(From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)

Middle East

Middle East, an area in southwest Asia that extends into Europe and Africa. A cradle of ancient civilizations, this land bridge between three continents has been of fundamental strategic importance throughout the centuries. It also has been, particularly in the second half of the 20th century, of paramount economic importance to the world because of its vast oil resources. Bitter political disputes, which several times led to war in the Middle East after World War II, have kept the area in constant turmoil and have threatened the peace of the world.

There is no universal acceptance of the term "Middle East," or universal agreement as to its boundaries. Terms developed in an earlier age to refer to the area, such as an undifferentiated "East," the more narrowly delimited "Levant," or the more common "Near East," are often encountered in both popular and scholarly contexts. The U.S. Department of State still designates the area as the "Near East." Gradually, however, the term "Middle East," first used in an article in the National Review (London) in September 1902 by the American naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan in reference to this specific area, came to be the dominant usage after World War II.

For the purposes of this article, the term will include, unless indicated otherwise, the territories of the following states: in Europe, Turkey in Europe (Eastern Thrace); in Asia, Turkey in Asia (Anatolia), Bahrain, Cyprus, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Yemen (formerly two entities: the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen and the Yemen Arab Republic); in Africa, Egypt, Libya, and the Sudan.

The total area of the Middle East delimited in this fashion is 4,197,300 square miles (10,871,000 sq km). Its population approaches 355,000,000. Annual rates of population growth in the area vary from a high of 3.3% in Yemen to a low of 0.6% in Cyprus, with the average probably in the range of 2.0% to 2.4%.

The Land

Most of the Middle East is arid and flat and contains some of the largest and most barren deserts on earth. However, many areas around the seacoasts are mountainous and receive adequate rainfall for agriculture, while the irrigation systems of the river valleys sustain some of the most densely populated agricultural areas in the world.

Geographically, the Middle East may be roughly classified in three zones: northerly, intermediate, and southerly.

The northerly sector is a zone of rough, geologically young, folded mountains connected to the European and Himalayan mountain zones at either end. Minerals other than petroleum are to be found there. It is a tangled belt of ranges, running generally from east to west, enclosing the extensive plateaus of Anatolia and Iran. The highest peaks, such as Mt. Demavand (18,655 feet, or 5,686 meters) in the Elburz range of northern Iran and Mt. Ararat (16,934 feet, or 5,161 meters) in eastern Turkey near the borders of Armenia and Iran, are covered with snow in the summer as well as in the winter.

Moisture-laden air from the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and the Caspian Sea strike these ranges, providing the most dependable precipitation in the northerly region. On the Caspian coast of Iran and at the eastern end of the Black Sea this rainfall produces a zone of heavy afforestation. Around most of the Turkish coast the rain is more moderate, producing a Mediterranean type of climate. The great interior masses of the plateaus present a striking contrast to their coastal plains, varying from semidesert to true barren deserts of salt and alkali.

The intermediate zone is more complex. It extends from the coastal ranges of Libya, across the Sinai peninsula, around the Fertile Crescent north of Arabia and south of the Anatolian-Iranian plateau, and down to the lowlands along the Persian Gulf. The Persian Gulf and its basin represent an unfolded sedimentary area—the world's richest known storehouse of petroleum wealth.

On the whole, this zone is less harsh than its northern and southern neighbors. The mountains along the eastern Mediterranean coast trap most of the moisture from the prevailing westerlies. The Zagros range of western Iran catches most of what remains, leaving less moisture for the Iranian plateau. The interior areas vary from scattered evergreens and shrubs to grasslands and to semidesert in the south.

The southern zone is the most uniform. This African-Arabian shield is geologically old and, except for the volcanic fault now filled by the Red Sea, relatively undisturbed. The Arabian peninsula tilts upward from the southeast to the northwest. Mountains parallel the coasts of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The mountains of Oman on the eastern side of the peninsula are an extension of the Iranian Zagros range.

Except for the high mountains of Yemen and Oman, this southern zone is generally the most barren region of the entire Middle East. But its coastal ranges catch the moisture of the Indian Ocean monsoons, which is sufficient to support forests and grasslands. The largest country in the Middle East, the Sudan, extends in the south beyond the zone of grassland and into true tropical Africa.

Two major river systems traverse these Middle Eastern geographic zones: the Nile, flowing from south to north in the Sudan and Egypt; and the Tigris-Euphrates, flowing from north to south out of the Anatolian-Iranian mountains in a southwesterly direction through Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Fed by regular rains and snows, and passing through rich alluvial soils in a zone of hot and cloudless skies, three river valleys provided favorable locations for the development of vegetation in prehistoric times, and eventually, of human settlement and civilization.

