Physical Geography of Mesopotamia:
The Land Between The Rivers

"Mesopotamia" means "between the rivers", and that name is appropriate, as this land is defined by its rivers. The area is a rich alluvial basin that stretches between the high, hot deserts of the Arabian Shield in the west and south and the foothills of the Zagros and Kurdish mountains to the north and east. In the southeast, the rivers run into the Persian Gulf; in the northwest, a narrow strip of lowland connects Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean Sea by way of modern-day Syria. (Rzóska 1) The differing physical regions blend gradually into each other. The plateau of the Arabian Shield is only absolute desert east of Mesopotamia, in Arabia; the climate gradually becomes more gentle, becoming in much of Mesopotamia an arid steppe (Rzóska 5). In the northeast, the foothills of the Zagros Mountains fall into a piedmont region of gently rolling hills (Van de Mieroop, 38).

However, the region centers on two rivers: the Tigris and Euphrates. They originate in the eastern mountains, and are trapped in the Mesopotamian valley by the desert shield to the west. Both originate in the Turkish High Plateau, about 2000 m above sea level, and draw almost all of their water from outside the Mesopotamian region. The slope is steep in the early tributaries of the rivers, enabling them to pick up a lot of sediment. However, the land grows rapidly flatter, and they become slow, shallow, meandering rivers (Rzóska 41). The Euphrates flows around the north and west of the shorter Tigris, and they converge into the braided, swampy delta region in the south (Nemet-Nejat 11). Currently, the two rivers merge into the Shatt Al-Arab about 200 km from the Gulf; the Shatt is wide, narrow, and somewhat tidal (Rzóska 47). Other important rivers include the Khabur, the Greater and Lesser Zab, the Adheym and the Diyala, all major tributaries of the Tigris, they are supplied by snowmelt and rain in the Zagros (Rzóska 44). Because the Euphrates flows far to the west of the mountains for most of its length, it has no major tributaries. Several large rivers flowing from the mountains reach the Gulf in the same general area, though they are less important to the geography of Mesopotamia. The Karun carries water and sediments from the Iranian plateau, joining the Shatt Al-Arab sixty kilometers south of the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates, and the Kharkey, which was once a tributary of the Karun, peters out in the marshes to the north. There are no natural lakes in the region, but as the rivers slow down and widen out they often inundate large shallow areas, called 'haurs' in Arabic. The wider and larger of these are broad marshes and salt marshes, areas of flooded reeds threaded by narrow channels of clear water (Rzóska 47). Because of the geology and climate of the region, all of the waterways are constantly moving, flooding, and drastically altering their courses (Rzóska 44).

Mesopotamia, like most of the Middle East, has an extremely arid climate. Winter is the rainy season, with the more mountainous areas in the north getting around 400 mm of rain in the season from November to April, and little to none the rest of the season. South of the Euphrates, true desert conditions prevail, with much of the valley receiving less than 100 mm per year. Therefore the water the rivers bring down from the mountains is the major source of water for the valley. Rainfall is erratic as well, with variations of many hundred percent from year to year (Rzóska 2). This pattern of dry and wet seasons affects the waterways as well; water levels and discharges in the marshes and rivers vary along with rainfall. (Rzóska 50). The occasional unseasonal rainfall often produces flooding. The rainy season is the cold season as well, although the weather is never extremely cold; average temperature]s in January, the height of the wet cold season, rarely fall below freezing, averaging around 60º F(Rzóska 4). They hover around ninety in August, occasionally reaching as high as 120ºF. The flood periods of the rivers, the periods of maximum snowmelt and rain from the mountains, occur at the end of the rainy season, in April and June (Nemet-Nejat 10).

