Sunday, October 29, 2006

Middle East Geography

Middle East defines a cultural area, so it does not have precise borders. The most common and highly arbitrary definition includes: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Palestinian Territories. Iran is often the eastern border, but Afghanistan is also occasionally included because of their close relationship (ethnically and religiously) to the larger group of Iranian peoples as well as historical connections to the Middle East including being part of the various empires that have spanned the region such as those of the Persians and Arabs among others. Afghanistan, Tajikistan and western parts of Pakistan, share close cultural, linguistic, and historical ties with Iran and are also part of the Iranian plateau, whereas Iran's relationship with Arab states is based more upon religion and geographic proximity.

North Africa or the Maghreb, although often placed outside the Middle East proper, does have strong cultural and linguistic links to the region, and historically has shared many of the events that have shaped the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions including those prompted by Phoenician-colonized Carthage and Greco-Roman civilization as well as Muslim Arab-Berber and Ottoman empires. The Maghreb is sometimes included, sometimes excluded from the Middle East by the media and in informal usage, while most academics continue to identify North Africa as geographically a part of Africa, but being closely related to southwestern Asia in terms of politics, culture, religion, language, history, and genetics.

The Caucasus region (Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia) and Cyprus is often grouped into Southwest Asia, but are generally considered European because of historical, cultural and recently also political ties to Europe, examples are a Christian majority, Indo-European linguistic background and membership (Cyprus) or aspirations to membership (Armenia and Georgia) in mainly European organisations (NATO, OSCE and EU). Throughout their histories, Armenia as well as Georgia have been distancing themselves from surrounding Islamism. Since the beginning of 19th century, all three South Caucasian states were also strongly influenced by the dominion of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Currently they are viewed more as 'European' than Middle Eastern and generally viewed as the separate regional bloc of Caucasus.

Other countries of the Middle Eastern countries speak Indo-European (Iran for example) or have a Christian majority (Lebanon), but are still considered Middle Eastern. Turkey possesses neither of these European traits, but is partly geographically in Europe and it was the site of the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire that included large parts of Europe. Turkey is a secular and democratic country, long-time member of NATO, is currently in accession talks to join the European Union and has a Latin alphabet. Even so Turkey is considered Middle Eastern, because of its Islamic population and geography.

Central Asian countries from the former Soviet Bloc also show varying degrees of affinity and historical ties to the Middle East, but not in any uniform fashion. While the southern states of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan display many cultural, historical, and socio-political similarities to the Middle East, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have a more remote and mixed culture. These states are often viewed as Eurasian and their Soviet past has set them apart from the Middle East. In some countries, like Tajikistan there has been a movement to re-establish ties to the region based upon their kinship with Iran and Afghanistan. Like the Caucasus and Turkey, Central Asia has a strong secular and ‘western’ culture from their Soviet legacies. This may change with the renaissance and resurgence of Islamic identity that were suppressed by Soviet authorities.

The State of Israel is unique in the Middle East. Predominantly Jewish it is geographically in the Middle East, it is in continuous conflict with Islamic neighbour countries. Therefore it is often not considered "culturally" (i.e. Islamic) Middle Eastern. It has a large population of Middle Eastern descent (including Sephardic Jews, Sabras, Israeli Arabs), but is mainly founded by immigrants from Jewish Diaspora .

Some Israelis and Turks have a more European appearance rather than Middle Eastern. The original Turks were nomads from Central Asia who mixed with the European communities of Turkey's Asian side giving many a more European apperance. Some Turks also have Russian descent. Israel on the other hand was founded by Jewish immigrants from Europe, giving many Israelis a more European apperance.

Changes in meaning over time
Until World War II, it was customary to refer to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean as the Near East. The Middle East then meant the area from Mesopotamia to Burma, namely the area between the Near East and the Far East (which includes areas such as India). The sense described in this article evolved during the war, perhaps influenced by the ancient idea of the Mediterranean as the "sea in the middle".