Skip Navigation
CNES Celebrates Golden Anniversary

CNES Celebrates Golden Anniversary

The UCLA National Resource Center and Organized Research Unit boasts some 70 faculty members, 250 current graduate students, and over 500 PhDs in Middle East and Islamic Studies.

The University has hired new faculty... and Professor Susan Slyomovics has accepted a five-year appointment as Center Director.


In Spring 2007 the Center for Near Eastern Studies celebrated its founding 50 years ago by the renowned scholar Gustav E. von Grunebaum, who had come to UCLA from the University of Chicago with a mission to build a Middle East and Islamic Studies program grounded in the humanities and the social sciences, especially languages and history. While von Grunebaum has been characterized as the stereotypical Orientalist, he saw himself as a gentle rebel against an even older tradition then dominant at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. Like H.A.R. Gibb at Harvard, he sought to refocus Arabic and Islamic Studies on contemporary culture and society. Both were leading scholars of their day who readily cooperated with the relevant committees of the Social Science Research Council and participated in decisions on the allocation of research funds to the rising generation of scholars.

From the beginning, the Center for Near Eastern Studies sought to encourage interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary collaboration in teaching and research on both ancient and modern Islamic civilizations. Von Grunebaum insisted that the effort be concentrated around a corps of accomplished Orientalists specializing in the languages, cultures, and history of all of the peoples of the Middle East. A native of Vienna and the first president of the Middle East Studies Association, von Grunebaum was the author of seminal works on classical and medieval Islam. He was a visionary leader whose first appointments were destined to become leaders in their fields: historians Stanford Shaw, Afaf Marsot, Nikki Keddie, Speros Vryonis, and Richard Hovannisian; sociologist Georges Sabagh, and political scientist Malcolm Kerr. During this formative period, the University of California designated the Center as an Organized Research Unit of the UC, the Center instituted the Giorgio Levi Della Vida conference and award in Islamic Studies, and University and Ford Foundation funding ushered in an era of unprecedented growth and diversification, including the establishment of a graduate degree program in Islamic Studies.

Historically speaking, CNES emerged from what was then the Department of Near Eastern and African Languages, founded by Semiticist Wolf Leslau. With the impetus of Leslau, von Grunebaum, and Chancellor Franklin Murphy, the faculty corps grew to include the pioneering scholars Andreas Tietze (Turkic), Moshe Perlmann (Arabic, Polemics), Arnold Band (Hebrew Literature), Stanislav Segert (Northwest Semitics), Seegert Bonebakker (Islamic Philosophy), Hanns-Peter Schmidt (Indo-Iranian), Amin Banani (Persian), Herbert Davidson (Jewish and Islamic Philosophy), Miriam Lichtheim (Egyptology), and Avedis Sanjian (Armenian), who collectively transformed Middle East Studies in the United States. A publication program with UC Press produced more than 100 books, including S.D. Goitein’s seminal six-volume A Mediterranean Society, under the auspices of the Center and its capable editors Teresa Joseph, Marina Preussner, and currently Diane James.

As befitting a program of international repute, the University has invested significantly in building up a world-class Middle East library collection under the guidance of Bibliographers Shimeon Brisman, then Dunning Wilson, and now David Hirsch, as the trove of over 500,000 volumes continues to grow and support teaching and research at UCLA and beyond.

By the end of the 1970s, the program was flourishing with students and faculty across the disciplines: Ali Jihad Racy in Ethnomusicology, Susan Downey and Irene Bierman in Art History, Ismail Poonawala in Arabic and Islamics, Yona Sabar and Lev Hakak in Hebrew, Andras Bodrogligeti in Turkic languages, Michael Morony in Early Middle Eastern and Islamic History, Gerry Hale in Geography, and Steven Spiegel in Political Science. Funding from the US Department of Education and the Center’s designation as a National Resource Center made it possible for CNES to attract outstanding students and visiting scholars to UCLA, and to establish outreach programs to precollegiate educators, the business community, and the media.

Concurrently on the rise were specializations in Middle East Women’s Studies (with Sondra Hale, Keddie, and Marsot collaborating with a group of regional scholars), Archaeology (Giorgio Buccellati, Elizabeth Carter), and Immigration Studies prompted by the demographic changes engendered by the settlement of a large and diverse community of Middle Eastern Americans in cosmopolitan Los Angeles.

