The concept of civilization was for a long time defined in terms of the presence or absence of what was considered to be key elements, such as writing. It is now generally accepted that civilization can exist without the presence of writing, which Gordon Childe had taken for the one ingredient that usually marked the turning point (Childe 1950, quoted in Connah 1987: 7). Many scholars have made the point that these definitions were based on a limited knowledge of other parts of the world, especially Africa.
Like civilization, the concept of urbanization has for a long time been pervaded by Western representations. Common to most of the early theories about the nature of a town or city is the belief that the existence of an agricultural population, a mercantile class, and writing were a prerequisite. Also considered as necessary was the idea that the settlement had to perform the functions of a religious and an administrative center, capable of mobilizing a massive labor force for monumental architecture and the accumulation of wealth (Hassan 1993; R.McIntosh, this volume; O'Connor 1993).
Long-distance trade and religion have indeed influenced the growth of towns in some parts of the world. The rise of the mercantile towns of East Africa, for example, was influenced by Portuguese and Arab trade during the sixteenth and se venteenth centuries. Similarly, the Islamic towns of North Africa, with their sultanates, mosques, Islamic schools, and wall enclosures, testify to strong Islamic influence in this part of the continent prior to European colonization.