The People

The peoples of the Middle East can be classified into a seemingly infinite number of groups and subgroups on the basis of physical type, language, religion, social organization, means of livelihood, and national consciousness. But in this human mosaic, any single criterion of classification can be misleading, for languages cross religious and social barriers and races cross linguistic and national boundaries.

Since the 20th century, Middle Eastern peoples have been most commonly classified along nationalistic lines. This is especially true of the political, economic, and social elites of the various countries. Nevertheless, the criteria of languages, religions, and ways of life cannot yet be replaced by strictly nationalistic characteristics, since these criteria do not correspond in any precise way with national boundaries. For this reason these criteria must be examined separately to appreciate the diversity and distribution of human societies in the Middle East.

Languages. There are three major linguistic groups in the Middle East: Semitic, Iranian, and Turkic. Each of these groups, in turn, contains several distinct languages and an even larger number of dialects. Languages from other linguistic families are also found in the area, such as modern Greek on Cyprus, Berber in parts of Libya, and the Hamitic and Nubian languages of the Sudan. Some languages, such as Coptic and Syriac (the latter an early Semitic type), survive largely as liturgical languages.

Semitic languages originated in the Middle East and are spoken by a majority of the area's population. Arabic, a Semitic language, spread from the Arabian peninsula in the wake of the Arab conquests that followed the rise of Islam in the 7th century. The Koran standardized literary Arabic, but the spoken language splintered into many dialects. Today Arabic is spoken in the Arabian peninsula, the Fertile Crescent, North Africa, and the Sudan. Arabic-speaking peoples probably constitute 53% of the area's population.

Small groups continue to speak Aramaic or Syriac, which was the Semitic lingua franca of the area at the time of Christ. Hebrew, which at one time virtually disappeared as a living language, was revived and modernized by Zionist settlers in Palestine. It is now the official language of Israel.

Iranian languages, after being eclipsed by Arabic for several centuries, were revived around the 11th century. Persian is the language of the largest number of Iranian speakers and is the official language of Iran. Although the Iranian linguistic group is related to the broader Indo-European group, it is written in a modified Arabic script.

Other Iranian-group languages spoken in the Middle East are Kurdish, spoken in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran; and Baluchi, spoken in Iran. Iranian languages are also spoken in areas bordering the Middle East on the east.

Turkish is the official language of the Turkish republic and the Turkish-inhabited areas of Cyprus. Turkic languages are also spoken by minorities in Iran and elsewhere. For centuries, Turkish was written in Arabic script. With the founding of the Turkish republic after World War I, reformers established a modified Latin alphabet for the language.

Religions. The Middle East gave birth to Islam, and today Islam is the religion of more than 90% of the area's population. Founded by the Arabian Prophet Mohammed, Islam had spread throughout the Arabian peninsula by the time of his death in 632 and throughout the Middle East in the century that followed.

Less than 30 years after his death, however, the unity of the Islamic religion began to crumble over the question of the rightful succession to the leadership of the community of believers. This dispute led to the appearance of two rival sects: the Sunni Muslims, who believed in the succession of a line of caliphs elected by the leaders of the community; and the Shiite Muslims, who believed that the rightful succession to the leadership belonged to the descendants of Ali, who was both the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet. The Shiites soon split into rival subsects. The Sunnis remained more uniform in their beliefs, although differences in interpretation over the finer points of religious law, the Sharah, eventually led to the elaboration of four schools of law. Today the majority of Muslims in the Middle East are Sunni. But Shiism is the state religion of Iran, and a majority of the population in Iraq and Lebanon, as well as substantial minorities in other countries, adhere to it.

Christianity and Judaism also originated in the Middle East, and there are significant numbers of Christians and Jews living there today: 4% to 6% of Middle Easterners adhere to Christianity, 1% to Judaism, and 1% to other religions.

Under Islamic rule, Jews and Christians generally enjoyed a protected status (dhimma), for though Islam enjoined on its followers the duty of jihad, or struggle against unbelievers, fellow monotheists such as Jews and Christians were not to be forcibly converted. As a result, the religious minorities in Islamic countries had a good deal of autonomy and prosperity. Their later persecution in some Middle Eastern countries has been more a consequence of modern nationalism than of Islamic hostility.

Ways of Life. The Middle East has traditionally been divided into three contrasting and often hostile life-styles—those of the nomadic herdsmen, of the sedentary agricultural workers, and of the urban dwellers.

In the harsh desert or mountain environment, nomads had to move regularly as their herds exhausted the scanty pastures. The nomads were hardened by their existence and were well adapted for military life. Their tribal structures served to increase group solidarity and spirit. They looked on the settled agricultural and urban populations with a mixture of contempt for their softness and envy for their wealth.

