A Concise History of the Middle East
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A Concise History of the Middle East

Arthur Goldschmidt Jr., Ibrahim Al-Marashi

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eBook - ePub

A Concise History of the Middle East

Arthur Goldschmidt Jr., Ibrahim Al-Marashi

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A Concise History of the Middle East provides a comprehensive introduction to the history of this turbulent region. Spanning from pre-Islam to the present day, it explores the evolution of Islamic institutions and culture, the influence of the West, modernization efforts in the Middle East, the struggle of various peoples for political independence, the Arab–Israel conflict, the reassertion of Islamic values and power, the issues surrounding the Palestinian Question, and the Middle East post-9/11 and post-Arab uprisings.

The twelfth edition has been fully revised to reflect the most recent events in, and concerns of, the region, including the presence of ISIS and other non-state actors, the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, and the refugee crisis. New parts and part timelines will help students grasp and contextualize the long and complicated history of the region.

With updated biographical sketches and glossary, and a new concluding chapter, this book remains the quintessential text for students of Middle East history.

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1 Introduction

In this book we introduce the Middle East to English-speaking students and other readers who have not lived in the area or studied its history before. Historical events occur in complex contexts, which everyone must understand in order to act wisely in the future.
Middle East is a rather imprecise term, describing a geographical area that extends from Egypt to Afghanistan or the cultural region in which Islam arose and developed. We plan to make the term clearer in this chapter. First, let us tell you why we think history is the discipline best suited for your introduction to the area. After all, you might look at the Middle East through its systems for allocating power and values using the discipline of political science. An economist would focus on the ways its inhabitants organize themselves to satisfy their material needs. Sociologists and cultural anthropologists would analyze the institutions and group behavior of the various peoples who constitute the Middle East. You could also view its various cultures through their languages, religions, literature, geography, architecture, art, music, dance, and food.

