Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Civilization without Cities?

We talk a lot about cities in this blog because of their significance in the development of human culture. The first urban areas came into existence in antiquity, creating dense human populations, and setting the stage for the foundation for modern society. The Polis, in particular, has received many words here as the pre-eminent ancient urban model and the bulwark of the Greek civilization. More recently, we have discussed the early urban centers of Mesopotamia – the world’s first.

But there was one ancient civilization without a major city until the end of the second millennium B.C, a span of three thousand years. Do you know which one?

Its Egypt! Land of the Pharaohs – Jewel of the Nile. No cities? How can that be? Aren’t cities the natural result of the development of human society?

In Egypt, like other cultures, geography influenced man. Egypt is located between deserts, on the west, east, and south, making it immune from outside attack. On the north sits the great delta, with no natural harbors available to support an invasion. In its midst sits that great river with its alluvial plain, bringing precious water to any cultivated field near it.

Egypt was influenced by Mesopotamia (e.g. the pottery wheel) but did not derive from it, because there were unique aspects to this African land that made it different from any other.

The harshness of the surrounding land kept Egypt stable. The boundary line between arable land and desert was absolute, so it was never possible to settle on the fringe. Dissatisfaction was stillborn because no was nowhere for the dissatisfied to go.

Early on, there developed a sphere of political influence over hundreds of small communities, so the urban revolution never got started. The ruler was a king and god, which short-circuiting a separation of powers model seen in other cultures. Additionally, Egypt is a homogeneous geography which works against the kind of vertical economy seen in Mesopotamia. Near Sumer, plain, steppe, and mountain produced a micro-economic climate that allowed human task differentiation which was fostered in a urban setting.

It has been suggested by Anthropologists that cities arise from a human need for defense. Then, once they are established, urban areas develop in different ways. As we have said, Egypt needed no defense, so the primary driver for urbanism was lacking.

This great ancient Egyptian society featured a bureaucracy, which was the greatest in the history of man. It directed an economy of craft specialization and mass labor projects focused on division of labor by personnel rather than region – a stable process further increasing cultural stability.


monkeyface said...

Slightly confused by this one. What were Memphis and Thebes if they were not urban centers? I always assumed they were sprawling cities. Capitols weren't they? Seats of empire?

Mike Anderson said...

Depends on the definition of city. I refer to the period before the end of the first millenium B.C, as without cities. Estimates of the population of Memphis in the Old Kingdom as 6,000.