Greater Syria—the region known in Arabic as Bilad al-Sham—is roughly coterminous with the modern nation states of Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. In The Middle East and the Making of the Modern World, historian Cyrus Schayegh offers a new history of the region from 1850 to 1950 that emphasizes the multiple layers of spatial identity embraced by the region’s inhabitants, presenting in the process a much-needed challenge to the predominant ways in which we talk about the formation of the modern world. Below, Schayegh decribes the experiences of the denizens of Bilad al-Sham, and outlines the notion of “transpatialization.”
Each age comes with its own dominant historiographic lens. When nation states crystallized in the nineteenth century, many historians—especially European ones—made them history’s quasi-metaphysical objective and central subject. When a globalization wave built up from the 1970s, historians reacted, too. “All local, national, or regional histories must be global history, too,” the late Christopher Bayly famously stated in his landmark The Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914.
Logically, the reverse is true as well. Global history must also be local, national, and regional. It is for this reason that quite a few global—and, related, transnational—histories materialize in specific locales. And it is for the same reason that some scholars define globalization not as uniformly tightening interdependence but as uneven interplays between border transgressions and reassertions; and that writing global history is not simply about topics but involves a global optic on past events and trends, as Sebastian Conrad has recently underlined in What Is Global History? Despite these historiographic insights, however, a “real challenge” persists, he has noted: To “shift between, and articulate, different scales of analysis… In many case historians have opted for novel geographies, but in the end have tended to then treat these spaces as given.”
A related challenge has to do with how we conceptualize the socio-spatial making of the modern world. That development cannot be reduced to nation-state formation or globalization or urbanization, to mention three usual suspects. Certainly, accelerated interdependence across space, states’ unprecedented ability to penetrate their territory, and record urban growth all have been instrumental in creating the modern world, distinguishing it from premodern times. But none has been clearly dominant. This is not the least because they are intertwined—because “all local, national, or regional histories must be global,” too, to quote Bayly again.
Enter transpatialization: what we may call modern cities, regions, states—nation-states and others—and global circuits reconstituting and transforming each other more thoroughly and at a faster rhythm than before. This, I argue in The Middle East and the Making of the Modern World, is the primary distinguishing feature of the modern world’s socio-spatial making. Transpatialization does not denote one single process, and it is not an empirical unit. (Neither are globalization, state formation, or urbanization, for that matter!) It refers to a set of processes; it is a heuristic umbrella that does not assign artificial primacy to any one presumably unitary process such as “nation-state formation” or “urbanization” or to any one seemingly distinct scale like “the global” or “the local.”