The Middle East is a geographical region that has been of great importance in history since ancient times. Strategically located, it is a natural land bridge connecting the continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe. It was the site of some of the world's earliest civilizations and the birthplace of three great religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In recent times its enormous deposits of oil have made the Middle East more important than ever.

Defining the Middle East. There has never been agreement on a definition of the Middle East. Historically, the region includes the lands that were formerly part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire plus Persia (modern Iran), an ancient empire in its own right. Thus, the area occupied by the modern-day nations that emerged from the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, together with Iran, would come close to what we generally mean by the Middle East. An earlier term, the Near East, was at one time in common use. It usually referred to lands in the Balkan Peninsula of southeastern Europe that were also once under Ottoman rule, in addition to territory now considered part of the Middle East.

The core of the Middle East today consists of the numerous countries of Southwest Asia and the African nations of Egypt and Libya. Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco are sometimes included in the region. Afghanistan and Sudan are occasionally included.

The People

Population Comparisons

The Middle East has a population of about 246 million, or nearly as many people as the United States. The distribution of the population varies widely. The fertile regions are very densely settled; many others are only lightly populated; while others, particularly in the deserts, are completely empty of human life. The most populous Middle Eastern countries are Turkey, Egypt, and Iran, each with more than 50 million people. The Persian Gulf states of Bahrain and Qatar have the smallest populations, about 400,000 each. Saudi Arabia, although greatest in area, has a relatively small population for its size, a little more than 10 million, because much of its land is desert.

Ethnic Groups

Since ancient times, the Middle East has attracted migrating peoples. Mixing with the earlier inhabitants of the region, they produced the peoples that make up the Middle East today. They can be classified into three main ethnic groups--Arabs, Turks, and Iranians. There are, in addition, smaller numbers of Kurds, who are scattered across Turkey, Iran, and Iraq; Jews (of varied ethnic origin), who live chiefly in Israel; Pakistanis; Armenians; and Greeks, who live mainly on the island nation of Cyprus.

Language and Religion

Language and religion are basic elements of cultural identity in the Middle East. The major languages of the region, which correspond to the three main ethnic groups, are Arabic, the most widely used language; Turkish; and Persian (or Farsi), the language of the Iranians. Kurdish is related to Persian. The Hebrew spoken in Israel is, like Arabic, a Semitic tongue. Educated people throughout the Middle East frequently speak English or French as well.

Islam, the religion of the Muslims, is the predominant faith of the Middle East. There are two main branches: Sunni Islam, the larger branch; and Shi'i Islam, found mainly in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. Christianity is practiced by some Arabs, particularly in Lebanon; by the Greeks of Cyprus; and the Copts in Egypt. Judaism was the faith of ancient Israel and is the religion of the modern state of Israel.

Way of Life

No more than 10 percent of the people of the region ever followed the nomadic way of life, represented by the desert Bedouin, and even fewer do so today. Early civilization in the Middle East was centered in agriculture and the majority of the people still earn their livelihood as settled farmers.

At one time most of the region's people inhabited villages or small towns, living and working much as their ancestors had done for centuries. This has changed dramatically as increasing numbers of people have been drawn to the cities, where about half the population of the region now resides.

The Land

The Middle East is a vast region. With a total area of nearly 3,500,000 square miles (9,000,000 square kilometers), it is only slightly smaller than the United States. Saudi Arabia is the largest of the core countries of the Middle East in area. Bahrain, an island nation in the Persian Gulf, is the smallest of the Middle Eastern states.

Mountains, Plateaus, Deserts

On the north the region is almost completely ringed by mountain ranges. Lesser chains of hills and mountains extend along the coastal areas of the eastern Mediterranean. The Arabian Peninsula, which makes up more than one quarter of the region's area, is bounded by mountainous heights in the west and south. Most of the region's interior is flat and contains some of the world's most forbidding deserts--among them the Libyan (or Western), the Arabian (or Eastern), and the aptly named Rub' al Khali, or Empty Quarter, of Saudi Arabia.

Fertile River Valleys

The region's two major river systems are the Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates. The Nile, the world's longest river, is the lifeblood of Egypt, most of which is otherwise desert. The Tigris and Euphrates rise in Turkey, flow through Syria, and join in Iraq, there forming the region long known as Mesopotamia (meaning land between rivers). These river valleys contain much of the region's limited fertile land and are the most densely populated areas, and it was here that the first known civilizations arose thousands of years ago.

Climate: A Hot, Dry Land

Hot, dry weather is common to the Middle East for much of the year except in the highest mountains, where snow is frequent. The rainy season in most places lasts from about October to April. In the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, rain comes mainly between May and September. But there is only light, brief rainfall in most of the region and in some areas it never rains at all. In the deserts, which are baked by the blazing sun, the daytime temperature often rises to more than 125°F (52°C). Yet at night the deserts are cool or even cold.

