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Origin of the City-State


DW | Ancient Babylon

02 - Origin of the City-State


2.1 - Prehistoric Developments


The Neolithic Period began around 9000 B.C. which established important cultural developments. The most important of these was the advent of agriculture. This allowed societies to reside together in year-round settlements. Before this, mankind had lived by gathering food from local resources, and moving when these were exhausted. Thus, civilization moved from the hunter-gatherer to the agriculturalist. To be noted however, these changes were not overnight, and the agriculturalist still hunted wild animals and gathered selected resources when available.

Again noting that the absolute dates of events are uncertain and often debated, scholars do have a solid idea about overall trends. Direct control of cereal agriculture was achieved through a series of probably inadvertent steps from the eleventh to seventh millennia as these people became better farmers.

Wild cereals have weak stems that allow their seeds to easily disperse and fall to the ground before they can be harvested. They also have strong husks that protect the seed from premature germination. These early people developed these wild grains into the bread wheats we have today through selection and cross-breeding with wild grasses, but again, this took time. Sheep and goats became domesticated around this time as well.

The house is the best distinguished attribute of sedentary life in the archaeological record. In the Levant, houses were built of stone or with stone foundations; elsewhere in the Near East, their walls were of piled mud, and later of mudbrick. These settlements became increasingly large, and a shift from round to rectangular houses took place in the ninth millennium.

By 7000 B.C., agricultural villages existed throughout the Near East in areas with sufficient rainfall for farming. Shortly after 7000 B.C., these villages could be found in areas relying on irrigation. Unlike the Nile River in Egypt, which provides water in the late summer just when it is needed for planting crops, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers rise in the late Spring, when almost full grown plants can be damaged by too much water. As a result, a system of canals and storage basins had to be developed to control the water and allow it to enter the fields only when needed.

Archaeologists define a sequence of cultures in the period from 7000 to 3800 B.C. based on types of pottery: Hassuna (which flourished between about 6000-5500 BC), Samarra (which dates roughly to 6000-5500 BC), Halaf (5500-5000 BC), and Ubaid (5300-3900 BC).

All of these cultures were only small communities without any organization beyond the village level. Their wide geographical spread and long-distance contacts is amazing to consider. Another characteristic is their longevity. The Halaf culture lasted almost a millennium and was gradually replaced by the Ubaid culture, which continued for almost another two millennia. These factors indicate that once settled, these communities retained a stable and local development. They preserved the same material culture throughout their existence, only gradually becoming more extensive and complex.


2.2 - The Hassuna Period (c. 6000-5500 BC)


The earliest cultures in northern Mesopotamia were the Hassuna people, who thrived from 6000 to 5500 BC. They inhabited the foothills of northernmost Mesopotamia, situated a few kilometers south of Nineveh, and extended eastwards towards the base of the Zagros Mountains. In these regions, the rainfall was adequate to support "dry" agriculture in certain areas, making the Hassuna people the first farmers in northern Mesopotamia.

During the height of their civilization, around 5500 BC, the Hassuna people lived in small villages or hamlets spanning 2–8 acres. To put it in perspective, the city of Jericho had already expanded to cover four hectares by approximately 6500 BC. The largest villages housed populations that rarely exceeded five hundred individuals.

Initially, the houses of the Hassuna people were simple structures made of sun-dried mud. These dwellings may have been semi-permanent, as the builders were likely intensive foragers who might have relocated in years with insufficient rainfall. However, as agricultural techniques improved, such mobility became unnecessary, leading to the gradual evolution of more spacious and sophisticated permanent dwellings. These new houses featured small rooms with plastered floors for work and living, storage areas, and internal courtyards with outdoor ovens.This style of house construction possibly influenced the architectural patterns seen in the later Samarra and Early Ubaid cultures.

