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Turning Points in Middle Eastern History

Turning Points in Middle Eastern History

Eamonn Gearon,
Johns Hopkins University

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Turning Points in Middle Eastern History

Course No. 8340
Eamonn Gearon,
Johns Hopkins University
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4.9 out of 5
76 Reviews
98% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 8340
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  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. While the video version can be considered lightly illustrated, it does feature illustrations and images, including photographs of locations, architecture, and famous individuals, as well as on-screen text to help reinforce material for visual learners.
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What Will You Learn?

  • Study the events surrounding the incursion of Berber-Arab armies into the Iberian peninsula in 711, leading to Muslim domination of the region.
  • Follow the rise of the Fatimids - history's only Shia caliphate- in political and religious opposition to the Baghdad-based Abbasids.
  • Trace the events of Musa's legendary hajj to Mecca, where his lavish spending destabilized the economy of Egypt.
  • Examine the birth of the 250-year Safavid Empire, established by the religious leader, warrior, and poet Ismail.
  • Explore the economic and political factors that sparked the brutal French invasion of Ottoman Algeria.
  • Examine the role of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, and uncover why it entered the war on the side of Germany and Austro-Hungary.

Course Overview

The Middle East is a critically important area of our world. And, with its current prominence in international affairs, media images of the Middle East reach us on a daily basis.

Much media coverage, however, is incomplete at best, failing to take account of either the complexities or the historical background of this pivotal region. For most of us, the real story of the Middle East remains untold. What made this crucial geopolitical area what it is today? What forces and factors underlie what we read in the news, and what drives the current challenges the Middle East both faces and poses? In coming to terms with the present and future of the Middle East, an understanding of its history is not only highly valuable, but essential.

Consider these revealing matters, which bring historical perspective to current events:

  • Much popular thought regards the Muslim world as irrevocably separate from and opposed to the West. To the contrary, history shows a spectrum of mutually beneficial alliances between European and Middle Eastern states.
  • Islam began on the Arabian peninsula. The political capital moved to Damascus, and in the 8th century, Baghdad was built to be its new capital. These developments broadened the cultural and political perspective of Islam from an Arab worldview to include the heterogeneous Muslim world.
  • For thousands of years, the Middle East has been a crossroads of continents, trade, and conquest. Its centrality and diversity have brought material wealth, cultural treasures, and a tremendous exchange of knowledge—and have sparked conflicts leading to political instability and warfare.

Now, Turning Points in Middle Eastern History offers you a penetrating look at the fascinating and thoroughly remarkable past of this storied part of the world. Taught by professorial lecturer and Middle East expert Eamonn Gearon of Johns Hopkins University, these 36 lectures unfurl a breathtaking panorama of history, exploring a 1,300-year window from the rise of the warrior prophet Muhammad to the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The history you’ll discover here is as dazzling as anything in the Arabian Nights, and is all the more astonishing for being the true story of the Middle East.

Each lecture focuses on a specific historical moment that changed the direction of events or the narrative of history. By investigating these momentous happenings that have most significantly shaped the Middle East and its diverse societies, you’ll gain a deeply informed understanding of how the past informs the present.

Turning Points: Radical Breaks with the Past

In this riveting inquiry, you’ll witness world-changing occurrences such as the birth and phenomenal rise of Islam, the expansion and decline of the Ottoman Empire, and the dramatic discovery of Middle Eastern oil. You’ll accompany the armies of Islam as they invade North Africa and Spain, forever altering civilization in those regions, and witness the Battle of Karbala, where Muhammad’s heirs—the Sunni and Shia—split once and for all.

In the course’s middle section, you’ll discover the wonders of the Islamic Golden Age, and marvel at the superlative advances in astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and literature—and the preservation of classical Greek and Roman wisdom—that unfolded in global centers of learning such as Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba.

You’ll follow the dynamic empire building of the Persian Safavids, the Egyptian Mamluks, and the legendary Ottomans, among others. The breakup of the Ottoman Empire yielded most of the modern states of the Middle East. The far-reaching impacts of its rise and fall, plus the long-lasting influence of the 18th-century Saud-Wahhab Pact—between a desert ruler and a religious reformer, creating today’s Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—are two more expressions of how the past suffuses the present.

Throughout the course, you’ll rub shoulders with numerous remarkable people, including the brilliant and famously chivalrous Muslim general Saladin; Shajar ad-Durr, the only female sultan in Islamic history to rule in her own right; and the dashing Lawrence of Arabia, a key player at the birth of Middle Eastern nationalism.

