Middle East is a large region that covers parts of northern Africa, southwestern Asia, and southeastern Europe. Scholars disagree on which countries make up the Middle East. But many say the region consists of Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. These countries cover about 3,743,000 square miles (9,694,000 square kilometers) and together have a population of about 262 million.

Two of the world's first great civilizations—those of Sumer and Egypt—developed in the area after 3500 B.C. The region also is the birthplace of three major religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Since the birth of Islam in the A.D. 600's, Islamic powers have dominated the Middle East. More than 90 percent of the region's people are Muslims—followers of Islam.

Most of the people of the Middle East are Muslim Arabs. Other religious and ethnic groups include black Africans, Armenians, Copts, Greeks, Iranians, Jews, Kurds, and Turks.

The Middle East is an area of great economic importance as one of the world's major oil-producing regions. It is also a scene of much political unrest and conflict.

This article discusses Middle East (People) (The land) (Economy) (History).


Ancestry. The people of the Middle East belong to various ethnic groups, which are based largely on culture, language, and history. Ethnically, more than three-fourths of the Middle Eastern people are Arabs. Although they live in different countries, the Arabs share a common culture and a common language, Arabic. Iranians and Turks also form major ethnic groups in the region. Smaller groups in the Middle East include Armenians, Copts, Greeks, Jews, Kurds, and various black African groups.

Way of life. Until the 1900's, most Middle Eastern people lived in villages or small towns and made a living by farming. Only a small number lived in cities. Since World War II (1939-1945), many people have moved to urban areas. Today, in most Middle Eastern countries, more than half the people live in cities. Middle Eastern people have strong ties to their families and to their religious and language groups.

In general, city dwellers in the Middle East have a more modern way of life than the rural villagers. In the cities, cars and people move about at a fast pace. People hold jobs in business, education, government, and the media. Television, which is widely viewed, introduces Western ideas and tastes.

In rural areas of the Middle East, the way of life is slowly changing. Better fertilizers, irrigation methods, and machinery have made life easier for some farmers. But many Middle Eastern farmers still use the same kinds of tools and methods their ancestors used hundreds of years ago. Some people of the Middle East are nomads. They live in the desert and herd cattle, goats, and sheep.

Since the mid-1900's, changes have occurred in the status of urban women in the Middle East. Women in rural areas have always done farm work alongside their husbands, but most urban women were confined to their home. Today, many women in the cities have jobs in business, education, and government. For more information on the people of the Middle East, see the People section of the various country articles.

Religion and language. The Middle East is the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. More than 90 percent of the area's population, including most Arabs, Iranians, and Turks, are Muslims. Christians make up about 7 percent of the population. The largest Christian groups are the Coptic, Melkite, and Maronite denominations. Jews, who make up only 1 percent of the population, live in Israel.

The chief language of the Middle East is Arabic. Written Arabic is the same throughout the region, but the spoken language differs from country to country. Persian is the official language of Iran. People in Turkey speak Turkish. Most Israelis speak Hebrew. Other languages of the Middle East include Baluchi, Greek, and Kurdish.

The land

In the northern part of the Middle East, mountains border interior plateaus. The Pontic Mountains and the Taurus Mountains rise in Turkey, and the Elburz and Zagros mountains extend across Iran.

The southern part of the Middle East is a vast arid plateau. Several large deserts lie in this area. The Western and Eastern deserts of Egypt are part of the Sahara. The Rub al Khali, known in English as the Empty Quarter, stretches across southern Saudi Arabia.

The Middle East has two major river systems—the Tigris-Euphrates and the Nile. The Tigris and Euphrates begin in the mountains of Turkey and flow through Syria and Iraq. In Iraq, the rivers meet and form the Shatt al Arab, which empties into the Persian Gulf. The Nile flows north through Sudan and Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea.


Agriculture has long been the Middle East's most important economic activity. More than half the people are farmers. But the discovery of oil in the Middle East in the early 1900's radically changed the economy of some countries. Oil production became a major industry. Manufacturing increased, particularly the manufacture of products made from oil. In some countries, especially Egypt, tourism is a major industry.

Agriculture. The chief crops of the Middle East include barley, cotton, oranges, sugar cane, tobacco, and wheat. Many Middle Eastern farmers do not own their land. But since World War II, a growing number have become owners of the small farms they work. In such countries as Egypt and Iraq, the amount of farmland has doubled since the late 1800's. The use of fertilizers, improved equipment, and better irrigation methods have helped bring about the increase. But many farmers continue to use traditional machinery and methods. They cannot afford tractors and other heavy equipment.

Mining. Oil is by far the most important mineral product of the Middle East. The region has about three-fifths of the world's known oil reserves. The major oil producers are Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Most of the oil is sold to European countries and Japan. The governments of the oil-producing countries use much of the income from oil sales to build roads, develop new industries, and provide services for their people.

In 1960, some oil-producing countries formed the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to gain more control over oil prices. During the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, some Arab members of OPEC stopped or reduced oil shipments to countries supporting Israel. Prices of oil in those countries rose sharply.

