Middle East, geographic and cultural region located in southwestern Asia and northeastern Africa. The geopolitical term Middle East, first coined in 1902 by United States naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan, originally referred to the Asian region south of the Black Sea between the Mediterranean Sea to the west and India to the east. In modern scholarship, and for the purposes of this article, the term refers collectively to the Asian countries of Bahrain, Cyprus, Iran, Iraq, Israel (and the Israeli-occupied West Bank), Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, and the African country of Egypt. A broader, more cultural definition might include the Muslim countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
The area is mostly arid with hot, dry summers and cool winters. It contains about 65 percent of the world’s oil reserves, primarily in the states bordering the Persian Gulf. Oil is the region's main export. Some Middle Eastern countries are extremely rich because of their oil reserves. Others with high populations and no significant oil resources (notably Egypt and Yemen) are considerably poorer.
The first civilizations of the Middle East, which grew in the valleys of the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates rivers, are among the oldest in the world. Alphabets, law codes, and cities all began in the Middle East, as did the world’s three great monotheistic religions, Judaism (13th century bc), Christianity (1st century to 4th century ad) and Islam (7th century ad). Of the three, Islam continues to mark the region most profoundly. More than 90 percent of the people of the Middle East are Muslims.
The Middle East is an area of frequent conflict, largely for reasons embedded in its recent past. For example, the conflict between Arabs and Israelis over the land in Palestine (present-day Israel and the Israeli-occupied territories) is more a product of 20th-century developments rather than any age-old hostility between Muslims and Jews (see Arab-Israeli Conflict). Likewise, although there have been tensions between Persians and Arabs in the past, the Iran-Iraq War between 1980 and 1988 was more a result of political tensions and border disputes in the second half of the 20th century. Islamic militancy, which has produced deadly results in Egypt, Iran, Israel, and Lebanon, is a consequence of late 20th-century problems such as widespread unemployment, political and socioeconomic turmoil, and an overarching sense of despair rather than a result of any violent or extremist characteristics inherent to Islam.
|II||LAND AND RESOURCES|
The total land area of the Middle East is 7.3 million sq km (2.8 million sq mi). Much of the region consists of flat plains or plateaus. Extensive desert areas stretch across the southern reaches, including the Libyan Desert and Arabian Desert in Egypt, the Rub‘ al Khali in southern Saudi Arabia, and the Syrian Desert at the junction of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. Northern mountainous areas include the Taurus Mountains in Turkey, the Elburz Mountains and Zagros Mountains in Iran, and the mountains of northern Iraq. Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel contain the northernmost extension of the Great Rift Valley, a depression that extends from the Middle East to southeastern Africa. The Caspian Sea, the largest inland sea in the region and the only one of any economic significance, indents Iran’s northern border. The area is particularly susceptible to earthquakes, which have caused massive devastation in the second half of the 20th century, especially in Iran and Turkey.
Rainfall and temperature vary considerably across the Middle East and even within countries. For example, the Caspian Sea coast of northern Iran receives up to 2000 mm (80 in) of rain a year, while the desert regions of Iran may receive no rain at all for several years. Temperatures also vary by region. Ankara in the central plateau region of Turkey averages 0°C (32°F) in January and 23°C (73°F) in July. In contrast, low-lying coastal regions of the Arabian Peninsula (the large peninsula south of Jordan and Iraq) and those bordering the Mediterranean Sea experience much more moderate winter temperatures: Jiddah in western Saudi Arabia averages 24°C (75°F) in January and 31°C (89°F) in July. Lowland desert areas in the interior regions of the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, Iraq, and Egypt experience periods of extreme heat in the summer, with temperatures often reaching 45°C (113°F) or higher.
Apart from the Nile River, which provides much of the water supply and irrigation systems of Egypt, and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which supply Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, there are no major rivers or navigable waterways. The Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias) in northern Israel, fed from the north by the shallow, unnavigable Jordan River, provides Israel’s main source of fresh water. With such a limited water supply, access to water for drinking, irrigation, and hydroelectricity has become increasingly crucial in many parts of the Middle East.
The control of water resources is a frequent source of political tension. When Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967 and parts of southern Lebanon in 1982, it gained control of the upper tributaries of the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee, and the Līţānī and Bāniyās rivers. Also, the Israeli government gives Israeli settlers permission to drill new water wells in the West Bank, but denies Palestinian residents the same right. Any peace agreement between Arabs and Israelis resulting in full or partial surrender of Israeli authority over this area will have to address the issue of control over water supplies.
A similar conflict persists over access to the waters of the Euphrates River, which rises in Turkey and flows across northeastern Syria before entering Iraq. All three countries depend on these waters for irrigation and hydroelectric power. As part of a major water development project begun in 1984, Turkey built two large dams on the Euphrates, substantially reducing the amount of water available to Syria for power generation. A dam in Syria further reduces Iraq’s water supply, adversely affecting the country’s agriculture. The situation nearly led to a war between Iraq and Syria in 1975.
