How Did Mesopotamia Become the Cradle of Civilization?

Around 4500 BCE humans settled in Mesopotamia. Within a few centuries, the Sumerians developed what we today call the cradle of civilization.

Apr 9, 2024By Kristoffer Uggerud, MA Area studies, BA History



  • Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, became the cradle of civilization due to its fertile land and the development of irrigation, which supported the growth of city-states like Ur, Eridu, and Uruk with populations over 50,000 around 5,000 years ago.
  • The Sumerians innovated with the world’s first written language, cuneiform, on clay tablets, facilitating record-keeping for food supplies and trade. This advancement, alongside their development of a numerical system, laid foundational aspects of modern society.
  • The decline of the Sumerian civilization around 2000 BCE was attributed to agricultural productivity loss due to soil salinization from irrigation. This led to the rise of subsequent empires in Mesopotamia, such as the Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian empires.


Sumer, as the cradle of civilization, was completely unknown until its secrets were shoveled out from the desert sands. In the second half of the 19th century, French and British archaeologists traveled to what is now Iraq to hunt for finds from the Assyrian period. By chance, they came across a much older civilization. Until then, the enormous amounts of silt that the Euphrates and Tigris brought with them from the mountains of Turkey had succeeded in erasing and hiding the traces of the past. When Sumer was excavated and dated, the history known to man was radically expanded.


What Is the Location of the Cradle of Civilization?

tigris river mesopotamia cradle of civilization
The Tigris River, Photograph by Jane Sweeney, via National Geographic


From a natural perspective, Mesopotamia is a predominantly flat landscape, with extensive, vast sand plains and sparse vegetation. There is a swampy landscape down towards the Persian Gulf, where the sea has gradually receded since the last ice age. A desert climate defines the weather. Rainfall is sporadic, unbearably hot in the middle of the day, while it could be bitterly cold in winter and at night.


Even though it hardly rained, the core regions of the Mesopotamian civilization were constantly hit by devastating floods caused by the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Since the flat landscape down towards the sea had been created by mud and sand, there was no stone to build with. Nor did trees grow that could be used to make houses or boats.


sumer mesopotamia map cradle of civilization
Map of Ancient Mesopotamia, via Wikipedia Commons


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

One of the key reasons why Mesopotamia became the cradle of civilization was its location. The region was situated between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, providing a constant water source. The rivers also facilitated trade and transportation, allowing people to travel easily from one place to another.


The two great rivers formed a system that created the right conditions for artificial irrigation to be developed on a large scale. There is a small difference between the almost parallel river courses of the Euphrates and the Tigris, before they flow together and form what we today call the Shatt al-Arab. The rivers created unique opportunities for artificial irrigation and waterborne transport.


History Began In Sumer

sumer mesopotamia city states sumerians
Image of Mesopotamia, by Jeff Brown Graphics, via


Around 3500 BCE the Sumerians established a society that would create world history. The Sumerians called themselves “the people with the black heads”, and their land meant “the land of the people with the black heads”. Sumer had an ethnically diverse population, so the history of Sumer is not about the history of a nation or a people, but about the history of an area.


Sumerian civilization was the first society in history to be able to force the forces of nature to be the servant of society. Sumer developed a system of artificial irrigation that made the land so fertile that it was able to feed several city-states with an ever-growing population. This eventually led to an urban revolution which would make it possible for the majority of the world’s population to live in cities. Ur, Eridu, and Uruk all had an estimated population of upwards of 50,000 inhabitants 5,000 years ago.


The striking one-liner that “history began in Sumer” emphasizes how crucial this society was in human development, but it is also an exaggeration. History doesn’t really start anywhere.


Clay as a Resource and Notebook

cuneform beer table cradle civilization
Clay tablet, a record of beer, 3100BCE-3000BCE, via the British Museum


Eventually, the Sumerians discovered the benefit of this river plain having unlimited access to another resource that was to gain world-historical significance. Clay was to become Sumer’s panacea. It became the building material of the temples and the first book of the art of writing. The clay could be used to make mudstone, which in turn could be used to make houses, step pyramids, temples, dikes, and canal sides. Sumerian cities were surrounded by walls of such mudstone. In Uruk, the city was surrounded by a ten-kilometer-long wall with defensive towers, built of clay. Clay was the first civilization’s building material.


The clay also laid the foundations for another decisive step in human history. The development of the world’s first written language: cuneiform. The Sumerians used pointed objects and carved signs on clay tablets which they then left to dry in the sun. Since the storage and distribution of food was one of civilization’s innovations, there was a need for a system that could record and store the necessary information about food supplies and who had received what. Such a registration system was also important for the city-states’ trading activities, and for the organization of the city-states. That is why the first writing man we know of came from Sumer. The written language did not create the civilization, it was the civilization that created the written language, which in turn further developed the civilization.


The written language and clay also made it possible to develop the number system which was to become the basis for modern man’s understanding of time and space. It is in Iraq that people came up with the idea of ​​dividing time into hours of 60 minutes, minutes into 60 seconds, the week into seven days, and the circle into 360 degrees.


