The Middle East is a region in western Asia and north-eastern Africa. The term was created by British military strategists in the 19th century, and definitions of the Middle East vary; it is not simply a geographical term, but also a political one, connoting that it separates Europe ("the West") from the Far East.
While the region is known for its arid climate, not all of the land consists of desert. The mountains in Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, Israel and northern Iraq even have ski resorts. The region is also the cradle of the world's first urban civilizations (especially in Iraq), and the birthplace of the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Countries and territories
The Middle East is a transcontinental region centered on Western Asia, Turkey (both Asian and European), and Egypt (which is mostly in North Africa). Saudi Arabia is geographically the largest Middle Eastern nation while Bahrain is the smallest.
The term "Middle East" was created by the British in the 19th century due to the important trading routes such as the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf and there is no precise definition; it is a political term as much as geographical, but also Eurocentric, implying that it separates "the West" (Europe) from the Far East. Some countries included in the Middle East by most definitions, and included in our list below, also overlap into other regions. Turkey can be considered as part of Europe, while Egypt is part of North Africa and Iran has strong connections to Central Asia. Some definitions are broader than ours and include one or more of Libya (which is in North Africa), the Sudan or Cyprus.
The geographical territory of the Middle East was created way before the Western terms "Middle East/Near East". It was created by Arab geographers and Historians such as Ibn Khaldun in the Middle Ages and the main criteria was to split the Western Berber Arab countries (Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco) from the Arab mainlands (Egypt, the Levant, the Arabian peninsula and Iraq). The western part of the Arab world was called the “Maghreb” which is an Arabic word meaning “Where the sun sets” referring to the Western part of the Arab world, the other half of the Arab world. The Middle East was called "Al Mashriq" Arabic word for "where the sun rises" referring to the Eastern part of the Arab world (Egypt, the Levant, The Arabian peninsula and Iraq) The non Arab countries were later added to the list when the western terms were created in the 19th and 20th century (Iran, Turkey, Israel and Cyprus).
People usually confuse Middle East with Western Asia. Although West Asia significantly overlaps with the Middle East, the main difference usually being the exclusion of the majority of Egypt (which would be counted as part of North Africa) and the inclusion of the Caucasus. The other difference is the fact that The Middle East is not a continent but a geopolitical transcontinental region (crosses multiple continents) where its geographical territory is solely based on shared politics, shared culture and shared History rather than a shared continent. The Middle East lies in the intersection of Africa, Asia and Europe, while "West Asia" is literally the Western direction of Asia on a world map, therefore it is monocontinental. The previous geopolitical term of the Middle Eastern region was once called “Near East” by the British which basically encompassed modern day Middle East. The Near East region was referred to the Oriental countries that were closer to Europe and Britain in contrast to the Far East, hence the word "Near East". Back then, the word “Orient” or “Oriental” in it’s original definition, referred to modern day middle eastern countries especially Egypt and the Levant. Now the word “Oriental” is usually associated with far East Asian cultures and nations(China, Japan, Korea, Etc). Also, the Middle East is not synonymous with "Arab". There are 3 non Arab countries in the Middle East such as Israel, Turkey and Iran(4 if we add Cyprus).
As one of the wellsprings of human civilization in the ancient and medieval worlds, the birthplace of several world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Bahai) and an area of much modern economic and political importance, the Middle East remains a popular destination for travelers.
Ethnically, the region is extremely diverse. Arabs, Persians and Turks are the largest ethnic groups, but there are several substantial minorities — Kurds, Copts, Jews, Druze, Assyrian, Armenians and others — with their own languages, customs and sometimes their own countries as well as regions. Every invading army — from Alexander and the Romans through Genghis Khan to the 19th century colonial powers — has left an impact. There are also substantial numbers of workers from other countries coming to the region for higher pay for jobs like construction labor — for jobs like construction labor mainly Afghans, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Indians, Filipinos, and some westerners in the more skilled jobs.
Almost every country in the Middle East has a Muslim majority (with the notable exception of Israel which has a Jewish majority), with Iran, Iraq and Bahrain mainly Shia, other areas mainly Sunni, and both with minorities of the other — and the legal systems in most of these countries are influenced in some form by Islamic Law; a few are entirely based on it.
North Africa is similar to the Middle East in many ways — language, religion, culture and some ethnic groups. On the other hand, while Egypt is part of North Africa, it is also in the Middle East and not part of the Maghreb region (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya). Over the Years North Africa has become synonymous with "the Maghreb" which confuses people about Egypt. Egypt is part of the Mashriq region, which in today's terms refers to the Middle East (not including Sudan). Egypt sits in a very unique geographical position and shares both Maghreb and Middle Eastern cultures. The word "Maghreb" in this context refers to the West and means "place where the sun sets" and "Mashriq" refers to the East and means "place where the sun rises".