The geology of Mesopotamia underlies all the distinctive features of the area. The sandswept desert plateau of the Arabian Shield has been stable and undisturbed since the Cretaceous period, built on sandstones and limestones. The young mountains to the northeast consist of the same rocks, which were folded and twisted by continental forces during the Tertiary. Since their formation, they have been eroding, sending sediment to fill up the depression between the mountains and the desert (Rzóska 2). This process was greatly accelerated by the pluvial ages, the periods of heavy rainfall in the south that corresponded to the northern ice ages of the Pleistocene. It was during this period that most of the major rivers were formed in the mountains, as well as the wadis, dry or intermittent riverbeds that are a distinctive topological feature all over the Near East. The area that later became the alluvial plain has a much longer history; it began to submerge a hundred million years before the mountains formed, eventually flooding to form a shallow sea separating the Arabian and Iranian plateaus. During the period when this area was an intermittent seabed, layers of soluble limestone, salt, and gypsum were deposited. These deposits still underlie most of the Mesopotamian region (Rzóska 15). This is also the period when rich deposits of organic matter were formed; these deposits would later become oil, tar, asphalt and other such substances, which are plentiful enough in areas to natually seep to the surface. As world climate changed and the river began to carry large amounts of silt down from the new mountains, the former seabed filled with sediment, becoming a broad, fertile valley filled with rich brown soils. However, because of the underlying marine deposits, salinity often reduces the quality of the soil; rain or other water can bring buried salts to the surface through capillary action and solution in groundwater. This is counteracted primarily by the periodic floods, which rinse salts from the soil and deposit layers of new, uncontaminated soils (Rzóska 6).

Though the climate of Mesopotamia is classified as dry Mediterreanean, the extremes of terrain and distance from the sea mean that the major biome is midladitude grassland, steppe and prairie (Bergman 31). There are five major areas of vegetation in Mesopotamia. The desert-steppe area includes the southern and western regions, particularly most of the Euphrates valley.Vegetation in this area is either seasonal desert vegetation which grows for only a few weeks during the rainiest part of the year, or deep-rooted plants that can exploit the deep groundwater and handle the high salinity. (Rzóska 7). Along the banks of the rivers and streams, somewhat lusher vegetation is able to take advantage of the running water. Here the only trees are abundant date-palms (Van de Mieroop 67). Wild seed-bearing grasses such as varieties of emmer and barley are among the plants that grow on the steppe and the riverbanks (Nemat-Nejat 247). Herbs such as Astragalus, Salvia, and a variety of bulbs grow across the riverbanks and plains (Rzóska 10). Much of the alluvial plain is marshy and salty; palms again are commonplace. In the saltier, wetter areas, plants such as samphire, widget grass, phragmites, bulrushes, tamarix trees and more date palms, along with other marsh grasses, greens and shrubs, form a thriving, diverse ecosystem in the harsh environment (Chapman 222-223). The higher, hillier areas to the north grow gradually wetter and less salty. Vegetation is less dependent on the river systems. Poplars, willows, tamarisk, dates, pines and even scrubby oaks grow with some abundance, along with grasses and wild grains (Nemet-Nejat 12). Higher in the mountains, vegetation varies with altitude; true oak forests appear at middle heights, and the riversides are abundant with grasses, reeds, and trees such as willow, ash and plane. In the higher latitudes, the trees die off and the dominant vegetation is thornbushes like daphne, Crown-of-Thorns and others(Rzóska 9). The wide range of landscapes and environments in the small area produce an amazing biodiversity despite the harsh climate (Nemet-Nejat 12).

Animal species show equal diversity. Gazelle, deer, onager and wild sheep and goats browse (or once browsed) the grasslands (Nemat-Nejat 248). Wild ox, elephants, and rhinoceri may also have dwelled there at one time (Rzóska 17). Other mammals include a great many small burrowing rodents such and gerbils and mice; bats; hedgehogs, porcupines, and boar. Preying on this abundance are several species of big cats, wolves,hyaenas, mongoose, otters and marten. As recently as two centuries ago lions also roamed the area, and cheetah and tiger may have lived there in the past (Rzóska 12-13). A great many birds take advantage of the marshes, both year-round and as a vital resting place on the major European migration routes; more than 300 species have been observed passing through the marshes. Cranes, storks, and ducks populate the marhes in abundance (Rzóska 89). Reptiles such as [snake[s, geckos, and skinks, and a variety of amphibians, live in the rivers and deserts. Among the more notable of the many invertebrates are land snails, locusts, and mosquitos (Rzóska 13-14). Crabs, shrimp and aquatic invertebrates thrive as well (Rzóska 90). Fish live in the rivers (Rzóska 95-106).

