From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"Most countries of the Middle East, suffered from the fundamental problems over their national identities. More than three-quarters of a century after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, from which most of them emerged, these states have been unable to define, project, and maintain a national identity that is both inclusive and representative." --“Who Am I?: The Identity Crisis in the Middle East” (2006) is a text by P. R. Kumaraswamy
The Middle East is a region that roughly encompasses a majority of Western Asia (excluding the Caucasus) and Egypt. The term is used as a synonym for Near East, in opposition to Far East. The corresponding adjective is Middle-Eastern and the derived noun is Middle-Easterner.
The history of the Middle East dates back to ancient times, and throughout its history, the Middle East has been a major center of world affairs. When discussing its ancient history, however, the term Near East is more commonly used. The Middle East is also the historical origin of major religions including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Middle East generally has an arid and hot climate, with several major rivers providing for irrigation to support agriculture in limited areas, especially in Mesopotamia and the rest of the Fertile Crescent. Many countries located around the Persian Gulf have large quantities of crude oil, which has resulted in much wealth particularly for nations in the Arabian peninsula. In modern times the Middle East remains a strategically, economically, politically, culturally and religiously sensitive region.
Home to the Cradle of Civilization, the Middle East (usually interchangeable with the Near East) has seen many of the world's oldest cultures and civilizations. This history started from the earliest human settlements, continuing through several major pre- and post-Islamic Empires through to the nation-states of the Middle East today.
Egyptian civilization coalesced around 3150 BC with the political unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the first pharaoh. Mesopotamia was home to several powerful empires that came to rule almost the entire Middle East—particularly the Assyrian Empires of 1365–1076 BC and the Neo-Assyrian Empire of 911–609 BC. From the early 7th century BC and onwards, the Iranian Medes followed by Achaemenid Persia and other subsequent Iranian states empires dominated the region. In the 1st century BC, the expanding Roman Republic absorbed the whole Eastern Mediterranean, which included much of the Near East. The Eastern Roman Empire, today commonly known as the Byzantine Empire, ruling from the Balkans to the Euphrates, became increasingly defined by and dogmatic about Christianity, gradually creating religious rifts between the doctrines dictated by the establishment in Constantinople and believers in many parts of the Middle East. From the 3rd up to the course of the 7th century AD, the entire Middle East was dominated by the Byzantines and Sassanid Persia. From the 7th century, a new power was rising in the Middle East, that of Islam. The dominance of the Arabs came to a sudden end in the mid-11th century with the arrival of the Seljuq Turks. In the early 13th century, a new wave of invaders, the armies of the Mongol Empire, mainly Turkic, swept through the region. By the early 15th century, a new power had arisen in western Anatolia, the Ottoman emirs, linguistically Turkic and religiously Islamic, who in 1453 captured the Christian Byzantine capital of Constantinople and made themselves sultans.
Large parts of the Middle East became a warground between the Ottomans and Iranian Safavids for centuries starting in the early 16th century. By 1700, the Ottomans had been driven out of Hungary and the balance of power along the frontier had shifted decisively in favor of the West. The British also established effective control of the Persian Gulf, and the French extended their influence into Lebanon and Syria. In 1912, the Italians seized Libya and the Dodecanese islands, just off the coast of the Ottoman heartland of Anatolia. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Middle Eastern rulers tried to modernize their states to compete more effectively with the European powers. A turning point in the history of the Middle East came when oil was discovered, first in Persia in 1908 and later in Saudi Arabia (in 1938) and the other Persian Gulf states, and also in Libya and Algeria. A Western dependence on Middle Eastern oil and the decline of British influence led to a growing American interest in the region.
During the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, Syria and Egypt made moves towards independence. The British, the French, and the Soviets departed from many parts of the Middle East during and after World War II (1939–1945). The struggle between the Arabs and the Jews in Palestine culminated in the 1947 United Nations plan to partition Palestine. Later in the midst of Cold War tensions, the Arabic-speaking countries of Western Asia and Northern Africa saw the rise of pan-Arabism. The departure of the European powers from direct control of the region, the establishment of Israel, and the increasing importance of the oil industry, marked the creation of the modern Middle East. In most Middle Eastern countries, the growth of market economies was inhibited by political restrictions, corruption and cronyism, overspending on arms and prestige projects, and over-dependence on oil revenues. The wealthiest economies in the region per capita are the small oil-rich countries of Persian Gulf: Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.
A combinations of factors—among them the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1970s energy crisis beginning with the 1973 OPEC oil embargo in response to U.S. support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War, the concurrent Saudi-led popularization of Salafism/Wahhabism, and the 1978-79 Iranian Revolution—promoted the increasing rise of Islamism and the ongoing Islamic revival (Tajdid). The Fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought a global security refocus from the Cold War to a War on Terror. Starting in the early 2010s, a revolutionary wave popularly known as the Arab Spring brought major protests, uprisings, and revolutions to several Middle Eastern and Maghreb countries. Clashes in western Iraq on 30 December 2013 were preliminary to the Sunni pan-Islamist ISIL uprising.
The term Near East can be used interchangeably with Middle East, but in a different context, especially when discussing ancient times, it may have a limited meaning, namely the northern, historically Aramaic-speaking Semitic area and adjacent Anatolian territories, marked in the two maps below.
Post-World War II
The most chaotic part of Asia in the post-World War II world was the Middle East. Following World War II, Britain had granted independence to Mesopotamia, which became Iraq, Kuwait, and Transjordan, which became Jordan. France also granted independence to Syria and Lebanon. British Palestine, however, presented a unique challenge. Following World War I, when Britain gained the colony, Jews, mostly from Europe, began immigrating to Palestine, since it was the land of their ancestors. This immigration increased as anti-Semitism became more prevalent in the 1930s. However, as the numbers of Palestinian Jews increased, conflicts with Arab Palestinians occurred. The UN proposed Palestine be divided into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Arabs objected, however. Feeling it could do nothing to resolve the conflict, Britain withdrew and Jewish Palestinians declared the state of Israel. The Israelis immediately found themselves at war with their Arab neighbors. Israel survived the war and won two subsequent wars with neighboring Arab nations. Unfortunately, as a result of these wars, Israel found itself occupying the lands of the Arab Palestinians, called simply Palestinians today. This would lead to ongoing problems in the region.
Organizations, programs, and media
- Middle East Institute
- Middle East Studies Association of North America
- Middle East Youth Initiative
- Maayan Middle East poetry magazine
- Strategic Foresight Group