The Historical Geography of Mesopotamia
by
Marc Rietvelt





 
 

Descriptive Abstract

I chose my topic to be on the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers, also known as Mesopotamia. My purpose is to show how the geography of this region impacted the beginnings of civilization. This area has long been the site of the rise and fall of great empires, and I believe the geography of this region has a lot to do with that.
 
 


 

Table of Contents

   Introduction

   Explanation of the Applicable National Standards for Geography

   Mesopotamia’s Favorable Geographic Circumstances

   Water Supply in the Region

   Mesopotamia’s Transition to a more Advanced, Sedentary Life

   The Unchanged Environment

    Mesopotamia’s Raw Materials

   Clay, the Staple of Mesopotamia

   The Diversity and Variety of Mesopotamia

    The Cycle and Influence of Kingdoms and Empires

   Mesopotamian Religion

   Conclusion


 
 

Introduction

Mesopotamia is a historical region in southwest Asia where the world’s earliest civilization developed. The name comes from a Greek word meaning "between rivers," referring to the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, north or northwest of the bottleneck at Baghdad. It is known as Al-Jazirah, or "The Island," to the Arabs (3). South of this lies Babylonia. However, in the broader sense, the name Mesopotamia has come to be used for the area bounded on the northeast by the Zagros Mountains, and on the southwest by the edge of the Arabian Plateau, and stretching from the Persian Gulf in the southeast to the Anti-Taurus Mountains in the northwest (5). Only from the latitude of Baghdad do the Euphrates and Tigris truly become twin rivers, the "rafidan" of the Arabs, which have constantly changed their courses throughout the ages. This region was the center of a culture whose influence extended throughout the Middle East and even the rest of the known world. This paper will focus on the importance of geography in raising this small region to such a level of high importance in the history of the world.
 

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Explanation of the Applicable National Standards for Geography

The National Standards for Geography are being employed into school education programs throughout the United States. The source for the standards is Geography for Life in which they are published. The book suggests the essential knowledge, shills and perspectives that students should master by grades 4,8,and 12. One of these such standards is "knows and understands the physical and human characteristics of places." This is very important to the extent that people cannot fully understand a place unless they first understand the environment and native people of a place. I plan to incorporate this knowledge into my paper for the reader. Another of these national standards is "knows and understands that physical processes shape patterns on the earth’s surface." This is also very important in the sense that this really is the core of geographic knowledge. I will try to incorporate this in by describing the effects of the twin rivers on this region. Another standard that I will use is "knows and understands the characteristics, distribution, and migrations of human populations." This basically means that we should know how people end up where they are in the world. I plan on incorporating this point into my paper as well. And a final standard that I will use will be "knows and understands the changes in meaning, distribution, and importance of resources." Natural resources are extremely important in any civilization. I plan to show how vital it was in the shaping of Mesopotamian history.
 

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Mesopotamia’s Favorable Geographic Circumstances

Archaeological excavations in Mesopotamia, conducted since about 1840, have revealed evidence of settlement back to about 10,000 BC. Favorable geographic circumstances allowed the peoples of Mesopotamia to evolve from a hunter-gatherer culture to a culture based on husbandry, agriculture, and permanent settlements (1). Trade with other regions also flourished, as indicated by the presence in early burial sites of metals and precious stones not locally available (6).

Mesopotamia is a flat, fertile land. Between Baghdad and the mouth of the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, where it empties into the Persian Gulf, there is a difference in height of only about one hundred feet. As a result of the slow flow of the water, there are heavy deposits of silt, and the riverbeds are raised. Consequently, the rivers often overflow their banks, and may even change their course, when they are not protected by high dikes (7). In recent times they have been regulated above Baghdad by the use of escape channels with overflow reservoirs. The extreme south is a region of extensive marshes and reed swamps, called hawrs, which, probably since early times, have served as an area of refuge for oppressed or displaced peoples (3).
 

