Asia is the world's biggest continent, covering nearly 45 million square kilometres and more than 30% of the earth's land surface. It is physically connected to Europe in the west and in the east is separated from the Americas by just 100km. It is the most diverse of all continents on earth; home to tropical rainforests, Arctic tundra, rolling steppes, deserts and both the lowest and highest points in the world. It was into Asia our human forebears made their first journeys out of Africa. Asia would in turn become the setting for the evolution of new human species, of which some such as the Neanderthals lived contemporaneously with our own. Whilst Africa was the land where humanity came into being and honed its early nomadic ways, the switchover to the settled, agricultural existence most of us live today first gathered pace in Asia. Swelled by annual snowmelts from the high mountains of modern day Turkey, two great rivers known as the Tigris and Euphrates flowed south to create the marshes, lagoons and floodplains of a huge, lowland region called Mesopotamia. Covering parts of modern-day Iraq, Syria, Iran, Turkey and Kuwait, Mesopotamia was a part of the so-called Fertile Crescent and is regarded by many as the cradle of human civilisation, where the world's first settled city states emerged. Africa and Asia have been connected from the earliest eras, making each other the places they are today; just as humans from Africa changed the look of Asia, cultures that developed in Asia altered those in Africa. Their peoples engaged in trade, shared knowledge and ideas, competed, co-operated and sometimes fought, and for much of the last 1500 years, many millions of people have been united across both in language, religion and other parts of identity; it is this transcontinental region that is known today as the Middle East.
Our human story in Asia
Our human journey out of Africa began around 1.8 million years ago, when a species called Homo Erectus crossed the Sinai into Asia. A maker of tools and a controller of fire Homo Erectus had reached China and Java around 1.6 million years ago and lived widely across Asia for hundreds of thousands of years. Around 800,000 years ago another species known as Homo Heidelbergensis had evolved in Africa, which followed Homo Erectus into Asia. This was the first human species known to make shelter and possibly engage in rituals and was adaptable to cold climates, moving as far as Germany and England during the last Ice Age. It was from Asian groups of Homo Hiedelbergensis the Neanderthals and Denisovans - probably the first human species to evolve in Asia - emerged 300,000 years ago. The Neanderthals lived mostly in Europe and the Denisovans in Asia; we know the Neanderthals buried their dead and may have had language, art and music and it is likely the Denisovans did too. Another species called Homo Floresiensis - perhaps descended from Asian populations of Homo Erectus - had evolved in Indonesia around 190,000 years ago. After leaving Africa Homo Sapiens interacted with both Neanderthals and Denisovans in Asia until they died out around 30,000 years ago, leaving us as the last survivors of the human family, although some evidence may suggest Homo Floresiensis become extinct 12,000 years ago. We continued the journeys our forebears had started in Asia, crossing deserts, ice sheets, and jungles to the literal ends of the earth. Australia was reached 50,000 years ago. We crossed into the Americas 30,000 years ago. These journeys stand as a testament to the courage, adaptability and resilience of our own humanity today.
Whilst little is known about the early origins of the Nabataeans, some evidence suggests they had a presence in the deserts of southern Jordan by the sixth century BC, after the Biblical Kingdom of Edom had been conquered by the Babylonians of Mesopotamia. The Nabataeans had become strong enough to repel the attacks of one of Alexander the Great's surviving generals in 312BC and by 168BC had established a powerful kingdom assimilating the whole of the Sinai, southern Jordan and large swathes of northern Arabia, of which Petra, or 'Raqmu' as the Nabataeans called it themselves, was the beautiful, rock-hewn capital. Whilst the ancient civilisations of Egypt and Mesopotamia grew directly out of the cultural shift that saw humanity settle into sedentary farming communities, the civilisation of the Nabataeans was remarkable as being one that grew from a people of nomadic origins. The Nabataeans had lived mostly as nomadic pastoralists in Arabia and rose to power by controlling the lucrative trade routes on which aromatic gums were carried from the kingdoms of southern Arabia to the empires of the north. They had the know-how to travel these deserts, the connections and diplomatic skills to work with other nomadic peoples on the routes and the capacity to outfight any power who challenged them in the desert; above all, through an intimate knowledge of the land and an extensive network of hidden water sources. Their rise to power reflected the deep mastery of their wilderness environment and Nabataean culture - rich in new styles of art and architecture, pioneering technology and an alphabet from which Arabic script itself developed - stands as a timeless monument to a civilisation of nomadic origin.
The city states of Mesopotamia
Mesopotamia is a word of Greek origin meaning 'The Land Between Rivers' and is used to denote the geographical region between the Tigris and Euphrates. Neanderthals lived in caves in northern Mesopotamia some 70,000 years ago with modern humans becoming more active in the region 35,000 years ago. Whilst debate continues over exactly when, where and how the first farming and animal domestication happened, it is known it started in the Asian parts of the Fertile Crescent; most probably in Mesopotamia, around 9500BC. Villages grew across Mesopotamia from around 7000BC and bigger towns had emerged by 4000BC. A heartland of this early growth was a southerly region called Sumer, in which the world's first full-blown cities appeared around 3500BC; amongst them Ur, Kish, Lagash and Uruk, which had a population of 80,000 people at its peak. Each stood as its own, self governing city state, with all existing in near unremitting conflict for centuries. At least some Mesopotamian cultural influences extended to Egypt - whose early societies were becoming increasingly settled too - but by 3100BC both regions looked different. Whilst Egypt was a single unified kingdom, Mesopotamia was more multiplicitous in its society and governance, even within small regions like Sumer. Nevertheless, it flourished with unique splendour in art, architecture, storytelling and music; new religions emerged and a succession of world-changing innovations were made including the wheel and the first form of writing, known as Cuneiform. Sumer's city states later dwindled in power with Mesopotamian regions like Akkad, Babylonia and Assyria becoming the world's first empires, all going on to make their mark on the wider region and the different cultures that developed within it.
The rise of Islam
Islam began in the Hejaz Mountains of Arabia nearly 1500 years ago and was the third of the so-called Abrahamic faiths to emerge, with Judaism and Christianity preceding it. Whilst the religions of earlier civilisations from Egypt to Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome had all been polytheistic, the Abrahamic faiths were united by a monotheism in which it was held there was just one God. Each faith recognised Abraham - a shepherd from the Mesopotamian city of Ur, who legend has it rejected polytheism to answer one God - as a both a prophet with a new message for humanity and a patriarch from whom entire peoples were descended. Other legends unite these three faiths too, which some scholars suggest may be re-imaginings of much older stories found in Mesopotamian folklore, such as fables of a Great Flood and the riverside abandonment of an infant in a reed basket. Islam is distinguished from Judaism and Christianity chiefly on the basis it recognises the Prophet Mohammed as God's last messenger. Born as an Arab of the Quraysh tribe in 570AD, Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammed received the word of God in a series of revelations given by the Archangel Gabriel starting in 610AD. His early preachings of Islam led to exile from his hometown of Mecca, but he would later return, gathering thousands of followers to the new faith before his death in 632AD. His survivors would continue to spread the new faith with a series of astonishingly fast military operations through Asia and Africa, known as the Islamic Conquests. Around 650BC Arabia, the Levant, Mesopotamia and Egypt were all ruled by a powerful Islamic Caliphate. Islam continued to spread and remains a major force shaping societies across the region today, with its mother tongue of Arabic the dominant language too.