes through time. Students will learn to make basic digital maps representing Middle Eastern hydro-geography and arguments about modern and historic water resources in the region. The class will cooperatively play an “irrigation management game” designed to familiarize personnel involved in the operation of irrigation schemes with the logistical and social issues involved in water management. We will engage with a variety of media, including academic readings, popular journalism, films, satellite imagery, and digital maps, in our quest to explore whether or not the past can inform present efforts to better manage modern water resources. The course is structured in units focused on each of the major hydro-environmental zones of the Middle East: the river valleys of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Levant, the internal basins of western Central Asia and the Levant, the deserts of Arabia and North Africa, highland zones in Yemen and Iran, and coastal marsh areas along the Persian Gulf. We will examine irrigation systems, water supply systems, and ways of life surrounding water sources known from ethnographic studies, history, and archaeological excavations. These data will allow us to engage with debates in Middle Eastern anthropology, including those concerning the relationship between water and political power, the environment in which the world’s earliest cities arose, and the relevance of “lessons of the past” for present and potential future water crises and “water wars.” In our final weeks, we will discuss archaeology and historical anthropology’s contribution to conceptions of water “sustainability” and examine attempts to revive traditional/ancient technologies and attitudes about water.
ANTH 110 - Water in the Middle East Throughout History
Every Other Term

Foundational Approach

Course usually offered in Fall term
Cross Cultural Analysis
Emily Hammer
Standing Faculty
Standing Faculty
NELC is an interdisciplinary area studies department, and the “Water in the Middle East Throughout History” course reflects this by incorporating content and methodologies from anthropology, archaeology, political science, environmental studies, geography, history, and other fields. The thematic perspective of the course encourages students to see how data drawn from various disciplines can be integrated to provide a fuller understanding of the Middle East in the past and present. There are no pre-requisites for the course. The content and methodologies that students encounter in the course will provide important background regardless of whether they pursue modern Middle Eastern studies, language/literature, history, or archaeology tracks within the major.

Please note: I have taught this course at Penn in Fall 2017 and Fall 2018 and intend to keep offering it every Fall semester. I submitted the course to be sectored in January 2018, but the committee did not process my application by the end of Spring 2018, and the College Office listed it as a freshman seminar instead.
Water scarcity is one of most important problems—if not the biggest problem—facing much of the Middle East and North Africa today. However, water scarcity is not merely a product of the arid climate that prevails in large parts of the region; it is equally (if not more) a product of policy decisions by modern nation-states and international aid programs as well as changes to “traditional” technologies and social modes of organizing water management. The course provides the students with a nuanced understanding of water issues in these geopolitically important regions and their historical roots, including: how and why water problems arise from technological and sociopolitical standpoints; how water control has shaped modern and historical social and political events; and how current water use is continuous/discontinuous in various ways with water management practices of historical and ancient societies of the region, many of which survived “sustainably” for thousands of years.

The core intellectual skills developed in this course are 1) the ability to synthesize evidence generated by multiple disciplines and methodologies in order to forge an understanding of the complex interaction between society, technology and the environment 2) the ability to use digital mapping tools to represent Middle Eastern geopolitics as well as historical changes in the natural and constructed environment.

Throughout the course, paired discussions of modern communities, ethnographically-documented 20th century communities, and archaeologically-documented ancient communities provide an opportunity to reflect on water technology and sociopolitical organization related to water through time. These paired discussions allow students to assess the extent to which modern technologies and practices represent a “break” with the past. This historical lens also provides an opportunity to reflect, beyond the Middle East, on whether or not the past provides useful lessons for the present and future, and how our understanding of the concept of “sustainability” shifts depending on the time scale of our information.

In addition to the core anthropological, historical, and archaeological readings for the course, satellite imagery analysis is another important source of empirical information on water availability and water management technology in the modern and pre-modern Middle East. Students gain basic skills in visual interpretation of satellite imagery throughout the semester. Through digital mapping assignments using satellite imagery, the course aims to make students familiar with the environmental characteristics and political landscape of the Middle East region. These digital mapping assignments also help students to visualize environmental and social aspects of water problems and technology described in the readings.

Methods of Assessment

1 6-8 paged paper
One comprehensive final with term/concept identifications, essay questions, and a map exam.
Annotated digital map of sites, regions, and environmental features discussed during the course (made with Google Earth). Final presentation to class in groups (10-15 minutes). Class participation.

