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Middle East

cultural definition, Israeli-occupied territories, cultural region, Middle Eastern countries, Iran-Iraq War

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Middle East, geographic and cultural region located in southwestern Asia and northeastern Africa. The geopolitical term Middle East, first coined in 1902 by United States naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan, originally referred to the Asian region south of the Black Sea between the Mediterranean Sea to the west and India to the east. In modern scholarship, and for the purposes of this article, the term refers collectively to the Asian countries of Bahrain, Cyprus, Iran, Iraq, Israel (and the Israeli-occupied West Bank), Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, and the African country of Egypt. A broader, more cultural definition might include the Muslim countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

The area is mostly arid with hot, dry summers and cool winters. It contains about 65 percent of the world’s oil reserves, primarily in the states bordering the Persian Gulf. Oil is the region's main export. Some Middle Eastern countries are extremely rich because of their oil reserves. Others with high populations and no significant oil resources (notably Egypt and Yemen) are considerably poorer.

The first civilizations of the Middle East, which grew in the valleys of the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates rivers, are among the oldest in the world. Alphabets, law codes, and cities all began in the Middle East, as did the world’s three great monotheistic religions, Judaism (13th century bc), Christianity (1st century to 4th century ad) and Islam (7th century ad). Of the three, Islam continues to mark the region most profoundly. More than 90 percent of the people of the Middle East are Muslims.

The Middle East is an area of frequent conflict, largely for reasons embedded in its recent past. For example, the conflict between Arabs and Israelis over the land in Palestine (present-day Israel and the Israeli-occupied territories) is more a product of 20th-century developments rather than any age-old hostility between Muslims and Jews. Likewise, although there have been tensions between Persians and Arabs in the past, the Iran-Iraq War between 1980 and 1988 was more a result of political tensions and border disputes in the second half of the 20th century. Islamic militancy, which has produced deadly results in Egypt, Iran, Israel, and Lebanon, is a consequence of late 20th-century problems such as widespread unemployment, political and socioeconomic turmoil, and an overarching sense of despair rather than a result of any violent or extremist characteristics inherent to Islam.


Dudley, William, ed. The Middle East. Greenhaven, 1992. Causes of conflicts. For middle school to adult readers.

Long, Cathryn J. The Middle East in Search of Peace. Millbrook, 1996. For middle school readers.

Wilkinson, Philip, and Jacqueline Dineen. The Lands of the Bible. Chelsea House, 1994. Historic sites, for readers in grades 5 to 7.

Ajami, Fouad. The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation's Odyssey. Pantheon, 1998. Four distinct narratives provide a minihistory of the Middle East and portray the experiences of Arabs growing up after World War II.

Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East. 2nd ed. Westview, 2000. The past two centuries of Middle Eastern history.

Field, Michael. Inside the Arab World. Harvard University Press, 1995. Today's Arab affairs, including oil, wars, peace talks, and terrorists.

Fromkin, David. Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922. Avon, 1990. Holt, 2001. Describes the political and diplomatic acts that led to the Paris settlement of 1922, which delineated the boundaries of the Middle East.

Goldschmidt, Arthur. A Concise History of the Middle East. 7th ed. Westview, 2001. Introductory college-level text.

Hiro, Dilip. Dictionary of the Middle East. St. Martin's, 1996, 1998. Reference work covering ethnic groups, governments, languages, leaders, and religions.

Keay, John. Sowing the Wind: The Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East. Norton, 2003. Views problems in the Middle East as the result of Western involvement and manipulation.

Kuhrt, Amelie. The Ancient Near East. 2 vols. Routledge, 1996. Detailed history of three millennia, covering empires, modern countries, kingship, trade, culture, and economic trends.

Lewis, Bernard. The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years. Scribner, 1995, 1997. General history with maps and a chronology.

Spencer, William. The Middle East. 8th ed. McGraw-Hill, 2000. Basic information about the Middle East and its peoples, arranged alphabetically by country.


Sluglett, Peter, B.A., M.A., Ph.D. Associate Professor of History and Director, Middle East Center, University of Utah. Coauthor of The Times Guide to the Middle East.

Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation.

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