History of the Middle East

A map showing territories commonly considered part of the Near East

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 modern collection of nation-states covering the Middle East today.

Egyptian civilization coalesced around 3150 BC with the political unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the first pharaoh.[1] 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 911–605 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.

Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 (a.k.a. the Islamic Revolution) and similar changes in other Muslim-majority countries throughout the 1980s, the region has been experiencing an ideological trend in favor of Islamism. The Fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought a global security refocus from a Cold War to a War on Terror. Starting in late 2010s, a revolutionary wave popularly known as the Arab Spring brought major protests, uprisings, and even 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.

  The limited modern archaeological and historical context of the Near East
  Middle East and Near East
The historical Semitic region, defined by the pre-Islamic distribution of Semitic languages and coinciding very roughly with the Arabian plate. Not so much lingually but rather culturally, politically and historically, the most significant division here has been between the north and the south, to some degree isolated from each other by the sparsely populated Arabian Desert. The north comprises Mesopotamia and the Levant, which, together with the lower Nile (i.e., Egypt), constitute the Fertile Crescent.


Geographically, the Middle East can be thought of as Western Asia without the Caucasus but with Egypt, which is the non-Maghreb part of Northern Africa. The Middle East was the first to experience a Neolithic Revolution (c. the 10th millennium BC), as well as the first to enter the Bronze Age (c. 3300–1200 BC) and Iron Age (c. 1200–500 BC).

Historically human populations have tended to settle around bodies of water, which is reflected in modern population density patterns. Irrigation systems were extremely important for the agricultural Middle East: for Egypt that of the lower Nile River, and for Mesopotamia that of the Tigris River and Euphrates River. Levantine agriculture depended on precipitation rather than on the river-based irrigation of Egypt and Mesopotamia, resulting in preference for different crops. Since travel was faster and easier by sea, civilizations along the Mediterranean, such as Phoenicia and later Greece, participated in intense trade. Similarly, Ancient Yemen, much more conducive to agriculture than the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, sea traded heavily with the Horn of Africa, some of which it lingually Semitized. The Adnanite Arabs, inhabiting the drier desert areas of the Middle East, were all nomadic pastoralists before some began settling in city states, with the geo-linguistic distribution today being divided between Persian Gulf, the Najd and the Hejaz in the Peninsula, as well as the Bedouin areas beyond the Peninsula.

Since ancient times the Middle East has had several lingue franche: Akkadian (c. 14th – 8th century BCE), Aramaic (c. 8th century BCE – 8th century CE),[2] Greek (c. 4th century BCE – 8th century CE), and Arabic (c. 8th century CE – present). Familiarity with English is not uncommon among the middle and upper classes.[3][4] Arabic is not commonly spoken in Turkey, Iran, and Israel, and some varieties of Arabic lack mutual intelligibility, thus qualifying as distinct languages by this linguistic criterion.

The Middle East was the birthplace of the Abrahamic, Gnostic, and most Iranian religions. Initially the ancient inhabitants of the region followed various ethnic religions, but most of those began to be gradually replaced at first by Christianity (even before the 313 CE Edict of Milan) and finally by Islam (after the spread of the Muslim conquests beyond the Arabian Peninsula in 634 CE). To this day, however, the Middle East has, in particular, some sizable, ethnically distinct Christian minority groups, as well as Jews, concentrated in Israel, and followers of Iranian religions, such as Yazdânism and Zoroastrianism. Some of the smaller ethnoreligious minorities include the Shabak people, the Mandaeans and the Samaritans. It is somewhat controversial whether the Druze religion is a distinct religion in its own right or merely a part of the Ismailist branch of Shia Islam.


The Arabian Tectonic Plate was part of the African Plate during much of the Phanerozoic Eon (PaleozoicCenozoic), until the Oligocene Epoch of the Cenozoic Era. Red Sea rifting began in the Eocene, but the separation of Africa and Arabia occurred in the Oligocene, and since then the Arabian Plate has been slowly moving toward the Eurasian Plate.

The collision between the Arabian Plate and Eurasia is pushing up the Zagros Mountains of Iran. Because the Arabian Plate and Eurasia plate collide, many cities are in danger such as those in south eastern Turkey (which is on the Arabian Plate). These dangers include earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes.

The earliest human migrations out of Africa occurred through the Middle East, namely over the Levantine corridor, with the pre-modern Homo erectus about 1.8 million years BP. One of the potential routes for early human migrations toward southern and eastern Asia is Iran.

