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The Islamic State’s Retro Map

Policymakers and media people—as well as anyone interested in the Middle East, Islam, terrorism, and related issues—need to be talking about al-Jazira. I am not talking here about the Qatar-based media operation that we usually call al-Jazeera. Rather, I am referring to those regions of Eastern Syria and Northern Iraq that have been in the news so much recently because they are the main stamping grounds of ISIL, and the core of the Islamic State, the Daesh.

This is not just a question of applying a handy geographical label. If we don’t understand the Jazira, and its deep historical implications, we are missing so much of the present story.

The area spans major portions of the old states of Iraq and Syria (can I now assume these states are defunct as actual units?), and has its main centers at Ar-Raqqah, Mosul and Deir ez-Zor. Those territories feature very prominently on the military maps and targeting charts of most major Western air forces, not to mention Russian and Syrian militaries. When those cities feature in Western media, it is usually in the context of the slaughter of hostages or the expulsion of religious minorities.

Looking at a map of the Islamic State, Westerners find it hard to describe, except in terms of “fragments of old Syria and Iraq.” Actually, though, these regions belong to a specific and old-established unit with its own well defined, if turbulent history, that is very well known in Middle Eastern history. Ever since the early days of Islam, commentators have used the term al-Jazira (“the island”) [1] for these parts, together with the southeastern corner of present Turkey. The term derives from the “island” between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. Originally, it referred to Northern Mesopotamia, that area which combined with the “black land” further down the rivers to invent the state of Iraq. By extension, though, it also included those other borderland countries that eventually found their way into Syria and Turkey.

To say this area has a substantial history is a gross understatement. That story would include, for instance, most of the early development of Near Eastern civilization, not to mention the whole of early Syriac Christianity. Once upon a time, the area was as densely packed with churches and monasteries as any region of Europe, and cities like Nisibis were vital intellectual and spiritual powerhouses. Ar-Raqqah itself was once the mighty early Christian city of Kallinikos, with its bishopric and monastery. Mosul itself was, until very recent years, one of the greatest Christian centers in the whole Middle East.

In Islamic times, of course, that history took a very different direction, but it has always served as a distinct region, with a natural unity and geographical logic. The more you read this history, from the seventh century through the 20th, the more this fundamental unity becomes apparent. Any Muslim ruler seeking to establish wider power had to control the Jazira, even if their natural base was much further afield, in Baghdad or Damascus. Meanwhile, Byzantine and Islamic Empires contended to secure dominance here.

Yet that task was far from easy. The rough and complex terrain made it difficult to suppress independent-minded dissidents, who found a natural home here. That meant ethnic minorities, but also religious sects. Over the centuries, this is where you found the strongholds of the apocalyptic Kharijite sect, the Yezidis, Assyrian Christians, and (more generally) the Kurdish people.

Of its nature, this is warrior country, from which hard-bitten fighters expanded to conquer what they viewed as the effete city dwellers to the south and west. To those city dwellers, al-Jazira always has been dangerous borderland or bandit country. Anyone familiar with the long history of the U.S.-Mexican border will have an excellent sense of the mutual prejudices and stereotypes that prevail here, not to mention the subcultures of endemic violence.


Modern policy-makers should take many significant lessons from this history, but two in particular stand out. One is that the limits of al-Jazira certainly do not end on the old Syria/Iraq borders, but extend deep into Turkey, and that this is the natural direction for any future expansion of the Islamic State. That fact must be central to the thinking of any Turkish policymakers. If the Islamic State is a continuing fact, then it is imperative to maintain good relations with its rulers, and to draw firm boundaries. That entity will still be in place long after the Americans, Russians, and French have lost interest and gone home.

The other great fact is that al-Jazira is now starkly divided between two competing forces, namely ISIS and the Kurds, both of whom operate freely across the three states that notionally control the area. Any projections of the future of this region must centrally emphasize that reality, rather than the role of the ghost states operating from Baghdad and Damascus.

