Notions of Afterlife & Kingship in Urban Planning in the Ancient Middle East

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  • 0:08 Cities
  • 0:46 City Planning in the Near East
  • 2:41 City Planning in Egypt
  • 3:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore how cultural values such as kingship or religion influenced the decision to build cities in the ancient Middle East, as well as the style of those cities. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Cities

We are pretty used to cities. We see a lot of them in our world. Cities are everywhere, and sometimes we forget that they are built with specific purposes, beyond just a place to put people. Different civilizations across history have had different purposes for cities, such as defense or trade.

The Middle East has had to ask this question longer than almost anywhere else because this is where some of the first major cities were formed. In the ancient Middle East, cities were designed to hold people, but also to communicate important cultural values about the power of the kings and spirituality.

City Planning in the Near East

In the ancient Near East, which includes the region between Africa and Europe, several major civilizations formed during the 4th millennium BC. They were mostly clustered in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers called the Fertile Crescent. One of the first civilizations to build major cities was Sumer, located in modern-day Iraq.

The Sumerians designed their cities with a special religious focus. In the center of each city was a ziggurat, a massive platform that supported a temple to the god of that city. For Sumerians, religion was literally the center of daily life. The gods were believed to live above humans, and mountains were the closest that people could get to reaching the heavens. So the Sumerians built their own mountains. This style of urban planning, in which the city was built around a fort-like ziggurat, was continued by the Akkadian and Babylonian cultures, with each group building larger and larger platforms. If you've ever heard of the indomitable Tower of Babel, that was the ziggurat of Babylon, a temple so high that it almost reached the heavens.

Other styles of urban planning in the ancient Near East reflected the power of the king as a military leader. In the first millennium BC, the Assyrian culture rose to prominence. In an era of constant warfare, the Assyrian kings built cities surrounded by large, thick walls. Not only were the walls large, the Assyrian cities themselves were massive, with the king's palace alone holding hundreds of rooms and courtyards. To the Assyrian kings, large cities were a direct reflection of their power, since the king had to mobilize massive amount of workers to create such a sizeable urban center. Anybody who passed by an Assyrian city would be reminded that this king has lots of support, which he could summon and direct to his every whim.

City Planning in Egypt

The other area of major urban development in this region was Egypt. Ancient Egypt was one of the most powerful forces of the Middle East and North Africa for millennia, ruled over by the powerful pharaohs. Egyptian culture, like that of Sumer, was deeply committed to its religion, which played a vital role in daily life: more than that, it played a vital role in the next life. The Egyptian religion believed that the spirit would remain immortal after death, providing the body was properly cared for.

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