Ancient Near East

David Roy Harmon

Millions of years ago the procreant low lands in the river basins of Euphrates and Tigris was probably the home of some animal life, but no great civilizations. However, things change over time, and just a few thousand years ago the same fertile low lands in the river basins of Euphrates and Tigris became the home of a very rich and complex society. This first high society of man was located in what some still call ?Mesopotamia?. The word ?Mesopotamia? is in origin a Greek name meaning ?land between the rivers.? The name is used for the area watered by the Euphrates and Tigris and its tributaries, roughly comprising modern Iraq and part of Syria. South of modern Bagdad, this alluvial plain was called the land of Sumer and Akkad. Sumer is the most southern part, while the land of Akkad is the area around modern Bagdad, where the Euphrates and Tigris are closest to each other. This first high, Mesopotamian society arose as a combined result of various historical, institutional, and religious factors. The reality of these factors occurring at a specific place within the fabric of space / time indeed established the basis for this first high civilization. Items like irrigation, topography, and bronze-age technical innovations played a big part along with the advent of writing and the practice of social conditioning (through the use of organized religion) in this relatively early achievement of man.


The factors of irrigation, inherent topography, and useful bronze-age technical innovations paved the way for the agricultural revolution to occur in the land of Sumer and Akkad. The people of the Tigris and the Euphrates basin, the ancient Sumerians, using the fertile land and the abundant water supply of the area, developed sophisticated irrigation systems and created what was probably the first cereal agriculture. This historical factor resulted in an excess of production of cereals, dates, and other commodities. The consequence of excess is the emergence of a productive peasant agricultural system and a redistributive economy that fuels the progress of civilization.


Without a doubt, the Sumerians were highly innovative people who responded creatively to the challenges of the both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Not just any spot on the planet is a good prospect for irrigation, and it is the topography of the land and the intelligence of the people that allowed efficient irrigation systems to develop. The precipitation in the mountains to the north is large and rainfall-agriculture is possible, but in the low lands, precipitation is slight and rain is concentrated in shortly lasting showers in the winter period of December-February. Without irrigation, agriculture in this area is not possible. The gentle sloping topography of the California- like valley affords numerous irrigation possibilities. The topology is not perfect, and because the riverbeds are actually raised as a result of sedimentary precipitation, the river can change its course as the result of a flood. Attesting to this fact are the ruins of many famous ancient cities, like Eridu, Ur, Nippur and Kish that are now far from the river, but were in the past situated at the banks. Successful irrigation can not be underestimated.


Bronze-age technical innovations played a big part in the advancement of civilization. The metallurgical qualities of malleability and hardness made bronze a good choice for construction tools. The bronze tools expedited the construction of public buildings necessary for evolving civilization and government. Furthermore, tools of bronze aided in the erection of fortifications surrounding the cities, like security walls. Tools and related mechanical innovations like the wheel fueled the progress of early civilization, but metallurgy and tools were just part of the formula.


In looking at the ?big picture? of possible historical factors, one must not forget the effects of climatic determinism. Many attempts have been made to explain the course of history because of large-scale climatic change. These theories are called climatic determinism, but again this is just part of the picture. In the name of determinism let the record show that the climate of this era was at least conducive to irrigation of a desert valley because of snow and rain in the northern and eastern mountains. Furthermore, as far as determinism goes, the term ?economic determinism? should not be viewed as a good descriptor for the factors surrounding the rise of high civilization. A better term is ?economic facilitation?. This describes the path of irrigation and excess