Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Can’t find the Middle East on a map? Here’s why.
Invented in 1902 by an American, the 'Middle East' is all over the place.
- If the Middle East is easier to find in the news than on the map, there's a good reason for that.
- The term is a fairly recent invention with myriad definitions and applications.
- In some versions, it extends further west than Ireland and as far north as Copenhagen.
(Not) finding Iran
At the start of January, as America's assassination of Iran's general Qasem Soleimani brought the two countries to the brink of war, there it was again: proof that most Americans can't find their #1 foreign enemy on a world map.
Asked to locate Iran on a blind map, only 28% of registered American voters surveyed were able to place a dot inside its borders.
- While many picked a location in neighboring Iraq—a forgivable mistake—or stayed in the vicinity of the Islamic Republic, many others strayed much further from their intended target.
- The map shows the Balkans peppered with dots, with various countries in North Africa getting their share.
- The furthest guesses landed as far apart (and away from Iran) as Ireland and Sri Lanka.
It's an easy and oft-repeated trick: previous versions of the 'Most Americans can't find' map feature North Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq. The subtext is not hard to fathom, and the cause of much sniggering in the rest of the world: Americans are dumb; too dumb to trust with the firepower that comes with being a superpower.
That is of course not true, or at least not proven by these maps. What they do prove is that many Americans are unfamiliar with world geography. A similar survey some years ago showed that one in five Americans were unable to locate the United States itself on a world map.
While that may sound shocking to those who value geo-literacy, it is questionable whether citizens of other countries would do any better. Perhaps they're just not asked these questions because the likelihood of a shooting war with a faraway, non-neighboring country is rather smaller in, say, Austria or Botswana.
Suez to Singapore, via the Persian Gulf
Suez to Singapore: the original 'Middle East', as conceived by Alfred T. Mahan.
Image: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC)
With Iran's location on the map up for scrutiny, a much more interesting question surfaces about the region in which it is usually included: Where is the Middle East? That may seem like a strange query for a conflict zone that has dominated global news headlines for the better part of a century. But as these maps show, the definition and the borders of what we think of as the 'Middle East' are quite changeable and have evolved over time.
As the term itself indicates, the 'Middle East' lies somewhere halfway between the 'Near East' and the 'Far East'. The 'here' in that assumption is Europe, and more specifically Britain. 'Middle East' is of more recent coinage than its two adjacent denominations, and of surprising origin. The term was invented in 1902 by an American.
Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914) served as a naval officer on the Union side during the Civil War, later rising to the rank of captain in the U.S. Navy. After his retirement, he became a lecturer and historian of naval strategy, gaining worldwide renown with The Influence of Sea Power Upon History (1890) and following books on the topic. His thinking was influential on the development of the pre-WWI naval strategies of the U.S., Britain, France, Japan and Germany.
In an article in the National Review titled 'The Persian Gulf and International Relations', Mahan used the term 'Middle East' to designate an area along the sea route from Suez to Singapore, including the Persian Gulf. The route was of critical importance for the then British Empire and Mahan urged the British to strengthen their naval power in the area for just that reason.
Mahan's proposal of the term 'Middle East' found wider purchase when it was picked up by Valentine Chirol, writing for The Times.
- In 1903, Chirol published The Middle Eastern Question, in which he defined the Middle East as "those regions of Asia which extend to the borders of India or command the approaches of India, and which are consequently bound up with the problems of Indian political as well as military defense;" i.e. the shores of the Persian Gulf, plus the rest of Iraq and Iran, Afghanistan, and even Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan; as well as Kashmir.
When Kenya was in the 'Middle East'
Mirages of the Middle East: Chirol, 1903 (top left), the Royal Geographic Society, 1920 (top right), the RAF, 1939 (bottom left) and British army's Middle East Command, 1942 (bottom right).
Images: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC)
- In 1920, Britain's Royal Geographic Society attempted to codify the term, taking the Bosporus as the divider between the 'Near East' (i.e. the Balkans; in blue) and the 'Middle East' (Turkey to Afghanistan, all the way down to Yemen, and everywhere in between; in red).
