Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

St John's is one of the leading Colleges with Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (AMES) expertise. The Director of Studies Professor Adam Chau, is an anthropologist of Chinese religion as well as a Fellow of the College and a member of the Faculty. St John's has two other China specialists (specialising on the medieval and late-imperial periods), one Middle-Eastern historian and two Hebrew specialists amongst the Fellowship.


Course Information

One of the joys of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies is the range and diversity of language and cultural courses on offer. You can study Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Japanese or Persian completely from scratch. In addition, in Middle Eastern Studies you can combine Arabic, Hebrew and Persian with each other or a modern European language (provided you have an A Level/IB Higher Level in the European language). You can borrow specific courses offered by other Faculties and Departments and study introductory Hindi, Sanskrit or Korean. In Part II Chinese and Japanese can be combined with one another under special circumstances, see the Faculty website for full details. Though so many exotic languages and cultures must prove alluring, we strongly urge you to concentrate on one major civilisational tradition in order to become a real expert in that tradition (instead of merely 'collecting languages'). Studying these languages requires a sustained interest in the cultures and civilisations that they represent, so as well as linguistic skills, students should be committed to learning about and even embracing ways of seeing the world that are entirely different to their own.

In Part I, which takes two years, you get a thorough grounding in the language(s) of your choice, while your study of the cultural component gradually increases. You will choose from a variety of paper options including literature, history, religion, politics, anthropology, films, and society of the region you have chosen. In Part II, you spend your third year abroad, studying or working in a country where the language you're learning is spoken. In the fourth year, greater specialisation is expected and students write a dissertation on a topic of their choice using substantial sources in the target language. 

Organisation of Teaching

What makes the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies unique is the level of personal attention paid to the progress of each student in the classroom. As a part of a small faculty – and an even smaller subject area –you benefit from being taught in small groups, geared to your needs.

  • Language teaching takes place in small groups, as required by the intensity and pace of the course. The modern spoken form of the languages is normally taught by native speakers.
  • Lectures in non-language classes may be taught in larger groups, particularly if the class is for a core paper.
  • In addition, students have one or two weekly supervisions. Involving usually just one or two students and a teacher, these meetings are, in contrast to supervisions in most other subjects at Cambridge, organised centrally by the Faculty. Supervisions enable you to gain in depth, individual feedback on your work or to advance your learning in ways specific to your needs. 
Choosing St John's

Even though supervisions are arranged centrally by the Faculty, St John's is fortunate to have a Director of Studies as a Fellow of the College who is also a staff member of the Faculty. This provides the crucial advantage of being able to offer students at St John's the necessary guidance and support throughout the course (e.g. arranging informal language exchange partners and providing contacts for study abroad opportunities).The Director of Studies meets regularly with the students to discuss their progress and achievements.

St John's has excellent exchange programmes with foreign universities and extensive travel awards so travel does not need to be limited to your year abroad in your third year. We offer full financial support for University language courses (if different to those you are already studying as part of your course) and a generous allowance to support the costs of course materials, books and equipment. St John's has a lively community of AMES students and we welcome applicants from all educational and nationality backgrounds.

Entry Details

Typical Minimum Entry Requirements

A Level: A*AA

International Baccalaureate: 42 points, with 776 at Higher Level

Essential Subjects: No prior knowledge of your chosen AMES subject language(s) is required, unless combining a modern European language, in which case an A Level/IB Higher Level in the European language is required.

Desirable Subjects: A foreign language at A Level/IB Higher Level (or equivalent) is particularly desirable, if only to demonstrate the applicant’s ability to learn a different language. Other useful A Levels/IB Higher Levels (or equivalent) are History, Mathematics, and the Sciences, though applicants have been accepted from a wide variety of academic backgrounds.

Submitted Work: 2 school essays

Admissions Assessment (Cambridge College registered): If combining with a European language applicants must take the MML assessment. 

Admissions Interviews

Further information regarding interview dates and arrangements can be found here.



