The Greater Middle East

Travelogue & Reflections

by H. K. Chang (Author)
©2021 Monographs VIII, 372 Pages


Greater Middle East: Travelogue and Reflections is a history reader, cultural primer and notebook of a peripatetic rolled into a single volume. Raised in Taiwan and steeped in Chinese culture, Professor Chang set out on his self-styled "voyage across civilizations" from Gondar, Ethiopia, where his parents pioneered a medical center for WHO in the early 1960s.
Over the next five decades, he voyaged frequently. Two hard statistics are informative: 105 countries, 58 years. Based on his on-the-ground observations, he proposes the concept of a "Greater Middle East" that consists of 16 countries of the traditional Middle East, plus another 15 located on its periphery. Excepting Israel, the former are overwhelmingly Muslim, with Egypt to the west, Yemen and Oman to the south, Turkey to the north, and Iran to the east.
But his travelogue also takes us to the "fringes": North Africa’s Maghreb, whose fusion of pre-Islamic Berber roots and deep Muslim faith makes it unique; the four countries of the Horn of Africa where Asia meets Africa, particularly Ethiopia with its Orthodox Christian faith and Jewish Falasha; the Mediterranean’s Greece, Cyprus and Malta; and the hodge-podge of ethnicities and religions that inhabit the southern Caucasus—Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Professor Chang is not an Arabist, an anthropologist or a travel writer along the lines of a sometimes-caustic Paul Theroux. Nor is he a European limited by a traditional Western education with its emphasis on Judeo-Christian values. While this travelogue is hardly a Chinese "take" on the Greater Middle East, it does benefit from the author’s firm grounding in East Asian culture and history. In particular, there are several "bonus" chapters documenting the impact of the Mongol Empire and nomadic culture of the Turkic peoples on the region, and this is something special—perhaps even unexpected—that you won’t find in your run-of-the-mill Middle East guidebook.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Introduction: Far from Quiescent Over Here
  • Section One: Periphery of Greater Middle East
  • Ethiopia: Starting Point Out of Africa
  • Ethiopia: Proud Lion of the Horn of Africa
  • Eritrea: An Isolated and Ancient Country on the Southwestern Red Sea
  • Yemen: Turmoil in the Gulf of Aden
  • Somalia and Djibouti: The Turbulent Gulf of Aden
  • Sudan: A Glimpse of the Nile at Night
  • Four Countries of the Maghreb: Similarities Are Deceptive
  • The Maghreb: Couscous, Moorish Architecture and St. Augustine
  • Morocco: Where the Sun Truly Sets
  • Greece: Revisiting the Hellenic Republic Amidst the Debt Crisis
  • Greece: Classical Greek Culture and Western Learning’s Eastward Migration
  • Byzantium: The Roman Empire That Spoke Greek
  • Cyprus: Pawn in the Mediterranean
  • From Rhodes to Malta: The Saga of the Knights of St. John
  • Caucasus: Euro-Asian Borderline of Confrontation
  • Armenia: Scars of History
  • Georgia: Stalin’s Homeland
  • Azerbaijan: Of Poets and Petroleum
  • Section Two Traditional Middle East
  • Egypt: On the Banks of Nile, at the Foot of the Pyramids
  • Egypt: From “Era of Ignorance” to “Egyptology”
  • Egypt: Center of the Arab World
  • Istanbul: Eternal Tulip Capital
  • Turkey: Continuous Cultural Revolution—
  • Turkey: Call of the Mosque
  • Turkey—Joining the EU: Must Turkey Decouple with Asia?
  • Iran: After the Revolution
  • Iran: Pilgrimage to the Grand Cities of Persia
  • Iran—Which Does It Want: East or West?
  • Mesopotamia: Cradle of Human Civilization
  • Iraq: Birthplace of Urban Civilization
  • The Arabian Peninsula: Birthplace of Islamic Civilization
  • The Persian Gulf: Purchasing Modernization
  • Syria and Lebanon: Migrating Civilizations
  • Syria: Author, Teacher, Driver, President
  • Lebanon—Closer Observation: 21st-century Sequel to a Visit in the 60s
  • Jordan: Who Says a People Cannot Be the Masters of Their Own Destiny?
  • Israel: The Jewish State
  • Palestine: Conflicting Claims to Jerusalem
  • Israel and Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples and Three Faiths
  • Section Three East-Asian Nomadic Culture and the Middle East
  • Agricultural vs. Nomadic Lifestyles: “Clash” of Civilizations?
  • A Brief History of Nomadic Peoples and Eurasia
  • Monarchs and Monks: Emergence of a Class Society
  • Islam: A Brief Introduction
  • The Turkic-Speaking Peoples and Islam
  • The Mongolian Empire and Our Modern World
  • Key Events in the Greater Middle East
  • Index

←vii | viii→


Far from Quiescent Over Here

I. Foreword and Definitions

By the end of 2010, the manuscript for the first edition of this book was essentially complete. It included my experiences and impressions as I resided in and traveled throughout the “Greater Middle East,” profiles of each country’s social, political, and economic status; and summaries and comparisons of their national histories and cultures.

