History of the Modern Middle East–Lecture 3: Geography and Inequality (part 1)


The following are my notes from the lecture that was given by Prof. Richard Bulliet of Columbia University on January 17, 2009. Since this was an audio and not a video lecture on iTunes, I downloaded some maps from worldatlas.com to illustrate his narrative.

1. Books on the Ottoman empire

He makes a preliminary remark regarding books assigned in the class regarding the Ottoman Empire. He recommends Osman’s Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire by Caroline Finkel, a general history from its origins to its end, which he considers to be a better-written book than the one by Donald Quataert called The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922.

2. Geography of the Middle East—general orientation

The lecture is about the geography of the Middle East. 40 degrees North latitude is where New York City is; it is the same latitude as Madrid, Rome, and Istanbul. Each degree of latitude is about 70 miles. If you go to 30 degrees North latitude, 10 degrees farther South, you are at the latitude of Cairo and Jacksonville, FL, that is to say, Northern Florida, and Houston, Texas. If you go to 20 degrees North latitude, you are at Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, which is pretty much the same level as Mecca, since it is simply uphill from Jeddah, and the level of Mexico City. This gives you some sense of what we are talking about in a North and South perspective.

Figure 1. Mediterranean Sea and bordering countries

In terms of East and West, here is the Mediterranean Sea. It is connected to the Black Sea by the straits that are located where Istanbul is. Then you have the Caspian Sea, which is the northern border of Iran. And then you have a little sea bordering Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan called the Aral Sea.

Figure 2. The Caspian and bordering countries

The Mediterranean Sea was known by the Ottomans as the Akdeniz, or the White Sea, the White Sea as opposed to the Black sea. Then you have the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.

Figure 3. Red Sea and surrounding countries

Figure 4. Persian Gulf and surrounding countries

These are the principal bodies of water that we deal with in the history of the Middle East. If you take the Caspian Sea and the Aral Sea (figure 2), and you go north, you get to a range of mountains that runs due north and south for a very long distance up into Arctic areas, and those mountains are called the Ural mountains. They are traditionally the division between Europe and Asia in the areas north of where you have a division of water between the two continents.

Figure 5. Mountain ranges of Europe (Ural mountains at Eastern edge)

This course deals with the area from 30 North latitude to 50 North latitude, from the Ural Mountains westward to the Atlantic Ocean. This essentially is the Northwest corner of the Eurasian landmass that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and the Northern part of Africa, or the Afro-Eurasian landmass. This description probably doesn’t really help you at all (laughter).

What helps more is to note that this area (Figure 6) is the Sahara desert. It runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. It is crossed only by the Nile River.

Figure 6. Sahara Desert

Once you get across the Red Sea, you continue to have a desert (Figure 7) called the Arabian Desert, but it stretches up somewhat farther. As you go up, the desert regions trend to the northeast. In Iran, it is the central part of Iran that is mostly desert, and it is north of the Arabian Desert. There is a desert just south of the Aral Sea, and a desert on the other side of the river that feeds into the Aral Sea, called the Kara Kum desert. Deserts continue on east from here over to Northern China.

Figure 7. Arabian Desert and Deserts of Iran

After the orientation to the class of where the areas are on the map that he will be speaking of during the rest of the course, Prof. Bulliet turns from geography to demography of the various regions that make up the Modern Middle East.  That is what I will cover in the next post.

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