THE FERTILE CRESCENT, an area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, was called Mesopotamia by the ancient Greeks. This meant “the land between the rivers.” The Fertile Crescent extends from the eastern shore of the MEDITERRANEAN SEA to the PERSIAN GULF and gets its name from its shape. James Breasted, an archeologist from the University of Chicago, first called it the Fertile Crescent.
This region includes present-day ISRAEL, LEBANON, and parts of JORDAN, SYRIA, IRAQ, and southeastern TURKEY. It is believed that civilization first developed in this area, giving rise to the nickname “The Cradle of Civilization.” Scientists think that agriculture began in this fertile valley around 8000 B.C.E. Here, tribes of nomads, who had formerly been hunters and herders, settled. Barley and wild wheat were abundant. Besides the rivers and the fertile land, the area had four of the five most important species of domestic animals: cows, goats, sheep, and pigs. The other species, the horse, lived nearby.
People began to move down from the mountains to the grassy uplands and plains in Mesopotamia. By 7000 B.C.E., farmers were planting wheat and barley and raising domesticated cattle and pigs. The climate of the Fertile Crescent encouraged the evolution of many new species of plants.
Primitive villages stretched across the strip from Assyria to the Euphrates River by 6000 B.C.E. People were learning to cooperate, and social organization grew out of this effort. They learned to irrigate their crops in the drier parts of the Fertile Crescent. By 5000 B.C.E., cities were being constructed in the southern part of the valley. The civilizations of Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, and Persia developed in the Fertile Crescent.
The Sumerians arrived in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley in about 3500 B.C.E. They came from Central Asia and settled in southern Mesopotamia. They took charge of the land and resources there and developed a complex civilization. The region became known as Sumer. Here, city-states developed, each ruled by a king. The king was in charge of construction of buildings and temples, maintaining irrigation systems, overseeing justice, and making trade and defense policies. At first, these kings were elected, but later their positions became hereditary. Because of the number of citystates, there was often tension and conflict among them. Conflicts were often over rights to water or land. Sometimes one city-state tried to conquer another.
The Sumerians invented the first known system of writing. Called cuneiform, it used a triangular-tipped stylus to make wedge-shaped marks in soft clay. The Sumerians also developed the arts of bleaching and dying fabrics and engraving. They developed surveying equipment and built dams and canals. The Sumerian number system influenced our astronomy and our method of timekeeping, with 60 minutes in an hour and 60 seconds in a minute.
In 2000 B.C.E., the Babylonians took control of the Fertile Crescent. One of their contributions was Hammurabi’s famous code of laws. They had well-developed literature, religion, history, and science. Their number system was more advanced than the one we use today. From the Babylonians, we received modern astronomy and algebra. King Nebuchadnezzar built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The Babylonian Empire lasted until 538 B.C.E., when the last of the Babylonian rulers surrendered to Cyrus the Great of Persia.
Cyrus was succeeded by his son, Cambyses, who expanded the PERSIAN EMPIRE to include Egypt. After his suicide, Darius I came to power. He instituted a public works program, a postal system, road construction, and a system of minting coins. He also set up a system of weights and measures and built the palace at PERSEPOLIS, the royal center of his empire. It was located in southwestern IRAN.
The Assyrian Empire is hard to pinpoint. The Assyrians, a race of brutal warriors, lived in the northern part of the Fertile Crescent. The first Assyrian Empire lasted only about 50 years before it was assimilated into the Babylonian Empire in 1760 B.C.E. The Assyrians came to power again in the 14th century and managed to extend their borders. From 1070 to 950 B.C.E., little is known about the history of Assyria, but from 950 to 609, when Assyria was overthrown, its history is well-documented.
The biggest contributions of the Assyrians were in the form of techniques of war and specialized equipment used to carry on war. Also, we still use Assyrian words today for many plants and minerals. Contributions by these early civilizations and others have influenced not only the Fertile Crescent area, but the entire world.