The Mesopotamia climate is an interesting, as well as crucial, facet of Ancient Mesopotamian history. Ancient Mesopotamia is one of the earliest and most revered civilizations in history. This region of Southwest Asia encompasses modern-day Iraq, Syria, western Iran and southeast Turkey.

The region had quite a unique climate which was very fundamental to its prosperity and, later on, the tragic fall of its empires. In this article, we consider the ancient Mesopotamia environment and examine details about the climate of the region.

What Is the Climate of Mesopotamia?

Thousands of years ago, the Ancient Mesopotamia climate was semi-arid, with hot summers and intermittent rain. The Mesopotamian environment was an immense stretch of desert in the north which gave way to a 5,800 square miles (about 15,000 square kilometers) area of marshes, lagoons, mudflats, and reed banks in the south. In the extreme south, the Euphrates and the Tigris united and converged into the Persian Gulf.

Perhaps at the thought of ancient Mesopotamia, you had pictured a huge desert area that’s hot and dry. Although a portion of the area was like this, part of Mesopotamia was actually a temperate region that was full of life and abundance.

Mesopotamia was located in the Fertile Crescent, an area named this way due to the fertile soil created by the abundance of water sources. The name Mesopotamia itself is a Greek word that translates to ”land (in) between the rivers,” as the region was located between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates.

Mesopotamia weather was undoubtedly similar to the weather in Iraq today. In Iraq, the weather varies according to elevation and location. Generally it is mild in the winter, very hot in the summer and dry for most of the year, except for a brief rainy period in the winter.

How Were the Rain Patterns in Mesopotamia Climate?

Rain was generally scarce in most of Mesopotamia. The heaviest precipitations usually fell in the mountains and on the windward western sides of the mountains. In the desert regions, rainfall varied greatly from month to month and year to year. The amount of rainfall generally diminished as one traveled westward and southward.

Baghdad, in present-day Iraq, gets only about 10 inches (25 cm) of rain a year. The barren deserts in the west get around 5 inches (13 cm). The Persian Gulf area receives little rain but can be oppressively humid and hot while also suffering from occasional droughts.

What Were Winter and Summer Like?

Winter in Mesopotamia was mild in most of the country, with high temperatures in the 70s F (20s C). However, it could get cold in the mountains, where the temperatures often dropped to below freezing, and cold rain and snow were a frequent occurrence. January was generally the coolest month.

Snow in the mountainous areas tends to fall in squalls and flurries rather than storms, although severe blizzards did occur from time to time. The snow on the ground tended to be icy and crusty. In the mountains, snow could accumulate to great depths.

Summer in Mesopotamia was very hot throughout the country, with the exception of the high mountains. There was generally no rain, while the highs were in the 90s and 100s F (upper 30s and 40s C). The deserts were also extremely hot and scorched by brutal southern winds. The Persian Gulf area was very humid.

The Fertile Crescent and the Ancient Mesopotamia Environment

The Tigris and the Euphrates follow roughly parallel courses as they flow from the highlands of eastern Turkey, through Syria and Iraq, and into the Persian Gulf. These rivers flooded the area every spring when snow from nearby mountains melted and made its way into their currents.

The floods, although destructive, made the land humid, fertile and also enriched a sandy soil with vital nutrients. Silt from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers built a long, fertile alluvial plain, and a large delta and vast marshes. The area around the rivers has been heavily irrigated in Mesopotamian times. The abundance of water and nutrient-rich soil made Mesopotamia an ideal place to develop agriculture.

Little by little, the cities that were adjacent to the rivers managed to produce enough food to trade with other settlements. With the passing of time, more and more tribes made the region home and gave birth to one of the world’s first settlements which eventually became the cradle of world civilization.

The fertility of this rich alluvial plain was well-known even in ancient times: It produced bountiful amounts of wheat, barley, sesame, dates, and other fruits and cereals. The cornfields of Mesopotamia were mostly in the south, home to an opulent agricultural population. Birds and waterfowls, herds and flocks, and rivers teeming with fish supplied the inhabitants with a complete diet.

