From space, one could hardly tell that what we see above is one of the most divisive, fraught areas on the planet. When we add the country boundaries, the familiar shapes of the Middle East serve as a reminder:

I’m going to stray into some difficult territory in this post, and not without a healthy measure of trepidation. As we go to press, the Middle East is in crisis (again) with war threatening to escalate (again). It’s very easy to watch the news and feel like it will never end. In some ways, it is never-ending, but there are reasons behind that, reasons that easily go back over 100 years, and much further still if we want the whole picture. There’s no getting around the fact that it’s a terribly complex and distressing situation. There are no easy explanations nor easy solutions – I say that as someone who has lived in the region during some important, formative years and has tried hard to understand it. Anyone who claims to understand it fully should be viewed with a strong dose of scepticism.

To better appreciate the recent situation(s) requires, I think, a better understanding of how the current lines on the map came to be, because I believe those lines lie close to the root of this mess. My purpose here is not to persuade you to one side or the other, but to provide a bit of context for part of what we’re seeing nightly on the news. I aim to be apolitical here and stick to facts as much as possible.

Perhaps we should start with the term “Middle East”. It’s not a term that arose from the people of these lands, but fits in with those other “Easts” we sometimes hear of: the Near East (roughly present day Turkey and some of the Middle Eastern countries) and the Far East (China), though these two terms have become less used. The “East” part of the names comes, of course, from being east of the Prime Meridian, making the terms more than a bit Euro-centric. I doubt that those growing up in Amman would have chosen to think of their land as being east of Britain by choice. So even in the accepted name of this area, things have been imposed on the whole region from a vantage point somewhere else.

(Interesting linguistic sidenote – “east” derives from the Latin “oriens” which means east, but more literally means “rising” as in the rising sun; moving further east eventually gets you to “the Orient”. “West” has a similar directional origin but with reference to the setting sun.)

I’m going to avoid devoting too much attention in this post to biblical times, apart from saying that borders were porous, ill-defined and changed frequently. If you’d like to see some maps that cover this period, try TimeMaps that go back as far as 3500 BCE. Empires, came and went – the Persians, the Macedonians, the Romans, amongst others, but the last big player in the region was the Ottoman Empire (1292 – 1922), where I’ll pick things up. At its height, the Ottoman Empire covered much the same territory as Alexander the Great’s Macedonian Empire:

While spread over a huge area and a wide range of cultures and languages, the empire was held together by strict, centralised discipline. To manage such a large landmass, administrative areas called vilayets were created and ruled over by local administrators answerable directly to the Sultan at the Sublime Porte in Constantinople (renamed Istanbul in 1930 – we could spend a fair bit of time talking about how that great world city’s name has changed and what that’s meant, but…). Here’s a view of some of those vilayets circa 1899 (image georeferenced from here):

From what I can tell, these areas weren’t set up along any sort of cultural, or religious, or linguistic lines – they were there for convenience with a very roughshod nod to geography.

One of the reasons this area became important to the West was down to the Suez Canal, completed in 1869:

The difference this joint British-French funded waterway made was enormous – it allowed the UK to more quickly and safely access the largest jewel in its imperial crown: India.

It still remains a vital part of world trade, as we saw when the Ever Given became lodged across the canal in 2023, bringing untold tons of goods to a grinding halt.

To ensure their own safe passage through the Mediterranean and Red Seas, Britain became much more interested in the area, setting up protectorates in the UAE, Aden, Oman, Sudan, Egypt and Cyprus. These were the days of the Great Game, where western countries reached well beyond their own borders to extend their influence and gain access to critical natural resources, without much regard to the locals.

Now we should talk about oil. Synonymous with the Middle East, oil was first discovered in (then) Persia around 1909. With their increased reliance on oil to run their military rather than coal, the British quickly established the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later evolving into BP) to secure supply and eyed up potential reserves across the Persian Gulf in Saudi Arabia, further heightening their desire to exert influence in the region.

