Joshua J. Mark
published on 20 July 2010
A City is defined as a populated urban center of commerce and administration with a system of laws and, usually, regulated means of sanitation (the word derives from the Latin civitas). The first cities sprang up in the region known as Mesopotamia between 4300 and 3100 BCE. The city of Uruk, considered the oldest in the world, was first settled in c.4500 BCE and walled cities, for defence, were common by 2900 BCE. The city of Eridu, close to Uruk, was considered the first city by the Sumerians, and other cities which lay claim to the title of `first city' are Byblos, Jericho, Damascus, Aleppo, Jerusalem, Sidon, Luoyang, Athens, Argos, and Varasani. The most famous and, today, probably the most controversial, city in the ancient world was Babylon. It remains controversial for the same reason as its fame in that the city is featured prominently – and negatively – in so many of the biblical narratives though, far from being a 'city of evil’, Babylon was a great and prosperous cultural and intellectual centre, being the first, among other achievements, to perfect the art of glass making c. 1500 BCE.
The great king Hammurabi first encircled Babylon with walls in 1792 BCE and built the first sacred temple complex to the god Marduk (the Esagila) including the ziggurat, a high stepped tower (which may have given rise to the famous Biblical account of the Tower of Babel) all centred around the river Euphrates. Babylon reached its height, however, under the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II (who lived 634-562 BCE, reigning from 605-562 BCE) who ringed the city three times around with walls forty feet high and so thick that chariot races were held atop them. In the ancient world the walls of Babylon, and especially the great Ishtar Gate, appeared on some lists among the Seven Wonders and were considered a marvel of the ancient world, encircling the city for ten miles.
Cities were the centres of life for the ancient Mesopotamians and the population of Babylon (200,000 during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II) did not differ from the other city-states in this. Beyond the walls stretched the long fields for cultivation and the grazing of cattle but the lives of the people unfolded behind the city walls. So important was the concept of the city to the people of Mesopotamia that they held a city (not a 'Garden of Eden’) to be the birthplace of humanity (the revered city of Eridu).
No scholarly consensus exists on why urbanization began in Mesopotamia and speculation ranges from the lack of rainfall in the region, to environmental factors such as the long, open plains of the region which left inhabitants at the mercy of the elements (and, in time, invaders) without walled cities, to the simple explanation that prosperous villages attracted more people and grew steadily into urban centers. Whatever the reason, urbanization spread from Mesopotamia to find expression in the great cities of Egypt, Greece and, finally, Rome.
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