Geographic Influences on African & Middle Eastern Migration Patterns

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  • 0:00 Why Geography Matters
  • 0:37 Geography & the Spread…
  • 1:47 Geography & Spread of…
  • 2:46 Geography Isolating…
  • 4:15 Geography Isolating…
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Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Sure, landforms affect the development of societies in many ways, but did you know that they even can play into how culture unfolds? In this lesson, learn how landforms have affected culture in Africa and the Middle East.

Why Geography Matters

Imagine trying to find two different grocery stores. One is just off the main highway, without too much traffic, and has ample parking. The other is located the same distance away, but at the end of a one-way street with no parking and with constant traffic. Which grocery store are you going to go to?

Just like grocery shoppers, culture tends to move along the easiest possible routes to expansion, and geography can be as powerful of a block on movement of culture as anything else. This is very apparent in the Middle East and in Africa, where culture could be easily transmitted in some directions but utterly stopped in many others.

Geography Helping Spread African Cultures

All along the eastern coast of Africa, people speak Swahili to differing degrees. Yet, if you go more than 50 miles inland in many places, the number of Swahili speakers drops dramatically. Why is that? Simply put, the coast was a channel for conveying culture. Swahili was spread up and down the coast because these coastal merchant towns had more in common with each other than they had with the inland reaches of East Africa. As a result, they shared their languages until they melded into what we today call Swahili.

In fact, Swahili itself comes from another African language, Bantu, which was spread much in the same way throughout Africa. Before the days of Indian Ocean trade, around 400 AD or so, many people moved throughout the land routes of Africa. As the trade moved along, so, too, did the Bantu language. In this respect, only the easily crossed parts of Africa were affected, meaning that populations living in deserts were not introduced to Bantu. As time went on, the Bantu dialects spoken on the coast changed so fast as to become quite different from the Bantu spoken inland.

Geography Spreading Middle Eastern Culture

Geography also worked to help spread Middle Eastern culture. More than 5,000 years ago, the relatively flat terrain of Mesopotamia allowed for a unified culture to exist, even where states were vastly different and often in opposition to one another. Also, it is interesting to note that the most unifying aspect of Arab culture, the Arabic language, only thrived when spread largely over flat areas. The Taurus Mountains and the Iranian Plateau helped to stop Arabic's expansion to the east and north, while it was unchecked in North Africa due to the flatness of the land.

Meanwhile, since religion required less cultural 'umph' to make it through the mountains, it was able to spread throughout Asia. This was best demonstrated by the rapid expansion of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries. As a result, Arabic and Persian, both Middle Eastern languages, became important throughout Central and South Asia, as well as down the East African coast.

Geography Isolating African Cultures

In fact, it wasn't just the mountains of the east that provided a limit on Arabic's expansion. While Arabic is common in North Africa as an everyday language, it never really made it further south than that. This is because the Sahara Desert was an effective barrier for culture. It's part of the reason we often talk about North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa as if they are completely different places. In fact, the only African country to speak Arabic that doesn't border the Mediterranean Sea is Sudan, and it had the Nile River to make it easy for Arabic to be passed along from Egypt.

Just to the east of Sudan, we find the greatest triumph of geography working to isolate culture in Africa. Ethiopian culture is largely unlike anything else found in Africa, and it has remained largely untouched by outside influence for hundreds of years. This is largely because of the relative isolation offered by the Ethiopian Plateau. In short, because Ethiopia is on a plateau, only cultural attributes that the Ethiopians wanted to adopt were ever really successful.

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