A term which originated in the west to pack up a group of regions and nations which have different languages, history, and culture. People there do not think of themselves as “middle eastern”. They think of themselves as either Arabs, Turks, Persians …. and I can keep naming ethnicities for a long time.
Another misconception is that what is called the middle east is mainly a desert. Most countries in the so-called middle east have only a limited desert area and others do not have deserts at all.
The term ‘Middle East’ appears to have originated in the British India Office during the 1850s, inthe early days of expansionist rivalry between Russia and Britain. It became current in theEnglish-speaking world around 1900 when the American naval historian, A.T. Mahan, employedit in a discussion of British naval strategy in relation to Russian activity in Iran and a Germanproject for a Berlin to Baghdād railway.He was referring to a region centred on the Persian Gulf,for which the current terms ‘Near East’ and ‘Far East’ seemed inadequate. The term was alsotaken up by The Times correspondent in Tehrān V. Chirol, for a series of articles on the landsforming the western and northern approaches to India,2 the defence of which had been asensitive issue for more than a century and became more and more crucial as the strategic centreof the British Empire, no less than British trade, became centred upon the subcontinent . ‘Middle East’ was given respectability when it was used in the House of Lords on 22 March,1911 by Lord Curzon in opening a discussion of ‘the state of affairs in Persia, the Persian Gulf,and Turkey in Asia, in relation. . . to the construction of railways .
Clearly, the term ‘Middle East’ was one of strategic reference, developed in a Eurocentred world,just as the older terms ‘The East’, ‘Far East’ and ‘Near East’ had been. It was developed furtherduring the First World War when the operational theatre of the Mesopotamia ExpeditionaryForce came to be distinguished as ‘Middle East’ from the ‘Near East’ of Palestine and Syria inwhich the Egyptian Expeditionary Force operated.4 Although Curzon had already given the terma wider application than the lands centred about the Gulf, this only became permanent by aseries of accidents in military organization. In 1932 the existing Royal Air Force Middle EasternCommand, in Iraq, was amalgamated with Near Eastern Command, in Egypt, but the newcommand retained the title ‘Middle East’. When the Italian threat to the Suez Canal at thebeginning of the Second World War led to the establishment of a military headquarters in Cairo,the army followed the RAF in calling this ‘GHQ Middle East’. Between 1940 and 1943, the Cairoheadquarters controlled British and Allied operations over a very wide region . Theconstant use of ‘Middle East’ to describe this region in communiqués and amongst militarypersonnel made the term familiar to a large public. Continued political ferment in the region andits basic strategic importance have maintained the term in use, though not without some pleasfor the retention of the old term ‘Near East’.Indeed, the term ‘Middle East’ has become so useful that it is employed by the Russians and even the inhabitants of the region itself,though sometimes with reference to slightly different areas.
THE MIDDLE EAST :A GEOGRAPHICAL STUDY
Peter Beaumont Professor of Geography, St. David’s University College, University of Wales
Gerald H. Blake Senior Lecturer in Geography, University of Durham
J. Malcolm Wagstaff Senior Lecturer in Geography, University of Southampton
David Fulton Publishers