Cradle of civilisation
Although rock art dating back to 10,000 BC lies hidden amid the desert monoliths of the Jebel Acacus in Libya, little is known about the painters or their nomadic societies, which lived on the outermost rim of the Middle East.
The enduring shift from nomadism to more-sedentary organised societies began in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq) and the Nile River Valley of Ancient Egypt.
In about 5000 BC a culture known as Al-Ubaid first appeared in Mesopotamia. We known little about it except that its influence eventually spread down what is now the coast of the Gulf. Stone-Age artefacts have also been found in Egypt‘s Western Desert, Israel‘s Negev Desert and in the West Bank town of Jericho.
Sometime around 3100 BC the kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt were unified under Menes, ushering in 3000 years of Pharaonic rule in the Nile Valley. The Levant (present-day Lebanon, Syria and Israel and the Palestinian Territories) was well settled by this time, and local powers included the Amorites and the Canaanites. In Mesopotamia it was the era of Sumer, which had arisen in around 4000 BC and became arguably the world’s first great civilisation.
In the late 24th and early 23rd centuries BC, Sargon of Akkad conquered much of the Levant and Mesopotamia. Other powers in the region at that time included the Hittite and Assyrian empires and, in Greece and Asia Minor, Mycenae and Troy.
By 900 BC the sophisticated Garamantes empire had arisen in Libya‘s Wadi al-Hayat, from where it controlled Saharan trade routes that connected central Africa to the Mediterranean rim. This facilitated the spread of Islam, many centuries later, along well-established livestock routes.
The 7th century BC saw both the conquest of Egypt by Assyria and far to the east, the rise of the Medes, the first of many great Persian empires. In 550 BC the Medes were conquered by Cyrus the Great, usually regarded as the first Persian shah (king). Over the next 60 years Cyrus and his successors Cambyses (r 525-522 BC) and Darius I (r 521-486 BC) swept west and north to conquer first Babylon and then Egypt, Asia Minor and parts of Greece. After the Greeks stemmed the Persian tide at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, Darius and Xerxes (r 486-466 BC) turned their attention to consolidating their empire.
Egypt won independence from the Persians in 401 BC only to be reconquered 60 years later. The second Persian occupation of Egypt was brief – little more than a decade after they arrived, the Persians were again driven out of Egypt, this time by the Greeks.
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The Hellenistic world
In 336 BC Philip II of Macedonia, a warlord who had conquered much of mainland Greece, was murdered. His son Alexander assumed the throne and began a series of conquests that would eventually encompass most of Asia Minor, the Middle East, Persia and northern India.
Under Alexander, the Greeks were the first to impose any kind of order on the Middle East as a whole. Traces of their rule ring the eastern Mediterranean from Ephesus in Turkey to the oasis of Siwa in Egypt‘s Western Desert. Perhaps the greatest remnants of Greek rule, however, lie on the outer boundaries of the former Greek empire, in the Cyrenaica region of Libya. The great cities of the Pentapolis (Five Cities), among them glorious Cyrene, bore the hallmarks of Greek sophistication and scholarship.
As important as the archaeological evidence is regarding Greek he- gemony, it’s the myths and legends – above all the Iliad and the Odyssey – and the descriptions left by historians such as Strabo, Herodotus and Pliny that present us with strong clues to the state of the Middle East 300 years before Christ and 900 years before the coming of Islam.
Upon Alexander’s death, his empire was promptly carved up among his generals. This resulted in the founding of three new ruling dynasties: the Antigonids in Greece and Asia Minor; the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt; and the Seleucids. The Seleucids controlled the swath of land running from modern Israel and Lebanon through Mesopotamia to Persia.
That’s not to say that peace reigned. Having finished off a host of lesser competitors, the heirs to Alexander’s empire then proceeded to fight each other. The area of the eastern Mediterranean splintered into an array of different local dynasties with fluctuating borders. It took an army arriving from the west to again reunite the lands of the east – this time in the shape of the legions of Rome.
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Romans & Christians
Rome‘s legionaries conquered most of Asia Minor in 188 BC, then Syria, Palestine and the North African territories of Carthage and Libya by 63 BC. When Cleopatra of Egypt, the last of the Ptolemaic dynasty, was defeated in 31 BC, the Romans controlled the entire Mediterranean world. This left the Middle East divided largely between two empires and their client states until the coming of Islam. Asia Minor, the Levant, Egypt and Libya were dominated by Rome, while the Sassanids in Persia ruled the east. Only the nomads of the desert remained independent of the great powers of the day.
