The First Cities

It wasn’t only with the invention of farming that people began to want to stay in one place. Even tens of thousands of years ago, when people lived only by hunting and gathering, some of the caves and villages they lived in show signs of having been inhabited for many generations. But in those days, settlements were always very small. If too many people lived in one place, it became hard to gather and hunt enough food to feed everybody, and so the group would divide and some people would go looking for new land.

As people started to keep herds of sheep, goats and cattle, and raise crops of wheat, barley and lentils, it became possible for them to live in larger and larger groups. Instead of being too many mouths to feed, more neighbors meant more people to help work in the fields and watch over the animals.

Around the eastern Mediterranean in the areas where farming was invented, people began to build villages with houses made of mud bricks.

One of the largest of these early villages is called Çatalhöyük [cha-tal-hu-yuk] and stood in what is now central Turkey. People lived in Çatalhöyük for nearly two thousand years, from 7,400 to 5,700 B.C. It was probably the largest single settlement in the world at the time, with as many as 10,000 people living there.

Çatalhöyük was a very different sort of place from the cities that we are used to. The houses were built of wood and plaster, with flat roofs, and they were built so close together that there were no roads at all between them. The houses had no windows, and people got in and out through an opening in the roof with a ladder that led down into the main room. People got around the city by walking from rooftop to rooftop, and they used the space in between the houses for dumping their garbage.

Each family had its own house. The houses each had one big main room, with a oven or fireplace at one end. There were small side rooms that were mostly used for storage. People did not have much furniture; they sat and slept on reed mats on the floor. When people died, they were buried under the plaster floor of the house. Often families painted pictures on the walls to decorate their houses, and sometimes they made sculptures of people, or of bulls' heads, and hung them on the wall. Some archeologists think these statues represented the gods the people of Çatalhöyük worshipped. Others think taht perhaps they worshipped their ancestors, and that is why they buried them under their floors. We do not know.

When the house got too old, the family would knock it down and build a new house right where the old one had been, using the rubble of the old house as the foundation for the new one. As hundreds of years went by, people rebuilt their houses again and again until the village stood on a mound of layers upon layers of old houses.

Although Çatalhöyük was a very large and advanced village for its time, it was not like later cities in one important way. Archeologists have not found any communal buildings in the village: no temples or palaces or fortresses. Perhaps you live in a town not much larger than Çatalhöyük -- there are many towns now that have only 10,000 citizens. But even if it is much smaller, your town has stores, a post office, a library, a church, and other buildings that everyone shares. But the people of Çatalhöyük had none of these -- only houses.

At about the same time, in Palestine, another large village was slowly starting to become more like a city. People had been living near Jericho [jer-i-koh] since before 9,000 B.C. From 8,300 to 5800 B.C. Jericho was a city of as many as 2,000 people.

The people of Jericho lived in mud brick houses. Like the people of Çatalhöyük, they sometimes buried their dead under the floors of their houses. Sometimes they kept the skulls of their ancestors and used clay to make a life-like sculpture of the dead person's face. Perhaps they did this because they worshipped their ancestors; we do not know.

They must have feared attacks from other towns or tribes, because around the city they built a high stone wall. There was even a stone tower that stood nearly as high as a modern three story building.

Building the walls and the guard tower for their city must have been a tremendous amount of work. That tells us that the people of ancient Jericho were able to grow enough food that they could afford to have hundreds of people take time off from farming to build the city walls. It also tells us that their city had some sort of government, which was in charge to telling people where to build the defenses and who should guard the wall.

Jericho was small, however, even compared to Çatalhöyük. To see the first truly large city, we must travel south and east of Jericho, to Mesopotamia [mes-uh-puh-tey-mee-uh], which means “the land between the rivers”. The two rivers were the Tigris [tahy-gris] and the Euphrates [yoo-frey-teez]. They were both big, wide rivers, and the soil around them was soft and fertile. But it did not rain often in Mesopotamia, so in order to farm there people learned how to build canals to take the water from the river and use it to water their fields.

This was a lot of work. It took a lot of people to build the canals and keep them in good repair. And so perhaps it was no great surprise that the first truly big cities, and the first kingdoms, grew up in Mesopotamia. The first big city was called Uruk [oo-rook], which flourished from 3,500 to 3,000 B.C.

Uruk stood near the southern end of the Euphrates and in an area that was known as Sumer [soo-mer]. The walls of Uruk were nearly six miles around, and were guarded by over 900 guard towers. In addition to the city walls, the citizens built giant temples to their gods and goddesses. These temples were built on giant square platforms called ziggurats [zig-oo-rats] (sometimes as tall as a three or four story building) which were meant to look like mountains. The Sumerians believed that mountains were the homes of the gods, and the ziggurats were meant to make the gods feel at home in the temples.

All of this building required a lot of workers, and indeed, Uruk was the largest city the world had yet know, with nearly 20,000 people living in the city when it reached its peak. Uruk was not the only city that was growing large in Sumer. Soon other large cities sprang up as well: Ur, Lagesh, Umma and Kish.

Something new was happening in these cities. For the first time in history people were writing their language down. That is why we know a great deal about the Sumerians, but very little about the people who lived thousands of years before in Jericho and Çatalhöyük. But we will learn more about that in the next story.

Go back to: Elementary Program: Volume One

Next Story: The Development of Writing

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