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The fertile land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, known as Mesopotamia, was home to the oldest known civilization of mankind: In the middle of the fourth millennium BC, the Sumerians developed the world's first writing system - the beginning of recorded history. The Sumerian civilization was succeeded by the Akkadian Empire; after its peak around 2300 BC, it soon split into two rivalling nations: the kingdom of Assyria in the north and Babylon in the south.

For the next 14 centuries, alternating Assyrian and Babylonian empires dominated the area and made it a centre of world power. In the 6th century BC, the Persians finally defeated Babylon and absorbed Iraq into their realm. They were in turn defeated by Alexander the Great.

But after two centuries of Hellenistic rule, Iraq again became part of the Persian Empire. In the 7th century AD, Arab Muslims conquered Persia and fundamentally changed the region's culture. A hundred years later, the Abbasid Caliphs founded the city of Baghdad as their new capital - it was to become one of the great centres of the Muslim world. From the 16th century, most of the territory of present-day Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire - even though there were continuous conflicts with rivalling neighbours; for two short periods, the Persians again assumed control of the area. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Iraq became a British mandate in 1920, an independent kingdom in 1932, and finally a republic in 1958. Ten years later, the rise of Saddam Hussein began; he was to rule Iraq until the American invasion of 2003.

The Heart of the Fertile Crescent: Ancient History in Iraq