Though nomadic groups have occupied roughly 90% of the land, they probably numbered no more than 10% of the population in the past and today account for no more than 5%. Yet historically their political, economic, social, and military importance was greater than their numbers would suggest. Even today they are represented by the present Saudi dynasty.

The typical Middle Easterner, however, has traditionally been a peasant farmer and not a nomad. As has been noted, many areas in the Middle East are exceptionally favorable for the development of an agricultural society.

In some cases these agricultural communities gave rise to urban civilizations. Along the seacoast, in the great alluvial valleys, and in some favorable mountain areas in Anatolia and Yemen, some of humanity's earliest civilizations developed. Some of the most ancient cities, such as Jerusalem, Damascus, and Beirut, have been continuously occupied to the present. However, until this century the security of urban civilization has been continuously menaced by nomadic invasions from either within or without the limits of the Middle East.

The ancient social structure of nomad, peasant, and townsmen has been significantly altered in modern times. The modern nomads probably have suffered the most, and their way of life has been threatened by national governments, which often consider them an anachronism. Many farmers are still traditional peasants, but some of the amenities of urban life and some of the benefits of land reform have in many cases changed their lifestyles.

A substantial portion of the area's city dwellers have changed their way of life to something recognizably modern in orientation. They read newspapers, send their children to state schools, and are active in political parties, voluntary organizations, and unions. Others, sometimes known as "urban villagers," live in cities, often in neighborhoods with people from the same village, but retain their traditional outlook and way of life.

By the 1970's secular nationalism appeared to have triumphed over traditional ways, but traditionalism remained a potent factor among nomads, farmers, and urban dwellers. A backlash against secularism, Western culture, and other "foreign" ways became evident afer 1979, with the Islamic revolution in Iran and the subsequent rise of fundamentalist movements in other countries of the Middle East.

The Economy

Throughout its history, the Middle East has been dependent on agriculture for its prosperity. Only in the second half of the 20th century did the petroleum industry fundamentally alter this situation. Even today about 60% of the work force is engaged in farming, and certain regions have developed valuable cash crops for export: citrus fruits from Israel, dates from Iraq, nuts, raisins, and tobacco from Turkey, and cotton from Egypt and Sudan. But in spite of steady rates of growth in food production, population pressures have forced many Middle Eastern countries to import basic foodstuffs.

The Traditional Economy. The major features of the traditional Middle Eastern economy remained fairly constant for many centuries. Agricultural production was concentrated in a few areas and often required extensive irrigation works that could only be built and maintained by some form of centralized government. The large desert and semidesert regions of the area, along with the less extensive grasslands, were devoted to nomadic pastoralism. Some traditional crafts and manufactures developed, such as the fine steelwork of Damascus and the carpets of Persia. There were some natural resources to exploit, such as the copper of Cyprus and Sinai and, in ancient times, the cedars of Lebanon. Finally there was a network of regional and international communication routes to facilitate the exchange of goods among so many specialized markets and production centers. It was thus an uneven and unbalanced economy, but one that developed a certain interdependence among its parts.

Decline of the Traditional Economy. The Middle East enjoyed a period of unusual prosperity in the 16th and 17th centuries when the Ottoman and Persian empires dominated the area. But by the early 19th century a period of decline had set in. Major irrigation works, which were so essential to agricultural production, had been allowed to fall into disrepair, partly because of internal strife within the empires and partly because of foreign invasions. Trade had been severely curtailed with the West as a result of numerous wars between the Ottoman Empire and various European powers. Large areas along the Ottoman-Persian border had been deliberately laid waste as a defensive measure. But most important of all, Europe no longer depended on the Middle East as a bridge to India and the Far East, since new sea routes had been developed.

European Intervention in the Middle East's Economy. Economic revival began in the Middle East before the discovery of petroleum. It was based on the products, mainly agricultural, of the traditional economy and on a revival of the transit trade. In the case of Egypt, the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali (reigned 1805–1848), turned the country into a vast plantation. He built new irrigation works and by means of state monopolies bought cheaply from the farmers and sold dearly to European buyers.

In the 19th century the Europeans began to play an increasingly important role in the area's economy. They helped to finance and direct the construction of the Suez Canal (which was opened in 1869), the building of railroads throughout the Ottoman Empire, including a line to the holy city of Medina, and the development of telegraph lines through Iran to India.

The Europeans also infiltrated the area in other ways. They demanded concessions and reforms in return for their development of the area. Indirect controls over the economies of the Middle Eastern countries were in several instances replaced by more direct ones, and in time the Ottoman debt, the Persian customs, and the Egyptian police were all administered by European officials. Nevertheless, in spite of these humiliating concessions made to European powers, the Middle East had by the end of the century reentered the mainstream of the world's economy.