- In the years leading up to WWII, the Royal Air Force conceived of the 'Middle East' as an entirely different place: it was the land bridge from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean formed by Egypt, Sudan and Kenya. All lands under British dominion, providing a safe air corridor between Europe and Britain's possessions further east.
- A few years later, during WWII itself, Britain's 'Middle East Air Command' expanded that definition to include all the countries in the Horn of Africa (Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia), the port possession of Aden (the red dot in Yemen), the countries stretching from the eastern Mediterranean to India (Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Transjordan, Iraq and Iran), plus Libya and… Greece. That jars with today's conception of the Middle East, but it made sense from an operational point of view during the war.
A contiguous 'Middle East'
A more contiguous 'Middle East', as defined by the Brits after WWII.
Image: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC)
By 1952, the official British definition of the 'Middle East' was 'cleaned up'. Henceforth, the concept stood for a geographically contiguous (if not culturally homogenous) region.
Out went Greece and Kenya, at the northern and southern extremities. In came the countries of the Arabian Peninsula (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Yemen) and Afghanistan.
Oh, and look: Cyprus is in there as well—not unimportantly, as Britain had (and still has) two major military bases in the island, which have often been used since then for British military operations in the region.
Various definitions of the region, all including the nations of the Arabian Peninsula, most excluding Israel.
Image: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC)
Various international organizations have widely different definitions of the 'Middle East'. Some examples, all from 2005:
To prevent the dilution of international labour standards by 'regionalism', the International Labour Organization (ILO) preferred to organize its regional offices for entire continents. Yet in 1985, the ILO created a regional office for the Arab states which by 2005 covered the countries shown on the map top left (in yellow).
These countries are still treated as part of the Asian department when regional conferences are convened. As is often the case with international organizations, Israel is excluded from the regional grouping in order to avoid acrimony and instead is added to 'Europe'.
The ILO definition of the 'Middle East' is one of the narrowest, excluding Egypt, Turkey, Iran and lands beyond. It is also the most consistent, as it overlaps entirely with the areas covered by other organizations, widely varying as their extremities may be.
On the map top right, the countries in darker blue are part of the 'Near East' region of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) when it comes to council elections. The FAO's definition of the region is wider when it comes to its activities and projects, in which case it also includes the countries in lighter blue (incl. Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Turkey and Mauritania).
In 1957, the World Bank replaced its department for Asia and the Middle East with three new departments: for the Far East, South Asia and the Middle East. In 1967, the latter was enhanced with the countries of North Africa, creating the MENA region (Middle East/North Africa). In 1968, the departments for MENA and Europe merged (EMENA), only to be re-divided, into Europe and Central Asia and, again, MENA—stretching from Morocco to Iran, and from Syria to Djibouti (map bottom left).
In 1948, the World Health Organization (WHO) established the 'Eastern Mediterranean' as one of its six global regions. It extended from Greece east to Pakistan (not including Afghanistan) and south to Yemen (not including Oman). In Africa, it took in Egypt, the Tripolitania area of present-day Libya, and the countries of the Horn.
By 2005 (as shown on the map bottom right), Greece and Turkey had been transferred to 'Europe'; and Ethiopia, Eritrea and Algeria to 'Africa' in 1977. Morocco had preferred to remain in 'Europe', and was transferred to the 'Eastern Mediterranean' only in 1986. Oman and Afghanistan have now also been added to the 'Eastern Mediterranean'. Israel joined the WHO in 1949, but met with non-cooperation in the 'Eastern Mediterranean'. It was transferred to 'Europe' in 1985.
When east is west
Evolution of the State Department's definition of the 'Near East'.
Image: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC)
After the Brits had relegated the term 'Near East' to the Balkans as a prelude to forgetting about it altogether, the Americans decided to adopt it for their own official use.
- In 1944, the U.S. State Department's Office of Near Eastern and African Affairs had three divisions (top map).
- The African one (in yellow) covered all of Africa, minus Algeria (supposedly considered part of France, hence 'European') and Egypt.
- Egypt was part of the Division of Near Eastern Affairs (in blue), which covered an area from Greece to Turkey and Iraq, and the entire Arabian Peninsula.