The most ubiquitous fauna of the past ten thousand or so years, however, has been the human being. They adapted to the river-centered ecology and the wide variety of environments by developing cultures based on centralized, citified economies and irrigation agriculture, changing the landscape as much as the landscape changed them. Mud, the most common natural resource of an alluvial plain, formed their high temples, teeming streets, and majestic artworks. "The land between the rivers" becomes "the cradle of civilization."

Bergman E F. 1995. Human Geography. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Chapman, V. J. 1960. Salt Marshes and Salt Deserts of the World. New York: Interscience Publishers, Inc.
Nemet-Nejat, Karen Rhea. 1998. Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Rzóska, Jean. 1980. Euphrates and Tigris, Mesopotamian ecology and destiny. Monographiae Biologicae. Boston: Dr. W. Junk Bv Publishers.
Van de Mieroop, Mark. 1997. The Ancient Mesopotamian City. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

originally a geography 362 midterm

Mesopotamia was the earliest human civilisation, and was the origin of such things as writing, numbers, ploughs, and cities. Mesopotamia was formed in the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern Iraq, and gave birth to the Babylonian and Sumer civilisations. From 6000 BC towns and farms began to appear, and by 3500 BC Sumer was flourishing, and would soon provide the first form of writing known to humans.

Hunter-gatherers to farmers

Not far from Mesopotamia, people who lived in what would later be known as Palestine had been the first to cultivate cereals. Around 15,000 BC Kebaran hunters started eating wild cereal grasses, harvesting them with flint-bladed sickles. Cave-dwellers in the region began to make depressions in the floor to grind grain. By 12,000 BC wild cereals were essential to the diet of people in the Levant, and 2,000 years later the Natufians built small settlements in Judaea. Here they used pounders and pestles and mortars to supplement their diet with cereals. 8,000 BC saw the final transition to a farming community, as the Palestinians cleared ground, sowed seeds, and cultivated small plots.

With the rise of farming, permanent settlements began to develop, with a few hundred people living together in some settlements, which usually consisted of small mud-brick houses. Jericho was one large village which arose in these times.

Towns emerge in Anatolia

Around 6,000 BC, the first town, Çatal Hüyük, grew up in central Anatolia. This large farming community had a population of several hundred in a fertile farming area near a river. The houses here were rectangular and often contained central courtyards. Ladders were used to enter the houses.

The town economy was based on some hunting, but mainly farming and cattle-breeding. Obsidian, apatite, and stalagmite were imported to the town, whose religious life centred around shrines in individual houses, and whose dead were buried beneath the floors of the houses.

Mesopotamian farmers innovate and settle

Mesopotamian farmers began to settle along the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, and around 6000 BC they invented the plough, which greatly increased the productivity of farm labourers. The farmers of the region also introduced irrigation schemes on a large scale, harnessing the annual floodwaters of the Euphrates to water fields some distance from the river. Dykes and ditches were also used in the Indus and Nile basins to stop flood damage. Pottery was also produced in Mesopotamia in buff colours with abstract, red-brown, painted decoration.

Sailing boats appeared on the Euphrates around 4500 BC, about the same time as they appeared in Egypt. Towns and cities began to develop around 4000-4500 BC, with each town having a temple and a royal palace. Markets for exchanging goods were also present. It is thought that the co-operation and organisation required for the irrigation schemes led to the need for larger communities. The importance of religion should not be underestimated, however, and large settlements such as Eridu in the Euphrates valley have been described as religious centres rather than genuine cities.

Writing is invented

Around 3200 BC, the people of Uruk in Sumer (southern Mesopotamia) devised a system of signs and pictograms to record important transactions. Priests used sharp reed pens to mark clay tablets, representing numbers, objects, and ideas. These were used to keep grain accounts and records of land sales and other business matters.

This new innovation was so successful that it became obligatory for business deals to be written down to be accepted as genuine - a view we still hold today. The idea of writing was copied widely, and the Sumerian script became increasingly sophisticated. Originally pictures known as ideograms, a cuneiform script of wedge-shaped marks soon developed. These marks could stand for distinct sounds rather than just words and ideas.

Myths and innovations

It is though that a great flood took place in Mesopotamia around 2800 BC, and this may have formed the basis for parts of the Babylonian story of Gilgamesh, and the Biblical story of Noah and the ark. The Sumerians worshipped many gods, including those of the sky, love and war, air, and wisdom. Servants and family took poison in order to be buried along with their dead kings. Burial chambers of the kings were sumptuously fitted out with gold and other precious metals and jewels.

