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The Middle East


The Middle East is a region that encompasses Western Asia and all of or part of North Africa, depending on the context.  The term "Middle East" may have originated in the 1850s in the British India Office.  However, it became more widely known when American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan used the term in 1902 to designate the area between Arabia and India.

The history of the Middle East dates back to ancient times, and throughout its history, the Middle East has been a major center of world affairs.  It is also the historical origin of major religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  The Middle East generally has an arid and hot climate, with several major rivers providing for irrigation to support agriculture in limited areas.  In modern times the Middle East remains a strategically, economically, politically, culturally and religiously sensitive region.

The world's earliest civilizations, Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, originated in the Fertile Crescent and Nile Valley regions of the ancient Near East.  These were followed by the Hittite, Greek and Urartian civilizations of Asia Minor, Elam in pre Iranian Persia, as well as the civilizations of the Levant, Persian and Median civilizations in Iran, North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.  The Near East was first largely unified under the Neo Assyrian Empire, then the Achaemenid Empire followed later by the Macedonian Empire and after this to some degree by the Iranian empires, the Roman Empire and Byzantine Empire.  However, it would be the later Arab Caliphates of the Middle Ages, or islamic Golden Age which began with the Arab conquest of the region in the 7th century AD, that would first unfy the entire Middle East as a distinct region and create the dominant Islamic ethnic identity that largely (but not exclusively) persists today.  The Mongols, the Turkish Seljuk and Ottoman empires, the Safavids and the British Empire would also later dominate the region.

The modern Middle East began after World War I, when the Ottoman Empire, was defeated by the British and their allies and partitioned into a number of separate nations, initially under British and French Mandates.  Other defining events in this transformation included the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the eventual departure of European powers, notably Britain and France by the end of the 1960s.  They were supplanted in some part of the rising influence of the United States from the 1970s onwards.

In the 20th century, the region's significant stocks of crude oil gave it new strategic and economic importance.  Mass production of oil began around 1945, with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates having large quantities of oil.  However, the economic structure of Middle Eastern countries are different in the sense that while some are heavily dependent on export of only oil and oil-related products, others have highly diverse economic base.  Industries of the region, other then oil and oil-related products, include agriculture, cotton, cattle, dairy, textiles, leather products, surgical instruments, and defense equipment.  Banking is also an important sector of the economies, especially in the case of UAE and Bahrain.

The Middle East is today home to numerous long established ethnic groups, including Arabs, Turks, Persians, Jews/Israelis, Kurds, Egyptian Copts, Armenians, Azeris, Maltese, Circassians, Greeks, Georgians and Samaritans.

The five top languages, in terms of numbers of speakers are Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Berber and Kurdish.  Arabic and Berber represent the Afro-Asiatic language family.  Persian and Kurdish belong to the Indo-European language family, and Turkish belongs to Turkic language family.  About 20 minority languages are also spoken in the Middle East.


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