Haplogroup J-P209, the most common human Y-chromosome DNA haplogroup in the Middle East today, is believed to have arisen in the region 31,700±12,800 years ago.[5][6] The two main current subgroups, J-M267 and J-M172, which now comprise between them almost all of the population of the haplogroup, are both believed to have arisen very early, at least 10,000 years ago. Nonetheless, Y-chromosomes F-M89* and IJ-M429* were reported to have been observed in the Iranian plateau.[7]

There is evidence of rock carvings along the Nile terraces and in desert oases. In the 10th millennium BC, a culture of hunter-gatherers and fishermen was replaced by a grain-grinding culture. Climate changes and/or overgrazing around 6000 BC began to desiccate the pastoral lands of Egypt, forming the Sahara. Early tribal peoples migrated to the Nile River, where they developed a settled agricultural economy and more centralized society.[8]

The ancient Near East

Main article: Ancient Near East

The ancient Near East was the first to practice intensive year-round agriculture and currency-mediated trade (as opposed to barter), gave the rest of the world the first writing system, invented the potter's wheel and then the vehicular and mill wheel, created the first centralized governments and law codes, served as birthplace to the first city-states with their high degree of division of labor, as well as laying the foundation for the fields of astronomy and mathematics. However, its empires also introduced rigid social stratification, slavery, and organized warfare.

Cradle of civilization, Sumer and Akkad

The symbol of the winged sun was found throughout the Middle East.
It was associated with divinity, royalty, and power. The above is an Egyptian version. The modern-day Assyrian flag and Aramean flag feature different versions of the symbol. The Israelite royal Seals of Hezekiah also featured one, sometimes flanked on either side with the Egyptian ankh symbol. The Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism has a related symbol called Faravahar.

The earliest civilizations in history were established in the region now known as the Middle East around 3500 BC by the Sumerians, in Mesopotamia (Iraq), widely regarded as the cradle of civilization. The Sumerians and the Akkadians (later known as Babylonians and Assyrians) all flourished in this region.

"In the course of the fourth millennium BC, city-states developed in southern Mesopotamia that were dominated by temples whose priests represented the cities' patron deities. The most prominent of the city-states was Sumer, which gave its language to the area, [presumably the first written language,] and became the first great civilization of mankind. About 2340 BC, Sargon the Great (c. 2360–2305 BC), appointed his daughter, Enheduanna Enheduanna, as High Priestess of Inanna at Ur[9] and through her writings (the first author ever), she and him united the city-states in the south and founded the Akkadian dynasty, the world's first empire."[10]


Main article: Ancient Egypt

Soon after the Sumerian civilization began, the Nile valley of Lower and Upper Egypt was unified under the Pharaohs approximately around 3150 BC. Since then, Ancient Egypt experienced 3 high points of civilization, the so-called "Kingdom" periods:

The history of Ancient Egypt is concluded by the Late Period (664–332 BC), immediately followed by the history of Egypt in Classical Antiquity, beginning with Ptolemaic Egypt.

The Levant and Anatolia

Thereafter, civilization quickly spread through the Fertile Crescent to the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea and throughout the Levant, as well as to ancient Anatolia. Ancient Levantine kingdoms and city states included Ebla City, Ugarit City, Kingdom of Aram-Damascus, Kingdom of Israel, Kingdom of Judah, Kingdom of Ammon, Kingdom of Moab, Kingdom of Edom, and the Nabatean kingdom. The Phoenician civilization, encompassing several city states, was a maritime trading culture that established colonial cities in the Mediterranean Basin, most notably Carthage, in 814 BC.

Assyrian empires

Main article: Assyria

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 911–605 BC. The Assyrian Empire, at its peak, was the largest the world had seen. It ruled all of what is now Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Cyprus, and Bahrain—with large swathes of Iran, Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Sudan, and Arabia. "The Assyrian empires, particularly the third, had a profound and lasting impact on the Near East. Before Assyrian hegemony ended, the Assyrians brought the highest civilization to the then known world. From the Caspian to Cyprus, from Anatolia to Egypt, Assyrian imperial expansion would bring into the Assyrian sphere nomadic and barbaric communities, and would bestow the gift of civilization upon them."[11]

Neo-Babylonian and Persian empires

Main articles: Babylonia and Persian Empire

From the early 6th century BC onwards, several Persian states dominated the region, beginning with the Medes and non-Persian Neo-Babylonian Empire, then their successor the Achaemenid Empire known as the first Persian Empire, conquered in the late 4th century BC. by the very short-lived Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great, and then successor kingdoms such as Ptolemaic Egypt and the Seleucid state in Western Asia.