The Oil Age. In 1908, seven years after obtaining a concession from the shah, William Knox D'Arcy, an Australian, found oil in commercial quantities at Masjid-i-Sulaiman in southwestern Iran. Thus began the Middle Eastern oil industry that is today the single most important factor in the economy of the Middle East.

For many years, however, the countries in which the oil was located benefited far less from its development than did the countries that held the concessions and provided the capital for its production. Concessions covered entire countries or large portions of them. The companies to which they had been granted had complete control over the exploitation, including rates of development, production schedules, and pricing, of the oil.

Middle Eastern governments began to pressure the oil companies for a greater share of the revenues, but their bargaining power was limited. They could not produce oil themselves, the major companies did not really need Middle Eastern oil, and the Middle Eastern governments were becoming accustomed to the valuable foreign exchange they were receiving for their oil.

Following World War II, Middle Eastern oil came to dominate the world's petroleum trade, and the countries with the oil reserves did obtain greatly improved terms through an equal sharing of profits with the producers. Nationals of these Middle Eastern countries began to be trained in all phases of the petroleum industry. In some cases the concession areas were restricted and national oil companies began operations on their own or in partnership with independent foreign companies.

In 1960 the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Companies (OPEC) was formed by the major Middle Eastern producers and Venezuela. It was designed to increase the bargaining power of the producers against the unified positions adopted by the major companies. Production of oil rose rapidly in the 1960s as new fields were discovered and more independent companies entered the area. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the OPEC governments, which had increased in number, began to demand and receive a larger percentage of the profits. Finally, following the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, the OPEC governments asserted their right to complete control over the industry, including the setting of prices and rates of production. In most cases oil production was partially or completely nationalized. In addition some OPEC producers maintained their right to determine the final destination of their oil.

The oil revenues for Middle Eastern governments jumped from approximately $20 billion in 1973 to almost $90 billion in 1976. This immense inflow of wealth resulted in a greater imbalance in the area's economy, both regionally and within individual states; several of the nations of the Middle East have little or no oil wealth. Even within major oil-producing countries two distinct economies appeared—a highly developed oil industry sector and a large, economically marginal sector of traditional farmers, unskilled workers, and non-oil-related industries. A consequence of these disparities was the migration of large numbers of workers from the poor areas of the Middle East or South Asia into the oil fields, ports, and menial jobs of the oil centers.

In the countries that had oil, the new wealth was put to a variety of uses. Some of it was granted to poorer Arab countries, especially those that bordered Israel, such as Jordan and Syria; some was spent accumulating large arsenals; some was invested abroad; and some was invested in development projects at home. Investment at home resulted in at least pockets of modernization, including new office towers, superhighways, and industries. Industrialization, it was hoped, would create a more stable economic base. Oil was widely understood to be a depletable resource. Moreover, even the largest producers discovered in the 1980s that major price fluctuations could move them quickly into debt. Nevertheless, apart from desalinization, the industries that attracted the most investment were those connected to petroleum, such as oil refining and the manufacture of petrochemicals and plastics.


The earliest forms of writing appeared in the Middle East in the 3d millennium B.C. Historians can therefore examine an almost unbroken written record in the Middle East from the time of the Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations to the present.

The favorable conditions in the Tigris-Euphrates and Nile valleys gave birth to these civilizations and continued to support high civilizations throughout antiquity. To some extent the civilizations of Egypt along the Nile and of Mesopotamia along the Tigris-Euphrates were rivals for the domination of the Middle East. This struggle for supremacy, however, did not prevent other civilizations, such as that of the ancient Hebrews, from flourishing in virtually every area now occupied by the Middle Eastern states.

Egypt was the first Middle Eastern civilization to achieve political unification. It did so in about 3000 B.C. under King Menes (Narmer). The general outline of Egyptian civilization was formed very early, during the period known as the Old Kingdom (2664–2180 B.C.), and changed very little until the rise of Christianity in the later Roman Empire. Although Egypt did fall to foreign conquerors, native dynasties continued to reassert themselves until the Persian conquest of Cambyses (reigned 529–522 B.C.).

Mesopotamian civilizations began in several Sumerian city-states, including the biblical "Ur of the Chaldees," in the 3d millennium B.C. However, it was not until the Semite ruler Sargon of Akkad (about 2350 B.C.) that an imperial system embracing the entire Tigris-Euphrates Valley was established. The ancient history of Mesopotamia consists of a succession of empires, differing politically and even ethnically, but developing along the lines of a common civilization conforming to earlier Sumerian patterns. An active merchant class, cuneiform writing on clay tablets, codified legal systems, platform temples built of mud brick covered with glazed tiles, and the study of mathematics and astronomy persisted regardless of political changes.

