The Fertile Crescent (also known as the cradle of civilization) is a crescent-shaped region containing the comparatively moist and fertile land of otherwise arid and semi-arid Western Asia, the Nile Valley and Nile Delta. Having originated in the study of ancient history, the concept soon developed and today retains meanings in international geopolitics and diplomatic relations.
In current usage, all definitions of the Fertile Crescent include Mesopotamia, the land in and around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers; and the Levant, the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The modern-day countries with significant territory within the Fertile Crescent are Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Jordan, Israel, the State of Palestine, Egypt, as well as the southeastern fringe of Turkey and the western fringes of Iran.
The region saw the development of some of the earliest human civilizations, which flourished thanks to the water supplies and agricultural resources available in the Fertile Crescent. Technological advances made in the region include the development of writing, glass, the wheel, agriculture, and the use of irrigation.
The term "Fertile Crescent" was popularized by University of Chicago archaeologist James Henry Breasted, beginning with his high school textbooks Outlines of European History in 1914 and Ancient Times, A History of the Early World in 1916. Breasted's 1916 textbook description of the Fertile Crescent:
The westernmost extension of Asia is an irregular region roughly included within the circuit of waters marked out by the Caspian and Black seas on the north, by the Mediterranean and Red seas on the west, and by the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf on the south and east. It is a region consisting chiefly of mountains in the north and desert in the south. The earliest home of men in this great arena of Western Asia is a borderland between the desert and the mountains, a kind of cultivable fringe of the desert, a fertile crescent having the mountains on one side and the desert on the other.
This fertile crescent is approximately a semicircle, with the open side toward the south, having the west end at the southeast corner of the Mediterranean, the center directly north of Arabia, and the east end at the north end of the Persian Gulf (see map, p. 100). It lies like an army facing south, with one wing stretching along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean and the other reaching out to the Persian Gulf, while the center has its back against the northern mountains. The end of the western wing is Palestine; Assyria makes up a large part of the center; while the end of the eastern wing is Babylonia.
This great semicircle, for lack of a name, may be called the Fertile Crescent.1 It may also be likened to the shores of a desert-bay, upon which the mountains behind look down—a bay not of water but of sandy waste, some eight hundred kilometres across, forming a northern extension of the Arabian desert and sweeping as far north as the latitude of the northeast corner of the Mediterranean. This desert-bay is a limestone plateau of some height—too high indeed to be watered by the Tigris and Euphrates, which have cut cañons obliquely across it. Nevertheless, after the meager winter rains, wide tracts of the northern desert-bay are clothed with scanty grass, and spring thus turns the region for a short time into grasslands. The history of Western Asia may be described as an age-long struggle between the mountain peoples of the north and the desert wanderers of these grasslands—a struggle which is still going on—for the possession of the Fertile Crescent, the shores of the desert-bay.
1 There is no name, either geographical or political, which includes all of this great semicircle (see map, p. 100). Hence we are obliged to coin a term and call it the Fertile Crescent.
In current usage, the Fertile Crescent includes Iraq, Kuwait, and surrounding portions of Iran and Turkey, as well as the rest of the Levantine coast of the Mediterranean Sea, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon. Water sources include the Jordan River. The inner boundary is delimited by the dry climate of the Syrian Desert to the south. Around the outer boundary are the Anatolian highlands to the north and the Sahara Desert to the west.
Linguistically, the Fertile Crescent was a region of great diversity. Historically, Semitic languages generally prevailed in the lowlands, whilst in the mountainous areas to the east and north a number of generally unrelated languages were found including Elamite, Kassite, and Hurro-Urartian. The precise affiliation of these, and their date of arrival, remain topics of scholarly discussion. However, given lack of textual evidence for the earliest era of prehistory, this debate is unlikely to be resolved in the near future.
The evidence which does exist suggests that by the third millennium BC, and into the second, several language groups already existed in the region. These included:Sumerian – a non-Semitic language which displays a Sprachbund-type relationship with neighbouring Akkadian
Semitic languages – Akkadian, Amorite, Aramaic, Ugaritic, Canaanite.
Hurro-Urartian languages – a small family. (The otherwise isolated Kassite language may be related.)
Hattic – a language isolate, spoken originally in central Anatolia.
Indo-European languages – generally believed to be later intrusive languages, such as Hittite and the Indo-Aryan material attested in the Mittani civilization.
Links between Hurro-Urartian and Hattic and the indigenous languages of the Caucasus have frequently been suggested, but are not generally accepted.
As crucial as rivers and marshlands were to the rise of civilization in the Fertile Crescent, they were not the only factor in the area's precocity. The area is important as the "bridge" between Africa and Eurasia. This "bridging role" has allowed the Fertile Crescent to retain a greater amount of biodiversity than either Europe or North Africa, where climate changes during the Ice Age led to repeated extinction events when ecosystems became squeezed against the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Coupled with the Saharan pump theory, this Middle Eastern land-bridge is of extreme importance to the modern distribution of Old World flora and fauna, including the spread of humanity.
The area has borne the brunt of the tectonic divergence between the African and Arabian plates and the converging Arabian and Eurasian plates, which has made the region a very diverse zone of high snow-covered mountains.
The Fertile Crescent had many diverse climates, and major climatic changes encouraged the evolution of many "r" type annual plants, which produce more edible seeds than "K" type perennial plants. The region's dramatic variety of elevation gave rise to many species of edible plants for early experiments in cultivation. Most importantly, the Fertile Crescent was home to the eight Neolithic founder crops important in early agriculture (i.e. wild progenitors to emmer wheat, einkorn, barley, flax, chick pea, pea, lentil, bitter vetch), and four of the five most important species of domesticated animals—cows, goats, sheep, and pigs—and the fifth species, the horse, lived nearby.
The Fertile Crescent has an impressive record of past human activity. As well as possessing many sites with the skeletal and cultural remains of both pre-modern and early modern humans (e.g. at Tabun and Es Skhul caves in Israel), later Pleistocene hunter-gatherers and Epipalaeolithic semi-sedentary hunter-gatherers (the Natufians), this area is most famous for its sites related to the origins of agriculture. The western zone around the Jordan and upper Euphrates rivers gave rise to the first known Neolithic farming settlements (referred to as Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA)), which date to around 9,000 BC (and includes sites such as Jericho).
This region, alongside Mesopotamia (which lies to the east of the Fertile Crescent, between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates), also saw the emergence of early complex societies during the succeeding Bronze Age. There is also early evidence from the region for writing and the formation of hierarchical statelevel societies. This has earned the region the nickname "The Cradle of Civilization."
It is in this region where the first libraries appeared, some 5,000 years ago. The oldest known library was found in northern Syria, in the ruins of Ebla— a major commercial center that was destroyed around 1650 BCE.
Both the Tigris and Euphrates start in the Taurus Mountains of what is today Turkey. Farmers in southern Mesopotamia had to protect their fields from flooding each year, except northern Mesopotamia which had just enough rain to make some farming possible. To protect against flooding, they made levees.
Since the Bronze Age, the region's natural fertility has been greatly extended by irrigation works, upon which much of its agricultural production continues to depend. The last two millennia have seen repeated cycles of decline and recovery as past works have fallen into disrepair through the replacement of states, to be replaced under their successors. Another ongoing problem has been salination — gradual concentration of salt and other minerals in soils with a long history of irrigation.
Prehistoric seedless figs were discovered at Gilgal I in the Jordan Valley, suggesting that fig trees were being planted some 11,400 years ago. Cereals were already grown in Syria as long as 9,000 years ago.