As previously discussed on the Swift Maps blog, maps are not static tools used to present regions of the world to people in a hard-and-fast manner. Maps have the power to transport you back in time to provide better understanding of the world around you. Over the course of time, national borders have changed drastically. Many were drawn by outside forces with little concern for the conditions on the ground.
In this post, the unrest that exists in the Middle East today is visible through the lens of an interactive map that shows the evolution of Islamic republics and empires that dominated the region from roughly 1450 AD until the present day. Former empires are featured in shaded colors, with modern-day borders underneath to provide greater insight into the flawed borders that exist today and the tension they create.
The Middle East in 1450 AD
During this period of time, the region was dominated by a handful of large empires and unaffiliated Islamic states. Much of the Middle East, North Africa, and Western Asia at this point consisted of smaller Islamic states, but a handful of large empires were beginning to emerge. The Marinid Sultanate, for example, controlled all of Morocco and portions of Algeria, Mali, and Mauritania around this time.
Meanwhile, the Ottoman Sultanate was taking control of much of Greece, southeastern Europe, and portions of Turkey. The Mameluke Empire of Egypt covered much of modern-day Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and even parts of Turkey. The largest empire was the Timurid Empire of Central Asia, which covered almost all of Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and parts of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
The Middle East in 1700 AD
Fast forward to 1700, and the landscape of the Middle East had changed drastically. The areas of the region that were controlled by smaller Islamic states and administrative entities remained largely the same, but numerous empires had been replaced by a handful of massive empires. The former Marinid Sultanate, once a regional power, was now confined to just two-thirds of Morocco as the Saadian Sultanate.
The massive Timurid Empire of Central Asia was no longer a power, controlling just small portions of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan as the Manghit Emirate. The landscape at this point in history was dominated by three major empires: The Ottoman Empire, Safavid Empire, and a new incarnation of the Timurid Empire known as the Mughal Empire. The Ottoman Empire stretched from Albania, the Czech Republic, and Ukraine in the north, throughout the whole of Turkey, into Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia and Egypt along the Red Sea, to large swaths along the Mediterranean coastlines of Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria.
The Safavid Empire controlled all of Iran, Azerbaijan, and portions of Central Asia, while the Mughal Empire controlled most of the Indian Subcontinent.
The Middle East in Modern History
Beginning in 1800, the Middle East became a fractured landscape dominated by conflict both inside and outside of the region. At the start of 1800, the region’s major empires had collapsed. The Ottoman Empire was confined to its 1450 AD borders, the Safavid Empire had dwindled to Iran as the Qajar Empire of Persia, and much of the Arabian Peninsula and Central Asia was in the hands of countless small sultanates.
By 1925, the boundaries drawn up by victorious European powers at the end of World War II had drastically reshaped the region. Most of the region was under the control of European empires, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon were protectorate states, and just six independent states existed.
Finally, in 1950, the region had taken on much of the appearance that you are familiar with today. Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey were all established, independent states, with most other regions still under the control of European empires.
This interactive map offers a stunning glimpse into the rise and fall of various empires in the Middle East over a nearly 600-year stretch of human history. It offers you, in part, the chance to see the root of so many of the region’s problems today. Historical roots for some people stretch well beyond national borders drawn on a map by outside powers.