Chapter Three: The Middle East and the Impact of Imperialism

Defining the Term “Middle East”

Culturally-speaking, it is difficult to limit the Middle East to a geographic area with hard borders. Civilizations outside of what is commonly referred to as the “Middle East” made intellectual, cultural and biological imprints in today’s Middle East that are indelible, especially in regard to the waves of migration from Central Asia. Further, North Africa has profound cultural connections through language, religious practices and philosophical discourses. There have been contiguous flows of thought and ideas, whether through the spiritual content of Sufism and Muslim folk practices, or through practices and technologies of law, medicine, education, and food production.

With the exception of Israel, the countries in our definition span from North Africa to Central Asia, and are Muslim-majority countries with large populations speaking one or more of the major Middle Eastern languages (Chapter One). Historically, there have been many definitions, however, which do not correspond to our definition closely, if at all (Center, F. G. E.a). Currently, West Asia, from about the Amu Darya (Oxus) River westward, North Africa, and often Turkey, are usually considered a part of the region. Our definition is one of the more inclusive ones because of the shared languages and may shared religious and cultural practices within the countries listed in the introduction.

In 1902 the term “Middle East” was coined in order to designate the area residing between Egypt and Singapore, comprising major access points to Asia, such as the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, etc. (Center, F.G.E.c).  West Asia, where most of the countries of the Middle East reside, used to be called the “Near East”, but the newer term “Middle East” also came into usage in the early part of the 20th century.

The main purpose for covering these definitions in this chapter is to demonstrate that the bases for any of the most commonly used terms, also including “Orient” and simply “the East”, are rooted in European perspectives. These terms center Europe in the geography of the world map.   Thus, geographic definitions tended to refer to strategic lands which provided Europeans with access to resources and military advantage, especially India (Center, F.G.E.b).


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Keys to Understanding the Middle East Copyright © 2016 by Alam Payind and Melinda McClimans is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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