PROVO, Utah — Victor L. Ludlow, a BYU professor of ancient scripture, told a capacity crowd on Aug. 18 at BYU's Campus Education Week about developments in the Middle East since the time The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized in 1830.
Actually, he covered a broader swath of history — using maps, handouts and tables to explain the flow of history that helps explain some of the dynamics that are in play in the sacred and volatile lands of the Bible. He also touched on the LDS Church's involvement in Israel.
The huge Ottoman Empire defined the Middle East for centuries. By 1815, only a few years before Joseph Smith's First Vision, the empire was considered the "sick man of Europe." "It was just going to self-collapse and destroy," Ludlow said. "And so some of these European powers like Italy, Austria, Germany, France, England and Russia were kind of like vultures just waiting for this big water buffalo to die. … If you just waited you wanted to get your piece of the carcass."
Nationalistic expectations in Greece were especially compelling to 19th Century people who romanticized the idea of it as the cradle of democracy.
By World War I, the Ottoman Empire was halved with various "vultures" fighting over the bones. Promises were made to various people by the victors of the war. Not all were kept. Greece, however, had gained its freedom.
By the end of World War II, the Middle East was carved up into various nations. The Jewish people were told Palestine could be a national home for them. The Palestinians were given a similar promise. Ludlow said it is like a senior citizen promising their home to each of his three children. "So who do you blame? Do you take it out on the British or do you take it out on your sibling?" Ludlow said. "This has led to conflicts which continue to this day."
Seventeen unique nations were established in the Middle East — an area equivilent to the continental United States. Ludlow said the big four nations, Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia occupy the most territory — about 75 percent, and sit in the four different corners of the area. The rest of the nations, including Iraq, fill in the rest of the area.
Ludlow compared the situation to the continental United States: "What if we only had 17 states, instead of 48? And of these 17 states, four of them control 3/4ths of the land, population and wealth of the country. Would Utah have any kind of political clout in Washington at all?" The class responded, "No."
"So those big four are the power breakers and makers of the Middle East."
Geography also gives some insight to how Iranians might feel about having the United States intervene on their West in Iraq and on their East in Afghanistan. To Iranians, it might look like the United States is trying to surround them. "Put yourself in their shoes and look at it. You can see why you would listen to the propaganda and others that would be spouting their anti-American rhetoric," Ludlow said. "Those are some of the challenges."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has also had its challenges in the Middle East, most specifically in Israel. Ludlow sped through the history beginning with Mormon Apostle Orson Hyde giving a dedicatory prayer over the Holy Land on the Mount of Olives on Oct. 24, 1841. The first LDS missionary in the Middle East was Jacob Spori who arrived in Istanbul in 1884.
By 1895, small branches were in Syria, Turkey and Palestine. By 1909, however, the Turkish Mission was shut down.
An interesting experiment was contemplated in the 1920s when Elder David O. McKay (later president of the church) and BYU president F. S. Harris looked for land in Palestine to establish a Mormon colony.
A Palestine-Syria Mission existed from 1933 to 1939 and then re-established after World War II from 1947 to 1951.Comment on this story
In 1972, President Harold B. Lee organized the Jerusalem branch of the LDS Church. Ludlow said this was significant because presidents of the church do not normally organize branches or wards or even stakes. "It's like a real estate adage. It's because of location, location, location."
Ludlow was one of 2,000 people present in Oct. 1979 when President Spencer W. Kimball dedicated the Orson Hyde Memorial Garden on the Mount of Olives. The BYU Jerusalem Center opened in 1987, closed for student during Israel's internal difficulties from 2001 through 2006 and opened for students again in Jan. 2007.
Ludlow expressed hope that the number of students at BYU's Jerusalem Center will continue to increase. Such a hope is also a hope for peace and understanding to increase.