History of the Middle East
earliest known human to inhabit the Middle East are thought to have
settled there about 8,000 BC, although nomadic hunters were certainly
in the area before that.
*By 6,000 BC, or before, agriculture was being practised in Mesopotamia and along the Nile River.
*Ancient Egypt grew up along the Nile flood plain, with Egypt being
unified as one kingdom in 3,100 BC, which remained intact until 343 BC
when the last Pharaoh was deposed by the Persian Empire. The
pyramids were mostly built early in this period, with the Great Pyramid
built around 2575 BC. For most of ancient history, Egypt was the
greatest, wealthiest, and often the most powerful empire in the known
*The area around Mesopotamia is sometimes known as the Fertile
Crescent, and was the home of the ancient civilisation of Sumer (whose
language is thought to be an isolate), made up of at least a dozen
independent city-states, some of which existed with a similar culture
from at least 3,100 BC, although probably long before then. The
Sumerians had one of the earliest known systems of writing, called
cuneiform (wedge-shaped), which was written in clay with a
stylus. Cuneiform was initially a series of pictograms, although
it later was simplified into a syllabary.
*Sumer was gradually overtaken by the Akkadians, a Semitic people, who
mixed with and eventually overwhelmed the Sumerians.
*In time, Mesopotamia was dominated by an empire from the city of
Babylon, and one of their kings, Hammurabi, created one of the oldest
surviving legal codes around 1700 BD.
*Babylon competed with Assyria, another empire in northern Mesopotamia,
and was briefly conquered by it, but later rebelled and destroyed their
capital at Nineveh in 612 BC. In 538, however, Babylon itself was
captured by the Persian Empire.
*The Persian Empire, in turn, made war with the ancient Greeks, and
were eventually defeated by Alexander the Great. However, with
his death in 323 BC, his empire was divided among his three greatest
generals, Antigonus (of the Antigonid Empire in Greece), Seleucus (of
the Seleucid Empire in the Middle East), and Ptolemy (of Ptolemaic
*Under Alexander, the Greek language and culture was brought to much of
the Middle East, and cities all across the region were named after him,
most famously Alexandria in Egypt.
*Eventually the Roman Empire conquered all of Alexander’s successor
kingdoms. One of the most difficult regions of all to rule was
the area of Israel, which had often rebelled against the Seleucids, and
also rebelled against Rome.
*Israel was the traditional homeland of the Jewish people, who are both
a religious and an ethnic group. They had a number of problems
with the Roman Empire, but one of the most significant was that Judaism
is strictly monotheistic, and the Romans were polytheistic. Among
other things, the Roman Empire required the worship of its gods
(including some of its emperors), and the Jews would not do that.
The Jews also complained of excessive taxation. Eventually the
Jews revolted too often (including three major revolts between 66 AD
(the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD) and 135 AD, and they were expelled
from Israel. However, they maintained their religion, and it
spread around the world.
*Israel was also the birthplace of Christianity, derived from the
teachings of a Jewish teacher named Jesus, whose followers believe him
to be the Son of God. He was put to death by the Romans about 30
AD, but rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. It is taught
that believing in him and following his teachings will save mankind
from sin and allow everlasting life in heaven. However, the early
Christians (initially seen as a heretical sect of Judaism) also opposed
Roman rule, and were persecuted throughout their early history as
anti-social deviants. However, the Roman Empire’s vast system of
roads and other infrastructure also allowed Christianity to spread, and
it was eventually made the official religion of Rome.
*Although the Roman Empire fell in the east in 476 (and parts of North
Africa were taken over by the Vandals), the eastern Empire survived
until 29 May 1453. It ruled over Anatolia and most of the near
Middle East for centuries, during which it fought with the Persian
Empire, and later with Arabs and Turks who had been moved by a new
religion that they meant to spread, by force if necessary.
*In 610 AD, an Arab merchant named Muhammad living in the city of Mecca
claimed to receive a message from an angel of God who told him to tell
people to turn from sin and worship one god (in those days most Arabs
were polytheistic). He claimed that this was not a new religion,
but an old, true religion, which the Jews and Christians had known, but
not gotten quite right (although Muhammad taught that these ‘people of
the Book’ ought to be respected for their beliefs, too). He
recognised most of the Jewish and Christian prophets and teachers, but
taught that Jesus was a prophet, not the Son of God, who, to the
Moslems (as Muhammad’s followers came to be known) is called Allah.
*Muhammad was not well-received in Mecca, so he fled to Medina in 622,
which is now the first year of the Moslem calendar. Medina and
Mecca went to war over Muhammad’s teachings, and Muhammad built such a
large army of followers that in the end Mecca capitulated without a
*By 632, the year of Muhammad’s death, most of the Arabian Peninsula
had been conquered by his followers, and afterwards his successors
carried the jihad to the rest of the Middle East, fighting the Persian
Empire and the Roman Empire and anyone else who stood in their way.