Unforgettable Historic Moments

Within the narrative of the course, you’ll explore extraordinary happenings that critically shaped Middle Eastern civilization, such as these:

  • Conquests of the Umayyad caliphate: In a seminal moment in Middle Eastern history, learn how the powerful Umayyad family of Mecca seized the office of the caliphate (the official leadership of Islam), transferred the temporal center of the faith to Damascus in 661, and molded the religiously inspired Arab-Islamic empire into a politically oriented imperial power.
  • The glory that was Baghdad: Study the 8th-century founding of Baghdad as the spectacular seat of the Abbasid Empire. Learn how the city became an architectural wonder and the intellectual and scientific capital of the world, whose House of Knowledge was one of the greatest seats of learning in human history.
  • The empire of the Mamluks: Track the remarkable exploits of the Mamluks, a class of slave warriors that became emperors, instituted a system of personal advancement based on merit, defeated the “invincible” Mongols on the field of battle, and ruled Egypt across nearly six centuries.
  • The scholarship of Ibn Khaldun: Contemplate the monumental achievements of the 14th-century scholar, historian, and philosopher Ibn Khaldun, who penned a philosophy of history of unparalleled significance and gave birth to the fields of economics, sociology, and historiography.
  • Triumph and disaster at the Suez Canal: Assess the international intrigue and the epic feat of engineering that created the Suez Canal, changing the course of global trade. Grasp the contours of the economic fiasco surrounding the canal’s building that cost Egypt control of its economy and government.
  • The making of the modern Middle East: Learn about the remapping of the Middle East following World War I by the imperial powers of Britain and France, and the divisive impact these changes had on the region. Follow the emergence of the modern Arab states and the advent of Arab nationalism.

Larger-Than-Life Personalities

Amid the catalytic events you’ll study, these astounding human beings were emblematic of the turmoil and the victories of their times:

  • Fatima al-Fihri, educational visionary: Witness the radical move, by a forward-thinking Muslim woman, to create the world’s first university—making available advanced education beyond religious instruction, 200 years before Europe’s first university.
  • The titanic intellectual al-Ghazali: Considered the most historically impactful Muslim after Muhammad, take the measure of Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali, an Islamic theologian and philosopher of comparable significance to St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in the Christian tradition.
  • Mansa Musa, the golden emperor: Travel with the richest man who ever lived—the 14th-century emperor Musa of Timbuktu—on his historic hajj to Mecca. Trace how his massive personal spending of gold ruined the economy of Egypt, and how he subsequently founded one of history’s most important archives of ancient wisdom.
  • Suleiman the Magnificent, architect of empire: Enter the glittering world of the Ottoman emperor Suleiman, who expanded and formalized rule over an empire that spanned three continents, and whose remarkable legislative, bureaucratic and architectural achievements guaranteed the empire’s vitality for centuries.
  • Abd al-Qadir, humane resister: Within the horrific bloodshed of the 1830 French invasion of Algeria, learn about the scholarly and deeply religious leader of the war of opposition, Abd al-Qadir, whose extraordinary, compassionate treatment of his Christian opponents stands as a model of equitable leadership for any century.

Compelling Perspectives on a Pivotal Region

A spellbinding lecturer, Mr. Gearon brings to the course deep insights into the Middle East shaped by his extensive personal experience in the region. He has a talent for demonstrating how history doesn’t stop, showing you how events such as the founding of the Persian Safavid Dynasty and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire continue to reverberate in our contemporary world. Throughout the course, he brings visual richness to the unfolding events through vivid maps, artworks, photographs, and manuscripts.

The 36 thrilling segments of Turning Points in Middle Eastern History bring to vibrant life the human strivings, the conflicts, the triumphs, and the catastrophes that forged this extraordinary region, in a dramatic continuum from the 7th century to the 21st. Take this chance to probe beneath the surface of the magnificent and complex civilizations of the Middle East, a critical part of the world whose fortunes directly affect us all.