The Hassuna people raised domesticated sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs. However, their diet also relied on hunting cattle and gazelle for supplementation. The discovery of imported carnelian and turquoise beads, as well as the use of stamp seals for personal ownership, indicates that the economic horizons of the Hassuna culture were expanding.

Notably, the Hassuna culture introduced painted pottery adorned with reddish paint in linear designs. They also developed the earliest form of two-chambered pottery kilns. Furthermore, evidence of copper and lead smelting suggests that the Hassuna people possessed innovative and technologically sophisticated skills.

Despite these advancements, the settlement pattern in Neolithic Mesopotamia still reflected the necessity for early villagers to inhabit regions with sufficient rainfall for their crops and grazing areas for their livestock. It would only be later that this pattern of settlement would change, primarily in the southern regions.


2.3 - The Samarra Period (c. 5500-4800 BC) 


The Samarra culture emerged as the second early Neolithic culture, contributing to the development of civilization in Mesopotamia from 5500-4800 BC. While existing concurrently with the Hassuna culture, the Samarra culture was situated further south in the mid-Tigris region, although there was significant overlap in the central Mesopotamian heartland.

Unlike the Hassuna settlements, many Samarra communities were located beyond the limits of the rain-fed zone. It was in these areas that simple irrigation techniques, crucial for successful agriculture, were first devised.

The introduction of irrigation led to increased investment in the land, a stronger sense of permanence, and the potential for land ownership. However, it also made some villages more vulnerable to attacks, necessitating some level of defense. The Samarra people relied on cultivated wheat (emmer and bread wheat) and barley for food. They raised sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle, while also engaging in fishing and gathering shellfish from the Tigris River.

Hunting and gathering wild plant foods were also significant, although agriculture played a dominant role. The agricultural efforts of the Samarra culture required greater coordination. However, this could still be achieved within relatively small-scale societies without the need for strong individual leadership or complex social organization.

Samarra pottery was renowned for its dynamic style, featuring depictions of dancing girls with flowing hair, goats, deer, scorpions, and various other animals. The culture also crafted highly sophisticated female figurines adorned with face paint or tattoo marks and intricate hairstyles.

The Samarra culture saw the rise of settlements and larger communities. Circular or oval houses emerged. The largest Samarra settlements covered approximately six hectares, with Samarra itself fitting this description. It is estimated that the population of Samarra reached around a thousand inhabitants, double the size of the largest Hassuna village.

The architectural style of Samarra, characterized by T-shaped houses, may have been influenced by the Hassuna culture, as similarities between the two styles can be observed. Both cultures employed mud-brick construction, and Samarra houses consisted of multiple rooms with external buttresses initially used to support corners and roof beams (which later became decorative features). Houses were arranged around open courtyards and included granaries, ovens, and kilns.

The economy of the Samarra culture exhibited certain complexities, such as the use of stamp seals (similar to the subsequent Halaf culture). There are also indications of individual artisans' marks on pottery, suggesting a level of specialization in crafts. Towards the later period of the Samarra culture, the emergence of the Halaf culture in upper northern Mesopotamia coincided. In certain regions, both styles coexisted, indicating the presence of different ethnic groups or variations in fashion.


2.4 - The Halaf Period (c. 6000-5400 BC)


During the mid-sixth millennium BC, a new farming culture emerged in northern Mesopotamia, known as the Halaf culture (6000-5400 BC). The name Halaf derives from the archaeological site of Tell Halaf, located in the Khabur Valley in northeastern Syria, where this culture was first identified.

The Halaf culture was primarily centered in northern Mesopotamia, spanning between Lake Van and Samarra. Initially, its reach extended little further west than these regions.

Distinct from earlier cultures in northern Mesopotamia, the Halaf culture may indicate the arrival of new settlers from outside the region. In its early centuries, it was primarily concentrated east of the Euphrates River, gradually spreading westward into northern Syria, approaching the foothills of the Taurus Mountains.

