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Geography of the Ancient Near East

Updated: Nov 1, 2023


DW | Ancient Babylon

1.2 - Geography of the Ancient Near East


Mesopotamia literally means "Land Between Rivers" in ancient Greek. The oldest known occurrence of the name Mesopotamia dates to the 4th century B.C., when it was used to designate the land east of the Euphrates in northern Syria. Later it was more generally applied to all the lands between the Euphrates and the Tigris, thereby incorporating not only parts of Syria but also most of Iraq and southeastern Turkey.

A popular perception of the Middle East is that the environment is a flat monotonous expanse. In reality, geological conditions, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, along with wind and water, have created a highly diverse area. There is a long depression stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf in which the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers flow, turning a desert into a highly fertile land. The Great Rift, which runs parallel to the Mediterranean coast, creates a narrow valley lined by the Amanus and Lebanon Mountains. The north and the east are dominated by the high Taurus and Zagros Mountain Ranges, which contain sources of all rivers in the region. In the south of the region is a huge flat landmass, that contains the Syrian and Arabian Deserts. These become more mountainous the further south one goes and are almost entirely devoid of water.


Mountains, seas, and deserts created natural boundaries which could all be crossed, but only in limited places. The Lebanon Mountains in the Levant left a narrow corridor only for movement from northern Syria to Egypt. The Zagros and Taurus Mountains were massive barriers to the states of Mesopotamia, and could only be entered through the river valleys. These mountains were the locations of uncontrollable people that often caused conflict with the states, much like the later barbarians against the Romans.

The Persian Gulf and the span of marshes at its head formed the southern border of Mesopotamia. During the fifth millennium, Mesopotamians traveled to regions along the gulf coast. Sailing improved during the late fourth millennium and they became capable of reaching Egypt. By the third and fourth millennia, direct trade contacts were common with the Indus Valley.

The Mediterranean was tackled somewhat differently. Only a few harbors existed along the coast, none south of Jaffa. By the late third millennium, Aegean sailors had ships that could reach the Syro-Palestinian coast. By the second half of the second millennium, shipping throughout the eastern Mediterranean was common.

Around 1200 B.C., technological innovations enabled people from Palestinian harbors to sail the entire Mediterranean Sea. First millennium Phoenicians would take these innovations further and allow them to create colonies as far west as Spain and the Atlantic coast of North Africa. There is a debate that the Phoenicians could reach the coast of North America.

An even more formidable border was the Syrian and Arabian Deserts. For millennia, Mesopotamians could only make their way along the Tigris or Euphrates river valleys and cross the northern Syrian steppe to reach the Mediterranean. With the domestication of the camel around 1000 B.C., direct passage became possible, although infrequent. The lack of water resources formed armies to take the age-old roundabout route through the Levant to get from Egypt to Mesopotamia. Even if the desert could be crossed, the states of the Near East could not control its inhabitants. Like the dangerous groups in the mountains, these desert nomads were hated and despised.

The Near East's position at the juncture of three continents allowed populations to easily enter the region, tracking these movements, however, is nearly impossible. A group of people suddenly appear sometimes in the historical record. Determining their origins is often difficult due to the lack of evidence available.


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