Key Figures in 'The Middle East and the West'

1098 - 1291: The Crusades

Pope Urban II

Born 1035, France. Died 1099, Rome. Became Pope in 1088. Initiator of the Crusades. Called for a Crusade to reconquer the Christian Holy Lands in 1095 at the Council of Clermont in France. Also sought to unify the Western Latin and eastern Greek Catholic churches, pursuing the unity of all Christendom. The First Crusade succeeded in the seizure of Jerusalem in 1099, but Urban's effort to unify the two branches of the Church failed.


Saladin; Credit: © Bettmann/Corbis

Born 1137 or 1138 in Tikrit, Mesopotamia, (now Iraq). Died 1193, Damascus. Although born a Kurd he became the greatest of Arab leaders, uniting the lands of Egypt and Syria in the 12th century. He led Arab armies in a successful campaign against the European Crusaders in late 12th century.

Saladin ended the 88-year European hold on Jerusalem, after destroying the Christian army in the Battle of Hattin, in 1187.

Saladin earned a reputation as a generous and virtuous leader. He often sought compromise rather than employing the use of force. He was dedicated to the cause of Islam and fought the Europeans under the banner of jihad, or Holy War. He negotiated the withdrawal of Christian Crusader forces under Richard the Lionheart in 1192.

Saladin is celebrated as a hero today throughout the Arab world.

Richard the Lionheart

Born 1157 Oxford, England; died 1199, Aquitaine, France. Son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Became Duke of Aquitaine and Poitiers, and King of England. A hero of romantic legend for his leadership of the Third Crusade, he arrived in the Holy Land in 1191 and achieved a series of quick victories over the forces of Saladin in the coastal cities of the eastern Mediterranean. But he failed to conquer Jerusalem. Richard halted his assault on that city in 1192 and negotiated a peace and his own withdrawal.

He was imprisoned in Austria on his way home from the Crusades. Released for a huge ransom, he returned to England and spent the last five years of his life fighting to consolidate his kingdoms in Britain and France.

1453 - 1683: The Ottoman Empire

Mehmed II (the Conqueror)

Born 1432, Thrace. Died 1481 near Constantinople. Sultan of the Ottoman Empire twice, from 1444 to 1446, and from 1451 to 1481. During his second reign he captured Constantinople, ending the Byzantine Empire, and establishing the Ottoman state as a major power on the Mediterranean. He also consolidated Ottoman hold over all of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) and over key territories in the Balkans.

Mehmed also reorganized the Ottoman government and began the codification of law. He proved to be tolerant of European scholarship and faith and gathered a large library of Latin and Greek texts in his palace. During his reign, he encouraged advances in the study of mathematics and astronomy.

Suleiman I (the Magnificent)

Suleiman the Magnificent; Credit: © Bettmann/Corbis

Born 1494 or 1495, died 1566 in Hungary. Ruling the Ottoman Empire as Sultan from 1520 to 1566, he expanded the empire to nearly its farthest reaches. He seized Belgrade in 1521 and much of Hungary by 1526. Suleiman set siege to Vienna in 1529, but was not successful in seizing the Habsburg city.

He waged a naval war in the Mediterranean against the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Suleiman also fought three campaigns against the Persians, to the east of the Ottoman frontier.

He was a builder, known for his construction of mosques, bridges and other public works in both Europe and the Arab world.

Charles V

Charles V; Credit: © Burstein Collection/Corbis

Born 1500 Ghent; died 1558, Spain. Ruled as King of Spain, leader of the Habsburg Empire in the Netherlands and Austria, and Holy Roman Emperor, 1519 to 1556. Grandson of the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, who expelled all Arabs and Jews from Spain in 1492, the same year they financed Columbus's first expedition to the New World.

Fought many European wars to hold onto his empire, and also faced intensifying pressure from the Ottoman Empire after Suleiman the Magnificent became Sultan. Charles raised a large army to defend the first Ottoman siege of Vienna. He abdicated the Spanish throne in favor of his son Philip (the Second).

1783 - 1912: Europe Carves up the Middle East

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon; Credit: Library of Congress

Born 1769 Corsica; died 1821, St. Helena Island. Emperor of France 1804 to 1815. One of the most celebrated and hated figures of European history, he was the first great general of the army of republican France. Napoleon launched an attack on Egypt in 1798, but was quickly defeated by British naval forces under Lord Nelson.

Napoleon beat a hasty retreat to France, but his short-lived seizure of Arab land initiated the century-long European carve-up of much of the Arab Middle East.

