School in a Book: History of the Middle East

The Middle East isn’t its own continent, but with its distinct climate, its cultural uniqueness, its geographical separation from the rest of Asia and its political separation from Europe, its story is largely its own. Here, review your knowledge of the first civilization in history, and the many other great Middle Eastern civilizations to follow.


Ancient Times (3000 BCE to 500 CE)

Sumer: The collection of cities that arose in ancient southern Mesopotamia along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers around 4000 BCE and that made up the first known human civilization. It was not a unified empire; each city-state had its own ruler and government. It is known for its ziggurats; its use of cuneiform; and its professional scribes and accountants.

Ziggurats: Massive pyramid-like buildings with stepped sides that served as centers of worship and administrative centers in ancient Mesopotamia

The Akkadian Empire: The ancient Mesopotamian empire that lasted from about 2300 BCE to about 2100 BCE and that is sometimes considered the world’s first empire. Likely encompassing most of Mesopotamia, it united the northern Akkadian people and the southern Sumerian people under one rule. Akkad became its capital, and Akkadian became the dominant language, though Sumerian was also used.

Sargon the Great: The Sumerian ruler who united northern and southern Mesopotamia into the Akkadian Empire in the 2300s BCE. He is known for establishing a centralized government; for standardizing weights and measures; and for promoting Akkadian as the official language of the empire.

The Assyrian Empire: The ancient Mesopotamian empire that lasted from about 2100 BCE to about 600 BCE and that dominated northern Mesopotamia in the valley of the Upper Tigris River. It was named after its capital and ongoing prominent city Assur. It co-existed with its southern rival, the Babylonian Empire, with each empire enjoying periods of dominance. Eventually, it fell to the Babylonians. It is known for its military-minded warrior kings; its polytheistic religion, which included worship of nature and objects; 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 Nineveh after ordering historical and scientific works to be written down; for 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 lasted from about 1900 BCE to about 500 BCE and that dominated southern Mesopotamia. It was named after one of its prominent cities, Babylon. It co-existed with its northern rival, the Assyrian Empire, with each empire enjoying periods of dominance. It is known for its unique code of law; its invention of a math system that used 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 the Babylonian Empire, and who is known for creating a fair and historically influential justice system

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

The Hittites: The ancient people who inhabited a collection of city-states in modern-day Turkey from around 1600 BCE to the 1100s BCE. They are 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 people who inhabited a collection of city-states on the east end of the Mediterranean Sea in modern-day Lebanon from approximately 1550 to 300 BCE. They are known for creating the first known alphabet, which later became the basis for Greek and Roman alphabets; for being the greatest seafarers of ancient times; for making a highly prized purple dye from snails; for advancing the art of glass making; for maintaining internal peace; for colonizing Carthage in Egypt; for culturally influencing Greece; and for prospering through extensive trade with India and China. They fell in 300 BCE to the Persians.

The Hebrews/Jews/Israelites: The ancient Semitic people who settled Canaan (modern-day Israel and Palestine) around 1900 BCE and whose story is told in the Old Testament. After migrating from Mesopotamia, possibly from the city of Ur, then possibly spending time in modern-day Turkey, they fled to Egypt during a famine. There, they eventually became enslaved and had to escape to Canaan. In Canaan, their twelve tribes settled and established a unique identity. They fought the Palestinians (whom they called the Philistines) and other groups for territory and conquered Jericho, Jerusalem and other areas. Later, they established the Kingdom of Israel and Jerusalem became its capital. They 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 their belief that negative occurrences result from sin, not from the whim of the gods.

Abraham: The father of the Jewish people, who lived in the 1900s BCE and whose story is told in the Old Testament. According to that account, he was the father of Isaac, who was the father of Jacob, who was the father of the twelve sons who became the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel.

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 identity and played a specific role in the social and religious life of ancient Israel. The tribes were led by various judges before uniting under kings as the Kingdom of Israel. Later, the kingdom split into two separate entities: the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah. This weakened them politically and militarily, and led to the exile of many Jews in the 700s BCE by Assyria after Assyria conquered Israel, and the exile of many more in the 500s BCE by Babylon after Babylon conquered Israel. These events were known as the Assyrian Captivity and the Babylonian Captivity, and were the first of many diaspora events experienced by the Jewish people.

