published on 07 April 2014
Aerial View of Pompeii (Brooklyn Museum Archives. Goodyear Archival Collection. Visual materials [6.1.024]: Pompeii. Theaters, Pompeii, Italy.)

Urbanization is the process by which rural communities grow 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) for reasons scholars have not yet agreed on. It is speculated, however, that a particularly prosperous and efficient village attracted the attention of other, less prosperous, tribes who then attached themselves to the successful settlement.

The historian Lewis Mumford notes that:

...though permanent villages date only from Neolithic times, the habit of resorting to caves for the collective performance of magical ceremonies seems to date back to an earlier period…The outline of the city as both an outward form and an inward pattern of life might be found in such assemblages (1).

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:

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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, caused 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 (2).

The Rise of the City

The earliest city to rise in the region of Mesopotamia is considered by modern-day scholars to be 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 (see definition of City). 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 the subject of this poem represents the shift in paradigm from a more pastoral way of life (symbolized by Eridu) to one more urbanized (represented by Uruk). The structure of the city, and the security of urban living, seems 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.


Urbanization & Overuse of Resources

At the center of Ur, as with all of the cities in ancient Mesopotamia, was the great temple 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 superseded the priestly class in power in the third millennium 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 a lack of necessary assets and the abandonment of the city.

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Egypt’s Answer to Urbanization

Urbanization spread from Mesopotamia to Egypt and, from there, to Greece and it seems, early on, that the lesson of the city of Ur, and others, 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 cultural aspects such as the development of writing, architecture, laws, administration, sanitation, trade, and craftsmanship (all thought to have originated in Mesopotamia at Uruk). Professor George Modelski, of the University of Washington, writes:

Some students of the ancient era have been known to argue that, unlike Mesopotamia, Egypt lacked anything that could be regarded as cities in modern terms. That great country did have temples, palaces, and cemeteries, often of monumental proportions, as early as the fourth and third millennia, but its capitals seem to have lacked remarkable size and have left little evidence either of intellectual life or of commercial activity. As John A. Wilson put it: `For nearly three thousand years, until the founding of Alexandria, Ancient Egypt was a civilization without a single major city’.

This claim, however, is countered by Professor M.E. Smith of Arizona State University who claims that:

Because archaeologists have failed to find large cities in Egypt prior to Akhenaten’s capital at Amarna in the New Kingdom period (1350 BCE) Egypt has sometimes been contrasted to Mesopotamia as a `civilization without cities’. This label masks a distinctive form of urbanism, however…Egypt did not lack cities; rather its urban systems were structured differently from the more familiar form of Mesopotamian cities (The Sage Encyclopedia of Urban Studies, 26).

Egypt, it seems, understood both the benefits and the costs of urbanization and opted for “dispersed urbanization characterized by smaller, more specialized urban settlements” (26). This same paradigm holds true for the urban centers of the Maya, at least in their planning, but the seemingly universal progression of urbanization led to the depletion of natural resources and, as Smith notes,

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Nearly all ancient urban societies engaged in deforestation, often with disastrous consequences for soils and the water table. In temperate latitudes forests were cut down for firewood and construction materials…In tropical forest settings, forests were cleared for agricultural production. Most ancient cities were ultimately destroyed or abandoned (27).

Temple of Hatshepsut

The Rise & Fall of Cities

The artificial environment of the city, which subjugated the surrounding natural environment to the needs of the populace, consistently is seen to eventually deplete and destroy the very resources which gave rise to the city. As urbanization increased, rural lands decreased and, as Mumford writes,

...the blind forces of urbanization, flowing along the lines of least resistance, show no aptitude for creating an urban and industrial pattern that will be stable, self-sustaining, and self-renewing. On the contrary, as congestion thickens and expansion widens, both the urban and the rural landscape undergo defacement and degradation, while the unprofitable investments in the remedies…serve only to promote more of the blight and disorder they seek to palliate (14).

This cycle of rise and fall of cities is seen repeatedly in many cultures around the world. Why it happened so frequently in some regions, such as Mesopotamia, and not in others, such as Greece, is a question still debated by scholars and historians. Some assert it is simply a matter of over-population (as in the case of the Maya) while others point to an overuse of the land (as at Ur and other Mesopotamian cities). Neither answer is completely satisfactory and most likely it is a combination of many factors, a lack of forethought among them, which led to the destruction or abandonment of so many ancient cities.

About the Author

Joshua J. Mark
A freelance writer and part-time Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York, Joshua J. Mark has lived in Greece and Germany and traveled through Egypt. He teaches ancient history, writing, literature, and philosophy.

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Cite This Work

Chicago Style Citation

As Footnote/Endnote:

1. Joshua J. Mark, “Urbanization,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, last modified April 07, 2014, http://www.ancient.eu /urbanization/.

As Bibliography Entry:

Joshua J. Mark. “Urbanization,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified April 07, 2014. http://www.ancient.eu /urbanization/.

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Visual Timeline
  • 6,500 BCE
    Jericho is the first major walled city, with a population of about 2,500.
  • 4,500 BCE
    First walled cities. Uruk in Mesopotamia first city.
  • 4,100 BCE - 2,900 BCE
    Uruk Period in Mesopotamia. First cities.
  • c. 4,000 BCE
    First settlement of Ur.
  • 3,400 BCE
    Priests become the rulers of Mesopotamian cities.
  • c. 3,000 BCE - c. 2,600 BCE
    The rise of the great Indian cities of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa.
  • c. 1,700 BCE - c. 1,500 BCE
    Decline of the Harappan Culture in India.
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