School in a Book: History of the Middle East


Ancient History (3000 BCE to 500 CE)

Sumer: The collection of cities in ancient Mesopotamia that arose around 4000 BCE and that made up the first known human civilization. Sumer was built along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and was centered around its main city, Sumer. It was not a unified empire. Sumerian cities featured ziggurats; the use of cuneiform; scribes; accountants and much more. The people of Sumer are called Sumerians and spoke Sumerian.

Ziggurat: Pyramid-like center of worship that featured stepped sides

The Akkadian Empire: The ancient Mesopotamian empire that was at its peak from about 2500 to about 2300 BCE that united Akkadian and Sumerian people under one rule; that is sometimes considered to be the world’s first empire; and that likely encompassed most of Mesopotamia

Sargon of Akkad: The Sumerian ruler who united northern and southern Mesopotamia into the Akkadian Empire in the 2300s BCE and was also known as Sargon the Great.

The Assyrian Empire: The ancient Mesopotamian empire that lasted from about 2100 BCE to about 600 BCE; that dominated northern Mesopotamia in the valley of the Upper Tigris River; that was named after its capital and ongoing prominent city Assur; that co-existed with its southern rival, the Babylonian Empire, with each empire enjoying periods of dominance; and that eventually fell to the Babylonians. The Assyrian Empire was known for its military-minded warrior kings; its polytheistic religion, which included worship of nature and object deification; its siege warfare techniques; its well-organized infrastructure that included roads and aqueducts; and its effective governance over conquered lands. Under some particularly harsh rulers, Assyrians burned and wrecked the towns they captured and murdered many inhabitants in order to instill fear.

Ashurbanipal: The last great ruler of the Assyrian Empire, who ruled in the 600s BCE. He is known for building the great library at Ninevah after ordering historical and scientific works to be written down; creating impressive palace gardens featuring plants from all over the world; and for conquering Babylon for a time.

The Babylonian Empire: The ancient Mesopotamian empire that ruled from about 1900 BCE to about 500 BCE; that dominated southern Mesopotamia; that was named after one of its prominent cities, Babylon; and that co-existed with its northern rival, the Assyrian Empire, with each empire enjoying periods of dominance. The Babylonian Empire is known for its code of law; the invention of a math system using base 60 for time and degrees of a circle; its stable, efficient rule and its well-disciplined armies.

Hammurabi: The ruler who, in the 1700s BCE, first unified and led Babylonia, and who is also known for creating a fair and historically influential justice system for the Babylonian Empire

The Code of Hammurabi: The set of laws created by Hammurabi and the longest, most complete legal text of the ancient world. The laws are appreciated for their fairness; their widespread historical influence; and their effectiveness in strengthening the Babylonian Empire and encouraging internal peace. The Code famously includes the phrase “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” which is quoted in the Old Testament.

Nebuchadnezzar: A king of Babylon during the 500s BCE who is known for regaining Babylonian independence from Assyria, starting a period of their history known as Babylon Revived; for extending Babylonian territory significantly; for capturing Jerusalem and forcing the Jews to live in Babylon as prisoners; for creating the Hanging Gardens of Babylon; for building the tower of Babel; for extending trade networks; for using other successful strategies for making Babylon a beautiful world capital and marketplace; and for, later in his life, going mad

The Hittites: The ancient Mespotamian people who inhabited a collection of city-states in what is now modern-day Turkey from around 1600 BCE to the 1100s BCE. They were known for being the first people to smelt iron; for their warlike culture; for their invention of the chariot; for their boulder sculptures; for their 1000 gods; and for introducing the horse to the Middle East.

The Phoenicians: The ancient Mesopotamian civilization who inhabited a collection of city-states on the east end of the Mediterranean Sea from approximately 1550 to 300 BCE, when the Persians, and later the Greeks, conquered Tyre. They were known for creating the first known alphabet; for the greatness of their art; for being the greatest seafarer of ancient times; for their purple dye, which they made from snails; for their invention of glass blowing; for their peacefulness; for their colonies, including Carthage in Egypt; for their active role in aiding the rise of Greece and Rome; for the trade with India and China; and for their prosperity.

The Hebrews/Jews: The ancient Mesopotamian people who settled Palestine around 1900 BCE; who migrated from Ur, in Mesopotamia; and whose story is told in the Old Testament. They fled to Egypt during a famine, became enslaved there, then escaped back to Palestine. There, they fought the Palestinians, whom they called the Philistines, for territory. As part of the effort, they conquered Jericho. The Jews are known for their monotheism; their individualism; their strong cultural identity and resistance to assimilation, which kept them united in spite of multiple exiles and separations; and for their idea that negative occurrences result from sin, not from the whim of a god (personal responsibility).