The Jewish diaspora: The scattering of the Jewish people from their homeland of Israel to other parts of the world. It started during the Assyrian captivity, and during the centuries to follow, Jews have migrated to many other countries while attempting to maintain their unique identity.

Moses: The Jewish leader and prophet who lived around the 1300s BCE and whose story is told in the Old Testament. According to that account, 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.

The Ark of the Covenant: The legendary gold-covered wooden chest that, according to the Old Testament, held the stone manuscript on which Moses’ Ten Commandments were written. It was held in the temple at Jerusalem for many years, then was lost, possibly during a battle with the Palestinians.

Saul: The first king of the Kingdom of Israel, who ruled during the 1000s BCE. He was chosen by God after the people of Israel demanded to replace their judge leaders with kings, like other nations had. He is known for starting out as a successful and popular leader, then later disobeying God and falling from grace as well as for his persecution of David.

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

Solomon: The third third king of the Kingdom of Israel, who ruled during the 900s BCE. The son of King David and Bathsheba, he is known for his wisdom; his wealth; his extensive building projects, including the construction of the First Temple in Jerusalem and his own palace; and his marriages to foreign princesses, which led to the introduction of foreign gods into Israel.

Jerusalem: The city in modern-day Israel that was established around 3000 BCE, then was conquered by the Jews and became the capital of the Kingdom of Israel around 1000 BCE under King Solomon. It is known for being one of the oldest cities in the world; 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; and for its capture and attempted recapture during the Crusades.

The Babylonian captivity: The approximately 70-year period during which many Hebrews from the Kingdom of Judah were enslaved by the Babylonians in the late 500s BCE. In part, this happened because after Solomon’s death, Israel split into two kingdoms and were weakened. The captivity came to an end when the Persian Empire, led by King Cyrus the Great, conquered Babylon and issued a decree allowing the exiled Judahites to return to their homeland and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.

Nebuchadnezzar II: A king of Babylon during the 500s BCE who is known for helping Babylon regain independence from Assyria, starting a period of their history known as Babylon Revived; for extending Babylonian territory significantly; for capturing Jerusalem and destroying it as well as the Temple of Jerusalem, and forcing the Jews to exile; for beautifying Babylon by building and restoring numerous temples and palaces and possibly creating the Hanging Gardens of Babylon; for extending trade networks; and for, later in his life, possibly going mad.

The Persian Empire: The ancient Mesopotamian empire that existed in modern-day Iran, Afghanistan and beyond from the 500s BCE to the 300s BCE. It is known for its vast size; its military prowess; its cultural diversity and religious tolerance; its contributions to art and literature; its advanced road and postal systems; its centralized bureaucracy; and its peaceful incorporation of other conquered territories. It fell to Alexander the Great in the 300s.

Cyrus the Great: The founder of the Persian Empire, who ruled from 550 BCE to 530 BCE, and who is known for his military conquests; for his political acumen; for his 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 as well as his restoration of temples and release of captive peoples.

Darius the Great: An important king of the Persian Empire during the time of ancient Greece. He is known for expanding the Persian Empire; for adopting Zoroastrianism, which might have later influenced Christianity; for building an extensive road network throughout the empire; and for introducing a standard coinage.

Xerxes the Great: The son of Darius the Great and the king of the Persian Empire in the 400s BCE who fought the Persian Wars against the Greeks. A skillful general, he is known for losing two key battles against the Greeks: the Battle of Thermopylae, which took place on a mountain pass and was fought against only 300 Spartan soldiers, and the Battle of Salamis, a naval engagement.

Arabs: An ethnic group originating in the Middle East that speaks Arabic

The Middle Ages (500 CE to 1500 CE)

The Islamic Empire: The succession of various Islamic caliphates (governments led by caliphs) that ruled in the Middle East after the death of Muhammad in the 600s. It is known for rapidly expanding to eventually encompass the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, Persia and parts of Europe and Asia, as well as for bringing an Islamic golden age.

