||The marshlands of the Tigris-Euphrates delta at the southern reaches of ancient Mesopotamia were once the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East. Despite (or because of) their past embodiment in popular imagination, central place in the world geopolitical eye, and essential role in securing the regional water supply, by 2003 they had been all but destroyed by engineering interventions that precipitated ecological disaster, collapsed local economies, and sent hundreds of thousands of refugees across international borders and into urban slums. This catastrophic loss of heritage, habitat, landscape, and livelihood invites open examination of the multi-millennial-scale longue durée of human habitation in that region.
This paper argues that, through deep time, deltaic resilience has been inextricably intertwined with urban resilience there. It explores the integral role of the delta in fostering the birth of cities, and in mediating the reach of imperial aspirations across a landscape that saw the emergence of Sumer, the passage of Rome, and the rise of Islam. Recent evidence suggests that the contribution of marshes and estuaries was fundamental to the growth and sustainability of early southern Mesopotamian urban zones, and thus essential to the emergence of early Sumerian civilization. The durable presence of a succession of complex societies in what is now southern Iraq was sustained over millennia by the deltaic ecology that provided polities both a hedge against environmental instability, and a mechanism for obtaining and circulating labor, building materials, food, fodder, and preciosities not readily available to societies away from the deltaic core.