Since the very beginning of recorded history, the region known as the Middle East or Mesopotamia has been embroiled in a state of almost continuous conflict. The reasons for this legacy of bloodshed are manifold, with each battle having characteristics as varied and unique as the antagonists themselves; however there are certain underlying factors that make this part of the globe particularly fertile ground for conflict. Among these are its physical environment, strategic geographic location, and the religious fervor of its inhabitants and invaders alike.
The climate of the Middle East, in the words of historian Arthur Goldschmidt, “tends to be hot and dry. Most parts get some rainfall, but usually in amounts too small or too irregular to support settled agriculture.”[i] This scarcity of land suitable for development in a region with an arid climate, surrounded by vast deserts, imposing mountains, and a growing and diverse population made competition for its control fierce.
Known to historians as the cradle of civilization, or Fertile Crescent, it is where histories first known settled communities developed. As heretofore primitive man progressed from the nomadic hunter-gatherer to begin farming and cultivating the land and domesticating animals, the fertile river valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (in modern-day Iraq), and the Nile river valley in Egypt, land well suited to agriculture and grazing of livestock, were the ideal location for permanent settlement, and soon became bustling metropolises.
As the populations of these urban centers swelled, their growing complexity and vulnerability required organization and leadership. As its rich land was irrigated and cultivated, food surpluses provided the privileged in these communities with leisure time with which to think, build, innovate, and invent. The resulting technological advancements (the wheel, tool-making, metallurgy, writing) made diversification of the economy possible; and the scarcity of stone, metal, and wood, all essential for farming, building, and defense, made trade essential. This vigorous economic activity and trade created great wealth in these early cities. It also required a great deal of cooperation between people as the emerging division of labor (farmers, herdsmen, artisans, etc.) made neighbor increasingly dependent upon neighbor. The static location, sedentary lifestyles, and relative wealth of its people made them easy and inviting targets for raids by nearby nomadic peoples in search of booty and slaves, and invaders from the steppes of central Asia seeking conquest. These factors, along with the technological and logistical complexity of irrigation projects and collective defense led to the development of formal government structures.[ii]
The governments of these early Mesopotamian cities, such as those of Sumer, histories first known great empire in the region, were initially led by the priestly class, because, as historian John Keegan points out “mythic intercession with the Divine by the priests progressively invested them with political power.”[iii] These priests presently evolved into kings whose administrative, economic, military, and spiritual functions became absolute political power. And as Keegan further states “Sumerian cities early began to dispute among themselves over boundaries, water, and grazing rights … as a result, warfare increasingly dominated Sumerian life.”[iv] Battles for control of scarce natural resources soon became wars of conquest and empire building by powerful monarchs.
As mankind progressed, advanced civilizations developed in Egypt, Europe, India, and China, and the Middle East became a gateway or transit route between these great cities. And control of these trade routes became lucrative in its own right through taxation and raiding. This led rulers from the east and west to periodically expand into this strategic area to protect their merchants or to fill their treasuries with revenue from trade levies. The wealth thus generated led to the founding of new cities and the raising of new armies and often brought one empire into direct contact with another. Like the grinding of tectonic plates along fault lines, these encounters would increasingly bring the disparate cultures of east and west together and spark many wars of conquest between them.
Perhaps the earliest example of this clash of civilizations was the great Persian wars of the fifth century B.C. When the independent city-states of the Greek mainland aided their cousins under Persian rule in Anatolia (modern western Turkey) in revolt, Xerxes, “King of Kings”, ruler of the greatest empire the world had ever known, set out to punish the Athenians by expanding his rule west of the Bosporus strait. He launched a series of massive invasions of Greece and was dealt stunning defeats at such famous battles as Marathon, Salamis, Plataea, and the heroic, but doomed stand of King Leonidas and his Spartan “three hundred” at the pass of Thermopylae.
These attacks on Greece would serve, in part to inspire the Macedonians under Alexander the Great to respond in kind by invading and crushing Persia in the fourth century B.C., bringing the region, briefly, under Greek rule.
The Sumerian, Persian, and Greek empires are but three among the many powers to dominate the region through the centuries. The Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans, Arabs, Turks, and Mongols, to name a few, alternately wrested control of the region from its previous overlord; and with it, its accumulated wealth, natural resources, and control of lucrative trade routes.