Life itself in the Middle East has long been dependent upon the amount and location of water. Rain-bearing winds are often unable to penetrate into the interior of the region because they are blocked by the surrounding mountains. The best-watered areas are usually the strips of land lying between the mountains and the sea, but the Middle East generally suffers from a severe shortage of water due to the limited rainfall.

Water and History

Long ago the availability of water determined where people could live in the Middle East and how they would earn their livelihood. The amount of available water limited the farmer's choice of crops. It compelled the nomads, who traveled from place to place seeking grazing land for their herds, to rely on goats, sheep, and camels, since cattle could not easily survive in the harsh, dry environment. The location of sources of water also determined the routes of travel and trade.

From earliest times the power of Middle Eastern empires depended on ready supplies of water. It is no accident that the valleys of the Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were--and remain--main centers of life in the region. Some of the oldest irrigation systems in the world were developed in the Middle East. Many are still in use, along with newer systems.

Dams and Distilling Seawater

Modern methods of providing regular supplies of water in the region include the Aswan High Dam, which irrigates large areas of Egypt and provides hydroelectric power as well. In Israel a pipeline system has been built to divert water from the Jordan River to the desert areas of the Negev. Turkey in 1990 completed the great Ataturk Dam to harness the waters of the Euphrates River. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other countries of the Arabian Peninsula are converting seawater into drinking water by various distilling processes. The success of programs to raise the standard of living throughout the Middle East will depend to a large extent on the outcome of the various water projects.

Chief Cities

Early Middle Eastern civilization developed great cities, and cities continue to play an important role in the life of the region. The largest city of the Middle East is Cairo, the capital of Egypt. Founded by Arab conquerors in the A.D. 900's, it has a population of about 6 million in the city proper and some 14 million in its metropolitan area. The older Egyptian port city of Alexandria, rebuilt by Alexander the Great in the 300's B.C., was famed for its great library, the largest in the ancient world. Istanbul, the major city of Turkey, lies on one of the world's most historic sites, spanning Europe and Asia. As Constantinople, it was once the capital of the Roman and Byzantine empires.

Baghdad, capital of Iraq, lies on the Euphrates River. Founded in the A.D. 700's, it was the seat of the Abbasid dynasty of Muslim rulers, whose most renowned figure was Harun al-Rashid, famed in the West as the caliph in The Arabian Nights. Damascus, Syria's capital, is one of the world's oldest cities, dating back to at least 732 B.C. It was the site of St. Paul's conversion to Christianity, and from A.D. 66 to 750 served as the capital of the Muslim Ummayyad dynasty.

The importance of Jerusalem, Israel's capital, is far greater than its size, containing as it does, places holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Tehran, capital of Iran, is a relatively new city by Middle Eastern standards, first gaining prominence in the 1500's.

Economic Activity


Although only about 15 percent of the land is suitable for farming, agriculture remains the region's most important economic activity. Wheat, barley, and rice are chief food crops. Figs and dates are grown in desert oases and citrus fruits in the Mediterranean coastal region. The major commercial crops are cotton, coffee, and tobacco. Livestock raising is especially important to the agricultural economy.

Oil and Industry. The discovery of vast oil deposits revolutionized the Middle East's economy. More than half of the world's known oil reserves are found in the region, although they are not equally distributed. Saudi Arabia has the largest deposits and is the world's leading oil producer and exporter. Iran, Iraq, and the small Persian Gulf state of Kuwait are the other major producers. Aside from oil, chrome, coal, sulfur, and magnesium mined in Turkey, and phosphates from Jordan, the region is generally poor in mineral resources.

Turkey, Egypt, and Israel are the most industrially developed countries of the region. The processing of agricultural products, petroleum refining and the production of petrochemicals, textiles, and such traditional crafts as rug weaving are the chief areas of industrial activity. Heavy industry, including machinery and steel production and motor vehicle assembly, is being encouraged.

Perhaps the most important underlying problem of the Middle East today is that of modernization. How are the traditional societies of the region to cope with the modern world? How are they to use the new oil wealth wisely, in order to change but not destroy existing structures of society? There is also serious political tension between the countries that have oil and those that do not and between the rich and poor within countries.