The Persian Empire of the Achaemenids, originating on the Iranian plateau, was the last and greatest of these ancient empires. It contained virtually all of what we know today as the Middle East, as well as areas beyond it. Persian imperial policy, as set by its founder Cyrus the Great (reigned about 549—about 530 B.C.), was remarkably enlightened. It permitted religious and cultural freedom and considerable local political autonomy. At the same time, an imperial postal service and an extensive road network served to improve communications and commerce.

Alexander the Great, king of Macedon (reigned 336–323 B.C.), brought an end to the Persian Empire. From Alexander to the rise of Islam the center of Middle Eastern civilizations shifted toward the Mediterranean Sea. Alexander the Great and his successors had a vision of combining the civilizations of Greece with those of the Middle East in a new world empire. The farthest extensions of Hellenistic civilization into Iran, central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan were short-lived, and the revived Persian Empire of the Sassanids (about 224–642 A.D.) became a powerful rival of the Romans and Byzantines. Still, Hellenistic civilization facilitated the spread of Greco-Roman literature, architecture, art, science, and, eventually, the Christian religion throughout much of the Middle East.

The legacy of the ancient Middle East to the modern world is vast, for it is virtually a catalogue of the origins of Western civilization. From the invention of writing to the alphabet, the calendar, and, especially, the origins of the great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the modern world is indebted to the ancient Middle East.

The Early Islamic and Caliphal Periods. Mohammed, the founder of Islam, was born probably between 570 and 571 A.D. in the Arabian city of Mecca, an important commercial and religious center. By the time of his death at Medina in 632, he had replaced the polytheistic idol worship and tribal factionalism of the Arabs with the strongly monotheistic and militant religion of Islam, which had been revealed to him as the word of God and recorded as the Koran.

The Prophet had a difficult time in convincing his fellow Meccans of the authenticity of his mission. He was forced to flee with a few hundred followers to Medina in 622. This was the Hegira, or migration, marking the beginning of the Islamic era. He was accepted by the Medinans and built an enlarged community of believers. By 630 the Meccans accepted him as well. In the generation that followed his death, the boundaries of Islam were extended over most of the Middle East. The Sassanid Persians were conquered, and the Byzantines lost most of their Middle Eastern provinces.

The successors of the Prophet were known as caliphs, and all were members of Mohammed's own tribe, the Quraysh. At first they were elected by the community. However, the political-religious unity of Islam lasted less than 30 years. The fourth caliph, Ali, who was both the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, was elected in 656. Faced with a revolt led by Muawiya, the governor of Syria, he agreed to arbitration and was deposed in 658 or 659. In 661 he was assassinated.

Muawiya was the leader of the Umayyad family of the Quraysh. He moved the capital to Damascus and succeeded in extending the frontiers of Islam. The Umayyads, however, ruled more as an Arab dynasty than as elected religious leaders. Consequently, they had great difficulty in assimilating the large numbers of non-Arab converts to Islam into the ruling Arab elite.

In 750 another Quraysh family, the Abbasids, supported by Iraqis and Persians, defeated the Umayyads and established the Abbasid caliphate. The capital was moved to Baghdad, and under the Abbasids, in the next two centuries, Islamic civilization reached its peak of intellectual, political, and material prosperity.

From the mid-10th century, however, the Abbasids began a sharp decline. Four major factors were responsible: (1) the Abbasid caliphate was greatly weakened when a rival Shiite caliphate was established in Egypt; (2) the vast extent of the Abbasid empire led to decentralization of power and the strengthening of provincial governors, who in time revolted against the caliphs; (3) as the Abbasid caliphs neglected their duties, real power was exercised by corrupt courtiers and bureaucrats; and (4) the caliph became the captive of his bodyguard of Turkish slaves.

The Seljuks, Turkoman tribesmen who had embraced Islam, invaded the empire in the 10th century and captured the Abbasid capital of Baghdad in 1055. They preserved the Abbasid caliph as a spiritual figurehead but assumed all political powers as sultans. The now-powerless caliphate lasted until 1258. But the Seljuks themselves soon fell victim to internal strife. During this confused period, the Byzantine Greeks and Crusaders from Europe succeeded in mounting a counterattack against the Islamic Middle East, regaining half of Anatolia and its coastal areas as well as the coastal areas of Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. The Crusaders in turn lost Jerusalem in 1187 but were not expelled from the Holy Land until 1291.

