MICHAEL MENACHEM LASKIER
AND REEVA SPECTOR SIMON
Bordered by the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, the Black Sea, and the Sahara, the region that we define as the Middle East and North Africa is an area of few navigable rivers and a generally dry climate. Large-scale agriculture in this region, which is heavily dependent upon irrigation, has not been arable since antiquity. By Ottoman times sustained income in the Middle East was historically derived from taxes on the produce of grants of land given to imperial military subordinates. Peasant agriculture often existed in a patron-client relationship. Aside from oil in modern times, natural resources have not been plentiful.
Because of their geographic location, the countries of the Middle East and North Africa have, since ancient times, been the conduits for ideas and commodities among Europe, Africa, and Asia. Southwest Asia was the land bridge for the continents of Europe and Asia, and Asia and Africa—and the nexus for China, India, and Europe, as well as sub-Saharan Africa and southern Europe, and Iraq and Central Europe. The Silk Road that began in China passed west through Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq, ending on the coast of Syria or Turkey. Merchants shipped spices from Africa, Asia, and the Spice Islands to Arabia that then were brought by land north to Damascus or northwest along the Red Sea and overland to Cairo. Traders brought gold, ivory, ostrich feathers, and slaves from sub-Saharan Africa via the Sudan to Egypt. From cities along the shores of the Mediterranean, traders also exported to Europe leather goods, hides, wax, olive oil, grains, figs, dates, tobacco, silk cloth, and cloth from the hinterlands of North Africa and Anatolia. A continuous bicoastal trade endured despite centuries of war between Muslim and Christian societies.