Joshua J. Mark
published on 20 July 2010
Urbanization is the process by which rural communities gather together to form cities, or urban centers, and, by extension, the growth and expansion of those cities. Urbanization began in ancient Mesopotamia in the Uruk Period (4300-3100 BCE) as, it is speculated, a particularly prosperous and efficient village attracted the attention of other, less prosperous, tribes who then attached themselves to the successful settlement. This process, then, gave rise to the densely populated centers which came to be known as 'cities’. The historian Helen Chapin Metz proposes that the growth of the cities in Mesopotamia was the result of the inhabitants struggling to cope with the environment. She writes:
The civilized life that emerged at Sumer was shaped by two conflicting factors: the unpredictability of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers,which at any time could unleash devastating floods that wiped out entire peoples, and the extreme fecundity of the river valleys, causes by centuries-old deposits of soil. Thus, while the river valleys of southern Mesopotamia attracted migrations of neighboring peoples and made possible, for the first time in history, the growing of surplus food, the volatility of the rivers necessitated a form of collective management to protect the marshy, low-lying land from flooding. As surplus production increased and as collective management became more advanced, a process of urbanization evolved and Sumerian civilization took root.
The earliest city to rise in the region was that of Uruk, around 4500 BCE and then that of Ur around 3800 BCE, both of which were then situated in proximity to the banks of the Euphrates River. To the Sumerians, however, the first city was Eridu which was founded in 5400 BCE but probably was not a `city' in the same way that Uruk or Ur would be defined. In the myth of Inanna and the God of Wisdom, the dictates of civilization, known as the meh, are taken from Eridu to Uruk and it is thought this work represents the shift in paradigm from a more pastoral way of life to one more urbanized. The structure of the city, and the security of urban living, seem to have attracted the populace of the region to urban centers although the theory has been suggested that the populace was forcibly removed from agricultural holdings and re-located in the cities whose rulers then appropriated the lands for the state. This theory, however, fails to account for the continuation of urbanization throughout the history of Mesopotamia or its replication in other nations.
By the year 2600 BCE Ur was a thriving metropolis and, by 2900 BCE, was a walled city with a population of approximately 65,000. Urbanization, however, continued as the city expanded out from the center and, in time, the once fertile fields which fed the populace were depleted. The over-use of the land, combined with a mysterious shift in the Euphrates which drew the waters away from the city, resulted in the complex finally being abandoned around 500 BCE. Eridu, for perhaps similar reasons, was abandoned in 600 BCE and Uruk in 650 BCE. Though many factors no doubt contributed to the decline of cities such as Ur (Sargon of Akkad plundered the city in 2340 BCE, for example, and repeated military excursions against the city persisted through the ages with the Elamites finally sacking the city in 1750 BCE), it has been suggested that urbanization and, especially, the over-use of the surrounding lands for farming, was a central cause.
At the center of Ur, as with all of the cities in ancient Mesopotamia, was the great temple (at Ur, dedicated to the moon goddess Inanna) which was the locale of ceremonial, commercial and social functions. Religious activities, such as festivals, were the main social gatherings of the time and these occasions were often used to distribute surplus food and supplies to the populace of the city. The priests of the temple, who were also the rulers of the city from about 3400 BCE, were responsible for this distribution and relied heavily on the farmers of the region to supply such surplus as they needed (a role which would eventually be taken over by the king, as royalty superceded the priestly class in power in the third millenium BCE with the emergence of the warrior-king known as the 'Lugal’, meaning “Big Man”). This excess production of the countryside not only supplied the population of the city with food but also increased long-distance trade with other cities along the Euphrates such as Tikrit and Eridu. As urbanization continued, however, the need for more and yet more raw materials depleted the natural resources of the region and, eventually, led to the depletion of natural resources and the abandonment of the city.
Urbanization spread from Mesopotamia to Egypt and, from there, to Greece and it seems, early on, that the lesson of the city of Ur was heeded by later urban centers. In Egypt, especially, great care was taken with the land to prevent the less desirable consequences of urbanization from toppling the great cities of Pharaoh so that focus could remain steady on the more prosperous aspects such as the development of writing, laws, administration, sanitation, trade and craftsmanship (all thought to have originated in Mesopotamia at Uruk). Urbanization, however, in ways both postive and negative, has continued unabated for thousands of years and still bestows its mixture of blessing and curse on the populations of the world today.
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6500 BCEJericho is the first major walled city, with a population of about 2,500.
c. 4000 BCEFirst settlement of Ur.
3400 BCEPriests become the rulers of Mesopotamian cities.
c. 3000 BCE - c. 2600 BCEThe rise of the great Indian cities of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa.
c. 1700 BCE - c. 1500 BCEDecline of the Harappan Culture in India.