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Fertile Crescent

City-states of the Fertile Crescent in the 2nd millennium BCE

The Fertile Crescent is a region in the Near East, incorporating the Levant and Mesopotamia, and often incorrectly extended to Egypt. Mesopotamia is considered the cradle of civilization and saw the development of the earliest human civilizations and is the birthplace of writing and the wheel. The region of the Fertile Crescent broadly corresponds to present-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Kuwait, Jordan, south-eastern Turkey and west and south-western Iran. The term "Fertile Crescent" was coined by University of Chicago archaeologist James Henry Breasted in his "Ancient Records of Egypt", around 1900.[1] The region was named so due to its rich soil and crescent shape.

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Geography

As crucial as rivers were to the rise of civilization in the Fertile Crescent, they were not the only factor in the area's precocity. Ecologically the area is important as the "bridge" between Africa and Eurasia. This "bridging role" has allowed the Fertile Crescent to retain a greater amount of biodiversity than either Europe or North Africa, where climate changes during the Ice Age led to repeated extinction events due to ecosystems becoming squeezed against the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Coupled with the Saharan pump theory, this Middle Eastern land-bridge is of extreme importance to the modern distribution of Old World flora and fauna, including the spread of humanity.

PPNB Neolithic settlements of the Fertile Crescent in the mid 8th millennium BCE

The fact that this area has borne the brunt of the tectonic divergence between the African and Arabian plates, and the converging Arabian and Eurasian plates, has also made this region a very diverse zone of high snow-covered mountains, fertile broad alluvial basins and desert plateaux, which has also increased its biodiversity further and enabled the survival into historic times of species not found elsewhere.

Furthermore the Fertile Crescent had a climate diversity and major climatic changes which encouraged the evolution of many "r" type annual plants, which produce more edible seeds than "K" type perennial plants, and the region's dramatic variety of elevation gave rise to many species of edible plants for early experiments in cultivation. Most importantly, the Fertile Crescent possessed the wild progenitors of the eight Neolithic founder crops important in early agriculture (i.e. wild progenitors to emmer wheat, einkorn, barley, flax, chick pea, pea, lentil, bitter vetch), and four of the five most important species of domesticated animals — cows, goats, sheep, and pigs — and the fifth species, the horse, lived nearby.[2]

As a result the Fertile Crescent has an impressive record of past human activity. As well as possessing many sites with the skeletal and cultural remains of both pre-modern and early modern humans (e.g. at Kebara Cave in Israel), later Pleistocene hunter-gatherers and Epipalaeolithic semi-sedentary hunter-gatherers (the Natufians), this area is most famous for its sites related to the origins of agriculture. The western zone around the Jordan and upper Euphrates rivers gave rise to the first known Neolithic farming settlements (referred to as Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA)), which date to around 9,000 BCE (and includes sites such as Jericho). This region, alongside Mesopotamia (which lies to the east of the Fertile Crescent, between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates), also saw the emergence of early complex societies during the succeeding Bronze Age. There is also early evidence from this region for writing, and the formation of state-level societies. This has earned the region the nickname "The Cradle of Civilization."

Both the Tigris and Euphrates start in the Taurus Mountains of what is today Turkey. Farmers in southern Mesopotamia had to protect their fields from flooding each year, except Northern Mesopotamia which had just enough rain to make some farming possible.[3]

Since the Bronze Age, the region's natural fertility has been greatly extended by irrigation works, upon which much of its agricultural production continues to depend. The last two millennia have seen repeated cycles of decline and recovery as past works have fallen into disrepair through the replacement of states, to be replaced under their successors. Another ongoing problem has been salination — the gradual concentration of salt and other minerals in soils with a long history of irrigation.

In the contemporary era, river waters remain a potential source of friction in the region. The Jordan lies on the borders of Israel, the kingdom of Jordan and the areas administered by the Palestinian Authority. Turkey and Syria each control about a quarter of the length of the Euphrates, on whose lower reaches Iraq is still heavily dependent.

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