Then and Now, There and Here

History belongs to all of us. Whenever you talk about something that happened to you, your friends, your community, or your country, you are relating history through events that occurred in the past. History can cover politics, economics, lifestyles, beliefs, works of literature or art, cities or rural areas, incidents you remember, stories older people told you, or subjects you can only read about. Broadly speaking, everything that has ever happened up to the moment you read these lines is history, or the study of the past.
You may ask: why should anyone want to study the Middle East, let alone the history of Islamic civilization? We argue that studying any subject, from philosophy to physics, is potentially an adventure of the mind. Islamic history is a subject worth learning for its own sake. Confronted by distances of time and space, and by differences of thought patterns and lifestyles, we learn more about ourselves—about our era, area, beliefs, and customs. Islam is somewhat like Christianity and Judaism, but not entirely so. The peoples of the Middle East (like those of the West) are partial heirs to the Greeks and the Romans. To a greater degree, however, they are direct successors of the still earlier civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, and other lands of the ancient Middle East. As a result, they have evolved in ways quite different than we have. They are rather like our cousins, neither siblings nor strangers to us.
Now let us raise another issue. What are the most meaningful units of historical study? The West has a strong tradition of studying national history—that of the United States, Britain, France, Russia, or, for that matter, China or Japan. In other parts of the world, including the Middle East, political boundaries have changed so often that nation-states have not existed until recently, let alone served as meaningful units of historical study. In the Islamic and Middle Eastern tradition, historical studies tend to center on dynasties (ruling families), whose time spans and territories vary widely. The Ottoman Empire, for example, was a large state made up of Turks, Arabs, Greeks, and many other ethnic groups. Its rulers, called sultans, all belonged to a family descended from a Turkish warrior named Osman. It was not a nation but a dynastic state—one that lasted a long time and affected many other peoples. At some times we will use the old dynastic divisions of time and space; for the modern period, we sometimes use a country-by-country approach, making major wars and crises the points of division. At other times we will examine the history topically, in terms of “Islamic civilization” or “westernizing reform.”
From what we now know about Middle East history, we believe that our most meaningful unit of study is not the dynasty or the nation-state but the civilization. Although the term civilization is easier to describe than to define, this book, especially in its earlier chapters, focuses on an interlocking complex of rulers and subjects, governments and laws, arts and letters, cultures and customs, cities and villages—in short, on a civilization that has prevailed in most of western Asia and northern Africa since the seventh century, all tied together by the religion of Islam. You will see how Islamic beliefs and practices produced institutions for all aspects of Middle Eastern life. Then you will learn how Muslim patterns of belief and action were disrupted by the impact of the West. You will look at some of the ways in which the peoples of the Middle East have coped with Western domination, accepting some but rejecting much European and US culture. You will also see how they have won back their political independence and tried to regain their autonomy as a civilization. We believe this to be the best way to start studying the Middle East.
In another sense, our culture owes much to the civilizations of the Middle East. Our religious beliefs and observances are derived from those of the Hebrews, Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Persians, and Greeks who lived in the Middle East before Islam. Moreover, many Westerners do not know what they have learned from Islamic culture. A glance at the background of some English words backs up our point.
Let us start with what is closest to ourselves—our clothes. The names of several items we are apt to wear have Middle Eastern backgrounds: cotton (from the Arabic qutn), pajamas and sandals (both words taken from Persian), and obviously caftans and turbans. Muslin cloth once came from Mosul (a city in Iraq) and damask from Damascus. The striped cat we call tabby got its name from a type of cloth called ‘attabi once woven in a section of Baghdad by that name. Some Arabs claim that the game of tennis took its name from a medieval Egyptian town, Tinnis, where cotton cloth (used then to cover the balls) was woven. Are we stretching the point? Well, the name for the implement with which you play the game, your racquet, goes back to an Arabic word meaning “palm of the hand.” Backgammon, chess, polo, and playing cards came to the West from the Middle East. The rook in chess comes from the Persian rukh (castle) and checkmate from shah mat (the king is dead). As for household furnishings, we have taken divan, sofa, mattress, and of course afghan and ottoman from the Middle East.
You may already know the Middle Eastern origin of such foods as shish kebab, yogurt, tabbouleh, hummus, and pita. Some of our other gastronomic terms became naturalized even longer ago: apricot, artichoke, ginger, lemon, lime, orange, saffron, sugar, and tangerine. Hashish is an Arabic word denoting, in addition to cannabis, weeds and grass, depending on the context. Both sherbet and syrup come from the Arabic word for “drink.” Muslims may not use intoxicating liquor, but the very word alcohol comes from Arabic. So do words for other familiar beverages: coffee, soda (derived from the word for “headache,” which the Arabs treated with a plant containing soda), and julep (from the Persian word for “rosewater”).
Indeed, many words used in the sciences, such as alembic, azimuth, and nadir, are Arabic. In mathematics algebra can be traced to al-jabr (bonesetting) and algorithm to a ninth-century mathematician surnamed al-Khwarizmi. The word guitar goes back, via Spain, to the Arabs’ qitar. Other Middle Eastern instruments include the lute, tambourine, and zither. Mask and mascara both derive from an Arabic word meaning “fool.” Let some miscellaneous words round out the digression: alcove (from al-qubba, a “domed area”), admiral, arsenal, magazine (in the sense of a storehouse), talc, tariff (from al-ta’rifah, a “list of prices”), and almanac (from al-manakh, meaning “weather”). Middle East history gives us some background to what we have, what we do, and what we are.
Getting back to more practical matters, we must look to the recent history of the Middle East to explain what is happening there now. This area gets more than its share of the news: Arab–Israeli wars (or possibly peace), assassinations, oil, revolutions, terrorism, the Gulf War, America’s occupation of Iraq, the Arab Spring, and ISIS. Current events in the Middle East affect us as individuals, as members of religious or ethnic groups, and as citizens of our countries. Can history give us clues as to how we should respond? We think so. This book will risk relating past events to current ones. As historians, we care about what happened, how it happened, and why it happened. But all of us who live in this world want to know what these events mean for ourselves, here and now.
As this caravan (originally a Persian word) of Middle East history starts off, we wish you rihla sa’ida, nasi’a tova, safar be-khayr—and may you have a fruitful intellectual journey.

The Physical Setting

Before we can write anything about its history, we must settle on a definition of the Middle East. Even though historians and journalists throw the term around, not everyone agrees on what it means. It makes little sense geographically. No point on the globe is more “middle” than any other. What is “east” for France and Italy is “west” for India and China. Logically, we could say “southwest Asia,” but that would leave out Egypt and European Turkey. Our conventional view of the “Old World” having three continents—Europe, Asia, and Africa—breaks down once we consider their physical and cultural geography. Do Asia and Africa divide at the Suez Canal, at the border between Egypt and Israel, or somewhere east of Sinai? What differences are there between peoples living east and west of the Ural Mountains or the Bosporus? For us humans, continents are not logical either.
So let us write about a “Middle East” that the press has made familiar to us. Its geographical limits may be disputed, but this book will treat the Middle East as running from the Nile Valley to the Muslim lands of Central Asia (roughly, the valley of the Amu Darya, or Oxus, River), from southeast Europe to the Arabian Sea (see Map 1.1). We may stretch or shrink the area when discussing a given historical period in which political realities may have altered the conventional outline. After all, the lands south and east of the Mediterranean were the East to our cultural forebears until they went on to India and China, whereupon the Muslim lands became the Near East. World War II made it the Middle East, and so it has remained, despite UN efforts to rename it “West Asia.” For navigation and aviation, peacetime commerce and wartime strategy, and journalism and politics, the area is in the middle, flanked by centers of population and power.
Map 1.1 Physical features of the Middle East