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36 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
  • 1
    Muslim Empires: Land, Language, Religion
    Consider the geographical region we call the Greater Middle East, and explore the range of nations and cultures that define it. Preview some of the remarkable historical turning points you'll witness, encompassing conquests, political alliances, invasions, and the rise of Islam, as well as social, intellectual, and economic flowering of numerous kinds. x
  • 2
    Muhammad and the Dawn of Islam - 622
    Historically, the rise of Islam was a turning point among turning points. Trace key phases in the life of Muhammad, from the founding of the faith through his years of opposition and his ultimate establishment of Islam as a religious and political entity. Assess the global impact of these events, and analyze their reverberations today. x
  • 3
    Arab Invasion of North Africa - 639
    The seventh-century Arab invasion of North Africa brought profound and permanent change to the entire region. Follow the Arab armies of the newly created Islamic empire in their conquest of the territories of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco, and take account of the lasting Arabization and Islamization that resulted. x
  • 4
    Umayyad Caliphate in Damascus - 661
    The establishment of the Umayyad caliphate's capital in Damascus was the most important political turning point in early Muslim history. Trace the Umayyads' achievements, and investigate their reasons for locating the empire's capital away from the Arabian peninsula, reflecting the shift from a religiously inspired Islamic empire to a politically oriented imperial power. x
  • 5
    Battle of Karbala - 680
    The Battle of Karbala represents the defining moment in the split between the two main branches of Islam. Learn about how the faith came to violent internal conflict so early in its history, assess the nature of the underlying dispute over succession, and witness the political and religious fallout from the battle itself. x
  • 6
    Arab Invasion of Andalusia - 711
    Study the events surrounding the incursion of Berber-Arab armies into the Iberian peninsula in 711, leading to Muslim domination of the region that would last 800 years. Witness the fateful Battle of Guadalete and the Arabs' advance north, and consider both the immediate legacy of the invasion and its overall impact on European history. x
  • 7
    Battle of Talas - 751
    The Battle of Talas in Central Asia was the only occasion when Arab and Chinese armies would oppose one another. Explore the factors leading to the encounter, the lengthy battle that led to victory for the Abbasid Arabs, and the resulting spread of papermaking to the Middle East, an event with global impact. x
  • 8
    The Founding of Baghdad - 762
    As the political center of the Muslim world, Baghdad would have a role and importance unlike any other urban center on earth. Chart the building of Baghdad as an imperial capital; explore its monumental, Persian-inspired architectural design; and discover the human factors that made it one of the greatest centers of learning in human history. x
  • 9
    Islamic Golden Age Begins - 813
    Under the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma'mun, Baghdad thrived as both a center of trade and manufacturing and a world city of scholarship. Consider al-Ma'mun's lavish patronage of learning, his promotion of translation and scholarly missions, and his extraordinary influence in three areas: literature, the sciences, and Islamic theology. x
  • 10
    Qairouan University - 859
    The world's first university was founded by a visionary Muslim woman in the city of Fes, Morocco. Learn how this groundbreaking institution made advanced education available to all. Assess its influence in the Middle East, discover its unrivalled impact on European learning, and examine the life and work of one of its most celebrated alumni. x
  • 11
    The Fatimids of Cairo - 969
    Follow the rise of the Fatimids - history's only Shia caliphate - in political and religious opposition to the Baghdad-based Abbasids. Witness the founding of Cairo as the new Fatimid capital, and examine the enlightened leadership of the 4th and 5th Fatimid caliphs, under whom Cairo became the most important city in the Islamic world. x
  • 12
    Umayyad Exile in Cordoba - 784 - 1031
    Discover the golden age of Cordoba as a global center of education and culture. Learn how the displaced Umayyad caliphate established a kingdom in exile in Cordoba, whose rulers oversaw remarkable advancements in lifestyle and manners, magnificent architecture and urban development, and the cultivation of the best available Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholarship. x
  • 13
    Al-Ghazali and Orthodoxy - 1090
    The theologian and philosopher Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali has been called the most influential Muslim after Muhammad. Witness al-Ghazali's rise to become a renowned Islamic legal scholar, and reflect on the profound impact of his diverse writings. Investigate his passionate challenge to Neo-Platonism in Islamic theology, and assess the continuing legacy of his work. x
  • 14
    Crusaders Capture Jerusalem - 1099
    Study the complex motives and competing interests that launched the Christian crusade to take Jerusalem from its Muslim occupiers. Follow the events of the Pope's dramatic call to arms and the bloody assault against the Holy City, and take account of its aftermath as well as its long-term effects on history. x
  • 15
    Muslims in the Court of Roger II - 1130
    Encounter the remarkable Kingdom of Sicily under the enlightened and tolerant rule of the Norman king Roger II. Grasp how Norman invaders established a kingdom in southern Italy, and learn about the unique features of life there, including extraordinary legal, economic, and architectural achievements. Consider Roger's legacy and why it remains relevant today. x
  • 16
    Saladin: Chivalry and Conquest - 1187
    The Muslim general Saladin stands as a unique figure in Middle Eastern history. Plunge into the pivotal Battle of Hattin, where Saladin's forces decimated the Crusader armies, shifting the balance of power in the Holy Land. Contemplate the combination of brilliant strategy and chivalrous treatment of his enemies that characterized this most remarkable of leaders. x
  • 17
    The Egyptian Mamluks - 1250
    The Mamluks were an unprecedented phenomenon - a community of slaves who became rulers. Investigate the origins of the Mamluks, and uncover how this elite warrior class took power in Egypt. Learn about the Mamluks' empire, their meritocratic system, and how they defeated a vast army that had never been beaten in battle: the Mongols. x
  • 18
    Mongols Sack Baghdad - 1258
    This lecture narrates the calamity that befell the world's largest, most prosperous, and most celebrated city. First trace the rise of the Mongols, a fierce and most destructive ancient empire. Then follow their conquest of the Abbasids of Baghdad, culminating in the horrific siege that effectively ended the Islamic Golden Age. x
