The Fertile Crescent is the boomerang-shaped region of the Middle East that was home to some of the earliest human civilizations. Also known as the “Cradle of Civilization,” this area was the birthplace of a number of technological innovations, including writing, the wheel, agriculture and the use of irrigation. The Fertile Crescent includes ancient Mesopotamia.
What Is the Fertile Crescent?
American archaeologist James Henry Breasted coined the term “Fertile Crescent” in a 1914 high school textbook to describe this archaeologically significant region of the Middle East that contains parts of present day Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Cyprus.
On a map, the Fertile Crescent looks like a crescent or quarter-moon. It extends from the Nile River on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in the south to the southern fringe of Turkey in the north. The Fertile Crescent is bounded on the west by the Mediterranean Sea and on the East by the Persian Gulf. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers flow through the heart of the Fertile Crescent.
The region historically contained unusually fertile soil and productive freshwater and brackish wetlands. These produced an abundance of wild edible plant species. It was here that humans began to experiment with the cultivation of grains and cereals around 10,000 B.C. as they transitioned from hunter-gatherer groups to permanent agricultural societies.
Mesopotamia is an ancient, historical region that lies between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern-day Iraq and parts of Kuwait, Syria, Turkey and Iran. Part of the Fertile Crescent, Mesopotamia was home to the earliest known human civilizations. Scholars believe the Agricultural Revolution started here.
The earliest occupants of Mesopotamia lived in circular dwellings made of mud and brick along the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys. They began to practice agriculture by domesticating sheep and pigs around 11,000 to 9,000 B.C. Domesticated plants, including flax, wheat, barley and lentils, first appeared around 9,500 B.C.
Some of the earliest evidence of farming comes from the archaeological site of Tell Abu Hureyra, a small village located along the Euphrates River in modern Syria. The village was inhabited from roughly 11,500 to 7,000 B.C. Inhabitants initially hunted gazelle and other game before beginning to harvest wild grains around 9,700 BCE. Several large stone tools for grinding grain have been found at the site.
One of the oldest known Mesopotamian cities, Nineveh (near Mosul in modern Iraq), may have been settled as early as 6,000 B.C. Sumer civilization arose in the lower Tigris-Euphrates valley around 5,000 B.C.
In addition to farming and cities, ancient Mesopotamian societies developed irrigation and aqueducts, temples, pottery, early systems of banking and credit, property ownership and the first codes of law.
The origins of Sumer civilization are debated, but archaeologists suggest Sumerians had established roughly a dozen city-states by the fourth millennium B.C., including Eridu and Uruk in what is now southern Iraq.
Sumer is the earliest known civilization in ancient Mesopotamia and may have been the first human civilization anywhere in the world. They called themselves the Sag-giga, the “black-headed ones.”
Ancient Sumerians were among the first to use bronze. They pioneered the use of levees and canals for irrigation. Sumerians invented cuneiform script, one of the earliest forms of writing. They also built large stepped pyramids called ziggurats.
Sumerians celebrated art and literature. The 3,000-line poem, the Epic of Gilgamesh, follows the adventures of a Sumer king as he battles a forest monster and quests after the secrets of eternal life.
Important Archaeological Sites
British and French archaeologists began exploring the Fertile Crescent for the remains of storied Mesopotamian cities such as Assyria and Babylonia as early as the mid-1800s.
Some of the most famous Mesopotamian archaeological sites include:
Ziggurat of Ur: It’s an enormous temple in southern Iraq and one of the best remaining examples of Sumerian architecture. Archaeologists think it was built around 2100 B.C.
Babylon: Founded nearly 5,000 years ago on the Euphrates River in present-day Iraq, this ancient metropolis and Biblical city was the last major power in Mesopotamia to fall under Persian control in 539 B.C.
Hattusha: This UNESCO World Heritage site is one of Turkey’s greatest ruins and was once the capital of the Hittite Empire, which reached its peak in the second millennium B.C.
Persepolis: An ancient Mesopotamian city in southern Iran, Persepolis ranks among the world’s greatest archaeological sites with a large number of architecturally significant Persian buildings.
Fertile Crescent Today
Today the Fertile Crescent is not so fertile: Beginning in the 1950s, a series of large-scale irrigation projects diverted water away from the famed Mesopotamian marshes of the Tigris-Euphrates river system, causing them to dry up.
In 1991, the government of Saddam Hussein built a series of dikes and dams to further drain the Iraqi marshes and punish dissident Marsh Arabs who made a living cultivating rice and raising water buffalo there.
NASA satellite images showed that that by 1992 roughly 90 percent of the marshland had disappeared, turning more than a thousand square miles into desert. More than 200,000 Marsh Arabs lost their homes. Many of the Hussein-era dams have since been removed, though the wetlands remain only about half of their pre-drained level.
Where is the Fertile Crescent?; Wonderopolis.
The World’s First Farmers Were Surprisingly Diverse; Science.
The Crimes of Saddam Hussein; PBS Frontline.