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The Fertile Crescent

September 6, 2019

The first civilizations began on a wide flat plain between two great rivers: the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. These rivers flow from the mountains in present-day Turkey to the Persian Gulf. In ancient times this area was called Mesopotamia. The name Mesopotamia comes from a Greek word that means “land between the rivers”. Mesopotamia is part of a larger region called the Fertile Crescent. This land stretches from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. The Fertile Crescent is where the first farming communities were developed. According to many scholars a group of people known as Sumerians migrated to Mesopotamia thousands of years ago. The land they settled in became known as Sumer. Mesopotamia offered the Sumerians fertile soil for farming which made the area good for planting crops and developing a society. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers carried a fine, fertile soil called silt down from the surrounding mountains. Each year the rivers flooded and then carried the silt across the Mesopotamian plain. When the floodwaters receded the silt settled into the soil and a layer of moist, rich earth was left behind for planting. However there were also many challenges that the Sumerians faced. The floodwaters that brought the silt from the mountains also brought danger. Sometimes there would be heavy flooding and entire villages would be swept away. Another challenge the Sumerians faced was drought. The land beyond the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers was desert. During the summer the ground was baked rock hard by the hot sun and the lack of rain would cause plants to wither and die. Additionally strong winds would blow from the mountains and whip up dust and sand that would form into gritty clouds that turned day into night. Despite the challenges the Sumerians faced they were able to turn Mesopotamia into a productive farmland by developing two new agricultural techniques for growing food. The first technique was irrigation. The Sumerians dug many miles of irrigation canals to carry water from the rivers to their fields during the long, hot, dry summer months. Irrigation canals allowed them to plant crops far from the rivers. The other technique that the Sumerians developed was a new way of preparing the ground for planting by using the plow. Before the invention of the plow Sumerians had to use digging sticks to poke holes in the ground and then drop seeds into the holes one by one. This technique was very hard, slow work. At first the Sumerian farmers pushed the plow along the ground and dug long, shallow furrows, or trenches, in the ground. It was much easier to drop seeds into the furrow than into small holes. Later the farmers began hitching oxen to the plows and having the animal pull the plow along. An oxen powered plowed could prepare much more land for planting than a farmer using a digging stick. As the agricultural techniques improved the Sumerians were able to produce a food surplus. With a dependable food supply the population began to increase and villages that started as just a few mud huts grew into towns of neat mud-brick houses. Around 3000 BC the first cities emerged. Uruk was one of the first cities and had a population of about 40,000 people. Soon other cities such as Ur, Lagash, Sippar, Nippur, and Babylon emerged and join Uruk as the first Mesopotamian communities. As cities grew in size they became powerful city-states. A city-state is made up of the city and the surrounding land and villages that it controls. Each city-state had its own government, laws, and gods that worshipped. Each city state was also a center of trade. Mesopotamia was rich in fertile soil and produced a surplus of food, yet it lacked wood, stone, and metals. Sumerian traders began to travel to far lands to find these resources and bring them back to their cities. Two advances made travel to far lands possible. The first was the development of wheeled carts. The second was the development of sailing ships. Both of these advancements meant that Sumerian traders could transport their surplus grain and wool over long distances. They could then bring back heavy resources such as lumber, metal, and precious stones. Wheeled carts and sailing ships gave Sumerians access to products that were not produced in Mesopotamia. Most trade was done through a process called bartering. Bartering is a trading system in which people exchange goods without using money. By bartering surplus food supplies Sumerian city states grew in wealth and power. Mesopotamia, or the land between the rivers, was home to the world’s first civilizations. The Sumerians developed new agricultural techniques that allowed them to produce a surplus of food. In turn this allowed the Sumerians to develop the first cities and city-states. Mesopotamia will long be remembered as the mother to all future civilizations.

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