The Newsletter 92 Summer 2022

‘Critical Heritage Studies of Asia and Europe’ to include course on the Politics of Heritage in the Middle East

Elena Paskaleva

From 2023, the international post-graduate Dual Degree in ‘Critical Heritage Studies of Asia and Europe’ will expand its focus to include the politics of heritage in the Middle East. The Dual Degree forms part of a broader ambition to decentralise the production of knowledge about Asia by establishing a platform for continuing dialogues between universities located in Asia and beyond. The present institutions involved in the Dual Degree − IIAS, Leiden University, National Taiwan University, and Yonsei University − have established a fruitful collaboration in research and teaching. Currently, talks are underway with several universities in Indonesia and North Africa. This latest addition to the Leiden part of the programme is a logical next step in the discussions about the relevance of critical heritage studies.

The Politics of Heritage in the Middle East

Heritage is always political. Originally a concept coined by the nation-state, heritage has become the object of political appropriation by national and local authorities and stakeholders. Institutional and non-institutional social actors in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East are increasingly involved in debating the legitimacy of − as well as the need to ‘safeguard’ − different expressions of heritage. Analysing the dynamic of the various types of public, institutional, and private actors engaged in the current negotiations on heritage practice across the Middle East will be the topic of a new course, titled 'The Politics of Heritage in The Middle East’ in the Leiden master’s programme in Critical Heritage Studies.

The political and power practices in the Middle East are crucial to understanding how heritage was romanticised or defined as marginalised in the colonial context. Current attitudes towards cultural heritage can be better understood if they are situated in a historical perspective. That is why the new course will offer a special focus on the ways the modern concept of cultural heritage was introduced to the Middle East during the colonial period. The first initiatives to conduct large-scale archaeological expeditions, to start collecting newly-excavated objects, and to initiate restoration campaigns led by European archaeologists, architects, and art historians set the tone for generations to come. As part of global competition among world empires for supremacy over the protection of cultural heritage, the colonial policies behind these projects can be considered an integral part of the overall restructuring of the colonised space across the Middle East.

Political independence after the Second World War marked the postcolonial states’ attempts to build specific national narratives and forge national identities based on the traces of powerful empires. Another trend was to promote popular religious traditions and folklore, considered to be the ‘authentic’ expression of the Arab essence which was to define these modern societies. As a counterbalance to these discourses incorporated into state heritage practice, the new course will look at the transformative nature of cultural heritage as derived from individuals and communities who attach meaningful memories to and identify feelings towards the physical traces of their own past.

Cultural heritage – especially its materialisation in objects, buildings, and sites – has become a magnet for tourists across the Middle East. While in the 19th century, tourists were fascinated by the constructed idea of an ancient cultural landscape unchanged since the Biblical times, the controversial questions of authenticity have been negotiated at present by preserving the material traces of the past and by reconstructing heritage sites that have been deliberately shattered by war conflicts or looting.

The Dual Degree in Critical Heritage Studies of Asia and Europe

The Dual Degree programme offers selected graduate students from the participating universities the opportunity to obtain two MA degrees – one from Leiden University and one from a partner university in Asia – and a Certificate for the Dual Degree in Critical Heritage Studies of Asia and Europe, issued by IIAS. The diploma at Leiden University is for the MA in Asian Studies, which comes with a special certificate for completing the specialisation in Critical Heritage Studies (also issued to students who complete this programme at Leiden University without opting for the Dual Degree).


Please contact Dr Elena Paskaleva (LIAS) at with any questions about the Leiden programme in Critical Heritage Studies or the Dual Degree.

We especially invite students from the Leiden master’s programme in Middle Eastern Studies (offered at the Leiden Institute for Area Studies) to enquire about the possibility of choosing this programme.


Dr Elena Paskaleva (Leiden University Institute for Area Studies) is the coordinator of the IIAS Asian Heritages Cluster and the Dual Degree in Critical Heritage Studies of Asia and Europe.