Studying Asian and Middle Eastern Studies can lead to a range of fascinating careers, both conventional and unexpected. If you have Asian and Middle Eastern language skills employers from any sector with clients or an interest in those areas of the world will be interested in you: the languages you are taught are in high demand and the cultural knowledge and understanding you gain as an essential part of your studies prepares you to immerse yourself in life in the Middle East and East Asia. 

Examples of graduate careers includes: commerce (particularly in the emerging markets of the Middle East and Asia); International relations, especially the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; development and charity; education; law; banking; and further academic studies. 

Student Views

Georgia in Cairo

Georgia Geekie - Fourth-year AMES student,
2018 entry (Arabic and Russian)

I decided to study Arabic at St John’s because I knew that being in such an academically rich environment would be incredibly beneficial to my learning. I have thoroughly enjoyed the scope of disciplines I have been offered within the Middle Eastern Studies course: Pre-Islamic and modern Arabic literature, Cinema East, Sharia Law, as well as in-depth studies of Modern Standard Arabic and the Egyptian dialect. The teaching is second-to-none, and it’s incredible to think that the professors and lecturers are leading experts in their field. The supervision-style classes are a feature of Cambridge that sets it apart from other universities, as this intimate class time allows you to clarify anything you don’t understand in a supportive environment. It is amazing to study alongside like-minded people in such a beautiful city!

St John’s was definitely the best choice of College I could have made. The community is full of diverse and interesting people who make you feel included, and there is an array of societies, sports clubs and social events on offer. It is very central, meaning it’s only a 15-minute walk or five-minute cycle ride to the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Faculty on the Sidgwick Site. The College offers a great mix of formal and traditional socialising in the form of dinners and drinks, whilst also hosting more casual social events such as parties, sports matches and welfare evenings. St John’s encourages its students to strike the perfect balance between work and play, which in turn fosters strong work ethics as well as prioritising rest and good mental health. 

Alongside my studies, I have been the captain of the University Cheerleading Blues Team, which has complemented my academic life well, and St John’s has always supported me to pursue this hobby.

As part of my course, I spent my year abroad in Egypt, studying Arabic intensively whilst also doing an internship as a staff writer at eniGma Magazine, Cairo. During this year, I gained valuable life experience and received incredible financial and pastoral support from St John’s throughout. I travelled all over the country, seeing the pyramids, visited Luxor and Aswan and Siwa Oasis and went snorkelling in the Red Sea! And to top it all off, I can now speak fluent Egyptian dialect.

Mercedes McCambridge - AMES Graduate 2020

Before coming to St John’s College in October 2016, I studied Advanced Higher French, English and Chemistry at a small comprehensive state school in the North of Scotland. I had only done what little Japanese study I could outside of my academic schedule during high school, so choosing to take Japanese to a degree level was a bit of a leap of faith for me. However, looking back now, I am so glad I decided to take the plunge and study what I love at a place that never ceases to amaze me.

When I began as a student at St John’s, in all honesty I was expecting not to fit in because of my relatively humble background, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. My College experience has been the cherry on the cake for my whole time at university so far. Living here is like being at a home away from home and I’m always excited to come back to a place where everyone, from the porters and gardeners to the students and professors, makes you feel welcome. There are plenty of clubs to join, and loads of events taking place all the time (of course the May Ball especially is something everyone looks forward to!) which really helps students to find a much-needed balance between work and play.


Yet the thing that has blown me away the most is the sheer amount of opportunities available for students. The staff at St John’s work tirelessly to ensure that its students are able to make the most of their time at here at Cambridge. So whether its access to a variety of ridiculously generous funding packages and bursaries, or travel and internship opportunities, all students are supported from day one by the College so that their prospects extend far beyond their years at the university. All in all, I cannot recommend AMES or St. John’s higher to all students looking for an intellectual challenge and a tight-knit, friendly working environment. 

