The Middle East is the term for a region consisting of countries in Southwest Asia and the Northern part of Africa. The term “Middle East” dates back to the late 19th Century, when it was coined by the British foreign service and soon adopted by the US government. The term was originally used to distinguish the area east of the Balkans and west of India. The origin of the name speaks volumes about the political realities of the 19th Century when the perspective of the British and the US carried much weight in international relations.
The Middle East is a geographically diverse region in Southwest Asia and part of North Africa stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf, bounded by the Caspian Sea in the north and the Sahara Desert in the South. It has a long shared history and a shared religious tradition, being the birthplace of the four major monotheistic religions of Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. The Middle East is also defined as being a central location of trade and cultural transmission between Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Within the larger Middle East, one can also describe sub-regions, such as North Africa and the Levant, which share certain characteristics. The Levant encompasses Syria, Cyprus, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, and is considered an important area because of its close historical connection with countries such as Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal. Additionally, the North African region of the Middle East is characterized by a culture mixed with Arab, African, and Southern European traditions as well as a diverse religious landscape (the religion of Judaism is widely considered to have originated in Northern Africa and large communities of Sephardic Jews remain in the region to this present-day).
The exact list of countries that make up the Middle East is often sharply debated by scholars. Almost all scholars would agree that the Middle East includes the countries of Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Suadi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Additionally, many experts also characterize the North African countries of Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, and Tunisia as part of the Middle East due to a shared culture with the rest of the Middle East. By and large, a majority of people living in the Middle East identify as part of the Arab ethnic group, although diverse ethnic groups such as Persians (residing in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and the Gulf States), Kurds (mostly present in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon), Turks, and many others play a large role in Middle Eastern politics.
The author of this post agrees with the universal consensus regarding the countries that make up the Middle East but also feels that several countries and regions not typically considered to be part of the Middle East should be included as well. The first two countries are Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even though Afghanistan and Pakistan are usually considered to be part of South Asia, they shared numerous cultural and religious similarities with several Middle Eastern countries such as Iran. Afghanistan and Pakistan were integral parts of the Persian Empire prior to the 18th Century and Shi’a Islam is a strong force within both countries (roughly 7-15% of Afghanistan’s population identifies as Shi’a, whereas as many as 20-30% of Pakistani Muslims are Shi’a). Additionally, the main languages of both Afghanistan and Pakistan are rooted in the Iranian-based language Farsi and the region of Baluchistan (located in Southeastern Iran) is split between Iran and Pakistan.
Another territory that can reasonably be considered part of the Middle East is Southern Italy, which consists of major cities such as Sicily, Palermo, and Sardinia. Southern Italy can be characterized as being part of the Middle East for several factors. The main reason is that Southern Italy was under Arab control from 831 CE (with the establishment of the Emirate of Sicily, which was ruled by the Abbasid Caliphate) to 1091 CE (when it was conquered by Christian crusaders under the command of Roger I of Sicily). Despite the conquest of Southern Italy by the Byzantine Empire, Muslims continued to make up a majority of the population in the territory until the 13th Century. The legacy of Muslim rule continues to influence Southern Italy to the present day, with Arabic and Sicilian language sharing many root words. Additionally, Southern Italy serves a key point linking both the Mediterranean and North African regions of the Middle East to mainland Europe and has a very rich and diverse culture as a result.
Greece is another country that makes up the broader Middle East. Despite historically having tensions with major powers in the Middle East such as Iran and Turkey (mostly due to religious and territorial factors), Greek culture shares numerous similarities with the ancient civilizations of the Middle East. Most of the similarities are based on shared mythologies, literature, cultural practices, and traditions. The Greek language also shares several root words with Farsi and Turkish language. Moreover, Greece was a key part of the Ottoman Empire for nearly four centuries and (much like Southern Italy) has established a reputation as a central point linking Europe with the Eastern part of the Middle East.
Some observers include Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan as part of the greater Middle East. The main rationale for including these countries is due to the fact that they were all once either part of Iran or the Ottoman Empire. However, the residents of these countries have strong local characteristics that distinguish them from the nations of the Middle East and instead are mostly tied to European countries such as Russia and several Asian countries such as Mongolia.