Islamic architectural history
The interior of the Selimiye Mosque (Minar Sinan), Edirne, Turkey.
Islamic architecture has encompassed a wide range of both secular and religious styles from the foundation of Islam to the present day, influencing the design and construction of buildings and structures within the sphere of Islamic culture.
The principle architectural types of Islamic architecture are; the Mosque, the Tomb, the Palace and the Fort. From these four types, the vocabularly of Islamic architecture is derived and used for buildings of lesser importance such as public baths, fountains and domestic architecture.
In 630C.E. Muhammad's army reconquered the city of Mecca from the Banu Quraish tribe. The holy sanctuary of Ka'ba was rebuilt and re-dedicated to Islam, the reconstruction being carried out before Muhammad's death in 632C.E. by a shipwrecked Abyssinian carpenter in his native style. This sanctuary was amongst the first major works of Islamic architecture. The walls were decorated with paintings of Jesus, Mary, Abraham, prophets, angels and trees. Later doctrines of Islam dating from the eighth century and originating from the Hadith, forbade the use of such icons in architecture, specifically those of humans and animals.
In the 7th century, Muslim by time the religion of Islam spread throughout the region. The Muslim's first need was for somewhere to worship - a mosque. The simple layout provided elements that were to be incorporated into all mosques and the early Muslims put up simple buildings based on the model of the Prophet's house or adapted existing buildings, such as churches for their own use.
Influences and styles
The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem is a key example of Islamic architecture
Arabic Calligraphy on large pishtaq of the Taj Mahal
A specifically recognisable Islamic architectural style developed soon after the time of the Prophet Muhammad, developing from Roman, Egyptian, Byzantine, and Persian/Sassanid models. An early example may be identified as early as 691 AD with the completion of the Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al-Sakhrah) in Jerusalem. It featured interior vaulted spaces, a circular dome, and the use of stylized repeating decorative patterns (arabesque).
The Great (or al-Mutawakkil) Mosque of Samarra in Iraq, completed in 847 AD, combined the hypostyle architecture of rows of columns supporting a flat base above which a huge spiraling minaret was constructed.
The Hagia Sofia in Istanbul also influenced Islamic architecture. When the Ottomans captured the city from the Byzantines, they converted the basilica to a mosque (now a museum) and incorporated Byzantine architectural elements into their own work (e.g. domes). The Hagia Sophia also served as model for many of the Ottoman mosques such as the Shehzadeh Mosque, the Suleiman Mosque, and the Rüstem Pasha Mosque.
Distinguishing motifs of Islamic architecture have always been ordered repetition, radiating structures, and rhythmic, metric patterns. In this respect, fractal geometry has been a key utility, especially for mosques and palaces. Other significant features employed as motifs include columns, piers and arches, organized and interwoven with alternating sequences of niches and colonnettes. The role of domes in Islamic architecture has been considerable. Its usage spans centuries, first appearing in 691 with the construction of the Dome of the Rock mosque, and recurring even up until the 17th century with the Taj Mahal. And as late as the 19th century, Islamic domes had been incorporated into Western architecture.
The Isfahan, Maydan-i-Shah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran
One of the first civilizations that Islam came into contact with during and after its birth was that of Persia. The eastern banks of the Tigris and Euphrates was where the capital of the Persian empire lay during the 7th century. Hence the proximity often led early Islamic architects to not just borrow, but adopt the traditions and ways of the fallen Persian empire.
Islamic architecture borrows heavily from Persian architecture and in many ways can be called an extension and further evolution of Persian architecture.
Many cities such as Baghdad, for example, were based on precedents such as Firouzabad in Persia. In fact, it is now known that the two designers who were hired by al-Mansur to plan the city's design were Naubakht (نوبخت), a former Persian Zoroastrian, and Mashallah (ماشاءالله), a former Jew from Khorasan, Iran.
Persian-style mosques are characterized by their tapered brick pillars, large arcades, and arches supported each by several pillars. In South Asia, elements of Hindu architecture were employed, but were later superseded by Persian designs.
The interior view of the Mezquita
Construction of the Great Mosque at Cordoba beginning in 785 AD marks the beginning of Islamic architecture in the Iberian peninsula and North Africa (the Moors). The mosque is noted for its striking interior arches. Moorish architecture reached its peak with the construction of the Alhambra, the magnificent palace/fortress of Granada, with its open and breezy interior spaces adorned in red, blue, and gold. The walls are decorated with stylize foliage motifs, Arabic inscriptions, and arabesque design work, with walls covered in glazed tile. Moorish architecture has its roots deeply established in the Arab tradition of architecture and design established during the era of the first Caliphate of the Ummayyads in the Levant circa 660AD with its capital Damascus having very well preserved examples of fine Arab Islamic design and geometrics, including the Carmen which is the typical Damascene house, Opening on the inside with a fountain as the Houses' center piece.
Mudéjar and Moorish Revival
Even after the completion of the Reconquista, Islamic influence had a lasting impact on the architecture of Spain. In particular, medieval Spaniards used the Mudéjar style, an imitation of Islamic design. One of the best examples of the Moors' lasting impact is the Alcázar of Seville.
Turkistan (Timurid) architecture
Registan Square is the ensemble of three madrasahs, in Samarkand.
Timurid architecture is the pinnacle of Islamic art in Central Asia. Spectacular and stately edifices erected by Timur and his successors in Samarkand and Herat helped to disseminate the influence of the Ilkhanid school of art in India, thus giving rise to the celebrated Moghol school of architecture. Timurid architecture started with the sanctuary of Ahmed Yasawi in present-day Kazakhstan and culminated in Timur's mausoleum Gur-e Amir in Samarkand. The style is largely derived from Persian architecture. Axial symmetry is a characteristic of all major Timurid structures, notably the Shah-e Zendah in Samarkand and the mosque of Gowhar Shad in Meshed. Double domes of various shapes abound, and the outsides are perfused with brilliant colors.
Ottoman Turkish architecture
Sultan Ahmed Mosque (the Blue Mosque) in Istanbul
The most numerous and largest of mosques exist in Turkey, which obtained influence from Byzantine, Persian and Syrian-Arab designs. Ottoman Turkish architects implemented their own style of cupola domes. The architecture of the Turkish Ottoman Empire forms a distinctive whole, especially the great mosques by and in the style of Sinan, like the mid-16th century Suleiman Mosque. For almost 500 years Byzantine architecture such as the church of Hagia Sophia served as models for many of the Ottoman mosques such as the Shehzade Mosque, the Suleiman Mosque, and the Rüstem Pasha Mosque.
Selimiye Mosque (Minar Sinan), built by Sinan in 1575. Edirne, Turkey.
The Ottomans achieved the highest level architecture in the Islamic lands hence or since. They mastered the technique of building vast inner spaces confined by seemingly weightless yet massive domes, and achieving perfect harmony between inner and outer spaces, as well as light and shadow. Islamic religious architecture which until then consisted of simple buildings with extensive decorations, was transformed by the Ottomans through a dynamic architectural vocabulary of vaults, domes, semidomes and columns. The mosque was transformed from being a cramped and dark chamber with arabesque-covered walls into a sanctuary of esthetic and technical balance, refined elegance and a hint of heavenly transcendence.
al-Azhar Mosque, Cairo
In architecture, the Fatimids followed Tulunid techniques and used similar materials, but also developed those of their own. In Cairo, their first congregational mosque was al-Azhar Mosque, Cairo ("the splendid") founded along with the city (969–973), which, together with its adjacent institution of higher learning (al-Azhar University), became the spiritual center for Ismaili Shia. The Mosque of al-Hakim (r. 996–1013), an important example of Fatimid architecture and architectural decoration, played a critical role in Fatimid ceremonial and procession, which emphasized the religious and political role of the Fatimid caliph. Besides elaborate funerary monuments, other surviving Fatimid structures include the Mosque al-Aqmar, (1125) as well as the monumental gates for Cairo's city walls commissioned by the powerful Fatimid emir and vizier Badr al-Jamali (r. 1073–1094).
Mosque al-Hakim (990-1012) was renovated by Dr. Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin (head of Dawoodi Bohra community) and Al-Jame-al-Aqmar built in 1125 in Cairo, Egypt features with its Fatimi philosophy and symbolism and bring its architecture vividly to life.
Emir Qurqumas complex.
Sultan Hassan Mosque.
