Part of the Water: H2O = Life exhibition.

Cradle of Civilization

Modern Mesopotamia
Curtis J. Richardson/Duke University Wetland Center

Some of the world's first civilizations arose over 6,000 years ago in a region of the Middle East called Mesopotamia--a name derived from the ancient Greek words for land "between the rivers." Regular flooding along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers made the land there especially rich. And with the development of irrigation technologies, lush fields yielded plentiful crops, cities emerged and Mesopotamian civilizations thrived.

The Ma'dan, descendants of those early inhabitants, still live in the land between the rivers in the Mesopotamian marshlands--the largest freshwater ecosystem in the Middle East and western Eurasia. For thousands of years, the marshes were fed mainly by nutrient-rich fresh water from the Tigris and Euphrates. The marshlands supported fish, birds, game animals and dense stands of reeds--the staples of Ma'dan life. But in 1991, the water stopped flowing. The marshes--and the Ma'dan--all but disappeared.

Ancient Mesopotamia encompassed most of the Euphrates-Tigris river basin, an area today occupied by modern Iraq and parts of Syria, Turkey and Iran.

The Garden of Eden?

Mesopotamia was home to some of the world's first civilizations. Some people believe the region was even the site of the biblical Garden of Eden.

Rainwater harvesting jar, Sri Lanka
© AMNH / Denis Finnin

The Written World

Mesopotamia's first great civilization, Sumer, may have also produced the world's first written language. As early as 3,500 BC, Sumerians kept records of their activities in early forms of cuneiform script.>Some tablets include instructions on managing the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates.

Lug a Jug

Ancient Mesopotamians, including the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians and the Assyrians, relied on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers not only to water their fields but also for clean water for domestic uses.