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Why is the Middle East called the Middle East?

The Middle East. This term, which has become a bit of a catch-all, roughly designating a group of countries in the eastern Mediterranean basin and the Arabian Peninsula, and even certain parts of Central Asia, has a history. And it’s as complex as the definition of the term itself.

A legacy of British imperialism

The “Middle East” is a geographic term that shifts depending on the user and the era. This term gained prominence in the late 19th century when the British, as part of their imperial ambitions and colonial expansion, sought to create a term that would encompass the territories they controlled or influenced in the region. At that time, the British Empire had significant interests in India, Egypt, and the Gulf region.

The usage of this term skyrocketed when American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan seized the phrase in 1902, describing it as the lands between Arabia and India, which were of particular relevance during “The Great Game”, an era of competition between the British and Russian Empires to exert influence over Iran and Afghanistan.

Alongside the “Middle East,” other Eurocentric geographic terms were coined, such as the Near East, in contrast to the Far East. The Near East referred to the eastern Mediterranean regions, closest to Europe, but the Far East encompassed countries like China, Japan, and Korea.


Near East or Middle East ?

These two concepts, the Near East and the Middle East, were coined by the United Kingdom, the world’s leading power at the time preoccupied with the security of its imperial stronghold in India. However, following the weakening of the Ottoman Empire and the opening of the Suez Canal, both regions gained in strategic importance for London, and the term Middle East was increasingly used to refer to this region. The Near East, originally encompassing the areas of the Balkans that Russia sought to control, gradually evolved into Turkey and the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, where French and German rivals sought to establish their influence during the First World War.

Today, the two terms are often used interchangeably, although the Near East has fallen slightly into disuse. Moreover, some people refer to the Near East solely as the Levantine part of the Middle East.

Moreover, other expressions occasionally emerged. One such concept is the “Greater Middle East”, employed by the U.S. President George W. Bush in the early 2000s. This term reflected a specific vision of the world, primarily seen from the perspective of the United States, encompassing the region from Morocco to Afghanistan, mainly through a religious prism.


See also

Myths and truths about the pomgranate, the popular Middle Eastern superfood

Published on 2 August 2023