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Beginning Your Middle East Family Tree

If you have ancestors who came from the Middle East and are wondering how to find more information about them, FamilySearch is here to help you fill out your Middle East family tree! 

Influence of Different Empires in Middle East Genealogy

The area defined as the Middle East roughly borders the Mediterranean Sea, including western Asia and North Africa. Long an important transcontinental trade route between Europe and Asia, it has been dominated by various empires throughout history, including the Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Muslim Caliphates, and Ottoman Empires.

For instance, the Muslim Ottoman Empire began its rise to dominance around AD 1300 and ruled the area for 600 years, until after World War I. As it expanded its influence westward from Turkey, the empire eventually covered three continents and included a diverse range of ethnicities, religions, languages, cultures, and geography. At one time, it included modern-day Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Armenia, Greece, Macedonia, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Syria, the Arabian Peninsula countries, and North Africa.

A graphic showing the size of the ottoman empire.

During the next several centuries, particularly the 18th and 19th centuries, the size and shape of the Ottoman Empire changed due to wars (including citizens fleeing to other areas), emigration caused in part by persecutions of different minorities, economic conditions, and secessions of territories. For example, Greece gained its independence in 1830 after several decades of fighting, and other areas of the empire began pushing for their own independence.

With the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the Middle East was divided between France (who controlled Lebanon and Syria) and Great Britain (who controlled Palestine and the Persian Gulf) until the end of World War II. With the rise of nationalism and a desire for independence, new nation-states were formed in the early to mid-20th century; among them are Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.

How to Start Your Middle East Family Tree

With such diverse cultures, languages, and histories in the area, how do you start building your Middle East family tree? Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  • Start with what you know. Gather your records and interview your relatives for information that they may have.
  • Check the census and vital records of the area where you know they were living. This can give you clues about their origin.
  • Search national archives. If you know where your ancestors emigrated from, you might be able to find information about them. However, national archives are not available to the public in most Middle East countries, so this may be a difficult path to take in your search.
A father and daughter research their middle east family tree.
  • Remember that the millions of available records, especially those from the Ottoman Empire period, are dispersed among the different countries of the area. Start by finding records at your ancestors’ places of birth.
  • Remember that civil government records for the newer nations only begin with their independence. For records prior to independence, your search needs to focus on records kept by local churches and other religious groups. Look for earlier records in the archives of the ruling countries, such as Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire.

Essential Repositories for Middle East Family Tree Research

The Ottoman Empire began keeping records in the 1800s. These records include censuses and personal ID records that give the person’s name, place of birth, and father’s information. The first census in 1831 was a partial census that listed only males. Beginning in 1882, censuses began including information for all citizens and included birth date and place, a description, and family information.

When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, some of the records were dispersed, primarily to Ankara and Istanbul in Turkey. For information about census, military, land and property, and taxation records, see Ottoman Empire Genealogy at FamilySearch.

You can also check for records at the Ottoman Archives of Prime Minister Office as well as some universities, such as Koç University Libraries. The Ottoman Archives of Prime Minister Office is located in Istanbul and is accessible to all, but you may need help with the language.

Some other possibilities are the National Library of Sofia and the Historical Archive of Macedonia.

a library where one could research their middle eastern family tree.

Islamic Court Registers

Written in narrative form, Islamic Court Registers can give important information about your Middle Eastern ancestors. Turkey, Lebanon, and Egypt have some centralized records. Check with local archives of courts where your ancestors may have lived, such as this one at Jerusalem. Universities may also have records.

Tribal Lineages

For some Arabic tribes, the tribal lineage can give the patrilinear ancestry, or male-only lines. Keep in mind that these lineages are available in texts and can be subjective or political in nature, depending on who was recording the information. Check local libraries and universities for books on Middle Eastern tribes in the areas where your ancestors originated. Many of the FamilySearch Wiki Middle East pages also include information about some of the popular tribes in the countries as well as what surnames usually belonged to those tribes.

Helpful Hints in Researching Middle East Records

When researching your Middle Eastern ancestors, keep in mind which language they spoke, what their religion was, and where they lived.

An ancient book written in arabic.

Middle Eastern Languages

 Because of the vast area of the Ottoman Empire, there were four major languages spoken: Turkish, Persian, Syriac, and Arabic. The majority spoke Turkish, while the educated spoke Persian, and Islamic prayers were in Arabic. Some ethnic minorities spoke their own languages.

All official business, military documents, and government documents were done in the Ottoman-Turkish language. Now considered a dead language, it was a mix of Turkish, Arabic, and Persian grammar and vocabulary.

Your Ancestor’s Location

When you know the area your ancestors came from, use FamilySearch Wiki country pages to help you get started. As you start researching, keep in mind the records may be written in different languages, and in those areas under foreign control, such as Lebanon, you might need to go to the ruling countries’ sites for records.

two middle eastern churches

Middle Eastern Religion

There are many religions spread throughout the Middle East. Look in the areas where your ancestors came from to find church records. Most local churches kept baptism, marriage, and death records.

For Christians, who were granted limited freedom, there were four main churches:

  • Armenian Orthodox Church is one of the earliest Christian churches in the area. Look for Armenian records at FamilySearch.
    • Eastern Orthodox is the official church of Greece; records are often in Greek or Arabic.
    • Maronite records, found mostly in Lebanon, are between the years of 1840 and 1916. Each church has its records, mostly in the Syriac or Arabic languages.
    • Coptic Christians in Egypt kept several records that you can access at FamilySearch or through local congregations.
    • If you need help with language, look for specialists in Ottoman language and history, or use a translator, such as an Ottoman-Turkish dictionary.

Additional Resources

A woman researches her family.
  • Cyndislist, GenealogyToday, and the WorldGenWeb has additional information and records to help you locate your ancestors.
  • The FamilySearch Where Am I From? feature can also give you additional insight into where your ancestors lived during important world events, and it allows you to trace family lines across the world. Try using this feature in tandem with Google Maps to see photos of your family’s homeland.

As you work on your Middle East family tree, be sure to document and share your efforts on your family tree at FamilySearch. Take time to learn about the customs and cultures of the area that you can incorporate into your family to bring your ancestors closer to home.

Much of this information came from Jonathan McCollum’s RootsTech 2021 class, An Introduction to Middle East Family History and Ottoman Records for Family History in the Middle East and Balkans,” and Elie T. Elias’s RootsTtech 2021 class, Insight on Maronite Church Records.”

Source: Family Search

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