The reign of the Mamluks (1250-1517 AD) marked a breathtaking flowering of Islamic art which is most visible in old Cairo. Their piety was reflected in the great religious complexes and beautiful works of art they commissioned. This religious zeal made them generous patrons of architecture and art. Trade and agriculture flourished under Mamluk rule, and Cairo, their capital, became one of the wealthiest cities in the Near East and the center of artistic and intellectual activity. This made Cairo, in the words of Ibn Khaldun, "the center of the universe and the garden of the world." The Mamluk utilized chiaroscuro and dappled light effects in their buildings. The majestic domes, courtyards, and soaring minarets that spread across old Cairo is a good demonstration. Mamluk history is divided into two periods based on different dynastic lines: the Bahri Mamluks (1250–1382) of Qipchaq Turkic origin from southern Russia, named after the location of their barracks on the Nile and the Burji Mamluks (1382–1517) of Caucasian Circassian origin, who were quartered in the citadel. The Bahri reign defined the art and architecture of the entire Mamluk period. Mamluk decorative arts—especially enameled and gilded glass, inlaid metalwork, woodwork, and textiles—were prized around the Mediterranean as well as in Europe, where they had a profound impact on local production. The influence of Mamluk glassware on the Venetian glass industry is only one such example.
The reign of Baybars's ally and successor, Qala’un (r. 1280–90), initiated the patronage of public and pious foundations that included madrasas, mausolea, minarets, and hospitals. Such endowed complexes not only ensured the survival of the patron's wealth but also perpetuated his name, both of which were endangered by legal problems relating to inheritance and confiscation of family fortunes. Besides Qala’un's complex, other important commissions by Bahri Mamluk sultans include those of al-Nasir Muhammad (1295–1304) as well as the immense and splendid complex of Hasan (begun 1356).
The Burji Mamluk sultans followed the artistic traditions established by their Bahri predecessors. Mamluk textiles and carpets were prized in international trade. In architecture, endowed public and pious foundations continued to be favored. Major commissions in the early Burji period in Egypt included the complexes built by Barquq (r. 1382–99), Faraj (r. 1399–1412), Mu’ayyad Shaykh (r. 1412–21), and Barsbay (r. 1422–38).
In the eastern Mediterranean provinces, the lucrative trade in textiles between Iran and Europe helped revive the economy. Also significant was the commercial activity of pilgrims en route to Mecca and Medina. Large warehouses, such as the Khan al-Qadi (1441), were erected to satisfy the surge in trade. Other public foundations in the region included the mosques of Aqbugha al-Utrush (Aleppo, 1399–1410) and Sabun (Damascus, 1464) as well as the Madrasa Jaqmaqiyya (Damascus, 1421).
In the second half of the fifteenth century, the arts thrived under the patronage of Qa’itbay (r. 1468–96), the greatest of the later Mamluk sultans. During his reign, the shrines of Mecca and Medina were extensively restored. Major cities were endowed with commercial buildings, religious foundations, and bridges. In Cairo, the complex of Qa’itbay in the Northern Cemetery (1472–74) is the best known and admired structure of this period. Building continued under the last Mamluk sultan, Qansuh al-Ghawri (r. 1501–17), who commissioned his own complex (1503–5); however, construction methods reflected the finances of the state. Though the Mamluk realm was soon incorporated into the Ottoman empire (1517), Mamluk visual culture continued to inspire Ottoman and other Islamic artistic traditions.
The Badshahi Masjid, literally the 'Royal Mosque', was built in 1674 by Aurangzeb. It is one of Lahore's best known landmarks, and epitomizes the beauty and grandeur of the Mughal era.
The Taj Mahal in Agra, built by Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his wife, represents the pinnacle of Mughal Islamic architecture in India and is one of the most recognisable buildings in the world.Another distinctive sub-style is the architecture of the Mughal Empire in India in the 16th century and a fusion of Arabic, Persian and Hindu elements. The Mughal emperor Akbar constructed the royal city of Fatehpur Sikri, located 26 miles west of Agra, in the late 1500s.
The most famous example of Mughal architecture is the Taj Mahal, the "teardrop on eternity," completed in 1648 by the emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal who died while giving birth to their 14th child. The extensive use of precious and semiprecious stones as inlay and the vast quantity of white marble required nearly bankrupted the empire. The Taj Mahal is completely symmetric other than the sarcophagus of Shah Jahan which is placed off center in the crypt room below the main floor. This symmetry extended to the building of an entire mirror mosque in red sandstone to complement the Mecca-facing mosque place to the west of the main structure. Another structure built that showed great depth of mughal influence was the Shalimar Gardens.
