Mesopotamia, geography of
- The geography of Mesopotamia - its topography, natural features and resources, and climate - and the geography of the regions surrounding Mesopotamia profoundly shaped the history of that ancient region and the lives of its inhabitants. First, Mesopotamia was located in the heart of what Europeans called the Near East (today referred to as the Middle East), centered mainly on what is now the nation of Iraq. The term Mesopotamia came from Greek words meaning "the Land Between the Rivers," a reference to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which run roughly from northwest to southeast through the region. In fact, much of that region consists of flat plains making up a vast river valley, and most of southwestern Mesopotamia was made up of the moist and marshy deltas of the two rivers. Today, the Tigris and the Euphrates join together at a point not far west of the Persian Gulf and then empty into the gulf. But in ancient times, the two rivers entered the gulf separately, forming two deltas that adjoined each other. That well-watered southeastern section of Mesopotamia was frequently referred to as Sumer because it is where the first major group of settlers, the Sumerians, erected the first cities in the region, and in the world. Later, after the decline of the Sumerians, the area was usually called Babylonia because the rulers of the city of Babylon often controlled it.The section of Sumer/Babylonia that was situated closest to the Persian Gulf was appropriately called Sealand in ancient times. It should be noted that the original Sealand expanded in size over the centuries. In the heyday of the Sumerians, the gulf's coast lay more than 100 miles (161 km) farther inland than it does now, so cities such as Ur and Eridu were almost seaports; over time, however, the coast receded southeastward, leaving these towns "high and dry," so to speak. In fact, there was usually less annual rainfall in Sumer than in other parts of Mesopotamia; average rainfall amounted to fewer than 10 inches (25cm) per year. And it was often very hot in the south, with temperatures reaching more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38°C) fairly often. What made the area so fertile and tolerable was the presence of the rivers, with their rich network of tributaries and deltas. These were supplemented over time by many irrigation canals that the locals dug along the river-banks.Farther northwest, the moist alluvial plains of Sumer gave way to somewhat drier and slightly hillier plains. These so-called upper reaches of Mesopotamia were variously referred to collectively as Akkad, Assyria, and other names. Here, there was more annual rainfall, so the inhabitants needed fewer irrigation canals and relied more on wells for water. It was also somewhat less hot and in general more temperate in the northern parts of Mesopotamia. This made Assyria particularly suitable for growing grain. Most scholars think it was these northern plains that were first settled and exploited by early farmers who migrated southward and eastward from the region now known as the Fertile Crescent, stretching in an arc across the upper parts of Mesopotamia. The region of Assyria was also notable for the presence of some large tributaries of the Tigris, notably the Upper and Lower Zab rivers. Not surprisingly, most of the towns in the area were built on or very near these waterways.Although the soil was rich in large parts of the Mesopotamian plains and there was plenty of water most of the time, the region possessed few other vital natural resources. There were very few trees, for instance, with the exception of occasional stands of date palms. Also, native stone suitable for building houses, defensive walls, palaces, temples, and so forth was scarce, especially in the south, in and around the river deltas. (In contrast, small amounts of gypsum, a soft, white or gray variety of stone, were available in selected places in Assyria.) It was because of this lack of building stone that the peoples of the region had to rely mostly on clay, or mud, to make bricks, which they dried in the sun or baked in ovens. Similarly, clay became the most common medium for making writing materials - in the form of dried-clay tablets. Mesopotamia also lacked sufficient quantities of metals, including copper and tin, which, when mixed together, made bronze; iron; silver; and gold. Thus, most timber, building stone, and metals had to be imported from neighboring lands.Not surprisingly, therefore, the peoples of the region came to depend on trade; and many lucrative trade routes came to crisscross the plains. One exception to the general lack of natural resources in Mesopotamia - other than its soil and water - was bitumen, a material similar to asphalt or tar that seeped up from underground in certain spots. The ancients did not realize that this was a sign that enormous amounts of oil lay below the surface; indeed, today Iraq is one of the chief sources of oil in the world. The Mesopota-mians used the bitumen to waterproof the hulls of boats and sometimes as a mortar for bricks.Ancient Mesopotamia's land, climate, and resources should not be characterized solely in terms of its largely open plains, however. In antiquity, the region also encompassed small parts of what are now Syria in the west, Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) in the northwest, and southern Iran in the southeast. Much of eastern Syria was dry, even desertlike; and the vast, arid Arabian deserts stretched to the south of the central plains. Meanwhile, northern Assyria blended into the foothills of the rugged mountain chains of Armenia (called Urartu in ancient times) and southeastern Anatolia. In these foothills, the winters were mild and the summers dry and pleasant, and the locals grazed goats, sheep, and other livestock on the well-vegetated hillsides. A similar terrain and climate existed in the foothills of the Zagros range lying northeast of Sumer and east of Assyria.Moving outside of Mesopotamia proper, one entered even higher, more rugged, and more forested terrain in the regions of southern Iran, Armenia, and Anatolia. These areas were also much richer in metals than Mesopotamia was. This is one of the major reasons that the empire builders of ancient Mesopotamia - the Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and others - so often tried to raid or conquer these neighboring regions. In short, they badly needed their natural resources. (They also frequently exploited their human resources by taxing their inhabitants or using them as soldiers or slaves.) Thus, it is impossible to discuss ancient Mesopotamia without considering the lands that bordered it and so often became incorporated into its political and cultural sphere.
Ancient Mesopotamia dictioary. Don Nardo Robert B. Kebric. 2015.
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