- To the east lay the area covered by the Division of Middle Eastern Affairs (in red): from Iran to Burma, and everything in between.
- In 1948, presumably after (and because of) the independence of India and Pakistan, the State Department renamed the division covering region from Afghanistan to Burma the Division of South Asian Affairs. Sudan was moved from African to Near Eastern Affairs. Greece, Turkey and Iran were shoehorned in the new Division of Greek, Turkish and Iranian Affairs.
- In 1992, the State Department divided the Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs in two. The new Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs jettisoned Sudan (which reverted back to the African desk), but absorbed Iran and the remaining nations of North Africa. Curiously including Morocco, which is more to the west than Ireland, into the 'Near East'.
Scholars tend to take a maximalist approach to the 'Middle East'.
Image: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC)
Scholarly approaches in the U.S. to what constitutes the 'Middle East' tend to be maximalist but show interesting variations nonetheless.
Founded in 1946 in Washington DC, the Middle East Institute (MEI) aims to increase knowledge of the Middle East among Americans, and to promote understanding between people from both places. In the very first issue of its Middle East Journal (1947), it printed this map as its definition of the 'Middle East' (map top left).
- In Africa: Morocco to Somalia and all the countries in between, including Ethiopia.
- The 'middle' Middle East: everywhere from Turkey down to and including the Arabian Peninsula, the Caucasian countries (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan).
- Places further east: Not just entire countries—Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India—but also the Muslim-influenced parts of Central Asia that were then part of the Soviet Union and China.
In 2005, the Middle East Journal published this revised map of the 'Middle East' (map top right).
- In Africa, it now includes Mauritania—but not the Western Sahara, illegally occupied by Morocco. No longer included: Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.
- Djibouti is the only country in the Horn of Africa that's still on board.
- Further east, India (and Bangladesh) have been left out, as have the Muslim areas of eastern China. The 'Middle East' has expanded north to include all formerly Soviet Central Asian state, up to and including Kazakhstan—meaning the Middle East extends to about the same latitude as Copenhagen.
The current website of the Middle East Institute offers a slightly different take: plus Western Sahara, minus South Sudan and Djibouti, minus the Caucasian republics, and apparently minus the Central Asian states.
In 1970, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) in its International Journal of Middle East Studies defined its geographical area of interest (map bottom left) to include "the countries of the Arab world from the seventh century to modern times".
Also included: territories which were "part of Middle Eastern empires or were under influence of Middle Eastern Civilization," such as the Iberian Peninsula, the Balkans, up to central and southern Ukraine, the entire Caucasus area and significant areas of Central Asia, up to Pakistan.
In 2000, MESA updated its geographical scope, expanding it into the northern part of present-day India (map bottom right).
Poetry over politics
**maybe she’s born with it**— Ted Bey (@TedBey) January 10, 2020
**maybe it’s the Arab world** pic.twitter.com/tlG2l4LJcz
Except for the very first image, all the maps in this post are from a Twitter thread by Amro Ali, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo. Replying to the various cartographic definitions, someone responded with an image that literally personifies the region: Arab Lady, her hair the shape of the Arab world. (In fact, coterminous with the member states of the Arab League).
And you can't argue with Arab Lady, because poetry of place always wins against the prose of politics.
Strange Maps #1007
Many thanks to Robert Capiot for pointing me to Mr Ali's maps.
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Map turns San Francisco Bay Area into the Middle East - Big Think ›
- A Real Map of the Middle East - Big Think ›
These alien-like creatures are virtually invisible in the deep sea.
- A team of marine biologists used nets to catch 16 species of deep-sea fish that have evolved the ability to be virtually invisible to prey and predators.
- "Ultra-black" skin seems to be an evolutionary adaptation that helps fish camouflage themselves in the deep sea, which is illuminated by bioluminescent organisms.
- There are likely more, and potentially much darker, ultra-black fish lurking deep in the ocean.
A team of marine biologists has discovered 16 species of "ultra-black" fish that absorb more than 99 percent of the light that hits their skin, making them virtually invisible to other deep-sea fish.
