What Factors Led to the Creation of the First Cities?

A reconstruction of the river port of Eridu, Iraq

The rise of cities in the ancient Near East during the fourth millennium BC (4000-3000 BC) is a key event in the history of the world, as urban patterns that first arose there became patterns inherited in many societies, including in the West. Cities in the ancient Near East were the first to develop major temples, palaces, large urban dwelling areas, city walls, governments, and religious authorities that become features seen in later cities. Furthermore, these cities drew long-distance trade that created both great wealth for them but also led to the rise of economic systems that created greater social inequality, characteristics that we have also inherited.

The Motives of Trade

Among the earliest regions we see large-scale urbanism develop is in southern Mesopotamia, a region located in modern day southern Iraq (Figure 1). Increasingly in the early fourth millennium BC, urban patterns began to form in southern Mesopotamia, including in places such as Eridu, located near ancient Ur, where one of the first large temples from this period is evident.[1]

Plan of one of the major temple districts (Eanna District) in Uruk during the late fourth millennium BC

Perhaps, though, the first true great city that developed in this time frame was Uruk. This town grew to about 250 hectares in size in this period, which is about the size of downtown London, with two large temple districts that were devoted to major gods of the city (Figures 2 and 3).[2] This growth was largely fueled by Uruk’s abilities, through its connections along developing canals and riverine systems, to access trade from far away regions in Anatolia (modern Turkey), Iran, the Persian Gulf, and elsewhere. As the region around Uruk was resource poor, except for being agriculturally fertile, precious stones, timber, gold, and even stone building materials were needed from areas outside of southern Mesopotamia. Thus, trade and location were critical in why the city was able to grow.

The need for trade was created based on a lack of resources, while location along canals and rivers facilitated the transport of goods. The fertile agricultural area was irrigated with canals, allowing a large population to develop. In essence, low cost transport helped fuel trade growth. Once trade began to make this city wealthy, this then fueled growth further through positive feedback growth. In other words, growth in the city and its trade simply fueled more growth and trade as the city used resources to further invest and grow in other areas, expanding its reach.[3] Additionally, other urban areas, as demonstrated through archaeological survey, seem to be growing in this period, suggesting the rise of urbanism began to spread in southern Mesopotamia.[4] In fact, urbanism in the fourth millennium BC was not simply confined to southern Mesopotamia but also northerly regions.[5]

Plan of the Anu District in Uruk, which was initially established in the fourth millennium BC

Trade seems to have been so important for urban growth that by the late fourth millennium BC we begin to see the expansion of urban colonies to other regions. One example is the site of Habuba Kabira, a modern day name for an ancient city that was build in the late fourth millennium BC in northern Syria on the Euphrates River. Although writing was still scarce in this period, the city was clearly built by people from southern Mesopotamia, as all of its cultural remains such as architecture, pottery, and other objects indicate the people who settled there did not have cultural markers from the native populations in Syria. Rather, the site of Habuba Kabira represents a colony that was placed next to the Euphrates to control trade coming down to southern Mesopotamia.[6] Therefore, it was not simply passive trade that brought goods to southern Mesopotamia but colonies were sometimes established to bring in raw materials.

Trade could have been crucial not just in attracting wealth to the urban areas such as Uruk but also motivating warfare through competition among early cities and areas where early cities tried to expand for trade or wealth access.[7] We begin to see art showing scenes of war and war leaders that may reflect a new type of competition emerging among early urban centers.[8] This likely also reflects the rise of kings and early rulers who began to lead the new cities, while war may have led to people fleeing to cities in greater numbers for protection.

Social Inequality

Perhaps not as frequently discussed, but with the rise of cities we also see the rise of social inequality.[9] In earlier periods, such as the Neolithic in the 6th millennium BC, we see much of the ancient Near East displaying small villages that had houses relatively equal in size to each other. In the fourth millennium BC, as cities began to rise, we now see very different types of structures. Large complexes that could be palaces or temples arouse in large urban areas, which are now far larger than typical houses. The art begins to depict what appears to be a strong man or leader figure that likely had different powers or what amounts to as king-like aspects, such as leading war campaigns or having the authority to rule.

This difference in architecture and depictions of kings indicates that increased wealth to cities did not benefit everyone equally but became more concentrated toward fewer individuals. This increasingly powerful class needed laborer to serve them. This drive for labor helped to motivate people to the growing urban centers, in addition to warfare and trade that also likely motivated a greater concentration of people in smaller spaces. This differential wealth and power, therefore, led to urban communities where social inequality becomes ingrained through the development of local religious authorities and dynasties that passed on the differences in wealth and power to succeeding generations. What this effectively did was setup a system where it was socially acceptable to pass power and wealth down hereditary lines, perpetuating greater inequality in future generations.[10]


What we see from this brief overview is that urbanism was not driven by a natural process. In fact, this process took several millennia after the invention of agriculture, which made it possible to settle in one region. Urbanism simply became the predominant social form through a complex set of interactions that led to increased trade wealth concentrating into cities with access to key trade routes but also motivation to expand trade networks as they often lacked raw resources. Warfare could have resulted from increased trade competition, which could have forced more people to seek protection in the cities. Social inequality was a byproduct but also likely motivated greater population to cities as wealth and power helped to concentrate people.


  1. For a discussion on the development of Eridu (pg. 135) see: Maisels, Charles Keith. 1999. The Emergence of Civilization: From Hunting and Gathering to Agriculture, Cities, and the State in the Near East. Repr. London: Routledge.
  2. See (pg. 103) Algaze, Guillermo. 2008. Ancient Mesopotamia at the Dawn of Civilization: The Evolution of an Urban Landscape. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  3. Lane, D., Pumain, D., Leeuw, S.v.d. 2009. Introduction, in: D. Lane, D. Pumain, S.v.d. Leeuw, and G. West (Eds.): Complexity Perspectives in Innovation and Social Change. Springer, Berlin, pp. 1-7.
  4. Bob Adams’ extensive surveys in southern Iraq had demonstrated how early urban centers developed. See: Adams, Robert McC. 1981. " Heartland of Cities: Surveys of Ancient Settlement and Land Use on the Central Floodplain of the Euphrates. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  5. Oates, Joan, Augusta McMahon, Philip Karsgaard, Salam Al Quntar, and Jason Ur. 2007. Early Mesopotamian urbanism: A new view from the North. Antiquity 81 (2007): 585–600.
  6. Habuba Kabira has been described as a near exact footprint of southern Mesopotamian cities due to its material culture resembling items from that region. See: Strommenger, Eva. 1980. "Habuba Kabira: Eine Stadt Vor 5000 Jahren: Ausgrabungen Der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft Am Euphrat in Habuba Kabira, Syrien." Sendschrift Der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft 12. Mainz am Rhein: von Zabern.
  7. Hamblin, William James. 2006. Warfare in the Ancient Near East to 1600 BC: Holy Warriors at the Dawn of History: Warfare and History. London ; New York: Routledge.
  8. See Baizerman, Michael. 2015. Dawn and Sunset: A Tale of the Oldest Cities in the Near East.
  9. For a discussion on the material culture of the Uruk period and how it could represent social complexity and inequality see: Postgate, John Nicholas. 2004. Artefacts of Complexity: Tracking the Uruk in the Near East. Reprinted. Iraq Archaeological Reports 5. Cambridge: Univ. Press.
  10. For a discussion on perpetuating social inequality through inheritance see: D’Souza, V. 1981. Inequality and Its Perpetuation: A Theory of Social Stratification. Manohar: New Delhi.


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