Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Great Cities

The Book of Mormon speaks of many different kinds and sizes of human settlements. See the blog article "Nephite Political Geography" for a concise list. The text mentions dozens of cities explicitly and alludes to many others Alma 50:15, Helaman 3:11. 8 cities merit the distinction of being called a "great city." Other great cities remain unnamed Helaman 7:22, 3 Nephi 8:14. The text makes a single reference to unnamed "large cities" Mosiah 27:6.

Named or Attributed Great Cities
  • Jerusalem 1 Nephi 1:4 ca. 598 BC
  • Ammonihah Alma 16:9 ca. 81 BC There is irony in this localized usage Alma 9:4 based on civic boosterism. Neither Mormon as editor Alma 8:6 nor Alma2's special angel Alma 8:16 considered Ammonihah great.     
  • Jerusalem in the greater land of Nephi Alma 21:2 ca. 90 BC 
  • Zarahemla Helaman 1:18 ca. 51 BC Note that the city of Zarahemla is mentioned many times prior to 51 BC (e.g. Alma 2:26) but in those earlier years it is simply called a "city."
  • Moronihah 3 Nephi 8:25 ca. AD 34
  • Moroni 3 Nephi 9:4 ca. AD 34 Note that when it was founded ca. 72 BC, Moroni was not called a great city Alma 50:13. Nephite cities became great over time as one would expect with population growth. 
  • Jacobugath 3 Nephi 9:9 ca. AD 34
  • the unnamed city built by King Lib Ether 10:20
The question naturally arises, "How much territory or population was required in Nephite times for a city to be considered a great city?" Credible data for Jerusalem in the Old World provide a benchmark. Margreet Steiner in her book Excavations in Jerusalem by K. M. Kenyon 1961 - 1967, Vol. III: The Settlement in the Bronze and Iron Ages (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001) tells us that in 598 BC when the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar invaded Jerusalem and set up Zedekiah as a puppet ruler the city walls were 5 - 7 meters wide and they enclosed about 50 hectares. The urban population was about 10,000. Jerusalem in that era was by far the largest city in the region. The second largest city, Ekron, was 20 hectares in size and most towns were only about 6 hectares. Ms. Steiner, one of the foremost archaeologists in the region, is one of the editors of the Handbook of the Archaeology of the Levant by Oxford University Press.

The Book of Mormon refers to Old World Jerusalem as a great city four times 1 Nephi 1:4, 1 Nephi 2:13, 1 Nephi 10:3, 1 Nephi 11:3. So, in Nephite parlance, a city encompassing 50 hectares with 10,000 inhabitants qualified as a great city.

The Electronic Atlas of  Ancient Maya Sites EAAMS classifies the 6,000+ archaeological sites in their database as Rank 1 - 5 sites. Rank 1 sites are very large, very important places such as Comalcalco, Palenque, Piedras Negras, Yaxchilan & Tikal. Rank 2 sites are large, important locations such as Chama, Itzan, El Ceibal, Lamanai & Kohunlich. Rank 3 sites are medium-sized. Rank 4 sites are small, and rank 5 sites are tiny - a house mound or a shell midden perhaps. As an example, El Hormiguero II, the site we correlate with Ammonihah (see the blog article "Ammonihah"), is a rank 3 in the EEAMS classification system.

In order to compare and contrast archaeological sites empirically, we have begun an evolving blog post entitled "Site Sizes" that shows ancient cities ordered by the number of hectares they are known to have encompassed. Jerusalem ca. 598 BC at 50 hectares and 10,000 inhabitants helps benchmark that list.

The case of Ammonihah in the list above should alert us to the fact that the term "great city" has other connotations (civic hubris) besides physical size.It is not a coincidence that all of the Nephite and Lamanite great cities (plus Old World Jerusalem 2 Nephi 1:4, Helaman 8:21) have a spectacular destruction documented in the text. The Lord, in His description of that destruction, did not consider the Lamanite Jerusalem great 3 Nephi 9:7 although Zarahemla 3 Nephi 9:3 and Moroni 3 Nephi 9:4 both merited that adjective.