While the mighty empire of Rome suffered no great external threats to its eastern Mediterranean empire, there was plenty of trouble fomenting within, most notably a succession of rebellions by the Jewish inhabitants of the Roman dominions.
In AD 331 the newly converted Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the ‘Holy Roman Empire’, with its capital not jaded, cynical Rome but the newly renamed city of Constantinople (formerly Byzantium, later to become İstanbul).
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The coming of Islam
Constantinople reached its apogee during the reign of Justinian (AD 527-65), when the Byzantine Empire consolidated its hold on the eastern Mediterranean, while also recapturing the lost domain of Italy. Meanwhile, the Sassanid empire to the east was constantly chipping away at poorly defended Byzantine holdings, creating a fault line between the two empires running down through what we know as the Middle East.
Far to the south, in lands that were independent of the two great empires, a new force was preparing to emerge. A merchant named Mohammed, born around AD 570 in the Arabian town of Mecca (now in Saudi Arabia), had begun preaching against the pagan religion of his fellow Meccans.
Mohammed died in 632 but under his successors, known as caliphs (from the Arabic word for ‘follower’), the new religion continued its rapid spread, reaching all of Arabia by 634. Libya, Egypt, Syriaand Palestine had been wrested from the Byzantines by 646, while most of Iraq, Iran and Afghanistanwere taken from the Sassanids by 656.
Arguments over the leadership quickly arose and just 12 years after the Prophet’s death a dispute over the caliphate opened a rift in Islam that grew into today’s divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Civil war broke out, ending with the rise to power of Mu’awiyah, the Muslim military governor of Syria and a distant relative of Mohammed.
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Mu’awiyah moved the capital from Medina to Damascus and established the first great Muslim dynasty – the Umayyads.
The Umayyads were descended from a branch of the Quraysh, the Prophet’s tribe, known more for expediency than piety. Mu’awiyah’s father was one of the last people in Mecca to embrace Islam and had long been Mohammed’s chief opponent in the city. By moving the capital to Damascus the Umayyads were symbolically declaring that they had aspirations far beyond the rather ascetic teachings of the Quran.
The Umayyads gave the Islamic world some of its greatest architectural treasures, including the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. History, however, has not been kind, remembering them largely for the high living, corruption, nepotism and tyranny that eventually proved to be their undoing.
In 750 the Umayyads were toppled in a revolt fuelled, predictably, by accusations of impiety. Their successors, and the strong arm behind the revolt, were the Abbasids. The Abbasid caliphate created a new capital in Baghdad and the early centuries of its rule constituted what’s often regarded as the golden age of Islamic culture. The most famous of the Abbasid caliphs was Haroun ar-Rashid (r 786-809) of The Thousand and One Nights fame. Warrior king Haroun ar-Rashid led one of the most successful early Muslim invasions of Byzantium, almost reaching Constantinople. His name will forever be associated with Baghdad, which he transformed into a world centre of learning and sophistication.
After Haroun ar-Rashid’s death the empire was effectively divided between two of his sons. Predictably, civil war ensued. In 813 one son Al-Maamun emerged triumphant and reigned as caliph for the next 20 years. But Al-Maamun’s hold on power remained insecure and he felt compelled to surround himself with Turkish mercenaries.
By the middle of the 10th century the Abbasid caliphs were the prisoners of their Turkish guards, who spawned a dynasty of their own, known as the Seljuks (1038-1194). The Seljuks extended their reach throughout Persia, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Anatolia where the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum made its capital at Konya. The resulting pressure on the Byzantine Empire was intense enough to cause the emperor and the Greek Orthodox Church to swallow their pride and appeal to the rival Roman Catholic Church for help.
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In 1095 Pope Urban II called for a Western Christian military expedition – a ‘Crusade’ – to liberate the holy places of Jerusalem in response to the eastern empire’s alarm. Rome‘s motives were not entirely benevolent: Urban was eager to assert Rome‘s primacy in the east over Constantinople.
After linking up with the Byzantine army in 1097, the Crusaders successfully besieged Antioch (modern Antakya, in Turkey) and then marched south along the coast before turning inland, towards Jerusalem. A thousand Muslim troops held Jerusalem for six weeks against 15,000 Crusaders before the city fell on 15 July 1099. The victorious Crusaders then massacred the local population – Muslims, Jews and Christians alike – sacked the non-Christian religious sites and turned the Dome of the Rock into a church.
These successes were short-lived. It took less than 50 years for the tide to begin to turn against the Crusaders and only 200 before they were driven out of the region once and for all. The Muslim leader responsible