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Introduction to the Middle East
The Middle East is a region loosely defined by geography and culture. It is located in southwestern Asia and northeastern Africa. It has been called the "cradle of civilization," since the earliest cities, governments, legal codes and alphabets were Middle Eastern. The Torah and the Koran were written here as it is the birthplace of four major religions: Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Islam. (Compare Judaism with Islam)
After the Sumerians’ downfall, many other civilizations rose and fell in the Middle East. The Tigris-Euphrates River valley was a fertile land with few natural barriers to conquest. Some have attributed the constant warring and conquests of the region to this fact. But whatever the apparent causes, the Bible makes it clear that God intended many of these invasions to punish the evil nations who lived there (see Isaiah). Specifically, God used many of the nations of the region—including the Babylonians, Hittites, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Persians, and other nations—as instruments of judgment against his rebellious chosen people, Israel. Yet more than just an account of crime and punishment, Israel’s entire history was a tale of God’s faithfulness in the face of human faithlessness. Although the Israelites were dispersed from their homeland by the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans, God miraculously gathered them together in their promised land. First God used the Persian king Cyrus to deliver a remnant of His people in the sixth century B.C. In modern times, God would work through others to bring His people back together.
Besides being Israel’s homeland, the Middle East served as the cradle for two of the world’s most influential religions: Christianity and Islam. Around 27 AD Jesus Christ began his miraculous ministry, which came to an abrupt end when the Jewish leaders called for his crucifixion. Of course, on Easter Sunday Christ rose from the dead, having conquered death once and for all. The historical death and resurrection of Jesus provided the perfect sacrifice for sin, as well as the basis for Christianity. Christianity soon spread through much of the Middle East, and from there it eventually spread through all of Europe.
In the seventh century AD, a new religion arose to contest the power of Christianity in the Middle East. Islam, founded by Muhammad, quickly spread throughout the Middle East. It even seized Palestine from Christendom, which led to the Crusades of the eleventh through thirteenth centuries. Over time, the spread of Christianity and Islam would have profound impact—not only in the Middle East, but throughout the world.
Under its new Islamic rulers, the Middle East experienced a period of prosperity known as the Islamic Golden Age. During this time, Islamic scientists and mathematicians made many significant achievements, including inventing algebra and introducing “Arabic” numerals from India. Islamic scholars also translated many classical Greek and Roman texts, which—along with the work of monks in Europe—helped to preserve the knowledge of the classical civilizations.
By the time of the Crusades in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries, the Islamic Golden Age had ended, and the Islamic Empire was under the rule of Seljuk Turks. The six bloody Crusades were initiated by Pope Urban II to re-conquer the Holy Land from the Muslims. Although Crusaders from all over Europe answered the Pope’s call, they failed to win control over Palestine, and the Middle East remained in the hands of the Islamic Turks.
Around the beginning of the fourteenth century, the Ottoman Empire came to power in Turkey. This left the Middle East in the power of an Islamic government for over 600 years more. Islamic rulers such as Suleyman the Magnificent gained glory for the empire. But as the rulers of the empire declined so did the government. World War I finally tore the Ottoman Empire to pieces, and left the Middle East under essentially colonial rule. The League of Nations partitioned most of the Middle East into "mandated territories" that would be governed by the British or French governments until the territories were ready for independence.
After World War II, it was decided that the Jews needed a homeland, and the United Nations proposed a partition of Palestine into an Israeli state and an Arab State. Although the Arabs rejected the plan, the Jews accepted it and officially declared the creation of the country of Israel in May of 1948. The surrounding Arab nations attacked Israel but were defeated despite their superior numbers. As a result of this conflict, Israel gained more territory. In 1967 Israel again gained territory during the Six-Day War. However, much of that territory has been released in an attempt for peace. Yet violent attacks by Islamic extremists continue, especially in hot spots, such as Jerusalem.
The "Road Map to Peace" calls for Israel to give more of the land promised to them over to Palestinians in order to satisfy Islamic terrorist groups. But the terrorists groups refuse to recognize the right of Israel to exist and will not be stopped by the payment of land for peace. They do not want peace as long as Israel exists.
