Skip to main content

Ancient Mesopotamia at the Dawn of Civilization

The Evolution of an Urban Landscape

The alluvial lowlands of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Mesopotamia are widely known as the “cradle of civilization,” owing to the scale of the processes of urbanization that took place in the area by the second half of the fourth millennium BCE.
            In Ancient Mesopotamia at the Dawn of Civilization, Guillermo Algaze draws on the work of modern economic geographers to explore how the unique river-based ecology and geography of the Tigris-Euphrates alluvium affected the development of urban civilization in southern Mesopotamia. He argues that these natural conditions granted southern polities significant competitive advantages over their landlocked rivals elsewhere in Southwest Asia, most importantly the ability to easily transport commodities. In due course, this resulted in increased trade and economic activity and higher population densities in the south than were possible elsewhere. As southern polities grew in scale and complexity throughout the fourth millennium, revolutionary new forms of labor organization and record keeping were created, and it is these socially created innovations, Algaze argues, that ultimately account for why fully developed city-states emerged earlier in southern Mesopotamia than elsewhere in Southwest Asia or the world.

248 pages | 10 halftones, 9 maps, 6 line drawings, 1 figure, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2008


History: Ancient and Classical History, Middle Eastern History

Middle Eastern Studies


“Algaze displays an impressive command of recent research in economic geography and an insightful knowledge of strengths and weaknesses of the textual and archaeological dataset. The result is a tight and theoretically explicit model for the precocious rise of southern Mesopotamian urban society that argues strongly for the primacy of trade, transportation technology, and uniquely diverse geographic circumstances. Algaze’s The Uruk World System drove the research agenda for the Uruk expansion; Ancient Mesopotamia at the Dawn of Civilization will structure the direction of future field research on the emergence of the world’s earliest urban states.”

Jason Ur, Harvard University

“This is an important and valuable distillation of Algaze’s most recent thinking on the development of southern Mesopotamian society. While it is indeed a worthy complement to his earlier work, this wholly original book takes his argument much further, making a number of important theoretical points.”

T.J. Wilkinson, Durham University

“Outstanding. . . . This book is the single best treatment available in discussing the complex issues involved in bringing about Mesopotamian civilization, offering a model of approach for anyone interested in the emergence of civilization.”


Table of Contents

List of Illustrations



Chapter 1. The Sumerian Takeoff

Natural and Created Landscapes

A Reversal of Fortune

Forthcoming Discussions

Chapter 2. Factors Hindering Our Understanding of the Sumerian Takeoff

The Material Limits of the Evidence

Conceptual Problems

Methodological Problems

Chapter 3. Modeling the Dynamics of Urban Growth

Growth as Diversification

Growth as Specialization

Growth Situated

Growth Institutionalized

Chapter 4. Early Mesopotamian Urbanism: Why?

Environmental Advantages

Geographical Advantages

Comparative and Competitive Advantage

Chapter 5. Early Mesopotamian Urbanism: How?

The Growth of Early Mesopotamian Urban Economies

The Uruk Expansion

Multiplier Effects

Chapter 6. The Evidence for Trade

Chapter 7. Early Mesopotamian Urbanism in Comparative Perspective

Evidentiary Biases

Florescent Urbanism in Alluvial Mesopotamia

The Primacy of Warka: Location, Location, Location

Aborted Urbanism in Upper Mesopotamia

Chapter 8. The Synergies of Civilization

Propinquity and Its Consequences

Technologies of the Intellect

The Urban Revolution Revisited

Chapter 9. Conclusion: The Mesopotamian Conjuncture

Epilogue: Early Sumerian Civilization: A Research Agenda




Households and Property

Excavation and Survey


Mortuary Evidence


The Early Uruk Problem

Appendix 1. Early/Middle Uruk Sites in the Mesopotamian Alluvium Organized by Size and Presumed Functional Category

Appendix 2. Late Uruk Sites in the Mesopotamian Alluvium Organized by Size and Presumed Functional Category

Notes Reference List Source List Index

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press