Climate and Civilization: Mesopotamia as a Case Study

The ACRPS has published Climate and Civilization: Mesopotamia as a Case Study by Khamis Daham Muslih al-Sabhany. The book is 272 pages long and includes a bibliography and general index.

The book discusses the relationship of the environment to civilisations in Mesopotamia over the final three millennia BC. Mesopotamia was selected as a model for the study of this relationship for two reasons. The first is that it is a transitional region at the intersection of various global weather patterns that also exhibits topographical variation, resulting in a diversity of climate systems across time and space such that dissonance of any sort could lead to precarious environmental transformations. The second reason is that Mesopotamia is considered the cradle of human civilisation and was home to ancient societies that matured in all material respects. The economic backbone of these civilisations was agriculture, and any sort of change in climate had immediate effects on production and subsequently on economic, social, and finally, political regimes. The book’s primary conclusion is that the climate was the decisive factor in the orientation of Mesopotamian societies, whether directly and more obviously as in the north, where the economy relies solely on rain-fed agriculture, or indirectly, as in the south.

Beginning with the geography of the Fertile Crescent, the book surveys various modes of categorisation for the societies that settled in ancient Mesopotamia, especially along the banks of the Euphrates, based on archaeological evidence for the presence of settled groups native to different regions. Semites, who represent most of the population of modern Iraq, migrated from the Arabian Peninsula and the Syrian Desert. Sumerians, no longer present in the area save for the Kurds, as descendants of the Medes, are believed to have come from the region spanning from the Iranian Plateau to the north of the Indian Subcontinent.

The book then addresses climate conditions, how they changed over centuries through the mid-third millennium BC, and how such transformations impacted settlement patterns and civilisations. The gradual shift of the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) southward, catalysed by the recession of solar radiation, led to drought conditions, crop failure, and famine in present-day central Iraq, where low pressure systems from the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the Indian Ocean to the east brought rainfall and permitted agricultural activity reaching the Gulf of Aqaba. Further, the author analyses the Lament for Sumer and Ur, finding support for the conclusion that drought conditions, expanding southward from the northern extent of the empire, precipitated famines that led to the abandonment and subsequent destruction of Mesopotamian cities; the region saw a total or partial drought from 2200 until 900 BC.

Following this investigation, the author addresses the interplay of climate transformations with the stages of development through which the Fertile Crescent’s civilizations passed. Though the natural environment, the book holds, can impact (and has impacted) the rise, maturation, and fall of human civilisations in numerous ways, its treatment of the Mesopotamian case delineates direct and indirect effects—the former in terms of rainfall fluctuations in regions dependent on rain-fed crops, the latter by way of migration patterns away from such areas due to famine and the resultant growth of urban populations in the south of modern Iraq. The author broadens this argument and relates the decline in agricultural productivity, driven by weather conditions, to the shift over space and time of centres of civilisation (e.g., Sumer, Babel, Assur) in ancient Mesopotamia.

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