The Great Mosque of Xi'an, China
The first Chinese mosque was established in the 7th century during the Tang Dynasty in Xi'an. The Great Mosque of Xi'an, whose current buildings date from the Ming Dynasty, does not replicate many of the features often associated with traditional mosques. Instead, it follows traditional Chinese architecture. Some Chinese mosques in parts of western China were more likely to incorporate minarets and domes while eastern Chinese mosques were more likely to look like pagodas.
An important feature in Chinese architecture is its emphasis on symmetry, which connotes a sense of grandeur; this applies to everything from palaces to mosques. One notable exception is in the design of gardens, which tends to be as asymmetrical as possible. Like Chinese scroll paintings, the principle underlying the garden's composition is to create enduring flow; to let the patron wander and enjoy the garden without prescription, as in nature herself.
Chinese buildings may be built with either red or grey bricks, but wooden structures are the most common; these are more capable of withstanding earthquakes, but are vulnerable to fire. The roof of a typical Chinese building is curved; there are strict classifications of gable types, comparable with the classical orders of European columns.
Most mosques have certain aspects in common with each other however as with other regions Chinese Islamic architecture reflects the local architecture in its style. China is renowned for its beautiful mosques, which resemble temples. However in western China the mosques resemble those of the Middle East, with tall, slender minarets, curvy arches and dome shaped roofs. In northwest China where the Chinese Hui have built their mosques, there is a combination of eastern and western styles. The mosques have flared Buddhist style roofs set in walled courtyards entered through archways with miniature domes and minarets (see Beytullah Mosque).
The Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali (Timbuktu, Mali) is a great example of Sudano-Sahelian architectural style.
The Islamic conquest of North Africa saw Islamic architecture develop in the region, including such famous structures as the Cairo Citadel.
Islamic merchants played a vital role in the Western Sahel region since the Kingdom of Ghana.
At Kumbi Saleh, locals lived in domed-shaped dwellings in the king's section of the city, surrounded by a great enclosure. Traders lived in stone houses in a section which possessed 12 beautiful mosques (as described by al-bakri), one centered on Friday prayer.  The king is said to have owned several mansions, one of which was sixty-six feet long, forty-two feet wide, contained seven rooms, was two stories high, and had a staircase; with the walls and chambers filled with sculpture and painting. Sahelian architecture initially grew from the two cities of Djenné and Timbuktu. The Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu, constructed from mud on timber, was similar in style to the Great Mosque of Djenné.
Islamic patterns on the eco-friendly Lighthouse Tower, Dubai
The Burj Dubai
Modern Islamic architecture has recently been taken on to a whole new level with such buildings being erected such as the Burj Dubai, which is soon to be the world's tallest building. The Burj Dubai's design is derived from the patterning systems embodied in Islamic architecture, with the triple-lobed footprint of the building based on an abstracted version of the desert flower hymenocallis which is native to the Dubai region. Nature and flowers have often been the focal point in most traditional Islamic designs. Most modern Islamic architecture can be found in Dubai due to the architectural boom of the Middle East. Yet to be built is Madinat al-Hareer in Kuwait which also has modern versions of Islamic architecture in its super tall tower.
The Faisal Mosque, Islamabad, Pakistan, named after King Faisal of Saudi Arabia
Common interpretations of Islamic architecture include the following: The concept of Allah's infinite power is evoked by designs with repeating themes which suggest infinity. Human and animal forms are rarely depicted in decorative art as Allah's work is considered to be matchless. Foliage is a frequent motif but typically stylized or simplified for the same reason. Arabic Calligraphy is used to enhance the interior of a building by providing quotations from the Qur'an. Islamic architecture has been called the "architecture of the veil" because the beauty lies in the inner spaces (courtyards and rooms) which are not visible from the outside (street view). Furthermore, the use of grandiose forms such as large domes, towering minarets, and large courtyards are intended to convey power.
Architecture of mosques and buildings in Muslim countries
the interior of the Mezquita in Córdoba, Spain.
Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca, Morocco. 210m high. A floor with room for 25,000 worshippers.
Many forms of Islamic architecture have evolved in different regions of the Islamic world. Notable Islamic architectural types include the early Abbasid buildings, T-type mosques, and the central-dome mosques of Anatolia. The oil-wealth of the 20th century drove a great deal of mosque construction using designs from leading modern architects.