*However, in 656, there was a dispute over who ought to be Caliph, as
the leader of Islam was known. Islam fell into civil war over
this, and eventually split into three major factions, the Sunni (maybe
90%), the Shi’a (supposedly 9%, but probably more), and the Ibadi
(mostly practised in Oman)).
*By the 800s, Islam had spread to most of North Africa, Persia, and
parts of central Asia (and, indeed, had taken all of the Iberian
Peninsula, too). It would later spread to Indonesia and the
Philippines and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa as well.
*In central Asia, many Turkic peoples converted to Islam, among them
the Ottoman Turks, who eventually conquered the Eastern Roman Empire in
1453, renaming its capital Istanbul (and for a time claiming to be the
successors of the Roman Empire).
*Europe tried to prevent this, and launched the Crusades in 1095,
taking back parts of the Holy Land, but eventually losing it all by
*Eventually most of the Middle East was ruled by one of three Islamic
Empires, the Ottoman Empire (Turks ruling over Arabs) in most of the
Middle East and North Africa, the Persian Empire in modern Iran, and
the Mogul Empire in modern India and Pakistan.
*Today the only non-Moslem nations in the Middle East are Armenia and
Georgia in the Caucasus mountains, and the recently-re-established
*The Moslem world encouraged science, arts, and literature, and in many
ways was more civilised that contemporary Europe, still emerging from
its dark ages. However, Western Europe would begin to surpass the
Islamic world in the 1400s, and by the late 1800s and early 1900s would
be far ahead of it, partly because the Middle East lacked the timber,
coal, and other resources that allowed Europe to have the industrial
*Islam’s holy book is the Koran (or Quran), and it requires five
duties: professing faith in Allah and Muhammad, praying five
times a day, helping the poor and needy, fasting during Ramadan (the
9th month of the Islamic lunar calendar), and making a pilgrimage to
*By the 1800s, the Ottoman Empire was known as the Sick Man of Europe,
because the power of the Sublime Porte was so weak. He ruled
through a series of local governors, often called Beys, who typically
did as they pleased in most ways.
*Along the coast of North Africa, in what were known as the Barbary
States, the local rulers made most of their money from piracy, or from
protection rackets that preyed on shipping in the Mediterranean.
Most European nations were willing to pay fees every year for safe
passage, but in 1801, Thomas Jefferson refused to pay the Dey of
Algiers a tribute of $225,000. Another American of the time,
Charles Pinckney, said ‘millions of defence, but not one cent for
tribute.’ This began the First Barbary War, which lasted until
1805. In it, America fought Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli (and
according to some sources, Morocco, but this seems unlikely, as the US
and Morocco share the oldest unbroken friendship treaty held by the US
(held since 1777)). In 1805, the US Marines captured the city of
Dema, owned by the Pasha of Tripoli, who asked for peace. In the
end, the war was sort of a draw, because the US still paid ransoms for
captured soldiers, and would sometimes find their ships taken captive
by Algiers and other Barbary States until the Second Barbary War of
1815, which was an American victory. The next year, the English
and the Dutch bombarded Algiers, and by 1830, most of the Barbary
States were French colonies. One of America’s heroes of both Wars
was Commodore Stephen Decatur.
*Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, the Ottoman Empire found its
power in decline, as independent Beys ignored its authority, European
provinces revolted one after another, and other European countries took
its lands from it directly. It also suffered from nationalism, as
the various Arab peoples ruled by the Ottoman Turks began to desire
more and more independence.
*During WWI, the Ottoman Empire sided with the Central Powers, and
found that the allies did their best to promote rebellion among their
various subjects. After the end of WWI most of the Ottoman Empire
except for what is now Turkey had become a series of independent
kingdoms or other states under British and French protection.
*One nation that did not become independent was that of the Kurds of
the Ottoman Empire. They had been persecuted by the Turks, and
even today, it is illegal to speak of Kurdish nationalism in Turkey
(the Kurdish language only became legal in 1991, although Kurds compose
20% of the Turkish population). The Kurds were not the only group that
was persecuted; the Armenians, a Christian group in the Ottoman Empire,
*The Armenians had been persecuted before, perhaps 100,000-300,000
between 1894 and 1897 when the previously loyal Armenians began seeking
a nation-state. However, between 1914 and 1923 several hundred
thousand or even 1.5 million Armenians may have been killed, many of
them in concentration camps. Supposedly this was an inspiration
for Adolph Hitler.
