Event — Conference

Patterns of Early Asian Urbanism

This 3-day international conference from 11-13 November 2013 at the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden brings together leading scholars from around the world to explore the theme of 'Early Urbanism’ of pre-modern Asian cities within the much broader context of urban studies, covering a wide geographic expanse throughout Asia (from Pakistan to Japan) and a time depth of cultural development across several millennia.

Conference Dates: 11 - 13 November 2013

IIAS, together with Leiden University’s Faculty of Archaeology and the Archaeology Unit of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, are hosting an international conference bringing together leading scholars from around the world to explore the theme of 'Early Urbanism’ of pre-modern Asian cities within the much broader context of urban studies, ancient and modern. 



About the conference
Registration and conference fees
Travel and accommodation
Programme and abstracts


About the conference

Keynote speakers

Professor John Bintliff, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University
Professor Roland Fletcher, Department of Archaeology, University of Sydney
Professor John Miksic, Head Archaeology Unit, Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore
Professor Norman Yoffee, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University


As centres which created, fostered and disseminated cultural, religious, socio-economic and political developments, pre-modern Asian cities were instrumental in generating urban culture of great diversity and the highest complexity. The conference seeks to explore Asian cities during their crucial period of urban formation and activity.

The conference aims to examine Asian pre-modern cities through three major thematic strands, covering a wide geographic expanse throughout Asia (from Pakistan to Japan) and a time depth of cultural development across five millennia (from the Bronze Age through 14th century Angkor to 18th century East Asia). The conference will provide a multi-disciplinary forum and we invite participation from the fields of archaeology, economy, geography, history, historical anthropology, philology, sociology, as well as (modern) urban planning and urban morphology.

Comparison and contrast

The cultural phenomena of Asian cities will be explored through comparative studies, case studies and new theoretical approaches. The contrasted concepts of global and local features of urban growth allow us to employ a comparative perspective investigating similarities in human societies’ historical trajectory towards increasing rates of urbanization, while at the same time privileging the fact that cities are products of regional cultural traditions and dynamics.

Much scholarly attention has been directed towards the emergence and development of cities and urban agglomerates in pre-modern Europe, the Mediterranean basin, the Middle East and Pre-Columbian America, where a number of recent works have stressed the socially ‘organic’ economy of these ancient cities and their dynamic modes of human interactions across urban society beyond more traditionally described patterns of religious and elite ‘top-down’ agencies. In this light, and although the main focus of this conference will be on the pre-modern Asian city and its evolution, informative comparison and contrast will be brought into debate through contributions summarizing European, Mediterranean, Near Eastern and Meso-American urban history, as for instance emanating from research carried out in the Faculty of Archaeology at Leiden. There will also be scope to include ongoing discussions about the development of modern (Asian) cities.

Thus also drawing on the theoretical, methodological and empirical expertise generated by, and developed for, the study of cities from other parts of the world (and/or more recent periods), the planned conference will specifically focus on socio-economic trends in pre-modern Asian cities, the ‘life world’ of their inhabitants, and the characteristics of ‘urbanity’ that developed out of these interactions. The geographical range the conference aims to cover is ambitious: from Pakistan and Central Asia to Indonesia and Japan. The time depth is equally extensive: from third millennium BC Mohenjo-Daro in modern Pakistan via Mughal Fatehpur Sikri, medieval Beijing and fourteenth century Angkor to pre-modern Korea and Japan.


The three-day conference will be structured around three thematic foci:

1. Processes of urban development

This theme seeks to address factors that explain the foundation and development of cities, the period they flourished and their subsequent decline, abandonment and/or ‘rebirth’.

2. The urban economy

This strand focuses on the cities’ economy, infrastructure and logistics, within urban centres and in relation to their hinterlands.

3. The social fabric of the city

The city’s internal organization, its external social connections, and the ‘cosmopolitanism’ of cities are the focus of the third thematic cluster.

Processes of urban development: for the first theme we have invited papers that address the ‘rise and fall’ of ancient/pre-modern Asian cities and examine growth and decline within wider explanatory frameworks. Proposals could address: city foundations and their raison d’être; the secrets of successful cities or what made them fail?

