A short history of Cities- Part 1

Jericho. Wikimedia commons

Jericho, Uruk and Ur

A city can be defined as a geographical area which is compact, immensely interconnected and is urbanized. That is, it is modernly administered, uses and consumes advanced laws, systems, technology and infrastructure.

Our current crisis of Climate Change has some thinkers and even the United Nations proposing the idea that cities are the ideal construction that can help us overcome this crisis.

This makes it a perfect occasion to look at few of the great developments in cities in human history.


Ancient city is defined as such:

a large populated urban center of commerce and administration with a system of laws and, usually, regulated means of sanitation. 

Other characteristics to look out for in an ancient city being:

  • population of the settlement
  • height of buildings
  • density of buildings/population
  • presence of some kind of sewer system
  • level of administrative government
  • presence of walls and/or fortifications
  • geographical area of the settlement
  • or whether a `settlement’ was called a `city’ in antiquity and fits at least one of the above qualifications.

Source The Ancient City – World History Encyclopedia

The process of knowing the history of cities involves scientific processes that are ongoing in nature. Archaeology is the most vital tool available for us to understand and know things of the ancient world. Especially of the time-period which has no written work to tell.  It looks to unearth materials which are interpreted and placed in the most suitable time-period of its belonging. As new things get discovered, new light is thrown into the once unknown period and area.

With all this definition in mind. Let us see how cities have evolved.

The region of Levant is very important for archaeology. It was in Jericho of this region where the oldest known protective wall, the wall of Jericho, has been found. Along with this a stone tower has also been unearthed. 

Early Jericho – World History Encyclopedia:

Archaeological evidence reveals that by 8000 BCE, the site grew to 40,000 square meters (430,000 square feet) and was surrounded by a stone wall 3.6 meters (11.8 feet) high and 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) wide at the base. Inside the wall was a stone tower 8.5 meters (28 feet) high and 9 meters (30 feet) wide at the base. The tower had an internal staircase with 22 steps

The hypothesis behind the wall is that it may have been built to protect its settlement from flood waters. The tower may have served some kind of ceremonial purpose. Some are also of the idea that the tower served the function of motivating people into the communal lifestyle as there have been suggestions that a population of some 2,000–3,000 persons were living there. But this varies as some estimate the population to be as low as 300. But nonetheless, Jericho is a concrete evidence on the movement of the human race from a hunting way of life to a one of full settlement.

Jericho has also provided evidence of agriculture. It has to be noted that, although modern cities tend to detach from agricultural pursuits, during the time leading up to Jericho, humans were still in a nomadic state. Hence, Jericho signifies not only the most distant evidence of a city but also of an organized settled living system.

Wheat and barley is thought to have been cultivated. It is highly probable that irrigation had also been invented.

Jericho’s settlement occurred in two phases. The one mentioned above was followed by a second settlement at around 7000 BCE.  It too was a Pre-Pottery Neolithic in its nature. It expanded the range of domesticated plants and animals.  Its buildings were rectilinear in structure and were made of mudbricks. Each building had several rooms and a central courtyard. Terrazzo floors made of lime decorated the rooms while the courtyards had clay flooring. Dishes and bowls were used.  This phase of  settlement lasted until about 6000 BCE.  Towards the end of 5000 BCE, another urban settlement appeared in Jericho. It was walled yet again.

While Jericho ebbed-and-flowed, a massive city flourished in Mesopotamia where one of the earliest precursors to modern human life was found. It was where writing originated, and all kinds of technological, legal and moral basis of a collective urban life initiated. The city was Uruk.

It was located in the southern region of Sumer, northwest of Ur in Southeastern Iraq. It was known in the Aramaic language as Erech.  It was the location of the famous king Gilgamesh. Uruk was enclosed by walls of about 10 km circumference. It is considered the first true city in the world and also the first big city.

Uruk was inhabited from its inception until c. 300 CE. after which it was abandoned and buried. It was excavated in 1853 CE. It used cylinder seals for attesting personal property and documents. It had monumental mud-brick buildings. Large sculptures and metal casting was done. Pictographs on clay tablets were used to record the management of goods and workers.

5000 BP (before present), Uruk had ~50,000 people. At its peak, it may have had around 80,000 inhabitants.The Ubaid Period (c. 5000-4100 BCE) saw Ubaid people first inhabit the region. This period is followed by the Uruk Period (4100-2900 BCE) during which cities started developing in various regions of Mesopotamia. Among which, Uruk became the most important.

The Uruk Period is divided into 8 phases but it was most influential between 4100-c.3000 BCE. It was during this time that

Uruk was the largest urban center and the hub of trade and administration.

The city was divided into Eanna District and Anu District.

The Eanna District was walled off from the rest of the city. Anu district had a single massive terrace, called the Anu Ziggurat which was dedicated to the Sumerian sky god Anu. In the Uruk III period, a white temple was built on top of the ziggurat. From the Uruk VI period, a Stone Temple has been discovered.

Uruk continued to be relevant through the Ur III Period (2047-1750 BCE),

With the fall of the city of Ur in 1750 BCE and the invasion of Sumer by Elamites, along with the incursions of the Amorites, Uruk went into decline along with the rest of Sumer.

c. 4000 BCE  saw the establishment of the city called Ur.

Ur was located in Sumer, southern Mesopotamia, the modern-day Iraq.

In 1922 CE, during an excavation of the ruins in that region, ‘The Great Death’ was discovered, which was a grave complex. Further studies revealed that in its heyday, Ur was a city enormous in size.

It used Cuneiform tablets which has allowed us to know that Ur was a highly centralized, wealthy and bureaucratic state during the third millenium BCE. The Royal Tombs, from about the 25th century BCE, contained,

luxury items made out of precious metals and semi-precious stones, which would have required importation.

Ur may have been the largest city in the world from 2030-1980 BCE, with a population of about 65,000.

Probably founded by farmer settlers from northern Mesopotamia, from the very beginning, it became a location of importance as a trade center as it was located at a point where the Tigris and Euphrates run into the Persian Gulf.

Archaeological excavations have substantiated that, early on, Ur possessed great wealth and the citizens enjoyed a level of comfort unknown in other Mesopotamian cities. 

The city began to grow from a small village ruled by a priest or priest-king. There were two major dynasties: of Mesanneppada, the first king who was followed by three others: Mes-kiagnuna, Elulu, and Balulu. The Second Dynasty is not recorded and the history of which is not known.

When the Semitic leader Sargon (2334-2279 BCE) conquered the entire Sumerian land with his people the Akkadians, the Akkadian Empire ruled over the  regions of Mesopotamia until it was inundated by Amorites who made their capital in a small town called Babylon. Which began the first Babylonian Empire.

The ziggurat of Ur, the temple, was built in the 21st century BCE. The ruins were uncovered in the 1930s which covered an area of 3,900 feet by 2,600 feet. It was a part of a complex that was an administrative center for the city.


End of Part 1

In this first part of our series of Short History of Cities, we talked about Jericho, Uruk and Ur. Although there have been evidence of multiple cities in the course of time in Jericho and other smaller ones around Uruk and Ur; these three stand tall on the basis of evidence gathered and the impact made.

Each should have inspired the city that followed and they collectively must have been very influential in not just the developments of cities as greatest technological achievements, but also in the development and progress of human species as a whole.