Some Descriptive Geography

History waits upon geography. Before you can have a play, there must be a stage. Perhaps we should spend a lot of time on topography and climate, flora and fauna, and other aspects of descriptive geography. Some textbooks do, but they may remind you of the bad old way of teaching geography by making schoolchildren memorize the names of mountains, rivers, capitals, and principal products of countries. Let us stress some essential points you need to master before starting your study of Middle East history.


The Middle East tends to be hot and dry. Most parts get some rainfall but usually in amounts too small or too irregular to support settled agriculture. Yet the world’s oldest farming villages have been unearthed in the highlands of Anatolia (Asiatic Turkey), Persia, and Palestine. Others have been found in the western Sahara. What happened? It seems that as the polar ice caps (from the last Ice Age) retreated some 10,000 years ago, rainfall diminished in North Africa and southwest Asia. Hunting and food-gathering peoples, living in lands that could once have been like the Garden of Eden, had to learn how to control their sources of sustenance, as rain-watered areas became farther and farther apart. Some peoples moved into the marshy valleys of the great rivers: the Nile, the Tigris, and the Euphrates. By 4000 bce (Before the Common Era) or so, they had learned how to tame the annual floods to water their fields. Other peoples became nomads; they learned how to move up and down mountains or among desert oases to find forage for their sheep, goats, donkeys, and eventually camels and horses.
The sedentary farmers who tamed the rivers needed governments to organize the building of dams, dikes, and canals for large-scale irrigation that would regulate the distribution of the floodwaters. They also needed protection from wandering animal herders. The latter group, the nomads, sometimes helped the settled peoples as soldiers, merchants, and purveyors of meat and other animal products. But at times they also became a threat to the farmers and their governors when they pillaged the farms and sacked the cities. Farmers and herders often fought, like Cain and Abel, and yet they also needed each other. In arid lands characterized by long, hot summers and cold winter nights, both groups had to coexist to survive.


The Middle East is the natural crossroads of the Afro-Eurasian landmass. It is also the “land of the seven seas.” It lies athwart the water route from southern Ukraine to the Mediterranean via the Black Sea, the Bosporus, the Sea of Marmara, the Dardanelles, and the Aegean Sea. In various eras an area between the Nile Delta and the Sinai Peninsula has been adapted to facilitate shipping between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, which in turn has served as a highway to Asia and East Africa. Ever since the taming of the one-humped camel around 3000 bce, men and women have crossed the deserts with their merchandise, flocks, and household goods. Even the high mountains of Anatolia and Persia did not bar passage to people with horses, donkeys, or two-humped camels. Invaders and traders have entered the Middle East from Central Asia, Europe, and Africa since prehistoric times. Rarely in the past 4,000 years have Middle Eastern peoples known any respite from outside pressures or influences.
Consider what this accessibility means for the Middle East, compared with other parts of the world. Chinese civilization developed in relative isolation; invading “barbarians” were first tamed and then absorbed into China’s political system. British subjects lived for centuries in what they smugly called “splendid isolation.” The United States long saw itself as separate from the outside world. Writing as Americans to our fellow citizens, who may at times question the political attitudes and actions of Middle Eastern peoples, let us all ask ourselves these questions: When did we last fight a war on US soil? When did we last experience a foreign military occupation? Up to 2001, did we even fear hostile raids from abroad? Middle Easterners have, by contrast, known conquest, outside domination, and a continuing exchange of people and animals (but also of goods and ideas) with both the East and the West throughout their history.

Natural Resources

Nature did not endow the Middle East as lavishly as North America or Europe. There are no more grassy plains. Nearly all the forests have been cut down. Partly as a result of deforestation, drinkable water is scarce almost everywhere and has become so precious that wars have been fought over it. Some coal and lignite are mined in Anatolia. A few mountainous areas harbor deposits of copper, iron, and other metals; in many instances they have been worked since ancient times. These resources are meager. More plentiful are sand and limestone, other building materials, and sunlight (a blessing if solar energy becomes the main source of power).
But what about oil? It is true that some areas, especially those around the Persian Gulf, have huge petroleum deposits, more than half of the world’s known reserves. Oil has magnified the Middle East’s importance. Its blessings, though, are showered on but few countries, mainly Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, Iraq, and the United ...

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