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Holman Bible Dictionary

Cities And Urban Life

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Cities form a major indicator of civilization. Indeed, the emergence of cities often marks the move to civilization. The oldest city excavated to date is found in Palestine; it is tell es-Sultan, Old Testament Jericho. This site was already a bustling city between 8000,7000 B.C. Even before its citizens used pottery, the city had a massive defense wall and a high circular watch tower inside the wall. This tower was 28 feet in diameter at the base. It had an internal staircase leading to the top. When it was excavated, the tower still stood 19 feet tall. Even at such an early time period, this city showed a sophisticated organizational structure to plan and complete its defenses. Urban living, indeed, has a long history in Palestine.

The terms “city” and “urban life” had quite a different meaning in the biblical period, especially in the earlier times. Modern usage has given us at least five terms to describe a range of population. In increasing size of population we speak of open country, village, town, city, metropolis. The Old Testament uses two words for “city” (eer and kiriah ) and one for “village” (chatsair ). The Old Testament differentiation seems to be based not on size primarily, but on the presence or absence of a defense wall. Cities had walls, while villages were unwalled. Villages, being unwalled, were usually smaller than cities, but that was not always the case.

Size of cities Ancient cities tended to be much smaller in both size and population than our typical understanding of a city. The oldest walled city at Jericho mentioned above covered less than ten acres. Even during the Old Testament period, Jericho was no more than ten acres in area. Some of the great cities of Mesopotamia were much more like the size we consider for a city. At the height of the Assyrian empire in the eighth century B.C., Nineveh covered approximately 1720 acres or over two and a half square miles. The mound of Calah (ancient Nimrud) covered over 875 acres or one and a quarter square miles. None of the cities in Palestine from the Old Testament period come close to the size of the great cities of Mesopotamia. Jerusalem at the time of Solomon covered only 33 acres; even at the time of Jesus it covered less than 200 acres. This is not to say that Palestine had no larger cities. Hazor, in northern Israel, was over 175 acres in area. However, most of the well-known biblical sites were smaller rather than larger.

Closely related to the area of a town is its population. Recent population projections based on the density of cities from cultures similar to those of biblical times along with a count of the number of house units found in excavations suggest that most cities could support 160-200 persons per acre. Thus Shechem might have had a population of 2,000 to 2,500 during the Old Testament period; Jerusalem in Solomon's time could have supported 5,000 to 6,500. Even when Jerusalem expanded in Josiah's time, it would have had no more than 25,000 inhabitants. An inscription found at Ebla in northern Syria and dated to about 2400-2250 B.C. states that Ebla had a population of 250,000. However, it is unclear whether this figure referred to the city, or the entire kingdom controlled by Ebla, or was an exaggeration to impress others of the size of Ebla. By A.D. 300, the city of Rome may have had nearly a million inhabitants.

Cities and the Surrounding Region At least two types of phrases are used to describe the region surrounding a city. One phrase described the chief city of a region in relation to the smaller villages around it. Thus in a literal translation the Old Testament speaks of a city “with its villages” (Joshua 19:16 ; Nehemiah 11:30 ) or “with its daughters” (Numbers 21:25 ; 2 Chronicles 13:19 ). These two phrases indicate that the city was the most important center of activity for the region. Outlying villages were closely related to the central city for their existence. Most of the commercial activity for the region was carried out in the city. Usually, the city was located on the main highway or intersection of highways and trade route through the area. The major sanctuary or worship place would be most frequently located in the city, making it a center of religious pilgrimages and celebrations. Whenever war or invasion threatened, the people of the surrounding villages would flee to the walled city for protection.

Why was a city built at a particular location? Among the chief concerns would be the presence of food and water nearby, along with the raw materials for shelter, tools, and industry. Furthermore, a site that was easy to defend would be most likely to be chosen.

A number of common features may be found in the typical city of the Ancient Near East. Each of these features will be discussed briefly.

1. Walls City walls in the Ancient Near East were formed of courses of stone or mudbrick, at times quite thick. The rampart at Hazor in northern Israel about 1700 B.C. is almost 50 feet high at places and up to 290 feet thick! Furthermore, the perimeter of this enclosed area was over two miles. Granted, most walls were not nearly so immense, nor the perimeter so extensive, but such figures give one some idea of the size of a large city of the time period. During the time of Solomon and continuing somewhat afterward (about 960-850 B.C.), the city wall as regularly a casemate, consisting of parallel walls often about three feet thick reinforced by perpendicular walls at regular intervals. The outer wall was usually thicker. The space between the two walls could be used for dwelling or storage. In later times, a solid wall, as thick as 16 feet replaced the casemates. The Assyrian battering ram is probably the cause for the development of this new defensive wall. A sloping, plastered embankment called a “glacis” was at times built outside of the wall to protect the foundations and to keep battering rams or chariots at a distance from the wall.

