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TheGeographyoftheMiddleEast

Foundat
http://teachmiddleeast.lib.uchicago.edu/foundations/geography/essay/essay01.html

TheMiddleEastisalargeanddiversegeographicalarealocatedinsouthwestAsiaand
northeastAfrica.Itextendsover2,000milesfromtheBlackSeainthenorthtotheArabianSea
inthesouth,andabout1,000milesfromtheMediterraneanSeainthewesttothemountainsof
Iran.ThetermMiddleEastcameintocommonuseintheearlytwentiethcentury,butremains
looselydefined.

OnetermsometimesappliedtopartofthisareaisFertileCrescent,whichwascoinedby
JamesHenryBreastedin1914torefertothearcoffertileagriculturalzonesthatformedthe
basisforearlycivilizations,inwhatisnowIraq,Syria,Lebanon,andIsrael.Scholarsstudying
theancientpastusuallyusethetermNearEastforthisarea.

MountainsanddesertsdividetheMiddleEastintosixzonesthatarebothgeographicallydistinct
andhaveinfluencedthedevelopmentandmaintenanceofculturaltraditionsthroughmuchof
thehistoryoftheregion.

Inthefirstofthesezones,theNileRiverflowsnorthward
throughtheSaharaDesertfromKhartouminSudan
(whereitstwomajortributariesjoin),throughEgypt,and
totheMediterraneanSea.Asasourceofwater,food,
andfertilesoildepositedinannualfloodsaswellasa
transportationroute,itwastheecologicalbasisfor
ancientNubianandEgyptiancivilization.Inthesouthern
partofthisregion,thebroadalluvialplainisbrokenby
sixcataractsareasinwhichthenarrowrivervalley,
strongcurrent,islands,andrapidsmakenavigation
difficult.TherichmineralresourcesofthedesertsaroundtheNile,particularlygold,have
historicallybeenimportanttoeconomicdevelopmentinthisarea.

EastoftheNileValley,acrosstheEasternDesertandtheSinai
Peninsula,istheeasternMediterraneancoastalplain,whichhas
historicallybeenconnectedwithmountainsandrivervalleysthatrun
paralleltoit.ComprisingthemoderncountriesofIsrael,Lebanon,
andwesternSyria,aswellaspartsofJordanandTurkey,this
regionissometimescalledtheLevant(aftertheFrenchtermfor
rising,herereferringtotherisingsun).Locatedinthe
Mediterraneanclimaticzonewithrichagriculturallandandrelatively
abundantrainfall,andhavingeasyaccesstolandandsearoutes,
theLevanthasalwaysbeenaculturalcrossroadsandhas
frequentlybeenconquered.Amongthefirstareastodevelop

agriculture(asfarbackas11,000BCE),ancientculturesthatdevelopedinthisregioninclude
Canaanite,Amorite,Israelite,andPhoenician.

TheLevantisborderedonthenorthbytheTaurus
Mountainsreachingupto12,000feetinelevation,
whichseparatetheLevantfromtheAnatolianplateau
inmodernTurkey.TheAnatolianplateauisarelatively
isolatedbutfertileagriculturalzone,andtheTaurus
Mountainsarerichinmetalsandmineralstheywere
knownasthesilvermountaininsomeancienttexts,
butcopperwasevenmoreabundantlyavailable.The
westerncoastofTurkeyhadclosercontactwith
culturesofGreeceandtheAegeanSeathanwiththe
restoftheMiddleEastthroughmuchofitsearlyhistory.AncientculturesinAnatoliaincluded
theHittiteempireandaHurrianspeakingpopulation.

SoutheastoftheLevantistheArabianPeninsula
withitsextensivedeserts,oases,andcoastal
regionsalongtheRedSea,ArabianSea,and
PersianGulfthatweremoreoftensuitedto
permanentsettlement.Today,thisareaincludesthe
countriesofBahrain,Kuwait,Oman,Qatar,Saudi
Arabia,theUnitedArabEmirates,andYemen.
Distinctiveancientculturesofthisareaincludethe
SouthArabiankingdomsinwhatisnowYementhat
tradedincensetotheLevantandcommunitiesin
Omanthatwererichincopperandhardstone.Arabculturefirstappearsinthehistoricalrecord
aftertheintroductionofthecamelinabout1200BCE,whichallowedmoreextensiveuseofarid
zonesofSaudiArabia,andIslamfirstdevelopedintheoasistownsofMeccaandMedina
beforespreadingovermuchoftheMiddleEastby700CE.

EastoftheLevantandsouthoftheTaurusMountainsis
theareadefinedbytheEuphratesandTigrisRiversthat
hassometimesbeencalledMesopotamia(theland
betweentherivers),nowencompassingeasternSyria,
Iraq,andasmallareaofsouthwesternIran.Inmanyways,
whatwecallMesopotamiancivilizationisaseriesof
diverselanguagesandculturesboundtogetherbya
commonscriptandwrittentradition.Ancientlanguagesin
theareaincludedSumerian,Akkadian,Amorite,
Babylonian,Assyrian,andAramaic.

Mesopotamiaisaparticularlyfertileagriculturalzonewithvastareasavailableforcultivation.

NorthernMesopotamiareceivesenoughrainfalltogrowgraincrops,whilesouthern
Mesopotamiareceivesvirtuallynorain,soagriculturetheredependedonextensivenetworksof
irrigationcanals.AtthesouthernendoftheTigrisEuphratescourse,aseriesofmarsheshas
maintainedadistinctiveenvironmentandcultureformillennia.Apartfromwaterandfertilesoil
(andlateroil),Mesopotamiacontainsfewnaturalresources,andhasdependedontradewith
peopleinthemountainousregionstothenorthandeastforstone,copper,andtimber.

Mesopotamiaisborderedontheeastbythe
ZagrosMountainsofwesternIranandeastern
Turkey(elevationupto15,000feet),whose
highlandvalleyswerehometoElamiteand
Persiancivilizationsaswellaslaterpowerful
nomadicconfederationsincludingthe
Bakhtiari.TheZagrosarearichsourceof
stoneandtimber.

TheclimateoftheMiddleEastrangesfromthe
warmsummersandcoldwintersofhighland
TurkeyandIran,throughhottersummersand
coolwintersofnorthernMesopotamiaandtheMediterraneancoast,totheextreme
temperaturesoftheArabiandesert.Most,butnotall,oftheregionisarid.

Asthisoutlinesuggests,geographyplaysasignificantroleintheformationandmaintenanceof
cultures.Theearliestcivilizationswithlargepopulationcentersdevelopednearabundant
sourcesofwaterandagriculturalland,ratherthaninareasofothervaluablerawmaterials,like
metals,semipreciousstones,buildingstone,ortimber.Geographyalsoprovidesabasisfor
distinctiveattributesofregionalcultures,liketheimportanceofoliveoilandwineinthecuisine
oftheeasternMediterraneanregion(wheregrapesandolivescaneasilybecultivated),orthe
extensiveuseofincenseindailylife,ritualpractice,andineconomicexchangeintheculturesof
southArabia.

Scholarsdebatetheextenttowhichgeographyshapescultureandthedirectionofhistorical
change.Someseegeographyasdestiny,whileothersseeamorecomplexsetofchanging
opportunitiesandconstraintsthatgeographyposesthroughhistory.