Introduction to the Middle East

The term "Middle East" is generally recognized today to refer to a region that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to Afghanistan in the east, a distance of approximately 5,600 kilometers. It has a total population of around 300 million people and encompasses the countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. The African countries of Mauritania and Sudan are also considered to be within the "Middle East."

This usage of the term "Middle East" has increasingly come to supplant the more conventional usage, which divided the area into two regions, the Middle East and North Africa. The term "North Africa" referred to the Arab countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya; "the Middle East," on the other hand, referred to Egypt (which is geographically located in North Africa) as well as the rest of the Arab countries to the east plus Israel, Turkey, and Iran. French scholars, in general, continue to refer to France's former North African colonies of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia by the Arabic term "Maghreb" and to Egypt and the rest of the Arab countries as the "Near East." The term "Maghreb" derives from the Arabic designation bilād al-Maghreb , meaning "the countries of the west" or, more literally, "the land where the sun sets." The term was traditionally used by Arabs to distinguish this part of the Arab world from the more eastern parts, which were referred to as bilād al-Mashreq, the "countries of the east" or "the land where the sun rises."

Today, however, the terms "Middle Eastern" and "Middle East" have been adopted by the people of the entire region to refer to themselves and to their part of the world, in much the same way as such terms as "Europe," "Central Asia," and "Southeast Asia" are used to broadly identify highly complex and culturally diversified regions of the world.

The Middle East, as defined above, encompasses four distinct culture areas: Arab, Turkish, Iranian, and the newly evolved Israeli culture. The Arab, Turkish, and Iranian cultures are heirs to great Islamic empires that had their centers in the region and represent three distinct variations within the global Islamic civilization. The most recent and most enduring of these, the Ottoman Empire, ruled over most of the Middle East, as well as parts of eastern Europe, for almost 500 years, until its demise and dismemberment at the end of World War I. Out of its ashes arose the modern state of Turkey, as well as the majority of the contemprary Arab nation-states.

From the historical perspective, the Middle East is known as the "cradle of civilizations." Its two major river systems, the Nile Valley in Egypt, and the Tigris-Euphrates in Iraq (ancient Mesopotamia) were the sites of the world's earliest civilizations (e.g., Egyptian, Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian). This is where urban life and centralized forms of political organization arose; it is also the birthplace of the world's three major monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

These three distinct yet related religions were forged in the context of the Middle East, and all three continue today to find expression in and give meaning to the lives of the people of the region.

Archaeologists working in the area have uncovered evidence of the prehistoric domestication of plants and animals and the beginning of settled life as far back back in time as the Neolithic or New Stone Age. From sites scattered along the hilly flanks of the mountain ranges in Iraq, Iran, and Israel, archaeologists are reconstructing the cultural evolution that transformed our human ancestors from nomadic hunters and gatherers into settled villagers who cultivated domesticated varieties of wheat and barley and kept domesticated sheep and goats. This major epoch in human history, which can be dated back to 8000 B . C ., has been referred to as the "Agricultural Revolution" to underscore its significance in the development of our cultural history.

The transition from an adaptation based on hunting and gathering to one based on food production and settled community life was the prelude to the next phase in human cultural evolution, the beginning of civilization, which in the Middle East goes back to about 5000 B . C . The culture complex we refer to as "civilization" includes urbanism, a writing system, monumental architecture, long-distance trade, a complex social order, and a centralized state system, often focused on a divine king. This transformation is fully illustrated in the archaeological records of the different civilizations that succeeded each other in the region: Sumer, Egypt, Akkad, Babylon, and Assyria. The history of dynastic Egypt is perhaps the most complete; it has been traced back to 3100 B . C ., when Menes, the king of Upper Egypt, successfully conquered Lower Egypt and ruled the newly united kingdom of Egypt from his capital in Thebes. Despite a series of invasions—Roman, Arab, Ottoman, and British—Egypt has always remained a united country with a very strong sense of its unique identity.

Iran, or Persia, as it was formerly known, is a country with a long and illustrious history. The Iranians, who speak an Indo-European language, Farsi, are also heirs to a great civilization and an imperial past. Prior to its conquest by the Muslim Arabs in the seventh century, Iran was the center of the Sāssānid Empire, a Persian dynasty that had adopted Zoroastrianism as the state religion. Zoroastrianism is considered by some scholars to be one of the first "ethical" religions and a precursor to early Judaism. The prophet Zoroaster declared the coexistence of Good and Evil in the world and called on humans to uphold the Good by combatting Evil. Although the overwhelming majority of Zoroastrians were converted following the Muslim invasion, a small community of them remains today in Iran.


Bates, D., and A. Rassam (1983). Peoples and Cultures of the Middle East. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Carelton, Coon ( 1961 ). Caravan: The Story of the Middle East. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Eickelman, Dale (1981). The Middle East: An Anthropohgical Approach. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Richard, A., and J. Waterbury (1990). A Political Economy of the Middle East: State, Class, and Economic Development. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.


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