Millennia ago the fertile low lands in the river basins of Euphrates and Tigris was the home land of a rich and complex society. These civilizations were saved from oblivion by the unexpected discovery in the previous century of complete libraries in the archeological remains. Thousands of clay tablets, written in a cuneiform writing system, are buried deep under the ruins of ancient cities, when they were sacked and set into fire. The clay tablets, usually only sun-dried and stored on (inflammable) wooden shelves, are often inadvertently baked while a city was destroyed and treasures were removed. Clay was not valuable to treasure hunters and robbers in later times and clay tablets (at least until the 19th century CE) were left untouched and thus saved for eternity.

Abstracted from Chapter 2 of John Heise's 'Akkadian language', presented here for general reference purposes.



Mesopotamia. The word `Mesopotamia' is in origin a Greek name (mesos `middle' and potamos `river', so `land between the rivers'). The name is used for the area watered by the Euphrates and Tigris and its tributaries, roughly comprising modern Irak and part of Syria. South of modern Bagdad, the alluvial plains of the rivers was called the land of Sumer and Akkad in the third millennium. Sumer is the most southern part, while the land of Akkad is the area around modern Bagdad, where the Euphrates and Tigris are close to each other. In the second millennium both regions together are called Babylonia, a mostly flat country. The territory in the north (between the rivers Tigris and the Great Zab) is called Assyria, with the city Assur as center. It borders to the mountains.

Neighboring regions. The region roughly containing the Asian part of modern Turkey will be called Anatolia. The countries along the east-Mediterranean coast (modern Syria, the Lebanon, Jordan and Israel) bounded on the east by the Syrian desert and extending north towards Mesopotamia will be called Syria-Palestine. Modern Iran is roughly equivalent to Persia and including in its southwestern part ancient Elam.

Human use of the rivers. Man have been attracted to both rivers since prehistoric times. As water ways they make inland navigation possible. The rivers yearly flood its banks, producing fertile land. The character of Euphrates and Tigris are different. The Tigris is rough and fast flowing. `Tigris' is the Greek pronunciation of the Akkadian name idiqlat, (initial vocal disappears and l>r), Sumerian idigna meaning `fast as an arrow'. The upper course in particular is difficult to pass. The river cuts deep in the surrounding land and the water flow can hardly be used for irrigation. The Euphrates is a lifeline. It can more easily be used by ships. The banks are lower, suitable for irrigation, with less violent floods. Precipitation in the mountains to the north is large and rainfall-agriculture is possible. In the Babylonian low lands precipitation is low and moreover rain is concentrated in shortly lasting showers in the winter period December-February. Intensive sunshine after a short spring parch the soil in the summer. Without irrigation agriculture is not possible.

Change of river flow and shore line. In the last few hundred kilometer in the lower course, the river drops only of order 10 meter. Consequently the river flow has changed significantly in the course of time. The ruins of many famous ancient cities, like Eridu, Ur, Nippur and Kish are now far from the river, but were in the past situated at the river banks. The location of the sea shore is determined by the extend of silk deposition in the Persian Gulf and the rising of the sea level. The river delta has probably gained territory over the Persian gulf. The coastal line has moved further south or at least lagoons and estuaries in the past have now become silted up. The city of Eridu, home of the water god (in Sumerian Enki, Akkadian Ea, one of the top three deities in the pantheon) was in the past situated at a lagoon near the sea and had a famous port.

The change in course of many arms of the river has had great consequences in the past. A breakthrough somewhat more north in the plains of Mesopotamia could drain several river arms and render a network of irrigation channels useless. It has been a question of constant debate, struggle and war between early Sumerian cities.

Euphrates vs. Nile delta. The Euphrates reaches its highest water levels at the end of March to the beginning of May, the Tigris a few weeks earlier. In both cases the crops are already growing on the field. The river flood can only be used for agriculture when the fields are shielded by a system of dams, dikes and canals. This contrasts with the Nile in Egypt. High water in the Nile are a result of the summer monsoon in Central Africa and has is highest water levels in September-October. The Nile fertilizes the land in the autumn and the crops can grow in (early) spring when no floods occur. Moreover the Nile, fed by rivers in a large area, has a more constant flow and carries the soluble salts and lime into the sea. The Euphrates is more easily prone to salination.

