Geography of the Modern Middle East and North Africa

Download this lesson plan

Lesson Title Geography of the Modern Middle East and North Africa
Time 50 minutes
Purpose/Rationale for lesson    In order to teach appropriately about the Modern Middle East and North Africa, it is important for students to know which countries are in the region, where they lie on the map and how that might impact the citizens.
Curriculum Framing Questions What are the countries that make up the modern Middle East and North Africa?Where are the countries that make up the modern Middle East and North Africa

What is the Middle East and North Africa?

Goal  Students will know the countries of the modern Middle East and North Africa and where they are on the map
Learning Objectives    Students will properly label a map of the Middle East and North Africa and distinguish between three sub-regions
Curriculum Standards Oregon Social Studies Standards


Implementation Materials needed in class:

  • Copies of blank map of the Middle East
  • Computer and projector to project rethinking schools map game
  • Copies of Geography: Ancient and Modern Crossroads.


1)    As a class, name as many countries of the modern Middle East and North Africa (MENA) the class can think of.  List them on the board.2)    When you have exhausted your collective memory, hand out the list of MENA countries (attached). Ask: which ones did we miss? Which ones are familiar? What have you heard of these countries? What do you know about them? Which ones are unfamiliar? As you discuss, mark up the list with the things the class knows and doesn’t know about these countries

3)    Hand out the blank map of MENA (attached), offering a copy to each student. Using the list as a guide, have the students try to fill in the country names on their blank maps in pencil.  They can work in pairs to try and do this.

4)    After 5-10 minutes, fill out the map on the smart board together using:  You may also choose to point out the capitals and bodies of water (Mediterranean Sea, Black Sea, red Sea, Suez Canal, Persian/Arab Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, Gulf of Oman, Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden, Bab el Mandeb).  Ask students to correct their maps and label all countries in pen.

5)    Have students work collaboratively to color in the countries, delineating between the North African countries, the Middle Eastern countries, and the Gulf countries. (This could be done as homework)

6)    Free associate:  Ask the class “What do you think of when you hear the term ‘Middle East’”?  Write the answers on the board.  Point out anomalies and ask questions about their answers.  Students might say “Muslim.”  That’s true, but you should also point out that there are many Christians living in the region, especially in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria and many Jews in the region, especially in Israel, Turkey, and Morocco.

Homework:  Read “Geography: An Ancient and Modern Crossroads” (below).

Assessment & Evaluation of Student Learning   Students complete properly labeled maps of the Middle East and North Africa

Countries of the Middle East and North Africa

English Name

Arabic Name



Algeria al Jaza’ir Algiers North Africa
Bahrain Bahrayn Manama Gulf
Egypt Misr Cairo North Africa
Iran Iran Tehran Gulf
Iraq Al’Iraq Baghdad Middle East
Israel Isra’il Jerusalem Middle East
Jordan Al’Ordun Amman Middle East
Kuwait Kuwait Kuwait City Gulf
Lebanon Lubnan Beirut Middle East
Libya Leebya Tripoli North Africa
Morocco Al Maghrib Rabat North Africa
Occupied Palestinian Territories Filasteen Middle East
Oman ‘Oman Muscat Gulf
Qatar Qatar Doha Gulf
Saudi Arabia Al mamlaka al Arabia al Sa’udeeya Riyad Gulf
Syria Sūriyya Damascus Middle East
Tunisia Toonis Tunis North Africa
Turkey Toorkia Ankara Middle East/Asia
United Arab Emirates Al Imārāt al ‘Arabīyah al Muttaḥidah Abu Dhabi Gulf
Yemen Al Yaman Sana’a Gulf

Facts about Arabs and the Arab World

(adapted from al Bustan curriculum)

What is the Middle East?

The Middle East is a loose term, not always used to describe the same territory. It usually includes the Arab countries from Egypt east to the Persian Gulf, plus Israel and Iran. Turkey is sometimes considered part of the Middle East, sometimes part of Europe. Sometimes the Middle East includes North Africa as well.  Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh are usually described as South Asia.

Who is an Arab?