The world's first libraries were set up around 2500 BC in Shuruppak (Fara) and Eresh (Abu-Salabikh), and included proverbs of daily life. Conquest by Akkadian kings led to the development of trade: copper came from Magan (Oman), and stones and timber were brought from Syria and Iran. Trade also took place with Meluhha (Pakistan), bringing goods from the Indus valley.

By 2200 BC metalwork had grown in complexity, using gold, silver, and bronze to create finely-crafted artifacts. With the fall of Agade or Akkad and the rise of King Shulgi in Sumer, bureaucracy began to develop. Temples and monuments were constructed throughout the Sumerian empire, the calendar was reformed, and new measures for grain introduced. A network of city states was adminstered by governors, and garrisons were placed on main communication routes. Civil and temple administration were hierarchical in nature.

The Mesopotamian civilisation, then, was the origin of many of the facets of modern life we now take for granted. This period of human history saw the transition from prehistoric hunter-gatherers to a literate, complicated society similar to those of today.

The Hutchinson Encyclopedia, Helicon Publishing Ltd, 1996
Chronicle of the World, Chronicle Communications Ltd, London, 1989

Mesopotamia is an area found in the Fertile Crescent, which is an area watered by the Tigris and Euphrates River. Mesopotamia was an Arabic civilization, and it was the first one in the world. It consisted of Babylonia, Sumer, Akkad, and Assyria. The Mesopotamians had a grand culture a destructive history, and they created many vital inventions, all of them in use today.

The civilization started slowly forming when Neolithic farmers began filtering into the Fertile Crescent (around 6,000 B.C.). The Fertile Crescent was a very advantageous area for farming because of the two rivers, which allowed the Mesopotamians to irrigate the land, and provided water. The first records of any writing, art, or culture were found in Babylonia and Sumer. After it began growing as more people belonged to the civilization, people could choose between varieties of jobs (craftsman, artist, architect, etc.), so they wouldn’t necessarily have to be farmers. This allowed for progression in culture, art, and architecture. However, Mesopotamia lacked some important resources, such as timber, stone, and iron, so they had to be transported from Syria and Asia. Thus Mesopotamia expanded its relations with other cultures.

After a period of growth, Sumer was divided into 12 city-states. Sumer lacked resources to build houses of stone or wood, so most of Sumerian architecture is made of clay. Ziggurats were large pyramid-shaped temples in the center of every city-state. They were the central point of culture and worship, and were taken care of by priests and the people. Unlike an Egyptian pyramid, ziggurats had a flat pinnacle and were made of clay. The temples were made to honor the many gods of Mesopotamia. Around the base of the ziggurats were the homes of the craftspeople and merchants. Farmers lived closer to the edges of the community, and their fields stretched along the very boundary. Craftspeople had different roles, such as casting bronze tools/weapons or making pottery. Merchants traded grain and other goods for resources Sumer lacked, in order to help build houses or for the artists and craftsmen to use.

Generally, Mesopotamia was polytheistic; they believed in many gods. Originally, their religion was generally “natural”, they believed in natural spirits and there were gods for elements such as fire, sky, earth, rivers, etc. Over time, it changed and some of the gods had a more “human” form, and gods tended to politically represent the different city-states. Their pantheon (all the gods of the religion) has many myths and legends. The Mesopotamians had gods for almost everything, but a formidable amount was related to natural elements. There were many festivals held at the time, which were mainly centered on the gods. The festivals also celebrated “divine journeys” or pilgrimages that brought fertility and abundance, which were considered very important. Clearly, the festivals and temples were the main cultural contributions of the religion. This religion created a hierarchical system of pleasing the gods. The gods had representatives on earth, which were called the ensi (high priests and city governors). The ensi had by far the most respect, power, and influence in each city/state. The priests who oversaw the maintenance of the temples and served the gods were the second highest of the upper social class. Managers and merchants constructed systems of law and commerce in order to organize the ever-growing society. Most craft makers worked to make goods and pieces of art for the temples. Farmers, although arguably with the most important role, had little or no influence in the society. Eventually, priests and ensi started being corrupt, power-hungry, and began oppressing the common people. After seizing so much power, they were called lugals (kings).

