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The Middle East is a place where history is being remade daily. It has always been a battleground for empires seeking control over strategic riches, a constantly regenerating birthplace of civilisations and faiths, and home to the great myths of antiquity.

Cradle of civilisation

Although rock art dating back to 10,000 BC lies hidden amid the desert monoliths of the Jebel Acacus in Libya, little is known about the painters or their nomadic societies, which lived on the outermost rim of the Middle East.

The enduring shift from nomadism to more-sedentary organised societies began in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq) and the Nile River Valley of Ancient Egypt.

In about 5000 BC a culture known as Al-Ubaid first appeared in Mesopotamia. We known little about it except that its influence eventually spread down what is now the coast of the Gulf. Stone-Age artefacts have also been found in Egypt's Western Desert, Israel's Negev Desert and in the West Bank town of Jericho.

Sometime around 3100 BC the kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt were unified under Menes, ushering in 3000 years of Pharaonic rule in the Nile Valley. The Levant (present-day Lebanon, Syria and Israel and the Palestinian Territories) was well settled by this time, and local powers included the Amorites and the Canaanites. In Mesopotamia it was the era of Sumer, which had arisen in around 4000 BC and became arguably the world's first great civilisation.

In the late 24th and early 23rd centuries BC, Sargon of Akkad conquered much of the Levant and Mesopotamia. Other powers in the region at that time included the Hittite and Assyrian empires and, in Greece and Asia Minor, Mycenae and Troy.

By 900 BC the sophisticated Garamantes empire had arisen in Libya's Wadi al-Hayat, from where it controlled Saharan trade routes that connected central Africa to the Mediterranean rim. This facilitated the spread of Islam, many centuries later, along well-established livestock routes.

The 7th century BC saw both the conquest of Egypt by Assyria and far to the east, the rise of the Medes, the first of many great Persian empires. In 550 BC the Medes were conquered by Cyrus the Great, usually regarded as the first Persian shah (king). Over the next 60 years Cyrus and his successors Cambyses (r 525-522 BC) and Darius I (r 521-486 BC) swept west and north to conquer first Babylon and then Egypt, Asia Minor and parts of Greece. After the Greeks stemmed the Persian tide at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, Darius and Xerxes (r 486-466 BC) turned their attention to consolidating their empire.

Egypt won independence from the Persians in 401 BC only to be reconquered 60 years later. The second Persian occupation of Egypt was brief - little more than a decade after they arrived, the Persians were again driven out of Egypt, this time by the Greeks.

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The Hellenistic world

In 336 BC Philip II of Macedonia, a warlord who had conquered much of mainland Greece, was murdered. His son Alexander assumed the throne and began a series of conquests that would eventually encompass most of Asia Minor, the Middle East, Persia and northern India.

Under Alexander, the Greeks were the first to impose any kind of order on the Middle East as a whole. Traces of their rule ring the eastern Mediterranean from Ephesus in Turkey to the oasis of Siwa in Egypt's Western Desert. Perhaps the greatest remnants of Greek rule, however, lie on the outer boundaries of the former Greek empire, in the Cyrenaica region of Libya. The great cities of the Pentapolis (Five Cities), among them glorious Cyrene, bore the hallmarks of Greek sophistication and scholarship.

As important as the archaeological evidence is regarding Greek he- gemony, it's the myths and legends - above all the Iliad and the Odyssey - and the descriptions left by historians such as Strabo, Herodotus and Pliny that present us with strong clues to the state of the Middle East 300 years before Christ and 900 years before the coming of Islam.

Upon Alexander's death, his empire was promptly carved up among his generals. This resulted in the founding of three new ruling dynasties: the Antigonids in Greece and Asia Minor; the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt; and the Seleucids. The Seleucids controlled the swath of land running from modern Israel and Lebanon through Mesopotamia to Persia.

That's not to say that peace reigned. Having finished off a host of lesser competitors, the heirs to Alexander's empire then proceeded to fight each other. The area of the eastern Mediterranean splintered into an array of different local dynasties with fluctuating borders. It took an army arriving from the west to again reunite the lands of the east - this time in the shape of the legions of Rome.

