Does the Middle East Exist? Maps and What They Reveal – Ryan Woodgate

Where is the Middle East? The question sounds deceptively simple at first. However, take a moment to really consider it. You’ll most likely find that listing the member countries or regions is a surprisingly tricky task. We might agree that Saudi Arabia is a constituent country, but what if I suggested Turkey? How about Pakistan? India? Mauritania? Singapore? Surely not Portugal…Believe it or not but all of the above countries have, at one point or another, been considered to be a part of the Middle East. In a thought-provoking presentation delivered by Thomas Pierret, a lecturer in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies in the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, the question was decomposed and viewed from exciting new angles. Maps from over the last century were consulted and critically assessed in attempt to understand what comprises the Middle East and why. A bunch of enthusiastic students from a number of schools across the university were on hand to voice their opinions as well as their interpretations of the many of maps on show.

Dr. Pierret introduced the puzzling issue by way of asking his audience for criteria that could define the Middle East. Interesting talks of climate, religion and the Eurocentric nature of the term “Middle East” ensued, but no set of characteristics emerged as being sufficient in defining the increasingly mysterious region. Dr. Pierret then inspired his audience by sifting through various cartographers’ attempts at locating the Middle East. For instance, one British strategist in 1902 relied on a literal definition of Middle East—that which is between the Near East and Far East—so it stretched as far as Singapore.  The “Middle East Studies Association” later claimed that it crept up into Hungary, mostly due to the influences of the Ottoman Empire.

Whether it was for historic, anthropological, political, strategic, climatic or economic reasons, dozens of cartographers have had their say on what makes up this confusing, ever-changing area. Thanks to this delightful and insightful lecture, however, we are at least in a better position to begin to understand and demystify the matter.

Ryan Woodgate – Philosophy and Economics

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