Joel Thomas Walker

  • Associate Professor

Ph.D. Princeton University, 1998.

Fields: Late Antiquity, Ancient World, Middle East, Islamic World
Phone: 206-616-1972
Office: SMI 004 | Office Hours: M 3:00-4:00 (Suzzallo cafe); T 12:00-1:00 (Smith 0
Curriculum Vitae:

As a historian of late antiquity, I am interested in the diverse cultures of western Eurasia from prehistory to the early Islamic caliphate.  The rubric of late antiquity has allowed me to integrate some of my most abiding interests: the history and archaeology of the Classical world; early Christianity; and religion and society in the pre-Islamic and early Islamic Middle East.  At the undergraduate level, I offer lecture courses on the Ancient World ("Cavemen to Constantine"), the World of Late Antiquity, and the Byzantine Empire, as well as seminars on Jerusalem, the Empires of Ancient Iran, and animal-human relations in world history ("the cow course").  My graduate seminars have explored these same general areas.  In addition to my position in the History Department since 1997, I have been an active member of the University of Washington’s Comparative Religion Program and its Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization.  Between 2012 and 2015, I served as the director of the University of Washington’s Program in Persian and Iranian Studies.

My scholarship centers on the religious and cultural communities of the premodern Middle East, especially the Christian community known as the Church of the East or the "Nestorians."  My first book, The Legend of Mar Qardagh: Narrative and Christian Heroism in Late Antique Iraq (University of CA Press, 2006), employs a Syriac martyr legend to show how Christians in late antique Iraq forged their identity in dialogue with the social and intellectual traditions of Iran, Syria, and the Greco-Roman world.  Though relatively little known today, this Nestorian or East-Syrian church once spanned Eurasia.  In my contribution to the Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity (OUP, 2012), I survey this East-Syriac tradition, highlighting its regional, ethnic, and linguistic diversity.  In articles and book reviews, I have investigated other aspects of the Church of the East, including its monastic book culture, hagiography, and its expansion into Central and East Asia.

My current book project, Jewel of the Palace and the Soul: Pearls in the Arts, Economy, and Imagination of the Late Antique World, uses a single type of material to illuminate patterns of interaction and exchange across the entire late antique world.  Harvested from the warm, shallow waters of the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the coasts of southern India, pearls became visible markers of elite status in the empires of both Rome and Iran.  They captured the imagination of Greco-Roman women, who wore them on their ears, necks, and hair, and of Persian elites, who told stories about great pearls won and lost by kings.  They sparked the imagination of Jewish and Christian writers (i.e., the “pearly gates” of the heavenly Jerusalem) and appear prominently in the mosaics of the Umayyad Mosque at Damascus.  The book’s scope and structure reinforce an argument I have made elsewhere about the importance of integrating the Middle East into our study of the late antique world.

My graduate teaching has been eclectic with students in various areas of ancient, medieval, and Islamic history.  Most have come from History, Comparative Religion, and Near Eastern Languages and Civilization, but students interested in graduate study at the University of Washington should also investigate the faculty and resources associated with the Middle East Center, the Interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Near and Middle Eastern Studies, and the Department of Classics.  I attach below the syllabi from my most recent undergraduate and graduate courses.

You can view or download copies of many of my articles and reviews from

Undergraduate courses:

The Ancient World (autumn quarter)

The World of Late Antiquity (usually, spring quarter)

Jerusalem and the Holy Land: From King David to the Crusades (junior seminar)

Bull of Heaven and Earth: Animal-Human Relations from Paleolithic Art to the Chicago Stockyards (this version taught for the University Honors program)

Recent graduate seminars

Jerusalem: From King David to the Dome of the Rock (winter, 2013)

Christian Communities of the Middle East (winter, 2012)

Splendid Adornment: Gems and Jewelry in the Roman and Late Antique World (spring, 2011)

Introduction to the Roman Near East (2005, 2007, autumn, 2010)