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 earliest city to rise in the region was that of Eridu, around 5400 BCE and then that of Ur around 4000 BCE, both of which were then situated on or very near the banks of the Euphrates River. It has been further speculated that a change in the climate of Mesopotamia, sometime around the third millenium BCE, caused the separate tribes of the region to band together and form the community of the city. 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). Though many factors no doubt contributed to the decline of 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 1940 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, lead to 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 at Ur). Urbanization, however, in ways both postive and negative, has continued unabated for thousands of years and still, today, bestows its mixture of blessing and curse on the populations of untold numbers of cities.
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6500 BCEJericho is the first major walled city, with a population of about 2,500.
c. 5000 BCEFounding of Uruk.
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.
2900 BCEFirst walled cities.
c. 1700 BCE - c. 1500 BCEDecline of the Harappan Culture in India.