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 the eastern Mediterranean region, including the valleys of the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The region includes parts of the modern countries of Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, northern Egypt, and Iraq, and the Mediterranean Sea coast lies to its west. To the south of the arc is the Arabian Desert, and at its southeast point is the Persian Gulf. Geologically, this region corresponds with the intersection of the Iranian, African, and Arabian tectonic plates.

Origins of the Expression "Fertile Crescent"

American Egyptologist James Henry Breasted (1865–1935) of the University of Chicago is credited with popularizing the term "fertile crescent." In his 1916 book "Ancient Times: A History of the Early World," Breasted wrote of "the fertile crescent, the shores of the desert bay."

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."

A Bit of Western Imperialism

Breasted considered the fertile crescent the cultivable fringe of two deserts, a sickle-shaped semi-circle wedged between the Atlas mountains of Anatolia and the Sinai desert of Arabia and the Sahara desert of Egypt. Modern maps clearly show that the fertile part incorporated the major rivers of the region, and also a long stretch of the Mediterranean Sea coastline. But the Fertile Crescent was never perceived as a single region by its Mesopotamian rulers.

Breasted, on the other hand, had a bird's eye view of the map during World War I and he saw it as a "borderland." Historian Thomas Scheffler believes Breasted's use of the phrase reflected a zeitgeist of his day. In 1916, the crescent was occupied by the Ottoman Empire, a pivotal geo-strategic piece of the battles of World War I. In Breasted's historical drama, says Scheffler, the region was the site of a struggle between "desert wanderers" and the "hardy peoples of the northern and eastern mountains," an imperialist concept, building on the Biblical battle of Abel the Farmer and Cain the Hunter.

History of the Fertile Crescent

Archaeological studies over the last century have shown that the domestication of plants like wheat and barley and animals such as sheep, goats, and pigs took place in the adjacent mountains and plains outside of the boundaries of the Fertile Crescent, not within it. Within the Fertile Crescent, there were plenty of plants and animals available to the residents without going to the trouble of taming them. That need only arose outside of the region, where resources were harder to come by.

In addition, the oldest permanent settlements are also outside of the Fertile Crescent: Çatalhöyük, for example, is located in south-central Turkey, and was founded between 7400–6200 BCE, older than any site in the Fertile Crescent, except possibly Jericho. Cities did though, first flourish in the Fertile Crescent. By 6,000 years ago, early Sumerian cities such as Eridu and Uruk were built and begun to flourish. Some of the first decorated pots, wall hangings, and vases were created, along with the world’s first brewed beer. Commercial level trade began, with the rivers used as “highways” to transport goods. Highly decorative temples were constructed 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 first versions of the Biblical stories of Abraham and Noah were written about 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.

The 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 climate change and 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.

Sources

Breasted, James Henry. "Ancient Times, a History of the Early World: An Introduction to the Study of Ancient History and the Career of Early Man." Hardcover, Sagwan Press, August 22, 2015.

Scheffler, Thomas. "‘Fertile Crescent’, ‘Orient’, ‘Middle East’: The Changing Mental Maps of Southwest Asia." European Review of History: Revue européenne 10.2 (2003): 253-72. Print.d'histoire