Environmental factors can also affect water supply. From the late 1980s to the 1990s droughts in Ethiopia reduced the flow of the Nile, Egypt's only source of water. Rapid growth in Egypt's population over the same period compounded the water shortage. The Aswān High Dam in southern Egypt, opened in 1971, has decreased annual flooding of the delta region at the Nile’s outlet to the Mediterranean Sea, resulting in coastal erosion and increased salt content of the soil.
The Middle East has a population (1997 estimate) of about 291.9 million. Population density varies greatly throughout the region. In most countries, there has been a steady migration of people from rural to urban areas since the 1940s, so today the majority of people live in urban areas. In Iraq, for example, about 61 percent of the population lived in rural areas in 1957, compared with 25 percent in 1996. Similarly, half of all workers in Lebanon were employed in agriculture in 1959; by the mid-1990s, only about 8 percent of the workforce had jobs in agriculture. The largest cities in the region are Cairo, Egypt (6.8 million), Tehrān, Iran (6.5 million), Baghdād, Iraq (3.8 million), and İstanbul, Turkey (7.6 million).
The population of the Middle East tripled between 1950 and 1994 primarily because of the introduction of modern medicine and agricultural techniques from Western nations. Modern medicine decreased mortality rates, while new agricultural techniques improved food productivity. The growth rate remained high by world standards through the mid-1990s with an average annual rate of 2.4 percent between 1990 and 1995. Infant mortality rates vary greatly from country to country in the 1990s, though overall they have improved considerably since the 1970s. This variation reflects the different levels of wealth and development in countries of the Middle East. In the highly developed country of Israel the infant mortality rate was 8 deaths per 1000 live births in 1997. By comparison, the rate per 1000 live births was 71 in less-developed Egypt and 75 in Yemen.
|A||Ethnic Groups and Languages|
Arabs make up the majority of the people of the Middle East, accounting for almost the entire populations of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the states of the Arabian Peninsula, and for three-fourths of the population of Iraq. The Arabs originated in the Arabian Peninsula and began to migrate northwards and eastwards in the 5th and 6th centuries ad. The rate of migration accelerated after the birth and spread of Islam in the 7th century. Under Arab influence, peoples in the surrounding areas gradually adopted the Arabic language, and even more gradually adopted Islam. Arabic, a Semitic language, serves as a unifying bond among Arabs throughout the region.
The Turks, another broad, linguistically related group of peoples, reside primarily in Turkey and Iran. About 80 percent of the population of Turkey, and most of the present inhabitants of Anatolia (the Asian portion of Turkey), are descended from Central Asian tribes that migrated west between the 11th and 13th centuries. These people speak Turkish, one of a group of Turkic languages spoken between southeastern Europe and northwestern China (see Altaic Languages). In Iran, about one quarter of the population speaks one of the Turkic languages, especially Azeri. A few hundred thousand Turkmens in northern Iraq also speak a Turkic language.
The pre-Islamic people of Iran, the Persians, make up about 60 percent of the present-day population of Iran. The Persians descended from Indo-European peoples who entered the country from Central Asia during the 2nd century bc. These people speak Persian, an Indo-Iranian language.
Members of another ethnic group, the Kurds, reside in the Middle Eastern countries of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, as well as in several of the former republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). They speak Kurdish, another Indo-Iranian language. The largest concentration of Kurds is in Turkey, where they make up about 19 percent of the population.
The Jewish population of Israel constitutes an important cultural group in the Middle East. Although about half of the current residents were born in Israel, their parents and grandparents came from more than 100 countries throughout the world, primarily in the 20th century. From diverse backgrounds, this group nevertheless shares in common the Jewish tradition and the modern Hebrew language.
Islam is the predominant religion in the Middle East. More than 90 percent of the area’s population are Muslims. Christians form the next largest group, with about 4 percent of the population, and Jews make up about 2 percent of the population. Muslims explicitly recognize that Judaism and Christianity preceded their faith, and therefore regard Christians and Jews as “peoples of the book”—that is, groups with written scriptures that should be free to practice their religion.
Islam is divided into two major groups, Sunni Islam and Shia Islam. The Sunni Muslims are by far the most numerous, both in the Middle East and in the Muslim world in general. The Sunnis and Shias separated over the issue of supreme authority after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. The majority of Muslims, the Sunnis, believe the first four caliphs, all of whom belonged to Muhammad’s tribe, were the prophet’s rightful successors. A minority, the Shias, believe that Muhammad’s nearest male heir, his cousin and son-in-law Ali, was intended to succeed Muhammad. Shias accept only Ali’s descendants (imams) as legitimate rulers. The Shias themselves are divided into several sects, which differ over how many of Ali’s male descendants should be recognized as leaders of the Islamic community. Of Middle Eastern Shia Muslims, who form about 28 percent of the population of the region, the majority are Jafaris. Because they accept 12 imams, Jafaris are also called “Twelvers.” This group is especially prominent in Iran. They believe that the 12th imam will return in the future to establish perfect justice, supplanting the rule of any other leader. This belief has undermined government authority since the establishment of Twelver Shiism as the state religion in 1501. Twelvers also reside in Iraq and Lebanon. Another Shia sect, the Zaydis of Yemen, recognize five imams. A third group, called Ismailis (“Seveners”), recognize seven imams; a few hundred thousand Ismailis reside in Syria.