After a century of hiatus, the idea of the Persian Empire was revived by the Parthians in the 3rd century BC—and continued by their successors, the Sassanids from the 3rd century AD. This empire dominated sizable parts of what is now the Asian part of the Middle East and continued to influence the rest of the Asiatic and African Middle East region, until the Arab Muslim conquest of Persia in the mid-7th century CE. Between the 1st century BC and the early 7th century AD, the region was completely dominated by the Romans and the Parthians and Sassanids on the other hand, which often culminated in various Roman-Persian Wars over the seven centuries. Eastern Rite, Church of the East Christianity took hold in Persian-ruled Mesopotamia, particularly in Assyria from the 1st century AD onwards, and the region became a center of a flourishing SyriacAssyrian literary tradition.

Greek and Roman Empire

Main articles: Macedonian Empire and Roman Empire

In the 1st century BC, the expanding Roman Republic absorbed the whole Eastern Mediterranean, which included much of the Near East. The Roman Empire united the region with most of Europe and North Africa in a single political and economic unit. Even areas not directly annexed were strongly influenced by the Empire, which was the most powerful political and cultural entity for centuries. Though Roman culture spread across the region, the Greek culture and language first established in the region by the Macedonian Empire continued to dominate throughout the Roman period. Cities in the Middle East, especially Alexandria, became major urban centers for the Empire and the region became the Empire's "bread basket" as the key agricultural producer. Ægyptus was by far the most wealthy Roman province.[12][13]

As the Christian religion spread throughout the Roman and Persian Empires, it took root in the Middle East, and cities such as Alexandria and Edessa became important centers of Christian scholarship. By the 5th century, Christianity was the dominant religion in the Middle East, with other faiths (gradually including heretical Christian sects) being actively repressed. The Middle East's ties to the city of Rome were gradually severed as the Empire split into East and West, with the Middle East tied to the new Roman capital of Constantinople. The subsequent Fall of the Western Roman Empire therefore, had minimal direct impact on the region.

Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire)

Main article: Byzantine Empire

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. By this time, Greek had become the 'lingua franca' of the region, although ethnicities such as the Syriacs and the Hebrew continued to exist. Under Byzantine/Greek rule the area of the Levant met an era of stability and prosperity.

The medieval Near East

Islamic caliphate

Age of the Caliphs
  Expansion under Muhammad, 622–632
  Expansion during the Rashidun Caliphate, 632–661
  Expansion during the Umayyad Caliphate, 661–750

From the 7th century, a new power was rising in the Middle East, that of Islam, whilst the Byzantine Roman and Sassanid Persian empires were both weakened by centuries of stalemate warfare during the Roman–Persian Wars. In a series of rapid Muslim conquests, the Arab armies, motivated by Islam and led by the Caliphs and skilled military commanders such as Khalid ibn al-Walid, swept through most of the Middle East; reducing Byzantine lands by more than half and completely engulfing the Persian lands. In Anatolia, their expansion was blocked by the still capable Byzantines with the help of the Bulgarians.

The Byzantine provinces of Roman Syria, North Africa, and Sicily, however, could not mount such a resistance, and the Muslim conquerors swept through those regions. At the far west, they crossed the sea taking Visigothic Hispania before being halted in southern France by the Franks. At its greatest extent, the Arab Empire was the first empire to control the entire Middle East, as well 3/4 of the Mediterranean region, the only other empire besides the Roman Empire to control most of the Mediterranean Sea.[14] It would be the Arab Caliphates of the Middle Ages that would first unify the entire Middle East as a distinct region and create the dominant ethnic identity that persists today. The Seljuq Empire would also later dominate the region.

Much of North Africa became a peripheral area to the main Muslim centres in the Middle East, but Iberia (Al-Andalus) and Morocco soon broke from this distant control and founded one of the world's most advanced societies at the time, along with Baghdad in the eastern Mediterranean.

Between 831 and 1071, the Emirate of Sicily was one of the major centres of Islamic culture in the Mediterranean. After its conquest by the Normans the island developed its own distinct culture with the fusion of Arab, Western and Byzantine influences. Palermo remained a leading artistic and commercial centre of the Mediterranean well into the Middle Ages.

Africa was reviving, however, as more organized and centralized states began to form in the later Middle Ages after the Renaissance of the 12th century. Motivated by religion and dreams of conquest, the kings of Europe launched a number of Crusades to try to roll back Muslim power and retake the Holy Land. The Crusades were unsuccessful in this goal, but they were far more effective in weakening the already tottering Byzantine Empire that began to lose increasing amounts of territory to the Ottoman Turks. They also rearranged the balance of power in the Muslim world as Egypt once again emerged as a major power in the eastern Mediterranean.

