Editor’s note: This is part of a series called “The Day Tomorrow Began,” which explores the history of breakthroughs at UChicago. Learn more here.
The “Fertile Crescent,” a term coined by University of Chicago Egyptologist James Henry Breasted, refers to a crescent-shaped region in Western Asia. Formed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the Mediterranean Sea, this region gave rise to some of the world’s earliest civilizations.
Until the 19th century, Western scholars believed that “civilization” began in Europe—specifically Greece and Rome. A small but revolutionary group pursued a new idea: That civilization began in the ancient Middle East. In 1919, Breasted founded the Oriental Institute (OI), kicking off a century of archaeology and research in the region.
Today, the term “Fertile Crescent” has been scrutinized both as a concept and as the main origin point for human civilization. However, the region remains archaeologically significant and continues to yield discoveries that fundamentally shape our understanding of ancient life.
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What is the Fertile Crescent?
If you’ve spent any significant time in social studies classes in school, you’ve probably heard of the term “Fertile Crescent.”
The Fertile Crescent, often referred to as “the cradle of civilization,” is the crescent-shaped region in Western Asia and North Africa that spans the modern-day countries of Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and, for some scholars, Egypt.
Anthropologists today don’t agree on what constitutes “civilization,” but one common definition describes it as: a complex society of cities (the word “civilization” comes from the Latin “civitas” or “city”). A city has a centralized government and economy, specialized jobs, large-scale architecture and surplus agriculture.
Many scholars believe that urbanization—the formation of cities—first occurred in the Fertile Crescent.
How did the Fertile Crescent get its name?
The term “Fertile Crescent” was coined and popularized by James Henry Breasted, an Egyptologist at the University of Chicago. In Ancient Times: A History of the Early World, originally intended as a high school textbook, Breasted wrote: “The earliest home of men in this great arena of Western Asia is…a kind of cultivable fringe of the desert, a fertile crescent having the mountains on one side and the desert on the other.”