The "Middle East" is a geocentric European term. Against this vague geographical designation we may be inclined to point out the great diversity of societies, languages and cultures, or to counterpose a less ethnocentric (though no less problematic) designation such as "the Mediterranean" which includes Europe and non—Europe. Yet, at the level of culture and social organisation, a number of common elements and themes may be distinguished, some specific to the Arab World (or at least its Eastern wing), but many common also to Iran and Turkey. In this respect, the Middle East may be seen to constitute a civilisational area, formed historically out of common subjugation to the great empires of Persia, Byzantium and the Muslim Califates, out of the waves of Islamisation (though I shall argue that the common cultural elements are not specifically Islamic), and out of the intermingling of peoples and cultures brought about by these processes. This entity is differentiated, but the lines of differentiation are often those of desert, mountain, coastal plain and city, which cut across the linguistic and "national" differences.