What caused the first cities of Mesopotamia to appear? Was it trade links, was it agricultural surplus, was it exporting high quality goods or was it religion? Maybe it was all of them.
This has been a difficult post to write. When I started writing had an idea of what I was trying to say. Now, having finished, the result is not what I intended. Regardless, here it is, for better or worse.
In the south of Iraq, often referred to as southern Mesopotamia, the parallel courses of the mighty Tigris and Euphrates Rivers roughly define a strip of fertile but difficult alluvial soil. On either side of this alluvial strip the land is semi-desert.
The mother of all fertile plains
Before they were dammed both the Tigris and Euphrates were liable to considerable variation in flow rates. Water levels reached a peak between March and May when spring’s rising temperatures caused the snows of the Taurus mountains in the north to melt. This usually resulted in flooding of the plain. The extent of this flooding varied considerably from year to year. As summer turned to winter the water levels dropped steadily until the next spring thaw started the cycle again.
All this made agriculture very challenging here. During the autumn sowing season the dry earth had to be irrigated by the feeble flow of the rivers to moisten the soil and make it possible just to turn it over, ready for the seed.
Conversely in spring, just when farmers were preparing to harvest, floods were likely to wash away their crop. The flood waters at this time therefore needed to be carefully channelled off to places where they wouldn’t do too much damage. But the rewards for mastering these techniques were great. The harvests supplied by the rivers could be bountiful.
The archaeological evidence
Despite the rise of farming around the fertile crescent from the ninth millennium BC, it was not until the middle of the sixth millennium BC, in what’s now known as the ‘Ubaid period, that a series of small settlements started to appear along the river banks of the southern Euphrates. Each of these settlements seems to have contained a small temple at its centre.
The ‘Ubaid culture’s influence must eventually have been extensive, as decorated but mediocre late ‘Ubaid pottery is found from the Zagros mountains in the north to the coasts along the Persian/Arabian Gulf to the south. Most of this seems to have been made in the settlements along the southern Euphrates.
Around the latter part of the fifth millennium BC (the Uruk Period) some of the Euphrates settlements expanded to form cities, probably with leaders. Uruk, Eridu, Ur and others each became the focus of life and activity for tens of thousands of people.
Luxury goods also start to appear at this time. These cities had become the largest settlements in the world. And at the centre of each city stood a great temple, the descendant of the little ‘Ubaid Period temple, dedicated to some particular local god or goddess.
But why did the ‘Ubaid cultures of southern Mesopotamia come into existence and why did they evolve into the world’s first cities?
The agricultural surplus model
If you read most books about the origins of ancient Mesopotamian cities you will tend to get some variation of the following.
Locals/migrants from the mountains to the north settled southern Mesopotamia during the ‘Ubaid Period. Collective action, perhaps under the guidance of great leaders, led to the draining of swamps and cutting of ditches in extensive irrigation schemes to make the swamps tillable and the deserts fertile. The rich alluvial soils between the rivers soon produced bountiful harvests for relatively low effort.
This led to a surplus of farm produce. By the Uruk period this produce had brought wealth to the river valley settlements because it was used to purchase much needed raw materials and to feed a developing artisan class and civil service. So the settlements grew into rich cities, importing luxury items.
The major idea of this model, following the economic theories of Adam Smith, is that it is the abundance of the fertile soil, made available by collective action, that created the wealth of the cities.
But a problem with this seems to be that it implies some kind of organising leader even before there is a state to rule. Furthermore, I find it difficult to believe that the export of surplus agricultural produce is enough to create huge wealth on its own.
In my efforts to explore the primary role of trade in the growth of early farming and civilisation, I might have initially guessed at a very different story.
The trade model
Due to improved transport and/or new trade goods appearing, the southern Euphrates river became a small but significant trade route during the ‘Ubaid period for traders travelling the routes between the Arabian/Persian Gulf in the south and the Zagros/Taurus mountains to the north. Individuals established themselves in settlements at important points along this route to act as ‘service stations’, providing food for the travellers in return for raw materials.