Arab-plan or hypostyle mosques are the earliest type of mosques, pioneered under the Umayyad Dynasty. These mosques are square or rectangular in plan with an enclosed courtyard and a covered prayer hall. Historically, because of the warm Mediterranean and Middle Eastern climates, the courtyard served to accommodate the large number of worshipers during Friday prayers. Most early hypostyle mosques have flat roofs on top of prayer halls, necessitating the use of numerous columns and supports. One of the most notable hypostyle mosques is the Mezquita in Córdoba, Spain, as the building is supported by over 850 columns. Frequently, hypostyle mosques have outer arcades so that visitors can enjoy some shade. Arab-plan mosques were constructed mostly under the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties; subsequently, however, the simplicity of the Arab plan limited the opportunities for further development, and as a result, these mosques gradually fell out of popularity.
The Ottoman Turkish introduced central dome mosques in the 15th century and have a large dome centered over the prayer hall. In addition to having one large dome at the center, there are often smaller domes that exist off-center over the prayer hall or throughout the rest of the mosque, where prayer is not performed. This style was heavily influenced by the Byzantine religious architecture with its use of large central domes.
the iwan entrance to the Taj Mahal in Agra
An iwan (Persian ايوان derived from Pahlavi word Bān meaning house) is defined as a vaulted hall or space, walled on three sides, with one end entirely open.
Iwans were a trademark of the Sassanid architecture of Persia, later finding their way into Islamic architecture. This transition reached its peak during the Seljuki era when iwans became established as a fundamental design unit in Islamic architecture. Typically, iwans open on to a central courtyard, and have been used in both public and residential architecture.
Iwan mosques are most notable for their domed chambers and iwans, which are vaulted spaces open out on one end. In iwan mosques, one or more iwans face a central courtyard that serves as the prayer hall. The style represents a borrowing from pre-Islamic Iranian architecture and has been used almost exclusively for mosques in Iran. Many iwan mosques are converted Zoroastrian fire temples where the courtyard was used to house the sacred fire. Today, iwan mosques are no longer built.
A simple Sahn, with a howz in the middle. Notice flanking domed arcade.
Almost every mosque and traditionally all houses and buildings in areas of the Arab World contain a courtyard known as a sahn (Arabic صحن), which are surrounded on all sides by rooms and sometimes an arcade. Sahns usually feature a centrally positioned pool known as a howz.
If a sahn is in a mosque, it is used for performing ablutions. If a sahn is in a traditional house or private courtyard, it is used for aesthetics and to cool the summer heat.
The Qur'an uses the garden as an analogy for paradise and Islam came to have a significant influence on garden design.
Qolsharif mosque in Kazan, Tartarstan, Russia.
An element of Islamic art usually found decorating the walls of mosques and Muslim homes and buildings, the arabesque is an elaborate application of repeating geometric forms that often echo the forms of plants, shapes and sometimes animals (specifically birds). The choice of which geometric forms are to be used and how they are to be formatted is based upon the Islamic view of the world. To Muslims, these forms, taken together, constitute an infinite pattern that extends beyond the visible material world. To many in the Islamic world, they in fact symbolize the infinite, and therefore uncentralized, nature of the creation of the one God (Allah). Furthermore, the Islamic Arabesque artist conveys a definite spirituality without the iconography of Christian art. Arabesque is used in mosques and building around the Muslim world, and it is a way of decorating using beautiful, embellishing and repetitive Islamic art instead of using pictures of humans and animals (which is forbidden Haram in Islam).
Arabic calligraphy is associated with geometric Islamic art (the Arabesque) on the walls and ceilings of mosques as well as on the page. Contemporary artists in the Islamic world draw on the heritage of calligraphy to use calligraphic inscriptions or abstractions in their work.
Instead of recalling something related to the reality of the spoken word, calligraphy for the Muslim is a visible expression of spiritual concepts. Calligraphy has arguably become the most venerated form of Islamic art because it provides a link between the languages of the Muslims with the religion of Islam. The holy book of Islam, al-Qur'ān, has played a vital role in the development of the Arabic language, and by extension, calligraphy in the Arabic alphabet. Proverbs and complete passages from the Qur'an are still active sources for Islamic calligraphy.
Elements of Islamic style
Islamic architecture may be identified with the following design elements, which were inherited from the first mosque built by Muhammad in Medina, as well as from other pre-Islamic features adapted from churches, temples and synagogues. Byzantine architecture had a great influence on early Islamic architecture with its characteristic round arches, vaults and domes.
