Me­trop­o­lis: Map­ping the City

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Book ex­cerpt pub­lished with pub­lisher’s per­mis­sion. All pho­tos ©Li­brary of Congress.

Cities are places of hopes and dreams, of vi­sion and or­der, as well as cen­ters for de­struc­tion and con­flict. Al­though cities are not creations of the mod­ern era, for many peo­ple they rep­re­sent the core el­e­ment of life as we live it to­day, when most of the world’s pop­u­la­tion lives I an ur­ban hub of commerce, tech­nol­ogy, trans­port, and so­cial in­ter­ac­tion be­tween peo­ple, and in com­mu­ni­ties of of­ten quite di­verse cul­tures. Whereas only a cen­tury ago per­haps 10 per­cent of hu­mankind lived in a city, now most peo­ple do and the world’s eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment is char­ac­ter­ized by the re­lent­less, and of­ten un­re­strained, ex­pan­sion of our ever-grow­ing ur­ban me­trop­o­lises.

Glob­ally, cities have be­come in­ex­tri­ca­bly iden­ti­fied with this sense of progress, suc­cess and ad­vance­ment, whether in­di­vid­ual, so­cial, or eco­nomic; cities are be­lieved to be places where things “hap­pen.” In fact, his­tor­i­cally, this has long been the case, with cities im­pos­si­ble to sep­a­rate from the evo­lu­tion of hu­man civ­i­liza­tion.

Trade and re­li­gion are two of the old­est prac­tices of hu­mankind, and cities orig­i­nated and grew to fa­cil­i­tate the com­plex hu­man webs of ex­change in­volved in both, which have left their marks through­out the mil­len­nia on the form and fea­tures of our cities—to fa­cil­i­tate the buy­ing and sell­ing of goods and to en­able peo­ple to gather for mat­ters more tran­scen­dent and less ma­te­rial. And just as civ­i­liza­tion grew out of hu­mankind’s con­scious at­tempt to con­trol, change, and or­ga­nize our en­vi­ron­ment, so car­tog­ra­phy and map­ping arose out of our need for tools to mea­sure, record, understand, nav­i­gate, plan, and pro­tect our sur­round­ings. Cities— cen­ters of spir­i­tual, eco­nomic, and po­lit­i­cal power—be­came lead­ing cen­ters of map­mak­ing as well as prime sub­jects for car­tog­ra­phers.

City maps are among the most pop­u­lar, as well as old­est, forms of car­to­graphic rep­re­sen­ta­tion. How­ever, the sur­vival rate of early maps is lim­ited and most maps date only from the last 500 years. Early maps are also frag­ments; some­times lit­er­ally in the phys­i­cal sense, but also be­cause our knowl­edge of them is in­com­plete, based upon a par­tial un­der­stand­ing of the cul­tural con­text within which they were made, though it seems quite clear that the world such maps de­pict was cen­tered upon the cul­ture of ori­gin and that cities loomed large as places that gave mean­ing and iden­tity to those same cul­tures.

The First Civ­i­liza­tions

The shift to crop cul­ti­va­tion en­cour­aged the pro­duc­tion of reg­u­lar food sur­pluses, which made it pos­si­ble for some work­ers to spe­cial­ize in other tasks. Ur­ban de­vel­op­ment rested on agrar­ian sys­tems that were able to sup­port sub­stan­tial pop­u­la­tions, and th­ese were found first in fer­tile river val­leys, such as the Euphrates and, later, Ti­gris of Me­sopotamia (Iraq), the Nile val­ley of Egypt, and the In­dus val­ley of mod­ern Pak­istan. In Adean Amer­ica, in what is now Peru, large tem­ple mounds ap­peared in the cen­tral An­des along the Pa­cific coastal river val­leys, in places such as the Supe Val­ley, from c.2500bce. In East Asia, the Yel­low River was the later ba­sis for Er­l­i­tou, founded in about 1900bce, China’s first city.

In Me­sopotamia the city-state of Uruk de­vel­oped in about 3500bce. The sa­cred en­clo­sure of a raised mud-brick zig­gu­rat tem­ple com­plex was an im­por­tant fea­ture of the early Me­sopotamian cities, not only be­cause the priests pro­vided sacral power but also be­cause the tem­ple ad­min­is­tered much of the city’s land while the priests could record pro­duc­tion and store prod­ucts. By about 3300bce walled towns had be­gun to be built along the Nile in pre­dy­nas­tic Egypt, Nekhen, or Hier­a­con­po­lis, and Naqada be­ing the ear­li­est. When the coun­try was uni­fied in about 3100bce by Kind Narmer, the first pharaoh, he founded Mem­phis as his cap­i­tal, which was built on the west bank of the Nile, south of the delta not far from mod­ern Cairo.

In the In­dus Val­ley, walled set­tle­ments were fol­lowed, in about 2500bce, by ma­jor cities, no­tably Harappa and Mo­henjo-daro. Spread

over 148 acres (60 hectares), the lat­ter city had a pop­u­la­tion of maybe 50,000 as well as cru­cial ur­ban in­fra­struc­ture in the form of a so­phis­ti­cated sewage sys­tem.

Commerce And Con­flict

Be­cause trade was such an im­por­tant as­pect of th­ese early ur­ban civ­i­liza­tions, long-dis­tance com­mer­cial net­works grew by sea and land. Th­ese in­cluded ports, such as By­b­los (Le­banon), founded c.3100bce, as well as Dil­mun (Bahrain) and Ras al-ju­nayz (Oman) to link the east­ern mar­itime cen­ters, and trad­ing cities and colonies across the South Asian in­land hin­ter­land, such as Shor­tughai along the Oxus River in north­ern Afghanistan, c.2500bce.

