Is There a Middle East? The Evolution of a Geopolitical Concept

By Michael E. Bonine; Abbas Amanat et al. | Go to book overview

6 THE RIVER’S EDGE
The Steppes of the Oxus and the Boundaries of the
Near / Middle East and Central Asia, c. 1500–1800

Arash Khazeni

The sands of the Oxus, coarse though they be,
Beneath my feet, were soft as silk to me
.
—Rudaki, Chahar Maqala

IN “THE VENTURE OF ISLAM” (1958), Marshall Hodgson defined the “Middle East” as the land between “the Nile and Oxus,” the historical core of what he called “Islamicate civilization.” Hodgson’s designation of the Oxus River (Amu Dar’ya) as the eastern boundary of the region suggested the longstanding ecological and cultural connections between the Middle East and Central Asia:

For this I will not usually use the term “Middle East” but one or another
phrase in “Nile to Oxus.” The term “Middle East,” which seems the best
phrase of those more commonly used, has a number of disadvantages. It is of
course vague. It can be defined at will; but overtones remain, especially over-
tones implying an Iran of present-day political bounds. Its principal disad-
vantage stems from its relatively exact military usage, where it originated. It
cuts the Iranian highlands in half—the western half (“Persia”) having been
assigned to the Mediterranean command, the eastern half (“Afghanistan”) to
the Indian command. Since the Iranian highlands are of primary importance
in the region that is basic to Irano-Semitic and Islamicate history, such a usage
is completely unacceptable. Unfortunately, the military usage as to the eastern
limits of coverage has become standard in a great many works using the
phrase “Middle East,” and for many readers it comes to imply an area that is,
on balance, more westerly than our history requires.1

In Hodgson’s view, the region known as the “Middle East” was a modern political construct that detached the Iranian plateau from the Central Asian

-139-

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