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Water Supply in the Region

The supply of water in this region is not regular. As a result of the high average temperatures and a very low annual rainfall, the ground of the plains of latitude 35 degrees north is hard, dry, and unsuitable for plant cultivation for at least eight months of the year. Consequently, agriculture without risk of crop failure, which seems to have begun in the higher rainfall zones and in the hilly borders of Mesopotamia in the tenth century BC, began in Mesopotamia itself, the real heart of civilization, only after artificial irrigation had been invented. This brought water to large expanses of territory through a widely branching network of canals (4). Since the ground is actually extremely fertile and, with irrigation and the necessary drainage, will produce in abundance, southern Mesopotamia became a land of plenty that could support a considerable population (1). The cultural superiority of north Mesopotamia, which may have lasted until about 4,000 BC, was finally overtaken by the south when the people there had responded to the challenge of their situation (3).

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Mesopotamia’s Transition to a More Advanced, Sedentary Life

The first agriculture, the domestication of animals, and the transition to sedentary life took place in regions in which animals that were easily domesticated, such as sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs, and the wild types of grains and leguminous plants, such as wheat, barley, pea, and lentil, were present (7). Such centers of these things may have been the valleys and grassy border regions of the mountains of Iran, Iraq, Anatolia, Syria, and Palestine. As settled life, which caused a drop in infant mortality, led to the increase of the population, settlement spread out from these centers into the plains (2).

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The Unchanged Environment

The present climatic conditions are fairly similar to those of 8,000 years ago (6). A survey of ruined settlements in the area thirty miles around ancient Hatra has shown that the southern limits of the zone in which the agriculture is possible without artificial irrigation has remained unchanged since the first settlement of Al-Jazirah (5).

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Mesopotamia’s Raw Materials

The availability of raw materials is a historical factor of great importance, as is the dependence on those materials that had to be imported. In Mesopotamia, agricultural products were available in plenty and could easily be produced in excess of home requirements to be exported. On the other hand, wood, stone, and metal were rare or even entirely absent. Consequently, southern Mesopotamia in particular was destined to be a land of trade from the start. Only rarely could empires extending over a wider area guarantee themselves imports by plundering or conquering neighboring regions (3).

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Clay, the Staple of Mesopotamia

The native raw material that epitomizes Mesopotamian civilization is clay. In the almost exclusively mud-brick architecture and in the number and variety of pottery artifacts, Mesopotamia bears the stamp of clay as does no other civilization. And nowhere in the world but in Mesopotamia and the regions over which its influence was felt was clay used as a vehicle for writing (1). This was an achievement that amounted to nothing less than the invention of writing (7).

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The Diversity and Variety of Mesopotamia

Ancient Mesopotamia had many languages and cultures. Its history is broken up into many periods and eras. It had no real geographic unity, and above all, no permanent capital city. By its very variety, it stands out from other civilizations with greater uniformity, such as Egypt (6). The script and the pantheon of gods and goddesses constitute its unifying factors, but in these also Mesopotamia shows its affinity for variety. Written documents were turned out in quantities, and there are often many copies of a single text. The pantheon consisted of more than one thousand deities, even though many names may apply to different manifestations of a single god (2).

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The Cycle and Influence of Kingdoms and Empires

The geography of the region also affected the cycle of kingdoms and empires. Its terrain promoted foreign invasion and thus brought foreign influence (4). Babylonia and Assyria lay within a stretch of more or less fertile soil which, next to the huge arid subcontinent of Arabia. It sweeps northwest from the marshes and the shores of the Persian Gulf along the rivers and the ranges of the Zagros to link up to the plateaus and hills that pile up toward the Taurus Mountains and Lebanon, leading to the Mediterranean Sea (5). The Euphrates, especially in the last third of its course, sharply marks off the fertile land from the arid territory extending beyond its western bank, but the Tigris hardly forms a boundary. This situation, of course, had its political consequences. The frontiers between Mesopotamia and the mountain regions that accompany the Tigris to the northeast and the upper Euphrates to the north never became stabilized. In fact, they constituted the line of contact between Mesopotamia and those regions that provided links with the flatlands of inner Asia (7). Through the passes of these mountains came such essential materials as metals, precious stones, aromatic matter, and timber, all in great demand in the lowlands, where increasing prosperity based on agriculture made its inhabitants feel the lack of such materials (3). These contacts were rarely peaceful.

