The Rise of Cities

The Rise of Cities

The Mapmaker tool can help students visualize that cities are often built on or near bodies of water.


6 - 9


Anthropology, Archaeology, Geography, Physical Geography

The ruins of the Parthenon sits on the Acropolis in what is now Athens, Greece.
Photograph by asiafoto

Most people in the modern world live in or near cities or towns, but this was not always the case. All humans were once hunter-gatherers—constantly on the move, chasing their food supply. That changed for many cultures with the development of agriculture. With their food supply “fenced in,” people often permanently set down roots. Brick by brick, family by family, trade by trade, the world’s early cities emerged. Cities became civilizations, and human history as we know it unfolded. Use these ideas in your classroom to teach students about the rise of early cities.

A canal in Hampi, Karanataka, India, designed to transport water from a river to a city's inhabitants.
Civilization: Just Add Water

Launch students’ inquiry into the importance of water in the development of human settlements with Mapmaker Interactive. Using the National Geographic basemap, ask students to zoom into a well-settled part of the globe, such as Western Europe. Have students point out a few major cities, then ask for observations about the general placement of cities. Guide discussion to touch upon water as necessary for drinking, farming/food production, and trade by asking: Why are so many cities located near the ocean, rivers, or other bodies of water? How might water sources have been necessary or advantageous to the people founding these cities? Emphasize the importance of water, especially freshwater, for the growth of civilizations, with this map on freshwater availability. Ask students: What parts of the world are experiencing fresh water scarcity or stress? Focusing on central northern Africa as an example, ask students to return to Mapmaker and add the Human Population layer “Lights at Night” to their maps. Ask: Why are there not more cities in this part of Africa? Have students add the map layer “Land Cover” to provide students with information on the topography of northern Africa, such as the location of the Sahara Desert. Next, ask students to investigate a more populated part of Africa: Egypt. Ask: What large river bisects this country? What important early civilization flourished on the banks of this river? Have students read the “Start of Agriculture” section of this article to learn about the connection between agriculture, food surplus, and human settlements. They may then explore these connections further in the context of Ancient Egypt with the BBC article, “The Story of the Nile: Harnessing the Nile.”

The ruins of the Mesopotamian city, Uruk, was built by the legendary Sumerian King Gilgamesh.
A Marriage Made in Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia is proof human and physical geography are wedded to each other. It is not called the Cradle of Civilization for nothing! Begin your classroom exploration of the relationship between geography and civilization by distributing copies of this map of Iraq. Introduce students to Elizabeth Stone, an archaeologist who has examined the ruins of several ancient cities in modern-day Iraq. Iraq is part of a region historically known as Mesopotamia, where the world’s earliest cities—and civilizations—arose. Describe the locations of the cities where Professor Stone has done fieldwork—Ur, Uruk, Eridu, and Mashkan-Shapir—using present day cities and landmarks as guides. (Teachers may find the maps accompanying Stone’s field work here useful in providing reference points.) Have students mark the location of each city on their maps. Next, students will learn about the geography of Iraq with this article. Ask students: What geographical features define southern Iraq, where Ur, Eridu, and Uruk are located? Which of these features might have encouraged the development of early cities in this area? What about the landscape would have facilitated trade, farming, and the rise of government? Encourage students to develop a hypothesis. Have students select one of the following ancient cities for further research in pairs or groups: Ur, Uruk, Eridu, Assur, Babylon, Nippur, or Nineveh. After identifying the geographical characteristics of the area around their cities and researching the historical importance of each city, students will present their findings to the class. Class discussion should focus on the influence of the different geographic regions within Iraq and the cities and civilizations that emerged there.

The walls surrounding the ancient Chinese city of Xi'an.
Fortify This!

The threat of attack by nomads or outside invaders was an ever-present reality for dwellers in the world’s early cities. How did this reality shape the location and architecture of these cities? Have students begin their investigation with this article on ancient city defenses, which will introduce them to key fortification terminology. Ask students to use this UNESCO article and their own research to explore one of the oldest fortified cities in China, Xi’an. Have students research the defensive features of the city (bell tower, moat, huge fortified wall, sentry buildings, battlements, gates, etc.). They may explore Xi’an in more detail by reading the facts and history of the Xi’an city wall, along with the Bell Tower and Drum Tower. Next, have students research the history of Jerusalem, Israel, and explain the defensive rationale for its location (on a hilltop) in addition to examining its fortifications. Ask students to use what they have learned to select an ideal site for their own ancient city using a blank map (deselect all map elements except for rivers). Encourage students to use the drawing tools and “markers” to add landform elements that would enhance their site’s security. Finally, have students design their own city and its fortifications on paper then present to the class, defending their site selection and describing their city’s defenses.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

May 17, 2022

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service. If you have questions about licensing content on this page, please contact for more information and to obtain a license. If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please contact your teacher. She or he will best know the preferred format. When you reach out to him or her, you will need the page title, URL, and the date you accessed the resource.


If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the corner of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.


Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.


Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.