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Romans & Christians

Rome's legionaries conquered most of Asia Minor in 188 BC, then Syria, Palestine and the North African territories of Carthage and Libya by 63 BC. When Cleopatra of Egypt, the last of the Ptolemaic dynasty, was defeated in 31 BC, the Romans controlled the entire Mediterranean world. This left the Middle East divided largely between two empires and their client states until the coming of Islam. Asia Minor, the Levant, Egypt and Libya were dominated by Rome, while the Sassanids in Persia ruled the east. Only the nomads of the desert remained independent of the great powers of the day.

While the mighty empire of Rome suffered no great external threats to its eastern Mediterranean empire, there was plenty of trouble fomenting within, most notably a succession of rebellions by the Jewish inhabitants of the Roman dominions.

In AD 331 the newly converted Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the 'Holy Roman Empire', with its capital not jaded, cynical Rome but the newly renamed city of Constantinople (formerly Byzantium, later to become İstanbul).

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The coming of Islam

Constantinople reached its apogee during the reign of Justinian (AD 527-65), when the Byzantine Empire consolidated its hold on the eastern Mediterranean, while also recapturing the lost domain of Italy. Meanwhile, the Sassanid empire to the east was constantly chipping away at poorly defended Byzantine holdings, creating a fault line between the two empires running down through what we know as the Middle East.

Far to the south, in lands that were independent of the two great empires, a new force was preparing to emerge. A merchant named Mohammed, born around AD 570 in the Arabian town of Mecca (now in Saudi Arabia), had begun preaching against the pagan religion of his fellow Meccans.

Mohammed died in 632 but under his successors, known as caliphs (from the Arabic word for 'follower'), the new religion continued its rapid spread, reaching all of Arabia by 634. Libya, Egypt, Syria and Palestine had been wrested from the Byzantines by 646, while most of Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan were taken from the Sassanids by 656.

Arguments over the leadership quickly arose and just 12 years after the Prophet's death a dispute over the caliphate opened a rift in Islam that grew into today's divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Civil war broke out, ending with the rise to power of Mu'awiyah, the Muslim military governor of Syria and a distant relative of Mohammed.

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Early Islam

Mu'awiyah moved the capital from Medina to Damascus and established the first great Muslim dynasty - the Umayyads.

The Umayyads were descended from a branch of the Quraysh, the Prophet's tribe, known more for expediency than piety. Mu'awiyah's father was one of the last people in Mecca to embrace Islam and had long been Mohammed's chief opponent in the city. By moving the capital to Damascus the Umayyads were symbolically declaring that they had aspirations far beyond the rather ascetic teachings of the Quran.

The Umayyads gave the Islamic world some of its greatest architectural treasures, including the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. History, however, has not been kind, remembering them largely for the high living, corruption, nepotism and tyranny that eventually proved to be their undoing.

In 750 the Umayyads were toppled in a revolt fuelled, predictably, by accusations of impiety. Their successors, and the strong arm behind the revolt, were the Abbasids. The Abbasid caliphate created a new capital in Baghdad and the early centuries of its rule constituted what's often regarded as the golden age of Islamic culture. The most famous of the Abbasid caliphs was Haroun ar-Rashid (r 786-809) of The Thousand and One Nights fame. Warrior king Haroun ar-Rashid led one of the most successful early Muslim invasions of Byzantium, almost reaching Constantinople. His name will forever be associated with Baghdad, which he transformed into a world centre of learning and sophistication.

After Haroun ar-Rashid's death the empire was effectively divided between two of his sons. Predictably, civil war ensued. In 813 one son Al-Maamun emerged triumphant and reigned as caliph for the next 20 years. But Al-Maamun's hold on power remained insecure and he felt compelled to surround himself with Turkish mercenaries.

By the middle of the 10th century the Abbasid caliphs were the prisoners of their Turkish guards, who spawned a dynasty of their own, known as the Seljuks (1038-1194). The Seljuks extended their reach throughout Persia, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Anatolia where the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum made its capital at Konya. The resulting pressure on the Byzantine Empire was intense enough to cause the emperor and the Greek Orthodox Church to swallow their pride and appeal to the rival Roman Catholic Church for help.

