North Africa and Southwest Asia

6.3 History and Culture of the Region

Cultural Hearths

Availability and control of freshwater have typically resulted in humans’ ability to grow food crops and expand their cultural activities. Hunter-gatherer groups did not settle down in one area but were more nomadic because of their seasonal search for food. As humans developed the ability to grow crops and provide enough food in one place, they no longer needed to move. The earliest human settlements sprang up in what is the present-day Middle East. Early human settlements provide some indication of early urbanization patterns based on the availability of surplus of food. The shift to permanent settlements included the domestication of livestock and the production of grain crops. Fruits and vegetables were grown and harvested domestically. This era’s activities created humanity’s earliest version of the rural-to-urban shift associated with the Industrial Revolution or present development. It is theorized that the ability to grow excess food provided the time and resources for urbanization and the establishment of organized communities, which often progressed into political entities or regional empires.

It has been estimated that some of the earliest cities in the world – such as Jericho – were first inhabited around 10,000 BCE in the Middle East. In the same region, two cultural hearths provide significant historical value to the concept of human development: Mesopotamia and the Nile Valley in Egypt. Both areas were settings for the growth of human civilization and are still being examined and studied today. In Mesopotamia, a remarkable human civilization emerged along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present-day Iraq, Syria, and southern Turkey. The climate, soils, and availability of freshwater provided the ingredients for the growth of a human civilization held in high esteem because of its significant contributions to our human history.

Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent

Mesopotamia, meaning “land between rivers,” is located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Neolithic pottery found there has been dated to before 7000 BCE. Humans in this area urbanized as early as 5000 BCE. People were settling in the Mesopotamia region, building magnificent cities, and developing their sense of human culture. Mesopotamia gave rise to a historical cradle of civilization that included the Assyrian, Babylonian, Sumerian, and Akkadian Empires, all established during the Bronze Age (about 3000 BCE or later). Famous cities such as Ur, Babylon, and Nineveh were located in the Mesopotamia region. The control of water and the ability to grow excess food contributed to their success. They developed extensive irrigation systems. Large grain storage units were necessary to provide the civic structure and develop a military to protect and serve the city or empire. The human activity in this area extends around the region to the Mediterranean Sea, where Fertile Crescent comes from.

Various ancient groups were well established on the eastern side of the Fertile Crescent along the Mediterranean coast. The cities of Tyre and Sidon were ports and access points for trade and commerce for groups like the Phoenicians who traded throughout the Mediterranean. Ancient cities such as Damascus and Jericho became established in the same region and were good examples of early human urbanization during the Bronze Age. These cities are two of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.

Nile River Civilization

Human civilization also emerged along the Nile River valley of what is now Egypt. The pyramids and the Sphinx in the Giza Plateau just outside Cairo stand testimony to the human endeavors that took place here. Spring flooding of the Nile River brought nutrients and water to the land along the Nile Valley. The land could produce excess food, which subsequently led to the ability to support a structured, urbanized civilization. The Nile River is the lifeblood of the region. In the fifth century BCE, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus suggested that Egypt was “the gift of the Nile.” The dating for the beginning of the civilization along the Nile River is often in question, but Egyptologists estimate the first dynasty ruled Upper and Lower Egypt around 3100 BCE. Upper Egypt is in the south, and Lower Egypt is in the north because the Nile River flows north. The terms “Upper” and “Lower” refer to elevation. Geologists, using the erosion patterns of the Sphinx, estimate that it was constructed about 10,000 BCE. Humans’ ability to harness the potential of the environment set the stage for technological advancements that continue to this day. The Egyptian civilization flourished for thousands of years and spawned a legacy that influenced their neighbors in the region, who benefited from their advancements.

The human activities that created the civilizations in Mesopotamia and Egypt’s Nile River gave humanity a rich heritage to help us understand our history. Many of our legends, stories, and myths have their origins in these cultures. Their cultural developments provided the basis for much of the Western world’s religious beliefs and early philosophical ideas. The engineering feats needed to create the magnificent temples and pyramids have by themselves been studied and analyzed over the centuries to give modern scientists and scholars a reason to pause and recognize the high level of organization and structure that must have gone into developing and managing these civilizations. These ancient people were developing various aspects of science and the arts. Writing, mathematics, engineering, and astronomy were becoming highly advanced. Artifacts such as clay tablets and hieroglyphs are still being discovered, interpreted, and shed additional light on the advancements of these civilizations and their contribution to our collective human civilization.