More than half of the Christians in the Middle East live in Egypt. Most Egyptian Christians belong to the Coptic church. The remaining Middle Eastern Christians are divided between Orthodox groups (Armenian, Greek, and Syrian) and Catholic groups (Armenian, Greek, Maronite, and Syrian) in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. The formal division between Orthodox and Catholic sects dates back to the Great Schism of 1054 between the Eastern and Roman churches. Apart from the Maronites, however, most Middle Eastern Catholics are descendants of converts from various Orthodox churches in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Almost all Middle Eastern Jews live in Israel. Orthodox Jews, who strictly follow traditional Judaic beliefs and practices, hold the most influence over religious affairs in Israel. Reform Jews, who seek to modify Jewish tradition to meet contemporary circumstances, and Conservative Jews, who maintain a middle position between the two, constitute important minorities. Reform and Conservative groups continually struggle for a limited role in Israeli religious affairs.
Most Middle Eastern countries provide free primary and secondary education. University education is either free or subsidized by scholarships for those in need. Although in theory primary education is compulsory in all countries, internal conflicts and remoteness of many areas from urban centers often prevent full attendance. Nearly all school-aged females participate in the primary and secondary education, but far fewer continue to university level. In more conservative states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, the sexes are educated separately at all levels. Although literacy has improved significantly in recent years, it remains low in much of the Middle East by Western standards. In the mid-1990s literacy rates for people aged 15 or older were 38 percent in Yemen, 51 percent in Egypt, 58 percent in Iraq, 63 percent in Saudi Arabia, 71 percent in Syria, and 72 percent in Iran.
|D||Way of Life|
Due to the growth of the petroleum industry and accompanying modernization, traditional ways of life largely disappeared from most parts of the Middle East in the 20th century. For instance, the pastoral nomads that symbolize the Middle East to many people account for less than 1 percent of the region’s population. The few remaining nomads reside in the vast deserts of Syria, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula, and some Kurdish and Persian tribes still migrate back and forth from summer to winter pastures. The majority of the population now lives in either urban settlements of more than 10,000 people or in smaller rural villages.
With the first wave of modernization came a general trend toward secularism. Islam exerted less influence on social conduct, and religious practice was gradually relegated from the public to the private sphere. One of the most visible effects was an increase in gender equality. Women gained more opportunities for education and employment, especially in the urban centers. Since the late 1960s the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, which, among other things, reasserts values that emphasize the subordination of women to men, has begun to have an adverse effect on these developments.
As in most less-developed countries, economic development in the Middle East since the mid-19th century has been oriented toward production of cash crops or commodities for overseas markets. In the 19th and early 20th centuries these products were agricultural: cotton from Egypt, silk from Lebanon, and grains of various kinds from Turkey, Iraq, and Syria and its neighbors. Since the mid-20th century the main export commodities have been oil from the countries where it is located, and labor from poorer countries where it is not. Apart from the oil industry, however, the region remains largely undeveloped. It remains a net importer of most commodities, including food.
After political revolutions of the 1950s, a form of state control based on the centrally planned model of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was imposed on the economies of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and South Yemen (now part of the Republic of Yemen). The governments of these countries set economic policy and controlled major industries. Large landholdings were broken up and redistributed, while import controls, government-directed foreign exchange rates, and subsidies on essential foodstuffs were also introduced. The Soviet Union became the main supplier of weapons to these countries. Some of this structure remains in place, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and worldwide tendencies toward privatization, forms of Soviet-style government assistance such as food subsidies and easy access to healthcare, education, and welfare has been greatly reduced. Meanwhile, beginning in the 1950s other pro-Western countries such as Iran, Israel, Jordan, and Turkey received financial or technical aid and military supplies from the West
About 65 percent of the world's petroleum reserves and 26 percent of its natural gas reserves are in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. In 1996 these states produced about 26 percent of the world’s oil and 5 percent of its natural gas. The economies of these countries depend almost entirely on these reserves. Petroleum mining and related industries also dominate the economies of Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman, all of which have smaller but still significant reserves. Small populations and the absence of resources besides oil limit the capacity of some states to diversify. Only Iran and Iraq have large populations and significant agricultural resources, and the economies of both states have been ravaged by a combination of foreign wars and internal economic mismanagement.
The lack of raw materials and the small size of local and regional markets have inhibited the growth of manufacturing in the Middle East. However, some Middle Eastern countries have manufacturing sectors that contribute significantly to their economies. Examples are Egypt and Turkey, whose manufactures include textiles, processed foods, and chemicals. In the oil states petrochemicals make up a significant part of the manufacturing sector, but most Middle Eastern oil is still exported as crude.
Although agriculture dominated the regional economy until the 1950s, the Middle East was importing more than half of its food requirements by the early 1990s. Agriculture remains significant in the economies of Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Egypt, and Turkey, supplying between 15 and 25 percent of their gross domestic product. These figures do not fully reflect subsistence agricultural activities that engage large portions of the population, especially in poorer countries. Reliance on agricultural imports is a result of many factors, including high population growth, rural-to-urban migration (which reduced the number of farmers), and development strategies of the 1960s and 1970s that focused on heavy industry rather than agriculture.
