Brief History of CMES

History of CMES

Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) is widely recognized as having one of the largest and most distinguished concentrations of Middle Eastern and Islamic scholars anywhere in the world. Founded in 1954 to further the systematic study of a vital, but largely unknown, part of the world, it was the first center of its kind in the United States. The Center’s original mandate covered both the classical and modern aspects of the region, but, as is reflected in its endeavors today, its interests soon grew to include Islamic societies and cultures worldwide. Unique among area centers at Harvard, CMES is responsible for teaching as well as research, which has been true since its inception. The Center is the coordinating body and a primary source of intellectual and material support within Harvard for scholarly pursuits covering the vast area between Morocco and Iran, and beyond.

Soon after its inception and under the directorship of the eminent Arabist, Hamilton Gibb (from 1957 – 1966), the Center witnessed rapid growth in faculty and students, along with a variety of programs such as visiting fellowships and specialized publications. The dominant emphasis of CMES in the humanities, particularly history, became firmly rooted in this period, though it has never been an exclusive emphasis. In the 1970s, for example, the Center focused seriously on energy policy and development planning.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, the Center undertook major initiatives to broaden its horizons beyond the Middle East to encompass the larger realm of Islam. At the same time, it was instrumental in significantly expanding Harvard’s resources in Iranian and Turkish studies, along with modern Middle Eastern history and modern Arabic language instruction. CMES also launched research projects in areas ranging from Ottoman court records and Iranian oral history to Islamic finance and contemporary Arab studies, most of which continue today.

In 2004, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary and the appointment of anthropologist, Steven Caton as its new director, the Center committed itself to a determined effort to balance its traditional strengths in the humanities and the pre-modern era with a greater focus on the social sciences and contemporary issues. This commitment looks to expand Harvard’s teaching and research on the contemporary Middle East, and calls for moving beyond area-specific frameworks of inquiry in favor of approaches that are interdisciplinary, transregional, and transnational in scope.

For a more detailed history of CMES, please see our commemorative volume Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University: Reflections on the Past, Visions for the Future.

50th Anniversary Commemorative Volume

Cover of CMES Commemorative VolumeReflections on the Past, Visions for the Future
Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University
Edited by Don Babai

(Cambridge: CMES, Harvard University, 2004)
195 pp.
ISBN 0976272709 (pbk.)

“Area studies”—a distinctively American way of organizing knowledge about the rest of the world—have been in a state of crisis in recent years, especially since the end of the cold war and the spread of globalization. In no field of inquiry has that crisis been as acute as in Middle Eastern studies. This volume focuses on one of the leading institutions in the field, Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES). It was prepared on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Center in 2004.

The book is divided into three parts. Part I examines the history of CMES over the last five decades against the backdrop of ongoing debates about Middle Eastern studies and area studies in general. It surveys the Center’s evolution through the eventful, often tumultuous, tenures of twelve directors, from William Langer to Cemal Kafadar. Part II looks at the multifaceted operations of CMES that serve the scholarly community within and beyond Harvard. It offers an account of the Center’s scholarly activities, including its teaching programs and research projects. Part III consists of a series of essays, mainly by members of the core faculty of the Center, presenting diverse assessments of the state of Middle Eastern studies today as well visions of how CMES and Harvard might meet the complex challenges to the field in the years ahead. Most of the essays are framed around individual disciplines, including history, philology, language, law, economics, politics, anthropology, women’s studies, urban design, and health care. Together, they offer a compendium of insights that should be of interest to anyone concerned with the future of the discipline.

Available for purchase from:
Harvard University Press
79 Garden Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138


Influential Directors of CMES


William L. LangerWilliam L. Langer, Coolidge Professor History, founder and first director of the Center, 1954–1957





Sir Hamilton Gibb Sir Hamilton Gibb, Jewett Professor of Arabic and University Professor, 1957–1966





Nadav SafranNadav Safran, Murray A. Albertson Professor of Middle Eastern Studies, Government Department, 1983–1986




Roy P. MottahedehRoy P. Mottahedeh, Gurney Professor of Islamic History, 1987–1990




William GrahamWilliam A. Graham, Murray A. Albertson Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and currently Dean of Harvard Divinity School, 1990–1996




E. Roger OwenE. Roger Owen, A.J. Meyer Professor of Middle East History, 1996–1999





Cemal FadarCemal Kafadar, Vehbi Koç Professor of Turkish Studies, History Department, 1999–2004, 2009–2010





Steve CatonSteven C. Caton, Professor of Contemporary Arab Studies, Anthropology Department, 2004–2009





Steve CatonBaber Johansen, Professor of Islamic Religious Studies, Harvard Divinity School, 2010–2013