Antiquity to the Modern Era

Our reference to the Arab world and the Arab nation correlates with the majority of countries in the Middle East, where Arabic is the official language. Although the Arab world includes countries outside of the Middle East – countries of Northern Africa – we focus here on the Middle East as this is the region from which a large number of Australia’s Arabic speaking migrants and refugees have originated.

The history of the Middle East is the history of the lands of western Asia which includes the ancient lands of Mesopotamia, the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, Asia Minor and the Iranian Plateau. These areas have a rich and diverse history and are home to the world's oldest cultures and civilisations. This history started from the earliest human settlements, and continued through many significant pre and post Islamic Empires through to the collection of nation states covering the Middle East today.

  • Ancient Civilisations Open or Close

    The ancient lands of Mesopotamia were home to the Sumerian civilisation and to several powerful empires which ruled most of the Middle East, notably the Assyrian Empires of 1365 -1076 BC and the Neo Assyrian Empires of 911 – 605 BC.

    Sumerian artifact: Standard of UR.
    Sumerian artifact: Standard of UR. Source: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

    From the early 6th century BC onwards, several Persian states dominated the region and by the 1st century BC the Middle East saw the rise of Egyptian civilisation and its monumental accomplishments. Achievements in writing, nation building, engineering and construction, were further cultivated by Greek and Roman societies, both of which later exercised their control and influence in the region. The Greeks under Alexander the Great spread their influence to Persia which they conquered and then the expanding Roman Republic conquered regions and left its lasting mark on the Middle East.

    Importantly, some of the most significant contributions to human civilisation heralding from the lands of the Middle East during antiquity include:

    • The invention of the wheel and plough in ancient Mesopotamia
    • First samples of Sumerian writing (cuneiform writing), hieroglyphics in Egypt and the Phoenician alphabet propagated in the Mediterranean
    • The discovery of iron, iron smelting and smithing resulting in the Iron Age
    • Major religious and philosophical views were created, explored or codified
    • Alexandria in Egypt was a significant cultural and literary centre - its library housed the largest collection of writing in the world, which was tragically lost in a fire
  • The Jews Open or Close
    Roman Triumphal arch panel copy from Beth Hatefutsoth, showing spoils of Jerusalem temple.
    Roman Triumphal arch panel copy from Beth Hatefutsoth, showing spoils of Jerusalem temple. Source: Original file by Steerpike (File:Arch of Titus Menorah.png) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

    There were numerous territorial conflicts with the rise and fall of several empires and it was in the 6th century BC that Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians and the Israelites were exiled. Although they later returned in 537 BC to rebuild the Solomon Temple, some centuries later, the Jewish-Roman wars ensued, with Roman Emperor Hadrian renaming the Judaea Province into Syria Palaestina in 135 AD and compelling the Jewish people to flee their homeland and seek refugee across the Middle East and Europe. The Jews resettled and established new communities, later known as Ashkenazi Jews and Sephardic Jews.

  • Romans and Greeks Open or Close
    Byzantine mosaic map of 6th century Jerusalem found under the floor of St George's Church in Madaba, Jordan.
    Byzantine mosaic map of 6th century Jerusalem found under the floor of St George's Church in Madaba, Jordan. Source: David Bjorgen [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

    The Byzantine Empire (also referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire) ruled from the Balkans to the Euphrates and was clearly defined by Christianity. The Middle East underwent a long lasting period of strong Christian and Greek influence under the Byzantines and many religious rifts were created between the doctrines dictated by the Empire’s headquarters in Constantinople and believers in many parts of the Middle East.

  • The Rise of Islam Open or Close

    A significant change started in the region from the 7th century, with the rise of a new religious power, that of Islam. The spread of Islam started when the Islamic prophet Muhammad (570 – 632 AD) began to share the revelation which God (Allah) had given him and established Muslim communities in Arabia.

    In the years following Muhammad’s death, various caliphates were created which occupied significant geographical areas and led large scale conversions to Islam, particularly through missionary activities of the Sufis.

    Age of the Caliphs.
    Age of the Caliphs. Source: Based on image by DieBuche [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

    Muslim dynasties were established leading to empires of the Abbasids, Fatimids, Almoravids, Seljuks, Ajuuraan, Adal and Warsangali in Somalia, Mughals in India and Safavids in Persia. These periods of Islamic empires led to the Golden Age of Islam and saw the development of cultural centres in which ideas were created and furthered by scientists, travellers, mathematicians, doctors and philosophers.

  • The Turks Open or Close
    Citadel of Damascus, completed by Abu Sa'id Taj ad-Dawla Tutush I, Seljuq ruler (probably sultan or emir, 1079 - 1095) of Damascus, Syria.
    Citadel of Damascus, completed by Abu Sa'id Taj ad-Dawla Tutush I, Seljuq ruler (probably sultan or emir, 1079 - 1095) of Damascus, Syria. Source: Mewes at German Wikipedia (Transferred from de.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

    The period of Arab dominance came to an end in the 11th century with the arrival of the Seljuk Turks (also known as Seldjuk, Seldjuq or Seljuq) and by the early 13th century the armies of the Mongol Empire had swept through the region. In the early 15th century, a new power had arisen in the region, the Ottoman emirs, who in 1453 captured the Christian Byzantine capital of Constantinople and made themselves sultans.

    For the subsequent three centuries, the Ottoman Empire dominated the region and was characterised culturally by Islam and by the Turkish language, although its subjects were of diverse religious and linguistic groups.

  • British, French, Italians Open or Close
    French expeditionary corps landing in Beyrouth, 16 August 1860.
    French expeditionary corps landing in Beyrouth, 16 August 1860. Source: Jean-Adolphe Beaucé [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

    By 1700, the Ottomans had started to lose their power in Eastern Europe and had been driven out of Hungary. European powers began asserting their influence and power and before too long the British had established control of the Persian Gulf and the French had clearly extended their influence into Lebanon and Syria. In 1912, the Italians seized control of Libya and the Greek island of the Dodecanese with the only remaining Ottoman stronghold being in Anatolia (modern Turkey).

    The presence of British, French and Italians in the Middle East has left lasting marks on the region with the divisions of lands made entirely at the discretion of the European rulers and with no or little consideration of local differences – ethnic, religious, or tribal differences.

  • Oil Discovery and the USA Open or Close
    Dammam No. 7, the first commercial oil well in Saudi Arabia, which struck oil on 4 March 1938.
    Dammam No. 7, the first commercial oil well in Saudi Arabia, which struck oil on 4 March 1938. Source: Unknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

    A turning point in the modern history of the Middle East came when oil was discovered - in Persia in 1908, in Saudi Arabia in 1938 and then in other Persian Gulf states, in Libya and Algeria.

    American interest in the region grew as a result of two significant factors: the West’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil and the decline of European influence in the region. Successful economies in the region are now those that have developed infrastructure on oil wealth and sustained low populations: United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar.

  • Post WWII Israel/Palestine Conflict Open or Close

    During the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, Syria and Egypt made moves towards independence, whilst World War II and the years following its end saw the British, the French, and the Soviets departing from many parts of the Middle East.

    Checkpoint in the Israeli Barrier in the West Bank, near Abu Dis.
    Checkpoint in the Israeli Barrier in the West Bank, near Abu Dis. Source: Justin McIntosh, August 2004 [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

    However, the United Nations 1947 plan to resettle millions of Jewish refugees to the newly partitioned Palestine (against the will of local Arab peoples) led to the creation of the Israeli state and to the beginning of battles and wars between the Arabs and the Jews which continue to scar the region to this day. See Recent History for further details.