Cross Cultural Analysis

Students read ethnographies and watch documentary films to gain insight into how Middle Eastern communities managed water scarcity—and water surplus in wetland environments—in the mid-twentieth century, before the introduction of fuel-driven water pumping and deep-well drilling. The ethnographies also address how western colonial values, organizational principles, and attitudes toward water and the environment conflicted with those of local Middle Eastern communities. Through reading, the students become familiar with the social, political, and economic organizations of groups such as the El Shabana tribe engaged in gravity-flow irrigation agriculture in Central Iraq in the 1950s and the Marsh Arabs living in the southern Iraqi marshes in the 1960s. Critical in-class discussions teach students to look for the social, cultural, and historical reasons underlying Middle Eastern communities’ choices of how to live and manage water in similar and different environments and to see how certain premodern social and political practices prevented a “tragedy of the commons” situation with regard to water and soil quality. Western powers in the Middle East, like the British administrators in Iraq, saw some of these social and political practices as inefficient and antiquated, not realizing until it was too late that earlier agricultural systems, while producing less, had prevented declining soil fertility, limited inequality in communities, and allowed for locally-respected mediation of water-related conflict.
Through discussion of case studies drawn from Turkey, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and the nations of the Aral Sea watershed, the course asks students to compare and contrast the different environmental and organizational challenges related to water that were faced by ancient, historical, and modern communities. For example, students compare and contrast historical trajectories along the Nile and Tigris-Euphrates watersheds: the reliability and good timing of Nile flood and the possibility of natural flood basin irrigation shaped early Egyptian religion, literature, and political organization just as the irregularity and poor timing of the Tigris Euphrates floods (during the harvest) as well as the general instability of the rivers’ courses in their southern reaches affected Mesopotamian religion, literature, and political organization.
The course focuses on water management in ancient, historical, and contemporary societies of the Middle East. Through history, ethnography, and political science writings, the students explore how water management impacted and continues to impact social organization within local communities as well as patterns of cooperation and conflict between individuals, communities, and nations. At the local scale, for example, students see how the social/family structure of communities and the physical structure of irrigation systems map onto and mutually reinforce one another, determining patterns of cooperation for infrastructure maintenance/repair and conflict over the fairness of water division. At the regional scale, for example, students look at how the presence of racial or religious diversity within watersheds often structures upstream vs downstream conflicts over water availability. Students also explore the role of water concerns in the formation of the modern boundaries and political characteristics of Middle Eastern nation-states, especially Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
Where possible, the course presents students with writings or media produced by different stakeholders, showing how their values and interest color their conceptions of and approaches to water problems. Examples of this in the course’s case studies include 1) conflicting viewpoints of the Turkish government, Kurdish villagers in southeastern Turkey, and downstream Syrian and Iraqi citizens on Turkey’s construction of massive hydroelectric dams on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers; 2) diverging assessments by the Iraqi government, the former “Marsh Arabs,” and environmental conservationists of the feasibility and desirability of re-flooding the drained Iraqi marshes; 3) different conceptions between two government agencies in pre-war Yemen of how to resolve water scarcity via technical versus social changes.

The course encourages students to probe the different social, political, and technological contexts that can underlie what on the surface may appear to be similar uses of a particular environment. For example, the Ma’rib Oasis in lowland northern Yemen is a major agricultural area for that country today, as it was at the time of the Iron Age Sabaean kingdoms 2000 years ago, whose inhabitants built the famous Ma’rib Dam mentioned hundreds of years later in the Holy Qu’ran. But the water and institutional contexts of the Sabaeans and the modern Yemenis show two radically different choices of how to exist in the same place under similar climatic conditions. The local Sabaean kings took responsibility for organizing labor for the construction and repair of the dam and the oasis communities relied on the dam to lift and redirect season mountain floodwaters into oasis fields planted with native drought-tolerant crops and trees. In the 1980s, the president of the UAE financed the construction of a new dam at Ma’rib, but locals do not use this water for agriculture, preferring instead to remain independent from the Yemeni and foreign governments by installing their own groundwater pumps to supply fields of water-thirsty non-native crops. Meanwhile, the water stored in the new dam (the ancient dam did not have a storage function) has caused a humid microclimate in the desert oasis that increases mosquito-borne illness. The Ma’rib Oasis is as green today as it was in the past, but the water comes from a completely different source, with different environmental effects, water needs have changed, and water management occurs in a completely different social context.

Cultural Diversity in the US


Quantitative Data Analysis


Formal Reasoning


Administrative Fields

Josef Wegner (jwegner) (Wed, 23 Jan 2019 15:56:06 GMT): Rollback: additional edits requested by E. Hammer
Key: 838