On the other side, countries in South Asia such as Pakistan and Afghanistan and much of Central Asia also have certain things in common with the Middle East. Ethnic groups and languages are different, but the religion, much of the food, clothing, and architecture are similar. Iran could be counted as part of either region; at one point most of Central Asia was part of the Persian Empire.
The border between southeastern Europe and the Middle East is also unclear. Many writers include Turkey in their usage of "Middle East" and we include it above. Turkey as well as much of the Levant are on the Mediterranean, sharing similarities with other countries on the Mediterranean. On the other hand, several countries usually considered European — Greece, Cyprus and to some extent the Balkans — also have Middle Eastern aspects to their culture.
The largest hub for flights in the region is Dubai, from where you can reach virtually any point in the Middle East. After Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi also have good intercontinental connections. Tel Aviv is served by flights from most Western countries, though due to the political situation, it is not possible to fly from there to anywhere in the Middle East besides Egypt, Turkey and Jordan. However, there are direct flights from large European hubs to most major cities in the region.
Public transport is poor compared to other regions of the world including other parts of Asia. The majority of locals would use plane or car travel to get between countries.
Should you wish to enter Bahrain on land, the only way is via the King Fahd Causeway which extends from Saudi Arabia into Bahrain. Bear in mind that while Bahrain issues visas on arrival, provisions for this in Saudi Arabia are not available to non Gulf nation passport holders.
Rail travel in the Middle East is limited and whilst most countries have limited passenger services between cities, there is very little between countries.
Istanbul is the best starting point for rail journeys to a lot of areas in the Middle East. From here, a service to Aleppo in Syria operates from which one can take a connecting service to Damascus. There is a train that connects Damascus with Amman in Jordan. A service from Istanbul also operates to Tehran which includes a 4 hour ferry journey across Lake Van. In general, these trains tend to operate weekly or at most bi weekly.
All other countries in this region have no international rail services.
This is a more practical option than trains in the Middle East as they are less prone to delays and breakdowns and have far more extensive coverage of the region.
Arabic is the primary language of the region, and the main language in all Middle Eastern countries except Iran (where Persian predominates), Turkey (Turkish) and Israel (Hebrew). Even in those countries, Arabic is fairly common as a second language; in Israel, Arabic is a second official language. Yiddish, Ladino, Kurdish, Azeri, Armenian and several other languages are also spoken in some regions.
English is moderately common in tourist areas and generally rare elsewhere. In Turkey, some German is spoken because many Turks work in Germany and Austria.
Cookery provides obvious evidence of the extent of Middle Eastern influence. Turkish doner kebab, Greek gyros and the shawarma of the Arab countries (everywhere from Oman to Morocco) are all basically the same dish. A traveller going overland from Europe to India will find very similar dishes — notably flat breads and kebabs — in every country from Greece to India. These are also seen in Central Asia and even China. Many Greek dishes are closer to Iranian cooking than to Italian.also you can eat Iranian (Persian) great foods like : Ghorme Sabzi or Dizi. Many imagining Israeli cuisine as European state and it is wrong, Israel has also an Arab cuisine of Jews from Arab countries like Kubbeh Matfuniya, Baklava, Falafel, Kebabs (Turkish/Iraqi) and even some dishes that created by Mizrahi Jews like Jerusalem Mixed Grill and Sabich.
Basically, you will encounter two kinds of cuisine:
When it comes to meat, be aware that chicken, goat and lamb are the most represented. Beef is not so widely represented, as, aside Lebanon and some parts of Egypt and Turkey -and Algeria, if you consider it as Middle East- lands are pretty dry (don't look for meadows then). Pork is prohibited in Islam and Judaism, so just forget it while you are there, even in Christian areas, why bothering with a meat than cannot be as fresh and clean as expected?
Planning a visit to the Middle East can be complicated in various ways:
Do NOT compare any other Arab country to Iran or Iraq! They are a completely different cultures and most of the Middle East hates both Iraq and Iran for their terrorism, missile testing, and religious differences. Iranians/Iraqs following Shia where the rest follow Sunni. Do not bring up the topic of Shia Islam. It is seen as a blasphemy and condemned deviation of the Sunni faith. If you do, you may be charged with blasphemy which can be punishable by death. Also, you can start a fierce argument leading to violence or vigilante attacks/executions.
Most middle east countries have low HIV rate. Some countries have a higher risk of certain diseases (see individual country articles for specific info).