He became supreme leader of France in 1799 and was crowned Emperor in 1804. Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 and suffered a massive defeat. He abdicated the throne in 1814, but returned from exile on the island of Elba in 1815. Finally defeated at Waterloo, 1815, he was exiled to St. Helena on the west coast of Africa, where he died.

Ferdinand de Lesseps

French engineer (1805-1894). As a French diplomat assigned to Alexandria in Egypt, he first considered building a canal from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea across the Isthmus of Suez. He was able to secure political and financial backing for this project through friendships with the Khedive of Egypt and the Empress of France. De Lesseps gained the concession to build the canal in 1854, and it was completed and opened in 1869.

He then set out to build the Panama Canal but underestimated the costs of the project, the engineering problems, and the hardships of work in the Central American jungle. His company went bankrupt and he was implicated in financial scandal.

Charles Gordon

Charles Gordon; Credit: © Michael Nicholson/Corbis

British general (1833-1885). Served in the British army with distinction during the Crimean War and afterward in China. He entered the service of the Khedive of Egypt and served as administrator of Sudan from 1874 to 1880. Gordon returned to Sudan in 1884 with a mission to stamp out a local conflict known as the Mahdi's Revolt, an Islamic movement resisting British control.

Underestimating the strength of his adversary, Gordon refused to withdraw from Khartoum and found himself surrounded. After a 10-month siege, Gordon and many of his men were slaughtered. Britain did not finally put down the Mahdi Revolt for another 14 years.

1914 - 1936: World War I and its Aftermath

Georges Picot and Sir Mark Sykes

British and French diplomats who signed a secret agreement in 1916 dividing up the Middle Eastern territories of the Ottoman Empire when World War I was over. France was to acquire Lebanon, Syria and Mosul (part of northern Iraq today). Britain was to receive northern Palestine, Jordan and Iraq. The rest of Palestine was to be administered internationally.

The agreement clashed with promises to the Arabs made by T. E. Lawrence and other British officials, and was superceded by British conquests before the war ended in 1918. The secret terms of the agreement were made public by the Russian Bolsheviks in 1918.

T.E. Lawrence

Lawrence of Arabia; Credit: © Bettmann/Corbis

"Lawrence of Arabia" (1888-1935). Famed British Arabist. Traveled to Jedda in Arabia in 1916 to organize an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire. He allied Britain with the Hashemite clan in control of Mecca. Lawrence led an Arab army to seize Damascus in 1918.

He believed that Britain broke its promises to the Arab cause. Lawrence opposed the French occupation of Syria and British methods during its occupation of Iraq. His account of the Arab Revolt during World War I was published as The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and remains in print today. His story was made into an Oscar-winning movie, Lawrence of Arabia, directed by David Lean in 1962.

Edmund Allenby

British general (1861-1936). After service in the British army in France during the war, he was given command of British forces in Palestine. Allenby captured Jerusalem in 1917. He began a major offensive into Syria in September 1918, supported by T.E. Lawrence's Arab force. Lawrence beat Allenby to Damascus.

Allenby's victories superceded the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, which had determined how Britain and France would divide up the conquered territories of the Ottoman Empire after the war. Allenby's name remains the name of a key bridge and crossing point over the Jordan River between Jordan and Israel.

1945 - 1973: The Rise of the U.S. in the Middle East

King Abdul Aziz al Saud

King Abdul Aziz al Saud; Credit: National Archives

1880-1953. Founder and first king of Saudi Arabia. Kept his tribes and his forces largely sidelined during World War I, when the British supported an Arab Revolt and other Arabian leaders against the Ottoman Empire. In the early 1920s, he began to expand territory in the Arabian Peninsula under his control.

In 1924, in alliance with conservative religious forces known as the Ikhwan, Abdul Aziz invaded Mecca and seized the territory in Arabia known as the Hejaz. Britain, the nominal imperial power in the peninsula, eventually accepted his expansionist raids, and in 1932, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia became independent with Abdul Aziz its monarch.

In 1933 Abdul Aziz signed the first contract -- with the American oil company Socal -- to explore for oil in Saudi Arabia. Oil was discovered five years later and would result after World War II in enormous inflows of cash to the desert kingdom.

The first step toward diplomatic alliance with the United States occurred in 1945 just as the war was ending, when Abdul Aziz met with President Roosevelt on a ship in the Red Sea.

Mohammed Mossadegh

Mohammed Mossadegh; Credit: National Archives

1880-1967. Iranian political leader and prime minister. Educated in Switzerland before World War I, he became a member of Iran's elite. Mossadegh held many government positions, including provincial governor and foreign minister, but opposed election of Reza Khan as Shah in 1925.

