Reconstruction of the Sumerian city of Ur

Today, one in two people live in cities in a world shaped by the civilization created within them. Most probably, all readers of this book know that in order to cross a highway safely they have to use the pedestrian overpass. They know how to complete their tax return statement with its hundreds of boxes.

They have developed criteria to choose between fifty different types of pasta in the neighborhood supermarket. And they can calculate with relative precision what time they will arrive in a location 100 or 1,000 kilometers away from their homes. It is doubtful, though, whether they can survive more than a few days, if they find themselves alone in a forest or on the beach for which they are longing so much during their daily routine.

Since when do people feel more comfortable in cities than away from them? Since when do they become so familiar with the man-made environment that they project it in their hopes for a good life? Since when do their fears derive from it?

The answer could be very simple: probably since specialization and the division of labor led people to develop only some skills and knowledge, enabling them to live in complex social environments but not in nature. Although, as we saw in Chapter 2, specialization existed long before the creation of cities, it was in the complex and stratified urban societies in which it was developed in the fullest extent. According to all indications in southern Mesopotamia, urbanization began about 7,000 years ago. Within a few hundred years, a new way of life, and eventually a new civilization was created.

The Epic of Gilgamesh speaks with admiration about Uruk, whose walls in the third millennium BCE had a length of nine kilometers.1 The Sumerian Temple Hymns, probably composed shortly before 2200 BCE, refer to thirty-five cities of south Mesopotamia. If Eridu was the oldest—the first city in the world according to the Sumerian King List 2—Ur was probably the most famous. Its population according to Sir Leonard Woolley, the most prominent excavator of the site, reached 200,000 people or maybe half a million around 1900 BCE, and this despite its destruction a few decades earlier and its subsequent subordination to neighboring Larsa. Only with difficulty can we realize today how great this number is for a city without cars and metro railway systems, phones, and the Internet.

However, we can surely imagine that the problem that all these people had to face was not how to protect themselves from wild beasts or how to trap a boar for its meat and skin as their ancestors did several hundred years ago. They were probably preoccupied with how and at what cost they would be supplied with food every day and how they would dispose of their garbage; and if they were artisans or craftsmen, how they could acquire raw materials and where they could sell their products.

Residential quarter of the Larsa period, Ur, south Iraq
Residential quarter of the Larsa period, Ur, south Iraq, circa 1900 BCE; courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania

It was a colossal change in the daily lives of people, in the most fundamental characteristics of their self-image; in the way they perceived themselves. Possibly some may have realized, as we do today, that life in the cities enabled them to live in them, and only in them, and that the urban environment was their new natural habitat. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the city foundation occupies such a large part of the literary production of the people of Mesopotamia, but also of their art, even three millennia after the first cities emerged.

The material remains of this great change have not yet been erased. These are the ruins brought into light by persistent archaeological research. The cities and the buildings themselves talk to us about the people who lived in them; about their daily lives, about their brave new world, our world.

Only a fraction, about one-sixth, of 1900 BCE Ur’s inhabitants lived in its walled section, the “old city,” as the research team who conducted the excavation called it. Equally densely populated areas also existed outside the walls, even one mile away from them. Further away—up to almost six miles—were more thinly populated areas, “suburbs,” stretching along important roads, and satellite cities. And most certainly, there were also simpler houses, makeshift constructions from reeds and other materials that leave no traces.

The houses in the “old city” were built next to one another and formed large irregular building blocks. The city had grown “organically,” apparently without a predetermined plan, as Classical Athens and Republican Rome one-and-a-half millennia later. The roads were very narrow and almost never straight. Although the wheel—initially the potter’s wheel and then the wheel for transportation—was invented in this region of the world, carriages were not able to pass through them and traffic and transportation were conducted on foot, using porters or with pack animals. It was very common for masonry at street corners to be rounded so that passers-by did not graze themselves on sharp brickwork, and in some places a low flight of brick steps was located—two three steps above the road level—apparently as a “mounting block for the convenience of riders.”

Most roads were not paved and were filled with mud when it rained, but they did not have the open drains along them that are still common today in many parts of the world. It seems that the residents threw the—little in comparison to ours—garbage, dust and dirt from cleaning their houses and rubble resulting from minor repairs outside their doors. Unbuilt “plots” and the land around the city were also used as garbage pits. As a result, the street level rose over time, ending up higher than the thresholds; consequently muddy water entered the houses when it rained. The solution was to build a new threshold one step higher, and then another, and so on. There are cases that one had to descend five or six steps to enter the house. Eventually, of course, further elevation was impossible, because with each added step the door became lower since its lintel remained stable. Then the whole house had to be demolished to the level of the lintel and rebuilt using the “buried” walls as foundations.