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The Crusades

In 1095 Pope Urban II called for a Western Christian military expedition - a 'Crusade' - to liberate the holy places of Jerusalem in response to the eastern empire's alarm. Rome's motives were not entirely benevolent: Urban was eager to assert Rome's primacy in the east over Constantinople.

After linking up with the Byzantine army in 1097, the Crusaders successfully besieged Antioch (modern Antakya, in Turkey) and then marched south along the coast before turning inland, towards Jerusalem. A thousand Muslim troops held Jerusalem for six weeks against 15,000 Crusaders before the city fell on 15 July 1099. The victorious Crusaders then massacred the local population - Muslims, Jews and Christians alike - sacked the non-Christian religious sites and turned the Dome of the Rock into a church.

These successes were short-lived. It took less than 50 years for the tide to begin to turn against the Crusaders and only 200 before they were driven out of the region once and for all. The Muslim leader responsible for removing the Crusaders from Jerusalem (in 1187) was Salah ad-Din al-Ayyoub, better known in the West as Saladin.

Saladin and his successors (a fleeting dynasty known as the Ayyubids) battled the Crusaders for 60 years until they were unceremoniously removed by their own army, a strange soldier-slave caste, the Mamluks, who ran what would today be called a military dictatorship. The only way to join their army was to be press-ganged into it - non-Muslim boys were captured or bought outside the empire, converted to Islam and raised in the service of a single military commander. They were expected to give this commander total loyalty, in exchange for which their fortunes would rise (or fall) with his. Sultans were chosen from among the most senior Mamluk commanders, but it was a system that engendered vicious, bloody rivalries, and rare was the sultan who died of natural causes.

The Mamluks were to rule Egypt, Syria, Palestine and western Arabia for nearly 300 years (1250-1517) and it was they who succeeded in ejecting the Crusaders from the Near East, prising them out of their last stronghold of Acre (modern-day Akko in Israel) in 1291.

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The Ottoman Turks

In 1258, just eight years after the Mamluks seized power in Cairo and began their bloody dynasty, a boy named Osman (Othman) was born to the chief of a Turkish tribe in western Anatolia. He converted to Islam in his youth and later began a military career by hiring out his tribe's army as mercenaries in the civil wars then besetting what was left of the Byzantine Empire. Payment came in the form of land.

Rather than taking on the Byzantines directly, Osman's successors (the Ottomans) deliberately picked off the bits and pieces of the empire that Constantinople could no longer control. By the end of the 14th century the Ottomans had conquered Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, Hungary and most of present-day Turkey. They had also moved their capital across the Dardanelles to Adrianople, today the Turkish city of Edirne. In 1453 came their greatest victory when Sultan Mehmet II took Constantinople, the hitherto unachievable object of innumerable Muslim wars almost since the 7th century.

On a battlefield near Aleppo 64 years later, an army under the sultan Selim the Grim routed the Mamluks and, at one stroke, the whole of the eastern Mediterranean, including Egypt and coastal Libya, was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire.

The empire reached its peak, both politically and culturally, under Süleyman the Magnificent (r 1520-66), who led the Ottoman armies west to the gates of Vienna, east into Persia, and south through the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and into Yemen. His control also extended throughout North Africa.

After Süleyman, however, the Ottoman Empire went into a long, slow period of decline. Only five years after his death, Spain and Venice destroyed virtually the entire Ottoman navy at the Battle of Lepanto (in the Aegean Sea), thereby costing the Ottomans control over the western Mediterranean. North Africa soon fell under the sway of local dynasties. Conflict with the Safavids - Persia's rulers from the early 16th century to the early 18th century - was almost constant.

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Enter Europe

Despite Portuguese interest around the southern Arabian Peninsula from the late 15th century, it was not until the late 18th century that the European powers truly began chiselling away at the ailing Ottoman Empire. In 1798 Napoleon invaded Egypt in what he planned as the first step towards building a French empire in the Middle East and India. The French occupation of Egypt lasted only three years, but left a lasting mark - even today, Egypt's legal system is based on a French model.

