What Was the Fertile Crescent?

This ancient Mediterranean region is also called the "cradle of civilization"

Digital illustration of the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia and Egypt and location of first towns
Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

The "fertile crescent," often referred to as the "cradle of civilization," refers to a semi-circular area of fertile soil and important rivers stretching in an arc from the Nile to the Tigris and Euphrates. It covers Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, northern Egypt, and Iraq. The Mediterranean lies on the outside edge of the arc. To the south of the arc is the Arabian Desert. To the East, the Fertile Crescent extends to the Persian Gulf. Geologically, this corresponds with where Iranian, African, and Arabian tectonic plates meet. In some cultures, this area is associated with the Biblical Garden of Eden.

Origins of the Expression "Fertile Crescent"

Egyptologist James Henry Breasted of the University of Chicago is credited with introducing the term "fertile crescent" in his 1916 book "Ancient Times: A History of the Early World". The term was actually part of a longer phrase:"the fertile crescent, the shores of the desert bay."

"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."

The term quickly caught on and became the accepted phrase to describe the geographic area. Today, most books about ancient history include references to the "fertile crescent."

History of the Fertile Crescent

Most scholars believe that the Fertile Crescent was the birthplace of human civilization. The first human beings to farm and domesticate animals lived in the fertile crescent around 10,000 BCE. A thousand years later, farming was prevalent; by 5,000 BCE farmers in the fertile crescent had developed irrigation systems and raising sheep for wool.

Because the area was so fertile, it encouraged farming of a broad range of crops. These include wheat, rye, barley, and legumes.

By 5400 BCE, early human cities developed in Sumer including Eridu and Uruk. Some of the first decorated pots, wall hangings, and vases were created, along with the world’s first brewed beer. Trade began, with the rivers used as “highways” to transport goods. Highly decorative temples rose to honor many different gods.

From about 2500 BCE, great civilizations arose in the fertile crescent. Babylon was a center for learning, law, science, and mathematics as well as art. Empires arose in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Phoenicia. The Bible stories of Abraham and Noah take place around 1900 BCE; while the Bible was once believed to be the oldest book ever written, it is clear that many great works were completed long before Biblical times.

Significance of the Fertile Crescent Today

By the time of the fall of the Roman Empire, most of the great civilizations of the Fertile Crescent were in ruins. Today, much of what was fertile land is now desert, as a result of dams being built throughout the area. The area now referred to as the Middle East is among the most violent in the world, as wars over oil, land, religion, and power continue throughout modern Syria and Iraq -- often crossing into Israel and other parts of the region.