“Arab” is a cultural and linguistic term. It refers to those who speak Arabic as their first

language. Arabs are united by culture and by history. Some have blue eyes and red hair; others are dark skinned; many are somewhere in between. Most Arabs are Muslims but there are also millions of Christian Arabs and thousands of Jewish Arabs, just as there are Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Americans.

What is the Arab World?

The Arab World consists of 22 countries in the Middle East and North Africa: Algeria, Bahrain, the Comoros Islands, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Iran and Turkey are not Arab countries and their primary languages are Farsi and Turkish respectively. Arab countries have a rich diversity of ethnic, linguistic, and religious communities. These include Kurds, Armenians, Berbers and others. There are over 300 million Arabs.

What is the Muslim World?

There are an estimated 1.57 billion Muslims in the world. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation has 57 member states. The ten countries with the largest Muslim population are: Indonesia (202.9 million), Pakistan (174.1 million), India (160.9 million), Bangladesh (145.3 million), Egypt (78.5 million), Nigeria (78.1 million), Iran (73.8 million), Turkey (73.6 million), Algeria (34.2 million), and Morocco (31.9 million). Of these countries, only three are Arab countries: Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco. Most Arabs are Muslims, but most Muslims are not Arabs.

Who are Arab Americans?

Arab Americans are Americans of Arab descent. There are Americans with roots in each Arab country, but most originate from Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. There are also substantial communities from Egypt, Yemen and Iraq. The first immigrants arrived in the late 19th century.  A second wave of immigration started after World War II, and still continues. The largest communities of Arab Americans live in the Detroit-Dearborn area.

Geography: An Ancient and Modern Crossroads

(adapted from OPB Global Connections,

Location, location, location

The Middle East is at the junction of trade routes connecting Europe and China, India and Africa, and all the cultures of the Mediterranean basin. Many of these routes have been documented from as early as 5,000 years ago, and the presence of so many different people and products over the years has had a profound effect on the region’s culture, politics, and economy.

More than deserts and camels

The landscape of the Middle East is more diverse than the deserts that dominate movie screens and novels would suggest. Rivers allowing for productive agriculture were the key factor in the settling of cities. Mountain ranges kept cultures in separate areas, providing natural barriers to imperialist agendas.

The rich, fertile soil of the Middle East led early civilizations to settle, domesticate plants and animals, and thrive. The Fertile Crescent between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers known as Mesopotamia (now modern Iraq, and extending north into Syria and Turkey) was the home of the world’s first urban culture, the Sumerians, 6,000 years ago. The Sumerians’ Egyptian rivals took advantage of the annual flooding of the Nile for their regular harvest, later exporting a large portion of their produce to the Roman Empire. Some time later, the Hittites settled in the golden, rolling hills of Anatolia (modern Turkey) and the Phoenicians of the eastern Mediterranean loaded olive oil and spices into their merchant ships to trade throughout the Mediterranean.

This region introduced many staples into the kitchens of the world, including olives, figs, lemons, coffee, chickpeas, lentils, pomegranates, and asparagus. The cedar trees covering the hills of Lebanon were forested in ancient times for their fragrant and structurally reliable wood. The mountain ranges in the Middle East helped isolate various cultures from each other as much as, if not more than, bodies of water. The Taurus Mountains of southern Turkey separate Anatolia, also known as Asia Minor, from the rest of Asia, just as the Atlas Mountains separate Morocco from the rest of Africa. Iran’s Elburz and Zagros Mountains are high enough to host ski resorts. In tumultuous times, mountains have also provided refuge for oppressed minorities, such as the Ismailis in Afghanistan; the Alawites in Syria; the Christians in Lebanon; the Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq; and the Berbers in North Africa.

Geographical features bring economic and political riches

Geography and natural resources have always influenced political power in this region. The Nile and Mesopotamian Rivers can support a rich agricultural base, but only if the water distribution can be sustained and controlled through irrigation systems. And the prosperity of these regions has depended on a government’s ability to maintain irrigation systems over the long term. If a central government can keep the irrigation systems in good working order, then well-irrigated fields produce more crops, which can then be taxed to support the government. Conversely, when local populations do not cooperate to maintain a stable government, their crop yields may drop. Mesopotamian farmers used Persian Gulf seawater to irrigate for centuries, and now, as a result, much of southern Iraq’s soil is too salty to grow crops. Agriculture in the region now relies on modern practices like fresh water irrigation, rotating crops each year, and technologically sophisticated dam projects.