By this date both the Abbasid caliphate and the Seljuk sultanate had been destroyed by the Mongol general Hulagu (Hülegü) Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan. Hulagu Khan captured Baghdad and massacred the Abbasid family in 1258. Iran and the Islamic East came under the rule of the pagan Mongols, while a number of minor Seljuk and Mamluk (warrior slave) dynasties in the Islamic West attempted to keep their independence and to guard Islam against further Mongol attacks.

Domination of the Ottoman and Safavid Empires. The Ottoman Empire arose from the ruins of the Mongol invasion of Anatolia. Its first sultan, Osman (reigned 1300?–1326), was one of a number of Turkish tribal leaders who carried on border warfare with the Byzantine Greeks. The Ottoman Turks dominated the part of Anatolia that was closest to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. They rapidly extended their rule at the expense of the Byzantine Greeks. By the 1360s the Ottomans had crossed into Europe and moved their capital to Edirne (Adrianople) in Thrace. Under Sultan Mehmed II (reigned 1451–1481), Constantinople fell to the Ottomans and the Byzantine Empire was finally extinguished.

Ottoman military and political success and expansion continued for several centuries. The Ottomans conquered the Balkans and southern Russia, and twice, in 1529 and 1683, they besieged Vienna. Simultaneously, they turned against rival Muslim states in the Middle East, defeating the Mamluk rulers in Syria in 1516 and in Egypt in 1517. The empire rapidly spread to the borders of Morroco and the Iranian plateau.

Under Sultan Suleiman (Sulayman) I (reigned 1520–1566), generally considered the greatest of the Ottomans, their civilization and power reached its zenith. They had a semifeudal system of land tenure and military service; but the most remarkable feature of the Ottoman Empire was the fact that it was controlled by a professional bureaucracy and an elite military corps, the Janissaries. Beginning with the reign (1421–1451) of Murad II, recruitment of the Janissaries was augmented by a periodic levy (devshirme) of Christian boys, who were converted to Islam and trained as soldiers and administrators. No matter how high a position these kapi kullari (slaves of the gate) attained, they remained the personal slaves of the sultan.

From the founding of the state until the end of the 16th century, the Ottomans produced a line of remarkable rulers. Thereafter the rulers proved to be the weakest element in the Ottoman system of government as the political influence of the women of the harem increased and the struggles for succession contributed to the instability of the state.

The Persian Safavid Empire sprang from an alliance between a confederation of Shiite Turkoman tribesmen and the Iranian Safavid family. The Safavids were leaders of a Sufi order that ruled the city of Ardabil in Azerbaijan as a theocracy. In 1501 the Safavid leader Ismail captured Tabriz, proclaimed himself shah, and established the ithna-ashariyya (Twelver) sect of Shiite Islam as the state religion. Shah Ismail consolidated his rule over Iran but was severely defeated by the Ottoman sultan Selim I at the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514. After Ismail's death in 1524 the Turkoman tribes became, for a period of ten years, more powerful than the shah himself. It was not until the fifth ruler of the dynasty, Shah Abbas I (reigned 1588–1629), that the shah was able to balance the power of the tribal forces through the creation of an elite military force recruited largely from Georgian and Armenian slaves. Shah Abbas I built many of the mosques and buildings of Isfahan that still exist, and supported art, literature, and trade. In wars against the Ottomans he recovered Tabriz and extended his rule over the Persian Gulf and Iraq.

The Safavids, however, had a less stable empire than the Ottomans had. In Persia the religious establishment was largely independent of secular controls, the central government weaker, and the power of the tribes stronger. The long series of wars with the Ottomans and with the Uzbeks and Turkomans of central Asia drained the strength of the state. Furthermore, there were few able rulers after Shah Abbas I. Finally, in 1722 an Afghan tribal leader, the Ghilzai chief Mahmud, seized the capital of Isfahan, and the empire fell into anarchy. The Afghans were soon expelled. But the Safavid child ruler was deposed by his protector, Nadir Khan of the Afshar tribe, who proclaimed himself shah in 1736. After a brief, bloody, and successful career as a conqueror, Nadir Shah was assassinated in 1747. It was not until 1794 that the leader of another Turkoman tribe, Aga Muhammad Khan Kajar, succeeded in reuniting Iran under a single dynasty, the Kajar dynasty.

A number of causes have been advanced to explain the decline of the traditional Islamic empires. Both the Ottomans and Safavids decayed from within. The Ottomans were unable to control their bureaucracy and military forces, while the Safavids were rarely able to control the power of their own Turkoman supporters. The long series of religious wars between the Shiite Safavids and the Sunni Ottomans weakened each of them. Probably even more important was a shift in trade routes. The discovery of America and of the sea route to the East Indies simultaneously strengthened the Europeans and weakened the economic power of the Middle East.

