A brief history of why the Middle East is so fucked up.

Disclaimer: In no way can I accurately summarize the entire cultural and religious history of a region in a page or two blog post, so I encourage you to further educate yourself if you are interested in the subject. I’d be happy to provide book recommendations. The purpose of this is to inform. Also I apologize if I miss something or anything is inaccurate – I’m hoping someone smarter than me will inform me so I can correct it.

Though the West has had it’s share of violent and turbulent times, recent history has been dominated by headlines about ISIS, tragedies in Aleppo, and widespread chaos and destabilization coming from the Middle East. For the past 30 years, the instability in this region has caused horrendous conditions for those living in them and unfairly ballooned anti-arab sentiment all over Europe and the Americas.

How did a region so abundant in both culture and history, not to mention the 20th century’s most coveted resource (oil in case you didn’t know) end up in such a dark place?

It wasn’t always this way.

Rewind waaaaay back to around 500 B.C. Remember the movie 300? Historical inaccuracies aside, the army that eventually destroyed King Leonidas was indeed led by Xerxes, a Persian emperor of the Achaemenid Empire which at its largest governed an area from the Balkans to India. This Persian empire was the largest and most prosperous of the ancient era, until Rome claimed that mantle around 400 years later.

xerxes.jpg
Disclaimer: Not actually Xerxes

When Western Europe was going through it’s dark ages after the Roman Empire succumbed to barbarian invasion, the Middle East thrived and grew more prosperous than it had ever been. As the gateway connecting the Byzantine Empire in the West to China and India in the east, the entire fertile crescent area boomed with trade, science, and culture starting around the 7th century AD. The numbers system we use today (hence why they’re called Arabic Numerals), algebra, and the number ‘0’ all came from the middle east during this time period.

Empires waxed and waned, the Crusades happened, and eventually the Ottoman Empire took control. The Sultan crashed through the Byzantine Empire and crushed the last remnants of the splendor that was Rome by sacking Constantinople in 1453 and renaming it Istanbul. Another Middle Eastern golden age ensued through the late middle ages and well into the 18th century, as the Ottoman Empire expanded further than even the Ancient Persians did – reaching Italy and even cruising along north Africa to conquer parts of Spain. The Ottoman Empire by the 19th century however grew old, backwards, and was unable and unwilling to adapt to the changes the Industrial Revolution forced upon the world.

If you’re looking at a primary catalyst for the way the Middle East is today, you must go back 98 years to the Treaty of Versailles and the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916.

I’m definitely going to do a full post on this treaty at some point because the historical implications of it extend to all parts of the globe, but I’ll give a short rundown here. Because the Ottoman Empire (known colloquially as “The Sick Man Of Europe” starting around 1850) was on the losing side of WW1, it was effectively disbanded by the allies and its territory split between the winners. The borders of the new countries (Syria, Jordan, and Iraq being the primary ones) were drawn straight to ensure that the British and French had a fair split. The borders completely disregarded the long-held religious and cultural differences between groups, grouping ethnic groups and minority religious factions in with centuries old rivals, and effectively telling them to get over it. To make a long and complicated story short and simple, the factions began fighting and committing genocide  as soon as the British and French abandoned them with little organizational government or infrastructure. 

Sykes-Picot.png
The Rough Borders of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. (Blue = French, Red = British)

This irreverence for middle eastern tradition and culture, coupled with the establishment of Israel decades later made for a very long period of unease and stress for the entire region. The region is backwards because the colonial empires forced it to be that way.

The west caused this problem, there’s no getting around that. But in my opinion there really isn’t a whole lot we can do to fix it. Instead of pointing fingers and waging unwinnable wars, we should figure out how to better stand by, aid, and support the innocent victims of these senseless tragedies. I don’t know if getting fully involved to stop the violence is the best option — the power vacuum created by Saddam Hussein’s overthrowing led directly to ISIS — and there’s no way to tell what the effects of another large scale occupation would bring. I’m not saying that no circumstances exist where this would be acceptable, just that we need to be wary and respectful of what history has taught us and to take into account unintended consequences as best we can.

(Check out this cool interactive map. Updated daily: http://isis.liveuamap.com/)

One bright spot on the horizon is that the general population of the middle east is very young, and most of these younger people are fed up with how the situation is being handled by the people currently in power, and don’t view the west as their enemy. It will take another generation or two, but the craziness in the middle east will end eventually.

I don’t intend for this post to be controversial or political in nature but I am fascinated by the history of it and I hope that this short read provided some insight into the history of the region and why it is so unstable now. History is so fascinating to me because it leaves clues. As they say, if you don’t learn from it you are doomed to repeat it.

Happy Friday everybody.
Eric

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