Behind Geographic's New Mideast Atlas

National Geographic News
March 31, 2003
National Geographic has published a new atlas of the Middle East—an up-to-date collection of scores of maps, charts, and special sections that puts the spotlight on the 16 countries that make up this critical region. National Geographic News interviewed William L. Stoehr, managing director of National Geographic Maps, to find out how the atlas can help broaden the perspective of the region and to provide a better understanding of why the Middle East is so turbulent.

In what ways is the new atlas useful to follow and understand events in the Middle East?

You know, more than 100 years ago National Geographic began to make the events that shape our world more understandable. This atlas is in this tradition and a must read. I say read because this is not your typical reference atlas—I suggest you actually sit down and read it from cover to cover. It is interesting, understandable and thoroughly informative. The atlas has three main sections: Nations, Regional Themes and History. All new detailed country maps, regional maps, city maps, and satellite image maps clearly show oil fields, pipelines, airports, and much more. Each map has a fact section that, when combined with the Regional Themes and History sections gives you a perspective and context to begin to better understand why this region is so turbulent.

While the world is focused on the war in Iraq and while this atlas can certainly help us follow it and appreciate some of the underlying issues, this atlas goes well beyond today. Ancient empires and civilizations, holy sites and historical boundaries are all explored. And for the future, this atlas should be in easy reach so that you can follow future events for years to come or simply plan your next trip (something you are probably not thinking about, but you will).

Much of the atlas appears to be a collection of the Society's previously published maps and assets of this particular region. What is new, especially made for the product?

The atlas may look like a collection of previously published maps, but it is not. Yes, this atlas does feature our traditional cartographic look and feel, and of course, the maps are based on our extensive map library and database, but we completely researched, edited and republished the maps in this atlas. This is the most up-to-date atlas of the Middle East.

How up-to-date are the statistics and what were the primary sources for the information?

We have used the most up-to-date information available to us. We also show the relevant dates so that you know when the information was originally published. As you might expect, we certainly used our own vast internal resources, but our sources included the Central Intelligence Agency, the United Nations, and expert resources from all around the world.

The atlas focuses on the geographic definition of the Middle East—the 16 countries that are recognized as being the nexus of Africa, Europe, and Asia. But as the atlas points out, there is also the "Cultural Middle East," a wider region that includes the Islamic nations of North Africa as well as Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan. In view of the international situation, the tensions between the Islamic world and the West, would it not have been appropriate to include more information about Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Sudan, and Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan?

You make a good point. However, this is not intended to be an atlas of the Islamic world, a world that extends well beyond this region to also include Indonesia and China. We wanted to focus on that area geographically recognized as the Middle East. By limiting the breadth we were able to provide great detail, keep the price down, and make the atlas available to the greatest number of people.

How is Atlas useful to understand the situation in Israel/Palestine, specifically in the section on the Occupied Territories: Gaza Strip and the West Bank?

Well for starters, the atlas clearly shows the overlapping sacred sites of the Jewish and Muslim religions. But, I found myself looking at the productive aquifers in the region and the disparities in literacy and economic indicators between Israel and the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It also really sinks in, when you study the maps, that the Occupied Territories are not contiguous and as such probably difficult to govern. Much information is presented in a variety of formats so that you can better understand the issues.

Apart from dozens of maps in the atlas, there is a comprehensive section on regional themes. How were the themes selected and what issues do they address?

Our atlases typically provide fundamental thematic information—natural areas, population, natural resources, and development indicators. This atlas is no exception. Within these categories we have included more than 50 charts, graphs, and maps presenting key information regarding religions, languages, ethnic groups, oil, foreign aid, climate and much more. If you are like me, you will find yourself flipping from map to map and between sections to compare and further research topics.

Browsing through the atlas, one is struck by how blessed and cursed is the Middle East, both in what it's got and what it hasn't got. How do the sections on oil and water, for example, help us understand this region?

As I previously mentioned, the aquifers in Israel and the Occupied Territories were of interest to me. But as I looked at the section on water I was immediately drawn to the major rivers, starting with the Jordan, but then quickly to the Tigris and Euphrates. You can clearly see the Fertile Crescent. This caused me to flip to the World Heritage Site Map and think about the archaeological treasures and cultural resources still to be found and understood.

The section on oil shows who has the oil and where it is, where it is piped to and where it is ultimately sent. Understanding who produces, who has the reserves and who uses the oil is critical to understanding the strategic importance of the region.

There is a comprehensive analysis of the two great religions of the Middle East—Judaism and Islam. What was your approach to dealing with the issue of religion?

We simply presented statistics, such as percentages of a country's population who are adherents of the faiths, and, if applicable, sects practiced there. We also included charts that summarize the top ten Jewish and Muslim populations by country and a map that shows sacred sites and the recent Jewish migrations to Israel. It is all pretty straightforward information.

How do the history and timeline sections of the atlas shed light on current events?

The colonial period, the rise of nationalism, and the subsequent regional conflicts are all outlined in the History section. It is interesting that the timeline starts in 1900 and the first entry deals with oil rights. When I studied the timeline, even though it should be obvious, I was astounded at just how this region has been in almost constant conflict.

The atlas often places the Middle East into a global context. How and why did you do this?

Oil, war and conflict, the Jewish migration to Israel, antiquities, population, human rights, economic health, quality of life—and I'm sure a bunch that I have not mentioned—are arguably all issues of global interest that we address. Comparing this information relative to other areas is a simple way to help us grasp scale, relative importance, differences, and disparities.

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