Moses: The Hebrew leader and prophet who lived in the 1200s BCE and that is a central figure in the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He is known for leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt; receiving the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai; and receiving the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible

Abraham: The Hebrew leader and prophet who lived around 2000 BCE and that is a central figure in the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He is known for being the father of Isaac and Jacob and the grandfather of the twelve tribes of Israel and therefore is considered the father of the Jewish people. He was also the recipient of God’s covenant with the Jewish people.

The Twelve Tribes of Israel: The twelve ancestral tribes of the Jewish people, all of whom descended from Jacob. Each tribe had its own territory and played a specific role in the social and religious life of ancient Israel. The tribes were often united under the leadership of judges, kings, and other leaders, and served as the basis of the ancient kingdom of Israel.

King Saul: The first king of Israel who ruled during the 1000s BCE. He was chosen by God to be king after the people of Israel demanded a king to rule over them like the other nations. Saul is also known for starting out as a successful and popular leader, then later disobeying God and falling from grace and his persecution of David.

King David: The second second king of Israel, who ruled in the late 900s BCE. He was from the tribe of Judah and is best known for his military victories; his justice, faith and mercy; establishing Jerusalem as the political and religious capital of Israel; his musicianship; and his authorship of the biblical psalms.

King Solomon: The third third king of Israel, who ruled during the 900s BCE. He was the son of King David and Bathsheba and is known for his wisdom, wealth, and building projects (including the construction of the First Temple in Jerusalem and his palace.

The Ark of the Covenant: The container that held the stone manuscript with Moses’ Ten Commandments and the sheepskin manuscript of the Torah. It was held in the temple at Jerusalem for many years, then lost during a battle with the Palestinians.

The Babylonian captivity: The period during which many Hebrews were enslaved by the Assyrians and Chaldeans in Babylon in the late 500s BCE. This happened in part because after Solomon’s death, Israel and Judah split and were weakened.

The Old Testament: The group of historical and instructional religious texts written by various Hebrew authors, likely from about 1500 BCE to about 400 BCE, that makes up the first part of the Bible. (The second part is the New Testament.) Some of the stories take place during the Hebrews’ time and some are based on ancient oral traditions. The Old Testament is thought to be fairly historically reliable.

The Torah: The first five books of the Old Testament that forms the basis of Jewish law and tradition. The Torah was originally written on sheepskin and kept in the Arc of the Covenant. Earlier Old Testament laws were based on the Ten Commandments, but many more were added as the Jews mixed with other cultures. Of primary importance to the Hebrews was retaining their form of monotheism, their purity and their separateness.

The diaspora: The scattering of the Jewish people from their homeland of Israel to other parts of the world. It started during the Babylonian captivity. Over the centuries, Jews have migrated to many other countries, forming vibrant communities and preserving their cultural and religious heritage despite being far from their original homeland. Note that in recent years, the term diaspora has been used to describe the dispersal of other groups of people as well, including African Americans, Irish, and Armenian communities.

Jerusalem: The city in Israel that was established around 3000 BCE, then became the capital in about 1000 BCE under King Solomon. It is known for its significance to three major religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam; for being the site of the Temple Mount, the location of the First and Second Temples and the Al-Aqsa Mosque; for being the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the most important Christian sites in the world; for its capture and attempted recapture during the Crusades; and more. Both Muslims and Christians held this city and area as their rightful historical religious site of worship, which has inspired a great deal of conflict throughout history.

Myceneans: The ancient Greek civilization that dominated Greece and the Aegean region from 1600 to 1100 BCE and were known for their advanced bronze-age culture; their extensive trade networks; and their military prowess

Seljuk Turks: The Turkic civilization located in modern-day Iran and beyond that lasted from about the 1000s CE to the 1200s CE and was known for their military prowess and for influencing the cultural and political development of the Islamic world

Greek dark ages: A period of decline and instability in Ancient Greece from the end of the Mycenaean civilization in the 1100s BCE to the 700s BCE, which was characterized by a loss of political unity, economic regression, and cultural obscurity. It ended when Athens, Sparta and other Greek city-states rose to prominence.