The Abbasid Dynasty: The dynasty that led the Islamic Empire from the 700s CE to the 1200s CE, bringing a golden age to the area. It is known for its unity and stability; its flourishing capital at Baghdad, whose court is the setting for much of the classic story The Thousand and One Nights; its advances in chemistry and astronomy; and for the invention of algebra at this time.

The Mongol invasion: The successful overthrow of the Abbasids and Turks by the Mongol Empire led by Genghis Khan in the 1200s CE. Their power in the area did not last, however.

The Crusades: A series of religious battles fought between Christians and Muslims from around 1100 CE to the 1200s CE. Initiated by Christians, the primary goal 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. The battles took place 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.

The Seljuk Turks: The Turkic people whose civilization was located in modern-day Iran and beyond from about the 1000s CE to the 1200s CE. They are known for their military prowess; for influencing the cultural and political development of the Islamic world; and for successfully defending their land against the Crusaders.

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 is 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 encompassed most of the Middle East from the 1200s to the early 1900s, with its peak power in the 1600s. Vast and wealthy, it united the whole region under one ruler for the first time since the Abbasid Empire. It is known for its impressive military strength; its complex hierarchical administrative system led by a sultan; its cultural achievements, including in architecture, literature, and music; its extensive trade with the West; its control of important trade routes; and its retaking of Constantinople from the Byzantine empire. It sided with the Central Powers in World War I, which led to its fall and the redrawing of the map of the Middle East by the Allied victors.

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

The Modern Era (1900 CE to the Present)

The 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.

OPEC: A coalition founded in 1960 with the goal of overseeing and controlling petroleum prices and policies of its member countries, who are mostly located in the Middle East. In the early 1900s, large oil reserves were discovered in the Middle East, which led to growing power in the area. It also led to attempts by European countries to control these areas and to set economic regulations there.

The Suez Crisis: The conflict that took place in the 1950s between Egypt and the UK, France, and Israel over control of the Suez Canal. After Egypt nationalized the canal, Israel, the UK and France attempted to seize it, but the United Nations intervened to prevent it.

Saddam Hussein: The president and dictator of Iraq during the 1970s, 80s ad 90s who is known for his aggressive foreign policies, his authoritarian rule, his human rights abuses, and his suppression of political opposition. In the early 2000s, a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime, leading to his capture and subsequent execution.

The 1970s oil embargo: An oil embargo by Arab oil-producing countries, which occurred as a protest of countries that supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War, a war against Israel by several Arab countries. It caused a significant increase in oil prices and economic disruption.

The Iranian Revolution: The overthrow of the Iranian shah in the late 1970s, which led to the creation of an Islamic republic and increased political and religious extremism in Iran

The Iran-Iraq war: The long, drawn-out war that took place in the 1980s between Iran and Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Iran over disputed border territories. It resulted in a stalemate and ceasefire and Iran retained its lands.

The Gulf War: The war against Iraq in the 1990s by a international military coalition led by the U.S. It was a response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, which resulted in the devastation of Kuwait including the burning of their oil fields. It resulted in the liberation of Kuwait and a ceasefire. Afterwards, the UN established a system of inspections and disarmament measures to prevent Iraq from developing or possessing weapons of mass destruction.

Osama bin Laden: The founder and leader of Al-Qaeda, an extremist Islamist militant group responsible for several high-profile attacks against the United States, including the September 11th attacks in 2001. He died during a U.S. military raid in 2011.

Al-Qaida: An extremist Islamist militant group founded by Osama bin Laden in the 1980s. Its goals are to drive Western influence and military presence out of Muslim countries and to establish a global Islamic caliphate. It is known for several terrorist attacks, including the September 11th attacks on the U.S., which killed nearly 3,000 people.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict: The ongoing dispute between the state of Israel, a Jewish nation, and the Palestinians, a Muslim Arab ethnic group, over land, borders and the right of self-rule. It started with the rise of Zionism in the early 1900s and the subsequent creation of the state of Israel. Since then, the groups have fought many holy wars, some of which have included many other countries on both sides. Historically, the U.S. has supported Israel, partly for reasons of religion and tradition and partly due to economic and strategic reasons.


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