Plotting the world's most complex region: 15 maps that might just explain the Middle East

Published May 20th, 2014 - 07:25 GMT

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Ottoman Empire
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Image 1 of 15: The Sykes-Picot treaty was a secret pact between the Brits, French & Russians that divided the Ottoman Empire's last MidEast land between themselves. New lines between French and British "zones" later became arbitrary borders between Iraq, Syria, & Jordan that forced distinct ethnic & religious groups together - groups still in conflict today.

Arab Spring
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Image 1 of 15: The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings dramatically challenged and toppled old MidEast dictatorships, yet the movements have advanced little beyond those first steps. Syria is at civil war. A military coup killed Egypt's nascent democracy. Yemen is politically unstable. Libya lacks a functioning government. Tunisia alone seems to have the right moves.

Middle Eas
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Image 1 of 15: In how many zip codes is Arabic spoken? Born on the Arabian Peninsula, the language was spread across Africa and the Middle East by 6th century Caliphates. Over 1,300 years the language evolved into distinct dialects which don’t always align with present-day political borders. Classical Arabic is the fastest growing language on Twitter!

Shia
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Image 1 of 15: A succession struggle after the Prophet's death caused Islam's Sunni/Shia split. Most wanted an elected leader but some argued for divine birthright. Fans of the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali were called "Shi'atu Ali" or "Shia." Ali's ascension sparked a civil war. He lost and formed a new branch of Islam. Most Muslims are Sunni; only 10% are Shia.

Middle Easterners
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Image 1 of 15: Not all Middle Easterners are Arab! Arabs are the majority group in almost every MENA country, but exceptions are mostly-Jewish Israel, mostly-Turkish Turkey, mostly-Persian Iran, and heavily diverse Afghanistan. (Note the ethnic Kurds, who are nation-less but have large numbers in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. The region is an ethnic soup!

Israel
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Image 1 of 15: These maps show how Israel was created, how the UN established national borders for a Jewish state and an Arab state in 1947 (in British-controlled territory), and the resulting land split following the 1948 war, forming new borders, with a greatly diminished Arab state. Palestinian land has only diminished in recent years.

Israeli Arab War
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Image 1 of 15: The 1967 Israeli-Arab War set the modern borders of Israel and the Palestinian territories, and these images map how the old 1948 borders became what they are today, and show how the West Bank has been divided into areas of full Palestinian control (green), joint Israeli-Palestinian control (light green), and full Israeli control (dark green).

Israeli settlements
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Image 1 of 15: Since 1967, Israeli has been building West Bank settlements - this map shows 500,000 settlers in 130 communities. The settlements make peace improbable by dividing communities, denying civil rights and imposing onerous Israeli security. Much of the world opposes Israeli settlements, but Israel continues to expand. Share your views in the comments?

Israel-Palestine conflict
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Image 1 of 15: The Israel-Palestine conflict has divided global support. Many Muslim-majority countries (in green) don’t recognize Israel. Western nations (many of them in blue) may have diplomatic relations with Palestine, but don’t all recognize it as a state. No surprise that there’s been historical conflict between blue & green countries.

Syria’s civil war
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Image 1 of 15: Syria’s civil war became a threesome when the conflict between government and pro-democracy protesters (later adding anti-regime rebels) expanded to include Islamist extremists. Now a 4th faction has arisen - the Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant (sometimes called ISIS), an extremist group so bad even Al Qaeda disavowed them.

civil war syria refugees
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Image 1 of 15: Syria's civil war is a national catastrophe for Syria and its neighbors, launching millions of refugees into the rest of the Middle East and parts of Europe, where they live in vast camps that drain already-scarce national resources. This map only shows refugees; it doesn’t show the additional 6.5 million Syrians displaced within Syria.

Durand
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Image 1 of 15: In the 1800s, Brit officer Mortimer Durand negotiated a border between what would become modern Afghanistan and Pakistan. He cut a line through the Pashtun ethnic area, making them an unhappy minority in both states. Say hello to the Taliban, the mostly-Pashtun extremist group that wreaks havoc in both countries.

Iraq War
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Image 1 of 15: The Iraq War’s ethnic clashes devastated Baghdad's blended neighborhoods. The left map shows its 2005 makeup - mixed neighborhoods are in yellow. The right map shows it after two years of Sunni versus Shia fighting. By 2007, bombings (red dots) and death squads destroyed diversity, creating mostly Shia (blue) or mostly Sunni (red) camps.

Iraqi Kurds
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Image 1 of 15: Iraqi Kurds have autonomous self-rule in Iraq's north, but overall Kurds are a disadvantaged minority in the Middle East. They have been fighting for their own nation with no success. This map shows where they live regionally (green overlay) and the national borders that they have proposed on three separate occasions, all of them failed.

Middle East network communications
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Image 1 of 15: See the Middle East via network connections (top) and tweets (bottom). Blue areas (Yemen, Syria) are densely populated but barely connected. White & red (Israel, UAE) are highly wired, with immense political consequence. Iran is connected but relatively tweetless; Twitter has been banned there since 2009. Saudi is remarkably wired.

A picture’s worth a thousand words - we all know that - and when the picture is a map, it can serve as a powerful tool for making complex concepts easily comprehensible. And what concept is more complicated than the Middle East?

Modern maps become dynamic when you mix in digital technology. Click to see timelapsed border changes; or watch ethnic groups migrate across continents.  Put down that dusty encyclopedia and step away from Google Earth - these amazing maps can switch on instant understanding of socio-political subtext, in a readily digestible way!

The folks at Vox have compiled a portfolio of some of the cleverest maps for this region that explain - in clear snapshots - how nations were formed from the historically lush soils and ample waterways of the Fertile Crescent (the region now known as Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Israel-Palestine).

All the coolest civilizations claim this zip code! Starting with the Sumerians who formed the world’s first known urban society 47 centuries ago (complete with a political system and written laws), then (surf’s up!) new waves of change by the Phoenician, Persian, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires that swept across the region.

In the early 7th century, Islam emerged in present-day Saudi Arabia.  Beginning as a religion, it soon becoming an empire in itself. Within a century, Islam and the Arabic language had spread across Arabia, the Levant, the Gulf, North Africa, Persia and southern Europe, creating a shared Middle Eastern identity and making the Muslim empire a center of wealth, arts and sciences.  

Nineteenth century ascendance of the West and its subsequent colonialism of Arab lands radically changed political borders and demographics, setting off catastrophic social and economic outcomes

Want a crash course in what makes the Middle East tick?  See how our nations were formed.  Watch our language and culture spread. View maps that illustrate our ethnic richness, diversity and conflict. Review others that present the face of the new Middle East and the changes resulting from the 2012 uprisingsthe continued horror of civil war and occupation.

Here are 15 maps that can game-change your understanding of the Middle East.

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