Middle East and North Africa:ancient empires
The Middle East is rightly regarded as the cradle of civilization, and within thisenormous and diverse region, which includes part of the Mediterranean littoraland most of Asia Minor, travel and transport systems developed very early but inquite similar ways. It would make no sense to consider the development of travel inEgypt, for example, separately from similar developments in the ‘Fertile Crescent’of the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates in modern-day Iraq. Moreover, for muchof its history the entire region, together with parts of North Africa, has been undera single unified political control, and the whole area is here considered as oneregion – at least for the purpose of considering its travel history. Different writersuse different geographical descriptions, so in order to avoid complications in try-ing to define the boundaries between the Near and Middle East, Asia Minor, theLevant, etc., the whole region is considered together here under the general head-ing of ‘Middle East and North Africa’ (Map 2.1).The ‘Fertile Crescent’ of Mesopotamia in modern Iraq and the valley of the RiverNile in Egypt were the locations for the development of some of the earliest knownurbanized societies. The processes of urbanization required domestic trade and travel,and from this small beginning sprang a network of trade routes across the region and,slightly later, across the Mediterranean (Map 2.1). Broadly speaking, the history oftravel in the Middle East can be divided into five major periods: the ancient world(from first beginnings until the defeat of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Greatin 331–330 BC); the Hellenistic (Greek) and Roman world from 323 BC until thedecline of the late Roman/Byzantine Empire in the fifth century AD; the Arab worldfrom the seventh to the twelfth centuries AD (with interruptions such as the Crusadesand culminating in the Mongol invasions); the Ottoman Empire (the thirteenth tothe late nineteenth centuries); and the modern Middle East of the twentieth andtwenty-first centuries. Unlike sub-Saharan Africa or South America, most of the areathat we know today as the Middle East was under the control of a single politicalentity for much of that time (albeit under a succession of different empires), whichlent a unity to the development of a transport infrastructure both by land and bywater to service the complex communications requirements of extensive empires.The Middle East itself is a rather vaguely defined area where the three continentsof the ‘Old World’ meet. It encompasses South-West Asia, Turkey, Egypt (and itsneighbours) and the shores of the Black, Caspian, Arabian and Red Seas, with theCaucasus and Atlas Mountains forming natural barriers. The core of the MiddleEast consists of the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant, with Iran (and sometimesAfghanistan) considered as providing its eastern border, although it is currentlymore common to include Afghanistan as part of Central Asia – even though it wasconquered by Alexander the Great and included within his empire. The topography
of this vast area is immensely varied; sand deserts in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, andextensive mountain ranges and high plains in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen. The region’smajor rivers (the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates) were central to early development ofriver travel. Alexander’s empire also included Egypt and part of North Africa, andRome controlled the entire circum-Mediterranean area. There is a key sense inwhich the Mediterranean and its surrounding coast is the world’s travel hub; manyof the great developments in the history of travel and exploration were either devisedhere (like the metalled road or ocean-going ship-building) or resulted from thepolitical systems that controlled the region. Climate, too, was an important influ-ence on the travel history of the region, with the aridity of its northern Sahara andArabian Peninsula requiring the development of specific means of transport,including the domestication of the camel and the first ‘road trains’ – the greatcamel caravans that crossed Arabia and the rest of the Middle East from at leastthe third millennium BC. The huge distances involved in travel across Asia stimu-lated the development of new transport types, such as the light, fast chariot, which was so helpful in covering the long, straight roads in arid outposts of thePersian Empire. The seasonality of winds in the Mediterranean affected trade andtravel patterns right from early prehistoric times, as did the monsoon winds thatwere eventually to be utilized to develop transport links between the region and ndia. The raw materials of travel were available here, too, such as the wood forship-building, and animals for domestication.Despite the fact that it was the hub of ancient empires, in the modern world theMiddle East and North Africa region is synonymous with conflict, not unity.However, its history has contributed to an extraordinary diversity of tourism prod-ucts, from cultural tourism in Syria, Jordan and Egypt to beach tourism in Moroccoand Tunisia. For the latter three countries tourism is a major source of jobs and for-eign currency, and throughout the region the growth of modern tourism not onlygives governments an incentive to protect endangered species and historic monu-ments but also can provide foreign visitors with a deep appreciation of the region’shistory, which is often at odds with current political crises.1The history of trade and travel within the region can be traced back several thousandyears, but the tourism (in the sense of leisure travel) also has a long history here. Asfar back as the Roman occupation of Egypt, beginning around 30 BC, Romantourists explored the ruins of Thebes and the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Forcenturies, Arab, Asian and, later, European explorers trekked across portions of theregion, keeping records of the sites and peoples they encountered. Map 2.1 empha-sizes the dominance of Egypt as a tourism destination, both ancient and modern;modern Egypt receives a steady stream of tourists, most of whom come to see thesites of the Nile Valley but increasing numbers of whom visit the Sinai Peninsula,Alexandria and the western desert. In terms of tourism numbers Egypt is by far themost important country in this region, although its North-African neighbours (suchas Tunisia) are also significant leisure tourism destinations – largely because, forEuropean tourists, North Africa’s proximity makes it a viable destination even forshort trips. However, Map 2.1 also shows many areas where modern leisure travel isminimal or non-existent. Some (like Iraq and Iran) correspond to the heartlands ofthe great empires of the ancient world, while others (such as Yemen) mark regionswhose immense tourism potential cannot be realized until greater political stabilityis achieved. The region includes countries that either virtually forbid tourism, suchas Saudi Arabia (although this is now opening up a little). The map also emphasizeshow deceptive statistics can be; Saudi Arabia appears as a major internationaltourism destination comparable to Spain and France in Europe. Numerically this istrue, but the large numbers of visitors are all hajpilgrims going to just one site –Makkah (Mecca). Some Middle-Eastern locations (such as Alexandria and Tyre)have been centres of travel and trading empires for millennia, but some significantplayers in the contemporary tourism scene, such as Dubai, are relative newcomers.The contemporary Middle East is a place of great economic contrasts, between theaffluence of the Gulf states (especially Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates) andextremely poor countries such as Yemen. The region’s history as a trading centre isalso reflected in today’s economies, with major ports and shipping and the develop-ment of new airport hubs such as Dubai. Dubai has invested very heavily in airports,leisure facilities, hotels and shops to make it the Middle East’s most popular transitand short-break destination.2Jebel Ali at Dubai is the largest artificial port in theworld, and the Middle East’s most active duty-free zone. Oil is the economic main-stay of Iran, Iraq and all the Gulf states, and is an important source of income forEgypt, Yemen and Syria, but tourism is the other major economic basis of theregion. The Middle East is the birthplace of the world’s three monotheistic religions(Christianity, Judaism and Islam) and has been the seat of or battleground for manyof the great empires of antiquity, resulting in a surfeit of religious and archaeologicaltreasures. And nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in Egypt Even from pre-dynastic times, the communities of the Nile Valley utilized the riverfor domestic travel and network links, together with pack animals (initially don-keys or mules) to travel within their local area. But the start of more formal ‘busi-ness travel’ in Egypt can be set at around 3200 BC, when the whole country hadbeen unified under a single ruler, necessitating the development of travel networksfor administrators, agents and messengers up and down the river from the capitalat Memphis.3We know that prospectors, miners and traders were also crossing theeastern desert to Sinai from a very early date, and that the first Egyptian coppermines had been established there from 3000 BC. Egypt sent its first diplomaticmissions north into the Levant and south into the Sudan around this time, to berapidly followed by trading links. It would appear that there was a major tradingpost located on the Nile between the second and third cataracts which was the terminus of a caravan trail running south to the highlands of Sudan and Ethiopia,allowing the import of gold and luxury trade goods from the south. However, by2000 BC the Egyptians had bypassed these hazardous and slow land routes andsent ships down the Red Sea directly to the shores of Ethiopia and probably toSomalia to further develop trade in incense, ebony, oil, leopard skins and elephanttusks. Whether civilian explorers accompanied these trips we have no way of know-ing, but the expeditions would certainly have included army detachments, clerks,merchants and their servants. We can assume that trade caravans and troop move-ments were a common sight on the roads of both Egypt and Mesopotamia at thattime, and clay tablets found in the Iraqi city of Assur document the extent of thisearly caravan trade and its sophistication.