Civilization as we know it began in the Middle East. The cultivation of cereals, first undertaken in the Middle East around 8000 bc, led to the creation of the first settled communities with permanent dwellings. Large archaeological mounds called tells contain the remains of some of these communities. Tells have been found in present-day Turkey and throughout the Fertile Crescent, an ancient agricultural region containing parts of present-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. Jericho in the present-day West Bank and Çatal Hüyük in present-day Turkey are two of the best known of these sites.
The first civilizations—groups with complex, hierarchical political organizations—began about 3000 bc in the valleys of the Nile and of the Tigris and Euphrates. Civilizations grew out of the need to organize the distribution of water for irrigation and to protect the land around the rivers from floods. These developments improved agricultural yields and made economic diversification possible. Complex urban societies with codified legal systems, often centered on religious-based monarchies, evolved. Their rulers gained control of long-distance trade, which was especially important given the scarcity in the river valleys of mineral resources and of timber for building. Writing systems using hieroglyphs, pictorial characters representing recognizable objects, began as a means of facilitating administration. Alphabets with symbols representing sounds rather than objects evolved about 1500 bc.
|A||Mesopotamia and Egypt|
The earliest civilizations in an area between the Tigris and Euphrates known as Mesopotamia (Greek for “between the rivers”; the area is now Iraq) were the Sumerians to the south and the Akkadians to the north. From about 2330 bc the Akkadians expanded southward, extending their control from Syria to the head of the Persian Gulf and east into Persia (now Iran). Two other dynasties, the Amorites and the Elamites, succeeded the Akkadians, and the area split into a number of smaller states including Assyria and Babylon. Hammurabi, the king of Babylonia during the first half of the 18th century bc, developed one of the earliest systematic collections of laws (see Code of Hammurabi). The Hittites, whose empire extended through much of present-day Turkey and into northern Mesopotamia by the 14th century bc, traded with their contemporaries in Greece. As a result of this trade, many Mesopotamian ideas reached Greece.
Egyptian civilization also began about 3000 bc when a single ruler united southern and northern Egypt. Egypt exhibited a greater degree of political continuity than Mesopotamia. There were no major foreign invasions or externally imposed changes of regime until the beginning of the 1st millennium bc. While Mesopotamian kings were often also priests, Egyptians believed their kings were gods who could control the waters of the Nile. The pyramids, richly treasured tombs in which kings were buried, serve as lasting symbols of this divine monarchy. The Great Pyramid at Giza, built during the middle of the 3rd millennium bc, remains among the most notable structures in the history of architecture. Over the centuries Egypt extended control south to mine the extensive gold deposits of Nubia (a region of southern Egypt and northern Sudan), and northeast toward present-day Syria.
|B||The Birth of Judaism|
Late in the 2nd millennium bc the Aramaeans moved into present-day Syria, establishing the ancient country of Aram. They spoke a Semitic language (see Aramaic language) from which Hebrew and Arabic are derived. Other Semitic peoples, a confederation of Hebrew tribes called the Israelites, settled in the region of Palestine during the same time period (see Hebrews (people)). Israelite religion and institutions were shaped under Hebrew prophet and lawgiver Moses about 1300 bc and subsequently under Saul and David, the first two kings of ancient Israel, in the 11th and 10th centuries bc. The Israelites believed that they, the Jews, were the chosen people of their one God. They were the first ethnic and religious group to adopt monotheism. The region was attacked by Assyria in 722 bc and by Assyria’s successor, Babylonia, in 586 bc. On both occasions many thousands of Jews were forced into exile.
|C||Persian, Greek, and Roman Empires|
In the 9th century bc the empire of the Assyrians expanded beyond Mesopotamia to include the entire Fertile Crescent region. It endured until 612 bc when the Babylonians and the Medes, a polytheistic tribal culture from the northeastern part of present-day Iran, conquered the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. In 550 bc Persian ruler Cyrus the Great overthrew the Medes and founded the Achaemenid dynasty. At the height of its rule under Darius I, the Persian Empire extended from northern Greece and present-day Libya in the west as far east as the Indus Valley in present-day Pakistan. During this period another monotheistic religion, Zoroastrianism, developed in Persia. Its tolerance of Judaism and of the various polytheistic religions of the region helped maintain the empire's unity for the next two centuries. Now almost extinct, Zoroastrianism flourished for many centuries throughout Persia.
The conquests of Macedonian king Alexander the Great between 334 and 323 bc briefly united an area covering present-day Greece, Turkey, Greater Syria (present-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan prior to partitioning after World War I), Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. After his death the region remained a vast commercial and cultural area, often referred to as the Hellenistic world (from the Greek word Hellas, which means “Greece”). This Hellenistic Age, in which Greek became an international language, many new cities were founded, and Greek religion and arts blended with native ways, lasted until the Romans rose to power in the Mediterranean region at the beginning of the 2nd century bc. Roman general Pompey the Great had conquered the territory from the Mediterranean Sea to western Persia by 62 bc, and Egypt fell to Rome in 30 bc. The Parthians, an independent kingdom in present-day Iran and Afghanistan, blocked Roman attempts to advance further east. Jewish revolts against the Romans during the 1st and 2nd centuries ad led to exile and major migrations of Jews from Palestine, Egypt, and Mesopotamia to other parts of the Roman world (see Jews: The Great Revolt).