Arab Spring of 2011

The year 2011 brought about significant changes for the human geography of parts of this realm. The year ushered in a wave of human activity that awakened the citizens’ power to speak out against conditions in their country and actively protest against their governments. North Africa, the Middle East, and the Arabian Peninsula experienced the highest levels of protests and insurgency. Political leaders that had been in power for extended periods were challenged and removed from office. Democratic reforms were requested or demanded by citizens seeking more individual freedom and greater access to political power. Uprisings in some of the countries were internal; other countries received external support or intervention. Overall, demonstrations, protests, and outright revolution involved millions of people desiring improved living conditions and a better future for themselves and their families.

Protests emerged in North Africa at the beginning of 2011. Tunisia was the first country in which leadership felt the heat of civil resistance and open revolution. In January, the Tunisian president of more than twenty-three years was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia. In Egypt, millions of protesters demonstrated in the streets against political corruption and the lack of reforms. The revolution of Egypt’s citizens was not an armed conflict, but it was an effective protest because it eventually brought about the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, who had been in office for almost thirty years. Demonstrations and protests continued against governments in Morocco and Algeria; they voiced their concerns regarding high unemployment, poor living conditions, and government corruption. Libya’s protests erupted into a full-scale armed revolution as anti-government rebels took control of Benghazi’s city to topple Muammar Gadhafi’s forty-two years of authoritarian control of the government, oil revenues, and the people. The armed Libyan revolution was eventually successful in taking Tripoli and removing Gadhafi and his family from power. The revolution in Libya was aided by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) airstrikes and the implementation of a no-fly zone over the country.

The ripple effect that the Tunisian revolution had on North Africa was felt on the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen and Bahrain. In Yemen, mass public demonstrations over government corruption, economic conditions, and high unemployment escalated into armed conflicts between government troops and opposition factions that wanted the president removed from office. In Bahrain, the protests and demonstrations were centered on the request for more personal freedoms and a more significant role in leadership for the Shia population, who experienced discrimination by the Sunni-dominated government. Protests also occurred in Oman for more significant reforms.

The Middle East did not escape the Arab Spring of 2011. Protests in Jordan forced King ‘Abdullah II to reorganize his government. Israel and Lebanon were not as affected, as they have been addressing many of these issues on an ongoing basis. The country experiencing the most significant impact was Syria. Mass demonstrations and protests against the government were staged in several cities across the country. In Syria, the long-term leadership of an Alawite minority continues to run the government and control the military. The al-Assad family—a father and then his son—has ruled Syria since 1971. The Syrian government has cracked down on the revolution with hard-line measures aimed at subduing the protests and demonstrations. By September 2011, more than two thousand protesters had been killed in Syria, and many more were detained or tortured. Countless others have tried to flee to neighboring countries for their safety. The protesters in Syria want democratic reforms as well as the end of the al-Assad family reign.

Other parts of the realm also felt the effects of the Arab Spring of 2011 with mixed results. Iran has had similar protests and demonstrations in past years, but there was no major revolution or uprising as a direct result of the Arab Spring. Iran is not an Arab country but has experienced ongoing political friction between citizen factions and the government. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have tempered or isolated internal protests or revolutionary activities in those countries, even though armed conflicts continue. Various Central Asian states have been working through similar issues, but either has not had mass demonstrations or have not received news media attention regarding their situations. The wave of change swept over the realm of the Arab Spring of 2011 is an example of how centripetal and centrifugal cultural forces act on a state or region. The political landscape was altered or drastically changed in many countries. The impact of these changes will be realized in the years and decades to come.


It could be argued that the dominant cultural trait in the region is Islam: most of the people in the realm are Muslims. The practice of Islam in day-to-day life takes different forms in the various divisions of the religion. The differences between the divisions have contributed to conflict or open warfare. Islam acts as more than just a religion. It also serves as a strong cultural force that has historically unified or divided people. The divisive nature of the religion has often resulted in severe political confrontations within the realm between groups of different Islamic ideologies. Concurrently, Islam’s religion is also a unifying force that brings Muslims with similar beliefs together with common bonds. Islam provides structure and consistency in daily life.