Irrigation. The irrigation system is attested already in very ancient times, the earliest around 6000 BCE. Through a system of dikes, dams and canals the precipitation in the mountainous region in the north is used in the south. This required a high level of organization of the society and collective efforts for the construction, maintenance, supervision and adjustments of the irrigation network. Over-irrigation and limited drainage gradually brackished the fields, often causing ecological crisis. Together with the change of river flow, it stimulates throughout the Mesopotamian history the foundation of new settlements and cities. Our knowledge about the history of irrigation networks is limited by the difficulty of dating most of the water works.


Climate in the Pleistocene. The motor of the general atmospheric circulation is the heating of the tropics and the evaporation of the tropical seas. The pleistocene is the geological period of cold climates (glaciers in the mountains and at high latitudes) that coincides with the cultural period, the paleolithic (Old Stone Age). Atmospheric circulation and the evaporation of the tropical seas, is `in low gear'. The monsoonal rains now watering the southernmost margins of the Near East, are retracted to lower latitudes and mid-latitude westerly storms carry little moisture. The ice-age at the latitude of the Near East is characterized by low evaporation and thus little precipitation. The large quantities of water held in the form of ice lowered the sea level to typical ~100 meter below present sea level.

The Würm ice-age made its last attack around 8000 BCE. The geological epoch starting then is called Holocene. Within a fairly short time (of order 1000 year) the world climate is basically the same as nowadays, with fluctuations on a large time scale. Recovery to normal temperature after an ice age is generally fast. It was even warmer and wetter than it ever has been since. The optimum of the warm and wet period (called Atlanticum, one of the subdivisions of the Holocene) is around 5000 BCE. It is the era in which England becomes an island again and northern Europe changes in marshland by the heavy rainfall. Modern shorelines are approximately reestablished. Coastal settlements earlier than 5000 BCE are now under water. During the Atlanticum westerly rainstorms stray deep into the desert zones of North Africa and the Near East. The present-day steppe areas were turned into green land. Many lakes are seen, in particular in Africa, that are now always dry. The distribution of the precipitation is the same as nowadays, only the absolute values change.

The fertile crescent. Because of the shape of this distribution in the Near East (almost absent precipitation in the central desert regions and high rainfall in the mountains around it), the area is called the fertile crescent. The total precipitation is indirectly known from the deposit of organic material in the sediments on the sea floor in the Gulf of Persia, from radiocarbon dates in lake sediments. The ratio of the Oxygen-18 isotope in lake sediments is an indicator of the total lake volume of water. There is no systematical trend (e.g. it is not getting dryer and dryer) in the last 5000 years (historical times), but there are three large scale dry periods effecting the entire Near East: 3200-2900, 2350-2000 and around 1300 BCE.

Local and temporal climatic anomalies. Local anomalies in the climatic history are important to mankind, but not always seen in the data (which have a coarse resolution). In arid environment, where water resources are at a premium, climate local anomalies are of real significance and may cause abandonment of settlements and movements of nomadic groups.

Agriculture. After 8000 BCE Near Eastern environments become substantially more attractive for human settlements. The Atlanticum is the period in which agriculture developed in the Near East, around the Nile in Egypt and in the Indus valley in India. The use of agriculture is expanding gradually further to the north and west. The Atlanticum is followed by a climate of lower temperature and precipitation. One of the relative cold and dry periods (4000-3000 BCE) coincides with the expansion of cities in Mesopotamia and the foundation of the first Egyption dynasty.

Climate determinism. Many attempts have been made (particularly in the early parts of this century) to explain the course of history as a result of large scale climatic change. These theories are called climate determinism. The modern equivalent of this is an explanation from an ecological perspective, in which still external influences (change in natural environment, now including e.g. deforestation etc) are the driving factor. Another school emphasizes the interhuman relations and sociological changes as the dominant process. It is now clear that a combination of these and additional factors play a significant role (cultural changes, technological innovations, new tools). However, a new hot and dry period, starting around 500 BCE, which hastens environmental changes (overgrazing and deforestation) probably did contribute to weaken the Mesopotamian civilization and caused the ``center of civilization'' to move to northern latitudes.


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