Is there a Middle East? At first glance we either have a very silly question or an occasion for an academic conference. In this case it was the latter at Yale University this past weekend. The Council for Middle East Studies of the Yale Center for International and Area Studies hosted a dozen scholars from various disciplines. Papers were given on the history of the term “Middle East,” its geographical borders in maps and mental templates, how the region implied has been imagined, colonially appropriated and the continuing relevance of the region in a world hooked on oil and stymied by regional terrorism.

For archaeologists the region once revered mainly as Terra Sancta or Holy Land, although profaned over the centuries with bloodshed, was the Near East. The “near” here implied relevance for European and later American academic interest in the material objects beneath the surface. The ruins of Bible Lands, ancient Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia were near and dear to the minds of those who studied the reputed history of the earliest, or what seemed to be the earliest, civilization. As Historian Abbas Amanat, who helped organize the conference, quipped, the area beneath the ground belongs to the Near East but that above has come to be the Middle East.

Coinage of a distinctive “Middle East” is credited to A. T. Mahan, an American naval officer who first used the term in the British journal National Review in 1902. As historian Roger Adelson pointed out in his paper, Mahan did not set out to replace the older term “Near East,” but was making a point about the growing strategic importance of the Persian Gulf for the British empire stretched between the Mediterranean and India. Thus the Middle East took on a political significance that at the start of World War II was consolidated in Britain’s designation of a “Middle East Command.” “By the end of the war,” writes Adelson, “the term ‘Middle East’ had virtually eclipsed ‘Near East’.” The founding of the Middle East Institute in Washington in 1947 and later the Middle East Studies Association in 1966 sealed the conceptual shift.

So is there a Middle East? A dozen scholars spent two days addressing the issue in one way or another. Of course there is a geographical space with a long and still relevant history. But drawing the borders in a meaningful way is not that simple. Some stretch the term from Morocco to Afghanistan; others leave out Africa altogether; and where in the world does Turkey fit?

The most obvious point is that the notion of either a Near East or a Middle East is necessarily imposed from the outside. As historian Ramzi Rouighi noted in his paper, individuals like himself growing up in the Maghrib of North Africa do not think of themselves as belonging to something called the “Middle East.” Indeed, when he asked fellow Maghribis what they thought about al-sharq al-awsat, the Arabic translation of “Middle East,” they all asked, “You mean the newspaper?” [This is the name of a major Arabic daily published in London.]

Daniel Martin Varisco