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 rose in revolt against the Turks, fighting on the side of the Allies. The Arabs had hoped to gain their independence, but after the war much of the region came under British and French control, as mandates of the League of Nations (the forerunner of the United Nations).

Two Arab nations, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, came into being in 1932. Most of the rest won their independence during or shortly after World War II (1939-45). The last Arab countries to gain complete independence, the tiny Persian Gulf states, did so in 1971. The years after World War II also marked the large-scale development of the region's oil resources.

Recent History. In the years since, the Middle East has frequently been torn by conflicts. Hostilities between the Arab countries and the state of Israel, created by the United Nations in 1948 as a homeland for dispossessed Jews, has been the most long-lasting source of tension and has resulted in five wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors since 1949.

There have been numerous other conflicts among countries of the region or within the borders of a country. Lebanon fought a long civil war from the mid-1970's until 1990, and Iran and Iraq fought a bitter war from 1980 to 1988. Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and refused to withdraw by the deadline set by the United Nations. In the Persian Gulf War that followed (1991), Iraq was quickly defeated by a U.S.-led international military coalition.

Israel had signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, but its relations with the rest of the Arab world remained hostile until 1993. In that year, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed the first in a series of accords granting limited self-rule to Palestinian Arabs and giving them authority in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, areas occupied by Israel. Israel and Jordan also signed a peace treaty, in 1994. Elections for a Palestinian self-rule authority were held in 1996, and Israel withdrew its forces from southern Lebanon in mid-2000.

For a time it seemed that the peace process was irreversible. But the accords did not deal with such controversial issues as the future status of Jerusalem. A September 2000 deadline for reaching a final agreement was not met, and a new cycle of violence began.

Hyman Kublin
Author, The Rim of Asia