*Shortly after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the last Sultan
of the Ottoman Empire was overthrown and the Republic of Turkey was
formed under the leadership of Kemal Atatürk, who began a
programme of westernisation, in which Friday became a business day,
Arabic script was replaced by the Latin alphabet, and the fez was
*Nations that did not become independent in the 1920s and 1930s
typically did so about 1960, when France gave up most of its old
colonies, particularly those of North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, and
*In the early 1900s, Britain’s foreign secretary issued the Balfour
Declaration, supporting the notion of a Jewish nation-state in
Palestine. Although Britain later repudiated this, it only
strengthened Jewish nationalism—called Zionism—which had become strong
in the late 1800s. In 1948, Israel was created as a state, along
with Palestine (and a neutral, UN-Controlled zone around Jerusalem), in
what is today Israel.
*Palestine and the neighbouring Arab states immediately declared war,
and in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Israel captured most of the
Palestinian land (Egypt and Jordan took the rest).
*In 1956, Israel invaded Egypt, and Britain and France did too, in
theory to stop the war, but really to seize the Suez Canal, which Egypt
had nationalised in 1954. The US stepped in, and told Britain and
France to back out, which humiliated and angered them. No
territory changed hands.
*In 1967, Egypt and Syria launched an attack on Israel, beginning the
Six-Day War, in which Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan
Heights, and later the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (when Jordan joined
in the war).
*In 1973, Egypt and Syria invaded again, in the Yom Kippur War, on one
of the major Jewish Holy Days, which was fought to a draw.
*In 1978, and again in 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon, in theory to help
put down a civil war there between Arab Christian and Moslems, but also
to discourage Moslem attacks on Israel. Israel only withdrew
troops in 2000.
*Israel has periodically been attacked by the Intifada, as the terrorist activities of the PLO are known.
*Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula in 1979 at the urging of President Carter.
*Today, Israel and the Palestinians are trying to work out a deal to
let the Palestinians govern the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank,
but disputes remain about how much land will be given to the
Palestinians, and just how much autonomy they will have.
*In 1979, Iran had a revolution, in which Shi’a fundamentalists
overthrew the US-supported Shah, who was known for his
corruption. For 444 days the US Embassy was held by the Iranians,
and its people kept hostage, and even after they were freed, Iran
denounced the United States as their enemy, the enemy of the Moslem
world, and as the Great Satan. Therefore, when Iraq invaded Iran
in 1980, the US helped equip and train Iraq’s troops. It is
thought that between one and two million people were killed in the war,
including child soldiers as young as 9 years old. During and
after the war, Hussein also killed about 100,000 Kurds who had been
encouraged to revolt by Iran. Overall, however, no borders
changed, and no-one really won. The last POWs were not exchanged
*1979 also the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, in theory
to support a communist government there that had recently overthrown
the shah. This was a brutal war in which the USSR suffered
badly. It was one of many factors that hurt the Soviet
government’s credibility at home and abroad, and helped lead to its
collapse. The US trained many of the Afghani Mujahideen who
fought against the Soviets, including some of those who would form the
*Another major war in the Middle East was the Persian Gulf War of
1990-1991. In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, which it had once owned,
and wanted back. The US and many other nations opposed this, and
a coalition of 34 nations with a UN mandate threw them out and defeated
Iraq, but did not overthrow Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein.
However, an embargo was imposed, and large portions of Northern and
Southern Iraq were declared ‘no-fly zones’ where Iraq could not send
planes. This let the Kurds become fairly independent.
*In September 2001, Moslem terrorists attacked the United States.
They were believed to have been supported by the Taliban, the
repressive fundamentalist government of Afghanistan. In October,
the US and UK, with the support of much of the rest of the world,
invaded and overthrew the Taliban government, and have helped to create
a representative republic in that country, although it still has many
problems and requires continuing US military occupation.
*In 2003, the US and UK invaded Iraq, under the assumption that Hussein
had encouraged terrorism and was hiding weapons of mass destruction
(although this has since proven to have been unlikely). The
process of conquest took less than two months (20 March to 1 May) and
involved very few American casualties, although Hussein was not
captured until 14 December. However, the occupation since then
has been far worse and bloodier (although still not too bad compared to
other major wars). Today Iraq is creating a new government for
itself while trying to balance the needs and desires of the Kurds of
the North, who want as much independence as possible and a relatively
secular government, the Sunni Arabs around Baghdad, who used to be the
most powerful group but now find themselves in the minority and are
turning to religious fundamentalism and terrorism they did not always
use, and the Shi’a Arabs of the South, who are typically fundamentalist
Muslims, but are also the largest group, and currently seem to want to
make democracy work for them (at least through the tyranny of the
*Throughout the Middle East, tensions remain between those who want
secular governments and those who want fundamentalist governments, and
between those who want republics (at least in name) and those who
support more or less traditional monarchies (which often overlaps, as
some republics are secular and some are not, while some monarchies are
very conservative while others are somewhat liberal).