Faith can provide comfort and a way of living. The holy cities of Mecca and Medina are located in Saudi Arabia. Other holy cities for other Islam divisions include Jerusalem and the two cities holy to Shia Muslims: Karbala and Najaf in Iraq. Islam dominates the realm, but other religions are significant in various regions. Israel is a Jewish state, and Christianity is common in places from Lebanon to Egypt. There are also followers of the Baha’i faith, Zoroastrianism, and groups such as the Druze, to name a few.

Located in the mountains of western Saudi Arabia, Mecca’s city (also spelled Makkah) began as an early trade center for the region and a hub for camel caravans trading throughout Southwest Asia and North Africa. Mecca is about forty-five miles from the Red Sea coast at an elevation of 531 feet. South of Mecca, the mountains reach more than 7,200 feet in elevation. According to Islamic tradition, the patriarch Abraham came to Mecca with his Egyptian wife Hagar and their son Ishmael more than two thousand years before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad (born 571 CE). When Hagar died, Abraham and Ishmael built the Kaaba (or Ka‘ba), a rectangular shrine that included a unique stone in Mecca. The shrine was destined to become one of the holiest sites for nomadic groups in Arabia. Abraham later died in Palestine in what is now the country of Israel. Centuries after Abraham’s death, the Kaaba and its rituals deteriorated and mixed with other local traditions.

The Prophet Muhammad

The traditional groups in the region of Arabia were polytheistic and worshiped their gods. By Muhammad’s time, Mecca is said to have been a center of worship to more than 360 deities or gods; the greatest of these was Allah (meaning “the god”). Allah was known as the chief of the Meccan pantheon of gods and was worshiped from southern Syria to Arabia. Mecca was full of idols, temples, and worship sites. Tradition states that the god Allah was the only god without an idol; he would become the sole entity of Muhammad’s new Islamic religion.

Muhammad, born in Mecca 571 years after the birth of Christ and about 100 years after the fall of the Roman Empire, was orphaned at an early age and was employed in a camel caravan when he reached his teens. His life and what has been reported about it changed the Middle East forever. Muhammad traveled throughout the region with the camel caravans. He was fortunate to have been able to live as he did because most orphans in the region did not have many opportunities in life. His travels introduced him to many people, places, and issues. His situation changed when Muhammad and a widow many years his senior was married. Muhammad became a merchant, the leader of a camel caravan, and a respected member of his community. He was reported to have been intelligent and a wise businessman.

The traditional groups that traded in Mecca held many different religious beliefs. The city was a forum for the many vices and activities associated with trade, travel, and metropolitan business. To escape Mecca’s activities, Muhammad would often seek the mountains’ solitude, where he would contemplate and think. Tradition states that the angel Gabriel appeared to him while he was meditating in a mountain cave in 610 CE when Muhammad was about forty. Muhammad was given words from Allah, which he recited from memory to his followers. According to tradition, Muhammad was illiterate; his supporters wrote down his words, compiled them into the Koran (Qur’an), the holiest book of Islam. Muhammad was the founder of the new religion, which he called Islam (meaning “submission to Allah”). The term Muslim (meaning “one who submits”) refers to a follower of Islam.

After Muhammad returned to Mecca and related his visions and Allah’s words from the angel Gabriel, he began to speak out against the city’s vices and many gods. He stated that there was only one god: Allah, the same creator, the God of Abraham. Muhammad spoke out against gambling and drinking alcohol and advocated the caretaking of widows and orphans. He also preached regarding family and community. His message was not well received: in 622 CE, the people of Mecca forced Muhammad out. He fled to the safety of the nearby city of Medina on a journey known as the hejira (hijra). This historic journey became the start of the Islamic calendar, which is based on the lunar cycles. Muhammad found refuge in Medina and became a respected citizen.