Homer: An ancient Greek poet who is widely regarded as the greatest epic poet of Western literature, and is best known for his two epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which recount the events of the Trojan War and the adventures of Odysseus, respectively

The Persian Empire: An ancient Mesopotamian empire that existed in modern-day Iran, Afghanistan and beyond from the 500s BCE to the 300s BCE and was known for its vast size; its military prowess; its and cultural diversity; its contributions to art and literature; and their use of an imperial road system, a postal system, and a centralized bureaucracy; and his peaceful incorporation of other conquered territories

Cyrus the Great: The founder of the Persian Empire, who ruled from 550 BCE to 530 BCE, and is known for his military conquests; political acumen; religious tolerance (he freed the Jews out of captivity in Babylon); and for creating the Cyrus Cylinder

The Cyrus Cylinder: An ancient clay artifact that was written in Babylonian cuneiform in the 500s BCE and discovered in the 1800s CE and is considered the world’s first written declaration of human rights. It describes Cyrus the Great’s policy of religious tolerance and the restoration of temples and the release of captive peoples.

King Darius: A leader of the Persian Empire during the time of ancient Greece known for being an excellent military general; for his belief in Zoroastrianism, which later influenced Christianity; for building roads connecting all parts of the Persian Empire; for introducing a standard coinage; and for controlling the Western end of the Silk Road. Eventually, Darius and the Persians were conquered by the Greeks.

Arabs: An ethnic group originating in the Middle East that is known for speaking the Arabic language

Muhammad: The founder of Islam who was born in Mecca in the 600s BCE and who is known for receiving revelations from Allah (God) through the angel Gabriel, which were recorded in the Quran; for being the final prophet in a long line of prophets that includes Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus; and for capturing Mecca (after teaching in exile in Medina for a time) and becoming its ruler

Muslims: Followers of Islam

Sunis and Shiites: The two largest branches of Islam, with the primary difference being that Sunnis believe that the first four caliphs were the rightful successors to Muhammad, while Shiites believe that the first caliph, Ali, was Muhammad’s chosen successor and that the imams that followed were divinely inspired

The Middle Ages (500 CE to 1500 CE)

The Abbassid Dynasty: The dynasty that led the Islamic Empire from about 800 CE to about 1300 CE, bringing a golden age to the area. It featured political unity, long-term stability, a flourishing capital at Baghdad, advances in chemistry and astronomy, the invention of algebra, and more. The court in Baghdad was the setting for much of the literary classic The Thousand and One Nights.

The Mongol invasion: The successful overthrow of the Abbasids and Turks by Mongols in the 1200s. Their power in the are did not last, however.

The Crusades: A series of religious wars fought between Christians and Muslims from around 1100 CE to the 1200s CE. The primary goal of the Crusades was to recapture the Holy Land, particularly Jerusalem, which was under Muslim control, and to defend Christian pilgrims who made the journey to the region. There were several Crusades over a period of two centuries, involving many of the most powerful states and armies of Europe at the time. The Roman Catholic Pope initially called for the attacks. The Crusades were unsuccessful, ill-conceived and disastrous for all involved.

Early Modern Times (1500 CE to 1900 CE)

Safavid Empire: The empire that ruled Persia and beyond from the early 1500s to the 1700s. It was known for successfully resisting Ottoman takeover; for being one of the greatest Iranian empires; for establishing Islam as the official religion of the empire; for modernizing the area; and for increasing the area’s economic power and global status by increasing governmental efficiency, architectural innovations and fine arts

The Ottoman Empire: The empire that followed the Abbasid dynasty in Persia, lasting from the 1200s to the 1600s. It was known for its flourishing trade with the West; uniting the whole region under one ruler for the first time since the Abbasid Empire; trade route control; the retaking of Constantinople from the Byzantine empire; and more.

Suleymon the Magnificent: The most successful Sultan of the Ottoman Empire who reigned in the 1500s and is known for expanding the Empire to its greatest size and power, conquering much of Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East; for his patronage of the arts; for building many impressive structures, including the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul; and for his legal and administrative reforms, which helped modernize the Ottoman state

The Modern Era (1900 to the Present)

Overview of the history of the Middle East in the Modern Era: During the 1900s, significant political, social, and economic change occurred. The Ottoman Empire fell after World War I. The discovery of large oil reserves in the Middle East in the early 1900s led to the development of the petroleum industry and the increasing involvement of foreign oil companies in the region. The Middle East, it turned out, possessed the world’s largest easily untapped reserves of crude oil, the most important commodity in the 20th century. The kings and emirs of these oil states became immensely wealthy exporting petroleum to the west, allowing them to consolidate their hold on power and giving them a stake in preserving western hegemony over the region. The decline of European colonial empires and the rise of nationalism in the Middle East continued during the latter half of the 20th century, leading to the independence of numerous countries, including Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

The role of the Middle East in World War I: The Middle East played a significant role in World War I as a major theater of conflict and a source of critical resources such as oil. The Ottoman Empire, which controlled much of the region, sided with the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) and fought against the Allied Powers (Britain, France, and Russia). The British and French, in particular, sought to secure control of the oil-rich areas of the Middle East, leading to the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the eventual division of the region into colonial mandates. The Arab Revolt, led by Sharif Hussein of Mecca, also played a key role in the war, as it helped undermine Ottoman control and opened the way for Allied gains in the region. The war ultimately resulted in the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the redrawing of the map of the Middle East. The end of World War I saw the decline of European colonial empires and the rise of nationalist movements in the Middle East, as people sought independence from colonial rule and greater control over their own affairs.

