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The Fertile Crescent, explained

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.

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.”

For decades, Breasted dreamed of establishing a research institution dedicated to the study of early civilizations in Western Asia and North Africa. He got his wish in 1919. After securing funding from John D. Rockefeller Jr., Breasted established the Oriental Institute—an interdisciplinary research center and archaeology museum dedicated to exploring the rise of the world’s first villages, cities and empires.

During the first few decades of the OI’s existence, archaeological teams conducted several large-scale expeditions across the Fertile Crescent.

Though Breasted moved the marker from Europe to Western Asia and North Africa, he was selective in the areas he chose to study. He wrote that the cultures who lived in Egypt and the Fertile Crescent were white, a designation informed by his own invented racial geography. He argued that these ancient civilizations were the ancestors to Europeans and the ones primarily responsible for contemporary western civilization—not people living in other parts of Africa and Asia.

The effects of such ethnocentric theories on race—about who is “civilized” and who is not—by Breasted and many other scholars of his era are still felt today.

What is Mesopotamia?

Mesopotamia, a region that includes all of modern-day Iraq as well as parts of Syria, Turkey and Iran, formed a significant part of the Fertile Crescent. Located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Mesopotamia’s name comes from a Greek term meaning “the land between the rivers.”

During rainy seasons, these rivers would flood the valleys, creating an oasis of fertile soil in an otherwise sandy, dry region. The presence of dependable water created optimal conditions for agriculture and urban settlements.

What civilizations lived in the Fertile Crescent?

Far from a monolithic region, the Fertile Crescent was home to many ancient civilizations including Sumer, Akkad, Assyria and Babylonia. Its position between ancient Egypt and the Indus River Valley region—an area encompassing modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan—also made this area a major crossroads for the exchange of goods and ideas.

Sumer, the earliest known civilization, emerged as early as the sixth to fifth millennium—about 1,500-2,000 years before the construction of the Great Pyramids of Giza. The Sumerians are credited for several of the most fundamental human inventions: the wheel, large-scale architecture, and the earliest writing system—cuneiform.  

In the third millennium BCE, Sumer fell to its northern neighbor, Akkad, which adopted cuneiform as a writing system and continued to conquer great swaths of Mesopotamia to create, what some consider, the world’s first empire.

The Assyrians of northern Mesopotamia rose to political power in the first millennium BCE and united all of Mesopotamia and neighboring lands under the Assyrian Empire before falling to the Babylonians and Medes.

How do we know what life was like in the Fertile Crescent?

We know what ancient life was like, in part, because people wrote about it. The Sumerians developed cuneiform, the first known writing system, which was eventually used by many languages and civilizations across the ancient world. Characterized by wedge-shaped signs, cuneiform was used to track goods and services, codify laws and praise deities.

Hundreds of thousands of cuneiform texts pressed into clay and carved in stone hold the key to understanding life in the Fertile Crescent.

In 1921, James Henry Breasted formed the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary project. The ambitious goal of the dictionary was to create the world’s first complete translation of the Akkadian language and its dialects, which include Assyrian and Babylonian. Akkadian is the earliest Semitic language, meaning it’s related to Hebrew and Arabic.

Far more than a list of words, each entry cites every major instance of a word preserved from antiquity. This allowed scholars to trace how the meanings and uses of words evolved over thousands of years.

A feat of this magnitude takes time. After 90 years of citations, the editors of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary published its 26th and final volume in 2011. Two other multi-decade dictionary projects—studying the Hittite and Demotic languages—are currently underway at the OI.

Another key way we understand what ancient life was like is through what people left behind. The field of archaeology emerged in the 19th century, fueled by European imperialism, colonialism, and a growing fascination with the Middle East and North Africa. The earliest looters, explorers, and amateur archaeologists often used careless (and even explosive) methods of excavation—sometimes irreparably damaging historical sites, or destroying them entirely.

As the 20th century dawned, a few institutions began to take a different approach. “Instead of thinly veiled treasure hunting, the novel approach advocated by the OI called for specialists of all kinds, from botanists to zooarchaeologists, to work together on the materials they found,” said Theo van den Hout, director of the OI and the Arthur and Joann Rasmussen Professor of Hittite and Anatolian Languages.

OI archaeologists Linda and Robert Braidwood were early adopters of this multidisciplinary approach. They also were pioneers in refining archaeological techniques. When excavating, the Braidwoods carefully parsed sites into neat grids and dug down layer by layer. They documented the exact location of each found object and feature.

Using this precise, scientific methodology, OI researchers established reliable ancient timelines—most spanning millennia—and set the precedent for archaeological fieldwork today.

The wealth of material culture uncovered in those early excavations—from tablets to statues, personal items to enormous temple complexes—laid the foundation for how we understand early civilizations. We can trace many foundational pillars of human society such as law, math, literature and architecture directly back to these ancient peoples.

How are we studying the Fertile Crescent and the Middle East today?

Institutions like the OI initially built their collections under the legal system of partage—a term derived from the French verb “partager” meaning “to share.” This granted the OI a selection of uncovered archaeological discoveries to send back to Chicago.

However, as the 20th century went on, partage came to be considered another arm of colonialism. Countries like Egypt, Iran and Turkey enacted laws to protect their cultural heritage and keep items in their countries of origin. International treaties were established that aimed to discourage illicit looting of archaeological sites and regulate the antiquities trade.

Today, Western institutions like the OI have shifted their focus from acquisition to documentation and preservation, aided by technological advancements. “The OI pioneered transformative technologies such as landscape archaeology using satellite imagery, radiocarbon dating, and the so-called Chicago Method to record inscriptions and reliefs in Luxor, Egypt,” said van den Hout.

As early as the 1930s, OI researchers used weather balloons to get a birds-eye-view of historic sites. Today, landscape archaeologists use drone photography and satellite imagery to understand how ancient societies adapted to the land on a scale impossible to observe from the ground.

The Epigraphic Survey at the OI was founded in 1924 to document inscriptions and reliefs in Luxor, Egypt by non-destructive means. Over the past 100 years the “Chicago House Method” has shifted from pencil drawings to digital ones. This digitization effort allows researchers all over the world to study this site without anyone—or anything—leaving home.

Political upheaval over the past several decades has made studying the Fertile Crescent tricky, yet all the more urgent. “Nowadays, the OI is active in the Central-Asian Republics, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Spain, Sudan, and Turkey both in excavations and cultural heritage preservation,” said van den Hout. New collaborative relationships between local and international archaeologists continue to yield new insights and work towards preserving the past for generations to come.