Space and Structure in Early Mesopotamian Cities


Jason A. Ur. 2020. “Space and Structure in Early Mesopotamian Cities.” In Landscapes of Pre-Industrial Cities, edited by Georges Farhat, Pp. 37-59. Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks. Copy at
Space and Structure in Early Mesopotamian Cities


The study of preindustrial cities is in a phase of great dynamism. For a long time, early cities were viewed narrowly through the lenses of Classical and ancient Near Eastern urbanism. In archaeology, this situation emerged largely as a result of the great influence of V. Gordon Childe. His books and articles established a broad model of what an early city was supposed to look like; his seminal article on “The Urban Revolution” is the most heavily cited article in the history of the Town Planning Review. His vision of cities emphasized the “revolutionary” appearance of relatively (for their time) large and dense settlements that housed a ruling class (and its monuments) that extracted the production of the rural hinterland. These new urban places were further characterized by writing systems, art and science, long-distance trade, and the abandonment of kinship as a source of social cohesion.At this point, the critiques of Childe have largely been accepted. First and foremost, his characterization in “The Urban Revolution” is one of an early centralized polity— that is, a political form rather than a settlement form. More importantly, recent scholarship has convincingly demonstrated the remarkable diversity of early urban form, and it has argued, also convincingly, for a definition of “urbanism” that can accommodate such diversity. Indeed, for many current scholars, Childe’s “classic” formulation of the early city only really applies to the ancient Near East and the Mesopotamian examples that inspired him.In fact, Childe’s model does not even apply to Mesopotamian urbanism, at least not in its early stages. The diversity of urban form now recognized globally can also be found in the earliest cities of the Tigris and Euphrates region. “The Urban Revolution” model is not, however, useless, as it describes mature Mesopotamian cities of the third millennium Bce, and many subsequent urban places, quite well. But these cities came about with at least a millennium of previous urban development already behind them. They represent the end of a developmental process, not the start.

Map of middle east
This study will illustrate three early Mesopotamian urban structures. They appeared sequentially, but not necessarily in an evolutionary sequence, from the late fifth to the middle of the third millennium Bce. The first, which appears to be unique in Mesopotamian history, seems to be a Near Eastern manifestation of a “megasite,” very large and low-density anomalies in the archaeological record, which in many parts of the world appeared prior to the appearance of less ambiguous urban forms. The second is a candidate for a Mesopotamian “low-density” city, a structure increasingly recognized globally but not yet in the Near East. Finally, at the time of the great Mesopotamian city-states, this study will argue that even the most geometric of settlement forms can be explained through the concept of emergence, as opposed to top-down planning.

In all of these cases, large settlements in early Mesopotamia were largely self-organized. Childe’s model may have emphasized new forms of centralized government in early cities, but a critical look at the archaeological data set of sites and landscapes suggests that bottom-up processes were dominant. It would be incorrect to call them “unplanned,” since all urban phenomena are planned at some scale; rather the issue is the locus of decision-making about planning. Traditional scholarship on Mesopotamian cities assigns most agency to kings and other elites, who often claim such influence in propagandistic royal inscriptions. In the case studies presented here, emphasis has been placed on households and neighborhoods, and the ways in which decision-making at those lower levels might result in the emergent forms of the earliest Mesopotamian cities.


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See also: Tell Brak
Last updated on 03/06/2021