Uruk: The World’s First Big City

Uruk’s Colonies

Episode 5: Uruk: The World’s Biggest City

Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization

Dr Amanda H Podany

Film Review

Founded around 40000 BC, Uruk was the first large city in the world. A walled city, it was approximately 260 hectares (the size of a large university campus) and housed 25,000 residents. It had two distinct temple precincts, one dedicated to Inana, the goddess of love, and the other to Anu, the god of the heavens. Each took 100 years to build, and (to keep the population employed) citizens began rebuilding them once they were completed

The economy was mainly based on farming, with most residents owning or working on farms outside the city walls and coming into the city to sleep. With the invention of the plow (pulled by oxen or donkeys) farming became much more efficient. This period also saw the invention of the wheel, the pottery wheel, cylinder seals (used like a signature to authenticate documents), a primitive writing system arsenic bronze. Wealthy began using bronze tools (because they were stronger than stone) and bronze dishes instead of ceramic ones.

Irrigation canals were enlarge until they were enough to accommodate sailing vessels.

There is evidence of a centralized government in Uruk that lived more luxurious lives than commoners but no kings. Although most people were illiterate, central government used the new writing system extensively. Scribes who kept governmental records (on clay tablets) learned to write in special schools. Archeologists have discovered clay tablets with lexicons of the proto-cuneiform* words they were expected to learn. Many are bilingual, with Sumerian** and Akkadian** versions of each word.

Uruk had a string of colonies across Mesopotamia and modern-day Syria and Turkey. They gained some via conquest (the first evidence of Middle East warfare. Others were uninhabited land taken up by Uruk settlers. The main purpose of the colonies wasn’t subjugation and exploitation, as with modern colonialism, but to facilitate trade. There is evidence Uruk traded with Egypt during this period.

Elements of modern Western life that derive from fourth millennium Uruk include

  • rectangular houses
  • streets
  • specialized rooms (ie kitchens)
  • marriage
  • laws
  • courts
  • armies
  • diplomats
  • burial of dead
  • written language
  • story telling

use of domesticated animals and plants to make clothes


*Proto-cuneiform – earliest form of writing on Earth, consisting of pictographs or simple drawings.

**Sumerian – language of ancient Sumer (area of southern Mesopotamia from 4500-1900 BC), gradually replaced by Akkadian as a spoken language around 2000 BC, though it continued to be used as a sacred, ceremonial, literary and scientific language in Akkadian-speaking Mesopotamian states.

***Akkadian – east Semitic language, now extinct, spoken in ancient Mesopotamia (Akkad, Assyria, Isin, Larsa and Babylonia)/

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

https://pukeariki.kanopy.com/video/uruk-worlds-biggest-city

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