The British, protecting their own Indian interests, forced the French out of Egypt in 1801. Four years later, Mohammed Ali, an Albanian soldier in the Ottoman army, emerged as the country's strongman and he set about modernising the country. As time passed, it became increasingly obvious that Constantinople was becoming ever more dependent on Egypt for military backing rather then the reverse. Mohammed Ali's ambitions grew. In the 1830s he invaded and conquered Syria, and by 1839 he had effective control of most of the Ottoman Empire. The European powers, alarmed by the idea of the Ottoman government collapsing, forced him to withdraw to Egypt. In exchange, the Ottoman sultan gave long-overdue acknowledgment of Mohammed Ali's status as ruler of a virtually independent Egypt and bestowed the right of heredity rule on his heirs (who continued to rule Egypt until 1952).

In 1869 Mohammed Ali's grandson Ismail opened the Suez Canal. But within a few years his government was so deeply in debt that in 1882 the British, who already played a large role in Egyptian affairs, occupied the country.

At the same time, the Ottoman Empire was becoming increasingly dependent on the goodwill of the European powers. In 1860 the French sent troops to Lebanon after a massacre of Christians by the local Druze. Before withdrawing, the French forced the Ottomans to set up a new administrative system for the area guaranteeing the appointment of Christian governors, over whom the French came to have great influence. In 1911, after a short struggle between Rome and the Turks, Tripoli and Cyrenaica (Libya) went to the Italians.

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The colonial Middle East

With the outbreak of WWI in 1914, the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany, and Sultan Mohammed V declared a jihad (holy war), calling on Muslims everywhere to rise up against Britain, France and Russia.

World War II signalled the end of the Ottoman dynasty. Stripped of its Arab provinces, the Ottoman monarchy was overthrown and a Turkish Republic was declared under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal 'Atatürk', a soldier who became Turkey's first president in 1923.

His drive toward secularism (which he saw as synonymous with the modernisation necessary to drag Turkey into the 20th century) found an echo in Persia, where, in 1923, Reza Khan, the commander of a Cossack brigade who had risen to become war minister, overthrew the decrepit Ghajar dynasty. After changing his name from Khan to the more Persian-sounding Pahlavi (the language spoken in pre-Islamic Persia), he moved to set up a secular republic on the Turkish model. Protests from the country's religious establishment caused a change of heart and he had himself crowned shah instead. In 1934 he changed the country's name from Persia to Iran.

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Independence & pan-Arabism

Although the Middle East was a persistent theatre of war throughout WWII - Egyptian and Libyan territory hosted decisive battles at Tobruk and El Alamein respectively - the region's problems began in earnest soon after the war was over.

Since taking control of Palestine in 1918, the British had been under pressure to allow unrestricted Jewish immigration to the territory. With tension rising between Palestine's Arab and Jewish residents, they had refused to do this and, in the late 1930s, had placed strict limits on the number of new Jewish immigrants.

Several plans to partition Palestine were proposed during the 1930s and '40s, but WWII (briefly) put an end to all such discussion. When the war ended, Britain again found itself under pressure to allow large-scale Jewish immigration, particularly in the wake of the Holocaust.

In early 1947 the British announced that they were turning the entire problem over to the newly created UN. The UN voted to partition Palestine, but this was rejected by the Arabs. Britain pulled out and the very next day the Jews declared the founding of the State of Israel. War broke out immediately, with Egypt, Jordan and Syria weighing in on the side of the Palestinian Arabs.

The disastrous performance of the combined Arab armies in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War had far-reaching consequences for the region. Recriminations over the humiliating defeat and the refugee problem it created laid the groundwork for the 1951 assassination of King Abdullah of Jordan. Syria, which had gained its independence from France in 1946, became the field for a seemingly endless series of military coups in which disputes over how to handle the Palestine problem often played a large part. In Egypt, the army blamed the loss of the war on the country's corrupt and ineffective politicians. In July 1952 a group of young officers toppled the monarchy, with the real power residing with one of the coup plotters: Gamal Abdel Nasser. After facing down the combined powers of Israel, Britain and France over the Suez Crisis of 1956, Nasser also emerged as the preeminent figure in the Arab world. He was a central player in the politics of nationalism, socialism and decolonisation that gripped much of the developing world throughout the 1950s and '60s.

