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The Middle East at the Beginning of the 20th Century

This map is part of a series of 18 animated maps showing the history of The Middle East since the beginning of the 20th century


The Arab Middle East extended from the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia, including the Arabian Peninsula and the Nile Valley.

Arabic was the common language, apart from groups such as the Kurds in the north-east.

The region was host to a wide variety of religions. Most of the inhabitants were Sunnite Muslims but, even within the Islamic community, there were several schismatic groups, the largest being the Shiites found mostly in Iraq and Lebanon, the Wahhabites in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Alawites and the Druze found in the mountainous regions along the coast. Christian and Jewish communities had settled along the Mediterranean coast and in many urban areas. 

Most of the Middle East was ruled by the Sultan of Istanbul, Protector of the Pilgrimage to Mecca; with the construction of railway lines from Istanbul to Medina, his domain was extended as far as the Hejaz.  

The Ottoman Empire was divided into administrative provinces: Mosul, Baghdad and Bassora in Mesopotamia, Aleppo, Damascus and Beirut in Syria. These provinces were further divided into districts, known as Sandjaks.

The Sandjak of Jerusalem was a special case, since it was under direct rule from the Ottoman Government, the Sublime Porte.

At the beginning of the 20th century, however, some regions were already shaking off their Ottoman rulers: the Arabian Peninsula, for example, was dominated by Ibn Saud, and Yemen was in permanent conflict with the Porte.

A similar situation existed in other regions, influenced by the presence of European powers for which the Middle East, straddling the crossroads of trade routes to Asia, was a very important strategic area.

Great Britain in particular wanted to maintain control of the route to India. Already dominant in Egypt, it established protectorates in Aden and the coastal emirates in the Gulf.

The other European powers, notably France, negotiated Capitulations which, together with their influence over minority communities and their trading posts along the Levantine coast, allowed them to establish their political, commercial and cultural dominance. 

The impact of these European interests can be seen in the creation of an autonomous regime, known as the Mount Lebanon Governorate.

At the end of the 19th century, new ideas about the place of Arabs in the Empire and of Islam in a modern world were being discussed in Arab centres and from which emerged the first signs of Arabism and Islamism.

The Ottoman Sultan began to take greater interest in Arab affairs and in Pan-Islamism, but was soon opposed by a liberal movement in Anatolia, known as the “Young Turks”, which became very influential in Istanbul from 1908.

Quickly, this movement imposed a Turkish and secular form of nationalism which excluded all other components of Ottoman society. At the same time, the rise of Zionism, the first groups of European Jews immigrating to Palestine and withdrawal of the Ottoman Empire from Libya and the Balkans strengthened Arab calls for recognition of their separate identity.