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Lesson Plans

Middle East and North Africa geography - Lesson Plan

June 13, 2013

Full Lesson


By Leah Fabel, Washington, DC


Geography and History

Estimated Time

Two or three 45-minute class periods

Grade Level

9 – 12


Students will be able to:

  1. Find the Middle East and North Africa on a map of the world, and know the location of the countries and capitals within the Middle East and North Africa.
  2. Understand and give examples of the diversity in the region, distinguishing from prevailing stereotypes.
  3. Understand and analyze the geographic history of the region, from its ancient empires to its 20th century colonial powers.
  4. Apply geographic knowledge to a 1941 newspaper article about the political future of the region.
  5. Evaluate the arguments made in the article, and the cultural perspective of the writer.
  6. Embark upon further study of the region, whether the unit concerns history or current affairs.


This lesson plan gives students an overview of the region’s geographical past, while exposing students to the complexity and diversity of the region. It also ensures a basic geographical starting point for any unit plan about the region, or for any mini-unit delving into Middle Eastern current affairs.


Throughout history, the geography of the Middle East has been at the heart of many of its most critical political and cultural moments. An understanding of not only its present-day geography, but also its historical geography, is essential for any student eager to understand what’s going on in the region, and why.


  1. Hand out unlabeled maps of the Middle East and North Africa to each student. (Maps can be found at National Geographic — there is a specific one for the Middle East Region, but a map of Africa needs to suffice for North Africa.)
  2. (5 min) Working with a neighbor and a sheet of scratch paper, have students brainstorm a list of as many Middle Eastern and North African countries and capital cities as they can think of. Ask who was able to come up with 10/20/30 responses. Gauge to what extent students actually have a geographic knowledge of the region.
  3. Come back together as a class for a short discussion before labeling the maps together.
Discussion questions:
  1. What is the Middle East? Where did the term come from? (Is it in the “middle” of anywhere?)
  2. Is it a defined land mass, or can it have different definitions?
  3. If we don’t mean an defined set of countries, what do we mean by Middle East?
  4. As a class, come up with a list of qualities generally assumed to be similar about Middle Eastern countries. As students do this, point out anomalies. They might say “Muslim,” for example. That’s generally true, but point out that several Middle Eastern countries (e.g. Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria) have sizable Christian populations, and that more than 80 percent of Israeli citizens are Jewish. If they say “Arabic,” point out that Moroccan Arabic is almost unintelligible to an Arabic speaker in Jordan or Syria, for example. In Iran, the majority speaks Farsi (also called Persian).
  5. Using an overhead or a projection screen, label the countries and capitals/major cities of the Middle East and North Africa: Turkey (Istanbul, Ankara), Syria (Damascus), Iraq (Baghdad), Iran (Tehran), Jordan (Amman), Israel/Palestine (Jerusalem, Tel Aviv), Lebanon (Beirut), Saudi Arabia (Riyadh, Mecca), Kuwait (Kuwait City), Bahrain (Manama), Qatar (Doha), UAE (Abu Dhabi), Oman (Muscat), Yemen (Sanaa), Algeria (Algiers), Libya (Tripoli), Morocco (Rabat), Tunisia (Tunis), Egypt (Cairo), as well as major bodies of water (students may find this is more neatly done on a new map altogether): Mediterranean Sea, Black Sea, Red Sea, Suez Canal, Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, Gulf of Oman, Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden, Bab el Mandeb (Teacher’s note: Strait of Hormuz and Bab el Mandeb are especially important if you’re going to do a lesson on oil production/transportation.)
  6. Working with a partner and using in-class resources such as the Internet or almanacs, list on a graphic organizer each country’s predominant religion and % who identify with it; predominant language and % who identify with it; form of government, current leader, and his/her years in power. (Teacher’s note: If you do not have access to the Internet, make copies of almanac pages for each country — or for the countries on which you want students to focus. Scatter the pages around the room, and have students move from station to station gathering the info from each page.)

The boundaries of the modern Middle East largely are a 20th century, post-WWI creation. To understand the modern dynamic of the region, however, it’s important to be aware of the boundaries and the leaders that existed for centuries before.

In a summary paragraph of 10 sentences or less (rubric below), summarize the time period, geographic reach and defining political and cultural traits of of one of the following: (Or, assign students one of the following, so as to make sure at least one person does each empire or caliphate.)

  • The Ottoman Empire
  • The Byzantine Empire
  • The Abbasid Caliphate
  • The Fatimid Caliphate
  • The Umayyad Caliphate

(Differentiation for special needs students: Depending on the skill level of your students, assign this as a completely independent research project, or give them a reading such as a Wikipedia page or a section from a textbook that contains the information requested. As a modification for students with disabilities, highlight for them key passages of the reading.)

10-point rubric:

2 pts: Paragraph includes the time period that this empire or caliphate was in power.

3 pts: Paragraph includes the capital of the empire/caliphate, as well as its reach at the peak of its power.

2 pts: Paragraph includes the dominant religion of this empire or caliphate. Student should distinguish whether the Muslim rulers are Sunni or Shiite.

3 pts: Paragraph includes one of the most important historical legacies of this empire or caliphate (e.g. brought Islam to North Africa), and at least two cultural or political details of the empire or caliphate.

DAY 2:
  1. For each empire/caliphate, call on one student to share his/her summary. Students should take notes or use a graphic organizer to record information about each empire/caliphate.
  1. Discussion: What does this information tell you about the region’s history with democratic rule? What about its history as individual countries? In the absence of a strong sense of nationality, to what do you think people felt loyal? (Tribe? Religion? Town? Employer? Family?)
  1. Explain to students that you will now focus on post-WWI Middle East. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, European colonial powers became a greater influence. Using maps and colored pencils, have students shade countries based on their colonial power (or, in some cases, their relative independence in the 20th cent.)
  • Turkey: independent (following fall of Ottoman Empire)
  • Syria: France
  • Iraq: Great Britain
  • Iran: independent
  • Jordan: Great Britain
  • Israel: independent (gained statehood in 1948)
  • Palestine: Great Britain
  • Lebanon: France
  • Saudi Arabia: independent
  • Kuwait: Great Britain
  • Bahrain: independent (with some British oversight)
  • Qatar: independent (with some British oversight)
  • United Arab Emirates: independent (with some British oversight)
  • Oman independent (with some British oversight)
  • Yemen: independent (with some British oversight)
  • Algeria: France
  • Libya: Italy
  • Morocco: France
  • Tunisia: France
  • Egypt: Britain

Have students read “Moslem Federation,” Washington Post, May 1941Working in pairs or groups, have students start on homework questions.

Differentiation for special needs students

Highlight for students the key passages in the article. For students who struggle with comprehension skills, answer question number two for them. Also, if necessary, delete question number five.

Extension Activities

Students can research a country currently facing political turmoil and write a piece in the tone of “Moslem Federation” offering modern day guidance concerning U.S. foreign policy.

Further learning:

Depending on how teachers choose to focus their unit plans, the following video clips are excellent examples of recent protests and democracy movements in the Middle East. Each would require a briefing for students about the modern history of the country. In Libya, for example, students would need to know that following Italian colonial rule, Libya was led by King Idris (1951-1969). Qaddafi took power from Idris in a 1969 coup, and has been in power ever since.

Reports of Violence in Libyan Protest

Egypt’s Revolution Inspires Protests in the Middle East

Disappointing Speech Incites Protesters, Leads to Mubarak’s Resignation

Egyptians Take to Streets to Oust President