Halaf architecture featured distinctive domed roundhouses constructed from sun-dried clay. The largest of these structures exceeded ten meters in diameter. The construction materials varied based on local availability, including limestone boulders or mud and straw. Some structures had walls placed on stone foundations, possibly for ritual purposes (one such structure contained a significant number of female figurines), while others were likely simple residential houses.

The Halaf culture introduced new burial customs. Many individuals were interred in shaft graves, which involved deep, narrow pits dug into the ground, with burials placed at the bottom. Complex cremation rituals were also practiced, involving the ritualistic smashing of grave goods and the burial of ashes in pots beneath the floors of houses.

Halaf pottery is renowned as some of the finest produced in the region. Halaf potters utilized diverse sources of clay compared to neighboring cultures, resulting in exquisite craftsmanship and elegant designs. The pottery featured a fine monochrome or polychrome painted finish in black, brown, or red, on a burnished buff background.

The Halaf population predominantly relied on dry farming, cultivating crops such as emmer wheat, two-rowed barley, and flax through natural rainfall without irrigation. They also raised cattle, sheep, and goats.

There is limited evidence of conflict among Halaf groups, with corresponding scarcity of projectile points, suggesting a focus on hunting rather than warfare. Sling bullets, although common, were likely used for hunting purposes as well.

The Halaf culture coexisted with the Ubaid culture, the fourth and most successful Neolithic culture, for approximately a millennium before eventually being absorbed by them.


2.5 – The Ubaid Period (c. 5300-3900 BC)


The Ubaid culture, a significant period in Mesopotamia, is characterized by the presence of large, unwalled village settlements, multi-roomed rectangular mud-brick houses, and the emergence of the first temples as public architecture. This culture witnessed the development of a two-tier settlement hierarchy, with centralized large sites of over 10 hectares surrounded by smaller village sites of less than 1 hectare.

The Ubaid culture serves as a transition point between prehistory and the dawn of early urban civilization. Its name is derived from the site where pottery from this period was initially discovered, Tell al-'Ubaid in southern Mesopotamia, where extensive excavations were carried out by Henry Hall in 1919 and later by Leonard Woolley.

Sumer, located in the southernmost region of Ancient Mesopotamia, is widely regarded as the birthplace of civilization. The term "Sumer" originates from the Akkadian Empire and translates to "land of the civilized kings."

During the Early Ubaid Period, the culture was concentrated in the heartland of Sumer, near the old coastline of the Persian Gulf. This marked the establishment of the first permanent settlements on the arid southern plains, close to the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The initial settlers were not Sumerians but a group known as the Ubaid people, whose origin remains uncertain. They likely arrived in the valley around 8500 BC, as primitive agricultural villages were being established, two millennia prior to the rise of the Hassuna culture. The allure of agriculture likely played a role in attracting them to the region.

These settlers primarily clustered in the southernmost part of the valley, bordering the reed-filled swamps that dominated the delta, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flowed into the Persian Gulf. This location positioned them perfectly for the forthcoming agricultural revolution.

The Rise of the Sumerians

The entry of the Sumerians into the region is uncertain. The Sumerians referred to themselves as "the black-headed people," and their land, in cuneiform script, was simply referred to as "the land" or "the land of the black-headed people." In the biblical Book of Genesis, Sumer is known as Shinar.

The Sumerians, benefiting from access to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, were the first to develop extensive irrigated agriculture. They harnessed the waters of these rivers, primarily the Euphrates, to cultivate vast areas of alluvial desert. Over time, they refined their irrigation systems, channeling small canals to supply water to their crops and sparing themselves the laborious task of manually carrying water. These canals became increasingly sophisticated and extensive over the centuries.

Consequently, there was a surplus of grain beyond the immediate needs of the farmers, allowing the people of Sumer to invest time in developing new skills. They became inventive and thoughtful, leading to the emergence of artisans, traders, priests, scribes, and merchants. A system of governance took shape, along with an organized religion and a social hierarchy, laying the foundations of what would be recognized as civilization.