The Reform of Traditional Empires. In the late 18th century the Middle Eastern states embarked on an era of reform. The impetus for these reform movements came from the realization that the Middle Eastern states had fallen far behind their European rivals, especially in the crucial area of military organization. This inferiority was repeatedly demonstrated in a number of wars between the Ottomans and their Habsburg and Romanov opponents. In 1774 the Ottomans were forced to accept a humiliating peace treaty dictated by the Russians at Kuchuk Kainarji, giving up territory, granting the right of free navigation to Russian ships through their territorial waters, and permitting the establishment of a Russian protectorate over the Greek Orthodox subjects of the empire.

The previous Ottoman response to defeats had been a reaffirmation of the validity of their traditional institutions and an attempt to restore them to the efficiency they had enjoyed under the earlier sultans. But in 1789, Sultan Selim III (reigned 1789–1807) decided that it was necessary to adopt some of the institutions of the Europeans in order to preserve the empire. He therefore introduced new military schools with European instructors and formed a new army corps, which was drilled in the European manner and clothed in European-style uniforms. He also revised the system of taxation.

It was characteristic of traditional Ottoman political thinking that reform should be aimed chiefly at strengthening the military establishment, since this was considered to be the chief support of the state against both external and internal opponents. Selim and other reformers wanted to change little else. But it soon became apparent that if military reforms were to be effective, they would require concomitant reforms in taxation and administration, and changes in economic and political policies as well.

Reform-minded Middle Eastern rulers like Selim III and his nephew Mahmud II (reigned 1808–1839) were generally confronted with two sets of opponents: those representing vested interests, who rejected all reforms whatsoever; and those who wanted much broader reforms.

Those who rejected all reforms stood to lose under the new order. They included conservative forces in the military (the Janissaries were Selim III's most formidable opponents and managed to overthrow him in 1807), the bureaucracy, the religious leaders (the ulama), landowners, tribes, and guilds. They rallied around the banner of religious and social traditionalism. Though the traditionalists usually were not strong enough to prevent reform of the central government, they often succeeded in protecting the periphery from the reformer's zeal. It was in the peripheral areas of Arabia, Libya, and the Sudan in the 19th and early 20th centuries that the traditionalist forces inspired Islamic revival movements. These were opposed to all modernization.

On the other hand, some officers, bureaucrats, students, and intellectuals, newly educated and politically aware, found the reforms of their monarchs too limited. Their political ideal tended to be the nation-state governed by a parliament rather than a kingdom governed by an enlightened despot.

In spite of the limited nature of their reforms, the more innovative Middle Eastern rulers might have succeeded in strengthening their states had they been successful in their primary purpose—the reversal of the tide of military defeats. But the challenges of European imperialism and a rising tide of nationalism within their multi-ethnic empires kept them off-balance. In 1798 the French revolutionary army of Napoleon Bonaparte invaded the Ottoman provinces of Egypt and Syria, while the pressure from the Russian Empire was an almost constant threat throughout the 19th century. Some western European powers, especially Britain, went to their aid when they were threatened with total collapse. But these defenders began to demand additional political reforms and economic concessions as the price of their support. Eventually the weakened and almost hopeless condition of their Middle Eastern clients became apparent to all, and even their defenders began to demand territorial concessions. The French gained a protectorate over the Maronite Christians of Lebanon in 1860 and the British a protectorate over Cyprus in 1878. In 1882 the British occupied Egypt, then an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire ruled by hereditary viceroys.

By the early 20th century it was clear that the attempted reform from the top was not enough to ensure the survival of the traditional rulers. Although there had been considerable military, economic, and administrative reform, especially in the Ottoman Empire and its autonomous province of Egypt, this was not sufficient for the aroused nationalist and liberal political forces. The absolute power of Persia's Muzaffar al-Din Shah (reigned 1896–1907) and of the Ottoman sultan Abdul-Hamid II (reigned 1876–1909) were limited in 1906 and 1908, respectively, by liberally inspired constitutional revolutions. Both the Persian constitutionalists and the Young Turks maintained the traditional dynasties as constitutional monarchies, but the Ottoman and Kajar monarchs were mere shadows of their former selves.

The Modern Era. The modern history of the area begins with World War I, which delivered the final blow to the tottering old order. The Young Turks hoped to regain some of the lost Ottoman provinces by joining the side of the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary). Despite a very creditable military performance, they were defeated and forced by the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) to relinquish the subject peoples of the empire, the Muslim Arabs and Kurds as well as the Christian Armenians and Greeks. Even in the pitiful remnant of the empire, they were to be virtually disarmed and subjected to foreign spheres of influence.

