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Ethnic Groups and Languages

Arabs make up the majority of the people of the Middle East, accounting for almost the entire populations of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the states of the Arabian Peninsula, and for three-fourths of the population of Iraq. The Arabs originated in the Arabian Peninsula and began to migrate northwards and eastwards in the 5th and 6th centuries ad. The rate of migration accelerated after the birth and spread of Islam in the 7th century. Under Arab influence, peoples in the surrounding areas gradually adopted the Arabic language, and even more gradually adopted Islam. Arabic, a Semitic language, serves as a unifying bond among Arabs throughout the region.

The Turks, another broad, linguistically related group of peoples, reside primarily in Turkey and Iran. About 80 percent of the population of Turkey, and most of the present inhabitants of Anatolia (the Asian portion of Turkey), are descended from Central Asian tribes that migrated west between the 11th and 13th centuries. These people speak Turkish, one of a group of Turkic languages spoken between southeastern Europe and northwestern China. In Iran, about one quarter of the population speaks one of the Turkic languages, especially Azeri. A few hundred thousand Turkmens in northern Iraq also speak a Turkic language.

The pre-Islamic people of Iran, the Persians, make up about 60 percent of the present-day population of Iran. The Persians descended from Indo-European peoples who entered the country from Central Asia during the 2nd century bc. These people speak Persian, an Indo-Iranian language.

Members of another ethnic group, the Kurds, reside in the Middle Eastern countries of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, as well as in several of the former republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). They speak Kurdish, another Indo-Iranian language. The largest concentration of Kurds is in Turkey, where they make up about 19 percent of the population.

The Jewish population of Israel constitutes an important cultural group in the Middle East. Although about half of the current residents were born in Israel, their parents and grandparents came from more than 100 countries throughout the world, primarily in the 20th century. From diverse backgrounds, this group nevertheless shares in common the Jewish tradition and the modern Hebrew language.

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