The History of Cities

Paul Strathern examines cities' role in history and up to the modern day.
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Cities come and go, some destroyed by humanity, others by nature, others simply abandoned. Several decades ago, I happened upon an example of the last kind, in India. The redstone city was deserted, its wide empty paved streets extending into the distance towards the fortified walls. The branches of trees burst from the sides of some of its buildings. The interiors of its domed temples, pillared palaces and long colonnades were dark and silent. The only visible signs of life were the monkeys, which scampered away as you approached, running up the steps of a temple, along the tops of the ornate walls. The city of Fatehpur Sikri, which had once been capital of the Moghul Empire, was now an abandoned, gradually crumbling ruin.

According to legend, more than four centuries previously the Moghul Emperor Akhbar, whose rule extended across the north Indian subcontinent from Bengal to Afghanistan and central Asia, was travelling through the countryside with his entourage. Here he encountered a holy man sitting beneath the shade of a tree. The holy man asked him, ‘What is it you desire, oh mighty emperor?’ The emperor replied: ‘It is a great sadness to me that my wife and I have no children. Above all things on earth I would wish my wife to give birth to a son, who can one day succeed me as emperor.’ The holy man answered him: ‘Your wish will be granted. You will have a son.’

The following year the Emperor’s wife gave birth to a son. Emperor Akhbar was so overjoyed that he returned to the very spot where he had encountered the holy man, declaring: ‘Here I will build my new capital city.’ Some time later, the Emperor Akhbar, his wife and son, as well as his court and all his administration, took up residence amidst the splendours of his newly built city, to which he attached the name ‘Sikri’ meaning ‘thanks’.

Just over a decade later Fatehpur Sikri had drained all available water from the surrounding countryside, and Akhbar was forced to abandon his imperial city, leaving it deserted, much as I saw it over four centuries later when I first walked through the large intricately carved monumental gateway.

The greatest cities of all time have changed the world. At their peak they literally make history. However, after such superhuman effort, their influence wanes. Some fall back upon themselves. Others may continue to thrive, but in a supporting role, rather than as the leading actor in the unfolding drama of events. We see how Athens produced a template for the future western world. How Rome established the power and organisation to carry forth these ideas. And how, centuries later, Paris would produce the ideas of the Enlightenment, which would in time inform both the constitution of the United States and the practice of communism. From the past to the future, we see how the modern megacities of Mumbai and Beijing not only embody the future of our cities, but of our whole world. They are our future, in two different versions. The freely evolving wonders and chaos of democratic Mumbai, and the ‘directed’ economic super-growth of communist Beijing, which views democracy as an obstacle. These cities of the future are stuffed with humanity, bursting at the seams. Yet the future may also have room for emptiness. Water diverted to the ill-advised cotton plantations of the Soviet era resulted in the emptying of the entire Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake in the world. Climate change will doubtless bequeath us with similar voids: vanished seas, vanished cities…

A Chinese ghost city, complete with working traffic lights.

Empty cities are not an ancient phenomenon, like Fatehpur Sikri. Indeed, nowadays we are experiencing the entirely new phenomenon of empty cities which have never had any inhabitants at all. Some years ago, I visited the city of Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast of Columbia. I was surprised to find that across the bay, beyond the hillside shanty towns, and far from 400 year-old picturesque streets of the old town, was a spectacular skyline consisting of mile upon mile of white skyscrapers receding like a mirage beneath the blue Caribbean sky. A few were luxury hotels, but most of these ultra-modern buildings appeared to be empty.

A few days later I arrived at Panama City, to be greeted by the sight of a similar functioning old city, far-off shanty towns, and an almost identical skyline of spectacular white skyscrapers stretching into the distance along the shore. Apparently, until recently the ground now occupied by these pristine  buildings had been empty sand dunes. In 2005 the United States tax authorities had begun pressurising Swiss banks to reveal the identities behind certain numbered bank accounts. Not long after, Cartagena and Panama City experienced a building boom. The skyscraper district in Panama City was confidently expected ‘to house nine out of ten of Latin America’s tallest buildings’, according to Andrew Beatty of Business News. These immaculate architectural edifices were nothing less than monuments to laundered cash, hiding in plain sight, owned by Russian dolls of offshore shell companies far beyond the reach of any tax, or judicial, jurisdiction.