This takes us up to a key turning point in the Middle East, and most of the rest of the world for that matter: World War 1. The Ottoman’s weren’t appreciating Britain’s increasing presence and influence, and so sided with Imperial Germany – we begin to see how Kiwi soldiers eventually wound up in ANZAC Cove on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Long story short, it was becoming clear as WW1 drew to a close that the Ottoman Empire would not survive, bringing up to yet another key turning point for the Middle East: the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, a secret pact to allot the territories of the former empire between British and French influences. New lines on the map were drawn:

Looking back on our world map, these new lines looked something like this:

There were a few other players, such as Italy, Greece as well as the soon to be conquered Ottomans, but the British and French were running the show. Like the Ottoman vilayets, Sykes and Picot’s boundaries didn’t take into account the characteristics of those who would be living within those lines and it’s quite likely that the Ottoman boundaries were referred to when they sat down with pen in hand. Promises were made that the areas of French and British influence would later be set up as a pan-Arab state while giving the British firm control over the potential oil reserves along the Arabian Peninsula’s gulf coast (oil fields in yellow below):

(Mind you, they probably weren’t fully aware of the extent of the oil fields in 1916.)

With these lines we can start to see some outlines of the current countries of the Middle East. Notice that the area around Israel and Palestine is not colour coded in the map above – given the significance of Jerusalem to three major religions, Sykes and Picot proposed that this area would come under international administration. Notice, too, that, like the current boundaries, these areas don’t seem to take into account geography, or religion, or cultural affiliations. And that, I would argue, sets the scene for the decades of unrest and bloodshed that we’re still regularly seeing.

After four horrible years of the “war to end all wars”, peace was negotiated through several treaties, primarily the Treaty of Versailles (1919). Of particular note to the Middle East was the Treaty of Sevres (1920), which took the Sykes-Picot’s lines and further shifted them, giving Iraq and Syria their more well-known shared boundary and reshaping Turkey significantly:

Given the critical importance of the Bosphorus Strait as the link between the Black and Mediterranean Seas, Constantinople was to be managed by an international group in the post-war settlement. The Young Turks, led by Kamal Ataturk, continued fighting against this map for two more years, until the Treaty of Lausanne finally settled the dispute, leaving the Middle East in much the configuration we know today.

(Note the name change from Mesopotamia to Iraq and that Georgia becomes Soviet Russia.) So the lines on the map are mostly set now, and built into them are deep problems that continue to simmer away today. Within those lines are huge variations in culture, language and religious beliefs. The map below shows the ranges of different languages and dialects spoken across the region:

And with those different languages go sometimes disparate cultures and values and practices, all within country boundaries that have been artificially constructed. This is one factor that makes the region so difficult to comprehend.

And even though Arabic is widely spoken across the Middle East and North Africa, speakers will be well aware of the variation in dialects:

Note that there are at least four different dialects within most of the Middle Eastern countries. Defining country boundaries so that everyone speaks the same language and has the same cultural affiliations is certainly no guarantee that war with neighbours will never break out (North Korea may be a good example of that) but not trying to do so may be a guarantee of internal strife, at the very least. Some may claim that those lines were drawn to intentionally maintain that internal strife. After all, if you’re busy clashing with your countrymen, you’ll be less likely to rise up against the colonisers, yes? When the British and the French eventually left (as late as the `70s for the British in Kuwait), those lines remained behind. Of course they were back a few decades later…

There’s also religion to consider with the areas of Sunni and Shia influence shown below:

There are no simple ways to understand the events that have occurred in the Middle East over the past 100 years, let alone the past two months, and my aim here has been to use maps to give some idea of where the baked in complexity comes from. And we haven’t even talked about some of the more touchy subjects, like Kurdistan or Israel/Palestine or even similar impacts on the African continent, long a victim of the Great Game.

They say that history is written by the victors, and often the story is told by lines a map. Here’s a case where the act of drawing those lines may have helped lead a whole region into a nightmare whose history continues to be written.