So violence continues in the constantly war-plagued Middle East. However, the conflict is not really a clash over homelands for various people groups. Rather, it is a religious conflict in which the forces of evil are attempting to destroy God’s chosen people. But history in Biblical perspective acknowledges the miraculous ways that God has dealt with the Israeli people in the past. And it also acknowledges His continued providence over the nation through which He chose to reveal Himself to the world.
Mesopotamia means the "land between the rivers," the rivers being the Tigris and Euphrates. It was home to a series of ancient civilizations, of which the Sumerian civilization was the first, beginning around 3000 BC The Sumerians are remembered most for the development of a form of writing known as cuneiform and the invention of the wheel. Sumerians were polytheistic and built enormous temples, called ziggurats, in order to appease their gods. It was out of the Sumerian city-state of Ur that God called Abram and took him to settle in Canaan. (Genesis 15:7)
Canaan is the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the land promised to Abraham's descendants. The original inhabitants were called Canaanites and worshipped the gods Baal and Ashtoreth. When God commanded his people to go in and take over the land they did not obey all his instructions and allowed the Canaanites to stay in the land. Because they did not do as God said, he spoke to the Israelites about the Canaanites and said, "Therefore I also said, 'I will not drive them out before you; but they will become as thorns in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you.'" From then on the Canaanites were constantly leading the people of Israel astray and Israelites often worshiped Canaanite gods (Judges 2:3).
By about 2000 BC, one Semitic neighbor living in the city-state of Ur of the Chaldeans was chosen by God to be the Father of a great nation. Abram left and settled in Canaan between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea. From Abram's seed came the Hebrews, Arabs, and Spiritually speaking (Gal 3:8), the Christians. The Hebrews were God's chosen people, the Israelites. After a long period of captivity in Egypt, God used Moses and Joshua to lead his people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land of Canaan (Exodus 1:1 - Joshua 24:29). After wandering forty years in the desert because they did not follow God's original directions, they finally entered the Promised Land. For several years they were a theocracy, with God appointing judges to resolve disputes; but then the Israelites decided they wanted a king. After the first three kings Israel and Judah separated and had their own kings until God had Israel conquered by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. and Judah conquered by the Babylonians in 586 BC.. The Persian king Cyrus conquered Babylonia and facilitated the return of the Jews to their homeland, a comparative Zionism to that repeated by President Wilson.
The Assyrians first began to assert themselves around 1350 BC They established a capital at Ninevah and their highly disciplined and cruel army efficiently built an enormous empire that stretched across the entire Fertile Crescent. In order to prevent the rebellions of the numerous people groups in their territory they sent them many of them, including the Israelites, into exile. In 612 BC Assyria collapsed as the Medes and Chaldeans took over.
The Chaldeans rebuilt Babylon and became known as the Babylonians. The Babylonians ruled in Mesopotamia until 539 BC. Nebuchadnezzar II was the king of Babylon and is mentioned several times in the Bible. He subdued and exiled Judah (2 Kings 24-25, 2 Chronicals 36), had dreams interpreted by Daniel (Daniel 2:4) and worshiped God (Daniel 3:28-29, 4:34-37)
The Persians, under the leadership of Cyrus the Great established an enormous empire that by 500 BC stretched from beyond the Nile River in Egypt, to Turkey and parts of Greece and east all the way through preset-day Afghanistan. Under Darius, the Persians made great improvements in transportation and communication and connected the empire through a series of roads, the longest of which, the Great Royal Road, stretched 1,600 miles from the Persian Gulf to the Aegean Sea. Eventually however the Greeks defeated the Persians.
Alexander the Great created the largest empire of the time during the fourth century BC. Having been taught by Aristotle, Alexander did much to expand the Greek culture throughout his empire. Hellenism, the culture, ideas, and pattern of life of Classical Greece, influenced most of the world. When Alexander the Great died his empire began to crumble and Rome became the new power.
