Until very recently, the accepted archeological view about why and when towns and cities first appeared was quite solid. It made sense that people gave up nomadic lifestyles and started settling in order to till the land or raise animals in enclosures.
The discovery of Gobekli Tepe in Turkey upended this idea and suggested people started to settle to be near religious monuments. Whatever the truth may be, the Neolithic revolution was a profound time in human history as people gave up their hunter-gatherer lifestyles and settled down, forming villages and towns that would grow into cities. These were the first cities in human civilization.
Overlooking the Konya plain in southern Anatolia in Turkey are the remains of a city that was founded over 9,000 years ago. Possibly the first city in history, Çatalhöyük had no streets nor any identifiable public buildings, yet it had a population that at some point probably reached as high as 10,000 people. The rooftops formed the primary way in which to traverse the city, and all the buildings had ladders leading to the roof. The openings in the roof also served as ventilation.
The city was a collection of mudbrick houses clustered together in a way that promoted an extremely close relationship with one’s neighbors. Most of the buildings had shared walls with the buildings next to them.
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There were no communal burial sites. Instead, people were buried beneath the floor of their homes. Often, the skull was removed and daubed with clay and ochre to recreate the face. These grim reminders of the dead were probably used in rituals. Evidence also shows that these heads were passed down from generation to generation.
Murals were commonly painted on the buildings, and figurines of seated women resembling the Venus of Willendorf were found throughout the settlement. James Mellaart, who first excavated the site in 1958, suggested the figurines form the backbone of the religion of Çatalhöyük.
Later, archeologist Ian Hodder stated that the figurines represented something else since, while the front of the figurines depicts a full-bodied woman, the reverse is almost skeletal, and the figurines are likely to represent the role of life and death in society.
Hodder claimed that society in this first city was egalitarian, with no houses having special features and no evidence of a social distinction between men and women. It has even been argued that Çatalhöyük was an early example of anarcho-communism. The settlement, however, lasted until 5700 BCE, and it’s possible it went through more than one political iteration.
The economy was agrarian, and barley, peas, almonds, and pistachios were grown among other crops. Sheep and goats were also present, and there seems to have been a significant industry of pottery and obsidian tools.
Around 6000 BCE, people began to leave this first city faster than new immigrants arrived. Çatalhöyük entered an era of decline until it was eventually abandoned and was left to crumble.
2., 3., & 4. Eridu, Uruk, and Ur
One cannot speak about human civilization’s first cities without mentioning the Sumerians. The Sumerians were among the first to build great cities and were widely regarded as the world’s first civilization (although debate rages with those claiming Egypt was first).
Of all the Sumerian city-states, Eridu was considered the oldest. Founded in approximately 5400 BCE, close to the Persian Gulf and near the mouth of the Euphrates, the city was abandoned roughly 4,800 years later. This enormous timespan means the city went through a huge number of ages, building and rebuilding, creating layers upon layers of cities for archeologists to dig through. Canals characterized the earliest iteration of the city for irrigation, reed huts, and mud-brick buildings. Eridu was abandoned and resettled numerous times before encroaching sand dunes and a rising saline table in the water forced the complete abandonment of the site.
Founded around 3800 BCE, the city of Ur was an urban center on the Mesopotamian Plain, although archeological discoveries indicate the site was inhabited long before then, possibly as far back as 6500 BCE. By around 2500 BCE, the city was home to unparalleled wealth on a scale that had never been seen before. Sumerian cities were famous for their enormous temples called ziggurats. The Ziggurat of Ur is among the most famous of these structures.
One of the world’s first cities and founded in the 4th millennium BCE, Uruk was a major city-state. At the peak of its power around 3100 BCE, the city is thought to have housed 40,000 people, with up to 90,000 people living in its environs. This made it the most populous city at the time. According to legend, Uruk was ruled by Gilgamesh around 2800 BCE. This city of adobe-brick buildings was crisscrossed with a large number of canals. Through these canals, Uruk formed a connection between the surrounding farmlands and the maritime trade network along the Euphrates.
5. ‘Ain Ghazal
‘Ain Ghazal was an ancient settlement directly east of the city of Jericho. The settlement began around 10,300 BCE, and by 7000 BCE, ‘Ain Ghazal was at its height. Although only a city of 3,000 people, it was four times larger than its contemporary Jericho. Built near the banks of the Warqa River in what is now Jordan and set on terraced ground, ‘Ain Ghazal started as a pre-ceramic settlement with rectangular mud-brick houses that consisted of two rooms each.
The rich ecology surrounding the site made for productive farming and hunting. The people of ‘Ain Ghazal had a surprisingly varied diet.
A noteworthy element of the culture of ‘Ain Ghazal is the abundant statues that have been uncovered, a total of 195 to date. The statues depict humans as well as animals and may have been relevant to ritual and religion. The human statues, generally half-size, had hair and clothes painted on as well as ornamental tattoos or body paint. Cowrie shells were used for the eyes. Of particular interest is that three of the statues found are two-headed.