North of Sumer is the region of Akkad, which was inhabited by Semites who were influenced by Sumerian culture. The Akkadians were the earliest Semitic people to filter into Mesopotamia. Around 2,350 B.C., an Akkadian ruler named Sargon conquered Sumer and established a large empire. Sargon looked after the welfare of lower classes and promoted peace and prosperity. Many things are unknown about Sargon and his empire. For example, Sargon’s real name has not been as of yet discovered (Sargon is a title meaning “the rightful king”). Around 2,106 B.C., after the rule of Sargon’s successors ended, there was an era of order and prosperity in Sumer and Akkad. The lugals of the city-state of Ur created a fair system of government to ensure peace, and they supervised the people. High priests were now appointed by the state and the temple economic system was used by the state to control free enterprise. The lugals of the city-state were worshipped as gods. The Lugals imposed social rules and legislations on the people. They called these legislations “rightings” (the intent was to right wrongs). It was considered the rulers duty to protect the sick, poor, and unfortunate, and to appease the gods. Ur was mostly destroyed in 2,000 B.C. by invaders from foreign areas. After it was destroyed, war and disunity plagued Mesopotamia. Although after the hardships the Sumerians were no longer a powerful or particularly influential political force, their culture and civilization became the foundation for all other following civilizations in the Tigris-Euphrates valley.

Ancient Mesopotamian civilizations created many things that are either in use today (the wheel), or upgraded (the plough). Mesopotamians not only created vital inventions for agriculture, but also advanced (or one could say created) science and math. Also, the Sumerians developed the first known alphabet. This was called cuneiform, and it was a system of substituting pictures for objects or ideas. Many facts currently known about Mesopotamia were obtained from ancient cuneiform texts. The word “cuneiform” is derived from the Latin words “cuneus” (wedge) and “forma” (shape). The pictographic alphabet was inscribed into soft clay tablets by a “stylus”, which was a sharpened stick. Cuneiform tablets were not only used as records of economic and social achievements, but also to write epic stories or philosophy. Although originally the writing was pictographic, a phonetic alphabet was later developed after the scribes realized it would be simpler for pictures to represent sounds rather than words. This alphabet had 22 letters, and was created by the Phoenicians. Many of these ancient texts parallel the bible and other great works of literature. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the earliest recorded hero tale, and it was an epic poem with some stories that have a definite resemble to the myths in the bible. For example, the story of Noah’s Ark is very much like a part of The Epic, where a large boat was boarded with animals and grain.

Along with the alphabet, Mesopotamians were the first civilization to use the wheel. Initially, the wheel was only used for pottery, but after discovering how well it can roll on the ground the chariot was created. The wheel is clearly one of mankind’s most useful and simplest developments. It is also one of the only ancient inventions whose basic “design” was not enhanced or modified. The Mesopotamians were also the first civilization that knew how to farm (specifically, to plan their own food, rather than foraging for it). They developed the plow to help break up soil used for farming, and it is still used (although a highly upgraded version). After attaching a metal blade to the original plow, it was more efficient and was very useful for farmers to break up soil. The climate in the region is hot and dry all year long, which was major problem for farmers. To combat this problem, Mesopotamians created the first irrigation system by digging canals that allowed water to flow from the nearby rivers (Tigris and Euphrates) to the fields. After creating the canals used for irrigation, they built canals for boat travel and connecting cities.

Because of developing these new efficient methods of farming, their crop yield greatly increased. They had to keep track of yearly crops and livestock, so they developed a system of recording this on soft pieces of clay. Mesopotamians were also responsible for some important mathematical developments. The 360-degree circle, used in geometry, trigonometry, and other types of math was created. Methods of calculating area of distance were used for land. The system of measuring time with 60 minutes/60 seconds was created. The Mesopotamians used some of these mathematical principles to create the first forms of astronomy.

Currently, Mesopotamia is a part of Iraq. Mesopotamia was the basis of all other civilizations on earth. It is the first example of organized society and culture. By definition, a city-state in Mesopotamia consisted of the main city (sometimes more than one), other towns and settlements, and the surrounding countryside. There are some facts that are not proven, such as Kind Gilgamesh of Uruk, about whom many legends were made. Many things still remain a mystery about Ancient Mesopotamia, and the historical facts that are known are mostly interpreted from ancient written texts.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.