  • 19
    Ottoman Empire Rises - 1299
    The dazzling empire of the Ottomans was the longest-lasting empire in Middle Eastern history. Learn about the dream of Osman, the Ottomans' founder, which impelled him to establish what became a transcontinental superpower. Grasp what allowed the Ottomans to thrive and to spread across Anatolia, North Africa, and Eastern Europe. x
  • 20
    Mansa Musa, Richest Man - 1324
    History's richest human being was reputedly the African emperor Mansa Musa. Trace the events of Musa's legendary hajj to Mecca, where his lavish spending destabilized the economy of Egypt. Learn about his subsequent creation of a university and library that remain among the most important repositories of ancient wisdom in the world. x
  • 21
    Ibn Khaldun's Masterpiece - 1377
    Discover the life and times of the brilliant Ibn Khaldun, who produced the Muquaddimah, one of the most original works of scholarship ever written. Follow his astonishing career as a scholar, historian, and judge, and investigate his magnum opus, a philosophy of history that delineates patterns that govern the transformation of human societies. x
  • 22
    Ottomans Seize Constantinople - 1453
    Grasp why the storied city of Constantinople had great strategic importance to the burgeoning Ottoman Empire. Witness the fiercely contested siege of the city, revealing the Ottoman offensive by both land and sea. Take account of how the city's fall arguably marked the end of both the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages. x
  • 23
    Fall of Granada - 1492
    The fall of Granada marked the end of 800 years of Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula. Study the fitful Granada war that unfolded over ten years, leading to a final eight-month siege under the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. Follow the events of the state-sanctioned persecution of Jews and Muslims that followed. x
  • 24
    Safavid Dynasty of Persia - 1501
    Examine the birth of the 250-year Safavid Empire, established by the religious leader, warrior, and poet Ismail. Observe how Ismail forcibly converted his entire kingdom to the Shiite Islamic faith, introduced a new military system, and put in place the Persian bureaucratic framework that underlies the modern nation of Iran. x
  • 25
    Selim the Grim - 1512
    Investigate the achievements of this most fearsome and pivotal of Ottoman rulers. Learn how Selim vanquished the threatening Safavid Empire after violently wresting power from his father. Track his dramatic expansionist policy, tripling the Ottoman territories in less than a decade, and his defeat of the Egyptian Mamluks, becoming the first Ottoman Caliph. x
  • 26
    Suleiman the Magnificent - 1520
    Take the measure of the sultan Suleiman's extraordinary vision, through which he expanded and consolidated the Ottoman Empire, engendered a bureaucratic system and a unified legislative code, and commissioned monumental architecture. Learn also of his great love for his favorite wife, Roxelana, perhaps the most influential female political figure in Ottoman history. x
  • 27
    Second Siege of Vienna - 1683
    The 1683 Ottoman siege of Vienna is often cited as a critical turning point in European history. Investigate the events leading to the siege and battle, witness the dramatic defense of the city under the Polish king Jan Sobieski, and examine both the legacy of the clash and historical misconceptions surrounding it. x
  • 28
    The Saud-Wahhab Pact - 1744
    Here, learn how a little-known 18th-century alliance in the Middle East came to have profound reverberations in our contemporary world. Study the pact between a desert ruler and a religious reformer that initiated a structure of political and religious power that continues to dominate the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia. x
  • 29
    Napoleon Invades Egypt - 1798
    Examine the motives of France and of Napoleon for the massive invasion of Egypt in 1798, and witness the two primary military engagements that ensued. Take account of the impacts of the French occupation, and of the phenomenal work of scholarship under Napoleon that gave birth to the field of Egyptology. x
  • 30
    Murder at the Citadel - 1811
    The Egyptian viceroy Muhammad Ali is widely referred to as the Father of Modern Egypt. Learn about his bloody ascension to power, ending 600 years of intermittent Mamluk rule. Trace Ali's 43-year reign, during which he introduced a modern, European-style army, modern education, a professional civil service, and thriving industrial development. x
  • 31
    French Invasion of Algeria - 1830
    Explore the economic and political factors that sparked the brutal French invasion of Ottoman Algeria. Follow the events of the ensuing occupation, and examine the war of resistance led by the religious leader Abd al-Qadir. Observe how the invasion marked a major shift in European relations with the Middle East. x
  • 32
    East India Company in Yemen - 1839
    Investigate the phenomenon of the British East India Company, a militarized trading organization of astonishing power and reach. Learn about the Company's seizure of the strategic Yemeni port of Aden, which became a trading center of global importance, heralding Britain's century-spanning imperial presence in the Middle East. x
  • 33
    Egypt, Europe, and the Suez Canal - 1869
    The Suez Canal, which halved the sailing distance from Europe to India, changed the course of Middle Eastern and world history. Examine the events behind the building of the canal, and reveal the amazing feat of its construction. Assess the economics of the endeavor, a story of foreign debt that would cost Egypt its independence. x
  • 34
    Discovering Middle East Oil - 1908
    No other single factor has impacted the economy, politics, and social life of the Middle East as profoundly as oil. Trace the 20th-century discovery of petroleum across the region by foreign oil companies, and observe the ensuing geopolitical conflicts with local governments. Consider what became known as the Middle East's oil curse."" x
  • 35
    World War I in the Desert - 1914
    Examine the role of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, and uncover why it entered the war on the side of Germany and Austro-Hungary. Consider the scope of the conflict in the Middle East, the Arab Revolt (arguably the most significant Middle Eastern campaign of the war), and the emergence of Arab nationalism. x
  • 36
    The Last Caliphate Falls - 1924
    Investigate the epochal turning point of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the abolition of the Islamic caliphate - Islam's supreme religious authority - after 1300 years. Witness the remapping of the Middle East by the imperial powers of Britain and France, the impact of these changes on the region, and the emergent states of the modern Middle East. x