An increase in the number of traders along the Euphrates during Uruk times required an increase in production of agricultural surplus. This could be easily accommodated by increasing agricultural production, something which was possible with large-scale irrigation and organisation. Settlements expanded to supply the needs of traders. Given time, the settlements expanded into cities and took control of the trade routes themselves.
The major idea of this model is an individualist one, that everyone is simply there to get rich and that some people do this by controlling the trade routes. However, there are many problems with this idea.
Firstly, whilst greed is certainly a major driving force in most societies, it is not everything. Second, the communal effort initially required to make the dry alluvial soils and swamps fertile back in the Ubaid period cannot really be explained by individual settlement. Irrigation is a major undertaking.
Trying to find a better model
Bearing in mind the points made, one thing that seems to be left out in both models is one of the important bases for many modern economies, adding value to goods. For example, modern China imports raw materials, such as metal, and also exports food, just as ancient Mesopotamian cities are thought to have done.
However China also exports improved goods, such as electronic devices, which are made from the raw materials it imports. This is perhaps the major reason for China’s success. This depends on having a skilled workforce, the modern equivalents of Mesopotamian artisans.
Secondly, what about those temples? What is the significance of them. This suggests a considerable religious aspect to the life of both settlements and cities.
This is perhaps where a more modern analogy may help.
Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City, sited near the Great Salt Lake in northern Utah, sits to the south of the main California Trail, one of the great east west routes across North America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The area had seen people come and go before, both nomadic native Americans and Europeans crossing the continent toward California, but none had thought to settle there permanently until 1847.
The story goes that Brigham Young and his small band of less than two hundred Mormons (members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day saints) chose to settle there under God’s guidance after being hounded out of Illinois for their unusual religious beliefs.
Because Salt Lake Valley is arid the people of this difficult new settlement worked closely together. Under Young and his council’s leadership they irrigated and worked the land around the Jordan River to make it fertile.
The first couple of years were tough and the settlement nearly failed. However with luck it soon expanded to almost two thousand with the influx of new settlers. Many were Mormon but many of them were not.
What sealed the success of the settlement was the gold rush, starting in 1848. Tens of thousands of people from the eastern states went west to California past Salt Lake City. Many returned. All needed provisions. On the way out they brought tradeable goods and money from the east. On the way back some of them brought gold. To this day Salt Lake City is proud of its commercial as well as its religious heritage.
The settlement boomed. With its growth the foundations for a Mormon temple were laid at the centre of the site in 1853. To this day the resulting temple is the major landmark of the city and Salt Lake City is the centre of the Mormon religion. By the time of the temple’s completion in 1892 the railroad had come to Salt Lake City and city’s population was around forty thousand. The greater urban area of Salt Lake City now includes over a million people.
Is this a good comparison?
Partly. Firstly, things were different in the past and any development would not involve fleeing from some pre-existing state because there probably wasn’t one. Also the success of Salt Lake City was almost instant, due in large part to the California Gold Rush but soon helped by the arrival of the railroad.
However, what Salt Lake City highlights to me is the possibility of a religious foundation for the cities of southern Mesopotamia. People must have needed some particular motivation to come to such a harsh place to and start farming. I assumed that this would be commercial greed but this is probably wrong.
Perhaps the settlers’ main motivation was to establish a religious community in the wilderness. The fact that it lay on an existing route through the landscape, and indeed one by a river, is hardly surprising. The fact that the more faint-hearted might not have taken up farming there is equally unsurprising.
The success of such a religious foundation is not guaranteed. You only have to look at the isolated ruins of monasteries in Wales or of the Dead Sea settlement at Qumran to realise that. What must underlie the success of the settlements in Mesopotamia are two things. First that the soil was good when you tamed it. Second that the settlements lay either on trade routes or at the ends of easy routes for import and export of goods.
This introduces a much more random element to the settlement of new areas. People may try to settle anywhere beyond the existing zone of agricultural settlement, and often not for reasons of greed. There may be simple reasons, such as lack of work or food, or complex reasons, such as religious persecution or a wish to be away from ‘normal’ society.
But those settlements will only be successful if they are located in the right places. Salt Lake City was a religious settlement but it was also in the right place. This was in large part because it lay on the routes to California during the Gold Rush. Perhaps the ‘Ubaid period settlers of southern Iraq also got lucky.