Emphasis on the social sciences brought the distinguished political scientist Leonard Binder from the University of Chicago, adding to the critical mass of scholars studying the contemporary Middle East and Islam. The appointments of Osman Galal and Gail Harrison in Public Health and of Khaled Abou El Fadl in Islamic Law paved the way for degree specializations in the corresponding professional schools.

Anticipating faculty retirements and with an eye for new growth, the University continued its steadfast commitment to Middle East Studies with the appointments of Michael Cooperson (Arabic), Hossein Ziai and Rahim Sheyegan (Persian), Peter Cowe (Armenian), Carol Bakhos (Jewish Studies), William Schniedewind (Biblical Studies and Northwest Semitics), and Robert Hoyland (Islamics), as well as a host of outstanding language instructors; historians James Gelvin (Modern Middle East), Gabriel Piterberg (Ottoman), David Myers (Jewish), Claudia Rapp (Byzantine), and most recently, Ra’anan Boustan (Late Antiquity). The appointments of Ali Behdad and Dominic Thomas as chairs of the Comparative Literature and the French and Francophone Studies Departments, respectively, and of new faculty Gil Hochberg, Aamir Mufti, Saree Makdisi, Samy Alim, and Nouri Gana, underscore the budding specializations in Critical Studies, North African Studies, and Popular Culture.

The advent of multimedia and information technology brought to the forefront the work of a team of scholars whose work is enhanced by digital innovation, including archaeologist and NELC Chair Elizabeth Carter, Assyriologist Robert Englund, Egyptologists Willeke Wendrich and Jacco Dieleman, and anthroplogist Susan Slyomovics, all of whom are recipients of special recognition for their work in new media.

With an emphasis on the contemporary, CNES promotes research by organizing graduate seminars led by visiting lecturers, thematic symposia, and research workshops (with publication as an important goal, e.g., the forthcoming Rebuilding Devastated Economies in the Middle East, edited by Leonard Binder); supporting faculty research projects, conference presentations, and short-term field research trips; funding small-scale research assistance employing graduate student researchers; hosting recurrent meetings of national and international scholars with common interests; granting affiliate status to externally funded visiting fellows; administering the Title VI Foreign Language and Area Studies program; providing support for graduate student research conferences; and emphasizing original research in the selection of visiting lecturers for its public speaker series.

Institutional votes of confidence have acknowledged the Center’s achievements as an Organized Research Unit and reaffirmed the interdisciplinary graduate degree program in Islamic Studies. A new program of Maghreb Studies has been planned. An invigorated program of Israel Studies has experienced a spectacular year of achievement. The Center has welcomed the arrival of the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, based at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women. The University has hired new faculty in Anthropology, Comparative Literature, History, and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, and Professor Susan Slyomovics has accepted a five-year appointment as Center Director.

As a government-designated comprehensive National Resource Center, CNES is committed to the integration of multiple fields of inquiry in order to produce understanding and appreciation of the variety of cultures, religions, and social organizations comprising Middle East and Islamic civilizations. As an integral component of a leading research university, the Center has a responsibility to subject such understandings to the transcultural critique of disciplined theories and methodologies.

At the same time, the Center strives to excel in fulfilling Title VI goals for language instruction (including the production of online tutorials for Turkish, Azerbaijani, and Iraqi Arabic, developed by Jonathan Friedlander and Rahul Bhushan), graduate training, and outreach. CNES is proud of its outreach to the Los Angeles Middle Eastern American community and to its K-12 constituencies. The Center provides continuing and expanded support to the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures for instruction in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian, and takes some credit for helping to revise and improve the graduate degree program in Islamic Studies. The growth and vigor of the interdisciplinary undergraduate degree program in Middle Eastern and North African Studies is another gratifying development.

Visitors to the CNES website will readily perceive the Center’s efforts to respond to the growing demand for information, analysis, education about, and direct contact with the peoples, cultures, and institutions of the Middle East and the Islamic world. They may also recognize the growth and diversification of the Center’s programs and the increasing demand from a variety of public interest groups for association or affiliation with UCLA because of its reputation for academic excellence and collegial civility.

To print this page, select "Print" from the File menu of your browser.