Gallery H

Ancient Cities

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The Great Indus Valley Civilization

By James Donahue

We like to think that Mesopotamia and then ancient Egypt were among the first great urban cultures to emerge in the distant past, but there was a third and perhaps even greater one. It was the Harappan civilization, a vast and advanced culture with cities that spread across the plains of the Indus River covering what is now India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh between 4,000 and 5,200 years ago.

The Harappan culture, which has been largely overlooked by world historians, may have been larger in population and perhaps as advanced in many ways as those that followed.

First discovered along the Indus River and its tributaries by archaeologists about a century ago, the remains of once great cities with advanced buildings, ports, roads, arts and crafts and writing have been uncovered.

Geologist Livin Giosan, at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, noted in a story that recently appeared in Live Science, that the discoveries being made in this region is still uncovering new information about a culture that was totally unknown to the contemporary world before 1900.

For example, the cities there were designed in grids, the buildings were equipped with plumbing that equaled that of the Roman Empire, there is evidence that the cities along the river were ports with shipping links possibly to as far away as Messopotamia, there is evidence of internal trade routes as well, and the form of writing they used has yet to be deciphered.

The largest of the cities are known as Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, both with populations estimated as large as 35,000. An estimated 1,400 different communities have been discovered to date, all dating back to the Harappan period.

That all of the homes appeared equal in size and structure, with no elaborate buildings for rulers or kings, suggests that the Harappan people shared a democratic social order, with all of the people treated as equals.

The houses were made of baked brick. They stood one or two stories high, and all had flat roofs. Each house was built around a courtyard with windows facing the courtyard. Outside walls had no windows. Every house featured its own drinking well and a private bathroom. Clay piped plumbing linked each bathroom to a sewer system under the streets. The sewers drained into the nearly rivers and streams.

The people had carts with wooden wheels, suggesting that they traveled by land over roadways, possibly with the help of camels, oxen or elephants. They also built single mast ships that sailed the Arabian Sea. Seals with script depicting images, an apparent form of writing, were found not only in the Indus Valley sites, but also in Mesopotamia, indicating possible trade between the two civilizations.

A mystery about this civilization, which began erecting buildings and cities as early as 5,200 years ago, is that the earliest construction, complete with water and sewer systems, were more carefully designed and constructed with more intricately than the buildings that came later. Because the communities were constructed along the rivers, they also were swept by floods and the buildings were rebuilt numerous times. Architects are finding that the buildings erected on top of the older ones were not as well designed. Did this indicate a deterioration of the society? And how could the first settlers start with such a degree of advanced knowledge and skill?

Everything that researchers have found in the Indus Valley sites suggest a well organized government and a well-developed social live existed from the onset. And this belies old beliefs of a general evolution of the human race from simple cave dwellers to hunters and then farmers prior to community living.

The other riddle is what happened to the Harappan civilization? What caused it to collapse? There is no evidence of an attack by outside forces. The theories, like those involving the other great civilizations that rose and then collapsed, is that the people overpopulated, farming operations depleted the soil and that there was not enough food, or that there was a natural disaster like disease or a great flood.

When we compare the rise and fall of the civilizations that we know about, it was usually political corruption, greed and an imbalance of power that brought down the nation. Have we not learned from history?