Other minerals mined in the Middle East include coal, iron ore, and phosphates. Coal mines operate in Iran and Turkey. Egypt and Turkey produce iron ore. Jordan supplies a fifth of the world's phosphates.

Manufacturing. The major manufacturing countries of the Middle East are Egypt, Iran, and Turkey. Together, these three countries produce 6 percent of the world's refined sugar and 5 percent of its cement and cotton cloth. The Middle East also produces small amounts of fertilizers, paper, and steel. Israel manufactures a variety of specialized technological products, such as computer parts and fighter aircraft. In the late 1960's, the oil-producing countries began to develop industries that make use of oil. These industries include the manufacture of chemicals and plastics.


Early civilizations. People lived in parts of the Middle East as early as 25,000 B.C. It was in this region that agriculture began around 8000 B.C. Between 3500 and 3100 B.C., two of the world's earliest great civilizations—those of Sumer and Egypt—developed in the region. The Sumerian civilization developed on the fertile plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (see Sumer). It was later absorbed by the Babylonian Empire. The Egyptian civilization arose in the Nile Valley (see Egypt, Ancient). About 1900 B.C., a people called the Hittites came to power in what is now Turkey. Other peoples, such as the Hebrews and the Phoenicians, also organized societies in the region.

Beginning in the 800's B.C., a series of invaders conquered these civilizations. The invaders included the Assyrians, the Medes, the Persians, and, finally, Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered the Middle East in 331 B.C. and united it into one empire. He died in 323 B.C. The next 300 years, called the Hellenistic Age, brought great achievements in scholarship, science, and the arts.

By 30 B.C., the Romans had conquered much of the Middle East. During Roman rule, Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem and died in Jerusalem. Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, replacing pagan cults. Christianity was the major religion of the Middle East until the rise of Islam in the A.D. 600's.

Islamic empires. Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, was born in Mecca in about 570. In 622, he moved to the oasis of Medina, where he became the head of a small religious and political community. After his death in 632, his followers, called Muslims, conquered what are now Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. Many of the conquered people adopted Islam and the Arabic language. By 711, Arab Muslim rule extended from what is now Spain in the west to Iran in the east. Muslims of the Umayyad family ruled these lands from the city of Damascus. In 750, the Abbasid family overthrew the Umayyads and made Baghdad the capital of the Islamic Empire.

During Abbasid rule, groups of Muslim Turks invaded from central Asia. The most important were the Seljuk Turks. They took over Baghdad in 1055, and soon after, they conquered what are now Syria and Palestine. By the end of the 1000's, the Abbasid Empire was declining, and independent dynasties (families of rulers) were emerging. In 1258, Mongols from China conquered Baghdad and destroyed the remains of the Abbasid government.

In the 1300's, the dynasty of the Ottomans became established in Anatolia (now Turkey). In the early 1500's the Ottomans added the Arab lands of the Middle East to their empire. By that time, they had also advanced into the Balkan Peninsula and had become a military threat to Europe. In the 1700's and 1800's, the Ottoman Empire declined in power and size in the face of new, strong states that developed in Europe. By World War I (1914-1918), some European countries had gained much economic and political influence in the Middle East.

World War I. During World War I, the Ottoman Empire joined with Germany against the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Russia. Arabs who hoped to win independence from the Ottoman Empire supported the European Allies. The United Kingdom promised to help create independent Arab governments in the Middle East after the war. But the United Kingdom also agreed with France to divide the Middle East into zones of British and French rule and influence. In 1917, the United Kingdom issued the Balfour Declaration, which supported the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine—but without violating the civil or religious rights of the Arabs there (see Balfour Declaration).

In 1923, the defeated Ottoman Empire became the Republic of Turkey. The League of Nations divided most of the Arab lands of the Middle East into mandated territories (see Mandated territory). France took control of Lebanon and Syria. The United Kingdom received the mandates for Iraq, Jordan (called Transjordan until 1949), and Palestine. The United Kingdom also kept control over Egypt, which it had conquered in 1882. The Arabs conducted a struggle for independence in the years after the war. Many territories gained independence in the 1930's and 1940's.

Palestine. In Palestine, Arab mistrust of the United Kingdom grew during the 1930's. Between 1933 and 1935, more than 100,000 Jewish refugees fled to Palestine from Nazi Germany and Poland. The Jewish immigration alarmed the Palestinian Arabs, who wanted Palestine to become an independent Arab state. In 1936, they called a general strike that almost paralyzed Palestine. They declared the strike would last until the British halted Jewish immigration. But after about five months, the Arabs ended the strike without achieving their goals. However, they continued to oppose British control.

In 1947, the United Kingdom asked the United Nations (UN) to deal with the Palestine problem. The UN voted to divide Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. The Jews accepted this solution and established the state of Israel on May 14, 1948. The Arabs, who made up about two-thirds of the population of Palestine, rejected the plan. The next day, five Arab states––Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria—attacked Israel. The Israelis defeated the Arabs.

