Middle East: Expert discusses 'invaluable' images of the region

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Between 1960 and 1972, the US ran a programme known as the CORONA Spy satellite. Covert reconnaissance flights were carried out across the world, with photographs taken of areas that the US deemed a security threat, like China and the Middle East. The images they captured are stark in contrast to the development of today, with industrialised areas and farmland barely touched 50 years ago.

Dr Jesse Casana, an anthropologist at Dartmouth University in the US, was given access to a catalogue of the photographs in the Noughties, and spent years poring over them.

In 2007, he discovered countless ancient and as of yet undiscovered settlements in the Middle East.

One was considered to be the first ever city in the world.

Tell Brak, researchers believe, is at least 4,000 years older than the Pyramids of Egypt.

While the city is shrouded in mystery, a key element of it was explored during the Smithsonian Channel’s documentary, ‘The Life of Earth: The Age of Humans’ — the fact that it was once home to the world’s first farmers.

A major discovery, it marked the transition point of humans leaving their hunter-gatherer roots behind for a stationary life.

The documentary’s narrator explained: “Settlements like this only start to appear after a dramatic event transforms the environment.”

At the end of the last Ice Age, the Earth’s climate radically shifted and became the warmest it had been in 100,000 years.

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In the region where Tell Brak lies, an area known as the Fertile Crescent came into existence.

Rainfall and a rise in temperatures led to a great expansion of grassland.

The narrator noted: “Climate change is about to fuel a food revolution.

“For millennia, humans foraged wild grass seeds — but now abundant wheat and barley prove easy to grow and to control.

“Some people begin to settle, to nurture and protect their crops.

“They gradually give up the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to become farmers.

“From this point forward, human reliance on cultivated plants and mossicated animals will begin to change the landscape.

“The settled populations expand, overwhelming the remaining hunter-gatherers, transforming the landscape with fields, villages, towns and eventually cities.”

Evidence suggests that from this point, Tell Brak went on to become one of the most significant cities in the region.

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It is located on the Khabur plain in northeastern Syria, near the Turkish and Iraqi borders.

Considered one of the largest ancient sites in what is known as northern Mesopotamia, people had already settled there more than 8,000 years ago.

It is no surprise: Tell Brak is located in a strategically favourable position, sat on a major route from the Tigris Valley northwards to the mines of Anatolia and westwards to the Euphrates and the Mediterranean.

As a result, the city was likely regarded and acknowledged as an important commercial centre — and this is backed up by the evidence of numerous workshops found at the site.

Excavations also revealed evidence of mass production of bowls and other items made of obsidian and white marble, with stamp seals and sling bullets also excavated from the ancient city layers.

The city’s inhabitants were extremely skilled and involved in a number of activities like basalt grinding, flint-working and weapon making.

Excavations also suggest the urban-based society was based on rain-fed agriculture

And while mysteries continue to surround the site, contemporary cuneiform tablets — a system of writing used in the ancient Middle East — excavated from Ebla suggest that during the third millennium Nagar was one of the dominant cities in this part of northern Mesopotamia.

Scholars have since argued that the city was also a major point of contact at the convergence point between the cities of the Levant in the West and those of Mesopotamia.

It is believed that, while the city grew to levels of significant importance in the fourth millennium BC, at the beginning of the third millennium BC, it began to shrink, coinciding with the end of the so-called Uruk period.

However, around 2,600 BC — when it became known as Nagar — it began to expand again.

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