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The Middle East or the Middle World?

From the Persian highlands, isn’t the Middle East viewed as the Middle West?

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Takeaways


  • I prefer to call this whole area from the Indus to Istanbul the Middle World, because it lies between the Mediterranean world and the Chinese world.
  • If you're standing in the Persian highlands, the so-called Middle East is actually the Middle West.
  • Geography did not separate the Mediterranean and Middle worlds as radically as it isolated China or the Americas.

Long before Islam was born, two worlds took shape between the Atlantic Ocean and the Bay of Bengal.

Each coalesced around a different network of trade and travel routes — one of them, mainly sea routes, the other, land routes.

If you look at ancient sea traffic, the Mediterranean emerges as the obvious center of world history, for it was here that the Mycenaeans, Cretans, Phoenicians, Lydians, Greeks, Romans, and so many other vigorous early cultures met and mingled.

People who lived within striking distance of the Mediterranean could easily hear about and interact with anyone else who lived within striking distance of the Mediterranean, and so this great sea itself became an organizing force drawing diverse people into one another's narratives and weaving their destinies together to form the germ of a world history. Out of this came "Western civilization."

If you look at ancient overland traffic, however, the Grand Central Station of the world was the nexus of roads and routes connecting the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, the Iranian highlands, Mesopotamia, and Egypt.

These roads ran within a territory ringed by rivers and seas — the Persian Gulf, the Indus and Oxus rivers, the Aral, Caspian, and Black seas, the Mediterranean, the Nile, and the Red Sea. This eventually became the Islamic world.

Unfortunately, common usage assigns no single label to this second area. A portion of it is typically called the Middle East, but giving one part of it a name obscures the connectedness of the whole, and besides, the phrase Middle East assumes that one is standing in western Europe. If you're standing in the Persian highlands, for example, the so-called Middle East is actually the Middle West.

Therefore, I prefer to call this whole area from the Indus to Istanbul the Middle World, because it lies between the Mediterranean world and the Chinese world.

The Chinese world was, of course, its own universe and had little to do with the other two. That's to be expected on the basis of geography alone.

China was cut off from the Mediterranean world by sheer distance and from the Middle World by the Himalayas, the Gobi Desert, and the jungles of southeast Asia, a nearly impenetrable barrier — which is why China and its satellites and rivals barely enter the "world history" centered in the Middle World, and why they come in for rare mention here.

The same is true of sub-Saharan Africa, cut off from the rest of Eurasia by the world’s biggest desert. For that matter, the Americas formed yet another distinct universe with a world history of its own, which is for geographic reasons even more to be expected.

Geography, however, did not separate the Mediterranean and Middle worlds as radically as it isolated China or the Americas. These two regions coalesced as different worlds because they were what historian Philip D. Curtin has called "intercommunicating zones": each had more interaction internally than it had with the other.

From anywhere near the Mediterranean coast, it was easier to get to some other place near the Mediterranean coast than to Persepolis or the Indus River. Similarly, caravans on the overland routes crisscrossing the Middle World in ancient times could strike off in any direction at any intersection — and there were many such intersections.

As they traveled west, however, into Asia Minor (what we now call Turkey), the very shape of the land gradually funneled them down into the world narrowest bottleneck, the bridge (if there happened to be one at the given time) across the Bosporus Strait.

This tended to choke over land traffic down to a trickle and turn the caravans back toward the center, or south along the Mediterranean coast.

Gossip, stories, jokes, rumors, historical impressions, religious mythologies, products, and other detritus of culture flow along with traders, travelers, and conquerors. Trade and travel routes thus function like capillaries, carrying civilizational blood.

Societies permeated by a network of such capillaries are apt to become characters in one another's narratives, even if they disagree about who the good guys and the bad guys are.

Thus it was that the Mediterranean and Middle worlds developed somewhat distinct narratives of world history. People living around the Mediterranean had good reason to think of themselves at the center of human history, but people living in the Middle World had equally good reason to think they were situated at the heart of it all.

These two world histories overlapped in the strip of territory where you now find Israel, where you now find Lebanon, where you now find Syria and Jordan — where you now, in short, find so much trouble.

This was the eastern edge of the world defined by sea-lanes and the western edge of the world defined by land routes.

From the Mediterranean perspective, this area has always been part of the world history that has the Mediterranean as its seed and core.

From the other perspective, it has always been part of the Middle World that has Mesopotamia and Persia at its core. Is there not now and has there not often been some intractable argument about this patch of land: whose world is this a part of?

This is an excerpt from the book, Destiny Disrupted, by Tamim Ansary. Copyright © 2009. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group (www.perseusbooks.com). All rights reserved.

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