The Kajar Persian Empire, despite its proclaimed neutrality, had served as an unwilling battleground for rival armies. In 1919 the British were in military occupation of most of Persia and signed a treaty with it that established what amounted to a British protectorate.

Major fighting had taken place in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Many Arab nationalists, led by Hussein Ibn Ali, sharif of Mecca, rose in revolt against the Young Turk rule and sought British aid. The British responded with military and financial aid, along with promises of independence after the war. At the same time, however, the British were concluding secret treaties with their French, Italian, and Russian allies for the division of the Ottoman Empire. They also were negotiating with leaders of the Zionist movement. On Nov. 2, 1917, Britain issued the Balfour Declaration supporting in principle a national homeland in Palestine for the Jews.

The peace settlements established a mandate system of British and French rule in preparation, it was promised, for eventual self-government in the conquered Arab provinces. Only in the Arabian Peninsula was Ottoman rule replaced by independent Arab governments. The Arabs in Syria and Iraq resisted the mandates but were forced into submission.

At this nadir of Middle Eastern history, with virtually the entire area under direct or indirect foreign rule, native forces began to reverse the tide. General Mustafa Kemal Pasha, later Kemal Atatürk, rallied the Turkish nationalists. In a few years he had defeated his foreign and domestic opponents, had forced the Allies to negotiate a new peace treaty (at Lausanne in 1923), and had established a nationalist, secular republic.

The Persians refused to ratify the British treaty of 1919. General Reza Khan led a military coup in 1921 and instituted a strongly nationalistic and modernizing regime. In 1925 he had the Kajar ruler deposed and reigned as the first shah of the Pahlavi dynasty of Iran.

The British gradually replaced their mandates and other protectorates with a system of alliances with friendly Arab governments. Their mandate of Palestine, however, was torn by rival Arab and Zionist aspirations. A peaceful transfer of power was impossible. The war of 1948–1949 resulted in the de facto partition of Palestine into Israel and two Arab enclaves, initially under the control of Jordan and Egypt, then occupied by Israel from 1967. The French, for their part, did not give up their mandates in Syria and Lebanon until forced to do so during World War II.

By the end of World War II, virtually all of the Middle East had formal independence, but the British still had great economic, political, and military influence in a number of Arab states. It was not until a new wave of more radical revolutionary governments, often led by the military, overthrew the conservative parliamentary and monarchical regimes that the special position of the British was ended. The prototype of these Arab nationalist revolutionaries was Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was the leader of Egypt from the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952 until his death in 1970.

In the Cold War period, the history of the Middle East was dominated by certain major issues, namely, the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States for influence in the area; the Arab-Israeli conflict over the former British mandate of Palestine; the contest for the leadership of the Arab world and the search for some form of Arab unity; and the elimination of foreign bases, economic concessions (particularly concessions to foreign petroleum companies), and special privileges. This last goal was largely achieved by the 1970s.

After Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979, a resurgence of traditionalist political Islam challenged the predominance of secular nationalism in Middle Eastern politics. Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, conducted a war against Iran (1980–1988) with the financial support of several other Arab states. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had transformed global politics, some progress was made in negotiating peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, as symbolized by the Oslo accords of 1993. Challenges by radical Palestinian Islamist groups (Hamas, Islamic Jihad) to the leadership claims of the secular Palestine Liberation Organization contributed to the collapse of that process in 2000. The elimination of the Soviet Union as a power in the region also removed an obstacle to direct U.S. military action, facilitating wars against Iraq in 1991, after Saddam Hussein annexed Kuwait, and in 2003.

The rise of the Shiite Islamist government in Iran also revived tensions between the Sunni and Shiite communities in the region. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 eliminated a major rival to Iran and brought to prominence Shiite political parties with long-standing ties to the Iranian leadership. Iran also supported armed Islamist movements such as Lebanon's Shiite movement, Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in summer 2006. Several Sunni states, led by Saudi Arabia, became concerned about the possible expansion of Iranian-Shiite influence in the region. The United States remained concerned about the spread of any sort of radicalism, but its support for Israel, for Shiite-led Iraq, and for democratic reforms in the region's many authoritarian states complicated its relations. The discovery in 2003 of an Iranian program to develop nuclear technology, possibly for military purposes, added to the region's tensions. The United States and the United Nations Security Council demanded that Iran halt its program, while other states in the region looked into the possibility of developing their own nuclear programs. For many Arabs, however, the decades-old conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians remained the central political issue in the region. Israel was widely believed to have clandestinely developed nuclear weapons in the 1960s. (For further details, see articles devoted to the individual countries in the region.)

Ralph Magnus*
U.S. Naval Postgraduate School


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