Agriculture formed the basis of the Mesopotamian economy. The first steps toward a managed production of cereals were taken as early as the 10th millennium B.C. in Syria, in the area known as the Fertile Crescent, which receives sufficient natural rainfall for cultivation. Wheat and barley were the earliest domesticated cereals; other plant species used for food were pulses, such as lentils and chickpeas.
   In the northern area of Mesopotamia (Assyria), which forms part of the Fertile Crescent, crops could be grown in the vicinity of the rivers. Farther south, in Babylonia, there was not enough rain to sustain cereal production unless the fields were watered through irrigation, but the rich alluvial soil accumulated by the Tigrisand Euphrates rivers proved to be much more fertile than in other Near Eastern regions. By the seventh millennium B.C., the alluvial plains began to be cultivated, and by the fourth millennium, the first cities appeared in response to the need for an efficient agricultural administration. The first documents, pictographs written on clay, concerned the allocation of labor for fields and the distribution of the products. By the third millennium, large institutions, such as temples and palaces, owned and managed most of the arable land, employing a significant proportion of the urban population, who worked for rations or as sharecroppers. By the second millennium and in later periods, private ownership of land was relatively more common.
   The most important cereal was the salt-tolerant barley. Oil-rich plants, such as sesame and linseed, were also much used, as were vegetables such as onions and garlic. The date palm was by far the most essential tree, as much for its timber as for its fruit, which was a vital source of sugars and vitamins. Fields were worked with teams of oxen (initially two, later four) and a crew of laborers. For the annual harvest in spring, hired hands augmented the labor force. The produce was stored in special granaries and storehouses and distributed as rations, sold, and kept for seed. As long as the fallow principle was maintained and fields were allowed to recover their fertility after having been irrigated and planted, the land was able to yield substantial surplus. These rich grain harvests thus provided the foundation of Mesopotamian urban civilization.
   With rising populations and pressure from the central government, too-intensive cultivation could drastically affect the carrying capacity of the land, and the weakened fields could only produce a fraction of the normal crop, which was vulnerable to pests and diseases. Famines and epidemics were therefore not uncommon and are described in various literary compositions. Animal husbandry was more important in those regions that boasted less fertile soil. Sheep and goats can be kept in marginally productive areas by moving herds from place to place. Cattle and pigs were generally kept in one place. While the former could be profitably managed by nomadic and pastoralist groups who moved with their herds in search of pasture, cattle and pigs were raised by special organizations, such as temples and palaces. During the time of the Third Dynasty of Ur, the city of Puzrish-Dagan, not far from Nippur, was the livestock center of the state (see DREHEM). Domestic animals were prized because of their wool and hides, as well as for their milk. Meat, rarely consumed by the nomads, formed an important part of the sacrificial repasts in Mesopotamian temples. Various Sumerian myths and poems concern the competition between the “shepherd,” who is portrayed as uncouth and uncivilized, and the “farmer,” who is the quintessential Mesopotamian, refined and urban.

Historical Dictionary of Mesopotamia. . 2012.

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