Researchers from Leiden make Ted Ed videos: ‘We want to integrate Islamic history into world history’
What are the origins of the Islamic Empire? And what was daily life like there? Two new Ted Ed animations answer these questions in simple language. Arabists Petra Sijpesteijn and Birte Kristiansen explain what the process of developing the videos was like.
Sijpesteijn does not need to think twice about the purpose of the videos. ‘I want to integrate the history of the Islamic world into world history.’ That history disappears into the background too often, agrees Kristiansen. ‘We often jump from the Egyptians and the Romans to the Western European Middle Ages. That’s odd. You should either focus on world history and the places that are flourishing at a certain point in time, or you observe what happens locally.’
Correcting a wrong image
Now we often see that our historiographical approach shifts in Medieval times from global to local, creating a distorted picture of both the Middle Ages and the history of the Middle East. A lot of people think that the world stood still for a thousand years, as the very name ‘Middle Ages’ or ‘Dark Ages’ implies. This idea is already untrue when we focus solely on Europe, but it is even less true if we would include the Middle East. Trade, craft, literature and science were all flourishing there.
Sijpesteijn and Kristiansen previously made a MOOC about the Islamic Empire and are currently working together on a popular science book both intended to show a more correct image to a wider audience. However, so far there was nothing targeted at a young audience. ‘When we saw the Ted Ed video about the Byzantine Empire, we thought: we want something like that too,’ says Sijpesteijn. ‘There was an application form on the website, and despite the many applications for Ted Ed, we were quickly approached. The organisation itself also thought it was high time to pay attention to the Islamic Empire.’
Ted Ed videos are created by Ted, the organisation best known for its Ted Talks. The Ted Education animations are intended for a broad audience, including pupils in secondary school. That is why they are posted with extra background information and assignments. The average Ted Education video easily gets several million views.
After the first meeting, the decision was made to publish two videos: one about the birth of the Islamic Empire and one about daily life in Abbasid Baghdad, the capital of the empire when it was at the height of its prosperity. Kristiansen started working on the scripts, and Sijpesteijn edited the content.
‘Suddenly you find yourself collaborating with professionals who have a completely different perspective on such a video,’ says Sijpesteijn. ‘For example, for the video about daily life, we had to make up fictional characters to tell the story, preferably young ones, so that they would appeal to the target group. We had already done something similar for the MOOC, but for scientists it’s still outside of their comfort zone to make up a “historical character”, even if it’s based on historical realities.’
Ted Ed supported Kristiansen and Sijpesteijn throughout the process. ‘They first focused on creating a storyline that would keep the audience engaged, after that all the information was fact-checked. When the script was finished, they provided us with professional animators and voice actors,’ Kristiansen explains. ‘It was very helpful that we only had to focus on the content of the video. Because our role in the process was so clearly defined, it was quite manageable in terms of the time investment that was required. We really felt they took care of everything.’
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The first of the two videos, on the birth of the Islamic empire, was launched on 9 August. The second, about daily life in Baghdad in the ninth century, is still being developed. Both videos will be uploaded on the Ted Ed website, but can be found on YouTube as well.