Ever since Noah's ark docked somewhere in the vicinity of Mount Ararat, the leading nations of the world have managed to focus their sights on that geographical area that is today commonly referred to as the Middle East. The attention bestowed has at different times varied in ratio to the pressing exigencies of the period. Intermittently, however, this area throughout the centuries has found itself the center of international intrigue, unrest, and strife. Its beginning followed the great Deluge, when it served as the womb of our present conglomeration of races and nations.
A student of the Scriptures recognizes that here was the setting for the events of Biblical history. The tower of Babel, the Exodus from Egypt, the Babylonian captivity, and the Ten Commandments are a few of the high lights of this ancient desert land, where such personalities as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Darius, Nebuchadnezzar, Solomon, and David were to contribute in such a positive way to the historical record of the time. Early evidence of the ferment that was to characterize the chain of events among these peoples was the activities of the Sumerians, the Hittites, the Philistines, the Babylonians, and the Medes and Persians. Behind the ferment were two pressing factors: first, this "land of the two rivers" contained the crossroads of trade and commerce, and second, the most productive soil of the region was located in the more encompassing Fertile Crescent. These were two very good reasons why the neighboring kingdoms were so willing to risk bloodshed and life for the control of this land and its peoples.
Of all these nations, tribes, and kingdoms that left an indelible record of their deeds for posterity, the most lasting contribution was made in the field of literature, by a group of people who probably suffered more than any other of their time, the Jews. Their contribution? The Old Testament of the Bible! It was in this record that the first of the world's three greatest religions—Judaism, symbolized by the star—was to be preserved for posterity. And from Judaism there was to arise a new religion —Christianity, symbolized by the cross.
When Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah in the early part of the first century, the lands of the Middle East, where He had spent most of the days of His earthly life, had been once again subdued. This conquest was accomplished by the greatest empire in the history of the then contemporary world—Rome. Where once, under the aegis of Alexander the Great, the Hellenistic civilization had reigned supreme, the shield of the Roman now was to protect peace—peace in a land where tumult was the rule instead of the exception. And in peace, through the work of Peter, Paul, and the other apostles, the new religion began to gain converts. Within the next few centuries Christianity spread rapidly, undergoing severe persecutions but managing finally, with some alterations, to become the chief religion of the Western world. The influence of Christ's followers within the desert lands was limited, and in the seventh century it was further kept in check when the third of the world's greatest religions to come from the cradle of civilization—Mohammedanism, symbolized by the crescent—appeared on the world horizon.
With Mohammed and his followers Islam was not only a source of religious nourishment but also was to become a way of life, politically and economically. So much did the material aspects of this religion appeal to the people that in a short time it spread with the speed of fire through an arid forest. Soon it not only engulfed the countries of the Middle East but blazed its way through Northern Africa, through Spain, and as far as the vicinity of the Loire River, where it was checked by the French under the leadership of Charles Martel. During this rampage the slaughter of mankind reached new proportions, and again the land of the Tigris and Euphrates was experiencing the shedding of blood.
In the meantime, while Islam was asserting herself as supreme, her kin by jus soli as well as jus sanguinis, Christianity, was moving to a similar position in the West. Soon these two forces were to challenge each other on the field of battle in the land of their birth. The Christians were striving to wrest the control of Jerusalem from the infidels. Thousands upon thousands were to march or ride into the fray. Fewer were to return. As the ramparts of the Saracens held fast, the efforts of numerous crusades were eventually to meet with failure. Human blood again contributed to the fertility of the soil of the Middle East. By the fourteenth century, when the Ottoman Empire was in the ascendancy, the Moslem hordes were penetrating the Balkan Peninsula, and with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 they continued westward through the underbelly of Europe until they were knocking at the gates of Vienna. Here, through the determined efforts of John Sobieski, king of Poland, they were forced to about-face and find their way back to the land of their origin.
Sobieski's victory in 1683 was to open a new chapter in the history of the Middle East. Where previously the Turks and Mohammedans had played the offensive against the Western powers, the latter, after shaking off the barnacles of feudalism and developing into strong nation states, now challenged the grip of the Middle East power. Russia, the last to throw off the vestiges of feudalism, and Austria were among the most covetous at this time. The former was anxious for a warm-water seaport, while the land of the Hapsburgs was looking to the Balkans as an area for expansion. This interest resolved itself into what became known as the "Eastern Question," namely, the efforts of the European powers to retard and halt Russia's inroads into the Ottoman lands.
With the outbreak of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon, the Moslems had a temporary respite from Russian and Austrian attention. The French, led by the "Little Corporal" aimed at cutting British communications with India by invading Egypt. Napoleon's troops did advance as far as Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon, but the British proved to be the victors. There were also two other positive results of this French venture. One was the discovery of the Rosetta stone in 1799, which was helpful in unraveling many of the mysteries of the past, and the other was to awaken the British to the strategic importance of the Middle East to British expanding interests. The web of the Middle East intrigue was now attracting the leading powers in world affairs, and as a result, the Ottoman Empire was slowly beginning to disintegrate.
In the middle of the nineteenth century the Czar of Russia was to refer to this empire as the "sick man of Europe," with the hope of sharing in the will before its death. The Ottoman rule, with pressure on the outside from the European states and internal pressures due to corruption and nationalistic feelings, was finding it difficult to keep control of the reins of empire. It was only the fear of the Western European powers that the area might fall under the control of the Russians that enabled Turkey to continue its existence on crutches.
