Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Fourteen

The First Planned Cities

Sometime before 2300 BC, the Indus villages have become Harappan cities

THE “MELUHHA” from which ships came to trade with Sargon the Great was India, where a great civilization had grown up. But from this great civilization, not a single personality has survived.

In the seven hundred years between Manu Vishnu and Sargon, the villages along the Indus had turned into a network of cities. The people who lived in these cities were related, not too distantly, to the Elamites. Just as the Amorites and Akkadians were offshoots of the same migrating group of people, so the original inhabitants of the Elamite plain north of the Arabian Sea and the people who built cities along the Indus seem to have come from the same original stock.

This is about all we know. What remains of the Indus city-civilization, generally called the “Harappan civilization” after the city of Harappa (one of its earliest-discovered sites), consists of city ruins, a whole assortment of seals used to identify goods for trading, and brief inscriptions that no one can read, since the script has never been deciphered. The two largest Harappan cities are Harappa itself on a northern branch of the Indus and Mohenjo-Daro, farther to the south.38 With an effort of imagination we can people them with faceless artisans, merchants, and laborers, but the Harappan civilization has no recorded battles, sieges, power struggles, or tales of heroes.

This may not bother anthropologists and archaeologists particularly, but it annoys the historian no end. “[We have] history complete with approximate dates, cities, industries, and arts,” John Keay complains, “but absolutely no recorded events…[and] barring some not very helpful bones, no people.”1 We can speculate that the cities had kings; one of the only distinctive portraits found in the ruins is the statue of a bearded man, wearing an ornate robe and a headpiece, his eyes half closed and his face expressionless. Perhaps he is the king of Mohenjo-Daro, where his portrait was discovered. The city has a series of buildings that appear to be barracks, or servants’ quarters, suggesting that a king or priest-king may have needed a staff to run his affairs.2 But maybe there was no king at all. No clay tablets, texts written on papyrus, or any other examples of record-keeping exist in the Harappan ruins, even though the writing system (whatever it is) seems capable of producing them.3 And it is difficult to see how priests, kings, and bureaucrats could carry on their business without feeling the need to keep track of their doings.


14.1 Harappan Cities

With or without a bureaucracy, the Harappan merchants traded their goods far afield. Harappan seals turn up in the ruins of Ur, dating from the time that Sargon controlled the city. Possibly the two civilizations first met in southeast Arabia, where both bought copper from the mines at Magan, and then began their own direct trade. Ur, close to the head of the Persian Gulf, is a reasonable center for the exchange of Indian and Akkadian goods. Indian merchants could avoid the Kirthar mountain range, which blocked the northern plain, by sailing out of the Indus into the Arabian Sea, up through the Gulf of Oman, north into the Persian Gulf, and from there into the Euphrates. A Harappan trading post has been discovered at Sutkagen Dor, which lies almost within Elamite territory. Presumably the two cultures had at least a working peace.


14.1. Mohenjo-Daro Man. Limestone figure of an Indus valley man, c. 2000 BC. National Museum of Pakistan, Karachi. Photo credit Scala/Art Resource, NY

For some time, Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro were thought to be the only two Harappan cities. But now over seventy Harappan towns have been uncovered, stretching from the mouth of the Indus almost all the way to its northern streams, ranging from the western Sutkagen Dor over to the Narmada river on the east. The Harappan civilization covered perhaps half a million square miles.4

The cities are low and wide, made of mud brick baked hard in ovens. The houses, rarely more than two stories high, line well-planned streets, wide enough for two oxcarts to pass each other.5 Storage buildings, probably granaries for feeding the populace, stand near the largest cities; Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa could have supported a population of somewhere around thirty thousand people each.

These people apparently put a high value on washing. The streets are equipped with elaborate gutter and drainage systems for waste water; the houses are generally supplied with bathrooms; and among the most distinctive features of the large cities are the enormous swimming-pool-sized baths surrounded by smaller chambers, perhaps for changing clothes. No one can say for certain whether the Harappan desire for cleanliness was religious or simply personal. The ruins of Harappan towns and cities have not provided archaeologists with a single building that they unanimously identify as a temple.

