How would you describe the Middle East? Your responses might mention oil, sand, and desert. However, the land spreading from northwest Africa to the Persian Gulf states, the Levant, and Central Asia, is as varied and spectacular as what we find across the United States. Forests, mountains, rich coastal areas, marshes, fertile agricultural sectors, rain forests, wetlands, and yes, deserts, can be found across the region. What you would also be surprised to learn is that much of modern day medicine, technology, writing, and mathematics stem from Islam and the Middle East.

When it comes to the foundation of modern science, most think of the work of Westerners, like the English Sir Isaac Newton. However, the Middle East has a tremendously rich history of science, math, and medicine. While Europe was in the Dark Ages, the Islamic world was experiencing a golden age of innovation. Some of the most important scientific words have Arabic roots: algebra, algorithms, and alkalis. European scientists built off of their work, like the preeminent Italian mathematician Fibonacci. It is little wonder, considering that Baghdad was at the center of the known world that stretched from Asia to Europe. From simple things, like how we conceptualize numbers, to complex concepts such as astronomy and ocular surgery, Islamic civilization has left an indelible mark on science.

It was no accident that science and math flourished under Arab rulers, particularly the Abbasid Caliphate. There was a tremendous amount of patronage from the Islamic rulers, who recognized that academic advancement was a mark of a great civilization. Yes, science could help win wars and math could account for financial systems, but knowledge was an end in itself. It was even viewed as an Islamic duty, for the Prophet Muhammad treasured the search for knowledge, saying that it must be sought even if you had to travel as far as China. One of the most significant government programs was the Translation Movement. Great works from around the world, be they in Greek or Syriac, were to be translated into Arabic. It is only because of the Translation Movement that today we have some of the works of Plato and Socrates. Arab scholars even deciphered ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs before British and French scholars claimed to have done so with the Rosetta Stone in the 19th century. The intellectual center of this movement was bayt al-Hikma, the House of Wisdom, in Baghdad. Learn more about the historical contributions stemming from the Muslim world in the BBC documentary below.

And, in this section, discover more about about the science and inventions, geography and environment, and flora and fauna of this diverse and complex region of the world.

Washington Post Profiles Wasted Generation of Gaza Stifled by Lack of Opportunity, Employment

In this republished article by journalists William Booth and Hazem Balousha, educated and unemployed Palestinians in their 20s discuss lives bereft of opportunity and hope. Nearly 60 percent of young Gazans are unemployed and most would leave if it were possible. With few stable job prospects and no escape, many have resorted to occasional odd […]

Conflict and the Environment

News outlets and educational resources recently reported on a surprising environmental impact of civil unrest in the Middle East. Certainly, we know that people are displaced and that critical infrastructure is damaged during conflict, but another byproduct of war is the disruption of economy. Transportation is less accessible and safe, resources become scarce, and demand [...]

Islamic Science and Mathematics: The Astrolabe

One particular achievement of the Golden Age of Islam is the Astrolabe, an astronomical instrument from the 12th century; let’s learn more about it! Using the Astrolobe from Muslim Heritage by Emily Winterburn* Al Sufi, one of the most famous astronomers of the Islamic world, was writing in Isfahan (in modern day Iran) in the 10th […]

Maps and Digital Geography Applications

Maps are an excellent introductory tool for taking students on meaningful adventures through geography, cultures, history, and current events.  We often think of maps as neutral documents that give us an unmediated snapshot of political borders and cities, or terrain, or resources. However, maps are human documents, and they therefore reflect their creators’ point of […]

What is the Middle East?

The Middle East is the common term for a region consisting of countries in southwest Asia and, usually, at least part of North Africa. It is an interesting term - middle of what? east of what? While the term is now widespread both inside and outside the region, it is in fact relatively new. It [...]

Water in the Middle East

Water security has always been an issue in the arid environment that characterizes most of the Middle East. Not until recently, however, has it been so serious. Although the Nile, Euphrates, Tigris and Jordan Rivers provide substantial agricultural, industrial and commercial support, the longevity of this scarce resource is being tested daily. The rich landscape [...]

Mountains of the Middle East

Why should we think so hard about geography? Why does geography matter? In addition to the intrinsic interest of the physical structures of the earth, geography is the canvas on which history—the lives of people over years, centuries, and millennia—is painted. The rivers, mountains, plains and valleys, oil deposits and rainfall patterns of the Middle [...]