Early History

The Middle East has been called the cradle of civilization. More than 8,000 years ago, people in this part of the world discovered the methods of agriculture that freed them from the need to wander about in search of food as hunters and gatherers. The development of settled communities and the earliest forms of government followed. Between 4000 and 3000 B.C., city-states, most notably Sumer, began to emerge in the southern part of the fertile region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Before the beginning of the Christian era, the Middle East had already seen the rise and eventual fall of numerous kingdoms and empires-- those of the Egyptians, Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Persians among them. Their great contributions to civilization included codes of law, writing systems, mechanical inventions such as the wheel, and the development of sciences, such as astronomy, and mathematics. Judaism, the first great monotheistic religion (the faith in but one God), evolved among a relatively small group of people, the ancient Hebrews.

Greeks, Romans, Arabs

Alexander the Great invaded the region with an army of Macedonians and Greeks in the 300's B.C. and carved out a vast empire based on Greek culture. The Romans began their own conquest of the region some three centuries later. When the Roman Empire in the West collapsed in the A.D. 400's, its successor in the East, the Byzantine Empire, centered in Constantinople, endured for another thousand years. Meanwhile, the Arabs, newly converted to the Muslim religion by the prophet Mohammed, swept out of the Arabian Peninsula in the 600's and created an Islamic empire.

The Ottoman Empire

Other conquerors-- Seljuk Turks, European crusaders, and Mongols-- followed in their turn. The last great empire of the region was that of the Ottoman Turks, who reached the height of their power in the 1500's, when all of the Middle East, except for Persia, came under their sway. From this high point, Ottoman power slowly declined, although the crumbling empire was to last, at least in name, until the early 1900's.

Period of Nationalism

The final breakup of what remained of the Ottoman Empire came about as a result of World War I (1914-18), in which the Turks sided with the Central Powers, led by Germany and Austria-Hungary. Their defeat by the Allies, headed by Britain and France, split the empire apart, reducing Turkey to its present territory. During the war many Arabs fought with the Allies against the Turks, hoping to gain their independence. But after the war, much of the region came under British and French control through the League of Nations.

Two Arab nations, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, were created in 1932. Most of the rest won their independence during or shortly after World War II (1939-45). These years also saw the large-scale development of the region's oil resources.

Recent Conflicts

Since World War II, the Middle East has been torn by conflicts, including five wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. However, its relations with the rest of the Arab world remained hostile until 1993. That year, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed the first in a series of accords granting limited self-rule to Palestinian Arabs in Israeli-occupied territories. Israel and Jordan also signed a peace treaty, in 1994. Israel withdrew its forces from southern Lebanon in 2000. But at the same time violence again erupted between the Israelis and Palestinians. Relations improved with the death in 2004 of the longtime Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat.

In 2005, Israel turned over all its settlements in the Gaza Strip and some in the West Bank to the Palestinians. In 2007, however, Hamas, an Islamic militant party whose goal is to destroy Israel, seized control of Gaza from Fatah, the more-moderate Palestinian faction. Hamas soon started firing missiles into southern Israel, and the Israelis bombarded and then invaded Gaza. The two-week assault devastated Gaza.

Lebanon fought a civil war from the mid-1970's until 1990 and was long occupied by Israel and Syria. Iran and Iraq fought a bitter war from 1980 to 1988. Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, which led to the Persian Gulf War (1991). Iraq was quickly defeated by a U.S.-led multinational coalition. The United States led a second war against Iraq in 2003 and overthrew its dictator, Saddam Hussein. Iraq held democratic elections in 2005, despite a deadly Sunni insurgency against the Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi government, as well as the U.S. occupation forces.

The level of violence in Iraq decreased in 2007-08, and in 2009, U.S. combat troops were withdrawn from Iraqi cities. Iraqi forces assumed control of security. At the end of 2009, however, there were still about 115,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Meanwhile, violence increased in some parts of the country. And political disagreements among the various Iraqi factions threatened to force a postponement of the important national elections scheduled for 2010.

Syrian forces remained in Lebanon until 2005. They were forced out after the Lebanese staged an anti-Syrian revolution, in which they blamed Syrian officials for the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. It was clear, however, that Syria continued to maintain a powerful influence over Lebanon.

There was conflict in other parts of the Middle East as well. In 2009, the government of Yemen faced a rebellion, a separatist movement, and attacks by members of Al Qaeda, the international Islamic terrorist network. And the government of Iran ignored world public opinion and continued to enrich uranium. Iran insisted that its nuclear program was for peaceful purposes. But the United States and many other countries feared its purpose was to develop nuclear weapons.

In 2010, violence returned to the Gaza Strip, which was controlled by Hamas, the militant Palestinian faction. Israel had been blocking entry to Gaza. Israeli navy ships halted a flotilla of Turkish ships bringing supplies to Gaza, and nine people on one of the ships were killed.

Hyman Kublin
Author, The Rim of Asia
Reviewed by Arthur Campbell Turner
Coauthor, Power and Ideology in the Middle East