The most distinctive feature of the Harappan cities were the citadels, high sections of buildings surrounded by walls and watchtowers. Generally many more houses sprawled out away from the citadels, mostly to the east. Around the entire city stood another thick mud-brick wall. If this wall were breached, the population could still retreat into the citadel, their last resort of safety.

Which causes us to wonder: what were the Harappans so afraid of that they needed two sets of walls? Neither the Sumerians nor the Elamites ever sent an army quite so far to the east. Nor is there much evidence of savage nomadic tribes in the area. Yet the double walls are high and thick, with ramparts and watchtowers: built to keep out enemies.

Maybe these reinforcements give us a clue to the Harappan character.

It has long been thought that the citadel cities were a natural maturing of the villages that had rooted themselves in the valley nearly a thousand years before. Yet there is another possibility. Thirty miles from Mohenjo-Daro, on the opposite bank of the Indus, stands a town known as Kot Diji. Careful excavation of the layers of settlement show that, in the centuries before the Harappan cities grew to full size, Kot Diji’s walls were reinforced against attack again and again. During the early years of Harappan dominance, they were rebuilt yet again. Then a great fire swept over the city, destroying not only the walls but the city itself. A new city was built overtop of old Kot Diji. This city had wide streets, brick gutters, houses with bathrooms. It was a Harappan city, its pattern unlike that of the town that had stood there before.6

Kot Diji is not the only site that seems to show a forcible takeover during the days of the Harappan cities. At Amri, on the same bank of the Indus as Mohenjo-Daro but a hundred miles south, a very ancient settlement was abruptly abandoned by half of its villagers. Over the old ruins, a Harappan city rose, with wide streets, brick gutters, and houses with bathrooms.

At Kalibangan, up in the north and not so far from Harappa, another old and durable city was deserted by its people. Overtop of the abandoned ruins, a Harappan city rose, with wide streets, brick gutters, and houses with bathrooms.7

Traces of actual warfare are hard to find. Yet the pattern is suggestive; the Harappan civilization, as it spread, was not always an organic development. For at least some cities, the spread was a takeover by a warlike segment of Indians. Judging others by themselves (or perhaps fearing retaliation), they built walls against attack and retribution.

Armed takeover is nothing unique, but the spread of Harappan architecture is very peculiar indeed. Even across half a million square miles of settlement, the Harappan cities are remarkably similar. The general plan of the cities was the same, with the citadel separate from the sprawl of houses and shops, and always to the west. The houses and shops, or “lower village,” were organized around carefully planned streets. Depending on the level of traffic they were expected to bear, they were designed as main arteries (inevitably twenty-four feet wide), streets (eighteen feet wide, or three-quarters of the width of the arteries), or side lanes (twelve feet, or half the width of an artery). They ran, inevitably, directly north-south or east-west, in a planned grid pattern. The cities used standardized weights, which was not so unusual, as Sargon’s Akkadian empire and the Egyptians had begun to move in the same direction; what is a little weirder is that the standardization also extended itself to the mud bricks used for building, which begin to conform to exactly the same dimension: in centimeters, 17.5 x 15 x 30.8

This was eminently practical, as anyone who has built with Legos will testify, but it also testifies to some oddly strong conformity, enforced in some unknown manner. John Keay calls this “obsessive uniformity,” and notes that it even extends to the building tools and artisans’ utensils, which were organized into a “standardised kit” which would have instantly been recognizable from the shore of the Arabian Sea all the way north into the far Punjab.

Most likely, the pattern of daily life still varied from city to city. The spread of Harappan civilization was not exactly the ancient equivalent of an invasion by the Borg.39 But the similarity between such widely separated cities must have required close communication (not to mention enforcement), and even so no messages have survived for us. During this period the Harappan script (whatever it says) also became standardized in its form and, presumably, its use.

Yet it has no message for us. The cities of Harappa remain free of personality. If they are like the Borg, it is in the absence of any voice who emerges as an I from the collectiveness of the Harappan experience.


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