Other parts of the Middle East, too, were beginning to notice the growing interest of foreign powers in Southwestern Asia. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 heightened the increased French and British surveillance. The German's Drang nach Osten policy had positive goals in the southern end of the proposed Berlin to Baghdad railway. World War I was to climax the growing tensions.
The world crisis that followed the assassination of the Austrian heir to the throne in the Balkans did not exclude the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Vested interests, especially in regard to oil fields, had already been established, and the powers of the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente merely extended their range of activities in the Middle East. The fact that the peoples of the Middle East were at odds with one another, politically and religiously, merely added to the existing instability. Again conditions seemed normal. Strife was in the land!
When the final shots subsided and the treaties were signed, the Moslems found themselves experiencing a military occupation under the British and the French. Adding more fuel to the fires of the already troubled Middle East were the claims of the Zionists, which were becoming increasingly vociferous. These factors, among others, aided the nationalistic aspirations of the desert countries during the years between the two world wars. When World War II raised its ugly head over the horizon, the Arabic nations, though inclined toward the Axis powers, experienced little bloodshed because of the strong military influence of the allies in that area. The fighting that did occur was relegated to the peripheral sections of Egypt and Libya. The years following witnessed the emancipation of the Moslem countries and in addition the founding of a new nation—Israel. This was a situation that was to further incite the antagonisms of Middle East politics and intrigue for the years ahead.
It should be noted at this point that the state of Israel today does not include from inside its borders many of the holy places of Old Testament times. A graphic illustration of this is readily available by comparing a map of Palestine found in most Bibles with a map of what is politically defined as Israel today. Many of the places that mean so much to Jewish heritage and tradition are controlled by the Moslems—the arch foes of the Jews. Ironically, some places that might be considered holy places within the confines of this modern state of Israel do not have much significance to the Jews. One such place is Nazareth. Another is the Sea of Galilee. These are connected with Jesus Christ and the Christian message.
One might pause here to ponder what Abraham's thoughts rnight have been had he been able to foresee the future of his children's children. Through his two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, his seed was to multiply beyond count. Through Ishmael the Arabic peoples came to inhabit the sands of the desert, and through Isaac the Jews were to be scattered to the four ends of the globe. If man persists and succeeds in finding his way into outer space, the Diaspora will become more infinite, with the possibilities of the return of all the Jews to the land of their origin becoming negligible.
Could Abraham have visualized the ultimate events, including the bloodshed and hatred engendered by the actions of his sons' children, might he not have refused to take Hagar as his second wife, through whom Ishmael was born? What might he have been tempted to do on Mount Moriah when his other son, Isaac, was seemingly to be sacrificed on the altar? Fortunately for Abraham, and man, the future is revealed only as the Creator wills it. The father of the Arabs and the Jews was spared the heartaches that would certainly have been his had he had the opportunity to look beyond the horizon of his lifetime to the present.
In our contemporary world the "cradle of civilization" intermittently continues to monopolize the news of the world. There is little deviation from its centuries-old pattern. Communication media such as radio, television, and the press find little rest from news of developments in this area. The repeating theme of strife and unrest that has so enshrouded this section of the world continues; but why, of all the geographical and political sections in the world, has this one been so greedy for universal attention? True, the greatest powers in the world today—the United States and her allies, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and her satellites—have exhibited more than a winking interest in this area because of its wealth in oil and its strategic location. This interest, however, is not much different from that exhibited by the great nations and empires since the early beginnings of our earth's history. Wherein then, we might ask, lies the significance, if any, in this persistent theme of the Middle East's history?
A survey of the Holy Scriptures reveals little in the way of prophetic interpretation regarding this bridge that joins three continents. Other than the prophecies concerning the Jews and Palestine, the Bible seems to offer little light. Numerous scholars as well as would-be scholars have attempted to tie the Middle East, or parts of it, to prophecies yet unfulfilled, but these interpretations are only too often based on conjecture, or evidence that is insufficient to support such claims. Ellen G. White in her publications makes mention of Egypt and Arabia in their historical settings, but careful study of her writings will reveal no specific reference to the Middle East in the light of prophecy.
It might thus be concluded that whatever Biblical light there may be on the matter, it has not yet been fully revealed to man. Nor is this strange, for the real purpose of prophecy is not to make men expert in predicting the future, but as students of the Word to be able to interpret the present. Our Lord laid down this principle when He said, "And now I have told you before it come to pass, that, when it is come to pass, ye might believe." Only when prophecy is being fulfilled can we fully understand it. In our search for evidence of divine meaning in the events of our day, certain questions naturally come to mind. Can it be that the Omnipotent has a specific role, perhaps as yet unrevealed, to be played by these people? Could the Jehovah of the Jews, the God of the Christians, and the Allah of the Mohammedans be using the birthplace of these three great religions as a constant reminder to the world that He is God and the Saviour of mankind? If so, then there is no part of the world that could serve such a purpose as does the Middle East. Some answers are easier to find than others, but through diligent study of the Scriptures in the light of reliable historical records we can arrive at a definitive answer, but then only if the time has come for such a revelation to be made known. We must never forget that our times are still in God's hands.
While this strategic spot will doubtless continue to hold world interest both politically and economically, yet some of the best informed and most thoughtful students of Scripture and history claim that it is impossible to localize this area of the Middle East as the center of final decision on human destiny. Let us study current events with an open mind and also with a humble and prayerful spirit, "looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ."