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.
Map of the Middle East
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. Anatolian Plateau—Mountains
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...
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