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About the Department

Founded in 1883, the Department of Near Eastern Studies of the Johns Hopkins University was the first in the United States to offer a Ph.D in the field. The Department now offers programs of study leading to the Ph.D. in four areas: Assyriology, Egyptology, Hebrew Bible and Northwest Semitic Studies, and Near Eastern Archaeology.

The department's approach is to study ancient Near Eastern civilizations with all the modern tools of analysis (literary, legal, anthropological, etc.), but primarily through ancient written records and physical evidence.  The study of language and script forms the core of our program, with an emphasis on gaining ability to access sources in the original.  At the same time, written records and physical evidence can only be understood in context, which includes their archaeological and historical background and their relationship with the surrounding cultures. 

Our programs of study emphasize an interdisciplinary approach to the civilizations of the region. They consist of a major area of concentration, a minor from another area (usually a language), and a series of history seminars covering all three principal sub-regions: Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Syria-Palestine.  Interdisciplinary efforts are a prominent feature of academic life at Johns Hopkins. The department's faculty members frequently collaborate in joint teaching and research ventures among themselves and with faculty from other disciplines. Students are encouraged to adopt the same spirit of collaboration within the department and, where relevant, to participate in courses in other departments.

The Near Eastern Studies Department sponsors three archaeological field projects (Profs. Bryan, Harrower, Schwartz).  Archaeology is a model of cross-disciplinary research, spanning the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.  Our field projects study such multi-disciplinary issues as human subsistence, human interaction with climate and physical environment, patterns of settlement, political and economic organization, and religious activity and thought.

A Brief History of the Department

The Department of Near Eastern Studies was one of the original departments when the Johns Hopkins University was founded. The Department was originally modeled after the German system with Paul Haupt, a renowned Sumerologist and Assyriologist from Leipzig and Göttingen, holding the W. W. Spence Chair in Semitic Languages. The Spence Chair was next held by Haupt’s student, William Foxwell Albright, who was one of the most influential scholars of the 20th century. Albright taught at Hopkins for three decades (1929-1958). For a dozen years he was also the Director of the American Schools of Oriental Research in Jerusalem. Founded in 1900, it is the oldest American research center in the Middle East and in 1970 was renamed The W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in his honor.

Albright was known for his encyclopedic knowledge of the entire ancient Near East. Albright helped authenticate the Dead Sea Scrolls along with his student and later colleague at Hopkins, Samuel Iwry. Albright was a leading authority in the fields of epigraphy, the Hebrew Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls, newly discovered alphabetic-cuneiform texts from Syria (written in the language of Ugaritic), and especially material culture where he was acknowledged to be the Dean of Biblical Archaeology. His masterful command of the entire ancient Near East resulted in more than 1000 publications and 29 honorary degrees. Three generations of Albright’s students would go on to hold professorships at the most prestigious universities in America and abroad.

Since Albright’s time the department has grown in its areas of expertise and currently has the stature of being one of the leading institutions for the study of the ancient Near East. The ancient Near East covers nearly 4,000 years of history “from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean” and beyond (i.e. the areas occupied today by Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Ethiopia and South Arabia). Chronologically the department covers the time periods from the invention of writing (by 3,500 BCE) up to and even including the Hellenistic world. The cultures it covers include: Egyptian, Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Hittite, Ugaritic, Aramean, Phoenician and Israelite.

Named Professorships and Lecture Series

The department consists of eight full-time faculty with five named professorships:

• Betsy M. Bryan, the Alexander Badawy Professor of Egyptian Art and Archaeology

• Theodore J. Lewis, the Blum-Iwry Professor of Near Eastern Studies

• P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., the William Foxwell Albright Professor of Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies

• Glenn M. Schwartz, the Whiting Professor of Archaeology

Raymond Westbrook, the most recent holder of the W. W. Spence Chair, and the leading authority on ancient legal traditions, died in July 2009

The department has three endowed public lecture series that bring world-renowned authorities to campus.

  • The Albright Lecture (endowed by the Harvey M. and Lyn P. Meyerhoff Foundation) has been held for the past 32 years (since 1978).
  • The Iwry Lecture (endowed by the Blum family who also endowed the Blum-Iwry Professorship) has been held for the past 25 years (since 1986).
  • The Asher Achinstein Lecture began in 2009, and its inaugural lecture was given by Geza Vermes, Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies, University of Oxford on “Sixty Years of Wrestling with the Dead Sea Scrolls.”

Notable Alumni

Graduates of our doctoral program constitute a Who’s Who in the field of Near Eastern Studies and currently hold or have held positions at leading universities across the world.

• Our very first graduate in 1887, Cyrus Adler, went on to become the president of the Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning and Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

• Until recently, our oldest alumnus was Avraham Biran. Biran, who recently just passed away at the age of 98, received his doctorate in 1935. In addition to being the director of the famous excavations at Tel Dan in northern Israel for more than 30 years, Biran wore many hats. Between 1949 and 1955, Biran was the District Commissioner of Jerusalem as well as Senior Member of the Israel delegation to the Mixed Armistice Commission of Jordan. He served as the Israeli consul in Los Angeles from 1955-1958. As Director of the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums (appointed in 1961), Biran oversaw excavations and in the 1970s helped negotiate publication of parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, then held in the Palestine Archaeological Museum in East Jerusalem. In addition to being a world-renowned archaeologist, Biran was also the Director of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Israel since 1974. In 2002 Biran was presented with State of Israel's greatest honor, the Israel Prize, in recognition of his enormous contributions to archaeological excavation, research, and publication.

• Four of our alumni have held professorships at Harvard University (Frank Moore Cross, Thomas Lambdin, William Moran, G. Ernest Wright). Each of these individuals was the leading scholar in his area of Near Eastern Studies: Cross—Hebrew Bible-Northwest Semitics; Lambdin—Comparative Semitic Linguisitics; Moran—Assyriology; Wright—Archaeology.

• Frank Moore Cross held Harvard’s second oldest chair (the Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages in the Department of Near East Languages and Civilisations) from 1958-1992 as well as being curator of the Harvard Semitic Museum. As one of the leading scholars of the Dead Sea Scrolls, he was a Fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies (1971–1972), a Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1978–1979), a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Member of the American Philosophical Society.

• Yet another graduate, Raymond Brown, was regarded as the Dean of New Testament scholars having written more than 35 books. In addition to being elected a Fellow of the British Academy and American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he was appointed by two popes as the sole American on the Pontifical Biblical Commission. Like Albright, he also received some 30 honorary degrees from universities worldwide.

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