Chapter 1: The Rise of Civilization

A region of dry grasslands and fertile river plains, the Middle East was the natural home to the first agriculture, and then to the first civilizations.

The cradle of farming…

The Middle East is a huge area, with many different kinds of climate and landscape. Large parts are covered by desert or grassland; elsewhere there are highlands and mountains covered by forests. Running through all these zones are long rivers, especially the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia, and the Nile in Egypt.[1]

The highlands of the Middle East are the natural habitat of grasses, such as wild wheat and barley, and it was almost inevitable that agriculture based on these crops, which would eventually cover so much of the world, would begin here, around 10,000 years ago. Farming had spread around the Middle East by c. 6000 BC, and was gradually pushing westward into Europe[2] and eastward into India and South Asia.[3]

… and of civilization

Large parts of the Middle East lie within a hot, dry zone, where rainfall is insufficient to grow crops such as wheat and barley. The melting snows in the high mountains and the spring rains in the hills carry fresh water and silt down into the lowlands, flooding the dry river plains and depositing a rich mud for miles around.

This means that the land surrounding the lower reaches of these rivers is potentially very fertile. However, it is too dry for farming most of the year – except during the spring and early summer, when there is too much water!

Farmers gradually mastered this challenging environment by developing irrigation techniques, beginning around 5000 BC. This created a wonderfully productive agriculture, lead to the rise of the first civilizations in world history, those of the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, and of Ancient Egypt in the Nile 

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”map of the Middle East in 3500 BC” link=”” color=”#c33434″ class=”” size=””]




The communities which settled the broad river plains of Mesopotamia naturally came to devote much of their land to fields of wheat and barley, as this was the most productive use for it. In the highlands and grasslands surrounding these the river plains, however, keeping sheep and goats was a good use of the less fertile terrain.

The importance of stock-rearing increased as the expanding populations of crop-growers in the river plains grew, and created an intensifying demand for the animal products which they lacked (wool, skin, meat, cheese and so on).

As a result, societies grew up on the highlands and plains of the Middle East which specialised in stock-rearing, and took to a more nomadic way of life than before. These nomadic pastoralists[4] were to play a large part in the history of the region.

The same was far less true for Egypt, where the Nile Valley is flanked by bone dry desert. Apart from near the banks of the river Nile itself, human habitation is only possible in the oases.

Trade on a new scale

The thousand years between 3500 BC and 2500 BC saw urban civilization spread across the Middle East, carried by long-distance trade.

The economies of the two great civilizations of the Middle East – Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia – were built upon irrigation systems needed to make the fertile soils of the Nile and Euphrates-Tigris river plains support large populations. However, being essentially mud, these river plains (especially Mesopotamia) offer precious little else other than good crops. They contain few minerals for metal and stone, trees for wood, and, away from the rivers, forage for too few sheep or goats for the required quantities of meat, skins, wool and diary produce.

To bring in these things, the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians turned to trade on a scale never seen before in human history.

The need for metals

For millennia, people had been using copper, a soft metal only useful for making jewellery and other decorations. Sometime around 3000 BC, the metal smiths of Mesopotamia developed bronze. This was much tougher than copper, and was ideal for armour and weapons, as well as for sculptures and building decorations. It was strong enough for farming tools, but was far too expensive, so farmers continued to make do with stone and wood implements.

Why was bronze so expensive? It is an alloy of two other metals, copper and tin. These metals occur naturally in widely separated regions, mostly some distance from Mesopotamia. The Sumerians needed to import both.

Bronze began being made in Egypt a little later than in Mesopotamia, and like Mesopotamia, it had no tin or copper of its own. It too needed to bring these metals in from outside.

As a result, trade routes radiated out from Mesopotamia and Egypt into neighbouring regions. Trade was carried up the river Euphrates and Tigris into Asia Minor,[5] a mineral-rich region; and across into Syria[6] and Canaan.[7] Trade routes soon linked the two great centres of civilization in the Tigris-Euphrates and Nile valleys. The first great seaports in history emerged on the Syrian coast, at Byblos and Ugarit. To the east, trade routes spread into Iran in the search of metals and other goods, and connected with trade radiating out from the cities of the Indus Valley civilization.[8] A sea route was also opened up along the Indian Ocean coast between Indus and Mesopotamian ports. To the west, the expanding trade links began to have affect the societies of south-west Europe.[9]

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”map of the Middle East in 2500 BC” link=”” color=”#c33434″ class=”” size=””]



The impact of trade

These trade routes had a major impact on the societies which they touched, for example leading to the rise of new civilizations in the eastern Mediterranean.[10]

Wherever trade went, local markets sprang up and towns and cities grew – often, as in Asia Minor,[11] around settlements of Mesopotamian traders. Literacy, sophisticated art production and other techniques of civilization spread.

These markets acting as the nodes of long distance trade stimulated more local trade and crafts, which, by encouraging more intensive production of food and goods, raised the material wealth of these localities.

Over the thousand years between 3500 and 2500 BC, urban life and the arts of civilization spread over much of the Middle East, and beyond. 



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