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The Geography of the Middle East

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Examining Stereotypes

Is the Middle East Geographically or Culturally Uniform?

European and American art, literature, and media of the past two centuries have tended to reinforce popular perceptions that the Middle East is a region without much diversity of geography or culture—that it is largely a hot, dry desert where Muslim Arabs live.

In fact, the region is extremely diverse in its physical geography, climate, and its human or cultural geography. While the region does center on a vast sandy desert dotted with oases, it also encompasses coastal areas, river valleys, steppes, dramatic mountains, and highland plains. Some areas are indeed arid desert, but there are other mountainous areas that receive as much as 40 inches (1000 mm) of rain per year. Much of the area is very hot in summer, but nearly half the region can have snow in the winter.

There are five major languages spoken across the Middle East (Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish, Kurdish) today and many smaller language communities. While the majority of the population of the Middle East is Muslim, there are significant populations of Orthodox Christians, Catholics, and, of course, Jews (now almost entirely in Israel).

Another significant dimension of cultural diversity ranges from urban to rural. The Middle East has been an urban region for thousands of years, but rural farmers and nomads maintain a significantly different, usually more conservative culture.

Supporting Links:

“Temperature: The Atlas of the Middle East.” The University of Texas. Link to resourcenew window (accessed April 29, 2010).

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