Launching out from Medina, Muhammad and those loyal to him defeated Mecca’s army and converted the city into Islam’s holiest place. They destroyed all Mecca’s idols and temples except the Kaaba. Muhammad’s teaching united the many Arabian groups under one religion. Since the Koran was written in Arabic, Arabic became the official language of Islam. The Kaaba and the mosque built at Mecca became the center of the Islamic world and a destination for Muslim pilgrims. Islam brought a new identity, a faith in one god, and a set of values to the Arab world. Islam made sense in a world with many traditional beliefs and few unifying principles.

It is essential to keep in mind that monotheist belief was not new: Christianity had been around for more than six hundred years. Judaism and Zoroastrianism in Persia had been around for centuries before Christianity. The principles of Islam and Muhammad’s teachings are a continuation of Judaism and Christianity. All three traditions assert a faith in a divine creator, with important messages coming through prophets or holy messengers. All three religions acknowledge Abraham as a founding patriarch. Muslims believe that Moses and Jesus were major prophets and that Muhammad was the most significant and final prophet. All three religions have stories about creation, Adam and Eve, the flood, and similar stories adapted to each religion’s traditions and characters.

Religion is an essential component of culture. The religions that emerged out of the Middle East absorbed many of the existing cultural traits, traditions, or habits of the people into their religious practices. Early Islam adapted many Arab cultural traits, styles of dress, foods, and the pilgrimage and folded them into its principles. Early Christianity and Judaism also adopted cultural traits, holidays, styles of dress, and cultural traditions.

Spatial Diffusion of Islam

The spread of Islam was accomplished through trade and conquest. Mecca was a center of trade. When camel caravans left Mecca, they carried Muhammad’s teachings with them. Islam diffused from Mecca and spread throughout the Middle East and into Central Asia and North Africa. The geographic principle of spatial diffusion can be applied to any phenomenon, idea, disease, or concept that spreads through a population across space and through time. The spatial diffusion of Islam outward from Mecca was significant and predictable.

There are two main types of spatial diffusion: expansion diffusion and relocation diffusion. Expansion diffusion has two main subtypes: contagious diffusion and hierarchical diffusion. A religion can spread from individual to individual through contagious diffusion when a religion starts at one point and propagates or expands outward from person to person or place in a pattern similar to the spreading of disease. Another way religion can spread through expansion diffusion is hierarchical, when rulers of a region convert to the religion and decree it as the official religion of their realm; the religion filters down the political chain of command and eventually reaches the masses. The second type of diffusion, relocation diffusion, occurs when the religion relocates to a new place from a central point. When Islam jumped from the Middle East to Indonesia, it diffused through relocation. Relocation diffusion also occurred when Islam spread to the United States.

Early on, the unifying principles of Islam found their way into the regional groups of Arabia and their leaders. By 700 CE, Islam had spread to the east, to the Mogul Empire of Pakistan and northern India. In India, Emperor Shah Jehan, who built the famous architectural marvel of the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for his wife, was a Muslim. The expansion of Islam fueled the Arab Empire of the Middle East. The capital city of the Arab Empire was first established at Medina and moved to Damascus and later to Baghdad. While Europe was enduring the Dark Ages, Islam experienced a renaissance, expanding its knowledge of mathematics, architecture, and the sciences. The Arab institutions of higher learning kept the Greek classics alive and established universities in Toledo (Spain), Cairo, and Baghdad. As of 2010, Islam has attracted as many as 1.5 billion followers, second only to Christianity, which has about 2 billion followers. Hinduism is third, with about 900 million followers. Buddhism is considered the world’s fourth-largest religion.

Five Pillars of Islam

The basic tenets of the Five Pillars of Islam create the foundational structure of Islam. Prayer is an integral part of religion. A Muslim must offer prayers five times a day: before sunrise, at midday, at mid-afternoon, after sunset, and in the early evening. During prayer, Muslims face toward the compass direction of Mecca. Before clocks and time were well established, a mosque leader would climb a minaret (a tall tower next to the mosque, their place of public worship) and call the faithful to prayer at the required times of the day. Muslims gather together for common prayer on Friday, which is a time to unite believers. Mosques sprang up after Muhammad died, becoming the center of community activities in the Islamic world.

The Five Pillars of Islam can be translated as follows:

  • Express the basic creed (Shahadah). Profess that there is no god but Allah and his messenger and prophet is Muhammad.
  • Perform the prayers (Salat). Pray five times a day.
  • Pay alms or give to charity (Zakat). Share what you have with less fortunate people.
  • Fast (Sawm). During Ramadan, abstain from personal needs, drinking, and eating from dawn to dusk (as one’s health permits).
  • Make the pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj). Conduct at least one pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca (if within one’s capacity).