Christianity began in Jerusalem as a Jewish sect that proclaimed Jesus Christ as the Messiah, or savior of the Jews. As the movement grew after the death of Jesus about ad 30, it separated from the Jewish faith. An early Christian missionary and theologian named Paul began to preach the new religion to the wider, non-Jewish world in the eastern Mediterranean, southwestern Turkey, Greece, and Italy. Conversion was gradual and piecemeal, but by the 2nd century ad Christianity had spread beyond the Middle East to parts of Europe and North Africa. The Romans, whose religion demanded emperor worship, perceived the new religion as a threat to their control. Romans persecuted Christians until the early 4th century when Roman emperor Constantine the Great converted to Christianity and established it as the official religion of the Roman Empire. By 600 most of Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Fertile Crescent, as well as southern and western Europe and North Africa, was Christian.
However, differences over interpretation of the faith developed within the early church, prompting councils in the 4th and 5th centuries to define Christian doctrine. Communities that would not accept the councils' definitions formed separate churches. Some of these, such as the Coptic church in Egypt and the Nestorian church in Iraq, Iran, and Syria, still exist today. The split of the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western segments in the 4th century and the fall of the Western section in the 5th century undermined the unity of Christianity. A split developed along regional lines between the church of Rome in the West and that of Byzantium (now İstanbul, Turkey) in the East. The two sides became the Catholic and Orthodox churches, respectively, because Eastern Christians would not accept Rome as the center of church authority. The split became permanent in the 11th century, when the Catholic church began to assert its claim to authority more vigorously.
|E||The Rise of Islam|
Islam, the last of the three great monotheist religions, began with the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad at the beginning of the 7th century in Mecca and Yathrib (now Medina), both in present-day Saudi Arabia. Over the next century, Arab armies brought the faith as far west as Spain, as far north as the Black Sea, and as far east as the Indus Valley in present-day Pakistan. In the process they defeated the Sassanids of Persia (see Persia: The Sassanids) and forced the Byzantines out of eastern Anatolia, the Fertile Crescent, Egypt, and North Africa. In general, this expansion met with little resistance.
After the rule of the first four caliphs, or successors to the prophet, the political center of Islam moved away from the Arabian Peninsula, first to Damascus, Syria, from 661 to 750 under the Umayyad caliphate and then to the new city of Baghdād in Mesopotamia during the early years of the Abbasid caliphate (750-1258). The political unity of the Muslim world gradually disintegrated in the 9th and 10th centuries, but the region retained a considerable degree of cultural unity through a common legal and commercial system and a common language of literature, high culture, and religion. During this period local dynasties in Iran inspired a national cultural revival, keeping alive Persian traditions, including literature and court ceremonies, which influenced the Arab caliphates. Meanwhile the Fatimids, an Ismaili Shia caliphate with origins in North Africa, conquered Egypt and established the city of Cairo, from where they ruled all of North Africa, Palestine, and Syria until the late 12th century (see Caliphate: The Fatimid Dynasty and the Umayyads of Spain). The Seljuks, a Turkish dynasty from Central Asia that converted to Sunni Islam in the 10th century, expanded their control to Anatolia, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, and Syria in the 11th century. They expanded the supremacy of Sunni Islam by founding theological colleges in most of the major cities. Graduates of these colleges staffed the political, religious, educational, and judicial institutions of the state.
In the 11th century, European Christians began to challenge Muslim predominance in the Mediterranean, retaking Sicily and much of Spain by the mid-12th century. At the same time, the papacy inaugurated the Crusades, a series of largely unsuccessful efforts to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims. Initially the Crusaders established a number of small states on or near the Mediterranean coast: Antioch, Edessa, Jerusalem, and Tripoli. Edessa returned to Muslim control in 1144, and the others had fallen to Kurdish Muslim leader Saladin by the time of the Third Crusade in 1189. Although the influence of the Crusades in the Arab world was slight, many of the European merchant communities established in the Crusader states remained intact after Muslims recaptured the region. These communities continually promoted trade between Europe and the Middle East.
|G||The Mongols and the Mamluks|
The last nomadic group to migrate west from inner Asia, the Mongols, arrived in the 13th century (see Mongol Empire). By 1231 they had overrun Iran and Mesopotamia, and in 1258 they destroyed Baghdād, ending the caliphate of the Abbasids. Originally pagans, the Mongols soon embraced Sunni Islam and became its zealous defenders. The Mamluks, slaves who had advanced to high military and political posts in Egypt, halted the Mongol invasion of Egypt and Syria in 1260. Mamluk general Baybars I became sultan of Egypt, uniting Egypt and Syria into a single state for the next 250 years.
|H||The Ottoman Empire|
Late in the 13th century, a Muslim warrior known as Osman began to lead successful raids against the Byzantine strongholds in western Anatolia. His followers, the Ottomans, extended control in all directions, forging an empire that would be the principal political force in the western Islamic world for 600 years. At its height in the second half of the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire included southeastern Europe, Anatolia, Iraq, western Iran, Greater Syria, Egypt, the western Arabian Peninsula, and the coast of North Africa between Egypt and eastern Morocco. Further east the Ottomans' contemporaries and rivals the Safavids established a dynasty in Iran and Afghanistan between 1501 and 1722, imposing Twelver Shia Islam as the official religion and founding the modern Iranian state. Both the Ottomans and the Safavids ruled some of the most advanced and militarily and economically secure states of their time. In the early 18th century the Ottoman Empire began a long process of decline and decay, brought about by a combination of internal strife and external pressures from the rise of the European powers to economic, scientific, and political domination.
