Violent upheaval in the Middle East has recently spawned all manner of maps purporting to explain how the region got this way. Here, instead, are 15 maps that don’t claim as much. Or rather, they do not seek, like many other maps, to capture some fixed set of core facts about the region. Instead, these maps provide a more fluid perspective on the Middle East, often by showing what didn’t happen as opposed to what did. But for all these maps don’t show, they do illustrate one thing: the sobering fact that no one map—or even set of maps—can ever explain the region’s complex history and politics.
1. The Imagined Line Between East and West
Rudyard Kipling once wrote that “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” But when you try to map where exactly they diverge, the border appears to be constantly on the move. The ancient Greeks drew the West-East distinction between themselves and the Persians along a shifting line somewhere between the Aegean Sea and the middle of the Anatolian peninsula, which roughly corresponds to modern-day Turkey. As Islam spread in the seventh century, many Europeans imagined the corresponding division between civilizations running between the Islamic world and “Christiandom.” Later, prior to World War I, Europeans’ conception of East began at the borders of the Ottoman Empire. This all changed suddenly with the advent of the Cold War, when a new border between the communist East and capitalist West appeared. If there has been a constant feature of the division between East and West over the centuries, it’s our eagerness to draw a line between them.