Over time, large villages evolved into small cities during a period of rapid urbanization. The Ubaid culture expanded rapidly, displacing the earlier Halaf culture in northern Mesopotamia. Ubaid goods also reached regions along the Persian coast to the south and Arabia, indicating the growth of a trading network emanating from southern Mesopotamia. Additionally, fishing boats made their first appearance during this era.

However, challenges arose for the Sumerians. Unlike the farming lands on either side of the Nile, Sumer's soil was heavily silted, which posed continuous problems for their irrigation systems. Additionally, the timing of floods, occurring in late spring or early summer due to melting snow in the Taurus Mountains, made it difficult to cultivate both spring and autumn crops.

Moreover, the soil beneath the surface contained a high concentration of salt deposits, making farming more complex and challenging compared to Egypt. The region also experienced more raids and early warfare, exacerbating food shortages whenever irrigation ditches were not properly maintained.

According to the Sumerian King List, the gods established the city of Eridu, located in Sumer, as the place where they granted humanity the necessary gifts for building a civilized society. While Uruk is commonly considered the oldest city in the world, ancient Mesopotamians believed that Eridu was the primary city where order was established and civilization began. During the Ubaid period, Eridu likely covered an area of ten hectares and housed as many as 4,000 inhabitants.

This period also witnessed the invention of the wheel, which was likely first used in pottery making. Artisans would spin a lump of clay on a horizontal plate balanced on an axle to shape round utensils, employing the same methods that potters still use today. The Sumerians were the first to turn the potter's wheel on its side and adapt it for transportation. The innovation enabled farmers to cultivate land located farther from their villages or towns, as animals hitched to wheeled carts could carry three times the load they could bear on their backs or drag on flat-bottomed sledges.

As social stratification increased and villages grew, an early elite class emerged. This group likely consisted of families connected to the village leader or chieftain. As the leader's power and influence grew, so did the status of this elite class. Power became hereditary, laying the groundwork for future city-states.

Communal religious activities were another important aspect of this period. The earliest Ubaid temple at Eridu was a simple one-room shrine, exhibiting the basic features that would characterize later Mesopotamian temples, such as an ornamental facade, an altar niche, and an offering table.

Evidence suggests that a primitive accounting system was already in use during this time. Small clay counters found inside pots at Tell Abbada indicate the presence of an incipient accounting system, which eventually developed into writing.

By 8000 BC, small clay tokens of various shapes were employed by Near Eastern farmers to keep inventory of their commodities. For instance, a cone-shaped token might represent a specific quantity of barley stored in a granary. This system would undergo significant expansion during the subsequent Uruk Period, which began around 3900 BC and witnessed the gradual surpassing of Eridu by the nearby city of Uruk as the prominent center of Sumerian religious life.

The Late Ubaid period also marked the onset of the Copper Age, as early metal tools appeared alongside traditional stone tools. Archaeologically, the transition from the Ubaid period to the Uruk period is marked by a gradual shift from painted pottery, produced domestically on slow wheels, to a wide range of mass-produced unpainted pottery crafted by specialists using fast wheels.

The Ubaid culture paved the way for the development of full-fledged civilization in southern Mesopotamia over the next thousand years. The prehistoric cultures discussed here demonstrate that various cultural aspects of later Near Eastern history evolved over extensive periods. The culmination of these processes occurred in the fourth millennium BC when several innovations led to the establishment of Sumer civilization.


2.6 - The Uruk Period (c. 4000-2900 BC)


The fourth millennium, roughly between 4000-2900 B.C., was a crucial period of time for mankind that led to many innovations of importance, including writing and the development of the city-state. Known as the Uruk Period, this lasted for the whole of the fourth millennium. This culture acquires its name from the city of Uruk, due to this site being thoroughly excavated. During this period, Uruk became the most urbanized city in the world, surpassing for the first time 50,000 inhabitants. In precisely what manner Uruk ruled the region, why and how it became the first city in the world, and in what manner it exercised its authority is not fully known.

