Fertile Crescent


published on 02 September 2009
Map of the Fertile Crescent (NormanEinstein)

The Fertile Crescent is the region in the Middle East which curves, like a quarter-moon shape, from the Persian Gulf, through modern-day southern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and northern Egypt. The term was first coined in 1916 by the Egyptologist James Henry Breasted in his work Ancient Times: A History of the Early World, where he wrote, “This fertile crescent is approximately a semi-circle, with the open side toward the south, having the west end at the south-east corner of the Mediterranean, the centre directly north of Arabia, and the east end at the north end of the Persian Gulf.” His phrase was widely circulated through the publications of the day becoming, finally, the common designation for this region. The Fertile Crescent is traditionally associated (in Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths) with the earthly location of the Garden of Eden.

Cradle of Civilization

Known as the Cradle of Civilization, the Fertile Crescent is regarded as the birthplace of agriculture, urbanization, writing, trade, science, history and organized religion and was first populated c.10,000 BCE when agriculture and the domestication of animals began in the region. By 9,000 BCE the cultivation of wild grains and cereals was wide-spread and, by 5000 BCE, irrigation of agricultural crops was fully developed. By 4500 BCE the cultivation of wool-bearing sheep was practiced widely.

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The first cities began to rise in Sumer. Eridu, the first, according to the Sumerians, in 5400 BCE, then Uruk and the others. By c. 4500 BCE cultivation of wheat and grains had long been practiced in addition to the further domestication of animals. By the year 3500 BCE the image of the breed of dog known as the Saluki was appearing regularly on vases and other ceramics as well as wall paintings.

The unusually fertile soil of the region encouraged the further cultivation of wheat as well as rye, barley, and legumes and some of the earliest beer in the world was brewed in the great cities along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers under the auspices of the goddess Ninkasi. The most ancient evidence of beer brewing comes from the Sumerian outpost settlement of Godin Tepe in modern-day Iran. From c. 3400 BCE, the priests of the temple complexes were responsible for the distribution of food and the careful monitoring of surplus for trade.

By 2000 BCE, Babylon controlled the Fertile Crescent & the region saw advances in law,  literature, religion, science, & math.

The 'Promised Land'

By 2300 BCE, soap was produced from tallow and ash and was in wide use as personal hygiene was valued in relation to one’s standing with one’s community and to honor the gods. Attention to one’s person in terms of hygiene was stressed in that human beings were thought to have been created as help-mates to the gods and so should make themselves presentable in the performance of their duties. As in Egypt, ritual bathing and personal grooming was especially important for the clergy. Those who attended to the gods were held to an even higher standard but, even for the most common laborer, cleanliness and grooming were important values.

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From 2334-2279 BCE Sargon of Akkad (Sargon the Great) ruled over the first multi-cultural empire in Mesopotamia, allowing for the growth of great building projects, art works, and religious literature such as the hymns to Inanna by Sargon’s daughter, Enheduanna. By 2000 BCE, Babylon controlled the Fertile Crescent and the region saw advances in law (Hammurabi’s famous code), literature (The Epic of Gilgamesh, among other works), religion (the development of the Babylonian pantheon of the gods), science (astronomical measurements and technological developments),  and mathematics. From 1900-1400 BCE trade with Europe, Egypt, Phoenicia and the Indian sub-continent was flourishing, resulting in the spread of literacy, culture and religion to these regions. The goddess Nisaba, patroness of writing, grains, literacy, and wisdom, became known and worshipped in regions far from her native Sumer. Mesopotamian beer, whose production was supervised by the goddess Ninkasi, was a valued commodity in trade and many of the most important Mesopotamian deities traveled to other regions along the trade routes.  

It is speculated that it was in either 1900 or c. 1750 BCE that the biblical patriarch Abraham left his native city of Ur for the 'promised land’, carrying the tales and legends of Mesopotamian gods with him which would in time appear, transformed, as biblical narratives. If it was not in fact Abraham who diffused Mesopotamian myth and legend it was certainly someone like him. It is clear the parallels between stories such as the Mesoptamian Atrahasis and Noah's Flood, and the Myth of Adapa and the Book of Genesis' tale of the Fall of Man, among many others, share many similarities.

Prior to the mid-19th century CE, the Bible was considered the oldest book in the world and the stories it contained were thought to be original pieces written by God or God-inspired. After archaeological digs in the region, and the discovery of the Sumerian civilization, it became clear that biblical narratives were derived from earlier Mesopotamian works. 

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Ancient Near Eastern Metal Production

Changing Empires

The region changed hands many times through the ages. By 912 BCE the Assyrians controlled the Fertile Crescent and,  by 580, the Neo-Babylonian Chaldean Empire under Nebuchadnezzar II ruled the region. In 539 BCE Babylon fell to the Cyrus the Great after the Battle of Opis and the lands fell under the control of the Achaemenid Empire (also known as The First Persian Empire). Alexander the Great invaded the area in 334 BCE and, after him, it was ruled by the Parthians, among others, until the coming of Rome in 116 CE. After the short-lived Roman annexation and occupation, the region was conquered by the Sassanid Persians (c. 226 CE) and, finally, by the Arabian Muslims in the 7th century CE.

By this time the glorious achievements of the early cities which grew up beside the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers had long been disseminated throughout the ancient world but the cities themselves were mostly in ruins through the destruction caused by the many military conquests in the region as well as natural causes such as earthquakes and fire. Rampant urbanization and the over-use of the land also resulted in the decline and eventual abandonment of the cities of the Fertile Crescent.

The city of Eridu, considered by the early Mesopotamians to be the first city on earth, built and inhabited by the gods, had been abandoned since 600 BCE, Uruk, the city of Gilgamesh, since 630 CE and Babylon, the city known for high culture, writing, law, science, and all manner of learning in the ancient world was a vacant ruin. Babylon's name would forever be linked to sin and corruption by the later Hebrew scribes who wrote the biblical narratives but, in its time, was greatly respected as a center of learning and civilization. 

States of the Fertile Crescent, c. 1450 BCE

The Fertile Crescent Today

In 2001 CE the National Geographic News reported that the Fertile Crescent was rapidly becoming so only in name as, due to extensive damming of the rivers as well as a massive draining works program initiated in southern Iraq from the 1970’s on, the fertile marshlands which once covered 15,000 – 20,000 square kilometers (5,800 – 7,700 square miles) had shrunk to a mere 1,500 – 2,000 square kilometers (580 – 770 square miles). As pleas from environmental groups and regional farmers to stop damming and drainage projects were ignored by the governments of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, the situation worsened so that, presently, the region which once was the lush paradise and cradle of civilization largely consists of dry, cracked plains of sun-baked clay.

Even after continued, long-term, threats to the environment were made clear to the governments of the region, no substantial efforts were made to preserve the land or reverse the damage. It has been observed by many scholars, historians, environmentalists, and writers through the centuries that human beings fail to learn from their pasts - whether individually or collectively. The philosopher George Santayana famously noted that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" and this paradigm rings as true for the Fertile Crescent as it does for any other region in the world today.  

About the Author

Joshua J. Mark
A freelance writer and part-time Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York, Joshua J. Mark has lived in Greece and Germany and traveled through Egypt. He teaches ancient history, writing, literature, and philosophy.

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Cite This Work

Chicago Style Citation

As Footnote/Endnote:

1. Joshua J. Mark, “Fertile Crescent,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, last modified September 02, 2009, http://www.ancient.eu /Fertile_Crescent/.

As Bibliography Entry:

Joshua J. Mark. “Fertile Crescent,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified September 02, 2009. http://www.ancient.eu /Fertile_Crescent/.

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