The Geography of the Middle East
The Middle East is a large and diverse geographical area located in southwest Asia and northeast Africa. It extends over 2,000 miles from the Black Sea in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south, and about 1,000 miles from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the mountains of Iran. The term “Middle East” came into common use in the early twentieth century, but remains loosely defined.
One term sometimes applied to part of this area is “Fertile Crescent,” which was coined by James Henry Breasted in 1914 to refer to the arc of fertile agricultural zones that formed the basis for early civilizations, in what is now Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. Scholars studying the ancient past usually use the term “Near East” for this area.
Mountains and deserts divide the Middle East into six zones that are both geographically distinct and have influenced the development and maintenance of cultural traditions through much of the history of the region.
In the first of these zones, the Nile River flows northward through the Sahara Desert from Khartoum in Sudan (where its two major tributaries join), through Egypt, and to the Mediterranean Sea. As a source of water, food, and fertile soil deposited in annual floods as well as a transportation route, it was the ecological basis for ancient Nubian and Egyptian civilization. In the southern part of this region, the broad alluvial plain is broken by six “cataracts”—areas in which the narrow river valley, strong current, islands, and rapids make navigation difficult. The rich mineral resources of the deserts around the Nile, particularly gold, have historically been important to economic development in this area.
East of the Nile Valley, across the Eastern Desert and the Sinai Peninsula, is the eastern Mediterranean coastal plain, which has historically been connected with mountains and river valleys that run parallel to it. Comprising the modern countries of Israel, Lebanon, and western Syria, as well as parts of Jordan and Turkey, this region is sometimes called the Levant (after the French term for “rising,” here referring to the rising sun). Located in the Mediterranean climatic zone with rich agricultural land and relatively abundant rainfall, and having easy access to land and sea routes, the Levant has always been a cultural crossroads and has frequently been conquered. Among the first areas to develop agriculture (as far back as 11,000 BCE), ancient cultures that developed in this region include Canaanite, Amorite, Israelite, and Phoenician.
The Levant is bordered on the north by the Taurus Mountains reaching up to 12,000 feet in elevation, which separate the Levant from the Anatolian plateau in modern Turkey. The Anatolian plateau is a relatively isolated but fertile agricultural zone, and the Taurus Mountains are rich in metals and minerals—they were known as the “silver mountain” in some ancient texts, but copper was even more abundantly available. The western coast of Turkey had closer contact with cultures of Greece and the Aegean Sea than with the rest of the Middle East through much of its early history. Ancient cultures in Anatolia included the Hittite empire and a Hurrian-speaking population.
Southeast of the Levant is the Arabian Peninsula with its extensive deserts, oases, and coastal regions along the Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and Persian Gulf that were more often suited to permanent settlement. Today, this area includes the countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Distinctive ancient cultures of this area include the South Arabian kingdoms in what is now Yemen that traded incense to the Levant and communities in Oman that were rich in copper and hard stone. Arab culture first appears in the historical record after the introduction of the camel in about 1200 BCE, which allowed more extensive use of arid zones of Saudi Arabia, and Islam first developed in the oasis towns of Mecca and Medina before spreading over much of the Middle East by 700 CE.
East of the Levant and south of the Taurus Mountains is the area defined by the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers that has sometimes been called Mesopotamia (the “land between the rivers”), now encompassing eastern Syria, Iraq, and a small area of southwestern Iran. In many ways, what we call Mesopotamian civilization is a series of diverse languages and cultures bound together by a common script and written tradition. Ancient languages in the area included Sumerian, Akkadian, Amorite, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Aramaic.
Mesopotamia is a particularly fertile agricultural zone with vast areas available for cultivation. Northern Mesopotamia receives enough rainfall to grow grain crops, while southern Mesopotamia receives virtually no rain, so agriculture there depended on extensive networks of irrigation canals. At the southern end of the Tigris-Euphrates course, a series of marshes has maintained a distinctive environment and culture for millennia. Apart from water and fertile soil (and later oil), Mesopotamia contains few natural resources, and has depended on trade with people in the mountainous regions to the north and east for stone, copper, and timber.
Mesopotamia is bordered on the east by the Zagros Mountains of western Iran and eastern Turkey (elevation up to 15,000 feet), whose highland valleys were home to Elamite and Persian civilizations as well as later powerful nomadic confederations including the Bakhtiari. The Zagros are a rich source of stone and timber.
The climate of the Middle East ranges from the warm summers and cold winters of highland Turkey and Iran, through hotter summers and cool winters of northern Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean coast, to the extreme temperatures of the Arabian desert. Most, but not all, of the region is arid.
As this outline suggests, geography plays a significant role in the formation and maintenance of cultures. The earliest civilizations with large population centers developed near abundant sources of water and agricultural land, rather than in areas of other valuable raw materials, like metals, semi-precious stones, building stone, or timber. Geography also provides a basis for distinctive attributes of regional cultures, like the importance of olive oil and wine in the cuisine of the eastern Mediterranean region (where grapes and olives can easily be cultivated), or the extensive use of incense in daily life, ritual practice, and in economic exchange in the cultures of south Arabia.
Scholars debate the extent to which geography shapes culture and the direction of historical change. Some see geography as destiny, while others see a more complex set of changing opportunities and constraints that geography poses through history.
Former Chief Curator, Oriental Institute Museum of the University of Chicago
1. What various names have historians and archaeologists given to the area in Southwest Asia and Northeast Africa? Why?
2. Identify at least five key geographic features of the Middle East and explain how these features would be important to life in the region.
3. In what ways does geography have an impact on the Middle East?