In the mid-18th century, as France and Britain fought for control of India, both took a strategic interest in the Ottoman Empire and Iran, which lay across the route between Europe and India. Britain had gained supremacy in India by 1763, but in 1798 French emperor Napoleon I attempted to establish a stronghold in Egypt from which to attack the British in India. The Battle of the Nile resulted in the defeat of France and Britain's continued supremacy in India, as well as renewed European interest in the Middle East. As industrialization progressed, first in Britain and then in other European nations, demand grew for both raw materials and markets for manufactured products. The Middle East became a source of grains and wool, as well as cotton in Egypt and Syria, silk in Lebanon, and tobacco in Anatolia and Iran. Overall, the value of European trade with the region increased tenfold during the 19th century.
At various times in the 19th century, the governments of Egypt, Iran, and the Ottoman Empire began to borrow on European money markets, almost always on disadvantageous terms. Partly as a result, Egypt and the Ottoman Empire went bankrupt in the 1870s. Bankruptcy was followed by the installation in local treasuries of European financial controllers who introduced austerity programs and tax increases to pay off the debt. These measures aroused strong local opposition, which in Egypt was followed by a British invasion in 1882. Although supposedly made to protect the ruler from his rebellious subjects, the invasion actually inaugurated a long period of foreign rule.
By the first decade of the 20th century, a variety of nationalist movements had come into being in the Ottoman Empire. Arab nationalism became popular among intellectuals in Greater Syria, while Armenian nationalism also grew after the massacres of Armenians in Anatolia in the 1890s. Zionism (the movement to reunite the Jewish people in Palestine) had begun to gain momentum in Europe, and the first waves of Jewish settlement in Palestine began in 1882. A Turanian movement stressing the unity and solidarity of the Turkish people from present-day Turkey eastwards through Central Asia was growing as well.
|J||World War I and Aftermath|
In 1914 the Ottoman Empire entered World War I (1914-1918) on the side of the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria) against the Allied Powers (28 nations including Britain, France, Russia, Italy, and the United States). In order to protect the oil installations of southwestern Iran and to preempt an Ottoman thrust toward the Persian Gulf, British Indian troops invaded southern Iraq in the first weeks of the war, eventually reaching Baghdād in March 1917. Syria and Palestine remained under Ottoman control until the last months of the war. Upon defeat by the Allies, the Ottoman Empire lost its Arab provinces and was confined to present-day Turkey.
Conflicting arrangements that the Allies had made among themselves and with others during the war complicated control of the Middle East after the war. In 1916 the Allies negotiated the Sykes-Picot agreement, which stated that rulership of the Arab part of the Ottoman Empire would be divided among Britain, France, Italy, and Russia after the war. Meanwhile, in 1915 and 1916 the British government promised Husein ibn Ali, the sharif of Mecca, the right to Arab independence in return for collaboration with the Allies against the Ottomans. However, the British left vague the precise areas where Arab independence would be recognized. Finally, the British promised their support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” in the Balfour Declaration of November 1917 to win worldwide Jewish support for the war effort. The vagueness and potentially conflicting commitments of these agreements strained relationships among all the parties involved, particularly with regard to Palestine.
During various postwar peace conferences the idea of direct colonial rule over the former Arab provinces was discarded in favor of a mandate system. Under this system, members of the newly formed League of Nations were granted supervision of territories with varying degrees of independence. Five new mandate states were created: Britain took over Iraq, Palestine, and Transjordan (now Jordan), while France took Syria and Lebanon. When the Allies attempted to parcel out parts of present-day Turkey, Turkish soldier Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) rallied national support and expelled French, Greek, and Italian forces from the country by 1922. Kemal signed the final postwar territorial settlement in 1923, and the Turkish republic, with Kemal as president, was proclaimed later that year. Turkey abolished the caliphate (an office assumed by Ottoman sultans) in 1924.
|K||Uprisings and Independence Movements|
The new political order was widely contested after the war. The Arab states had been subject to Ottoman rule for centuries before European arrival. In many cases, what was anti-Ottoman sentiment soon became anti-European sentiment. In 1920, uprisings in Iraq against British rule compelled the British government to modify the mandate system by creating a provisional government. Iraq became formally independent in 1932. In Syria the French had considerable difficulty controlling a major national uprising from 1925 to 1927. Despite negotiations in 1938 for increased Syrian autonomy, independence was not achieved until 1946. Transjordan obtained qualified independence in 1928 and full independence in 1946. Lebanon became fully independent of France in 1943. Egypt, which had become a British protectorate in 1914, became an independent state in 1922. However, a large British military presence remained until 1954.
