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Where does the opposition between East and West come from?

Updated: Aug 17, 2021

Like many other expressions that we use to describe our reality, whether it be continents (in fact, how many are there?), the North-South divide (which does not follow the Equator), or borders (which are strangely straight in certain places around the globe), the West-East divide shapes our vision of the world.

Nevertheless, how was this perspective created? How did we construct this duality, which actually did not exist before the 15th century?

To answer this question, we can refer to the French word “Orient”, which comes from its Latin ancestor oriens, meaning East, the place where the Sun rises (1). In many languages, the word “Levant” (the French term for “Rising”) is also used to describe this part of the world. The first appearance of the term “Orient” was in the 4th century, at the same time as the rise of the Eastern Roman Empire, also called the Byzantine Empire. Though the limits of this territory vary until the 15th century, the current Balkans and Turkey remain its core (2). Nowadays, the “Orient” refers to what is also known as the “Near East” in Europe (3). In English-speaking countries, we refer to it as the “Middle East” (4).

In 1453, the Eastern Roman Empire was considerably narrowed due to the wars with the Ottoman Turks. As a result, the Empire only controlled the city of Constantinople and a part of Peloponnese. Fragile, and with no support from Europe, from the Italian States or from the papacy, the city fell apart on the 29th of May of the same year. The Turkish Sultan, Mehmed II, entered the city, which since became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The former Eastern Roman Empire thus became a land of Islam (5).

The Ottoman Empire distinguishes itself from Western Empires through a key cultural feature: religion. During the two following centuries, it gained power by extending its political, commercial and cultural influence from Algiers to Mecca, passing by Jerusalem and Bagdad (6). This expansion frightened the Western world. The Empire’s military power created the stereotype of the Turkish Muslim people as bloodthirsty and violent (the adjective “Eastern” is still stigmatised today), and its culture continues to generate fantastic stories.

The Western Christian world and the Eastern Muslim world would oppose each other at the time of the fall of the Ottoman Empire: multiple territories became areas ready to be conquered by the Westerners, during a History chapter known as “the Eastern Question” (7). Algeria and Tunisia fell under French domination, Libya returned to Italy, Egypt to Great Britain, meanwhile the Balkan states gained their independence in 1914 (8).

What can we remember from this short chapter of History? What did we inherit from it?

Firstly, the French term “Orient” refers to different realities depending on the place and/or the era. Nowadays, there is no geographical consensus on what the East exactly is: we mostly discuss the geopolitical and historical issues, such as the fall of Constantinople or, moreover, the Eastern Question. Secondly, the term “Orient” has been created to refer to an otherness, an entity that distinguishes itself from the West. Does Maghrib belong to the East in the same way that China and Japan do? What about Russia? Are the Caucasus and the Balkans Eastern countries or are they from “Eastern Europe”? Finally, there are more differences than things in common between these territories: the East is a vague geographical entity, which however nourishes our imagination. Indeed, interpretations vary depending on Europeans’ political interests and ideologies, and thus on American ones as well.

Written by: Lucie Geisser

Translated by: Bleona Rexha


(1) Site du CNTRL - https://www.cnrtl.fr/definition/orient

(2) Jean-Claude Cheynet, « Byzance, l’Empire romain d’Orient », 2001

(3) Blog StratoGeo - http://stratogeo.over-blog.com/article-3377159.html

(4) Guillemette Crouzet, « Les Britanniques et l’invention du Moyen-Orient », 2016

(5) André Clot, « Mehmed II, le conquérant de Byzance », 1990

(6) Jean François Solmon, « L’empire Ottoman et l’Europe », 2017

(7) et (8) Jacques Frémeaux, « La question d’Orient », 2014

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