Like the practices at Çatalhöyük, the dead were often buried beneath the floor of the house. After the flesh had rotted away, the skull was often removed and decorated. However, not everybody was buried with ceremony. Archeological finds show most people were buried in garbage pits along with waste.
Founded around 7000 BCE, the remains of one of human civilization’s first cities can be found on the Kacchi Plain in Balochistan in Pakistan. Mehrgarh is one of the earliest sites in South Asia that shows evidence of farming. There is debate as to whether the practices and culture of Mehrgarh were influenced by neolithic culture in the Near East or whether the people of Mehrgarh developed independently.
It is also proposed that the people of Mehrgarh are the original ancestors of the Indus Valley civilizations. They built mud-brick houses and cultivated a number of crops, including barley, wheat, dates, and jujubes.
As the city grew, the inhabitants invested heavily in crafts. Bead production, tanning, flint-knapping, and metalworking were all important industries. Mehrgarh is the source of the oldest known example of casting through the lost-wax technique in Southern Asia. The artifact is a copper amulet.
Of great significance are the ceramic figurines that were produced. Until around 4000 BCE, only female figurines were produced, and it is suggested that there is some kind of religious significance, perhaps that of a “mother goddess” religion. Early figures were lacking in detail, but later figurines show details such as hairstyles, shaped breasts, and women holding babies. It points to a culture with symbolic gestures of venerating the feminine.
Known for the legend of King Minos and inspiring the famous story of Theseus and the Minotaur, the palace of Knossos is a well-known tourist attraction situated on the Greek island of Crete, near the present-day capital of Heraklion. The ruins we see today are remnants of the palace built sometime after 2000 BCE, but the settlement in the surrounding area goes much further into prehistory.
It was around 7000 BCE when people first settled Knossos. Like settlements in the nearby Levant at this time, populations were small, and the initial settlement probably housed less than 50 people. This number would grow as the centuries and millennia followed.
The first houses were simple wattle and daub huts, and, like their contemporaries across the sea, the Cretans at Knossos kept animals and tended various crops. Stone tools were finely crafted using a variety of different materials.
Archeological discoveries include children buried under the floors of some of these early houses. This practice was not unusual during the Neolithic, and many societies buried their dead under the floor of the home.
From 6000 BCE, the settlement began to expand, housing hundreds of people, and most houses began being built on stone foundations. These houses were small and contained just one or two rooms. However, one building from this period had eight rooms, and archeologists suggest that this building was used for storage rather than as a house for a high-ranking member of society.
From 5000 BCE to 4000 BCE, the houses began to take on more individualistic characteristics, and decorative pillars were built. During this time, the first public buildings were also constructed.
From the onset of the Bronze Age, the settlement underwent a drastic change as wealth and prosperity influenced Cretan society. Palaces began to be built across Crete, and the Minoan civilization began to take on cultural characteristics that have impressed people ever since.
The first palace to be built in Knossos was destroyed by an earthquake but was rebuilt around 1650 BCE to a grander scale. The next two centuries signified the height of the Minoan civilization, which was brought down by an invasion (probably Myceneans) around 1400 BCE. By the time of Classical Greece, the Minoan civilization had already declined and fallen to the march of history. What remained at Knossos was a ruined palace and a city that went on to inspire tales that pervaded Greek literature. Knossos was as mysterious to the Classical Greeks as it is to us today.
Bonus: The First (Mythical) City — Atlantis?
While generally dismissed by archeologists and historians as nothing more than a fable, one contentious theory proposes that the legendary city of Atlantis stood in a place now called the “Eye of the Sahara” or the “Richat Structure”’ in western Mauritania. The site matches Plato’s geographical descriptions of Atlantis, including mountains to the north from which water flowed down and around a massive geological structure of concentric rings. To the south, there was a huge plain, and to the southwest, a channel to the sea.
Evidence also suggests that there may have been a massive series of catastrophes that swept waves of water and mud westwards through the Sahara towards the Atlantic Ocean, sweeping away any evidence of civilization. The approximate date of this would coincide with the purported destruction of what would have been the first city.
Naturally, the suggestion is a topic of much debate. There are other proposed sites that could be considered, and of course, the suggestion that Atlantis never existed at all and that it was a mythical tale. If it existed, no concrete evidence of this human civilization has been found. Yet.
Human Civilization’s First Cities: Conclusion
Our need to live together in cities was a sign of enterprise and a desire to be close to the things we needed in life. The first cities, by today’s standards, may be only the size of a sizable town at best, but thousands of years ago, they were great monoliths, new and unseen on the face of the earth. They were not just places to live but grand monuments to human beings and to the gods. They generated new ideas and brought forth new cultures, opening the human mind and stimulating the development of the human species through new practices, observations, and the need to explain the world around them.