HONOURS GEOGRAPHY
History of the Middle East

*The 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 world.

*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 Egypt).

*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 fight. 

*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 1291.

*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 Israel.

*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 revolution.

*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 Mecca.

*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, were too.

*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 outlawed.

*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 Tunisia).

*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 until 1993.

*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 Taliban.

*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 majority).

*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).




This page last updated 18 October, 2005.