The Roman Empire began as a small settlement in Italy, but it ended up conquering most of the known world, including part of the Middle East. Rome was a patriarchal society that worshiped many gods, similar to the Greeks. In a small corner of the Roman Empire, Jesus was born, ministered, was crucified and resurrected. The Pax Romana and the numerous Roman roads facilitated the spread of Christianity throughout the empire until it became the official religion of Rome. When the Roman Empire was divided into east and west, the western half succumbed to barbarian invasions while the east flourished for quite some time as the Byzantine Empire.
The Byzantine Empire was the dominant power in the Middle East after the fall of Rome. It developed a very eastern culture, used the Greek language, created a distinct form of architecture and founded a separate branch of Christianity known as Orthodox Christianity. The emperor who had absolute authority ruled over the Byzantine Empire, and for a while it flourished in trade and the arts.
Around the same time that Byzantium was flourishing in the northern Middle East, a new force was emerging in the south. Islam, the new faith founded by Mohammed, took hold in the Middle East during the seventh century. From 632 to 1258 the Islamic Empire conquered a vast territory and forced many people to convert to Islam, including people as far away as Spain. Apart from the Crusades, the Arabs remained unchallenged for more than 400 years until the Mongols arrived in the mid 11th century and conquered Baghdad, the Arab capital. The militant spread of Islam was reversed in Europe through the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula.
As the Mongol Empire fell, the Muslim Ottoman Empire rose and as it grew the Turks came to dominate most of modern-day Turkey and in 1453 invaded Constantinople, ending the Byzantine Empire. At its height the Empire held all the territory from Greece to Persia and all the way around the Mediterranean to Egypt and northern Africa. In order to conquer such a vast territory, the Islamic Empire enslaved the children of their Christian subjects and used them as fighting warriors know as Janissaries. In the sixteenth century the Empire began its decline and by the time World War I came around it was nicknamed the sick man of Europe.
After the World Wars the Middle East was broken up into many different nation states. Other Central Asian republics gained independance after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today all of the following countries can be considered a part of the Middle East.
Afghanistan was a monarchy from 1747 to 1973, when the king was overthrown the country was proclaimed a republic. In 1992 the republic was dissolved and the country erupted in civil war. In 1996 the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist regime captured the capital of Kabul and began harboring the leaders of the terrorist Al Queda group in the country. After the Al Queda attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001 U.S. and U.N. forces occupied the country and are now in the process of setting up a democratic government.
Bahrain is an independent state comprised of an archipelago in the southern Persian Gulf. It was under British control form 1861 to 1971, when it gained its independence. Like most Middle East countries its economy is based on the petroleum industry.
Cyprus is the third largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. Originally apart of the Ottoman Empire, the British rented the island in 1878 and then annexed it after the Turks were defeated in World War I. In 1960 Cyprus was proclaimed an independent republic. The population is unique in that there are both Greeks and Turks and they live in separate zones, adhere to different religions, speak different languages attend different schools and yet are apart of the same country.
Egypt was the cradle of one of the greatest ancient civilizations and has a recorded history dating back to 3200 BC. At various times in its history the Romans, the Greeks, the Arabs, the Ottomans and the British controlled it. In 1952 it was declared to be to Arab Republic of Egypt.
The Islamic Republic of Iran was established in 1979 as a result of an uprising led by Islamic religious leaders against the constitutional monarchy. When the government changed, Islamic principles were renewed. Women were ordered to return to their tradition roles, movie theatres were closed, radio stations were prohibited from broadcasting music and the segregation of men and women at social functions was reestablished.
In 1921 the kingdom of Iraq was established, in 1958 after a sudden coup, the country was proclaimed a republic. In 1979 Saddam Hussein came to power and began his long and brutal dictatorship. (E.g., compare "Genocides of Armenians and Kurds") In 1990 he lead Iraq in the invasion of Kuwait, and was only stopped when the U.S. and UN sent forces in to drive them out. After that Hussein remained in power until in 2003 the United States and Britain invaded. Britain and the U.S. along with other UN are now working to establish a democratic government for the Iraqi people.
