Urbanism on the Margins: Third Millennium BC Al-Rawda in the Arid Zone of Syria

Article excerpt

The Fertile Crescent of the Ancient Near East is well known for its early cities in irrigated farming regions. Here the authors describe the recent discovery and investigation of a planned, circular, mid/late-third millennium BC city beyond the limit of rain-fed cultivation in the arid zone of inner Syria. Founded on the initiative of an unknown power and served by pastoralists and cultivators, the research at Al-Rawda demonstrates how environmental constraints were overcome in order to establish and sustain new centres in demanding regions at a time of maximum urbanisation.

Keywords: Early Bronze Age, Syria, arid zone, pastoralism, temples, urbanism


Urbanism has taken many forms, but it is generally agreed that its earliest manifestations occurred in Mesopotamia during the fourth millennium BC, whether in the south or the north (Adams 1981; Van de Mieroop 1997; Algaze 2005; Lawler 2006). After a poorly understood, lengthy history in the north, one that involved expansion of what is often referred to as the Uruk phenomenon (Algaze 2005), a 'second urban revolution' with indigenous roots took place in Syria around the mid-third millennium BC. States and urban life with its associated institutions flourished in numerous cities founded in dry farming areas with minimum c. 200mm annual precipitation and in the Euphrates valley. About 2600-2400 BC, written documents used for administrative, diplomatic and religious purposes appear at such centres as Mari, Ebla and Tell Beydar (Figure 1; Akkermans & Schwartz 2003: 233-87; Quenet 2005).

The 200mm isohyet is a crude indicator for the limit of cultivation, since even above that line lies a 'zone of agricultural uncertainty' (Wilkinson 2000). Here cities only gained a precarious foothold because of the fluctuation of rainfall from year to year. Stretching unevenly in an east-west band just above the 200mm isohyet (shown on Figure 1), the zone includes centres along the Euphrates and the Balikh Rivers where the worst effects of precarious rainfall could be ameliorated by irrigation. However, the recent discovery of arid zone urban sites below that marginal strip, on the edge of the inner Syrian desert, calls for a re-assessment of the boundary. More significantly, they add a new dimension to the long history of urban development by suggesting that scholars have underestimated the strength of the impetus towards urbanisation in the Ancient Near East during the Early Bronze Age. Clearly, severe ecological constraints were overcome in the drive to the urbanisation of inner Syria. Founded around 2400 BC, Al-Rawda, one of the most impressive of these recent discoveries, highlights the rapidity of that dynamic.


The early date of these steppe zone instances should not be read as yet another sterile claim to be the 'first'. Other examples of steppe land urbanism, such as those belonging to highly mobile groups in eastern Inner Asia, were usually founded in the political context of empires where they functioned as administrative, mercantile and military centres (Rogers et al. 2005). Empires were more readily able to generate the necessary labour for the construction of major urban centres, often created de nova where there had been no previous substantive settlement and executed according to a pre-existing plan. Al-Rawda, on the other hand, was constructed at the time of the emergence of short-lived territorial states with weak centralisation. As Alfonso Archi has written of these archaic states in their formative phase, they present 'a dichotomy: maximum power at the centre of the structure and maintenance of the original organization of the territory'(Archi 1992: 39). Equally important, society then lacked the horse and camel that underpinned the achievements of mobile peoples in the roughly analogous steppe settings of Mongolia. Lacking such resources, the creation of specialised centres in the mid-third millennium BC needs to be treated as the product of qualitatively different initiatives. …