Have you ever WONDERed about ancient civilizations? What was life like thousands and thousands of years ago? Where did the first civilizations get started?

If you’ve ever studied ancient history, you’ve probably heard of a place called Mesopotamia and the fertile crescent. The fertile crescent — sometimes also called the cradle of civilization — is a crescent-shaped area in the Middle East that was known as the birthplace of several ancient kingdoms.

If you’re thinking that the Middle East is normally known for its deserts, you’re right! But the fertile crescent refers to areas of fertile soil near important rivers in the area. It stretches from the Nile River in Egypt to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern Iraq. It also encompasses several other countries, including Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

The western edge of the fertile crescent borders the Mediterranean Sea, while the eastern edge reaches to the Persian Gulf. The Arabian desert lies to the south of the fertile crescent.

archeologist James Henry Breasted first used the term “fertile crescent” to describe the area. According to him, the fertile crescent was the first area settled in western Asia. Nomads seeking pastures for their flocks found the area good for farming and soon settled there. They found especially fertile soil in Mesopotamia, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now modern-day Iraq and portions of Iran, Kuwait and Turkey.

In addition to some of the earliest human civilizations, the fertile crescent also saw some of the first major technological inventions, including writing, glass and the wheel. The water sources and ability to grow crops in the area spurred many different civilizations over the years to thrive there.

In addition to the important rivers and marshlands in the fertile crescent, the area was also important because of its physical location as an area that bridged the three continents of Africa, Europe and Asia. As people from these areas began to explore other areas and develop trade routes, the fertile crescent flourished as a hub of travel and trade.

Changes over the past 30 years, though, have made the traditional fertile crescent much less fertile. Using satellite images of the region, scientists estimate that only 10% of the area’s important marshlands remain. The rest have dried up, leaving mainly desert with large patches of salt.

Experts believe much of the damage is the result of multiple countries building dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. They also point to extensive draining of the river basin over the past three decades. Many native plant and animal species have become endangered because of the loss of marshlands.

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