The Climate Changes in Ancient Mesopotamia

The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers made it possible to grow wheat on the Mesopotamian grasslands, but the dry climate of the ancient Mesopotamia environment eventually defeated human engineering. Irrigation brought water to fields faster than it could drain out, with unexpected consequences.

The early Mesopotamian civilizations are believed to have fallen because the salt accruing due to the abundant irrigation turned fertile land into a salt desert. Continuous irrigation raised the groundwater; capillary actions brought the salts to the surface, poisoning the soil and making it useless for growing wheat. Barley is more salt-resistant than wheat, so it was grown in less damaged areas for a period.

The fertile soil later turned to sand due to droughts, and the changing course of the Euphrates that today is several miles away from Ur and Nippur. After about 2,000 years, the once fertile land of southern Mesopotamia is barren.

What Was the Role of Climate in Mesopotamia’s Collapse?

For years, scientists have been trying to explain why the Mesopotamian culture vanished. The first hypothesis suggests that Mesopotamia’s collapse was the result of environmental changes. Irrigation systems can leave behind traces of mineral salts that may have reached very high levels and rendered the soil poisonous for some edible plants. Other theories concentrate on armed conflicts and invasions.

The case of Akkadia seems to confirm the first thesis. Akkadia was the world’s first empire, established in Mesopotamia around 4,300 years ago by its ruler, Sargon of Akkad. The empire had become increasingly dependent on the productivity of the northern lands and used the grains sourced from this region to feed the army and redistribute the food supplies to key supporters.

Then, about a century after its inception, the Akkadian Empire suddenly collapsed, followed by mass migration and conflicts. The anguish of the era is perfectly captured in the ancient Curse of Akkad text, which describes a period of turmoil with water and food shortages:

“… the large arable tracts yielded no grain, the inundated fields yielded no fish, the irrigated orchards yielded no syrup or wine, the thick clouds did not rain.”

Explanations of the Mesopotamia Collapse by Archaeologists

The cause of the collapse is still disputed by historians, archaeologists and scientists. One of the most prominent views, championed by Yale archaeologist Harvey Weiss — inspired by Ellsworth Huntington — is that it was caused by an abrupt onset of drought conditions which severely affected the productive northern regions of the empire.

Weiss and his colleagues discovered evidence in northern Syria that this once prosperous region was suddenly abandoned around 4,200 years ago, as indicated by a lack of pottery and other archaeological remains. Instead, the rich soils of earlier periods were replaced by large amounts of wind-blown dust and sand, suggesting the onset of drought conditions.

Subsequently, marine corals from the Gulf of Oman and the Red Sea, which linked the presence of dust into the sea to distant sources in Mesopotamia, provided further evidence of a regional drought at the time.

Records on the climate of Mesopotamia and around the world show an abrupt climate change event in 6400 BC, about 8,200 radiocarbon years before the present. A period of immense cooling and drought persisted for the next 200 to 300 years. When the severe drought and cooling hit the region, there was no longer enough rainwater to sustain the agriculture in the north, Weiss says.

The collapse was followed by mass migration from north to south which was met with resistance by the local populations. A 111-miles wall — the “Repeller of the Amorites” — was built between the Tigris and Euphrates to control the immigration. The stories of abrupt climate change in the Middle East, therefore, echoes over the past to the present day.

Conclusion

Before heading to the end of this article, we want to recapitulate some of the highlights of climate in Ancient Mesopotamia.

  • Ancient Mesopotamia was a land of temperate and desert regions.
  • It was situated in between two rivers, Tigris and Euphrates.
  • The weather varied in regards to location and height, rainfall was scarce.
  • Winter was mild and summer was very hot.
  • The rivers flooded and created fertile land for farming.
  • Later on, the rivers caused a surplus of mineral salts and poisoned the soil.
  • The soil became barren and subsequently caused mass migration and the fall of Mesopotamia.

Ancient Mesopotamia had both temperate and desert regions. The winters here were mild and the summers were hot, rainfall was also scarce. However, they were able to utilize its boundary rivers to a good advantage through irrigation systems. After a period of flourishing, the rivers later poisoned the land and rendered the region barren, leading to the decline of Mesopotamia.

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