Religion's Role in Urban History: An Overlooked Relationship?

Roundup: Historians' Take

Joel Kotkin, in the Los Angeles Times (July 8 2004):

Los Angeles County's recent decision to remove a tiny cross from its seal has inspired an enormous protest from the region's evangelical community and its conservative allies.

The issue seems likely to embroil the county in a storm of lawsuits and lead perhaps to a divisive ballot measure during the next few months. Yet the whole battle smacks of a kind of amnesia about the roots of urban places.

Contemporary discussions of urban issues revolve around many things, from high-technology development to racial and sexual politics, but rarely mention the role of religion — churches, synagogues and mosques, and indeed, moral order — in city life. That's the postmodern, secular American approach, but it surely would have seemed odd to our urban predecessors for whom the linkage between the city and worship was utterly obvious.

The earliest cities of Mesopotamia, for example, were themselves largely directed by priests, who established coherent rules for the community. The temple, erected at the center of the town, was almost invariably the largest and most inspiring building.

This pattern can be seen virtually everywhere, from the cities of Mesoamerica and Peru to China and India. Babylon, the greatest metropolis of Mesopotamia, derived its name from Babi-ilani, or"the gate of the gods," the place from which the divinities were believed to have descended to Earth. Inca urban society rested on the belief that their rulers were gods and that their capital, Cuzco, constituted"the navel of the world."

The religious role in urban history goes well beyond architecture. City life, in contrast to nomadic or rural village life, has always depended on a community's ability to establish a common moral order among strangers from outside the family or clan.

In the earliest cities, priests, or kings who derived their authority from the gods, were the ones who devised the codes that kept increasingly complex societies operating in what we might call a civilized manner....

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