Mossadegh emerged during World War II as an outspoken supporter of Iranian nationalism. He called for nationalization of British oil assets in Iran. By 1951, Mossadegh became so popular that then Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was forced to appoint him prime minister.

Oil nationalization prompted a profound crisis in Iran, with opposition coming from Britain and the United States. In 1953 the Shah tried to remove him, but street demonstrations forced the Shah to leave Iran. Just days later, a joint American-British-supported coup toppled Mossadegh and restored the Shah to the throne. Mossadegh was imprisoned for three years, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

Gamal Abdel Nasser

Gamal Abdel Nasser; Credit: © Bettmann/Corbis

1918-1970. Nationalist leader of Egypt. As an Egyptian military officer, he fought in the 1948 war that saw Israel become an independent nation in much of what had been British-controlled Palestine. In 1952, Nasser and other officers staged a bloodless coup, overthrowing King Farouk.

Nasser emerged as supreme Egyptian leader in 1954. He nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, prompting a joint British/French/Israeli military action to reseize it. U.S. President Eisenhower opposed that action, and the military effort quickly collapsed.

In 1958, Nasser combined Egypt and Syria into the United Arab Republic, an experiment in Arab nationalism that ended three years later, when Syria withdrew. In alliance with Syria and Jordan, Nasser fought Israel in 1967 only to suffer a devastating defeat in six days. He died of a heart attack three years later.

1979 - 2004: The Clash with Islam

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; Credit: © Bettmann/Corbis

1900?-1989. Iranian Shiite leader who led the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979 and became Iran's supreme Islamic leader. The grandson and son of mullahs. From a young age, he became an outspoken opponent of Shah Reza Pahlavi.

Khomeini achieved ayatollah status in the 1950s; grand ayatollah status in the next decade. He preached a combination of Iranian nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism.

His arrest in Iran in 1963 sparked anti-government riots. After a year in prison, he was expelled from Iran. Khomeini settled in Najaf, Iraq, and continued to call for the Shah's overthrow. Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein, forced him to leave Najaf in 1978 and Khomeini took up residence outside Paris. His influence helped spark widespread demonstrations against the Shah that same year. The unrest forced the Shah to abdicate in early 1979, and more than a million people took to the streets to greet Khomeini when he returned three weeks later.

Later that year he was appointed Iran's supreme political and religious leader for life.

Saddam Hussein

Saddam Hussein; Credit: © Reuters/Corbis

Born in 1937. Iraq's top leader until deposed by U.S. invasion in 2003. Born in Tikrit to a poor family, he spent his childhood as a street urchin. He joined the Baath Party in 1957 and took part in unsuccessful assassination attempt on then Iraqi leader Abdel Karim Qassim.

Saddam fled to Egypt but returned to Iraq and spent several years in prison in the early 1960s. He became head of the Iraqi secret police when the Baath Party took power in 1968.

He became top Iraqi leader in 1979 and ordered the invasion of Iran in 1980 to seize oil fields, a war that lasted for eight years and was tacitly supported by the Reagan administration. The war quickly became a stalemate. Late in the war, Saddam ordered extensive use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers and Iraqi Kurdish villages.

Saddam ordered a surprise attack on Kuwait in August 1990. The first President Bush ordered an attack against Iraq in January 1991. Iraq suffered quick defeat, and then labored under 12 years of economic sanctions and forced disarmament.

President George W. Bush took the U.S. to war to depose Saddam in March 2003, and the Iraqi leader was seized by U.S. troops later that year. He is now under arrest in Iraq and awaiting trial for war crimes.

Osama bin Laden

Osama Bin Laden; Credit: © Reuters/Corbis

Born in 1957. Son of a Yemeni businessman who became rich as a building contractor in Saudi Arabia. Received a conservative religious education, and as young man went to fight the Soviets during the war in Afghanistan from 1980 to 1989. Bin Laden opposed the deployment of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia in 1990.

He returned to Afghanistan to organize al Qaeda, the Base, which became a loose-knit network of terrorist groups intent on fighting the U.S. presence and influence in the Islamic world. The group is believed to have been behind bombings in 1996 in Saudi Arabia, armed attacks on tourists in Egypt in 1997, and the destruction of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

Bin Laden was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1994 and took up residence in Sudan until 1996, when he was expelled again, and left for Afghanistan. That year he issued a fatwa declaring war on Americans and Jews around the world.

Al Qaeda was responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Bin Laden is believed to be hiding in the remote mountainous tribal areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.


The Middle East and the West, A Troubled HistoryThe Middle East and the West, A Troubled History


The Middle East and the West, A Troubled History


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