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Middle East


mandate system, Hebrew prophet, nomadic group, Aramaeans, Crusader states

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Civilization as we know it began in the Middle East. The cultivation of cereals, first undertaken in the Middle East around 8000 bc, led to the creation of the first settled communities with permanent dwellings. Large archaeological mounds called tells contain the remains of some of these communities. Tells have been found in present-day Turkey and throughout the Fertile Crescent, an ancient agricultural region containing parts of present-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. Jericho in the present-day West Bank and Çatal Hüyük in present-day Turkey are two of the best known of these sites.

The first civilizations—groups with complex, hierarchical political organizations—began about 3000 bc in the valleys of the Nile and of the Tigris and Euphrates. Civilizations grew out of the need to organize the distribution of water for irrigation and to protect the land around the rivers from floods. These developments improved agricultural yields and made economic diversification possible. Complex urban societies with codified legal systems, often centered on religious-based monarchies, evolved. Their rulers gained control of long-distance trade, which was especially important given the scarcity in the river valleys of mineral resources and of timber for building. Writing systems using hieroglyphs, pictorial characters representing recognizable objects, began as a means of facilitating administration. Alphabets with symbols representing sounds rather than objects evolved about 1500 bc.

The Birth of Judaism

Late in the 2nd millennium bc the Aramaeans moved into present-day Syria, establishing the ancient country of Aram. They spoke a Semitic language from which Hebrew and Arabic are derived. Other Semitic peoples, a confederation of Hebrew tribes called the Israelites, settled in the region of Palestine during the same time period. Israelite religion and institutions were shaped under Hebrew prophet and lawgiver Moses about 1300 bc and subsequently under Saul and David, the first two kings of ancient Israel, in the 11th and 10th centuries bc. The Israelites believed that they, the Jews, were the chosen people of their one God. They were the first ethnic and religious group to adopt monotheism. The region was attacked by Assyria in 722 bc and by Assyria’s successor, Babylonia, in 586 bc. On both occasions many thousands of Jews were forced into exile.

Crusades Brief

In the 11th century, European Christians began to challenge Muslim predominance in the Mediterranean, retaking Sicily and much of Spain by the mid-12th century. At the same time, the papacy inaugurated the Crusades, a series of largely unsuccessful efforts to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims. Initially the Crusaders established a number of small states on or near the Mediterranean coast: Antioch, Edessa, Jerusalem, and Tripoli. Edessa returned to Muslim control in 1144, and the others had fallen to Kurdish Muslim leader Saladin by the time of the Third Crusade in 1189. Although the influence of the Crusades in the Arab world was slight, many of the European merchant communities established in the Crusader states remained intact after Muslims recaptured the region. These communities continually promoted trade between Europe and the Middle East.

Mongols and Mamluks

The last nomadic group to migrate west from inner Asia, the Mongols, arrived in the 13th century. By 1231 they had overrun Iran and Mesopotamia, and in 1258 they destroyed Baghdad, ending the caliphate of the Abbasids. Originally pagans, the Mongols soon embraced Sunni Islam and became its zealous defenders. The Mamluks, slaves who had advanced to high military and political posts in Egypt, halted the Mongol invasion of Egypt and Syria in 1260. Mamluk general Baybars I became sultan of Egypt, uniting Egypt and Syria into a single state for the next 250 years.

Uprisings and Independence Movements

The new political order was widely contested after the war. The Arab states had been subject to Ottoman rule for centuries before European arrival. In many cases, what was anti-Ottoman sentiment soon became anti-European sentiment. In 1920, uprisings in Iraq against British rule compelled the British government to modify the mandate system by creating a provisional government. Iraq became formally independent in 1932. In Syria the French had considerable difficulty controlling a major national uprising from 1925 to 1927. Despite negotiations in 1938 for increased Syrian autonomy, independence was not achieved until 1946. Transjordan obtained qualified independence in 1928 and full independence in 1946. Lebanon became fully independent of France in 1943. Egypt, which had become a British protectorate in 1914, became an independent state in 1922. However, a large British military presence remained until 1954.

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