History’s First Legal Text and the First War

ur nammu code istanbul law clay
The first known version of the Code of Ur-Nammu, date unknown, via Wikimedia Commons


Clay also made it possible to create the world’s first legal text which would ensure that no citizen was in doubt about the punishment for everything from sex with other people’s slaves to murder. “A man who kills another man must die himself,” the Code of Ur-Nammu proclaimed around 2100 BCE.


Since canals began linking cities together, conflicts began as well. It has been argued that the first war in world history took place when King Eannatum of Lagash defeated the rival city-state of Umma around 2450 BCE, in a conflict over control of these man-made waterways and irrigation canals. Whatever the cause of the war, we have images of 4,500-year-old war scenes on a stone called “The Stele of the Vultures” exhibited in the Louvre in Paris. After the victory, the king set up a kind of boundary stone, and on it, the terms of peace were engraved. Sumer thus gave us the first war, but also the first peace treaty that we know of.


The Collapse of the Sumerian Civilization

sumer iraq fall city mesopotamia
Artist’s impression of a Sumerian City, via the Embassy of the Republic of Iraq


At the same time, it may appear that Sumer was a society that disappeared from history precisely because nature got the better of it. It is widely agreed that the Sumerian civilization, which had existed from about 4000 to 2000 BCE, collapsed or disappeared, and was followed by other state formations in Mesopotamia.


The explanation that has gradually gained the most support is that the Sumerian civilization declined because productivity in agriculture gradually decreased.


Since the Euphrates and Tigris rivers brought water from melting snow in the Turkish mountains, they contained high concentrations of dissolved salts. Over millennia, the salts in the groundwater had been drawn up to the surface through the plants’ roots. Additional salt came in with the winds from the Persian Gulf. More and more irrigation left more and more salt in the soil. Over time, it was inevitable that this destroyed the earth. Their revolutionary innovation, their irrigation system, was the seed of their civilization’s slow decline and eventual collapse.


Later Empires in Mesopotamia

hanging gardens bablyon waldeck
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, by H Waldeck, 19th century, via Wikimedia Commons


Over time, various empires emerged in Mesopotamia, each leaving its mark on the region’s culture and society. One of the earliest empires was the Akkadian Empire, which arose around 2334 BCE. The Akkadians were led by Sargon of Akkad, who conquered the Sumerian city-states and created a unified empire.


The Akkadian Empire was known for its military prowess and contributions to Mesopotamian civilization. They continued the Sumerian tradition of using cuneiform writing and expanded the empire’s territory through a series of military campaigns.


The Babylonian Empire, which arose around 1894 BCE, was another significant empire in Mesopotamia. The Babylonians were known for their advancements in law and literature, including the development of the Code of Hammurabi, one of the earliest legal codes in history. They also built impressive structures such as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, considered one of the greatest engineering feats of the Babylonian Empire. They consisted of a series of tiered gardens, built on a massive stone terrace. Each tier was filled with plants and trees, creating a lush and verdant oasis in the heart of the desert.


The Assyrian Empire, which arose around 2500 BCE, was another major power in Mesopotamia. The Assyrians were known for their military might and their use of advanced technology, such as siege engines and iron weapons. They also developed a sophisticated system of bureaucracy, with officials responsible for managing various aspects of government.


Finally, the Persian Empire, which arose around 550 BCE, was the last major ancient empire to rule Mesopotamia. The Persians were known for their art, literature, and philosophical advancements and their religious tolerance. They allowed people from different cultures and religions to live and work together, creating a diverse and cosmopolitan society.


The Legacy of the Cradle of Civilization

ancient mesopotamian standard ur cradle of civilization
The Ancient Mesopotamian Standard of Ur, 2500 BCE, via the British Museum


The legacy of Mesopotamia extends far beyond the region itself. The innovations and achievements of the Mesopotamians profoundly impacted later societies, shaping the course of human history. As we look back, the cradle of civilization continues to inspire and fascinate us today. The innovations and achievements of the Mesopotamians remind us of the incredible potential of human ingenuity and creativity and the enduring power of human civilization.



What were the social structures of Sumerian city-states?

The social structures of Sumerian city-states appear to have been hierarchical, with a ruling class of priests and nobles at the top, followed by merchants, artisans, and farmers. At the bottom were slaves, who were primarily prisoners of war.


Why did other empires emerge in Mesopotamia after the Sumerians?

Other empires emerged in Mesopotamia after the Sumerians due to the region’s fertile land and strategic location, which attracted various peoples seeking control over these valuable resources. Additionally, the decline of Sumerian city-states, often due to internal strife and external invasions, created power vacuums that new powers filled, leading to the rise of empires like the Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian.


What are some of the enduring legacies of Sumerian civilization beyond those mentioned in the article?

Beyond the innovations mentioned in the article, the Sumerians left a lasting legacy in the form of a legal framework that influenced subsequent legal systems and contributed to the development of justice concepts. Additionally, their advancements in mathematics, including the development of a base 60 system, have enduring impacts on modern timekeeping and geometry.

Author Image

By Kristoffer UggerudMA Area studies, BA HistoryKristoffer is a History and Social Studies high school teacher in Norway. Both of his degrees are from the University of Oslo, Norway. He enjoys hunting, fishing, and spending time with my family in his spare time.