Creativity, Wealth Creation, Defence, Environmental Degradation – four key lessons that I take from the planet’s earliest cities, which were located in southern Mesopotamia. The place we today call Iraq.
Let me explain why I think Creativity, Wealth Creation, Defence and Environmental Degradation were important to southern Mesopotmia.
Background to Sumerian Civilization
Uruk, Ur and Eridu were just some of the cities of the Sumer, the World’s first civilization. The Sumerians created the World’s first cities in the Euphrates and Tigris river basins starting around 5000 BC.
Today the area is desert and ruins, but thousands of years ago it was lush and rich. The opprtunities for agriculture enabled many people to come together, leading to the first cities.
Creativity in Mesopotamian Cities
Writing, bronze working and the wheel were invented in Ur and Uruk. With so many people living together for the first time in human history, and with their basic needs met, there were opportunities for human creativity. People invented like never before. Could you imagine life without writing, the wheel or metal working?
Creativity today is often thought of as an individual, an academic or an R&D thing. But can we again inspire creativity in our cities, like the Sumerians?
Wealth Creation in Mesopotamian Cities
Uruk, Ur and Eridu created wealth by efficiently using the Sun’s energy, the water from the rivers and the richness of the land. They then traded, so that each city could make the very best use of their own resources.
Wealth creation attracted people, allowed the building of great structures and increased time spent on invention. Today is not so different. Cities like New York, London and Tokyo have become great because of their ability to create wealth.
Defence in Mesopotamian Cities
Unfortunately for the residents, the land around the Tigris and Euphrates is not only rich but also flat and open. Uruk, Ur and Eridu were prime targets for invaders.
They learnt the hard way that if you don’t defend yourself, you have a problem. Eventually city walls were built, but the problem never completely went away. Ongoing attacks were one of the reasons the Sumerian civilization fell (along with Environmental Degradation – see below).
Few definitions of Sustainable Cities today include defence. But should they? Recent terrorist attacks in New York, London, Madrid and Mumbai show that we need to defend ourselves and should not take safety for granted.
Environmental Degradation in Mesopotamian Cities
The intensive irrigation and agriculture that led to the rise of the Sumerain cities also led to their demise. The area became salinated and a desert, and is still so today. First, the locals moved to more salt resistent crops, like barley. Second, when that failed, they abandoned the region.
The Sumerians were perhaps the first civilization who, by damaging their environment, came to a sad end. I hope our cities don’t follow their example.
Today the key Iraqi city is Baghdad and is not a place many cities would aspire to. But maybe ancient places like Uruk, Ur and Eridu can show the opportunities and pitfalls that lie ahead for cities today. Creativity, Wealth Creation, Defence and Environmental Degradation are issues now, just as they were 7000 years ago.
Or do you think differently?
Next week, I’ll look at the ancient Chinese civilization and the relevance to our cities. Will you join me?