So using what I’ve got…
A third model
Religious groups, migrating along existing routes through Iraq, settled the banks of the southern Euphrates River in the ‘Ubaid period. Through communal effort they successfully irrigated and farmed the alluvial soils.
Occasional surplus produce was exchanged for useful raw materials with the few traders journeying along the river between the Zagros/Taurus Mountains in the north and the Arabian/Persian Gulf in the south. The usefulness of this exchange was recognised by the settlers. They increased the farming surplus in order to exchange it with passing traders. This encouraged more traders to use the route.
With increasing organisation settlements expanded their agriculture to supply food to this expanding trade. They also started to supply pottery, possibly used by traders for carrying food, for ballast and for exchange with people on the Persian/Arabian Gulf to the south and, to a lesser extent with people to the north.
By Uruk times settlements were growing enough agricultural produce to support an artisan class (possibly immigrants). Luxury raw materials were imported and crafted into goods for export, rapidly increasing the wealth of the settlements which expanded into cities. Cities probably took control of trade and trade routes by force at this time.
In the end there’s nothing particularly radical about what I’ve concluded. Admittedly it doesn’t mention leaders, although I’m sure they were there. Of course there may also have been external factors in the development of cities during Uruk times, such as the availability of new materials (such as pearls, copper, precious stone etc), improved transport or the extension of trade routes.
It’s also worth asking whether there was something about the communal, possiblty religious nature of the settlements’ inhabitants that made them better suited to creating these first cities. Frankly, it’s difficult to say after all this time.
Regardless, if this model gives some approximation to truth then it would mean that I have been wrong. Trade would not have been the primary reason why people farmed the banks of the Euphrates River. However, like evolutionary advantage, those who settled in the right place to trade, even if that trade was limited, would be end up being the winners.
Bahn P.G.(ed) 2000 The Atlas of World Archaeology, Checkmark, pp208.
Crawford, H. 2004 Sumer and the Sumerians (2nd ed), Cambridge, pp252.
Oates, J. et. al. 1977 Seafaring merchants of Ur? Antiquity 51, p221-234.
Stein, G. 1994 Economy, Ritual and Power in ‘Ubaid Mesopotamia, In: Chiefdoms and Early States in the Near East, Monographs in World Archaeology 18, Prehistory Press, p35-46.
Stein, G. 1996 Producers, Patrons and Prestige: craft specialists and emergent elites in Mesopotamia from 5500-3100BC, In: Craft specialization and social evolution: in memory of V. Gordon Childe Ed: B. Wailes, Pennysylvania, p23-38.
British Archaeological Expedition to Kuwait website (discusses the use of boats and the extent of ‘Ubaid trade).
Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Boivin, N. & Fuller, D.Q. 2009 Shell Middens, Ships and Seeds: Exploring Coastal Subsistence, Maritime Trade and the Dispersal of Domesticates in and Around the Ancient Arabian Peninsula, Journal of World Prehistory 22, p 113-180.
Staubwasser, M. & Weiss, H. 2006 Holocene climate and cultural evolution in late prehistoric–early historic West Asia, Quaternary Research 66, p372-387.
Makes the partially, but not fully convincing case for climate change as the driving force of civilisation and population movements in Mesopotamia and the Middle East. Can be seen as analoguous to the Egypt post.
Sherratt, A. 2004 Environmental Change: The evolution of Mesopotamia, ArchAtlas (online)
An excellent summation of the late Quaternary geology of the Iraq area by the late Andrew Sherratt (God rest his fantastic soul), showing how 4th millennium BC ‘Mesopotamia’ was dominated by just one river, the Proto-Euphrates, incorporating the Tigris from Baghdad southward. Only subsequently did the two rivers split due to spread on an alluvial fan. It is essential to understand this to understand how Uruk could have been so essential to the development of cities. Any other situation would not have produced the spectacular rise of Uruk. Ironically, it also means that there was no such thing as “Mesopotamia” at the time.
Pournelle, J.R. 2007 KLM to Corona: A Bird’s Eye View of Cultural Ecology and Early Mesopotamian Urbanization, In: Settlement and Society (ed. E.C. Stone), p29-62.