How cities arose in history

Let’s start with taking a look at the traditional features of a city:

  1. Cities have a temple (religious centre).
  2. Cities have a palace (administrative centre).
  3. Cities have a market (trade centre) and industry
  4. Cities have barracks (military centre) and walls
  5. Cities have granaries (food centre) and water supply.

If you have any aspiration of building a city like this, the first thing you’ll have to deal with is feeding the urbanites. For as you know, it is quite typical for city-dwellers that they usually don’t produce their own food. So if you want a lot of them in one place, make sure there are other people who can produce a lot of food on their behalf. Then collect this food surplus, store it, and distribute it among the urbanites.

At this point, a couple of questions need to be answered:

  1. Who can produce a lot of food, much more than they need for themselves?
  2. Who produces food that doesn’t rot but can be stored for a longer time?
  3. Why would these people be willing to give you their extra food?
  4. How will you collect this food and distribute it among the urbanites?

In the first civilizations, these questions were answered in the following way:

Ad 1. Hunters and gatherers didn’t collect enough food to feed a city or even a village. It was only after the arrival of agriculture that people started producing so much food that they could also feed a substantial amount of other families. The first centres of agriculture appeared in the Middle East, China, New Guinea, Ethiopia, West Africa and in North, Middle and South America.

Ad 2. The Papuans in New Guinea didn’t need the rest of the world to develop agriculture. But the food they produced (sugar-cane, carrots, banana’s) couldn’t be stored for a very long time. This made the rise of cities impossible. Wheat can be stored very well and became the basis for new civilizations in the Middle East, China, Ethiopia and West-Africa. The America’s were blessed with cassava, corn, potatoes and beans. These┬ástorable crops laid the foundation for civilizations like that of the Inca in South America and the Maya in Middle America. Rice gave rise to a lot of civilizations in southern Asia. But that took a bit longer as it takes quite an effort to establish “wet-rice cultivation” (requiring a constant supply of water).

Ad 3. It didn’t take long before farmers saw the benefit of exchanging their extra food for all kinds of goods or services. So, there was trading way before the arrival of the first civilizations. Already in the 10th century BC the first walled cities, like Jericho and Damascus, appeared. It took, however, until 3500 BC before cities became so big and complex that they became known as the first civilizations. The difference was that one particular group had moved into the centre of society and gained the authority to collect food and spend it on activities that was believed to serve the common good. Which group? Priests. Which activities? Rituals to please the gods. Why was this a common good? Because the lives of farmers and settlers turned out to be much more vulnerable than the lives of hunters and gatherers. Farmers could lose their harvest due to hail, insects, drought, floods or looting. People could also fall victim to ugly diseases their domesticated animals were carrying. As the farmers and settlers couldn’t control these factors, they turned to those who claimed to know the will of the gods and how to gain their protection. The power of priests increased. At first they performed simple sacrificial rituals at the fields, but gradually these rituals turned into refined and complicated ceremonies in one particular place. Statues and temples were raised for the gods, with ritual meals and dances several times a day. In order to make all of this possible, the priests collected food from the farmers and stored it in granaries. The food was used for sacrificial purposes and to feed all the priests, craftsmen, cooks, dancers, tailors, administrators etc. who were involved. As the food production increased and improved, more and more people settled around the temple, all spending their time on other things than producing food.

Ad 4. Close to the religious centre and granaries appeared an administrative centre, focussing on collection and distribution of food. It soon developed into the centre of social and political power. Priests did not only pull the string because of their astrological knowledge, helping them to discern the will of the gods. They also knew when to sow and when to harvest because of their astronomical knowledge. They literally had a powerful sense of time. Through a number of rituals, accompanied by myths, they set the rhythm of agriculture and made sure the consumption of the food was spread over the year.

As the city grew, more and more products were also traded outside of the temple context. Markets started flourishing. And the more the temple, granary, palace and market became concentration points of valuable goods, the more the settlement had to be defended against looters and criminals. Soldiers were needed, trained in barracks, and thick walls had to be build around the houses and public buildings. From then on, it would only be a matter of time before the priest-king would be replaced by a general-king.

This is how many complex urban societies developed in history, carrying the 5 well-known features cities have had since the very first civilization.