Just as we were preparing for publication, the “Arab Spring” broke out in North Africa and the Middle East. Doubtless this string of explosive events brought my book to the attention of more readers. Ironically, their interest may also have been diverted away from my personal experiences and perceptions, and toward the region’s political struggles, social transformations, and cultural dilemmas.

However, a book devoted to a current set of circumstances is unlikely to enable the majority of readers to carefully ruminate on a topic, and thoroughly savor its aftertaste too. Anyone who lacks basic knowledge of a region’s historical evolution and cultural traditions will also be hard-pressed to fathom its social and political dynamics.

With the appearance of the “Arab Spring” (an evocative term coined by Western media), huge numbers of young men and women in several Arab states played a role in rocking the foundations of social stability. Many are well educated ←1 | 2→but without decent employ. They detest the dominance of the rich and powerful in their own societies, yet hold naive concepts of “fairness and justice” that they imagine exist in other lands. They exploited social media to liaise with those of like mind, bravely and movingly articulating their criticisms while perceiving themselves as society’s future—which is indisputable—but their visions of that future were hardly identical.

Therefore, when Da Zhongdong Xingji (this travelogue) was published in Chinese in 2011—despite worldwide familiarity with the “Arab Spring,” the omnipresent traces of geopolitics and struggles between the great powers, and the venting of long-suppressed youthful energy across the region—the focus of this book remained on what the author had parsed from half a century of roaming, observation, and reflection throughout the “Greater Middle East.”

For decades, the “Greater Middle East” has frequently been the focal point of global news—from the Arab-Israeli wars to the oil crisis; from Palestinian refugees to the Lebanese civil wars; from the Iranian revolution to the Iran-Iraq war; from the two Persian Gulf wars to 9/11 and al-Qaeda; from the hope-filled “Arab Spring” to the enormous suffering of Arab civilians; from political conflicts in Ukraine to Russia’s “annexation” of Crimea; from the debt crisis faced by the populist Greek authorities to a democratically elected government’s veer toward autocracy in Turkey; from civil war in Syria to the establishment of the Islamic State’s “Caliphate”; from repeated violent terrorist incidents to the EU’s impotence in the face of its “refugee” problem; from Iran’s signature on the nuclear deal to Israel’s fury over it and the United States’ unilateral withdrawal from it; and from the confrontation between the Saudis and the Iranians to the demise of the once-feared ISIS. Those news stories, too numerous to easily absorb, constantly remind us that to fully grasp the global political situation in the 21st century, one cannot afford to take one’s eyes off the “Greater Middle East.”

Based on developments in the international situation over the last ten years, together with fresh insights gleaned from observations during recent visits, I’ve reorganized and polished the contents of Da Zhongdong Xingji. I’ve supplemented it with descriptions of major changes during these years, and added lots of background information and personal impressions.

Furthermore, I have penned this new Introduction in the hope of providing a more comprehensive understanding of the region, which in the meantime has evolved from “not so quiet” to one that is now “far from quiescent.”

Before I continue to discuss the Greater Middle East, I’d like to recall an anecdote from my past. My first world history course was during my second year at middle school. It was an “experimental” course without a set textbook, so the instructor himself compiled the teaching materials, and made a stencil that was ←2 | 3→then mimeographed by school staff, stapled, and handed out to us in batches. Our thirty-something teacher spoke with a thick Henan accent; the way his tongue tripped over “Mesopotamia” was particularly memorable. It was from him that I learned it was the Sumerians who invented the wheel and the written word, and also the first time I heard of the “Fertile Crescent.” His lessons piqued my interest in different civilizations, so much so that I later roamed among 100-plus countries over some fifty years. I’d like to convey here my gratitude and respect for Dong Daoming, the mentor, who inspired me some sixty-six years ago.

Where Is This “Greater Middle East”?

Let me first define more narrowly what I mean by “the Middle East.” In fact, the term “Middle East” was first used by the US military during World War II, and refers to the region where Northeast Africa, Southeast Europe, and West Asia intersect.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Eurocentric Europeans dubbed Egypt, the southern Balkans (mainly modern-day Greece), Asia Minor (Asian part of Turkey), and the Levant (eastern Mediterranean) as the “Near East.” Of course, this region could just as well be known as the “Near West,” from the Indian perspective.

