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11 / The Urban Experience

Ruins of the White Temple and Ziggurat
Ruins of the White Temple and Ziggurat
Artist / Origin Unknown artist(s). Uruk, Mesopotamia
Region: West Asia
Date ca. 3200–3000 BCE
Material Brick
Dimensions H: 40 ft. (12 m.)
Location Warka (ancient Uruk), Iraq
Credit © Nik Wheeler/CORBIS

expert perspective

Marc Van De MieroopProfessor of Ancient Near Eastern History, Columbia University

Ruins of the White Temple and Ziggurat

» Unknown artist(s). Uruk, Mesopotamia

expert perspective

Marc Van De Mieroop Marc Van De Mieroop Professor of Ancient Near Eastern History, Columbia University

The city of Uruk in the south of Babylonia, around 3400 BC, became truly the first city in the world. One aspect that allows us to say that Uruk turns into a true city is the fact that we see this quite sudden appearance of massive buildings, monumental buildings. So when you’re in this exceedingly flat countryside and you see in the distance these massive buildings, which are on top of these artificial mounds, they become this beacon to which people can look from a great distance. And then, actually, they know that this is a center; this is something where they can find things they cannot find in the countryside. This is a place where you have writing. This is a place where you have manufacture of, for example, metal objects; bronze is invented at the same time. So this is what I think defines a place like Uruk as a true city. A city is not just defined because it is big and large and lots of people live there—and probably in reality only some 40,000 people lived there, and today if we find a village with 40,000 people, you don’t call it the big city.

The whole of Babylonian culture and history was made possible by the rivers that flow through the region between the Tigris and Euphrates River. The entire region gets exceedingly little rainfall. So in order to grow a single plant, you have to bring water to that plant. And people learned how to take the water of the Euphrates. Over time, they are able to produce so much agricultural resources that it becomes possible to have a dense concentration of people in the same place, that it actually becomes possible to have, amongst these people, a number of them who no longer need to farm for a living, but who can specialize in such things as learning how to read and write.

If you train somebody to be able to read and write, there is certainly a massive investment in time. You are not going to ask this person, then, to farm a field, or herd some sheep, or something like that. So you have these groups within the population who become dependent on the farmers, on the herdsmen, on fishermen, because they are able to provide them with their food. And you get a specialization of labor, you get an organization of a society that is totally innovative, truly new in the history of the world, and you get it through urban society.”