The urban economy: the second theme relates to the economic functionality of the city and examines how it served its communities. It addresses the infrastructure required to supply the city with a network of traded services, professional specializations, and an efficient management. Related questions include how the population was sustained and what resources the city could draw on. Were there natural, geomorphological (river, harbour, fertile plains) or human resources (emperor, governor, army, slave market)? Was the city a pilgrimage site, or the capital of a kingdom? How was the city supplied with water, and how did water affect urban life? What was the economic mainstay (industry, trade, agriculture)? Additional topics could link urban economy to ecology and focus on sustainable urban economies and the energy cycles of cities. Topics to be explored could range from waste disposal to the re-use of urban material in building processes. Ultimately, the second theme seeks to understand the city’s ‘added value’ as a producer and distributor of goods in relation to its immediate and more remote rural hinterland.

The social fabric of the city: the third theme invited proposals that relate to the city’s internal social organization. This could be explored through the concepts informing city layout and urban topography (political and/or ideological); concepts of urban planning (informal growth vs. planned interventions); how did the local and regional economy affect the layout and functioning of the city?; the cosmological patterns which might underpin the spatial structure; the spatial distribution within the city of various groups of different ethnic, religious, or economic background. In addition, the role of gender in shaping the city should be addressed, looking into urban spaces as shaped by gender-relations; finally the ‘city of images’ brings into play the visual and cognitive face of the city and how it reflects but also creates specific urban cultures.

Conference organisation


The three day conference will include plenary and parallel thematic sessions. Keynote speakers will address the main themes of the conference in plenary sessions, and introduce specific themes in parallel sessions. These lectures will help to set the parameters for the discussions to follow. The separate thematic sessions will be grouped according to the three main themes of the conference and the contents of the specific papers that are submitted. The sessions will be chaired by an expert who will lead the discussion and sum up the results of each set of papers. Those who submit a paper have 20 mins for their presentation, excluding discussions. Those who submit a panel on a specific subject receive 90 mins for 3 to 4 speakers.

The final session on the third day will review the results of the conference and discuss the implications of these new insights as well as suggest future activities.


Conference Outcome

The most tangible results of the conference will be a special Focus section of the IIAS Newsletter as well as an edited publication. It is also hoped that out of the event, a dynamic network of ancient Asian cities specialists will be forged, this in conjunction with the IIAS-coordinated Urban Knowledge Network Asia (UKNA) programme (www.ukna.asia).

Selected proposals

A link to The Programme and Book of Abstracts (pdf) can be found near the bottom of this page.


This conference is sponsored by:

International Institute for Asian Studies
Leiden University Institute for Area Studies 
Leids Universiteits Fonds
Leiden University - Research Profile Asian Modernities and Traditions
Leiden University - Faculty of Archaeology
ISEAS - Archeology Unit, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore


Registration and conference fees

Registration audience

The conference is open to all, but registration before 1 November and payment of the registration fee is required for attendance at all sessions.
If you would like to attend, please please fill in the registration form (PDF) and return by email before 1 November. Please note that your registration is only confirmed upon successfully receipt of the registration fee.

Conference fees

Three‐day conference package
Includes coffee, tea, lunches, one dinner and conference package
Regular: € 125 (open until 1 November 2013)
On-site: € 150
Discount for PhD students: € 25

Daily conference package (available until 1 November 2013)
Includes coffee, tea, lunches, and conference package
Regular: € 50
Regular (PhD) students: € 35

For payment details, please see the registration form (pdf).

Travel and accommodation


The conference will take place in Leiden, the Netherlands. For more information on how to get to Leiden, please click here (pdf).


Participants are requested to make their own travel and accommodation arrangements. We would like to suggest a number of hotels in Leiden (pdf) with which we have a good experience. The rate of the rooms are available until 30 September 2013.


In case you need a visa to travel to the Netherlands we suggest you start the application procedure as soon as possible. For the latest visa information, please click here.

Please also contact the Dutch Embassy in your country of residence for more information. If you require a support letter for your visa application, please contact Ms Martina van den Haak at m.c.van.den.haak@iias.nl.

Programme and Abstracts

Download the Programme and Book of Abstracts via de the link below.