Large courtyards often merged with a central prayer hall (originally a feature of the Masjid al-Nabawi).
Minarets or towers (these were originally used as torch-lit watchtowers, as seen in the Great Mosque of Damascus; hence the derivation of the word from the Arabic nur, meaning "light").
A four-iwan plan, with three subordinate halls and one principal one that faces toward Mecca
Mihrab or prayer niche on an inside wall indicating the direction to Mecca. This may have been derived from previous uses of niches for the setting of the torah scrolls in Jewish synagogues or the haikal of Coptic churches.
Domes and Cupolas.
Iwans to intermediate between different sections.
The use of geometric shapes and repetitive art (arabesque).
The use of decorative Islamic calligraphy instead of pictures which were haram (forbidden) in mosque architecture. Note that in secular architecture, human and animal representation was indeed present.
Central fountains used for ablutions (once used as a wudu area for Muslims).
The use of bright color.
Focus both on the interior space of a building and the exterior
Differences between Islamic architecture and Persian architecture
Like this of other nations that became part of the Islamic realm, Persian Architecture is not to be confused with Islamic Architecture and refers broadly to architectural styles across the Islamic world. Islamic architecture, therefore, does not directly include reference to Persian styles prior to the rise of Islam. Persian architecture, like other nations', predates Islamic architecture and can be correctly understood as an important influence on overall Islamic architecture as well as a branch of Islamic architecture since the introduction of Islam in Persia. Islamic architecture can be classified according to chronology, geography, and building typology.
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Creswell, K. A. C. (1958) A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture
Political & transportation map of the Middle East.The Middle East is a subcontinent for the historical and cultural subregion of Africa-Eurasia traditionally held to be countries or regions in Southwest Asia, and parts of North Africa.
In the Western world, the Middle East is generally thought of as a predominantly Islamic Arabic community defined by frequent war although these criteria can not be applied to all states in the region. The ethnic groups in the region may include the Africans, Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians, Azeris, Berbers, Chaldeans, Druze, Greeks, Jews, Kurds, Maronites, pharcee, Tajiks and Turks. The main language groups include: Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Kurdish, Azeri, Armenian, Assyrian (also known as Aramaic, Syriac), Urdu (Greater Middle East) and Hebrew. The corresponding adjective is Middle-Eastern and the derived noun is Middle-Easterner.
Many Western definitions of the "Middle East" — in both established reference books and common usage — define the region as 'nations in Southwest Asia, from Iran to Egypt'  Egypt, with its Sinai Peninsula in Asia, is often considered part of the 'Middle East', although most of the country lies geographically in North Africa. North African nations without Asian links, such as Libya, Tunisia and Algeria, are increasingly being called North African — as opposed to Middle Eastern (Iran to Egypt-Asia) — by international media outlets. However, North African countries can also be considered part of the middle east.
One widely used definition of "Middle East" is that of the airline industry, maintained by the IATA standards organization. This definition — as of early 2006 — includes Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Palestinian territories, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.  This definition is used in world-wide airfare and tax calculations for passengers and cargo.
The Middle East is the birthplace and spiritual center of the Bahá'í Faith, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. The region has experienced both periods of relative tolerance and periods of conflict and war. In the late 20th century and early 21th century, it has been at what could be considered a major center of world affairs; a strategically, economically, politically, culturally, and religiously sensitive area. It possesses significant stocks of crude oil. See also List of conflicts in the Middle East.
Middle East defines a cultural area, so it does not have precise borders. The most common and highly arbitrary definition includes: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Palestinian Territories. Iran is often the eastern border, but Afghanistan is also occasionally included because of their close relationship (ethnically and religiously) to the larger group of Iranian peoples as well as historical connections to the Middle East including being part of the various empires that have spanned the region such as those of the Persians and Arabs among others. Afghanistan, Tajikistan and western parts of Pakistan, share close cultural, linguistic, and historical ties with Iran and are also part of the Iranian plateau, whereas Iran's relationship with Arab states is based more upon religion and geographic proximity.
