David B. Mattingly and Kevin MacDonald

in The Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History

Published in print February 2013 | ISBN: 9780199589531
Published online April 2013 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in History


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This article examines early urban societies in Africa. It emphasizes three key issues: the strikingly wide geographical range and structural variety of urban forms; the apparent dichotomy between more hierarchical and more heterarchical urban societies; the contrasting functions of towns in the service of state formation or inter-regional exchange. The earliest cities in Africa are linked to the great rivers of the continent, in particular the Nile and the Niger. There have also been significant urban expressions along the Mediterranean seaboard, or on the Red Sea and East African coast, where contact with neighbouring civilizations was part of the context. Yet, African urban forms assume a dazzling array of expressions, confounding traditional expectations of normative Old World archetypes of what defines ‘urban’.

Keywords: urban societies; urban forms; towns; state formation; ancient African cities; urbanization

Article.  7012 words. 

Subjects: History ; African History

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