IV. The Early Modern Period, 1500–1800 > C. The Middle East and North Africa, 1500–1800
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See 1459–99) (See 1504)
C. The Middle East and North Africa, 1500–1800
1. Overview
In the 16th century, a simpler political map took shape in the region with the integration of the Middle Eastern and North African lands into three states: the Ottoman Empire, Safavid Iran, and Morocco. The Ottomans, based until then in Anatolia and southeastern Europe, absorbed nearly all of the Arabic-speaking lands with the exception of Morocco and parts of the Arabian peninsula. Theirs became the dominant regional power, although Iran emerged as a formidable foe and bloody conflicts between the two countries erupted periodically.  1
Several major developments altered the political scene in the 17th and 18th centuries: the Ottoman Empire became decentralized as Istanbul's hold on the provinces weakened and autonomous authorities sprang up almost everywhere; the Safavid regime collapsed, giving way to several decades of internal fragmentation and turmoil; and two new Middle Eastern countries were born: Afghanistan and the Saudi state in Arabia.  2
Alongside the shifts in the internal power relations came changes in the region's position vis-à-vis Europe. While Middle Easterners remained virtually untouched by European culture, they now fought and traded with Europeans on a more extensive basis than before and on increasingly unfavorable terms. Military conflict with European countries raged along a wide front extending from the Black Sea area and the Balkans to the western Mediterranean. The region's armies were able to hold their own until the second half of the 18th century, when disastrous defeats by Russia and the easy fall of Egypt to Napoleon brought home to the Ottoman leaders the recognition that global power had shifted definitely in favor of Europe. This alarming sense prompted their 19th-century drive to modernize.  3
The region's place in global trade also weakened. European merchants and governments grew increasingly strong in the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean through the use of new trade routes, the control of shipping, and the acquisition of colonies with cheap labor. With these assets they were able to circumvent the Middle East in their import of Eastern pepper and spices, to compete successfully with Middle Eastern products such as coffee and sugar, and to sell in the region some finished goods such as textiles in return largely for local raw materials. A colonial pattern of exchange (raw materials for finished goods) was beginning to develop in the early modern period, although it remained of limited economic importance for the Middle East before the 19th century because the bulk of the region's trade was still internal or directed toward Asia and Africa rather than Europe.  4
Like Europe, the Middle East experienced a marked demographic expansion during the 16th century. But population levels did not continue to rise in the following two centuries, when plague epidemics hit the region with greater frequency and added to the already high mortality rates. With about 28 million people in 1800, the society was still primarily rural, some 80 to 85 percent living in village or tribal communities and the rest in towns.  5
Economic conditions in this diverse region varied from place to place and fluctuated over time. But throughout, agriculture remained the predominant sector and industry continued to be based on small-scale artisanal production. Between them they supplied the population with its needs in food, raw materials, and manufactured goods at a level that maintained the region's self-sufficiency. Among the important institutional developments of the period were the emergence of the guild system in its full-fledged form and its leading role in regulating the urban economies.  6
Religion remained a central focus of identity as well as the ideological underpinning for a variety of social and political movements. The period saw the establishment of Shi’ism as the state religion of Iran, with the forced conversion of its largely Sunni population under Safavid pressure. New Sufi orders emerged throughout the region and often became vehicles of protest against the establishment. In Arabia, the Muslim puritanical movement of the Wahhabis rose to challenge Sufi practices and Ottoman authority and succeeded in establishing its own brand of Islamic state under the Saudi dynasty. Among the Christian minorities, Catholicism spread as a result of European missionary work, causing bitter schisms and a lasting split of the Greek, Armenian, and other Eastern churches into rival Orthodox and Catholic branches.  7
Religion also remained the core of formal education and higher learning throughout the period. Both continued to be the preserve of a relative few, especially as an Islamic ban on printing set limits on the diffusion of knowledge and literacy. But the largely oral culture that thrived at the mass level produced a rich corpus of skills, stories, plays, music, pastimes, and popular wisdom. Among the remarkable innovations of this oral culture was the introduction of the coffeehouse and its rapid emergence as the region's central institution of public socializing and entertainment. (See The Middle East and North Africa, 1792–1914)  8
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.