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Eamonn Gearon

About Your Professor

Eamonn Gearon
Johns Hopkins University
Eamonn Gearon is a Professorial Lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies, in Washington DC. He received his M.A. in Near and Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, and has also taught at the American University in Cairo. Mr. Gearon is the cofounder and managing director of The Siwa Group, a specialist...
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Turning Points in Middle Eastern History is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 76.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful course beautifully delivered. A superb history of the middle history. I liked in particular its objectivity and balanced honest explanations. Professor Gearon's delivery is wonderful and congratulations to The Great Courses for the presence of mind to produce this course and selection of Professor Gearon to deliver it. Well done. Highly recommended course.
Date published: 2017-09-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very (!) good course. I had been listening to courses on China, the Warrior Tribes of the Steppes and Anatolia so this was a natural progression. What I found was one of the best Great Courses lectures I have listened to. Initially Eamonn Gearon's voice inflections was kind of off putting (Read Nigel Thornberry), however he is REALLY knowledgeable and the individual lectures are well organized. For myself and other westerners' most of the Middle East, northern Africa and the Ottoman Empire were defined as unified Muslim countries intent on taking over Christian Europe. These lectures quickly dispel this idea and goes into the multiple cultures, sects and clashes that have occurred in these countries for the last 1500 years. What is more, is how relevant this is today. To understand a people's past is to understand them now.
Date published: 2017-09-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful This was a very informative course. I liked the speaker a lot. I found myself wishing for more. This is an area of the world that I had a minimal understanding of and the course was a good beginning for me.
Date published: 2017-09-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb overview or middle ease history in context Instructor is well versed in this topic. Excellent teaching background. Material is relevant when considering contemporary events in the area. Useful for understanding the why of the troubles in the area.
Date published: 2017-08-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from spot on this was so interesting and informative. i may watch it again, i am sure i could still learn a lot. it puts the history in perspective, i am starting to understand the problems
Date published: 2017-08-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Turning Points in Middle Eastern History Pleasing setting, wonderful delivery, great use of maps.
Date published: 2017-07-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great new view of old history I very much enjoyed this treatment of turning points of Middle Eastern history; this is a region whose history and predominant religion most of us know little about. It was fascinating to learn how certain key events that I was familiar with from a Western Civilization point of view were seen by Muslims at the time and today. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2017-07-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the finest series - great timeline visual! I've seen a few hundred courses from the Great Courses and Prof. Gearon's has been one of my favorites. I found the timeline bar frequently used in this course to be the best visual aid in making clear a very complex history. I've read a number of histories of the Arab peoples and this specific graphic has been immensely helpful. Please use in other courses!
Date published: 2017-07-10
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