Israel's fight for independence finally succeeded when in 1948 the nation of Israel was established through the work of many important leaders, including Golda Meir. It was immediately attacked by five Arab countries. Israel since 1948 has been an area of intense conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, lead by Yasser Arafat, as both groups claim the same tract of land. There have been many attempts by the international community to bring peace between the two people groups, but so far none have succeeded. Even the capital of Israel is argued over as Israelites claim Jerusalem as their capital while the UN refuses to recognize it because it lies in the disputed territory. The "Road Map to Peace" calls for Israel to give the land promised to them over to Palestinians in order to satisfy terrorist groups who refuse to recognize the right of Israel to exist.
In 1928, Great Britain granted Jordan its independence. It is bordered on the west by Israel and the West Bank, an area previously held by Jordan but occupied by Israel since 1967.
Kazakhstan was formerly a part of the USSR but declared its independence in 1991, just before the USSR was dissolved. Kazakhstan is one of the more modern republics in Central Asia, with almost 60% of the country being urbanized.
Kuwait is an Islamic constitutional monarchy and was granted independence from Britain in 1961. For many years it had an economy based on sea trade and pearl exports, but in the 20th century, with the discovery of oil, the economy was transformed. Today the country has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world and even has free water dispensers and public phones.
Kyrgyzstan declared its independence from the USSR in 1991 and the next year joined the United Nations. The country is almost completely mountainous and subject to major earthquakes so settlement and agriculture are concentrated in the river valleys.
Lebanon emerged as an independent state in 1943. Thirty years later, as a result of religious tension between Christians and Muslims, civil war erupted from 1975 to 1990. During the war Syrian forces intervened and they have remained in the country indirectly controlling it politically.
The Sultanate of Oman has been ruled by the Al Bu Said dynasty since 1749. It is noted for its traditional craftsmanship in areas such as shipbuilding, on which its economy relied before the discovery of oil.
The Islamic Republic of Pakistan became independent in 1947 as a result of the partition of India by the British. In 1988 Benazir Bhutto was elected prime minister and became the first woman to head a modern Islamic state.
Qatar was proclaimed independent from the British in 1971. It has a monarchial government with the power resting in the Council of Ministers.
In 1932 Abdul Aziz ibn Saud conquered a vast realm which he named Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia contains the holiest shrine of Islam, the Kaaba, at Mecca and is a pilgrimage point for Muslims worldwide.
In 1961 Syria was declared independent. The majority of its population is Sunni Muslim and unlike most countries in the Middle East, its economy relies mostly on agriculture.
Tajikistan became an independent nation with the collapse of the USSR in 1991. From 1992 to 1996 it found itself in the midst of a civil war, which severely disrupted its economy.
Mustafa Kemal founded the Republic of Turkey in 1923 from a portion of the Ottoman Empire following its collapse. While the majority of the population is Muslim, Islam has not been the official state religion of Turkey since 1928 and Christian communities are now beginning to flourish throughout the country despite persecution.
In 1991, with the dissolution of the USSR, Turkmenistan became an independent nation. Unlike many of the countries that have emerged following the collapse of the USSR, Turkmenistan has not suffered a massive emigration of minorities since 73% of the population are Turkmens and the government has tried to recognize the rights of all minority groups.
United Arab Emirates
The United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven independent states that united in 1971. While Islam is the official religion, the constitution guarantees religious freedom and there are some Christian churches in the UAE.
Uzbekistan declared its independence in 1991, before the collapse of the USSR. Later that year it united with ten other former Soviet republics to form the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
The Republic of Yemen was created in 1990 when the Yemen Arab Republic and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen unified. Yemen has a rich tradition of arts and handicrafts and the making of stained class in popular.
Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia. Microsoft Corporation.
Armstrong, Monty, David Daniel, Abby Kanarek, and Alexandra Freer. Cracking the AP World History Exam. 2004-2005 ed. New York: Random House, Inc., 2004.