If any Western regime is thinking of restoring old Syria and Iraq, it is operating in a world of delusion. The central issue in the Middle East is the unity of the Jazira, and just who will control this critical heartland.

Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels [2]. He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.

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7 Comments To "The Islamic State’s Retro Map"

#1 Comment By JohnG On January 13, 2016 @ 10:35 am

The other great fact is that al-Jazira is now starkly divided between two competing forces, namely ISIS and the Kurds…

So, given that there is no al-Jaziran identity but strong Kurdish and Sunni Arab identities, let’s recognize that fact and foget about (the old) al-Jazira. I am not crazy about the TV network, but OK, I can live with it 🙂

Once there is a defined and recognized Kurdistan and a Sunnistan, we’ll have nation states that can be held accountable. The old imperial recipe in which foreign powers created artificial nations in which one ethnic group could be used to control the other are long gone.

PS It wouldn’t hurt to create a blueprint for such solutions based on pre-war ethnic data and referenda, so that similar could be applied to other problem spots. Bosnia, Kosovo, Georgia, Ukraine, Libya, and many other countries and “countries” torn by ethnic conflict come to mind. If you can’t live together (con)federalize or split up. End of story, the world has no right to impose “multiculturalism” and endless suffering on peoples just because the world is afraid of recognizing that some “countries” just don’t make sense.

#2 Comment By bacon On January 13, 2016 @ 11:14 pm

In re al-Jazeera the news company, they probably have a slant on current events, but so do Fox News and MSNBC. I don’t think there is a way to avoid bias, but if one has both the interest and the time, read/listen to all of them and see what you think.

#3 Comment By Ben On January 14, 2016 @ 11:58 am

It certainly looks like there will be a reshuffling of territory in the region. Not just in the al-jazira region, but possibly in the Arabian peninsula if the house of Sa’ud loses its grasp on power, which it certainly seems to fear.

The challenge for uninvolved parties is to do our best to help contain and possibly calm the chaos. As humans, we are interested in keeping the peace even in faraway places, but we need to be more clear-eyed about our interests beyond a humanitarian urge to reduce suffering and urges to maintain security within our own countries.

Here in the United States, jihadi terrorism is an ever-present but minor threat. So far our response has served to exacerbate the chaos in ISIS-controlled territory (and throughout the rest of the region, both by huge invasions and support for repressive regimes.) The threat to Europe of huge numbers of refugees overwhelming otherwise generous and stable countries is only made worse by every bomb dropped in the area. We need to ask ourselves which is more important: killing an endless stream of “enemies” in a messy, stateless area or doing our best to bring a quick end to the conflict so that the people living there feel safe staying there.

#4 Comment By Ken On January 14, 2016 @ 3:05 pm

For more on this topic, see this New Yorker article by Elias Muhnna:


#5 Comment By Winston On January 14, 2016 @ 11:54 pm

Take away there oil and funding supplies and IS will slink into oblivion. Pease note: Islamd has had extremists movements in the past and they did not last and even with more going for it in ancient time-the Qarmatians that lasted for about a century! ISIS is more like the Ihkwan that Ibn Saud yused to extend his power and then demolished when it got too big for its boots! In fact since Afghanistan, all the Saudis have been doing creating is one or another type of proto Ikhwan group. The finding trail of all these groups goes to GCC wahabbi countries. IS also has oil.

basically what is needed is cut IS oil funding and then shut down GCC funding supply!

#6 Comment By Bob K. On January 16, 2016 @ 12:44 am

A major historical fault line caused by three different unrelated language roots also is a factor in the fragility of this area. The Kurds speak an Indo-European language as do the Armenians. The Syrian language is Arabic and of course the Turks speak a Turkic language.

These languages are part of the history of this area which in the distant remembered past is rumored to be the place where the biblical Tower of Babel was located.

#7 Comment By Fran Macadam On January 17, 2016 @ 4:57 pm

Well, you won’t have Al Jazeera to kick around anymore, as they have terminated all news operations here, digital and cable, effective immediately.