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The Arab-Israeli wars

Arab opposition to the creation of the State of Israel again came to a head (helped along by Nasser's fiery speeches) in 1967, with the formation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) taking place around the same time. In May of that year the Egyptian army moved into key points in Sinai and announced a blockade of the Straits of Tiran, effectively closing the southern Israeli port of Eilat. The Egyptian army was mobilised and the country put on a war footing.

Israel responded on 5 June 1967 with a preemptive strike that wiped out virtually the entire Egyptian air force. The war lasted only six days (hence the 'Six Day War'), and when it was over Israel controlled all of the Sinai peninsula and the Gaza Strip. The West Bank, including Jerusalem's Old City, had been seized from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. For the Arabs, it was an unmitigated disaster that sent shockwaves across the region.

The year 1970 saw the ascension of new leaders in both Egypt (Anwar Sadat) and Syria (Hafez al-Assad). Preparations were also well under way for the next Middle Eastern war, with these radical new leaders under constant pressure from their citizens to reclaim the land lost in 1967. On 6 October 1973, Egyptian troops crossed the Suez Canal, taking Israel (at a standstill, observing the holy day of Yom Kippur) almost entirely by surprise. After advancing a short distance into Sinai, however, the Egyptian army stopped, giving Israel the opportunity to concentrate its forces against the Syrians on the Golan Heights and then turn back towards Egypt.

When the war ended in late 1973, months of shuttle diplomacy by the US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, followed. Pressure on the USA to broker a deal was fuelled when the Gulf States embargoed oil supplies to the West 10 days after the war began. The embargo was relatively short-lived but if the goal was to get the West's attention, it succeeded.

All of this shifted the balance of power in the Middle East. The oil states, rich but underpopulated and militarily weak, gained at the expense of poorer, more populous countries. Huge shifts of population followed the two oil booms of the 1970s as millions of Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, Palestinians and Yemenis went off to seek their fortunes in the oil states.

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Peace & revolution

Anwar Sadat's dramatic visit to Jerusalem in 1977 opened the way for an Egyptian-Israeli peace process, which culminated, in March 1979, with the signing of a peace treaty between the two countries at Camp David in the USA. In response, Arab leaders meeting in Baghdad voted to expel Egypt from the Arab League.

Meanwhile, one of the few friends Sadat had left in the region had troubles of his own. Discontent with the shah of Iran's autocratic rule and his personal disregard for the country's Shiite Muslim religious traditions had been simmering for years. Political violence slowly increased throughout 1978. The turning point came in September of that year, when Iranian police fired on anti-shah demonstrators in Tehran, killing at least 300. The momentum of the protests quickly became unstoppable.

On 16 January 1979 the shah left Iran, never to return (he died in Egypt in 1980). The interim government set up after his departure was swept aside the following month when the revolution's leader, the hitherto obscure Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, returned to Tehran from his exile in France.

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After the revolution

Iran's Islamic Revolution seemed to change everything in the Middle East, ushering in a period of instability that lasted until the end of the 1980s.

In 1979 militants seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca - Islam's holiest site - and were only ejected several weeks later after bloody gun battles inside the mosque itself. In November of that year student militants in Tehran overran the US embassy, taking the staff hostage. In 1980 Turkey's government was overthrown in a military coup, capping weeks of violence between left- and right-wing extremists. Further east, Iraq invaded Iran, launching what would become the longest, bloodiest and, arguably, most pointless war in modern history.

Tensions were further cranked up in 1981 when President Sadat of Egypt was assassinated by Muslim militants. The following year Israel invaded Lebanon, further exacerbating the cycle of chaos and destruction that had engulfed that country since 1975. In 1986 clashes between the USA and Libya, led by Colonel Mu'ammar Gaddafi, came to a head with the American air strikes on Tripoli. The following year saw an escalation in violence in Israel and the Palestinian Territories with the beginning of the intifada (the grass roots Palestinian uprising).

