What is the Middle East?

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 diverse region in terms of both its landscape and culture.

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 cultures of both Afghanistan and Pakistan were influenced by Middle Eastern countries such as Iran.

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.

The culture of Southern Italy continued to be influenced by the legacy of the Arab rule of the Abbasid Caliphate.

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.

Despite being considered part of Europe by most experts, Greek culture was strongly influenced by Middle Eastern countries such as Turkey and Iran.

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.

the author

Matt is a student at Seton Hall Law School and graduated from Monmouth University. Matt has been studying and analyzing politics at all levels since the 2004 Presidential Election. He writes about political trends and demographics, the role of the media in politics, comparative politics, political theory, and the domestic and international political economy. Matt is also interested in history, philosophy, comparative religion, and record collecting.

13 Readers Commented

Join discussion
  1. Pingback: US Policy Afghanistan,What You should Know | Our Politics 7 Dec, 2017

    […] in Afghanistan, which is at the forefront of America’s failed counter-terrorism campaign in the Middle East and North Africa. Afghanistan has a history of being invaded and pushing invaders out. For example, Greece, Great […]

  2. Pingback: Political History of Iran 1900-Present | Our Politics 8 Dec, 2017

    […] the past century, many countries in the Middle East have sought to move towards democracy. In these cases, some countries successfully transitioned and […]

  3. Pingback: Lebanon Country Profile | Our Politics 1 Jan, 2018

    […] of the most unstable countries in the Middle East is Lebanon. Officially known as the Lebanese Republic, Lebanon is a parliamentary republic located […]

  4. Pingback: Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi & Conservative Islamic Political Thought | Our Politics 21 Jan, 2018

    […] Zionism, which he considers to be a tool used by colonial powers to expand their influence in the Middle East. Additionally, Mesbah-Yazdi differs from most mainstream Iranian public figures in that he believes […]

  5. Pingback: OurWeek In Politics (2/11-2/18/18) | Our Politics 21 Feb, 2018

    […] other actions that it has taken during the Syrian Civil War, threaten to spark a major war in the Middle East that will engulf the major world powers and permanently destabilize the […]

  6. Pingback: What Is Wahhabism? | Our Politics 14 Jul, 2018

    […] Muslims in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and Pakistan by followers of Wahhabism, and American support for Middle Eastern governments that support extremist groups who justify their actions through Wahhabi […]

  7. Pingback: OurWeek In Politics (8/19-8/26/18) | Our Politics 28 Aug, 2018

    […] with Neoconservatives on foreign policy and called for increased US military intervention in the Middle East, John McCain developed a reputation as a moderate Republican overall. For example, McCain was a […]

  8. Pingback: History of US Policy In The Middle East | Our Politics 19 Sep, 2018

    […] 350 years ago, the US has pursued a destructive, imperialistic, and aggressive policy towards the Middle East. This history of US intervention in the Middle East illustrates the lengths to which the US power […]

  9. Pingback: ISIS: How and Where they Came From | Our Politics 15 Nov, 2018

    […] controls territory in both Iraq and Syria and is seeking to gain more territory throughout the Middle East. In the aftermath of the Iraq war, ISIS has taken advantage of regional instability and publically […]

  10. Pingback: OurYear in Politics: 2018 | Our Politics 1 Jan, 2019

    […] with Neoconservatives on foreign policy and called for increased US military intervention in the Middle East, John McCain developed a reputation as a moderate Republican overall and as a strong opponent of […]

  11. Pingback: Why President Donald Trump's Rhetoric Caused the New Zeland Mosque Shooting | Our Politics 21 Mar, 2019

    […] people and involvement in the ongoing genocide against Shi’a Muslims in various parts of the Middle East, as well as Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Yemen Civil War, which resulted in the deaths […]

  12. Pingback: History of US Policy In The Middle East | Our Politics 29 Mar, 2019

    […] 250 years ago, the US has pursued a destructive, imperialistic, and aggressive policy towards the Middle East. This history of US intervention in the Middle East illustrates the lengths to which the US power […]

  13. Pingback: OurWeek in Politics (March 26, 2019-April 2, 2019 | Our Politics 3 Apr, 2019

    […] sharing nuclear technology with Saudi Arabia could eventually lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told CBS last year that Saudi Arabia would develop atomic […]