2.1 A Civilization Emerges in Sumer

The Middle East was home to Sumerian civilization, one of the world's first civilizations. In part because of its location and other environmental features, the ancient Middle East posed unique challenges to this early civilization. The Sumerians were the first of many peoples to contribute to the civilization of the region. They made distinctive contributions that influenced a long line of later people both in the Middle East and in other parts of the world.

Painting of an ancient man plucking a plant out of some wetlands, with a snake hovering near and a humanoid beast following.

Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, sought eternal life and obtained the plant of youth. However, a snake ate it, which, according to the legend, is why people do not live forever.


  • Understand how geography influenced the development of civilization in the Fertile Crescent.
  • Outline the main features of Sumerian civilization.
  • Explain how the advances in learning made by the Sumerians left a lasting legacy for later peoples to build on.

Key Terms

  • Fertile Crescent
  • Mesopotamia
  • Sumer
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • hierarchy
  • ziggurat
  • cuneiform

Civilizations Arise in the Fertile Crescent

Geography of the Fertile Crescent

Sumerian civilization rose more than 5,000 years ago along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is today Iraq. The Tigris-Euphrates Valley lies in eastern end of the Fertile Crescent, an area that stretches in an arc from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea.

Early on, the fertile soil of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley attracted Stone Age farmers, who began to raise crops on the land. In time, their descendants produced the surplus food needed to support growing populations. Much later, the ancient Greeks called the Tigris-Euphrates Valley Mesopotamia, which means “between the rivers.” Around 3300 B.C., the world's first civilization developed in southeastern Mesopotamia, in a region called Sumer.

The Tigris and Euphrates rivers flow from the highlands of modern-day Turkey through Iraq into the Persian Gulf. In the spring or early summer, melting snows from the mountains can cause the rivers to overflow. In some years, savage floods cause huge damage. Despite the danger of flooding, farmers planted a variety of crops. Silt left by floodwaters made the soil fertile.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments