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READ: Growth of Cities

Cities forever changed the way humans lived. Cities connected the people living in them to one another, to surrounding farmland, and to people in other cities.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. The author begins with a piece from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which he compares to music from Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. Why does he compare these two artistic works?
  2. Where does this author state that cities first appeared, and where did they appear afterward in this period?
  3. The author argues that an essential part of urbanization was hierarchy. Does the evidence he presents support this argument?
  4. The author also argues that cities allowed for job specialization, but that people in cities were still dependent on rural farms and villages. Why was that true?
  5. The author suggests that cities created a kind of network that was an “urban archipelago”. An archipelago is a group of islands. What do you think he means by this metaphor?
  6. How were the networks that cities built not like an archipelago?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. We generally think of cities as having hierarchies, but the author suggests that there are some cities where we cannot see evidence of hierarchies. Do you think that means there were no hierarchies? What is another explanation?
  2. How does this author’s argument and evidence compare and contrast to the evidence in “Introduction to Agrarian Societies”?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Growth of Cities

Drawing of a city. There is one very large building, and many groups of smaller structures. The city is surrounded by a large wall.
By Bennett Sherry
Cities forever changed the way humans lived. Cities connected the people living in them to one another, to surrounding farmland, and to people in other cities.

Let’s hear it for Uruk

In 2009 CE, two musical artists named Jay-Z and Alicia Keyes sang the praises of New York in lyrics that included the phrases, "concrete jungle where dreams are made of" and "big lights will inspire you". Nearly four millennia earlier another poet had written about the Mesopotamian city of Uruk, celebrating "the outer wall's cornice gleaming like copper in the sun" and declaring that "no king could ever build their equal." Different artists from different eras, but all were pretty excited about cities.
These artists weren't alone. Ever since there have been cities, people have been singing their praises. Ancient Greek, Roman, and Chinese writers repeatedly compared their cities favorably to the countryside. In ancient literature, cities are often portrayed as sites of learning and prosperity, while rural areas get characterized as backward and uncivilized. However, many writers also noted the dangers of city life: that cities were immoral and corrupt. In twenty-first century America, you only need to read a news article to find a journalist wringing their hands1 over the "rural-urban divide" in American politics. For almost 6,000 years, people have divided their world between urban and rural, civilized and uncivilized.
In 3000 BCE, the largest city in the world was Uruk. At about 50,000 people, it was half the size of South Bend, Indiana in the United States. Today, there are almost 50 different cities in the world with more than 10 million inhabitants. Tokyo alone has more people than the entire global population in 3000 BCE. Love them or hate them, the growth of cities fundamentally changed human society and the ways we live together.

The first cities

Like agriculture, the world's first cities developed independently in different parts of the world at different times. They first sprang up in Mesopotamia and Egypt around 6,000 years ago and in China, India, and Southeast Asia 5,000 years ago. Another wave of urbanization began 4,000 to 2,500 years ago in Mesoamerica, the Andes mountains of South America, and sub-Saharan Africa. There was no single factor that made a city develop, but location certainly mattered. A city might sit at a good spot for agriculture, trade, or defense.
A photo of a slab of rock carved with text being shown in a museum.
Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraqi Kurdistan. Many believe this story is the old surviving work or literature. By Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, CC BY-SA 4.0.
City life usually meant you would be in a hierarchical social structure. And living in crowded conditions meant disease spread faster. On average, people in cities died earlier than those in rural areas. So why would anyone choose to live in a city? There are a few reasons. Diseases or not, cities provide safety. Walls and soldiers protected people from enemies, bandits, and wild animals. But cities were also exciting arenas of social mobility. Like today, young people moved from rural areas to cities in search of money or jobs. Urban areas offer wider employment opportunities, while rural communities had few options besides farming. In a city, you could be a soldier or a priest, an artisan or a builder, a merchant or a weaver. The new possibilities would have been enticing. And cities only kept growing. By 1200 BCE, China had some of the world's largest, with Anyang in the Yellow River Valley housing as many as 200,000. By 100 CE, Rome was the largest city in the world with over a million inhabitants, and the largest city in the Americas was Teotihuacan with over 100,000.
Birds-eye view of what remains of Teotihuacan. There are several large, leveled structures featuring staircases, and one larger pyramid-shaped structure.