Sumerian cities during the Uruk period were probably theocratic and were most likely headed by a priest-king (known as an ensi), assisted by a council of elders, including both men and women. It is quite possible that the later Sumerian pantheon was modeled upon this political structure.

The geographical center of developments in the Uruk Period was in the extreme south of Mesopotamia, at the head of the Persian Gulf. There was little evidence of organized warfare or professional soldiers during the Uruk period, and towns were generally unwalled.

The City-State

What constitutes a city is difficult to define, but it does have certain characteristics that differentiate it from a village. One is that a substantial number of people living in close proximity to one another have non-agricultural occupations. This requires them to be dependent on others for food and resources, while they, themselves, provide a specialized skill of service. Even more important, these specialized services are not limited to just the inhabitants of the city, but to the surrounding settlements as well. As a result, the city becomes the center for the geographical area.

The specialization of productive labor led to the need for an authority to organize the exchange of goods, as individual families were no longer self sufficient. In Mesopotamia during the Uruk Period, that authority was the religious temple. The goods were received by the god of the city and redistributed to the people.

Far surpassing other settlements at the time, Uruk's dominant size made it a regional center. Continuing a trend that started in the early Ubaid Period, temples in the Late Uruk period became the most monumental buildings in the settlements. Two temple complexes existed simultaneously at Uruk: The Eanna Precinct and the Anu-Ziggurat (the Temple Tower). These structures of the Eanna Complex were the most elaborate and were rebuilt several times. Surrounded by a perimeter wall, these enormous buildings were the main focus of the city.

Within the walls were clay cones colored white, black, and red which formed mosaics in geometrical patterns. One building contained cones made of stone, a more expensive material since stone was difficult to obtain in the region. These buildings had a cultic role in that goods were offered to the god(s). One of the major works of art for the period, the Uruk Vase, pictorially expresses the role of the Eanna Temple.

The Uruk Vase

Also known as the Warka Vase, the Uruk Vase was discovered in a deposit of cult objects in the temple complex of the Sumerian goddess Inanna. Like the Narmer palette from Egypt, it is one of the earliest surviving works of narrative relief sculpture.

The vase has four tiers of carving. The bottom register depicts the vegetation in the Tigris and Euphrates delta. Above this vegetation is a procession of animals, such as oxen and sheep. The procession continues in the second register with nude males carrying bowls and jars of sacrificial elements. The top tier is a full scene, rather than a continuous pattern that ends at the temple area. Inanna, one of the chief goddesses of Mesopotamia and later known as Ishtar in the Akkadian pantheon, stands by two bundles of reeds behind her. She is offered a bowl of fruit and grain by a nude figure. A subject in ceremonial clothing – presumably a chieftain or priest – stands nearby with the procession approaching him from behind.

Standard List of Professions

The specialization of labor that characterized the establishment of urban life in southern Mesopotamia caused a fundamental restructuring of society. This is particularly evident in a text called the “Standard List of Professions”. It appeared at the end of the Late Uruk Period, and is amongst the first texts written. This text was faithfully copied for the next 1500 years. Written in several columns, the list provides titles of officials and names of professions, ordered in a hierarchy starting with the highest rank. The titles included such terms as “Leader of the City”, “Leader of the Plow”, “Great One of the Cattle Pen”, and “Great One of the Lambs”. This list contains terms for priests, gardeners, cooks, smiths, jewelers, potters, and others. While not fully understood, it is clear that it provides an inventory of specialist professions within the cities.

At the top of Uruk society was the “priest-king”, whose powers derived from his role in the temple. At the bottom of this social ladder were the people involved in production, both agriculture and otherwise. A state, although small, had developed by the late fourth millennium where the city held organizational controls.

