The languages and civilizations of the Near East have been a major part of the University's teaching and research commitment since its inception.

William Rainey Harper, the University's founder and first president, was a Hebrew scholar and author of a grammar widely used in institutions of higher learning for more than three-quarters of a century. Research done at Chicago has helped to form the very basis of the modern disciplines of Assyriology, Egyptology, and ancient Near Eastern Archaeology.

The creation of "Islamic Civilization" as a curriculum was effected at Chicago. In all these areas and related subfields a faculty of distinguished scholars now extends this tradition, keeping the University of Chicago at the forefront of worldwide developments in Near Eastern studies. Graduates of the Department have for decades been among the leading international experts in their fields.

An interdisciplinary approach to learning is a characteristic of the Chicago intellectual tradition. In the courses, seminars, and workshops where they, as well as the NELC faculty, interact with their counterparts in anthropology, art history, classics, comparative literature, history, law, linguistics, political science, and religious studies. NELC also has a joint degree program with the Department of Linguistics.

This interdisciplinary and team approach is especially facilitated by the participation of many of the students and faculty in the work of the University's Oriental Institute and Center for Middle Eastern Studies. The Department also publishes the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, which is one of the leading journals in Ancient Near Eastern and Islamic studies.