The Arabian Peninsula
The present political profile of the countries which comprise the Arabian Peninsulawas shaped by the events of the First World War when, in 1914, the remains of theOttoman Empire sided with Germany. In the closing years of the War the Britishoccupied Palestine and Damascus and a secret deal to carve up the remains of theOttoman Empire was implemented, by which France took control of Syria andLebanon and Britain retained Egypt and was given control of what were thenPalestine, Transjordan and Iraq. The events of the period have, of course, becomeforever immortalized by the writings of T. E. Lawrence and the David Lean filmLawrence of Arabia.17During the Second World War, Egypt became briefly thecentre of desert fighting – notably the British victory at the battle of El Alameinin Egypt’s desert west of Alexandria, which halted the German advance acrossNorth Africa. However, after the Second World War problems began to surface inthe Middle East, beginning with tensions rising in Palestine and pressure on itsBritish administration for unrestricted Jewish immigration, and eventually parti-tion. The subsequent Arab–Israeli War, the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, theSuez crisis, continuing Arab–Israeli conflict, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, theGulf War and later the Iraq War have all combined to create the political bound-aries of the Middle East which we know today. The balance of power in the MiddleEast was further changed by the discovery of oil in the Gulf, with two oil boomsin the 1970s, followed by the rise of powerful rulers in the previously poor andunder-populated Gulf states, which became world powers in ways that were previously unimaginable.The history of travel to and around the Arabian Peninsula is a long one, and isintrinsically related to shipping routes through the Red Sea, Arabian Gulf, Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea. Until the opening of the Suez Canal, land trade routeswere also of great significance – notably the camel caravan routes which connectedthe great port cities of Arabia (such as Aden, Jiddah, Muscat and Bahrain) by anoverland network that also connected with the Nile Valley (and thus with Cairoand Alexandria) and with the Mediterranean coastal ports such as Tyre, Sidon andBeirut (Map 2.2). By such means it was possible to travel from India to Arabiausing the monsoon winds, and connect by land routes to the Mediterranean andthus to Europe. The Middle East is one of the few areas of the world where pas-senger shipping is still an expanding market, with services in the Arabian Gulfshowing particular levels of growth. Modern routes and hubs are often of veryancient foundation. Many of the Middle East’s trading ports were already estab-lished by 3000 BC – such as Bahrain (Map 2.2), which grew because of its stra-tegic position along the trade routes linking Mesopotamia to the Nile Valley in theera of the Dilmun Empire, and remained a significant port for the next 6000 yearsbefore oil was discovered there earlier than in the rest of the Gulf. During the1970s and 1980s Bahrain experienced huge growth as a result of the skyrocketingprice of oil but, like so many of the Gulf states, it has now begun to diversify andbecome less dependent on its fossil fuel resources and is looking to tourism for this
urpose. However, not all Arabian cities are of such ancient foundation; in con-trast to Bahrain, the headland now occupied by Kuwait city was settled only 300 years ago but it grew rapidly. By 1760 Kuwait had a dhowfleet of 800 boats,which connected with the camel caravans based there and that travelled regularlyoverland to Baghdad and Damascus.During the Middle Ages, much of what is now the United Arab Emirates (UAE)was part of the Kingdom of Hormuz and controlled the entrance to, and the tradewithin, the whole of the Gulf of Arabia. The Portuguese had occupied and built acustom’s house near the site of present day Ras Al-Khaimah, through which theywere able to generate tax revenue on the growing trade between India and the Far East.