North Africa or the Maghreb, although often placed outside the Middle East proper, does have strong cultural and linguistic links to the region, and historically has shared many of the events that have shaped the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions including those prompted by Phoenician-colonized Carthage and Greco-Roman civilization as well as Muslim Arab-Berber and Ottoman empires. The Maghreb is sometimes included, sometimes excluded from the Middle East by the media and in informal usage, while most academics continue to identify North Africa as geographically a part of Africa, but being closely related to southwestern Asia in terms of politics, culture, religion, language, history, and genetics.
The Caucasus region (Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia) and Cyprus is often grouped into Southwest Asia, but are generally considered European because of historical, cultural and recently also political ties to Europe, examples are a Christian majority, Indo-European linguistic background and membership (Cyprus) or aspirations to membership (Armenia and Georgia) in mainly European organisations (NATO, OSCE and EU). Throughout their histories, Armenia as well as Georgia have been distancing themselves from surrounding Islamism. Since the beginning of 19th century, all three South Caucasian states were also strongly influenced by the dominion of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Currently they are viewed more as 'European' than Middle Eastern and generally viewed as the separate regional bloc of Caucasus.
Other countries of the Middle Eastern countries speak Indo-European (Iran for example) or have a Christian majority (Lebanon), but are still considered Middle Eastern. Turkey possesses neither of these European traits, but is partly geographically in Europe and it was the site of the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire that included large parts of Europe. Turkey is a secular and democratic country, long-time member of NATO, is currently in accession talks to join the European Union and has a Latin alphabet. Even so Turkey is considered Middle Eastern, because of its Islamic population and geography.
Central Asian countries from the former Soviet Bloc also show varying degrees of affinity and historical ties to the Middle East, but not in any uniform fashion. While the southern states of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan display many cultural, historical, and socio-political similarities to the Middle East, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have a more remote and mixed culture. These states are often viewed as Eurasian and their Soviet past has set them apart from the Middle East. In some countries, like Tajikistan there has been a movement to re-establish ties to the region based upon their kinship with Iran and Afghanistan. Like the Caucasus and Turkey, Central Asia has a strong secular and ‘western’ culture from their Soviet legacies. This may change with the renaissance and resurgence of Islamic identity that were suppressed by Soviet authorities.
The State of Israel is unique in the Middle East. Predominantly Jewish it is geographically in the Middle East, it is in continuous conflict with Islamic neighbour countries. Therefore it is often not considered "culturally" (i.e. Islamic) Middle Eastern. It has a large population of Middle Eastern descent (including Sephardic Jews, Sabras, Israeli Arabs), but is mainly founded by immigrants from Jewish Diaspora .
Some Israelis and Turks have a more European appearance rather than Middle Eastern. The original Turks were nomads from Central Asia who mixed with the European communities of Turkey's Asian side giving many a more European apperance. Some Turks also have Russian descent. Israel on the other hand was founded by Jewish immigrants from Europe, giving many Israelis a more European apperance.
Changes in meaning over time
Until World War II, it was customary to refer to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean as the Near East. The Middle East then meant the area from Mesopotamia to Burma, namely the area between the Near East and the Far East (which includes areas such as India). The sense described in this article evolved during the war, perhaps influenced by the ancient idea of the Mediterranean as the "sea in the middle".
Some have criticized the term Middle East for its perceived Eurocentrism, because it was originally coined by Europeans and reflects the geographical position of the region from a European perspective. Today the term is used by Europeans and non-Europeans alike, unlike the similar term Mashreq, used exclusively in Arabic-language contexts. The region is only east from the perspective of Europe. To an Indian, it lies to the west; to a Russian, it lies to the south. The description Middle has also led to some confusion over changing definitions. Before the First World War, Near East was used in English to refer to the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire, while Middle East referred to Persia, Kurdistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, Turkistan and the Caucasus. In contrast, Far East refers to the countries of East Asia e.g. China, Japan, Koreas, Hong Kong (China), Taiwan, etc. Such critics usually advise using an alternative term, such as "West Asia". The official UN designation of the area is "Southwest Asia".
With the disappearance of the Ottoman Turkish Empire in 1918, Near East largely fell out of common use in English, while Middle East came to be applied to the re-emerging countries of the Islamic world. However, the usage of Near East was retained by a variety of academic disciplines, including archaeology and ancient history, where it describes an area identical to the term Middle East, which is not used by these disciplines (see Ancient Near East). So in shorter words, the term Middle East came about when the UK/French part of the world used the term. In German the Term Naher Osten (Near East) is still in common use and in Russian (Near East) remains as the only appropriate term for the region.
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