Today, the wealth in Middle Eastern soil comes not from crops, but from petroleum. This region contains about two-thirds of the world’s known petroleum reserves, the geological remnants of lush tropical forests of eons past. When the United States and Europe increased their consumption of oil drastically during World War II, the oil reserves in the Middle East became critically important to U.S. foreign policy, and have remained so ever since.

Human geography

The ethnic and cultural diversity of the population of the Middle East is as varied as any place on earth, save the New World. People in the Middle East live a variety of lifestyles— nomadic and semi-nomadic, farming and fishing, and, increasingly, urban.

How people put food on their tables is intimately tied to their physical surroundings. While the herding lifestyle of the nomadic peoples of the Middle East may have captured the romantic imagination of Europeans and Americans, in reality, pure nomads have always been a small minority in this region. In fact, many so-called nomads were simply seasonal migrants who grazed their livestock in one region in the summer and moved elsewhere in the winter. These migratory populations gained a reputation for breeding fine horses and camels, although most supported themselves raising sheep and goats. This system of seasonal migration functioned well until modern states established exclusive ideas of property and land ownership.

Most states in the region with large nomadic or semi-nomadic populations have pursued a settlement policy in order to better track and control the historically independent tribes. Clan and family relationships are still a vital part of their social structure.

Other families depend on the sea, or rivers, for their sustenance. The long Mediterranean, Persian Gulf, and Red Sea coastlines and large river systems of the region support many communities through both fishing and water-borne trade. The pearl industry of the Persian Gulf spawned a specialized economy there.

Productive areas of both rain-fed and irrigated agriculture support rural farming populations, which are usually organized as tight-knit villages rather than isolated farms. Village identity is extremely strong, so much so that when people migrate to the city or even abroad, they often settle in communities of their co-villagers. A neighborhood in Detroit, for example, may be made up of immigrants from one particular village in Lebanon. Immigrants often aspire to earn enough money to return to their village, buy land, and build a large home.

Rapid urbanization has been a marked feature of the Middle East in the late 20th century. Cairo, Istanbul, and Tehran each have more than 10 million residents and continue to grow. While migration to the cities offers attractive opportunities of employment and modern amenities to poor villagers, the rapid rise in urban populations has strained water resources, transportation facilities, and other public services as well as contributing to pollution.

What’s in a name

Many different terms have been used to describe this area of the world, and although various geographic and cultural descriptions have major overlaps, each may significantly exclude different regions.  The region can be referred to most neutrally by continental terms, such as “West Asia” or “Southwest Asia and North Africa.”

Linguistically, the “Arab world” includes the Arabic-speaking countries from North Africa, Southwest Asia, and the Arabian Peninsula, but excludes Iran, Turkey, and Israel.

The “Islamic world” includes all of the Arabic countries, as well as neighboring Turkey and Iran. Other nations that are predominantly Muslim, like Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and many sub-Saharan African countries, should be considered as integral parts of the Islamic world, but terminology for the region often omits them. In addition, there are significant populations of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and other religious groups that live in these same nations that make up the so-called Islamic world.

The “Middle East” is a term derived from a European perspective. For 19th-century Europeans, the Middle East was differentiated from India and the Far East (Southeast Asia and China). Originally, the Near East referred to areas under Ottoman control, from the Balkans to the border of Iran. The term Middle East was introduced in the early 20th century to include the area around the Persian Gulf, and the Near East was used to refer to the Ottoman Balkans. After World War II, Middle East became the dominant term for the whole region.

Because “Middle East” is an outsider’s term describing neither geography nor culture, it is an ambiguously applied name. For some, it refers to the area bounded by the Mediterranean Sea, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Taurus and Zagros Mountains. For others, Egypt, Arabia, and the Persian Gulf states fall under their description of the Middle East. Still others use the term as a synonym for the Arab world, sometimes including Turkey and Iran based on their proximity and linguistic and religious affinities to the region. Despite its foreign origins, the term “Middle East” has been translated and adopted into many Middle Eastern languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, and Turkish.