Hiroshi Tomita

Business Analyst

May 21, 2014

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11 Maps That Explain Middle East History

It’s been rightfully said that maps are one of the most compelling way’s to understand the world around you. Based on a recent post by Vox, here are 10 maps essential for understanding Middle East history.

1 – The Fertile crescent, the cradle of Civilization


If this area wasn’t the birthplace of human civilization, it was at least a birthplace of human civilization. Called “the fertile crescent” because of its lush soil, the “crescent” of land mostly includes modern-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Israel-Palestine. (Some definitions also include the Nile River valley in Egypt.) People started farming here in 9000 BC, and by around 2500 BC the Sumerians formed the first complex society that resembles what we’d now call a “country,” complete with written laws and a political system. Put differently, there are more years between Sumerians and ancient Romans than there are between ancient Romans and us.

2 – How ancient Phoenicians spread from Lebanon


The Phoenicians, who lived in present-day Lebanon and coastal Syria, were pretty awesome. From about 1500 to 300 BC, they ran some of the Mediterranean’s first big trading networks, shown in red, and dominated the sea along with the Greeks, who are shown in brown. Some sailed as far as the British Isles, and many of them set up colonies in North Africa, Spain, Sicily, and Sardinia. This was one of the first of many close cultural links between the Middle East and North Africa – and why Libya’s capital, Tripoli, still bears the name of the ancient Phoenician colony that established it.

 3 – How the Middle East gave Europe religion


The Middle East actually gave Europe religion four times, including Islam, but this map shows the first three. First was Judaism, which spread through natural immigration and when Romans forcibly dispersed the rebelling Israelites in the first and second century AD. In the first through third centuries A.D., a religion called Mithraism — sometimes called a “mystery religion” for its emphasis on secret rites and clandestine worship — spread from present-day Turkey or Armenia throughout the Roman Empire (at the time, most adherents believed it was from Persians in modern-day Iran, but this is probably wrong). Mithraism was completely replaced with Christianity, which became the Roman Empire’s official religion, after a few centuries. It’s easy to forget that, for centuries, Christianity was predominantly a religion of Middle Easterners, who in turn converted Europeans.

4 – When Mohammed’s Caliphate conquered the Middle East

In the early 7th century AD in present-day Saudi Arabia, the Prophet Mohammed founded Islam, which his followers considered a community as well as a religion. As they spread across the Arabian peninsula, they became an empire, which expanded just as the neighboring Persian and Byzantine Empires were ready to collapse. In an astonishingly short time — from Mohammed’s death in 632 to 652 AD — they managed to conquer the entire Middle East, North Africa, Persia, and parts of southern Europe. They spread Islam, the Arabic language, and the idea of a shared Middle Eastern identity — all of which still define the region today. It would be as if everyone in Europe still spoke Roman Latin and considered themselves ethnically Roman.

5 – A map of the world at the Caliphate’s height


This is a rough political map of the world in 750 AD, at the height of the Omayyad Caliphate (“caliph” means the ruler of the global Islamic community). This is to give you a sense of how vast and powerful the Muslim empire had become, barely one century after the founding of the religion that propelled its expansion. It was a center of wealth, arts, and learning at a time when only China was so rich and powerful. This was the height of Arab power.

6 – A map of the world at the Caliphate’s height


The Ottoman Empire is named for Osman, its first ruler, who in the early 1300s expanded it from a tiny part of northwest Turkey to a slightly less tiny part. It continued expanding for about 500 years — longer than the entire history of the Roman Empire — ruling over most of the Middle East, North Africa, and southeastern Europe for centuries. The empire, officially an Islamic state, spread the religion in southeast Europe but was generally tolerant of other religious groups. It was probably the last great non-European empire until it began declining in the mid-1800s, collapsed after World War I, and had its former territory in the Middle East divided up by Western Europe.

7 – The six-century rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire

This is a pivotal year, during the Middle East’s gradual transfer from 500 years of Ottoman rule to 50 to 100 years of European rule. Western Europe was getting richer and more powerful as it carved up Africa, including the Arab states of North Africa, into colonial possessions. Virtually the entire region was ruled outright by Europeans or Ottomans, save some parts of Iran and the Arabian peninsula divided into European “zones of influence.” When World War I ended a few years later, the rest of the defeated Ottoman Empire would be carved up among the Europeans. The lines between French, Italian, Spanish, and British rule are crucial for understanding the region today – not just because they ruled differently and imposed different policies, but because the boundaries between European empires later became the official borders of independence, whether they made sense or not.

 8 – What the Middle East looked like in 1914


You hear a lot today about this treaty, in which the UK and French (and Russian) Empires secretly agreed to divide up the Ottoman Empire’s last MidEastern regions among themselves. Crucially, the borders between the French and British “zones” later became the borders between Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. Because those later-independent states had largely arbitrary borders that forced disparate ethnic and religious groups together, and because those groups are still in terrible conflict with one another, Sykes-Picot is often cited as a cause of warfare and violence and extremism in the Middle East. But scholars are still debating this theory, which may be too simple to be true.

9 – The Sykes-Picot treaty that carved up the Middle East


You may have noticed a theme of the last eight maps: empires, mostly from outside the Middle East but sometimes of it, conquering the region in ways that dramatically changed it. This animation shows you every major empire in the Middle East over the last 5,000 years. To be clear, it is not exhaustive, and in case it wasn’t obvious, the expanding-circle animations do not actually reflect the speed or progression of imperial expansions. But it’s a nice primer.

10 – An animated history of great empires in the Middle East

This time-lapse map by Michael Izady — a wonderful historian and cartographer at Columbia University, whose full collection can be found here — shows the political boundaries of the greater Middle East from 1450 through today. You’ll notice that, for much of the last 500 years, most or all of the region has been under some combination of Turkish, Persian, and European control. For so much of the Arab Middle East to be under self-rule is relatively new. Two big exceptions that you can see on this map are Morocco and Egypt, which have spent more of the last 500 years as self-ruling empires than other Arab states. That’s part of why these two countries have sometimes seen themselves as a degree apart from the rest of the Arab world.

11 – The complete history of Islamic states

It is still amazing, looking back at early and mid-2011, how dramatically and quickly the Arab Spring uprisings challenged and in many cases toppled the brittle old dictatorships of the Middle East. What’s depressing is how little the movements have advanced beyond those first months. Syria’s civil war is still going. Egypt’s fling with democracy appeared to end with a military coup in mid-2013. Yemen is still mired in slow-boil violence and political instability. The war in Libya toppled Moammar Qaddafi, with US and European support, but left the country without basic security or a functioning government. Only Tunisia seems to have come out even tenuously in the direction of democracy.


Also worth reading:
5 Of The Best TED Talks On Mapping
A Short History Of Mapping – Part 1
5 Mapping Tools That Can Make Your Job Easier