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7.1: North Africa and Southwest Asia's Key Geographic Features

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  • Learning Objectives

    • Identify the key geographic features of North Africa and Southwest Asia
    • Describe the geography of the major religious groups found in North Africa and Southwest Asia
    • Explain how the history of North Africa and Southwest Asia impacted its cultural landscape
    • Describe the current areas of religious conflict within North Africa and Southwest Asia

    When geographers divide the world into regions, we often do so using landmasses. Have a big chunk of land might be mostly surrounded by water? Let’s make it a region! Sometimes, though, making these sorts of divisions is more difficult. Africa, for instance, is almost entirely surrounded by water except for a small land connection with Asia at Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. But Sub-Saharan Africa is physiographically, culturally, and linguistically distinct from the African countries north of the Sahara. In fact, North Africa has much more in common in terms of its physical and religious landscape with the Arabian Peninsula and Southwest Asia than some of its continental neighbors to the south (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Map of North Africa and Southwest Asia (CIA World Factbook, Public Domain)

    Historically, this perhaps awkwardly named region of North Africa and Southwest Asia was commonly called the “Middle East.” This begs the question, though, what is it in the middle of? What is it east of? On a globe, east and west are relative terms. California is west of Europe but east of China. Indonesia is in Southeast Asia but is northwest of Australia. The equator might objectively be in the middle of the globe, but the “Middle East” is over 1,000 miles to its north. In truth, the term “Middle East” originated in Western Europe. Eastern Europe and Turkey were commonly referred to as the “Near East,” while China was called the “Far East.” The “Middle East” was thus in between these two regions.

    Referring to the region as the “Middle East” seems to privilege the European perspective, so what alternatives exist? Perhaps you could call it the Islamic World? This would exclude places like Israel and secular governments like Turkey, as well as the numerous minority religious groups found in the region. You might have heard people refer to this area as the Arab World, but this would not apply to Iran, much of Israel, or Turkey. Thus we are left with simply the descriptive geographic name: North Africa and Southwest Asia, sometimes abbreviated as NASWA.

    Whatever its name, this region is the hearth area for several of the world’s great ancient civilizations and modern religions. The landscape of North Africa and Southwest Asia, as its naming difficulties imply, is marked by regional differences: in culture, in language, in religion, in resources, and in precipitation. Even within countries, regional imbalances exist both in terms of the physical landscape and the patterns of human activity.

    One of the most recognizable features of North Africa and Southwest Asia are its deserts. The Sahara, from the Arabic word ṣaḥrā‘ meaning “desert,” is the largest hot desert in the world, stretching across 9.4 million square kilometers (3.6 million square miles) of the North African landscape. Although the typical image of the Sahara is its impressive sand dunes, most of the desert is actually rocky (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Sahara, Algeria (© Cernavoda, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

    To the east, the Arabian Desert dominates the landscape of the Arabian Peninsula. In the southern portion of this desert is the Rub’al-Khali, the largest contiguous sand desert in the world. It is also one of the world’s most oil-rich landscapes. There are also a number of highland areas across the region including the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia and the Zagros Mountains of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey.

    The prevailing climatic feature of North Africa and Southwest Asia is a lack of precipitation. From 10°to 30°north is a particular band of dry air that forms the region’s hot desert climate zone (BWh in the Köppen climate classification system) and is clearly apparent on a map of global climate regions (Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)). Most of the region receives less than 30 cm (12 in) of rain each year. This hot desert environment means that much of the land in the region is unsuitable for cultivation.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Map of Global Hot Desert (BWh) Climate Zones (© Peel, M. C., Finlayson, B. L., and McMahon, T. A., Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

    There are exceptions to this arid environment, however. The region has a number of fertile river valleys and oases. The Nile River, for example, creates an arable floodplain in an otherwise extremely dry area (Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\)). While part of Iran is desert, northern Iran is actually home to dense rainforests and there are a number of scenic lakes. Coastal Turkey along the Mediterranean is often called the Turquoise Coast owing to its scenic blue waters. In general, however, those areas of North Africa and Southwest Asia where there is more abundant plant life are due to the presence of rivers, lakes, and seas rather than to the presence of ample rainfall.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Nile River Delta from Space (© Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC, Public Domain)

    In a realm largely defined by its arid and hot climate, global changes in climate could have profound effects. Climate and physical geography have already significantly constrained human settlement and development patterns in North Africa and Southwest Asia. Rising temperatures could exacerbate droughts, and heat waves and dust storms will likely become more frequent. In some areas, conflicts over limited water resources have already begun. The Nile River, for example, runs through ten different states and 40 percent of the entire population of Africa lives within its floodplain. Egypt consumes 99 percent of the Nile’s water supply, though, putting pressure on other countries, like Sudan, to keep water flowing downstream. Much of Egypt’s water demand is for the irrigation of cotton, but cotton actually requires a significant amount of water and is a nontraditional crop for such an arid environment.