There were a few bright spots. Turkey returned to democratic rule in 1983, albeit with a new constitution barring from public office anyone who had been involved in politics prior to the 1980 coup. In 1988 Iran and Iraq grudgingly agreed to a cease-fire. The year after, Egypt was readmitted to the Arab League and Jordan held its first elections in more than 20 years.

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The peace deficit

In August 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia requested help from the USA. The result was a US-led coalition whose air and ground offensive drove Iraq out of Kuwait. In the process Iraqi president Saddam Hussein (previously supported by the West in his war against Iran) became world public enemy number one.

While attempting to solicit Arab support for the anti-Iraq coalition, then-US president George Bush promised to make a new effort to achieve Arab-Israeli peace once the Iraqis were out of Kuwait. Endless shuttling between Middle Eastern capitals culminated in a US-sponsored peace conference in Madrid in October 1991. It achieved little, but by late summer 1993 it was revealed that Israel and the Palestinians had been holding secret talks in Norway for 18 months. The 'Oslo Accord' was cemented with a handshake between Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn in September 1993.

A new era of hope for peace in the Middle East seemed on the horizon. Lebanon had just held its first democratic elections for 20 years and the mutually destructive fighting seemed at an end. In 1994 Jordan became the second Arab country to sign a formal peace treaty with Israel.

Tragically the nascent Arab-Israeli peace process was derailed by the November 1995 assassination of Rabin and the subsequent election to power of hardline candidate Binyamin Netanyahu. A blip of hope reemerged when Netanyahu lost office to Ehud Barak, a prime minister who pulled his troops out of occupied south Lebanon and promised to open negotiations with the Syrians and the Palestinians. When these talks came to nothing, the Palestinians launched an intifada that still continues and Israeli voters ousted Barak for the more hard-line (and, to many, frightening) figure of Ariel Sharon. Although the death of Yasser Arafat in November 2004 offered some signs for hope, the violent occupation of Palestinian land and bloody suicide bombings targeting Israeli citizens continues.

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Saladin - the Kurdish hero of Arab history

Saladin - Salah ad-Din (Restorer of the Faith) al-Ayyoub - was born to Kurdish parents in 1138 in what is modern-day Tikrit in Iraq. He joined other members of his family in the service of Nureddin (Nur ad-Din) of the ruling Zangi dynasty. By the time Nureddin died in 1174, Saladin had risen to the rank of general and had already taken possession of Egypt. He quickly took control of Syria and in the next 10 years extended his authority into parts of Mesopotamia, but was careful not to infringe too closely on the territory of the now largely powerless Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad. In 1187, Saladin crushed the Crusaders at the Battle of Hittin and captured Jerusalem, precipitating the Third Crusade and pitting himself against Richard I (the Lion-Heart) of England. After countless clashes the two rival warriors signed a peace treaty in 1192, giving the coastal territories to the Crusaders and the interior to the Muslims. Saladin died three months later in Damascus, where he is buried.

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The Bible as history

Unlike Egypt, where the wealth of tomb and temple texts and papyri has enabled historians to work out a detailed historical framework, the 'Holy Lands', where the earliest events as related in the Old Testament of the Bible are said to have taken place, have yielded little in the way of written archives. Historians cannot say for sure whether characters such as Abraham, Moses or even Solomon existed. The Old Testament was compiled from a variety of sources, and probably set down in script no earlier than the 6th century BC. The stories it contains might have some grain of truth in them, but then again they may have been no more than folk tales.

When it comes to the New Testament and episodes related in the Gospels by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, we do have some means of corroboration. This was the Roman era and there are plenty of other sources in the form of written accounts, inscriptions and works of art so that we can say with certainty that figures such as Herod, Pontius Pilot and a man called Jesus, from Nazareth, did exist. Where history moves into the realm of conjecture again is in associating particular places with biblical events. Many sites commonly held to be of biblical significance were only fixed in the 4th century AD by the Empress Helena, some 300 years after the death of Christ. They owe their status more to tradition than historical veracity.

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