The Fertile Crescent describes an area of land roughly occupied by modern Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. North of the Arabian Desert and west of the Zagros Mountains, this area is irrigated by several rivers, most notably the Tigris and Euphrates in Iraq and Syria, and the Nile in Egypt.
The two major river basins are connected by the Levant, a stretch of fertile land along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, to form a green crescent-like shape. Once among the most fertile agricultural lands on Earth, the crescent remains visible from space today.
Normally, the ebb and flow of plant and animal populations encouraged people to move around, following them. The Nile, however, experienced fairly predictable annual floods, and the Tigris and Euphrates regularly overflowed and irrigated the surrounding land, now called Mesopotamia.
Aided by the first domesticated animals, people found that they could settle in fixed communities, eating the harvested produce of one year’s floods while waiting for the next year’s crop to grow.
They helped this process along with irrigation ditches, encouraging the production of wheat and barley, which they supplemented with figs and dates. Cows, meanwhile, demanded an increasing quantity of domesticated grass, in order to provide enough meat and milk for a rapidly growing human population.
The First Cities
By around 7000 to 5000 b.c.e. the settled human population had grown large enough to support the first permanent settlements. In ancient Egypt the Nile was revered as part of the primeval sea, which gave way to a primeval hill, on which humankind built some of the first cities, such as Memphis (c. 3500 b.c.e.).
Mesopotamian origin myths went one step further, treating Eridu (settled around 5400 b.c.e.) as the world’s first city. In fact, the oldest continually-inhabited cities are not along the major river valleys at all, but in the Levant, where Damascus, Syria, and Jericho, Israel, boast histories of as much as 9,000 years.
Initially small, these cities grew in both population and number until the Fertile Crescent was dotted with hundreds or even thousands, containing a few million people between them.
A diverse array of crops and other agricultural goods promoted communication and trade among these cities and thus the first economies, but population pressures, both within the cities and among neighboring nomads, led to an increased demand for territory and security and thus to the earliest forms of organized warfare.
Both trends lent themselves to increasingly complex hierarchies and political organizations among the various city-states so that by the third millennium b.c.e. cities began to band together under a common leadership, creating the first empires.
Though Egypt probably emerged late as a civilization of city builders, it was among the first to emerge as a unified state. As early as the first documented pharaoh, Narmer, Egypt emerged as a federated imperial state, with several communities working together toward common secular and spiritual goals.
The most remarkable accomplishment of the earliest Egyptians was the great Pyramids of Giza, constructed around 2500 b.c.e. under the pharaohs of the Fourth Dynasty. Ten centuries and 14 dynasties later, Egypt expanded into the Levant, using chariots and archers to reach as far as the city of Mari, on the western Euphrates.
Throughout its history up to about 1000 b.c.e. Egypt remained remarkably unified. Despite the occasional foreign invasion Egypt maintained a cultural unity rarely fragmented beyond more than two kingdoms, and these were usually based on the two largest cities, Memphis and Thebes.
During brief periods of more general civil strife, smaller city-states emerged, including Saïs and Tanis, but these were often subsumed again into the larger kingdom once political control was reestablished.
Occasionally, however, even the capital of unified Egypt would change, for example when the pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti established a new power base at Heliopolis, reflecting a change in Egyptian religion from reverence of the Nile to worship of the Sun.
Mesopotamia and The Levant
In contrast to Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Levant experienced considerable fragmentation and change. Subject to continual invasions and balance-of-power struggles, these city-states tended to be more militarized and for more than a millennium much less adept than their Egyptian counterpart at building secure, stable empires.
Over time, however, they mastered the art, and the Assyrians briefly unified the entire Fertile Crescent under a single sovereign entity, in the middle of the seventh century b.c.e.
Initially, Mesopotamia was broken into tiny city-states, with each town and its surrounding land claiming all the prerogatives of a sovereign state. Collectively called Sumer, the city-states near the Tigris and Euphrates delta developed a distinctive culture, featuring literature such as the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Although Gilgamesh’s town of Uruk clearly influenced others, neither it nor any of the other city-states of Sumer established a clear military or political dominance over the others.
The first major military power in Mesopotamia was not native to the region at all but an invader: the Gutians, who had domesticated the horse and invaded over the Zagros Mountains. Although repulsed by the Sumerians, militia in the individual towns—such as the 24-man garrison of Lagash—could not overcome the next invasion, from northern Arabia.
Sargon of Akkad unified southern Mesopotamia c. 2350 b.c.e. not only by force with his 6,000-man army but also by adopting the local culture. This empire only lasted until 2100 b.c.e., however, before native Sumerian rule was restored by the third dynasty of Ur.
The first leader of this new empire, Ur-Nammu, organized neighboring city-states into administrative districts and imposed one of the world’s first codes of laws across the whole federation. His son, Shulgi, conquered a few neighboring city-states and was revered as a god, though his empire was soon dwarfed.
The problem with Sumer-Akkad was that local food supplies were unable to cope with a growing population—still less so in periods of drought and when the cult of personality failed Shulgi’s successors.
All three factors came into play when the Amorites, another North Arabian tribe, came into the fertile valley of the Euphrates River around 2000 b.c.e. and established themselves at Babylon, blocking the major trade route.
Slowly they absorbed almost all of the territory and culture of their more numerous subjects, but some Sumer-Akkadians may have moved altogether to a different collection of city-states on the northern Tigris, in the old kingdom of Assyria.
Assyria and Babylonia
Though it went through many evolutions, these migrations ultimately set the stage for the major Mesopotamian rivalry of the next 1,500 years, between Assyria and Babylonia—both of them centers of trade, culture, and learning, which became increasingly militaristic and antagonistic over time.
At first, early Babylon was the more impressive, with leaders such as Hammurabi writing their own codes of laws and increasingly advanced institutions of politics, culture, and religion.
Assyria, meanwhile, grew rich as a trading empire but fell subject to invasion by the Mittani, a mysterious people who may have introduced iron working to the region. When Assyria reemerged around 1350 b.c.e., it was no longer a trading empire but a state governed by a continual call to war.
For some 700 years Assyria steadily expanded, dominating its neighbors and unifying large areas of the Fertile Crescent, until by 671 b.c.e. the entire region was subject to the rule of a single leader, Esarhaddon, governing from the city of Nineveh on the middle Tigris.
Deeply religious and eminently pragmatic, many Assyrian leaders combined respect for their neighbors with a calculated ruthlessness. Although they allowed many conquered peoples to retain their political institutions, Assyrian bas-reliefs suggest that their leaders favored a policy of large-scale devastation and deportation for recalcitrant populations, and later dynasties built centers of culture at home from the spoils of rival neighbors.
Despite suffering from one or two major expeditions, Assyrian hegemony worked relatively well for Phoenicia, a collection of semifederated maritime trading states in the northern Levant that provided tribute from islands in the Mediterranean.
The Israelite lands were less compliant, however, and required a judicious mix of deportations, depredations, and diplomacy to remain a subject people. Babylon proved more recalcitrant by the early seventh century b.c.e., revolting three times in 15 years, before Great King Sennacherib completely destroyed it in 689 b.c.e.
Though Esarhaddon ordered the city rebuilt and repopulated, Assyria never fully controlled its neighbor to the south, and late Babylon retrieved the upper hand at long last near the end of the seventh century b.c.e., establishing a smaller Mesopotamian empire that endured for about 70 years, before the Fertile Crescent was unified again under the rule of Cyrus II of Persia.