These trade routes would retain strategic and economic value until the age of European exploration, which was sparked by the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Turks in 1453. The fall of Constantinople had two immediate and profound effects on the west, and as a result, on the rest of the world: it sent thousands of scholars and learned monks fleeing into western Europe for safety from the rampaging Muslim conquerors, bringing with them a thousand years of accumulated learning and the seeds of the Renaissance; and it necessitated the search for sea-routes which would by-pass the hostile Muslim-controlled land routes through the Middle East. This effort ultimately led to Columbus’s discovery of the America’s while in search of a westward route to the Far East. And the global hegemony which accompanied the West’s resurgence during this period, ironically, has enabled them to dominate the Middle East in the centuries since.
In addition to the competition for natural resources, and control of strategic land routes, an even more volatile catalyst to violence and war emerged in the region in the seventh century A.D: religion. The Prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam, began at this time, a series of military campaigns in the name of Allah, to spread Islam throughout the Arab world. This mission of Jihad, or holy war, was continued by his successors, or Caliphs, as the Dar-al-Islam (house of Islam) grew in the following centuries to dominate nearly all of the former Christian lands of the Middle East, Asia Minor, North Africa, Spain, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe. The wave of Islamic conquest into Western Europe was stopped by the Frankish army of Charles Martel, grandfather of Charles the Great, Charlemagne, at the battle of Tours in 732.
As historian Thomas Madden wrote “Unlike Islam, Christianity had no well-defined concept of holy war before the Middle Ages. Christ had no armies at his disposal, nor did his early followers.”[v] However, in the year 1095, in response to a request for aid from the Eastern Roman emperor Alexius I Comnenus, whose capital was once again under siege by a Muslim army, Pope Urban II, at the Council of Clermont, called on Europe’s Christians to raise an army and aid their beleaguered brethren in the east. The Pope further urged those who answered his call-to-arms to liberate the Holy Land from its brutal Turk overlords to make safe Christian pilgrimage to the birthplace of Jesus.
The series of campaigns that followed and continued for two centuries have come to be known as the crusades and the reconquista, and were a belated response to four hundred years of organized Muslim jihad warfare against Christendom. The crusades would have a profound effect not only on Middle Eastern history, but on the western way of warfare for centuries to come. As Keegan wrote, “The conflict resolved the inherent Christian dilemma over the morality of warmaking by transmitting to the West the ethic of holy war, which was thereafter to invest Western military culture with an ideological and intellectual dimension it had thitherto lacked.”[vi]
The Muslim ethic of holy war endures to this day in the Middle East. With the military supremacy of the ascendant West absolute in modern warfare, pious Muslim fundamentalists seeking martyrdom in jihad have sought a new outlet in the form of Islamic terrorism. The enduring appeal to jihad can be traced directly to Islam’s holy book, The Koran; seen as the very word of God himself, as revealed to His Prophet, it elevates death in battle for Islam as the most pious act one can perform, and promises rich rewards for martyrs. Verse 9:19, for example states “Do you pretend that he who gives drink to the pilgrims and pays a visit to the Sacred Mosque is as worthy as the man who believes in God and the Last Day, and fights for God’s cause?…Those that have embraced the faith, and left their homes, and fought for God’s cause with their wealth and with their persons, are held in higher regard by God. It is they who shall triumph. Their Lord has promised them mercy from Himself, and His pleasure and gardens of eternal bliss where they shall dwell forever.”[vii] Many other verses also guarantee paradise for those killed in jihad.
Today’s Middle East is still embroiled in conflict. The coalition war vs. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the remnants of his regime, and Islamic terrorists; the Arab-Israeli conflict; Iranian and Syrian state sponsorship of terrorism; sectarian violence between competing Muslim sects, each considered by the others to be infidels or apostates, against whom it is a Muslim duty to wage jihad; Iranian pursuit of a nuclear weapon and with it the ability to “wipe Israel off the map’, as its leader has promised.
All of these conflicts can trace their roots, in whole or in part, to the three root causes of conflict responsible for most of the endemic violence that has plagued the region for many thousands of years. And ultimately, if one is to believe in prophesy as written in the book of Revelations, Armageddon (Rev 16:16), the site of the great penultimate struggle between the forces of good and evil, is believed by many scholars to be the ancient city of Megiddo in Israel. This city sits astride a strategic land route between Egypt and Syria, and has been the site of more battles in recorded history than any other. (Most recently in WWI, where the Turks and British clashed) It is, according to prophecy, in this most war-torn place in the globe’s bloodiest region where the Middle East’s and the world’s final battle will take place.
[i] Goldschmidt, Arthur. A Concise History of the Middle East. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2006, 7
[iii] Keegan, John. A History of Warfare. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993, 127
[iv] Keegan, 133
[v] Madden, Thomas, F. A Concise History of the Crusades. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999, 1
[vii] The Koran. Translated by N.J. Dawood. London: Penguin, 2003, 135