2. Gate The most important and most vulnerable part of the wall structure was the gate. Massive guard towers usually flanked the gate. The entrance itself was narrow, usually twelve to fifteen feet wide. Two heavy wooden doors could be shut and braced with metal bars at night or in case of attack. The gate complex itself had two or three separate sets of doors through which one had to pass to gain entry to the city. In the event of war, an enemy might penetrate one set of doors and still not be in the city. Indeed, the enemy would find themselves open to attack from three or four sides once inside the first gate door. Within the inner gate structure would be four to six rooms which served as guard rooms. Open squares inside and outside the gate gaveroom for trade and commerce. The open square was often the site of the marketplace. Also, public buildings often stood near the open square. These buildings served as important administrative and military centers as well as centers of trade and commerce. The city gate also served as the courtroom for the city (Joshua 20:4 ; Ruth 4:1-6 ). Stone benches found as part of an Early Bronze (2500-2000 B.C.) gate at khirbet Iskander may have served as seats for the elders of that city as they rendered legal decisions. A fully preserved triple arch gate structure from the Middle Bronze Age has recently been excavated at tell Dan. This gate, which dates to about 1800 B.C., is the earliest example of an arch known in Palestine.

3. Water supply Adequate water supply was another necessity for a city. During peaceful times, the water supply could be outside the wall and within a reasonable distance from the city. A protected water supply accessible from within the city was necessary to endure a siege during wartime. Most cities were located near springs, streams, or wells. Many homes had cisterns, especially in the more arid regions. The springs were usually at the foot of the tell outside the city wall. Hazor, Megiddo, and Gibeon provide examples of water systems the Israelites constructed during the monarchy. Extensive water tunnel and pool systems were built by cutting through the bedrock of the tell to reach the level of the springs. At Hazor, the tunnel system had to cut through 70 feet of soil and rock to reach the water level. Hezekiah's tunnel in Jerusalem is another example of the water tunnel system. 2 Kings 20:20 mentions the construction of this system about 700 B.C. The Romans often constructed great aqueducts to bring water from long distances to a city. Portions of two such aqueducts still remain at Caesarea-by-the-Sea which brought the water from over five miles away. One of the Hellenistic-Roman aqueducts at Jerusalem covers nearly 25 miles.

4. Agricultural land Earliest towns were surely self-sufficient and must have had fertile farming land nearby. The Old Testament speaks of the fields of a city or village (Leviticus 25:34 ; Joshua 21:12 ; Nehemiah 11:25 ,Nehemiah 11:25,11:30 ), and indicates that some of the land was held in common and some was owned by a family or clan. Large cities would not have had enough land surrounding to meet its food needs, so they would depend on the trade of the surplus produce from the smaller villages. The villages in turn would depend on the cities for the manufactured goods and items of trade from distant areas. Agricultural land was not supposed to be sold out of the family or clan (Leviticus 25:25-28 ). Isaiah strongly denounced those wealthy who would add “field to field, until there be no place” (Isaiah 5:8 ).

5. Acropolis The highest elevation of many cities often formed an acropolis or inner citadel. In addition to serving as a stronghold, the acropolis also served as residence for the aristocracy or royalty. As one might expect, the houses located here would be the largest and best constructed of the city. Not only would the security be strongest in the acropolis, but the higher elevation would catch any breeze and cool the house in the summer. In addition, the major shrines or temples were often located on the acropolis.

6. Street plan Ancient Near Eastern cities usually had a regular street plan. In Babylon, major streets led from the gates into the city center. In the period of the monarchy, Israelite cities regularly had an open court just inside the gate. A circular street led from the court around the perimeter of the city. This circular street gave easy access to all sections of the city, as well as providing the military with quick access to any part of the city wall. Other streets branched off this circular street and led into the center of the city. In the Roman cities, the major road was usually the cardo, a wide, flagstone paved highway which ran north-south. The major east-west road was the decumanus. A section of the cardo of Jerusalem has been excavated recently in the Jewish Quarter. Although the portion excavated belongs to the Byzantine period, it may well reflect what the Roman cardo there was like. The street was colonnaded, and was 39 feet wide. It had covered sidewalks, each an additional 17 feet wide. The street even had a covered drainage system.

7. House plans Along with street plan, one can note something of a development in house plans in Israel. The earliest houses had one main room and courtyard. By the period of the monarchy, the typical Israelite house was a four room house. From the street, one entered an open courtyard with three enclosed rooms on the three sides of the courtyard. In the courtyard, the family carried out its business as well as the cooking. One of the three rooms would probably house the livestock. The other two rooms would be living areas and storage. Some of these houses have stairs that show the presence of an upper story (1Kings 17:19,1 Kings 17:23 ). Excavations have shown that the poorer of the community had much smaller houses, often of only one room, crudely built, and jammed closely together.

Dramatic changes took place in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The successors to Alexander the Great built many Greek cities in Palestine. Greek culture was the pattern in the Decapolis and other Hellenistic cities.

Joel F. Drinkard, Jr.

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Cities And Urban Life'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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