Other ghost cities have sprung up in the modern world too. As China rose to global power status during the early decades of this century, megacities began mushrooming all over the country. New cities, capable of housing populations of up to a million or more, were built to drive the new economic powerhouse. These were part of the miraculous transformation of the world’s most populous nation, a commercial enterprise on a scale hitherto unknown in human history. Today many of these megacities, their names all but unknown in the West, are producing a flood of low-priced goods and technology which China ships to every corner of the globe.

However, not all of these new cities have proved to be a success. A few, with rows of high-rise blocks and industrial parks, many designed piecemeal by Australian architects, have populations of 100,000 living amidst the dwarfing structures intended to house up to a million inhabitants. Others of similar size are completely devoid of inhabitants. These cities were intended to be magnets, attracting a population keen to better themselves with new jobs and modern accommodation. But the young workers and peasants couldn’t afford the rent for these lines of new flats rising thirty storeys above the ground. And so there was no one to work in the factories, which remained empty. No customers for the large shopping malls, no people to fill the empty restaurants. Yet the government found itself unable to slash the rents in order to attract the new workers. The building of these cities had played a considerable part in raising China’s Gross Domestic Product, a GDP which had helped drive the entire world economy to new heights. Slash the rents, and the value of the nation’s assets would also be slashed. Worse still, economic wisdom dictated that a collapse in house prices inevitably led to a recession. Better to leave these cities empty – ghostly monuments to a future which might never come. Some are simply left unfinished, others are in full working order, right down to the eerily changing traffic lights on the deserted streets. These remain devoid of inhabitants, apart from the occasional lone uniformed security guard.

The deceptive existence of such ghost cities, as well as their smoke and mirrors legacy, remains enigmatic. Perhaps they are best viewed as monuments to that almost abstract practice, the spirituality of our time, if you like – namely, financial manipulation.

For the most part, modern cities have long been very much the opposite of such vacuity. Sometime after I visited Fatehpur Sikri in India, I travelled on to Calcutta (modern Kolkata). This was the 1960s and many were preoccupied with the world’s fast-growing population, with increasing numbers flooding from the countryside into already overcrowded cities. Concerned discussions regarding the future ‘failure of the city’ were beginning to take place.

Waking on my first morning in Calcutta, I opened my shutters to the glare of sunlight. Below was a cacophony of blaring lorry and car horns, rickshaws, handcarts, calling vendors, pedestrians, careering cyclists, their flow all parting around a seemingly indifferent cow seated in the middle of the road. Along the broken pavements on either side of the road, spilling into the traffic, the homeless were waking up and going about their morning business. Men in shabby dhotis stood brushing their teeth with twigs and spitting, squatting women fanned the choking smoke of small fires with palm leaves, naked infants ran amok, other men and women squatted to defecate into the gutters. The sheer volume of variegated cries and noise, the stench of smoke, excrement, cooking and petrol fumes, was all but impossible to absorb.

Later, in the cool of the night, I was driven back to my hotel across the long high cage-like skeleton of the Howrah Bridge. Below, a white mist was drifting off the silent waters of the Hooghly River. Along the extended pavements on either side of the empty road across the bridge stretched row upon row of shrouded figures, the homeless restively sleeping, huddled against the chill of the night. Next morning, the back page of the leading newspaper listed the number of homeless people on the Howrah Bridge who had died during the previous night. This number was usually in double digits

The ‘failure of the city’ was not some future concept, I realised. It had already taken place, some time ago, here in Calcutta. The city may have failed, but its inhabitants were continuing as best they could, unaware of this new concept which was becoming such a talking point amongst the sociologists, architects and intellectuals of the world.

As the philosophers have long reminded us, the way of the living runs through the cities of the dead. Even as we move forward, we can never escape our past. So the 20th century poet of Alexandria, Constantine Cavafy, put it:

                            I’ll go to another city, go to another shore,
                            find another city, better than this one.

But as he replied to himself:

                           You cannot find another city, you cannot find another shore.
                           As you have made your life here, in this small corner,
                           So you will make the same of it wherever you go.
                           You will walk the same streets, the same quarters,
                           You will always end up in this city. This city will always be with you.

Paul Strathern is a writer and academic, and author of numerous books including The Florentines and his latest, Ten Cities that Led the World: From Ancient Metropolis to Modern Megacity.