Turks, Crusaders and Mongols

The dominance of the Arabs came to a sudden end in the mid-11th century with the arrival of the Seljuq Turks, migrating south from the Turkic homelands in Central Asia, who conquered Persia, Iraq (capturing Baghdad in 1055), Syria, Palestine, and the Hejaz. Egypt held out under the Fatimid caliphs until 1169, when it too fell to the Turks.

Despite massive territorial losses in the 7th century, the Christian Byzantine Empire continued to be a potent military and economic force in the Mediterranean, preventing Arab expansion into much of Europe. The Seljuqs' defeat of the Byzantine military in the 11th century and settling in Anatolia effectively marked the end of Byzantine influence in the region. The Seljuks ruled most of the Middle East region for the next 200 years, but their empire soon broke up into a number of smaller sultanates.

Christian [Western Europe] had staged a remarkable economic and demographic recovery in the 11th century since the nadir of its fortunes in the 7th century. The fragmentation of the Middle East allowed joined forces, mainly from England, France and the emerging Holy Roman Empire to enter the region. In 1095, Pope Urban II had responded to pleas from the flagging Byzantine Empire, summoned the European aristocracy to recapture the Holy Land for Christianity, and in 1099 the knights of the First Crusade captured Jerusalem. They founded the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which survived until 1187, when Saladin retook the city. Smaller crusader fiefdoms survived until 1291.

Mongol invasions (13th century)

In the early 13th century, a new wave of invaders, the armies of the Mongol Empire, swept through the region, sacking Baghdad in 1258 and advancing as far south as the border of Egypt. Mamluk Emir Baibars left Damascus to Cairo where he was welcomed by Sultan Qutuz. After taking Damascus, the Ilkhanate was established and Hulagu demanded that Sultan Qutuz surrender Egypt but Sultan Qutuz had Hulagu's envoys killed and, with the help of Baibars, mobilized his troops.

Although Hulagu had to leave for the East when great Khan Möngke died in action against the Southern Song, he left his lieutenant, the Christian Kitbuqa, in charge. Sultan Qutuz drew the Mongol army into an ambush near the Orontes River, routed them at the Battle of Ain Jalut and captured and executed Kitbuqa. With this victory Mamluk Turks became Sultans of Egypt and the real power in the Middle East and gaining control of Palestine and Syria, while other Turkish sultans controlled Iraq and Anatolia until the arrival of the Ottomans.

The Ottoman Empire (1299–1918)

See also: Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman Empire at its greatest extent in the Middle East.
Selim the Grim, Ottoman conqueror of the Middle East
Inhabitants of the Middle East by the end of the Ottoman era

By the early 15th century, a new power had arisen in western Anatolia, the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman khans, who in 1453 captured the Christian Byzantine capitol of Constantinople and made themselves sultans. The Mamluks held the Ottomans out of the Middle East for a century, but in 1514 Selim the Grim began the systematic Ottoman conquest of the region. Syria was occupied in 1516 and Egypt in 1517, extinguishing the Mameluk line. Iraq was conquered almost in 40 years from the Iranian Safavids, who were successors of the Aq Qoyunlu.

The Ottomans united the whole region under one ruler for the first time since the reign of the Abbasid caliphs of the 10th century, and they kept control of it for 400 years, despite brief intermissions created by the Iranian Safavids and Afsharids. "The Ottoman Empires was one of the greatest, most extensive, and long lasting in the History of the World. It included most of the territories of the Eastern Roman Empire(...)and held portions that the Byzantines never ruled (...)The Ottoman Empire was born in 1300 and endured until World War I-."[15]

By this time the Ottomans also held Greece, the Balkans, and most of Hungary, setting the new frontier between east and west far to the north of the Danube. In the west, Europe was rapidly expanding; demographically, economically and culturally. By the 19th century, Europe had overtaken the Muslim world in wealth, population and—most importantly—technology. The industrial revolution fuelled a boom that laid the foundations for the growth of capitalism.

By 1700, the Ottomans had been driven out of Hungary. Although some areas of Ottoman Europe, such as Albania and Bosnia, saw many conversions to Islam, the area was never culturally absorbed into the Muslim world. From 1768 to 1918, the Ottomans gradually lost territory. During the 19th century, Greece, Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria asserted their independence, and in the Balkan Wars of 1912–13 the Ottomans were driven out of Europe altogether, except for the city of Constantinople and its hinterland.

