Traces of Germany in Lebanon German Research in the Heart of Lebanon: The Orient-Institut Beirut

The Orient-Institut Beirut
The Orient-Institut Beirut | Image courtesy of the Orient-Institut Beirut

Every first Wednesday evening of the month, the doctoral fellows of the Orient-Institut Beirut (OIB) hold an “Open Garden”. The popular gathering for young researchers and friends of the institute is a good opportunity to meet new people and exchange views on working and living in Lebanon. 

The OIB was founded in Beirut in 1961 on the initiative of the German Oriental Society (Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft or DMG). The idea was to establish a base for German Oriental studies abroad, and enhance German research links throughout the region. While Damascus was first considered as a potential location, Beirut was selected in the end. This was due not only to the fact that the Lebanese authorities facilitated setting up an institute, but also because of the presence of an international academic community in Beirut. This would later prove to be a decisive advantage. At the time of the founding of the institute, universities in Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo were very highly regarded on an international level, especially in the subject areas covered by the Orient-Institut.

Since 1964, the OIB has been located in an Ottoman villa in the Zokak el-Blat quarter, in the heart of Beirut. Many educational institutions had settled here, especially during the Arab cultural renaissance in the 19th century – the Nahda. By connecting cosmopolitanism and the revival of the humanist Arab tradition, they created a typically Lebanese approach to modernism – a model to which the institute is committed to this day.

The OIB is a German academic research institute focusing on the Arab world. Since 2003 it has been part of the Max Weber Foundation – German Humanities Institutes Abroad, and is mostly funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Research activities are sustained by research associates who come from Germany for several years. The OIB also offers short-term doctoral and post-doctoral fellowships for scholars from all over the world. In addition, students of related subjects – primarily from German universities – have the opportunity to complete an internship here.

Together with actors and institutions in the region, the institute conducts and supports research in the humanities and social sciences relating to the Arabic world and the Middle East. The diversity of academic traditions, perspectives and knowledge horizons coming together at such close quarters at the OIB is probably unique in the world. Getting everyone to participate in a reasoned and constructive debate is a constant challenge and a valuable experience, which the participants often fondly recall even years later. Research at the OIB, in Lebanon and in the region means questioning one’s preconceived approaches and notions, and in many cases changing them. The OIB regards enabling and accompanying these processes as its most important task. Weekly research seminars and public evening seminars provide arenas giving everyone working here the opportunity to introduce themselves and engage with others. As in many academic institutions in Germany itself, the German language is not essential for academic communication, even though German universities and researchers from Germany continue to be strongly represented.

History and contemporary history, literature including music and film, religion, society, politics and the economy are all reflected on in the institute’s research projects, the fields often intersecting with each other. The institute’s website and yearly reports – also accessible through the website – provide a good overview of the current research projects.

Besides its research, the OIB publishes three series. Bibliotheca Islamica (BI) is committed to critical editions of Arabic manuscripts, while Beiruter Texte und Studien (BTS) and the online series Orient-Institut Studies (OIS) are dedicated to the history, society, politics and literature of the region. The research library with its over 130,000 volumes is open to the public and invites researchers to leave their own trace in Lebanon.