The oldest known civilizations arose in Mesopotamia (the region of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers) and Egypt. Through commerce on the Mediterranean Sea, the discoveries and inventions of these areas spread eventually to Europe. The early history of the Middle East is, therefore, the early history of Western civilization.
Farming was the first step toward civilization. About 9000 B.C. , in the hilly areas of the Tigris-Euphrates headwaters (eastern Turkey), people began to raise animals and plant crops. After several thousand years, they moved down into the river valleys of Mesopotamia, where they learned to irrigate their fields with river water. Farming spread over to the Mediterranean coast, which formed with Mesopotamia an arc of cultivated land called the Fertile Crescent. Crops were also grown along the Nile River in Egypt.
A people known as Sumerians settled in southern Mesopotamia sometime before 3500 B.C. They founded the region's first civilization, based on a group of city-states. The first system of writing, cuneiform, was devised by the Sumerians. Because of their many significant contributions, their land is called the Cradle of Civilization. Egypt, however, developed a civilization almost as early and devised its own system of writing, hieroglyphics. Egypt was the first Middle East country to become a nation. Organized first into two kingdoms, it was unified about 3100 B.C.
Meanwhile, trade was developing throughout the Middle East. Northern Mesopotamia got jade and copper from adjacent mountain regions. Syria mined silver, and Egypt mined gold. Salt was available from the Nile delta, timber from the Lebanon Mountains, and wine and olive oil from Palestine and Syria. The Sumerians produced metalwork and traded products obtained from their neighbors, sailing down the Persian Gulf and probably as far as the Indus Valley. The Syrian ports of Byblos and Ugarit handled trade with Cyprus, Crete, and the Aegean lands. People of Saba (Sheba) in southwestern Arabia traded with eastern Africa and sent herbs and spices northward.
There was constant movement of peoples in the ancient Middle East. Strong countries often invaded their neighbors. Nomadic peoples sought places to settle, peacefully or by force. But never were the gains of civilization lost. Less advanced peoples adopted the culture of the more advanced and developed it further.
From the 3000's B.C. there was repeated migration of Semitic-speaking desert peoples into the Fertile Crescent. A number of them, listed in chronological order, had a profound effect on history:
conquered the Sumerians.
founded Babylonia and also occupied the Mediterranean coast, where they merged with other settlers to form the Canaanites.
moved gradually into northern Egypt and founded a dynasty of pharaohs. They introduced the use of the horse in warfare.
migrated in turn to Mesopotamia, Palestine, Egypt, and back to Palestine, where they founded the kingdom of Israel (later Judah) and established the first great monotheistic religion, Judaism.
settled in Syria and traded so widely that their language was eventually spoken throughout the Fertile Crescent.
as the northern Canaanites came to be known, were the seafarers of the Mediterranean world. Their trading colonies reached to the Atlantic Ocean. They helped develop the alphabet and were most probably the ones to pass it on to the Greeks.
settled in Mesopotamia and conquered all the neighboring peoples.
helped destroy Assyria and created the Neo-Babylonian Empire.
Some of the mountain peoples north and east of the Fertile Crescent also made their mark on history:
of southwestern Iran, maintained a strong kingdom from about 2500 B.C. for almost 2,000 years.
living at the top of the Fertile Crescent about 2000 B.C. , were united under a foreign aristocracy to form the empire of Mitanni, reaching from the Svrian coast through ancient Armenia.
came into Babylonia after 2000 B.C. , in time became the rulers, and reigned for 400 years.
Indo-Europeans from the north and the west also came to the Middle East:
entered western Asia Minor about 2200 B.C. and moved slowly eastward, building a powerful empire. In Syria they were halted by the Egyptians in the 1200's B.C. and soon were overwhelmed by invaders from the sea.
were those sea people who settled in southern Canaan.
succeeded the Hittites in interior Asia Minor after 1200 B.C. and flourished on trade between the Greeks and the Mesopotamians.
were Greeks who crossed the Aegean Sea in the 1000's B.C. and settled in Asia Minor.
settled about 1000 B.C. south of the Caspian Sea, where two groups, the Medes and the Persians, later founded what became the Persian Empire, covering the entire Middle East, except for Arabia.
See articles in this encyclopedia on these various peoples and countries.
Alexander the Great of Macedonia crossed into Asia Minor in 334 B.C. and in nine years conquered the entire Persian Empire. It was divided after his death between two of his successors into the Seleucid Kingdom, centered in Syria, and the Ptolemaic Kingdom, centered in Egypt.
These two domains—called Hellenistic kingdoms because of their Greek origin— established Greek culture throughout the Middle East. Alexandria, Egypt, succeeded Athens as the center of Greek learning. The Seleucids soon lost much of their domain to the Persian Empire, reestablished under the Parthians; the rest fell in 64 B.C. to the Romans. Within a few decades Rome had also annexed Palestine and Egypt.
Trade under the Romans reached all the way to China by the overland Silk Road. Desert peoples, such as the Palmyrenes and Nabataeans, who controlled the caravan routes were made subject to Rome. Egypt became known as the granary of Rome, supplying grain to much of the empire.
During the Roman era Christianity was founded in Palestine. Early churches flourished in Jerusalem; Antioch, Syria; Ephesus, Asia Minor; and Alexandria. Emperor Constantine the Great made Christianity the official religion of his new eastern capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul).
Meanwhile, Jewish uprisings against the Romans in Palestine had brought severe reprisals. Jerusalem had been destroyed, the Jews banished from it, and Judaism outlawed. Many Jews migrated to Europe and Africa. Many others settled in Babylonia, where they grew strong and prosperous and converted many of their neighbors to Judaism. As the Roman attitude became more lenient, some of the exiles returned to Palestine.
The frontiers of the expanding Roman and Persian empires both reached upper Mesopotamia, and there were frequent clashes. After 395 A.D. , the Roman Empire was divided into Western and Eastern (Byzantine) sections. The conflict with Persia continued, gradually weakening both sides.