By the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was known as the "sick man of Europe", increasingly under the financial control of the European powers. Domination soon turned to outright conquest. The French annexed Algeria in 1830 and Tunisia in 1878. The British occupied Egypt in 1882, though it remained under nominal Ottoman sovereignty.

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. The Ottomans turned to Germany to protect them from the western powers, but the result was increasing financial and military dependence on Germany.

Ottoman attempts at reform

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Middle Eastern rulers tried to modernize their states to compete more effectively with the European powers. In the Ottoman Empire, the Tanzimat reforms re-strengthened Ottoman rule and were furthered by the Young Ottomans in the late 19th century, leading to the First Constitutional Era in the Empire that included the writing of the 1876 constitution and the establishment of the Ottoman Parliament. The authors of the 1906 revolution in Persia all sought to import versions of the western model of constitutional government, civil law, secular education and industrial development into their countries. Across the region, railways and telegraphs lines were built, schools and universities were opened, and a new class of army officers, lawyers, teachers and administrators emerged, challenging the traditional leadership of Islamic scholars.

The first Ottoman constitutional experiment ended soon after it began, however, when the autocratic Sultan Abdul Hamid II abolished the parliament and the constitution in favor of personal rule. Abdul Hamid ruled by decree for the next 30 years, stirring democratic resentment towards his rule. The reform movement known as the Young Turks emerged in the 1890s against Abdul Hamid's rule, which included massacres against minorities. The Young Turks seized power in the 1908 Young Turk Revolution and established the Second Constitutional Era, leading to a pluralist and multiparty elections in the Empire for the first time in 1908. The Young Turks split into two parties, the pro-German and pro-centralization Committee of Union and Progress and the pro-British and pro-decentralization Freedom and Accord Party. The former was led by an ambitious pair of army officers, Ismail Enver Bey (later Pasha) and Ahmed Cemal Pasha, and a radical lawyer, Mehmed Talaat Bey (later Pasha). After a power struggle between the two parties of Young Turks, the Committee emerged victorious and became a ruling junta, with Talaat as Grand Vizier and Enver as War Minister, and established a German-funded modernisation program across the Empire.[16]

Enver Bey's alliance with Germany, which he saw as the most advanced military power in Europe, was enabled by the British demands that the Ottoman Empire cede their formal capital Edirne (Adrianople) to the Bulgarians after losing the First Balkan War, which the Turks saw as a betrayal by Britain.[17] These demands cost Britain the support of the Turks, as the pro-British Freedom and Accord Party was now repressed under the pro-German Committee for, in Enver's words, "shamefully delivering the country to the enemy [Britain]" after agreeing to the demands to give up Edirne.[18]

Modern Middle East

Final years of the Ottoman Empire

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey

In 1878, as the result of the Cyprus Convention, the United Kingdom took over the government of Cyprus as a protectorate from the Ottoman Empire. While the Cypriots at first welcomed British rule, hoping that they would gradually achieve prosperity, democracy and national liberation, they soon became disillusioned. The British imposed heavy taxes to cover the compensation they paid to the Sultan for conceding Cyprus to them. Moreover, the people were not given the right to participate in the administration of the island, since all powers were reserved to the High Commissioner and to London. In 1819, the Government of Lord Liverpool created the Six Acts, which established press censorship, the banning of political parties (mainly the communist party), the dissolution of municipal elections, as well as the out-ruling of trade unions, meetings of more than five individuals, and the tolling of church bells outside services.[19]

Meanwhile, the fall of the Ottomans and the partitioning of Anatolia by the Allies led to resistance by the Turkish population, under the Turkish National Movement led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Turkish victory against the invading powers during the Turkish War of Independence, and the founding of the modern Republic of Turkey in 1923. As the first President of Turkey, Atatürk embarked on a program of modernisation and secularisation. He abolished the caliphate, emancipated women, enforced western dress and the use of a new Turkish alphabet based on Latin alphabet in place of the Arabic alphabet, and abolished the jurisdiction of the Islamic courts. In effect, Turkey, having given up rule over the Arab World, was now determined to secede from the Middle East and become culturally part of Europe.

Another 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. The Middle East, it turned out, possessed the world's largest easily accessible reserves of crude oil, the most important commodity in the 20th-century industrial world. Although western oil companies pumped and exported nearly all of the oil to fuel the rapidly expanding automobile industry and other western industrial developments, the kings and emirs of the oil states became immensely rich, enabling them to consolidate their hold on power and giving them a stake in preserving western hegemony over the region.[20]

A Western dependence on Middle Eastern oil and the decline of British influence led to a growing American interest in the region. Initially, the Western oil companies established a predominance over oil production and extraction. However, indigenous movements towards nationalizing oil assets, oil sharing and the advent of OPEC ensured a shift in the balance of power towards the Arab oil producing nations.[20] Oil wealth also had the effect of stultifying whatever movement towards economic, political or social reform might have emerged in the Arab world under the influence of the Kemalist revolution in Turkey.

In 1914, Enver Pasha's alliance with Germany led the Ottoman Empire into the fatal step of joining Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I, against Britain and France. The British saw the Ottomans as the weak link in the enemy alliance, and concentrated on knocking them out of the war. When a direct assault failed at Gallipoli in 1915, they turned to fomenting revolution in the Ottoman domains, exploiting the awakening force of Arab, Armenian, and Assyrian nationalism against the Ottomans.

The British found an ally in Sharif Hussein, the hereditary ruler of Mecca (and believed by Muslims to be a descendant of the family of Muhammad), who led an Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule, having received a promise of Arab independence in exchange.

Defeat and partition of the Ottoman Empire (1918–22)

When the Ottoman Empire was defeated by an Arab uprising and British Empire forces after the Sinai and Palestine Campaign in 1918, the Arab population was rewarded with what many Islamic activists of more recent times have described as an Anglo-French betrayal. British and French governments concluded a secret treaty (the Sykes–Picot Agreement) to partition the Middle East between them and, additionally, the British, via the Balfour Declaration promised the international Zionist movement their support in re-creating the historic Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Historically known as the site of the ancient Jewish Kingdom of Israel and successor Jewish nations for 1,200 years between approximately 1100 BC–100 AD, the region now had a large Arab population also from the 7th century. When the Ottomans departed, the Arabs proclaimed an independent state in Damascus, but were too weak, militarily and economically, to resist the European powers for long, and Britain and France soon established control and re-arranged the Middle East to suit themselves.[21]

Syria became a French protectorate thinly disguised as a League of Nations mandate. The Christian coastal areas were split off to become Lebanon, another French protectorate. Iraq and Palestine became British mandated territories. Iraq became the "Kingdom of Iraq" and one of Sharif Hussein's sons, Faisal, was installed as the King of Iraq. Iraq incorporated large populations of Kurds, Assyrians and Turkmens, many of whom had been promised independent states of their own.

Palestine became the "British Mandate of Palestine" and was split in half. The eastern half of Palestine became the "Emirate of Transjordan" to provide a throne for another of Husayn's sons, Abdullah. The western half of Palestine was placed under direct British administration. The Jewish population of Palestine which numbered less than 8 percent in 1918 was given free rein to immigrate, buy land from absentee landlords, set up a shadow government in waiting and establish the nucleus of a state under the protection of the British Army which suppressed a Palestinian revolt in 1936.[22] Most of the Arabian peninsula fell to another British ally, Ibn Saud. Saud created the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.

During the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, Syria and Egypt made moves towards independence. In 1919, Saad Zaghloul orchestrated mass demonstrations in Egypt known as the First Revolution. While Zaghloul would later become Prime Minister, the British repression of the anticolonial riots led to the death of some 800 people. In 1920, Syrian forces were defeated by the French in the Battle of Maysalun and Iraqi forces were defeated by the British when they revolted. In 1922, the (nominally) independent Kingdom of Egypt was created following the British government's issuance of the Unilateral Declaration of Egyptian Independence.

Although the Kingdom of Egypt was technically "neutral" during World War II, Cairo soon became a major military base for the British forces and the country was occupied. The British were able to do this because of a 1936 treaty by which the United Kingdom maintained that it had the right to station troops on Egyptian soil to protect the Suez Canal. In 1941, the Rashīd `Alī al-Gaylānī coup in Iraq led to the British invasion of the country during the Anglo-Iraqi War. The British invasion of Iraq was followed by the Allied invasion of Syria–Lebanon and the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran.

In Palestine, conflicting forces of Arab nationalism and Zionism created a situation the British could neither resolve nor extricate themselves from. The rise to power of German dictator Adolf Hitler had created a new urgency in the Zionist quest to immigrate to Palestine and create a Jewish state. A Palestinian state was also an attractive alternative to the Arab and Persian leaders, instead of the de facto British, French, and perceived Jewish colonialism or imperialism, under the logic of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend".[23]

New states post-World War II

The British, the French, and the Soviets departed from many parts of the Middle East during and after World War II. Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Middle East states on the Arabian Peninsula generally remained unaffected by World War II. However, after the war, the following Middle East states had independence restored or became independent:

The struggle between the Arabs and the Jews in Palestine culminated in the 1947 United Nations plan to partition Palestine. This plan attempted to create an Arab state and a Jewish state in the narrow space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. While the Jewish leaders accepted it, the Arab leaders rejected this plan.

