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Sumer: The First Civilization
A Reading Comprehension Passage by Common Core Texts

The first civilization appeared around 5,500 years ago. It rose up along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Today that land is the country of Iraq. At that time, it was called Mesopotamia. What was special about that land between two rivers? It had rich soil that was good for farming.

The people who lived along these two rivers were called Sumerians. Rich soil was important for the Sumerians. After all, crops cannot grow on rocks or sand! Mesopotamia did not get much rain. Most of its land was dry and not useful for farming. But the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers was arable. Every spring, ice in the high mountains melted. It flowed down into the valley. The rivers filled with this water. They rose up and flooded the valley. These flood waters carried rich, nutrient-filled soil called silt.

You might think of a flood as a dangerous disaster. But the Sumerians were not scared when their two rivers flooded. They needed this yearly flood. It left behind silt and turned the dry dirt into rich soil. It transformed desert into arable land.

Still, the Sumerians needed to control the flood waters. They needed to guide the flood waters into their fields and protect their buildings. So they invented a clever way to guide the water. Farmers dug ditches leading from the river to their fields. When the rivers overflowed, these ditches guided the water to their crops. This process is called irrigation.

But irrigation was not the only invention that helped Sumer grow. At around the same time, they invented the wheel. They began producing clay pottery and strong stone tools. In a short time, the tiny villages and farms along the Tigris and Euphrates had become a great civilization.

The Sumerians built large cities made of mud bricks. Their cities were built with mud because Mesopotamia did not have much wood or stone. The Sumerians packed mud into rectangular molds, then dried the mud bricks in the sun. The Sumerians were great architects. They used simple materials, but they were able to create large and impressive buildings. Sumer had government offices, beautiful homes, and places of worship.

Today, we marvel at the amazing ruins of Sumer’s cities. We study their beautiful art, their brilliant culture, and their complex laws and writing. But all of this progress started along the river. It began with the clever farmers who learned to control the flood waters.

Arable: land that is good for growing crops
Silt: nutrient-rich soil left behind by flood waters
Ditch: a narrow canal dug in the ground
Irrigation: the process of guiding water toward crops
Architect: a person who designs buildings

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