To best appreciate the ethnic complexity and cultural history of the Middle East, it is necessary to know a little about the physical and human geography of the region. Population patterns, modes of subsistence, and cultural systems have their basis in the early adaptation of the human population to its natural environment and its constraints. In the Middle East, the natural environment is best described as semiarid. In fact, more than 80 percent of the region is desert that receives less than 25 centimeters of rainfall a year. A few areas, such as the coastal zones of North Africa, Turkey, and the Eastern Mediterranean, receive adequate rainfall to support agriculture. The rainfall pattern in the interior of the region tends to be highly unpredictable from one year to the next; consequently, rain-dependent agriculture is a risky venture. Peasants traditionally combine extensive cultivation with animal husbandry to minimize risk and ensure their subsistence.
From antiquity, the people of the Middle East have developed elaborate means of water control and management. Irrigation systems developed along the river valleys of Egypt and Mesopotamia are, in large part, credited with providing the basis for the development of the ancient civilizations. Today, massive hydraulic projects like the Aswan Dam of Egypt and the Kur River plan of south-central Iran testify to the continued need to conserve water and extend its distribution for agriculture. On a more modest scale, traditional systems of underwater canals were constructed to carry water from the seasonally formed underwater mountain streams to the fields nearby.
Topography is another determining factor in human settlement and adaptation. The Middle East landscape alternates between high rugged mountains and plateaus and dry lowland areas, where the line between the desert and even marginally cultivatable land is sharply drawn. Egypt, which has been called "the gift of the Nile," is essentially a narrow ribbon of densely settled valley carved out of the desert. It is estimated that over 95 percent of Egypt's population is concentrated on 5 percent of its territory.
The mountains in the Middle East include the Atlas chain in Morocco, the Aurès in Algeria, the Lebanons, the Taurus and Pontic ranges in Turkey, and the Zagros and Elburz in Iran; the highest peak, Damāvand in the Elburz Mountains, has an elevation of 5,738 meters. The mountains in Turkey and Iran enclose two high plateaus, punctuated by brackish lakes (Van in Turkey and Urmia in Iran), that consist of large tracts of salt flats and deserts.
Apart from oil, the region is generally poor in mineral resources. The mountains of North Africa, Turkey, and Iran contain limited amounts of iron ore, copper, coal, and some gold. Important phosphate deposits are found in Morocco and in adjacent Western Sahara; in fact Morocco is the world's third-largest producer of phosphates, after the United States and Russia.
The Middle East is rich in petroleum. The proven oil reserves of Saudi Arabia alone are known to be 25 percent of the world's total; those of Iraq, Iran, and Kuwait constitute another 25 percent. Overall, it is estimated that more than 62 percent of all proven oil reserves are found in the Middle East and North Africa. Furthermore, Middle Eastern oil is both cheap to produce and of high quality.
The climate' regime throughout the region is generally Mediterranean, characterized by hot dry summers and cool wet winters. Along the Gulf region, however, as in some other parts of the region, summer temperatures can peak at 49° C. At the same time, in the winter, mountain villagers in Morocco, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran experience freezing temperatures and heavy snows.