The area of modern-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Israel-Palestine comprise the area of what is commonly referred to as the cradle of civilization. Around 5,000-1,750 BCE within the Mesopotamia region, the Sumerians formed, of what is commonly accepted amongst the archeological community, one of the early complex civilizations complete with written laws, and a political system. Additionally, the Mesopotamian region is credited with many of our currently held myths surrounding gods, such as the creation myths, flood myths, and the fall of man.
The Middle East has contributed to three of the world’s largest monotheistic religions which include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Much of the contributed early spread of Judaism was due to immigration and the Romans forcibly dispersing the rebelling Israelites throughout the first and second century A.D. Remarkably it is also quite easy to forget early Christianity was the predominant religion of Middle Easterners who then went about converting Europeans.
In the 7th century A.D., the Prophet Mohammed founded Islam, in present-day Saudi Arabia. The early followers of Mohammed considered Islam, not only a religion but that of a community as well. Just as the neighboring Persian and Byzantine empires were near collapsing Islam spread rapidly across the Arabian peninsula managing to conquer the entire Middle East, Persia, North Africa, in addition to parts of southern Europe in a relatively short time from that of Mohammed’s death in 632 to 652.
The history of the Sunni and Shia contention began following the death of the Prophet Muhammed in 632. As oftentimes remains the case, a significant power struggle ensued following the death of Muhammed as to who should rule the Islamic Caliphate. Some Muslims believed a new leader should be elected by the elite of the community with others arguing power should be transferred by divine right to Muhammed’s son-in-law, Ali. Those in support of Ali were known as “Partisans of Ali,” or “Shi’atu Ali” in Arabic, thus the term “Shia.” Initially, the Sunnis prevailed in electing a successor to be established as the first caliph, however, two of the first caliphs would be murdered with Ali eventually being chosen as the fourth caliph. Ali’s rise to power ignited a civil war in the Muslim community, with Ali being killed in 661 in what is now present-day Iraq. The war would continue with Ali’s son, Hussein, who rejected the caliph rule at the time. Hussein’s small army would face the very large army of the caliph only to be massacred with Hussein being decapitated and his body left on the battlefield at Karbala. It is this symbolism of Hussein’s death which holds significance amongst many of the Shia. This pattern of violence would split the Muslim community into two separate branches which remain to this day. The Shia continue to hold to the idea of Ali being the rightful successor with about 10-15 percent of Shia comprising the entire population of Islam, with the majority residing in present-day Iran and Iraq.
The growth of Islam would contribute to Mesopotamia recapturing some of its former status as an ancient empire. Within Baghdad, the Abbasid caliphs would establish an administrative system of the Persian empire. It is at this phase that Islam would become an international religion outgrowing its Arabic roots with Arabic and early Persian languages coalescing. The luxury of Baghdad during the late 8th century is most reflected in the western mind by one of the more famous works commonly known in the west as Arabian Nights, more accurately reflected as the Thousand and One Nights. The end of the 8th century reflects a distinctive Arab civilization within different regions with the triumph of Arabic as the language in the Middle East and North Africa. Africa would become the first region to which Islam would spread by means other than an army, being brought by merchants along trade routes, and by the 11th-century rulers would begin to be converted.
A continual territorial expansion of Turkish tribes would contribute to the Ottoman Empire rising to become one of the most powerful states during the 15th and 16th centuries and span more than 600 years. The height of the Ottoman Empire would provide it encompassing areas which would include most of southeastern Europe including Greece, parts of Ukraine, portions of the Middle East, including Iraq, Syria, Israel, Egypt, present-day Hungary, the Balkan region, as well as an expansion into North Africa. The Ottoman Empire is named after Osman, the initial ruler who contributed to the early expansion from a tiny portion of northwest Turkey.
During the 18th century, the Ottoman Empire would find itself inevitably embroiled in European affairs as Napoleon invades Egypt with an intention of harming British interest. Additionally, during the early 19th century several schemes by Greek aristocrats would be developed with the intention of liberating Greece. By 1870 what is considered misrule would lead to the Balkans mounting to a complete uprising in Bulgaria in 1876, with a revolt also breaking out in the region of Plovdiv in May 1876 which is crushed by the extreme ruthlessness of the Turkish volunteers with a complete massacre of somewhere in the vicinity of 15,000 Bulgarians. This would contribute to anti-Turkish sentiment spreading and by June Serbia would declare war on Turkey, with European anti-Turkish sentiment growing as well. Russia would declare war on Turkey in 1877, with Romania joining Russia in an alliance, and by the 1890s demands from nationalist will have removed Turkish control from more than half of the Ottoman Empire. What was once an expansive empire is being weakened by decades of growing anti-Turkish sentiment, confrontation on multiple fronts, and nationalistic uprisings.
The entry of the Ottoman Empire into World War I in November of 1914 would lead to the eventuality of the dissolution of the empire. Historians debate the decision of the entry as it is not entirely clear as to the rational as the empire was not officially allied with any of the great empires. Some perceive the early victories of the German army may have led to a hasty decision as opportunistic. As the war continued the Allies-Britain, France and Russia would have many discussions concerning the fate of the Ottoman Empire and its vast territorial expanse. The Sykes-Picot agreement which concluded on May 19, 1916, would divide up the Arab territories into spheres of influence, and the Middle East would be transformed in ways it had not seen in centuries, with Arab resistance movements initiating almost immediately.