The first city in Mesopotamia is thought to have been Uruk, not far from what is now Baghdad. At its peak, c. 2,000 BCE, it may have had a population of 50,000 but eventually declined for various environmental and political reasons and was abandoned before 300 CE. What is often considered the first work of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, was written there about 1800 BCE in cuneiform on stone tablets. It begins with what is probably the first written description of a place:
“The massive wall of Uruk, which no city on earth can equal. See how its ramparts gleam like copper in the sun. Climb the stone staircase, more ancient than the mind can imagine, approach the Eanna Temple, sacred to Ishtar, a temple that no king has equalled in size or beauty, walk on the wall of Uruk, follow its course around the city, inspect its mighty foundations, examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built, observe the land it encloses: the palm trees, the gardens, the orchards, the glorious palaces and temples, the shops and marketplaces, the houses, the public squares.”
Greek city-states and knowledge of other places
The practice of building urban places slowly spread from Mesopotamia east to India and westwards to the Mediterranean. In Ancient Greece, in the first millennium BCE, the practice began to take on a distinctive character that is notable in part because such good archaeological and written records have survived.
An important part of this distinctiveness was the development of city-states: essentially politically defined urban regions, each with a city supported by an agricultural economy, and with its own deity revered and honoured in temples such as those on the Acropolis for Athena, the goddess of Athens.
Each city-state also had its own form of government to direct the everyday life of its citizens. The most notable was the democratic system invented in Athens, which redefined how people related to place, because citizens (adult males, not women or slaves) could meet in a public space, the Agora, to debate and vote on matters that would affect life in the places where they lived.
Some Greek cities, such as Athens, had inherited irregular or organic plans from earlier settlements, but where possible considerable attention was paid to creating a carefully arranged layout of spaces. In cities that had to be rebuilt – for instance, after a war – these public spaces were incorporated into a system of rectangular city blocks in what can be considered the first systematic instances of placemaking and town planning. The aesthetically meticulous architecture of Greek temples set a standard for western architecture that has been repeatedly revived and is still admired. In this respect, ancient Greek placemaking has echoed through the centuries.