Although each house was different, their layouts were roughly the same; the prevailing paradigm was adapted to different circumstances, even if the overall shape of the house was destined to be completely irregular. To this standardization of houses contributed a tradition codified in the so-called house omens. These were a group of oracles (of the type if/then), some of which referred to houses and cities. According to one of them, for example, “if the foundation of a house encroaches onto a street, that house will be abandoned and its owners will repeatedly change.”

In order to preserve the stability of the family hearth, everyone preferred to respect the already formed building line and to maintain the width of the road in front of his property. According to another, more colorful omen, “if a house’s doorways open toward its front, the man’s wife will cause her spouse trouble,” something that surely many would like to avoid at all costs. What choice did they have other than to make the door of their houses open inwards? Passers-by could be certain that a door opening suddenly would not hit them in the face.

House in Gay Street no. 3, Ur, south Iraq, circa 1900 BCE, ground plan and cross section; drawing L. Woolley, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania

The outer door of the house was usually small and led to an anteroom. From there, crossing a second, interior door, one entered into the paved courtyard, which—at least in some cases—might have had a flat elevated roof letting light and air to enter perimetrically. All of the rooms were arranged around it: the reception room, elongated and of small depth, where visitors sat during the day, and mattresses were set for them to stay overnight. Further away were a small lavatory and a storeroom. Then there was the kitchen and next to it the room where the household slaves slept; societies without washing machines, microwave ovens, and vacuum cleaners often resorted to forced labor to meet the urban household’s demands. A built staircase leading upwards occupied the space of what could have been a room. The excavators assume that the houses usually had two floors (since a wooden mobile ladder would suffice for climbing on the roof of a one-story house); if that is the case, the private rooms of the owner and his family would have been in the upper floor and accessible by a wooden corridor built around the courtyard.

Building 56, Çatalhöyük, Anatolia, Turkey, circa 7000 BCE, interior; drawing J. Swogger, Çatalhöyük Research Project

The building material was baked (therefore quite durable) bricks up to a certain height and unbaked bricks from that level and above. The construction quality of a house was a matter of concern for the neighborhood since any poor workmanship and possible collapse endangered passers-by and the adjacent homes. A bit later, in the eighteenth century BCE, the so-called Code of Hammurabi was implemented in this part of the world; it included the oldest known regulations for building activity, awarding penalties for improper or negligent construction by contractors.

The houses of Ur attest to the full development of the new culture, which clearly distinguished urban dwellers from those of the countryside. The houses of Ur didn’t follow the model of the Terra Amata huts. They were not “man-made caves” whose interior was insulated in the best possible way from the surrounding nature—such man-made caves always exist with reference to the “outside”—a paradigm that dominated the construction of shelter and lodgings of all kinds until about the middle of the third millennium BCE.

The houses in the eighth- and seventh-millennium BCE settlement unearthed in Çatalhöyük near Konya in Turkey were also a kind of man-made cave. Built next to each other, a few centimeters apart or sharing walls, without roads between them, they formed compact habitation islets. People walked on the roofs from which they entered their houses. Any gaps resulting from the desolation or collapse of houses were used as outdoor living spaces for the adjacent houses or as garbage dumps. Each house consisted of a rather large, usually roughly rectangular, room measuring up to five or six meters (sometimes with one or two elongated storage rooms attached to it) and covered with a flat roof constructed on wooden beams. The walls were plastered and sometimes adorned with frescoes and bullhorns. According to a rather widespread practice of this period, the dead were buried under the floors in various parts of the houses—normally, the children separate from the adults. There were no public buildings, or if there were, they were no different from ordinary houses. The variation of building forms according to function had yet to emerge: what we now consider normal—that a church or a theater is quite distinct from an apartment block—was at the time out of people’s horizon of expectations, with few exceptions as we have seen in Chapter 2. The compact structure of the Çatalhöyük settlement is, in a sense, a transfer to a larger scale of the individual lodging’s paradigm. Each house may seem to have stood on its own—isolated from its surroundings—but it fully depended on it, since its inhabitants had to occasionally venture outside, where they came into visual, at least, contact with their neighbors.

And this was also the case with the houses in Mesopotamian cities since their emergence. By the fifth millennium BCE, urban dwellings seem to have consisted of an elongated central room and smaller rooms adjacent to it. They had few small windows in the street, or in a vacant plot, or in the garden if there was one, and were built next to one another, without always forming a continuous web.