|L||The Birth of Israel and Ensuing Conflicts|
During the early years of British-mandated Palestine, Jewish settlement increased. Jews formed 11 percent of the population of Palestine in 1922 and 29 percent in 1936. Arabs opposed British support of Zionism, and they started a revolt that lasted from 1936 to 1939. In an effort to appease the Arab world, Britain issued the White Paper of 1939, restricting Jewish immigration and land sales to Jews and providing for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state within ten years. Britain's weakening commitment to Zionism, combined with the Holocaust during World War II (1939-1945)-in which German Nazis systematically murdered millions of European Jews-caused Jews in Palestine and worldwide to step up their demands for a Jewish state. In 1947 Britain decided to leave Palestine, and called on the United Nations (UN), the successor to the League of Nations, to make recommendations for the area’s future.
In November 1947 the United Nations resolved to partition Palestine into Arab and Jewish areas, and Britain announced that it would leave the region by May 15, 1948. The Jews accepted the proposal, but the Arabs rejected it as a violation of their right to self-determination. Violence erupted and soon turned into full-scale civil war. In early 1948 Jewish guerrilla forces began terrorist attacks on Arab communities, forcing much of the Arab population to flee. When Israel was declared an independent Jewish state upon British withdrawal, forces from neighboring Arab countries joined the war against Israel. By the end of the fighting in 1949, Israel had substantially increased the size of its territory beyond the area granted to it by the UN partition, and about 900,000 Palestinians became refugees outside the state of Israel.
Arabs and Israelis failed to reach a comprehensive peace agreement, and additional wars followed. In 1956 Britain and France joined Israel against Egypt in a conflict over control of the Suez Canal (see Suez Crisis). Diplomatic intervention by the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) helped end the conflict. Israel further expanded its territory by taking the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula (known collectively as the Occupied Territories) in the Six-Day War of 1967. In this conflict and in another in 1973, the two superpowers stepped up their involvement by supplying weapons, the United States to Israel and the USSR to the Arab nations (see Arab-Israeli War of 1973).
In October 1974 the Arab League recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a group founded in 1964 to work toward Palestinian nationhood, as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. In addition, the United Nations granted the PLO observer status, meaning it could participate in UN deliberations but could not vote on resolutions. The 1978 Camp David Accords, under which Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, and the resulting peace treaty between Egypt and Israel of March 1979 removed Egypt from the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, Israel did not reach peace agreements with the other Arab nations, and the future of other occupied regions remained undetermined. In 1987 a movement known as the intifada, a series of demonstrations, strikes, and riots against Israeli rule, began in the Gaza Strip and spread throughout the Occupied Territories.
|M||Islamic Revival and the Iranian Revolution|
In the first half of the 20th century the spread of literacy, wider access to education, and the growth of modern communications networks substantially changed Middle Eastern society. With the formation of new classes and political institutions came increased pressure to end foreign rule and to widen political participation. Most early political movements were avowedly secular in their structure and objectives. The 1950s in particular seemed to be a time of great hope and optimism for the peoples of the Middle East. The rise of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and his early triumphs with the Suez Crisis and at the Bandung Conference, where 29 nations of Asia and Africa demanded an independent voice in international affairs, were a source of inspiration. He rejected Western influence, embraced a policy of nonalignment with either the U.S.- or Soviet-led blocs of power, and espoused the possibility of a strong, united Arab world. The potential of socialism, or state-sponsored economic development, together with the friendship of the Soviet Union and increasing oil revenues, gave new confidence. The reality, embodied in the Arab defeat in the Six-Day War, was far less inspiring.
In the 1970s Muslims in many countries began to seek, often violently, the revival of Islamic law in both governmental and wider societal spheres. There are various explanations for this “Islamic revival.” It most likely resulted from the combination of many factors, such as the perceived failure of mass political movements in the second half of the 20th century, the deeply undemocratic and unrepresentative regimes in power in almost all Middle Eastern states, and the lack of progress on major regional issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict. Other factors were the pro-Western attitudes of rulers like the shah of Iran and Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat, the increasing gap both within and among states between rich and poor, and widespread misery and despair caused by war, inflation, unemployment, and poverty that had affected the region for so long. However, Islamic fundamentalist activists have rarely offered viable alternatives to the conditions they criticized.
The most successful attempt to establish an Islamic state was the Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1978 and 1979. During the 1960s and 1970s Iran’s ruler, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, attempted to modernize Iran at great speed. Although living standards rose, inflation soared and rapid migration to cities as the economy industrialized severely disrupted Iran’s traditional social structure. Many foreigners working in Iran brought Western habits and an increased demand for consumer goods, which further stressed Iran’s cultural values. Also, the shah's role as a principal ally of the United States in the Middle East made him highly unpopular. Religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in exile since 1963 for criticizing the shah, broadcast messages from Iraq and later from Paris to his followers. Matters came to a head in 1978, when hundreds of demonstrators were killed in clashes with the police. In January 1979 the ayatollah’s followers forced the shah to flee Iran, and Khomeini returned the next month. He and his supporters set up an Islamic republic by a referendum in April 1979.