Toward the southeast, the Persian Gulf formed a frontier that functioned both as a barrier and an avenue of communication in the course of Mesopotamian history. It formed shipping lanes through which came new plants and animals as well as timber and precious stones (7).

The Euphrates, with vast stretches of desert lands on its western bank, formed the south and southwest border. Due to ecological conditions, contacts occurred sporadically in the south and, more regularly and effectively, along the middle course of the river. Through certain corridors of approach, repeated invasions and a continuous process of infiltration brought smaller and larger Semitic-speaking tribes into the region between the rivers and even across the Tigris (6).

During the three thousand years of Mesopotamian civilization, each century gave birth to the next. Thus, classical Sumerian civilization influenced that of the Akkadians, and the Ur III empire, which in itself represented a Sumero-Akkadian mixture, influenced the whole first quarter of the 2ndcentury BC. Later with the Hittites, large areas of Anatolia were infused with the culture of Mesopotamia from 1700 BC onward. Contacts, via Mari, with Ebla in Syria, go back to the 24th century BC, so that links between Syrian and Palestinian scribal schools and Babylonian civilization during the Amarna period may have been much older (1). At any rate, the similarity of certain themes in cuneiform literature and the Old Testament, such as the story of the Flood or the motif of the righteous sufferer, is due to such early contacts made possible through geographic location and not to direct borrowing (3).

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Mesopotamian Religion

Mesopotamian religious thought was also profoundly affected by the geography of the region. The deities of the earlier Sumerians tended to be local, centering around the subsistence of the community. A primary concern in this and later periods was the fertility of the fields, waters, and animals (2). During this period, the deity took the form of the natural phenomenon represented. For example, the deity associated with the rain cloud was pictured as a dark, lion-headed bird hovering in the sky (6). The Assyrian and Babylonian gods did not displace those of the Sumerians but were gradually assimilated into the older system. The gods were seen to be active in the history of the area and within the changing relationships of the various city-states in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. The image of the deity was fed and clothed and waited upon in a manner analogous to that of the king and his court. Just as for the king, the primary responsibilities of the deity were fertility and security (4).

Although the number of deities represented in the Mesopotamian pantheon numbered in the hundreds, a relatively small number of deities played a prominent role. Especially important among the older gods were Anu, the god of heaven, who was the oldest of the gods; Enki, who was the god associated with water; and Enlil, the earth god who apparently presided over the divine assembly. Also, as was common in the ancient Middle East, these deities were associated with particular cities. Particular mountains, trees, rivers, and even certain man-made items such as the plow were also considered sacred (5).

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Conclusion

Through all these things, it is easy to tell that Mesopotamia is a very important region in world history. It has long been the center of great civilizations and peoples. The geography of this area certainly played a central role in the importance and influence of these lands. Geography has had a heavy hand in the culture and history of Mesopotamia, as it does in all areas of the world.

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Works Cited
1.  Fertile Crescent Civilizationshttp://killeenroos.com/1/mesodata.htm  (4-27-99)
2.  Fertile Crescent Home Pagehttp://www.leb.net/~fchp/FC-MNFM.HTML   (4-27-99)
3.  Kramer, Samuel Noah. The Sumerians. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1963.
4.  Mallowan, M.E.L. Early Mesopotamia and Iran. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1965.
5.  "Mesopotamia." Encyclopaedia Britannica: Macropaedia. 15th ed. 1997.
6.  Oates, David. Studies in the Ancient History of Northern Iraq. London: Oxford UniversityPress, 1963.
7.  Oppenheim, A. Leo. Ancient Mesopotamia. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1964.



Created 4-27-99

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