On 14 May 1948, when the British Mandate expired, the Zionist leadership declared the State of Israel. In the 1948 Arab–Israeli War which immediately followed, the armies of Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia intervened and were defeated by Israel. About 800,000 Palestinians fled from areas annexed by Israel and became refugees in neighbouring countries, thus creating the "Palestinian problem", which has troubled the region ever since. Approximately two-thirds of 758,000–866,000 of the Jews expelled or who fled from Arab lands after 1948 were absorbed and naturalized by the State of Israel.

On August 16, 1960, Cyprus gained its independence from the United Kingdom. Archbishop Makarios III, a charismatic religious and political leader, was elected the first president of independent Cyprus, and in 1961 it became the 99th member of the United Nations.

Modern states

1963 film about contemporary events in the Middle East

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. These developments led to a growing presence of the United States in Middle East affairs. The U.S. was the ultimate guarantor of the stability of the region, and from the 1950s the dominant force in the oil industry. When revolutions brought radical anti-Western regimes to power in Egypt in 1954, Syria in 1963, Iraq in 1968 and Libya in 1969, the Soviet Union, seeking to open a new arena of the Cold War in the Middle East, allied itself with Arab socialist rulers such as Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

These regimes gained popular support through their promises to destroy the state of Israel, defeat the U.S. and other "western imperialists," and to bring prosperity to the Arab masses. When the Six-Day War of 1967 between Israel and its neighbours ended in a decisive loss for the Muslim side, many in the Islamic world saw this as the failure of Arab socialism. This represents a turning point when "fundamental and militant Islam began to fill the political vacuum created".[24]

In response to this challenge to its interests in the region, the U.S. felt obliged to defend its remaining allies, the conservative monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran and the Persian Gulf emirates, whose methods of rule were almost as unattractive to western eyes as those of the anti-western regimes. Iran in particular became a key U.S. ally, until a revolution led by the Shi'a clergy overthrew the monarchy in 1979 and established a theocratic regime that was even more anti-western than the secular regimes in Iraq or Syria. This forced the U.S. into a close alliance with Saudi Arabia. The list of Arab-Israeli wars includes a great number of major wars such as 1948 Arab–Israeli War, 1956 Suez War, 1967 Six-Day War, 1970 War of Attrition, 1973 Yom Kippur War, 1982 Lebanon War, as well as a number of lesser conflicts.

Menachem Begin, Jimmy Carter, and Anwar Sadat concluded a peace treaty in 1978.

Between 1963 and 1974, conflict arising between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots in British colonial Cyprus led to Cypriot intercommunal violence and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. The Cyprus dispute remains unresolved.

In the mid-to-late 1960s, the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party led by Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar took power in both Iraq and Syria. Iraq was first ruled by Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, but was succeeded by Saddam Hussein in 1979, and Syria was ruled first by a Military Committee led by Salah Jadid, and later Hafez al-Assad until 2000, when he was succeeded by his son, Bashar al-Assad.

In 1979, Egypt under Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, concluded a peace treaty with Israel, ending the prospects of a united Arab military front. From the 1970s the Palestinians, led by Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, resorted to a prolonged campaign of violence against Israel and against American, Jewish and western targets generally, as a means of weakening Israeli resolve and undermining western support for Israel. The Palestinians were supported in this, to varying degrees, by the regimes in Syria, Libya, Iran and Iraq. The high point of this campaign came in the 1975 United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379 condemning Zionism as a form of racism and the reception given to Arafat by the United Nations General Assembly. Resolution 3379 was revoked in 1991 by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 4686.

Due to many of the frantic events of the late 1970s in the Middle East it culimated in the Iran–Iraq War between neighbouring Iran and Iraq. The war, started by Iraq, who invaded Iranian Khuzestan in 1980 at the behest of the latter's chaotic state of country due to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, eventually turned into a stalemate with hundreds of thousands of dead on both sides.

The fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of communism in the early 1990s had several consequences for the Middle East. It allowed large numbers of Soviet Jews to emigrate from Russia and Ukraine to Israel, further strengthening the Jewish state. It cut off the easiest source of credit, armaments and diplomatic support to the anti-western Arab regimes, weakening their position. It opened up the prospect of cheap oil from Russia, driving down the price of oil and reducing the west's dependence on oil from the Arab states. It discredited the model of development through authoritarian state socialism, which Egypt (under Nasser), Algeria, Syria and Iraq had followed since the 1960s, leaving these regimes politically and economically stranded. Rulers such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq increasingly turned to Arab nationalism as a substitute for socialism.