Death of Muhammad

Muhammad died at the age of sixty-two. He never claimed to be a god or anything other than a mere mortal, and no provision was made to continue Muhammad’s work after he died. His tomb is located in Medina, the City of the Prophet. One division thought his successor should be a blood relative. This division led to the Shia (or Shi’ite) branch of Islam, which makes up about 15 percent of Muslims. Others felt that the successor should be a worthy follower and did not need to be blood relatives. This branch became known as Sunni, which makes up about 84 percent of Muslims. Various smaller branches of Islam also exist, including Sufi, which approaches the Islamic faith from a more mystical and spiritual perspective.

Sunni Muslims look to the family and community for direction; the whole community elects Sunni leaders. Shia Muslims look to their imams for the official source of direction. Imams hold the religious and political leadership in the Shia faith. Through the right of divine appointment, Imams are considered by many in the Shia division to hold absolute spiritual authority. Imams often have the final word regarding religious doctrine. Shia Muslims consider Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin Ali to be the origin of the direct line of succession for Imams. Ali is considered in Islam to have been the first person to accept and follow the words of Muhammad. There are many subgroups or branches in each of the Islamic divisions.

In understanding the Middle East, it is most critical to understand the Sunni and Shia divisions of Islam. The Shia and Sunni divisions of Islam have sometimes had divergent beliefs, resulting in conflicts. In the early sixteenth century, the Persian Empire, which is now Iran, declared the Shia branch its official religion. Its surrounding neighbors were predominantly Sunni. This divergence is part of the basis for the current civil unrest in Iraq. The two divisions of Islam currently vie for political power and control in Iraq. The majority of the Arab population in Iraq, about 60 percent in 2010, follows the Shia division of Islam, but the leadership under Saddam Hussein until 2003 was Sunni. Tradition states that Ali is buried in the Iraqi city of Najaf, which Shia Muslims consider being one of the holiest sites in Islam. Just north of Najaf is Karbala, which is considered a holy place for Shia Muslims because it is the burial place of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Husayn. The Shia majority in Iraq who are Arab share their faith with the Shia majority in Iran who are ethnically Persian.

Secular State or Religious State

Islam has a code of law called the Sharia criminal code, similar to Old Testament law. The Sharia dictates capital punishment for certain crimes. For example, if a person is caught stealing, his or her arm would be severed. For more serious offenses, he or she would be beheaded or stoned to death. Some countries use Sharia as the law of their country. Countries are called religious states (Islamic states in this case) when religious codes take precedence over civil law. States in which people democratically vote on civil law based on the collective agreement are called secular states. Whereas secular states attempt to separate religious issues and civil law, religious states attempt to combine the two. Iran is an excellent example of an Islamic religious state, and Turkey is an excellent example of a secular state. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and Saddam Hussein was removed from leadership, it entered a transitional period in which they had to decide if the country would develop into an Islamic state with the Sharia or move to a democratically elected government with civil law. The debate on these issues continually surfaces in many countries in North Africa and Southwest Asia whenever a transition occurs.

The cultural forces of democratic reforms and Islamic fundamentalism have been pushing and pulling on the Islamic world. Democratic reformers push for a more open society with equality for women, social freedoms for the people, and democratically elected government leaders. Islamic fundamentalists pull back toward a stricter following Islamic teachings; they oppose what they consider the decadent and vulgar ways of Western society and wish to restrict the influence of liberal, nonreligious teaching. A rift between militant Islamic fundamentalists and moderate Islamic reformers is evident throughout the Muslim world. Militant leaders strive to uphold the Sharia criminal code as law. Moderate reformers work toward a civil law based on democratic consensus. This rift adds to the conflicts that have been occurring in this realm. Islamic fundamentalists push for a more traditional and conservative society and express opposition to the United States’ intervention in the realm. The Muslim world will continue to confront such arguments about Islam’s future direction in a globalized economy.

The Rise and Approaching Fall of ISIS


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Introduction to World Regional Geography by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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