When the war ended in 1949, Israel had about half the land that the UN had assigned to the Arab state. Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip, and Jordan occupied and later annexed the West Bank of the Jordan River. The city of Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan. About 700,000 Palestinian Arabs had fled or been driven out of the land that was now Israel. They became refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, and Lebanon.

Continuing conflict. The 1950's and 1960's were years of radical change in the Middle East. A new generation led by young army officers took over the governments of many Arab states. They overthrew leaders who had cooperated with the United Kingdom and France. They hoped to bring about a political unification of the Arab world and to remove any European influence. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of Egypt, became the symbol of these hopes. In 1956, Nasser seized the Suez Canal in Egypt from its British and French owners. In response to Nasser's action, the United Kingdom, France, and Israel invaded Egypt. Pressure from the United States, the Soviet Union, and other nations forced the invaders to withdraw. See Back in Time: Egypt (1956).

In May 1967, the Arabs believed Israel was planning a major attack on Syria. Nasser sent Egyptian troops into the Sinai Peninsula and closed the Straits of Tiran, the entrance to the Israeli port of Elat. On June 5, the Israeli air force retaliated by destroying most of the air forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. In the following six days, Israel seized the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) from Jordan. Almost 1 million Palestinian Arabs came under Israeli rule. See Back in Time: Middle East (1967).

After the Six-Day War, no solution was reached in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Arabs wanted Israel to withdraw from the land it had conquered. Israel demanded negotiations and Arab recognition of its right to exist.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), founded in 1964, became an important force in the Middle East after the 1967 war. The PLO is a confederation of Palestinian Arab groups that wants to establish an Arab state in Palestine. It includes associations of lawyers, teachers, laborers, and other groups, as well as guerrilla fighters who staged terrorist attacks and commando raids against Israel. The Arab nations recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people.

In October 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack against Israel. They were driven back by the Israelis. Most of the fighting ended by November. See Back in Time: Middle East (1973).

Attempt at peace. In 1977, Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat declared his willingness to make peace. In 1978, Sadat, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and U.S. President Jimmy Carter held discussions at Camp David in the United States. The discussions resulted in an agreement called the Camp David Accords. Israel agreed to withdraw from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Egypt and Israel pledged to negotiate with Jordan and the Palestinians to grant some form of self-rule to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979, and Israel withdrew from the Sinai. But no immediate progress was made in deciding the future of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. See Back in Time: Middle East (1977); Middle East (1978); Middle East (1979).

More conflict. In the 1970's in Lebanon, an uneasy balance between the Muslim and Christian communities collapsed. The conflict was sparked by the presence of armed PLO members in the country. The Muslims supported the PLO fighters, and the Christians opposed them. But at the heart of the conflict was the fact that Lebanon's growing Muslim population demanded more power in the government. The Christians opposed Muslim demands for increased power. In 1975, civil war broke out between various Muslim and Christian forces. Most of the fighting in Lebanon ended in 1991.

A revolution occurred in Iran in 1979. Muslim religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his followers took control of the government. Khomeini declared Iran to be an Islamic republic (see Back in Time: Iran (1979)). From 1980 until 1988, Iran and Iraq fought a war over territorial disputes and other disagreements.

The Arab-Israeli conflict flared up again at the end of 1987. Arabs in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank began demonstrating against Israel's occupation. Violence erupted between Israeli troops and the demonstrators.

In August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. The United States and other nations sent military forces to Saudi Arabia to defend that country against a possible Iraqi invasion. These nations and Saudi Arabia formed an allied military coalition. In January 1991, war broke out between Iraq and these nations. In February, the allied coalition defeated Iraq and forced its troops to leave Kuwait. For more information, see Persian Gulf War. See also Back in Time: Middle East (1990); Middle East (1991).

Recent developments. In October 1991, a peace conference began between Israel on one side, and Middle Eastern Arab nations and Arab residents of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank on the other. In separate discussions in 1993, Israel and the PLO agreed to recognize each other.

In 1993 and 1995, Israel and the PLO signed agreements that led to the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip and most cities and towns of the West Bank by early 1996. As the Israelis withdrew, Palestinians took control of these areas. In 1996, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian-controlled parts of the West Bank elected a legislature and a president to make laws and administer these areas.

In 1994, Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty. This treaty formally ended the state of war that had technically existed between the two countries since 1948. See Back in Time: Jordan (1994).

In October 1998, Israel and the Palestinians signed another agreement. As a result of the accord, Israel turned over more land in the West Bank to Palestinian control, and it allowed a Palestinian airport in the Gaza Strip to open.

In 2000, peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders failed to produce a final peace settlement. That same year, violence broke out between Palestinian protesters and Israeli troops. In 2002, Israel reoccupied much of the West Bank.

• Dina Le Gall, M.A., Scholar in Middle Eastern studies.
• Michel Le Gall, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Middle Eastern History, St. Olaf College.

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