Urban hierarchy: Organizing cities

An essential part of urbanization was the creation of hierarchies. The very word civilization creates a hierarchy. It comes from the Latin word for citizen. So, it suggests that city people are "civilized" by definition, and rural people are not. So the hierarchy starts by placing non-city folks at the bottom. But inside the city walls, there are far more levels. Cities held complex social hierarchies to keep things operating smoothly by convincing—or even coercing—people to do their jobs. Priests convinced people that the gods wanted the king to be king, and soldiers enforced the king's decisions.
While Mesopotamian, Chinese, Mediterranean, and Mesoamerican cities had these characteristic hierarchies, others were quite different. Our understanding of ancient cities often comes from the writing left behind by the city dwellers of places like Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece. In other cities, whose writing we don't have or can't read, there is archaeological evidence of very different types of societies. In places like Jenne-Jeno on the Niger River (in modern-day Mali) and Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa on the Indus River (in modern-day Pakistan), there is no evidence of centralized authority of kings or temples, and it seems war was uncommon.
Photo of ruins shows an empty pool built into the ground, surrounded by many other brick structures.
The ruins of Mohenjo-Daro, with the great bath in the foreground and granary in the background. By Saqib Qayyum, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Cities required impressive technological innovations. With more people living together on less land, city-dwellers needed new ways to feed everyone, store food surplus (more on that below), defend the city, and keep it clean. In cities, people produced new architectural methods, metalworking, and even running water and sewers. Aqueducts and qanats (underground water tunnels) brought clean water from distant mountains into the city. Extensive canals and irrigation improved transportation and farming. Irrigation and rice patties, dams and mines, canals and roads all reshaped the natural world surrounding ancient cities.

Division of labor: Job specialization in cities

Every city ever built relied on the availability of food surplus. If a society can't produce enough food, it can't support a bunch of people who don't farm. A surplus of food frees up some people from farming so they can store the surplus, count the surplus, protect the surplus, and decide who gets to eat how much of the surplus. This is how you get laborers, scribes, soldiers, and kings. Each occupies a different level on the hierarchy, and each gets different amounts or types of food. Cities were organized and made possible by a division of labor.
Cities connected people through their work. It takes complicated networks of labor for cities to function. In a city, everybody relies on a bunch of other people in order to live. A shoemaker, for example, needs food from farmers in the hinterlands2, leather from animals herded by pastoralists or hunters, protection from soldiers, blessings from priests, and merchants to distribute their product. And all those people needed shoes from the shoemaker. In smaller rural villages, people were often more self-sufficient and networks were less dense. Cities reorganized community structures. In villages and towns, where people lived was determined by kinship groups. In cities, neighborhoods were based on economic functions and social status.
Urban divisions of labor allowed cities to be productive, but they were still dependent on farms and villages. As cities grew, the hinterlands were pressured to produce food. When city rulers grew powerful, a networked hierarchy emerged. Cities were at the top, followed by towns, villages, and rural areas. As cities grew, rulers often conquered neighboring lands for the sole purpose of increasing agricultural productivity. When people in urban areas had steady access to food, they could focus on new professions and establish more extensive contacts through trade.

Urban archipelago: Cities build networks

Cities connected the world. The rise of a world of cities in this era built larger and more complex networks. As some places got better at producing different things, cities traded more with each other. Different crops and animals were available in different places. If your city had a shortage of wheat, you could trade some of your wool for another city's surplus of food. Luxuries were also traded across the networks linking cities. For example, the Standard of Ur in the image below is from the Sumerian city of Ur and was made sometime around 2500 BCE. It is evidence of just how far ancient trade networks extended. The artist used lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, red marble from India, and seashells from the Persian Gulf.
Paneled artwork depicting a journey. There are domesticated animals and people carrying large packs.
The Standard of Ur in the British Museum, London. By LeastCommonAncestor, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Cities also connected people in unfortunate ways. Sometimes, a king in one city got full of himself and launched wars to conquer other cities, establishing an empire and intensifying regional webs even more. And with so many people cramped together beside animals and waste, disease was a constant danger. The trade networks that connected cities meant that diseases in one place spread quickly to others.

Conclusion: Rural-urban divide?

This article started with a discussion of the enduring divide between city and country. Ancient and modern writers all talk about urban and rural life as though they are distinct and separate. But if you've been reading this article carefully, you might already be suspicious of those talking points.
Cities certainly created hierarchies and divisions of labor, but as divisive as that seems, cities overall were a triumph of connectedness. Many would say those connections included the rural areas as well. Kim Donehower, Charlotte Hogg, and Eileen Schell are all professors of writing specializing in rural rhetoric3. They argue that, "rural should not be seen in opposition to urban but as part of a complex global economic and social network." The growth of cities connected people in new ways, and rural farmers and nomadic pastoralists were essential to urban livelihoods. People and goods moved between these two worlds. Since there have been cities, writers have been contrasting urban and rural life. But they could not have made these comparisons unless they were familiar with both. Urban and rural lives have always been deeply interconnected.
Author bio
Bennett Sherry holds a PhD in History from the University of Pittsburgh and has undergraduate teaching experience in world history, human rights, and the Middle East at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maine at Augusta. Additionally, he is a Research Associate at Pitt's World History Center. Bennett writes about refugees and international organizations in the twentieth century.

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