After World War I, the former Ottoman lands in the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mesopotamia (Iraq) were divided between Britain and France. These former territories of the Ottoman Empire, combined with the “Near East”—along with Persia (Iran)—were henceforth referred to collectively as the “Middle East” by some Europeans and Americans.

During World War II, the US military considered North Africa and the region to the east of Greece as a single strategic unit, and established the “Allied Middle East Supply Center” in Egypt. Since then the term “Middle East” has been used internationally.

Scholars and the media generally consider that the Middle East consists of sixteen states: Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, UAE, and Yemen. Israel aside, the remaining fifteen are Muslim-majority countries, so the “Middle East” is primarily a Muslim region and the very core of the Islamic world. This is the principal axis around which the Middle East “question” revolves.

Additionally, there are five Arab countries in Africa adjoining the Middle East. Four are located directly to the west of Egypt—Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya—plus Sudan, which lies south of Egypt on the upper reaches of the Nile. The sixteen traditional members of the Middle East plus these five African ←3 | 4→states represent a “Cultural Middle East.” Among these twenty-one countries, besides Israel, all are Muslim; eighteen of the Muslim countries are Arab, except Iran and Turkey.

Another ten countries have historically had close ties with the region, and their fates cannot easily be disentangled from it. Collectively known as the “Ten States on the Periphery of the Middle East,” they are: Island countries of the eastern Mediterranean, Malta, and Cyprus; Greece, in the southern Balkans; Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, all south of the Caucasus; and Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia in the Horn of Africa.

Among the ten, only three—Azerbaijan, Djibouti, and Somalia—have mainly a Muslim population. Arabic is the principal official language of Djibouti and Somalia, and both are members of the Arab League. However, the majority of people living in the remaining seven countries (Armenia, Cyprus, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Malta, Georgia, and Greece) are Christians, and thus these Christian countries find themselves located in the closest proximity to the heart of Islamic civilization.

In this book, I combine the twenty-one members of the “Cultural Middle East” with ten members of the “Periphery,” and collectively refer to these thirty-one countries as the “Greater Middle East.”

Among the total thirty-one states, twenty-three are Muslim and of the latter—Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Iran excepted—the remaining twenty are members of the Arab League. Thus, the Arabic language and Islamic faith are unquestionably two fundamental elements of the Greater Middle East.

The Greater Middle East covers a vast territory. To the west, it faces the Atlantic Ocean, but its northern edge is more heterogeneous. From west to east, it adjoins, respectively, the Mediterranean, the Balkans, the southern portion of the Black Sea, the northern foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, the southern banks of the Caspian Sea, and south Turkmenistan. The region’s southern border faces, from west to east, the Sahara, South Sudan, Kenya, the Gulf of Aden, and the Arabian Sea. Bordering it to the east are Afghanistan and Pakistan.

To state it in macro terms, the Greater Middle East describes the region where the continents of Africa, Europe, and Asia intersect.

II. Middle East: Geography and History

Backgrounder: Middle Eastern Geography

The Greater Middle East covers a vast territory, so allow me to first concentrate on the traditional Middle East, i.e., the sixteen core nations that I’ve identified. Its ←4 | 5→complex topography includes rivers, seas, plains, mountains, and deserts that have played an important role in humankind’s development.

In order to facilitate the reader’s overall grasp of the Middle East, I have coined a handy “6 + 6 Principle” that divides the region into six distinct areas and six periods of history.

Let’s begin with the first “6,” the geographical divisions: (1) The Arabian Peninsula; (2) Mesopotamia, which is northeast of the peninsula; (3) The Levant, northwest of the peninsula on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean; (4) The Nile Valley and surrounding desert, to the west of the peninsula; (5) Anatolia, which is north of the Mediterranean and south of the Black Sea, and (6) The Iranian Plateau, which is east of Mesopotamia and Anatolia.

These six areas have played an important role in the history of human civilization. One reason is that they are accessible by both land and sea and could easily interact, thus endowing them with considerable unity and continuity. A brief summary of each follows:


VIII, 372
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (July)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. VIII, 380 pp., 10 color ill.

Biographical notes

H. K. Chang (Author)

H. K. Chang is one of those rare personalities who first excelled in the hard sciences—he holds a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from Northwestern University (USA) and was Dean of Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh—but went on to devote himself to the humanities, authoring 12 books on civilizations and education. Professor H. K. Chang was President of City University of Hong Kong from 1996 to 2007. He has been a visiting professor at the University of Paris, Cairo University, University of Delhi, Bilkent University in Ankara and Bosphorus University in Istanbul. An honorary professor at Peking University, Tsinghua University and others, he is a Foreign Member of the Royal Academy of Engineering (UK) and a Chevalier of France’s L’Ordre national de la Légion d’Honneur.


Title: The Greater Middle East
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