It was in the middle of the third millennium that the new house model emerged—a fully developed example of which is preserved in 1900 BCE Ur atrium houses. Its fundamental difference from the previous paradigm is that an open, relatively spacious courtyard replaced the elongated central room. The houses could now provide its inhabitants with the opportunity to remain inside for long periods without having to venture outdoors and expose themselves to natural elements or to the public view. Their introverted layout turned them to oases of calm in the middle of the noisy gathering of people—i.e., the urban environment. They did not have to open up to the street—they opened up to the sky. Nature did not frighten the inhabitants of these houses, since it was no longer hostile; the skies brought only the beneficial sun and the relieving rain, the basic ingredients for life. What the city dwellers had to protect themselves from was probably gossip. They did not need to leave their houses to survey the surrounding area out for fear of unknown attackers. The city’s walls and its armed forces ensured their safety. Support from neighbors was no longer so vital for their security that they had to sacrifice their privacy. What could be a better proof for the change—as we surmised in the beginning of the chapter—that had taken place in daily life and self-image of people from the very form of their houses?

In some cases, the houses of Ur underwent rather radical modifications as is evident in Broad Street no. 1 (the name given by the archaeologists who conducted the excavation). The doorways of the ground floor rooms opening onto the court had been bricked up. Hence, the yard itself, the reception room, and the lavatory were completely cut off from the rest of the house and the only means of communication was a small opening. Simultaneously, a new doorway was opened in the yard’s north wall leading directly to the street. The approximately two thousand clay tablets found scattered in situ leave little doubt of what had happened. The house’s owner was a priest named Igmil-Sin as deduced from several letters which were all addressed to the same recipient. Igmil-Sin modified a section of his house to function as a private school. Several tablets similar to modern school notebooks were unearthed, and were probably used by students for exercises in writing and mathematics. Other tablets contained history and religious texts, probably used for dictation and memorization; others contained the principles of geometry and multiplication tables. Igmil-Sin’s students apparently received all the necessary skills to staff an increasingly complex administration and an increasingly complex economy necessary for an increasingly complex city. Further down the street, a house was converted—according to available evidence—into the neighborhood cookhouse, with one of its rooms serving as a dining hall.

House in Gay Street no. 3, Ur, modern south Iraq, circa 1900 BCE, court; hypothetical reconstruction according to L. Woolley, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania

Modifications like those visible in the houses of Ur demonstrate that people felt quite comfortable in the built environment. By then, living in houses—i.e., in relatively controlled climatic conditions, and the security provided by a roof—was common practice since millennia. Evidently, in 1900 BCE Ur the house was not owed respect for securing the survival of its inhabitants in an inhospitable environment; it was no longer a sacred arc. The house had lost its magic. It had become a tool. It had become more or less une machine à habiter, as Le Corbusier, the great theorist of modern architecture, wanted for the twentieth-century house.

Albeit somewhat simplistically, we can argue that people evaluate the products of architecture—and have done so since the distant past—according to three criteria: a) the physical characteristics of the buildings, i.e., they judge them as material objects—how well they serve their purpose, how beautiful they are, etc; b) the embedded ideas, i.e., they judge them as the vehicles of their creators’ intentions; c) the extent to which they reflect the value system of their cultural environment, i.e., they judge them as symbolic objects. The relative gravitas of each of these criteria changes from society to society, era to era and, most importantly, from person to person and moment to moment. We have all probably found ourselves in a sudden downpour when standing before a nice building, and all of us have realized that we all but forget its beautiful proportions and the noble intentions of its maker, and we stop contemplating their sophisticated symbolisms until we find a shelter.

We treat buildings according to this complex, more or less three- part evaluation; we take care or abandon them, we maintain or demolish them. Converting them in order to serve us better is a step further. This step arguably occurred for the first time with clarity and confidence in the environment of the first Mesopotamian cities. Of course, people always modify their houses; in Çatalhöyük, there are many traces of conversions made 8,000 years ago. What is particularly interesting, though, is that in many cases, the reason behind the changes in Ur houses was none other than a response to the constantly evolving demands of the inhabitants’ daily lives in a complex urban environment.

I believe that it can be suggested, even somewhat schematically, that the cities are where people became completely familiar with buildings. In cities, the built environment became the given context of human life. In cities, buildings became routine and ceased to be awe-aspiring achievements. In cities, buildings became dispensable.

The revolutionary changes in people’s way of living, which took place for the first time in Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago, decisively changed the real world because they changed the world of our imagination. Everything else that followed was just a matter of time.