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Volume 14, Number 2February 1963

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A Visit To Some Early Cities

It took people thousands of years to discover that they could settle down in one place and grow their food instead of hunting it.

Imagine a foot-weary traveler in ancient Cilicia, the region near the border of Turkey and Syria, walking down a dusty path 6,000 years ago. He is short and stocky, a bearded man wearing a skirt-like wool garment, cap and sandals. From time to time he pauses to rest, seating himself on the bank of the swiftly flowing Tigris River. He is on his way to Uqair, the first city to arise in this rich Mesopotamian delta, and possibly in the entire world.

Were it 1963, he would be following a road in Iraq, perhaps heading toward Baghdad or Basra. But it is 4,000 B.C, and he knows only that he is going to a place unlike any he has ever been—a place where people live together as a group, in sturdy, permanent buildings intended to outlive the men who built them. He himself has seen only the crude straw shacks and rough-hewn cave dwellings scattered across the countryside, and he is filled with both wonder and trepidation.

Entering Uqair, our voyager gazes wide-eyed along a street lined with strange houses. The walls are low and made of mud-daubed reeds or baked mud bricks, topped with flat roofs. Doors are made of reeds or wood and pivot on hollow stones. Walking over to an open door, he peers inside to find five or six individual rooms. He has seen nothing like this before and hardly knows what to make of it.

Had he made this same trip 5,000 years earlier, he would have found a boundless wilderness—no fields of waving wheat, no herds of sheep and cattle, no houses or other signs of human hands at work. On his visit to Uqair, he undoubtedly failed to realize that this amazing city and the productive land around it were closely related.

The relation is a simple but important one: farming. Until primitive man learned to farm, he spent every day from dawn to dusk trying to find enough food to keep himself and his family alive. He had no time for any other interests. For thousands of years man roamed, picking berries, netting fish and killing game—following food instead of raising it.

Gradually his hunting methods improved. He learned to hunt systematically and in groups, instead of scavenging for himself, and by combining his own knowledge with the knowledge of others he began to learn the secrets of the land. His tools and methods became more specialized and refined, and finally, some 10,000 years ago, he learned that he could make his berries grow where he wanted them by planting seeds, and that if he captured animals and kept them, they would bear young animals, providing him with still more food that was as handy as his own back yard.

This discovery of farming and raising animals took place on the grassy uplands of the Fertile Crescent, where many of man's beginnings were made. There the soil was rich and the rainfall generous. Wheat, barley and other grains flourished. Goats, sheep, wild dogs, pigs, cattle and horses abounded. With his food supply at hand he no longer had to wander, and he settled down in small communities to supply his needs and improve his home, tools and comforts, and out of it all to come up with a system of interdependence which today is given the weighty name of "civilization."

Archaeologists recently excavated two of these early farming villages on the slopes of the Zagros mountain range, both dating back to between 7,000 and 6,500 B.C. Jarmo, a permanent, year-round settlement with about two dozen mud-walled houses, is in northern Iraq; Tepe Sarah, in Iran, was occupied only during certain seasons.

Jarmo was a little over three acres in size and had about 150 people. No doubt the citizens of Jarmo hunted and gathered food as did their forefathers, but they had other interests as well. Pottery, woven baskets and rugs, and clay figurines of fertility goddesses found at the site indicate they had religion and crafts, and had learned to share ideas.

As these early people learned more about farming, they began looking for level ground where water was more plentiful, and about 5,000 B.C. they discovered the rich land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Thus Mesopotamia, "the land between the rivers," was born.

During the next thousand years another development took place. The excellent climate, rich soil and better farming methods made food so plentiful that not everyone had to be a farmer in order to eat. Some began to make things that other people needed, in exchange for food. From this simple farming community came the city as we think of it today—a place where men work at trades, producing what others need in return for what they themselves need.

So it was that man progressed from a wandering hunter, to farmer, to city dweller. The first step was the longest and most difficult, taking more than 250,000 years. But once man learned to raise his own food, it was only a relatively short 1,000 years before he was beginning to build cities.

Early Mesopotamian cities were much different from the tiny upland farming villages where community living first began. Wheat and barley remained important food, but the date palm, the "tree of life," became valued as both food and building material. Livestock became the responsibility of the officials in the cities' temples, making these men important supervisors of the local economy. Men further learned to cooperate and work together in building canals to irrigate farm land, and thereby reduce their dependence on rainfall.

Our traveler to Uqair marveled at a city he did not understand. He wandered through its streets aware that it was something very new and different, but he—and probably the people who lived there—could not fully grasp the reasons for its being and the functions it performed. Those born and raised there knew they could not do without it, but they were already accustomed to city life and might have found it difficult to explain it to an astonished visitor. Had he questioned some wise old man, though, he might have learned that four things made the city possible and necessary. One was the surplus of food supplied by farmers outside the city's gates. Another was the need to organize, build and control the elaborate irrigation system which made the surplus of food possible. A third was the need to band together for protection against warring neighbors who envied their wealth. Finally, the city was a logical and necessary place for the storage and exchange of goods.

Archaeologists have divided the rise of the Mesopotamian city-state into four periods. The first is called the Ubaid, which began around 4,000 B.C. During this time the village of Uqair was built by people from the Iranian highlands who lived a simple life of farming, boat building and fishing. The Ubaid period lasted for about two centuries and gave way to the relatively brief but important Warka period.

The people of the Warka period came from Central Anatolia in Turkey and progressed far beyond the simple Ubaid marsh dwellers. During this time architecture developed rapidly, and the simple temples and shrines became large, elaborate buildings of worship. Then the first written records appeared, introducing the Protoliterate period which lasted until about 3,000 B.C.

Finally the Early Dynastic period, beween 3,000 and 2,500 B.C., saw the development of the Sumerian city-state with its millions of inhabitants, elaborate religious, political and military orders, and more advanced forms of technology and commerce.

Our Cilician voyager found Uqair an amazing city in 4,000 B.C. Had he made his visit a thousand years later he would have been even more astonished at what he saw and at the way people lived. Most were still farming their own land, but these plots were all outside the huge stone walls that protected each city in this Early Dynastic period. In the center of the city were massive public buildings—temples, palaces and administrative halls. Leading away from the center were the streets where the city's wealthier citizens and officials lived. Unlike the houses of the city's poor, which were on alleys between or behind the larger buildings, the homes of the wealthy were built around spacious courtyards.

Merchants sold their wares from booths and small shops near the city gates, for market places and bazaars had not yet appeared. More and more craftsmen were specializing in luxury items for the wealthy and in equipment for the military. Cloth manufacturing also increased since textiles could be exchanged for the raw materials needed for making weapons and other goods.

Our visitor to Uqair saw none of this. But even in its early, simple form the city was impressive to a man who had known nothing more permanent than a burial cave. He could not foresee that over the centuries cities would become centers of commerce, culture, government and learning, and play perhaps the leading role in the rise and spread of world civilization.

This article appeared on pages 8-10 of the February 1963 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for February 1963 images.