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
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.