Saddam Hussein led Iraq into a prolonged and very costly war with Iran in the 1980s, and then into its fateful invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Kuwait had been part of the Ottoman province of Basra before 1918, and thus in a sense part of Iraq, but Iraq had recognized its independence in the 1960s. The U.S. responded to the invasion by forming a coalition of allies that included Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria, gaining approval from the United Nations and then evicting Iraq from Kuwait by force in the Persian Gulf War. President George H. W. Bush did not, however, attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime, something the U.S. later came to regret. The Persian Gulf War and its aftermath brought about a permanent U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf region, particularly in Saudi Arabia, which offended many Muslims, and was a reason often cited by Osama bin Laden as justification for the September 11 attacks.


A map of the Middle East (2003)

The rapid spread of political democracy and the development of market economies in Eastern Europe, Latin America, East Asia and parts of Africa had passed by the Middle East. In the whole region, only Israel, Turkey and to some extent Lebanon and the Palestinian territories were democracies.

Other countries had legislative bodies, but these had little power. In the Persian Gulf states the majority of the population could not vote because they were guest workers rather than citizens. Many Arab countries counter-claim that a direct result of Western foreign policy and an overly strong Israel, has been the removal of much progress that would come naturally from these nations.

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. Successful economies in the region were those that combined oil wealth with low populations, such as Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. In these states, the ruling emirs allowed some political and social liberalization, but without giving up any of their own power. Lebanon also rebuilt a fairly successful economy after a prolonged civil war in the 1980s.

In the opening years of the 21st century all these factors combined to raise the Middle East conflict to a new height, and to spread its consequences across the globe. The failure of the attempt by Bill Clinton to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians at Camp David in 2000 (2000 Camp David Summit) led directly to the election of Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister of Israel and to the Al-Aqsa Intifada, characterised by suicide bombing of Israeli civilian targets. This was the first major outbreak of violence since the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993.

At the same time, the failures of most of the Arab regimes and the bankruptcy of secular Arab radicalism led a section of educated Arabs (and other Muslims) to embrace Islamism, promoted both by the Shi'a clerics of Iran and by the powerful Wahhabist sect of Saudi Arabia. Many of the militant Islamists gained their military training while fighting against the forces of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

One of these militants was a wealthy Saudi Arabian, Osama bin Laden. After fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan, he formed the al-Qaida organization, which was responsible for the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings, the USS Cole bombing and the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. The September 11 attacks led the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush to launch an invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to overthrow the Taliban regime, which was harbouring Bin Laden and his organisation. The U.S. and its allies described this operation as part of a global "War on Terror."

During 2002 the administration, led by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, developed a plan to invade Iraq, remove Saddam from power, and turn Iraq into a democratic state with a free-market economy, which they hoped would serve as a model for the rest of the Middle East. When the U.S. and its principal allies, Britain, Italy, Spain and Australia, could not secure United Nations approval for the execution of the numerous United Nations resolutions, they launched an invasion of Iraq, overthrowing Saddam with no great difficulty in April 2003.

The advent of a new western army of occupation in a Middle Eastern capital marked a turning point in the history of the region. Despite successful elections (although boycotted by large portions of Iraq's Sunni population) held in January 2005, much of Iraq had all but disintegrated, due to a post-war insurgency which morphed into persistent ethnic violence that the American army was initially unable to quell. Many of Iraq's intellectual and business elite fled the country, and many Iraqi refugees left as a result of the insurgency, further destabilizing the region. A responsive surge in US forces in Iraq has recently been largely successful in controlling the insurgency and stabilizing the country.

By 2005, President George W. Bush's Road map for peace between Israel and the Palestinians was stalled, although this situation had begun to change with Yasser Arafat's death in 2004. In response, Israel moved towards a unilateral solution, pushing ahead with the Israeli West Bank barrier to protect Israel from Palestinian suicide bombers and proposed unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. The barrier if completed would amount to a de facto annexation of areas of the West Bank by Israel. In 2006 a new conflict erupted between Israel and Hezbollah Shi’a militia in southern Lebanon, further setting back any "prospects for peace".

Starting in late 2010 to the present, a revolutionary wave popularly known as the Arab Spring has brought major protests, uprisings, and even revolutions to several Middle Eastern countries and appears to be in the process of significantly changing the social order of the region.

See also

By country:



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