The researchers, who published their findings Thursday in Current Biology, caught the species after dropping nets more than 200 meters deep near California's Monterey Bay. At those depths, sunlight fizzles out. That's one reason why many deep-sea species have evolved the ability to illuminate the dark waters through bioluminescence.
But what if deep-sea fish don't want to be spotted? To counter bioluminescence, some species have evolved ultra-black skin that's exceptionally good at absorbing light. Only a few other species are known to possess this strange trait, including birds of paradise and some spiders and butterflies.
The Pacific blackdragon
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
When researchers first saw the deep-sea species, it wasn't immediately obvious that their skin was ultra-black. Then, marine biologist Karen Osborn, a co-author on the new paper, noticed something strange about the photos she took of the fish.
"I had tried to take pictures of deep-sea fish before and got nothing but these really horrible pictures, where you can't see any detail," Osborn told Wired. "How is it that I can shine two strobe lights at them and all that light just disappears?"
After examining samples of fish skin under the microscope, the researchers discovered that the fish skin contains a layer of organelles called melanosomes, which contain melanin, the same pigment that gives color to human skin and hair. This layer of melanosomes absorbs most of the light that hits them.
A crested bigscale
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
"But what isn't absorbed side-scatters into the layer, and it's absorbed by the neighboring pigments that are all packed right up close to it," Osborn told Wired. "And so what they've done is create this super-efficient, very-little-material system where they can basically build a light trap with just the pigment particles and nothing else."
The result? Strange and terrifying deep-sea species, like the crested bigscale, fangtooth, and Pacific blackdragon, all of which appear in the deep sea as barely more than faint silhouettes.
David Csepp, NMFS/AKFSC/ABL
But interestingly, this unique disappearing trick wasn't passed on to these species by a common ancestor. Rather, they each developed it independently. As such, the different species use their ultra-blackness for different purposes. For example, the threadfin dragonfish only has ultra-black skin during its adolescent years, when it's rather defenseless, as Wired notes.
Other fish—like the oneirodes species, which use bioluminescent lures to bait prey—probably evolved ultra-black skin to avoid reflecting the light their own bodies produce. Meanwhile, species like C. acclinidens only have ultra-black skin around their gut, possibly to hide light of bioluminescent fish they've eaten.
Given that these newly described species are just ones that this team found off the coast of California, there are likely many more, and possibly much darker, ultra-black fish swimming in the deep ocean.
Information may not seem like something physical, yet it has become a central concern for physicists. A wonderful new book explores the importance of the "dataome" for the physical, biological, and human worlds.
- The most important current topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all — information, which is central to thermodynamics and perhaps the universe itself.
- The "dataome" is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls.
- The dataome is vast and growing everyday, sucking up an ever increasing share of the energy humans produce.
Physics is a field that is supposed to study real stuff. By real, I mean things like matter and energy. Matter is, of course, the kind of stuff you can hold in your hand. Energy may seem a little more abstract, but its reality is pretty apparent, appearing in the form of motion or gravity or electromagnetic fields.
What has become apparent recently, however, is the importance to physics of something that seems somewhat less real: information. From black holes to quantum mechanics to understanding the physics of life, information has risen to become a principal concern of many physicists in many domains. This new centrality of information is why you really need to read astrophysicist Caleb Scharf's new book The Ascent of Information: Books, Bits, Machines, and Life's Unending Algorithms.
Scharf is currently the director of the Astrobiology Program at Columbia University. He is also the author of four other books as well as a regular contributor to Scientific American.
(Full disclosure: Scharf and I have been collaborators on a scientific project involving the Fermi Paradox, so I was a big fan before I read this new book. Of course, the reason why I collaborated with him is because I really like the way he thinks, and his creativity in tackling tough problems is on full display in The Ascent of Information.)
What is the dataome?
In his new book, Scharf is seeking a deeper understanding of what he calls the "dataome." This is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls. The book opens with a compelling exploration of how Shakespeare's works, which began as scribbles on a page, have gone on to have lives of their own in the dataome. Through reprintings in different languages, recordings of performances, movie adaptations, comic books, and so on, Shakespeare's works are now a permanent part of the vast swirling ensemble of information that constitutes the human dataome.
