Much has been made of how European imperial powers reshaped the Middle East after World War I, a transformation often said to have begun 100 years ago this week when France and Britain signed the Sykes-Picot agreement. But fewer people realize that, in addition to creating the map of the modern Middle East, postwar European imperialists actually created the concept. The region we recognize as the Middle East today, a roughly defined but distinct swath of territory stretching from Turkey to Egypt to Iran, only came into being with the end of the Ottoman Empire and the disappearance of the older, now antiquated-sounding “Near East.”


The British used to think of the region that roughly corresponds to today's Middle East as two entities: the Near East (the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean) and the Middle East (the region around Iran and the Persian Gulf). By Nick Danforth, based on A. Keith Johnston's 1852 "Chart of the World Showing the Forms and Directions of the Ocean Currents."

Before World War I, the British had mentally divided what most of the world now considers the Middle East into the Near East (the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean) and the Middle East (the region around Iran and the Persian Gulf). There was a certain geographic and strategic logic to this division. The Near East was, well, nearer than the Middle East, and the Middle East was in the middle of the Near and Far Easts. For British colonial administrators, the Middle East was the region that was crucial to the defense of India, while the Near East was largely under the control of the Ottoman Empire.

This all changed after the Ottoman Empire’s collapse a century ago. The Balkans and then modern Turkey began to seem more Western, while other parts of the Near East came under British control and fell victim to that empire’s bureaucratic reorganization. Winston Churchill, as secretary of state for the colonies, created a “Middle Eastern Department” covering the newly acquired territories of Palestine, Jordan and Iraq. Now this region, too, became part of Britain’s plans for defending its colonial holdings everywhere east of the Suez Canal. In the dramatic words of the historian Roderic Davison, “In this fashion the Middle East burst onto the Mediterranean Coast.”

[Embedded Google Ngram]

For several decades, the new usage remained confined to obscure branches of the British government. But, as this chart shows, it spread to the broader English-speaking public during World War II, when people suddenly started reading daily news reports about military developments in the area. Then, when Americans took a newfound interest in the region with the advent of the Cold War, they adopted the then-prevalent British term for it.

Does any of this matter?

Some have suggested that the term “Middle East” is problematic because it is, undeniably, a Western term reflecting a Western perspective. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, once observed that the region should really be called West Asia, and there have been occasional efforts to adopt terms like “Southwest Asia” in academic circles. Yet there are plenty of countries whose names imply a relative geography that we hardly notice — Norway (north) and Austria (east), for example. And Arabic speakers have long referred to North Africa as the Maghreb — from a word meaning west — because it is on the western side of the Arabic-speaking world.

Anti-imperialist critics of the concept might also take comfort from knowing that no less an imperialist than Churchill never much liked the term he helped create. In 1950, he lamented: “I had always felt that the name ‘Middle East’ for Egypt, the Levant, Syria, and Turkey was ill-chosen. This was the Near East.”