The role of the Middle East in World War II: The Middle East played a crucial role in World War II as a major source of oil and as a crossroads for military operations in North Africa and the Mediterranean. The British and the Allies sought to secure control of the oil-rich regions of the Middle East, which led to the establishment of military bases and the deployment of troops in the region. The German and Italian forces also attempted to gain control of the area, leading to a series of battles in North Africa, including the Battle of El Alamein, which was a turning point in the war. The Middle East was also a critical theater of espionage and diplomacy, as the Allies and the Axis powers competed for the support of local leaders and sought to influence the outcome of the war. The region also saw the emergence of Arab nationalism, as well as the growth of Jewish immigration to Palestine, which would lead to the creation of the state of Israel after the war. The Middle East played a vital role in the outcome of World War II and helped shape the political and economic landscape of the region for decades to come.

OPEC: A global organization founded in 1960 consisting of 14 member countries, mostly located in the Middle East, with the goal of coordinating the petroleum policies of its member countries and securing fair and stable prices for petroleum producers

State of Israel: The Jewish state founded in 1948, partly to unite displaced Jews after the Holocaust and return their historical homeland. This resulted in frequent civil war between the Jews and Palestinians in the area.

Suez Crisis: A political and military conflict that took place in 1956 between Egypt and the UK, France, and Israel. The crisis was triggered by the nationalization of the Suez Canal by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, which threatened the strategic and economic interests of the UK and France, as well as Israel’s access to the Red Sea. Israel, in collaboration with Britain and France, launched a military operation to seize the canal, leading to international condemnation and intervention by the United Nations. The crisis resulted in the withdrawal of Israeli, British, and French forces from the Canal Zone, the establishment of the UN Emergency Force to maintain stability, and the strengthening of Nasser’s position as a leader in the Arab world. The Suez Crisis marked a turning point in the Cold War and had far-reaching consequences for the relationships between the Western powers and the Arab world, as well as for the balance of power in the Middle East.

Saddam Hussein: The president and dictator of Iraq during the 1970s, 80s ad 90s who was known for his aggressive foreign policies

The Oil Embargo: In 1973, the Arab oil-producing countries, including several members of OPEC, embargoed oil exports to countries that supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War, causing a significant increase in oil prices and economic disruption.

The Iranian Revolution: In 1979, the Islamic Revolution in Iran overthrew the Shah and established an Islamic republic, leading to a new era of political and religious extremism in the region.

Iran-Iraq war: The long, drawn-out war between Iran and Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Iran over river access. With help, Iran won and retained their river control.

The Gulf War: The war against Iraq in the 1990s by a international military coalition, including the U.S. The war was a response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, which resulted in the devastation of Kuwait including the burning of their oil fields.

Osama bin Laden: Osama bin Laden was the founder and leader of Al-Qaeda, a Sunni Islamist militant group responsible for several high-profile attacks against the United States, including the September 11th attacks in 2001. Born in Saudi Arabia in 1957, bin Laden became involved in the Afghan resistance against Soviet occupation in the 1980s and later founded Al-Qaeda with the goal of driving Western influence and military presence from Muslim countries and establishing a global Islamic caliphate. Under bin Laden’s leadership, Al-Qaeda carried out several major attacks, including the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the September 11th attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people. In response to the attacks, the US launched a military campaign in Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban, who had provided safe haven to Al-Qaeda, and began a global manhunt for bin Laden. On May 2nd, 2011, bin Laden was killed in a US military raid on his compound in Pakistan.

Al-Qaida: A Sunni Islamist militant group founded by Osama bin Laden in 1988. Its stated goal is to drive Western military forces from Muslim countries and establish a global Islamic caliphate. Al-Qaeda is known for several high-profile attacks, including the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, and the September 11th attacks in 2001, which killed nearly 3,000 people. These attacks led to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the eventual killing of Osama bin Laden by US forces in Pakistan in 2011. Despite the death of bin Laden and the disruption of Al-Qaeda’s central leadership, the group continues to carry out attacks in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, often through its affiliated organizations. Al-Qaeda remains one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist organizations and continues to pose a significant threat to US interests and allies in the region.


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