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The Middle East from Empire to Sealed Identities

Lorenzo Kamel

Hardback (Forthcoming)

Explores how conceptions of identity were historically constructed in the Middle East under the influence of imperial powers

This compelling analysis of the modern Middle East – based on research in 19 archives and numerous languages – shows the transition from an internal history characterised by local realities that were plural and multidimensional, and where identities were flexible and hybrid, to a simplified history largely imagined and imposed by external actors. This version of history is distinguished by the politicisation of these identities with the aim of better grasping and, ultimately, controlling them. The author shows – mainly through a study of key moments, including the germs of competing ethno-religious visions in the 1830s, the Ottoman Tanzimat, the introduction of the Millet system, the Balfour Declaration, post-World War One treaties, and the creation of borders – how the once heterogeneous identities of Middle Eastern peoples were sealed into a standardised and uniform version that persists to this day.

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Lists of Figures


Note on Transliteration


Introduction: The Past’s Present

Chapter 1. Beyond ‘Tribes’ and ‘Sects’: On Concepts and Terms

Chapter 2. The First Moment; 1830s: The Germs of Competing Ethno-Religious Visions

Chapter 3. The Second Moment; The Tanẓīmāt’s Long Waves: Politicising Ethno-Religious Differences

Chapter 4. The Third Moment; From Ethnocentric Drives to a New Millet System

Chapter 5. Balfour’s ‘Pattern’

Chapter 6. The Racialisation of Middle Eastern People

Chapter 7. Beyond ‘Artificiality’: Borders, States, Nations

Conclusion: The Present’s Past


About the Author

Lorenzo Kamel teaches History of Colonial Spaces at the University of Bologna and is a Senior Research Fellow at the Istituto Affari internazionali (IAI). He holds a 2-years MA in Israel Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a PhD in History from the University of Bologna, and taught in several universities, including the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg - where he served as a Marie Curie Experienced Researcher - and Harvard University, where he was also a postdoctoral fellow for 2 years. He is a regular contributor to media outlets such as Al-Jazeera and Rai1, reviewer for the ERC consolidator grants, editor of three book series, and the scientific director of the New-Med Research Network.


In this engaging revisionary study, Lorenzo Kamel shows how modern Western-ist intellectual prejudices have distorted our understanding of identity and conflict in the modern Middle East. Based on original archival research and an exhaustive survey of secondary literature, the author reveals a world that can only be characterized as "medieval" if one misunderstands the Middle Ages. Focussing on the long nineteenth century, the book provides a chronological continuation of much of the most interesting work being done in pre-modern Mediterranean Studies.

- Professor Brian A. Catlos, University of Colorado Boulder

This book will make an important mark on the field. From Empire to Sealed Identities shows the ways in which ethnic and other divisions were historically constructed in the Middle East under the influence of imperial powers. The work combines meticulous archival research in multiple languages with careful analysis of broader trends to map the transition from empire to homogenized nation-states. This ability to document with rich detail and at the same time be able to present the larger picture with great clarity is rare. The author pulls off the feat with great erudition.

- Professor Beth Baron, CUNY

Based on exhaustive work in numerous archives and in several languages, Lorenzo Kamel has produced what I think is one of the most definitive works on the transition from empire to nation-state. It is impressively ambitious and does what many major historians have been promising to do: to show how hard, Western conceptions of identity shaped and formed the thinking and decisions of statesmen and other political elites in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It also deals with the penetration of hard national categories among the various peoples of the empire. It is an authoritative book and will be very widely consulted.

- Nicholas Doumanis, Author of Before the Nation

Lorenzo Kamel is a dedicated and meticulous scholar, extremely experienced and internationally recognized for his research methodology. His extensive archival work, which forms the basis of many of his most important publications, is impressive by any academic standard. His archival research, informed by exemplary linguistic skills, has, without question, created new understandings of the complex dynamics shaping our inquiry into modern European empires, and the history of the Middle East in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Middle East from Empire to Sealed Identities will continue this outstanding trend.

- Professor Sara Roy, Harvard University

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