I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
But the dataome does not just live in our heads. Scharf takes us on a proper physicist's journey through the dataome, showing us how information can never be divorced from energy. Your brain needs the chemical energy from food you ate this morning to read, process, and interpret these words. One of the most engaging parts of the book is when Scharf details just how much energy and real physical space our data-hungry world consumes as it adds to the dataome. For example, the Hohhot Data Center in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China is made of vast "farms" of data processing servers covering 245 acres of real estate. A single application like Bitcoin, Scharf tells us, consumes 7.7 gigawatts per year, equivalent to the output of half a dozen nuclear reactors!
Information is everywhere
But the dataome is not just about energy. Entropy is central to the story as well. Scharf takes the reader through a beautifully crafted discussion of information and the science of thermodynamics. This is where the links between energy, entropy, the limits of useful work, and probability all become profoundly connected to the definition of information.
The second law of thermodynamics tells us that you cannot use all of a given amount of energy to do useful work. Some of that energy must be wasted by getting turned into heat. Entropy is the physicist's way of measuring that waste (which can also be thought of as disorder). Scharf takes the reader through the basic relations of thermodynamics and then shows how entropy became intimately linked with information. It was Claude Shannon's brilliant work in the 1940s that showed how information — bits — could be defined for communication and computation as an entropy associated with the redundancy of strings of symbols. That was the link tying the physical world of physics explicitly to the informational and computational world of the dataome.
The best parts of the book are where Scharf unpacks how information makes its appearance in biology. From the data storage and processing that occurs with every strand of DNA, to the tangled pathways that define evolutionary dynamics, Scharf demonstrates how life is what happens to physics and chemistry when information matters. I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
The physics of information
There are a lot of popular physics books out there about black holes and exoplanets and other cool stuff. But right now, I feel like the most important topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all. Information is a relatively new addition to the physics bestiary, making it even more compelling. If you are looking for a good introduction to how that is so, The Ascent of Information is a good place to start.
A new study tested to what extent dogs can sense human deception.
Is humanity's best friend catching on to our shenanigans? Researchers at the University of Vienna discovered that dogs can in certain cases know when people are lying.
The scientists carried out a study with hundreds of dogs to determine to what extent dogs could spot deception. The team's new paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, outlined experiments that tested whether dogs, like humans, have some inner sense of how to assess truthfulness.
As the researchers wrote in their paper, "Among non-primates, dogs (Canis familiaris) constitute a particularly interesting case, as their social environment has been shared with humans for at least 14,000 years. For this reason, dogs have been considered as a model species for the comparative investigation of socio-cognitive abilities." The investigation focused specifically on understanding if dogs were "sensitive to some mental or psychological states of humans."
The experiments involved 260 dogs, which were made to listen to advice from a human "communicator" whom they did not know. The human told them which one of two bowls had a treat hidden inside by touching it and saying, "Look, this is very good!" If the dogs took the person's advice, they would get the treat.
Once they established the trust of the dogs, the researchers then complicated the experience by letting dogs watch another human that they did not know transfer the treat from one bowl to another. In some cases, the original communicator would also be present to watch but not always.
The findings revealed that half of the dogs did not follow the advice of the communicator if that person was not present when the food was switched to a different bowl. The dogs had a sense that this human could not have known the true location of the treat. Furthermore, two-thirds of the dogs ignored the human's suggestion if she did see the food switch but pointed to the wrong bowl. The dogs figured out the human was lying to them.
Photos of experiments showing the dog, human communicator, and person hiding the treat. Credit: Lucrezia Lonardo et al / Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
"We thought dogs would behave like children under age five and apes, but now we speculate that perhaps dogs can understand when someone is being deceitful," co-author Ludwig Huber from the University of Vienna told New Scientist. "Maybe they think, 'This person has the same knowledge as me, and is nevertheless giving me the wrong [information].' It's possible they could see that as intentionally misleading, which is lying."
This is not the first time such experiments have been carried out. Previously, children under age five, macaques, and chimps were tested in a similar way. It turned out that children and other animals were more likely than dogs to listen to the advice of the liars. Notably, among the dogs, terriers were found to be more like children and apes, more eagerly following false suggestions.