The Development of Writing

By the end of the Uruk Period, there existed a system of record keeping with texts, which laid the foundation for the subsequent cuneiform writing system in ancient Mesopotamia. This Uruk system is called Proto-Cuneiform because the signs are drawn into clay with thin lines rather than being impressed with wedges, as in later cuneiform script. This is the first time in history that writing was invented (although some scholars credit this to Egypt), and the first evidence for real script comes from the city of Uruk itself.

From the seventh millennium on, stamp seals were impressed on jars or on lumps of clay attached to containers. In the middle of the Uruk period, the stamp was replaced by the cylinder seal. Each seal belonged to an individual or administrative office and were used to guarantee shipment.

The seals do not disclose the quantity or actual contents involved in a transaction. This information was covered through the use of tokens. These were stone or clay objects of many geometric shapes that were kept together in a clay envelope, which was sealed to prevent tampering.

The Near East always had people speaking various languages who lived side by side. All languages could be written in cuneiform script which was the dominant writing system in the region until it was later supplanted by the alphabetic script of the Phoenicians.

The most popular languages of Mesopotamia was Sumerian and Akkadian. The Sumerian language was spoken throughout the third millennium in the south of Mesopotamia. By the early second millennium, it was only used by bureaucrats and cult personnel. The date of its disappearance as a spoken language remains unknown. Akkadian was the Semitic language related to Hebrew, Arabic, and many other languages of the Near East, but of a different grammatical structure.

The Uruk Expansion Theory

Lower Mesopotamia is the core of the Uruk Period culture and the region seems to have been the cultural center at the time, since this is where the principle monuments were found and where the obvious traces of an urban society were located. However, this region is not well known archaeologically, since only the site of Uruk itself has provided any evidence for cultural growth. At some other sites, construction from this period has been found, but they are usually only known as a result of soundages, and have not been fully excavated due to the hostile political nature of the area. In the current state of knowledge, it remains impossible to determine whether the site of Uruk was actually unique in this region, or if it is simply an accident of excavation that makes it seem more important than the others.

As a result, the Uruk Expansion Theory remains a debated subject that lacks concrete evidence to either prove or disprove the theory. In a nutshell, the idea of the Uruk Expansion is that the 'Urukians' established a collection of colonies outside lower Mesopotamia, first in Upper Mesopotamia, then in the region near the city of Susa, called Susiana, in the Iranian plateau. This model has been criticized due to a lack of a complete picture of the region.

What is known is that the Uruk Period established settlements that achieved a new importance and population density, as well as development of monumental civic architecture. They reached a level where they could properly be called 'cities'.

In the Late Uruk Period, the urban site far exceeded all others. Its surface areas, the scale of its monuments and the importance of its administrative tools unearthed there indicate that it was a key center of power. It is therefore often referred to as “the first city”, but it was the outcome of a process that began many centuries earlier, and mostly outside Mesopotamia.

The end of the Uruk Period was swift and mysterious. This end came with the fundamental changes in southern Mesopotamia and abroad. Those outside southern Mesopotamia are the clearest to us, as we see a sudden discontinuation of contacts. In places where local cultures had adopted Uruk practices, the older local traditions reemerged. Village life and social organization became the norm again in northern Mesopotamia and Syria.

In the Susiana plain, the center of Susa seems to have been taken over by immigrants from the Zagros Mountains. But instead of fragmenting like the north, the region maintained some Uruk traditions while also adapting them to local ones. This centralization of power in the region of Susa developed a competing state which then cut off southern Mesopotamia's access to the Iranian plateau.

What happened in Uruk itself is somewhat unknown. The monumental buildings that dominated the Eanna Complex were destroyed and the entire area was leveled. At some point, newer buildings were constructed and Uruk continued to be substantial in size, but other southern Mesopotamian centers arose and began competition. This emergence of urban life in Mesopotamia would build the Sumerian civilization and establish the Early Dynastic Period.

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