In neighboring Iraq, dictator Saddam Hussein feared that the Iranian Revolution would prompt Iraqi Shias to rebel. Using a border dispute as a pretext, Hussein invaded southwestern Iran in September 1980. The war proved to be one of the most costly, unnecessary, and fruitless conflicts of the 20th century. Finally, in 1988, the two countries accepted a UN resolution calling for a cease-fire.
|O||Persian Gulf War|
The Iraqi economy was severely weakened by the war with Iran, and the regime of Saddam Hussein became deeply unpopular. To divert attention from his domestic problems, and to punish neighboring Kuwait for its part in depressing the price of oil, Hussein directed his forces to invade and annex Kuwait in August 1990. In response, an international coalition led by the United States launched an air attack against Iraq in January 1991. After a brief ground war the coalition defeated Iraqi forces by the end of February. See Persian Gulf War.
The conflict highlighted significant changes in world politics and international relations since the late 1980s. The decline of the USSR, which had been involved in Middle Eastern affairs since the 1950s, combined with a lack of support from other Arab countries that had traditionally banded together, left Saddam Hussein with virtually no allies. The Iraqi people, exhausted after eight years of fighting Iran, did not support the invasion of Kuwait. Many Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, and the smaller Persian Gulf states, lent military support to the coalition that defeated Iraq. Fearing regional instability, the coalition did not attempt to remove Hussein from power. The lack of international support for Kurdish and Shia rebel groups in Iraq after the war further showed the hesitancy of other nations to become involved in Iraqi internal affairs.
|P||The Middle East in the Late 20th and Early 21st Centuries|
At the end of the late 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century many ongoing issues continued to affect relations between the Middle East and the rest of the world. In Iraq, economic sanctions, imposed after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, remained in effect. These sanctions, which included an embargo on Iraqi oil, were intended to force Iraq to pay war reparations and destroy its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. In December 1998 Hussein’s decision to expel international weapons inspectors who were sent to Iraq to ensure that these conditions were met drew renewed criticism and threats of military action from several Western nations. UN member nations, many of whom rely heavily on Middle Eastern oil, often failed to agree on the extent and duration of the sanctions and on an appropriate response to Hussein’s noncompliance. Following a UN resolution in October 2002, Hussein agreed to readmit weapons inspectors. The government of U.S. president George W. Bush, however, insisted that Hussein possessed chemical and biological weapons and was actively planning to reconstitute a nuclear weapons program. In March 2003 U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq and overthrew the Hussein regime. Following the war, however, no evidence was found that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction or the production facilities needed to manufacture them. See also U.S.-Iraq War.
Despite some steps toward peace, the continuing conflict between Israelis and Arabs continued to play a significant role in regional and worldwide relations. Negotiations beginning in 1993 between Israel and the PLO resulted in limited Palestinian self-rule under the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in some parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This initial progress in negotiations improved relations between Israel and many Arab countries, including Jordan, which signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1994. However, terrorist attacks continued on both sides. An Israeli student opposed to the peace process assassinated Israel’s prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995. The peace process stalled once again, especially after the election of a right-wing government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, which called for the adoption of a much more uncompromising stance toward the Palestinians.
Ehud Barak took office in July 1999 and created a broad center-left coalition government in Israel. Barak pledged to take “bold steps” to help forge a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. He focused his attention on negotiations with the Palestinians and promised to withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon, which Israel had occupied since 1982, within one year. The withdrawal was completed by June 2000.
In an effort to move the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward, the United States convened a summit at Camp David, Maryland, in the summer of 2000, at which U.S. president Bill Clinton, Barak, and PNA president Yasir Arafat focused on a comprehensive peace agreement. Despite intense efforts and some areas of accord, no agreement was reached, and violent clashes between Palestinians and Israelis ensued. Barak suddenly resigned as prime minister in December 2000.
Barak was succeeded by Ariel Sharon, who announced in 2003 that Israel would unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Sharon argued that the peace process could not go forward until the PNA demonstrated that it could control terrorism by groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Israel completed the evacuation of Gaza in August 2005. However, the PNA, now headed by Mahmoud Abbas, who succeeded Arafat following Arafat’s death in 2004, continued to seek a more wide-ranging negotiated settlement which would include Israeli withdrawal from all or most of the West Bank and perhaps from East Jerusalem.
Politically motivated Islamic groups continued to operate in many Middle Eastern countries in the early 21st century. In general, these groups express anger and frustration against what they regard as corrupt and illegitimate regimes, against U.S. activities in Afghanistan and Iraq, and against continuing U.S. support for Israel. However, violence has not been confined to the struggle against tyranny and injustice, but has also been directed against individual advocates of tolerance and democracy. Most Middle Eastern governments have responded with varying degrees of repression, both against Islamists and those urging respect for human rights.
It is also widely believed in the Middle East that the West, and especially the United States, largely controls the affairs of the region, and that the corrupt governments of the Middle East survive because the West needs them in order to protect its interests there. These beliefs have caused considerable anti-Western sentiment and widespread feelings of cynicism and disempowerment, which in turn have led many to conclude that Islam is the only solution.