Alexander Johnston - AMES Graduate 2019

My decision to apply to study Chinese Studies was driven by a motivation to understand China from the inside, through the detailed study of its language and culture. Although the study of non-Western cultures is still considered somewhat of a novelty amongst people in the UK, I can wholeheartedly say I have no regrets about the decision I made. Rather, I would urge more people to pursue the study of this fascinating and important country and embark on a truly unique path in life, full of adventures.

The Cambridge course aims for you to reach an advanced proficiency in Modern Chinese by the end of the degree, which means the pace of learning is quick and intense. Learning to speak and write Chinese is by no means a small feat, but the sense of achievement is just as great. The small class sizes (typically no larger than 10 people) and supportive, high-quality teaching means your Chinese comes on in leaps and bounds term by term. I am really looking forward to reaping the rewards of my studies thus far during my upcoming year abroad in Beijing. The study of Classical Chinese alongside this deepens your intuitive understanding of the language as well as opening up the pleasures of reading pre-modern philosophy, prose and poetry in its original form.

The course also allows you to study various aspects of East Asian culture alongside intensive language work. Over the last two years, I have covered topics ranging from post-war Korean cinema, to Heian Japan and even China's reaction to Brexit. The freedom to study many different academic fields under one degree is very exciting and the faculty will support you in pursuing whatever academic interest you may have. The small size of the faculty means you end up building very close relationships with your classmates and professors.

Cambridge is a beautiful and comfortable city to live in, full of many interesting and ambitious people. The student community is really buzzing and there are so many things you can get involved with! Alongside my studies, I have found the time to help organise an international student film festival, take Spanish classes and keep up old interests in running and yoga. Whatever your interests, you are bound to find a society that suits you.

I also have no regrets about choosing to study at St John's. The college community is big and diverse which means it is easy to make friends with like-minded people. The central location and stunning architecture make it a place you are truly proud to call home. The generous travel grants are second to none amongst Cambridge colleges and have allowed me to make the most of the summer vacation to visit Chinese-speaking areas. I have been lucky enough to have the support of the college to go study Chinese in Taipei for two months and travel in Xinjiang and Gansu this summer. I can fully recommend Chinese Studies at St John's to anyone interested.

Judy Kahan - AMES Graduate 2016

I originally applied to St John's to study Land Economy, a unique course combining a range of different topics including Economics, Accountancy and Law. After a few weeks I decided it wasn't quite the right fit for me and asked to change course to Middle Eastern Studies.

The support I received from the College in this decision and then in my subsequent decision to take some time out before re-starting my degree with Arabic was astounding. Both pastorally and academically the College have supported me from the start of my time at St John's and I have felt comforted in the knowledge that they have my best interests at heart. Whether through extra help with improving my essay writing skills or providing me with excellent accommodation, St John's really do everything they can to ensure your time in College is comfortable, happy and conducive to social and academic success.

Beyond academic work, the College provides the facilities for you to pursue extra-curricular interests and assures you there is time to do both. St John's is also extremely generous with its resources through grants for books, travel and sports which enabled me to purchase the necessary equipment to found a College Rounders Society.

The College has a great atmosphere and after the holidays I couldn't wait to go back. It is large enough to find your own group of friends but there is a great communal feeling as most undergraduates live in College for the entire duration of their degrees. It feels like an extended family and is a huge comfort to see the numerous friendly familiar faces from College around town. St John's is centrally located in a city which in itself is reassuringly small and homely and convenient for anything you could need.

Changing to study Middle Eastern Studies with Hebrew and Arabic was the best choice I could have made. The Faculty is small and lessons are intimate, with just a few of us in supervisions. I have always been made to feel comfortable asking questions in class and if ever I can't grasp something there is always someone to help. The range of papers on offer allows you to focus on what interests you most and, with a third year in the Middle East to look forward to, the degree course doesn't seem so daunting. I have especially enjoyed the Hebrew and Arabic language classes and then being able to practice and improve my knowledge whilst on holidays in Israel