On the Spot: Eugene Rogan

‘The most common misconception about my field? That the Arabs are unusually prone to conspiracy theories to explain political developments.’

Egyptian president Anwar Sadat addresses the Israeli Knesset, 20 November 1977. National Library of Israel. Public Domain.

Why are you a historian of the Middle East? 

I spent my school years in Beirut and Cairo, a witness to the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the Lebanese Civil War, Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem to address the Knesset... Nothing else has seemed as interesting since.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you? 

No matter how bad the situation, it can get worse.

Which history book has had the greatest influence on you? 

Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes 

What book in your field should everyone read? 

Albert Hourani’s magisterial History of the Arab Peoples.

Which moment would you most like to go back to?

I would gladly be a package tourist in the ancient world, renting a chariot to visit Pharaonic Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you? 

The founder of Oxford’s school of modern Middle Eastern studies, Albert Hourani.

Which person in history would you most like to have met? 

I would like to hold a reunion with my ancestors across the centuries to fill in all the questions I have about our (very modest) Irish and Scottish family history.

How many languages do you have? 

I’m comfortable in Arabic and French, I feel stretched in Turkish and Italian.

Is there an important historical text you have not read? 

Too many to count. That’s what happens when your doctorate is your first degree in history.

What historical topic have you changed your mind on? 

No epiphanies yet. 

What is the most common misconception about your field? 

That the Arabs are unusually prone to conspiracy theories to explain political developments.

Who is the most underrated person in history… 

Faisal I.

… and the most overrated?

Faisal’s British advisor, T.E. Lawrence ‘of Arabia’.

What’s the most exciting field in history today? 

Popular social history.

What’s your favourite archive? 

Any archive that still calls up original documents by folder or box. Istanbul’s old Başbakanlık was the best.

What’s the best museum?

One that doesn’t plunder. 

What technology has changed the world the most? 

The personal computer.

Recommend us a historical novel... 

Wolf Hall.

... and a historical drama? 

BBC News at Ten. 

You can solve one historical mystery. What is it? 

I was three when JFK was assassinated. I’d love to put the conspiracy theories to rest.


Eugene Rogan is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at the University of Oxford. His latest book is The Damascus Events: The 1860 Massacre and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Allen Lane, 2024).