Com­pet­ing in­ter­ests and the need to main­tain con­trol and se­cu­rity en­cour­aged the walling of set­tle­ments in an­tic­i­pa­tion of large-scale con­flict. The first em­pire in western Asia was founded in about 2300bce by Sar­gon, who united the city-states of Sumer (southern Me­sopotamia) and con­quered neigh­bor­ing re­gions. An em­pire based on the city of Ur fol­lowed.

Pro­tected by en­cir­cling walls and a fortress, Ur was linked to the Euphrates River by canals, which pro­vided an­other inter-ur­ban form of trans­porta­tion net­work for trade. Later came the Baby­lo­nian em­pire of Ham­murabi (reigned 1790-1750bce). With places such as Baby­lon, cities be­came fur­ther as­so­ci­ated with learn­ing, cul­ture, the law, and man’s man­age­ment and mod­el­ling of na­ture.

A Baby­lo­nian clay tablet from about 600bce pro­vides the ear­li­est known ev­i­dence of world map­ping, though the pur­pose of the map is un­clear. The world map cen­ters on Me­sopotamia, with Baby­lon shown as an elon­gated rec­tan­gle. Par­al­lel lines run­ning to and from it rep­re­sent the River Euphrates. All th­ese sym­bols are con­tained within a cir­cle that rep­re­sents the ocean. If this map could be in­ter­preted as re­veal­ing a sense of cul­tural self-con­fi­dence, per­haps it is no co­in­ci­dence that cities also be­came the fo­cus of em­pires en­gag­ing in ter­ri­to­rial con­quest, help­ing to ex­pand the in­flu­ence of ur­ban civ­i­liza­tion and offering up a tem­plate for suc­cess­ful repli­ca­tion.

The stone re­liefs from the palace of Nin­eveh, the cap­i­tal of the Assyr­ian Em­pire (c.950-612bce), de­pict sieges of cities. In turn, the Baby­lo­nian Em­pire un­der Ne­buchad­nezzer II ex­tended to Pales­tine, where Jerusalem was de­stroyed in 587bce, only to be over­thrown in turn by the

Per­sians in 539bce.

Cities – A Global Phe­nom­e­non

In an­cient China, then as now the world’s most pop­u­lous coun­try, a strong econ­omy, built upon the pro­duc­tion of mil­let and rice, com­bined with a so­phis­ti­cated ad­min­is­tra­tive sys­tem that meant the state was able to sup­port a large ur­ban pop­u­la­tion. Un­der the Shang Dy­nasty (c.1800-1027bce), there were a num­ber of cap­i­tal cities, no­tably Er­l­i­tou and Anyang. Its Zhou suc­ces­sor (1027-403bce) again had a num­ber of cap­i­tals: it is from the Zhou Dy­nasty that we have the first doc­u­mented city plan­ning. The prin­ci­ples of Zhou ur­ban de­sign, which con­tin­ued to un­der­pin Chi­nese grid lay­outs into the mod­ern era, were based upon a holy square sys­tem de­rived from a mix­ture of cos­mol­ogy, astrol­ogy, ge­o­mancy, and nu­merol­ogy.

Dur­ing the Qin Dy­nasty (221206bce), there was a se­ries of ad­min­is­tra­tive cen­ters un­der the im­pe­rial cap­i­tal of Xianyang. This was also the case in the Han era

(206bce-220ce) with its suc­ces­sive cap­i­tals of Chang’an and Luoyang, as well as its thriv­ing coastal mar­itime cities such as Fuzhou. Later, un­der the Tang (618-970), Chang’an (mod­ern-day Xi’an) was the cap­i­tal and it had a pop­u­la­tion (within and out­side the walls) of about two mil­lion by the eighth cen­tury. The city’s sym­met­ri­cal lay­out was used to or­ga­nize spe­cial­ized and or­derly func­tional neigh­bor­hoods, the de­mar­ca­tion of which arose out of by then deeply-rooted Chi­nese ideas about the spir­i­tual ef­fi­cacy of spa­tial ar­range­ments and align­ments—ideas that were dif­fused to var­i­ous de­grees through­out East Asia. An­cient China’s ur­ban­iza­tion was such that in Tang-dy­nasty China there were more than ten cities with pop­u­la­tions of 300,000-plus. Dur­ing the later Song dy­nasty (960-1279), the merchant’s en­tre­pot and me­trop­o­lis of Hangzhou had a mil­lion res­i­dents at a time when Lon­don had around 15,000. The com­mer­cial wealth of 11th-cen­tury Kaifeng, a canal­ized cap­i­tal of the North­ern Song in north-cen­tral China so beau­ti­fully de­picted in the Qing­ming scroll by Zhang Ze­d­uan, far out­stripped that of any Euro­pean city at the time. Well be­fore Euro­peans set­tled there, cities also had de­vel­oped in the New World of the Amer­i­cas, no­tably the hill­top Zapotec city of Monte Al­ban in Cen­tral Ox­aca (southern Mex­ico) in about 500bce and El Mi­rador, the largest early Maya city by about 250bce. To the west, in cen­tral Mex­ico, Teoti­hua­can, a grid city with tem­ple-topped pyra­mids, had 125,000-200,000 in­hab­i­tants by 500bce. In South Amer­ica, Ti­wanaku (Ti­ahua­naco) on the shore of Lake Tit­i­caca in mod­ern-day Bo­livia, a cen­ter of re­li­gious ac­tiv­ity, had up to 40,000 in­hab­i­tants.

In the cast of an­other city-based em­pire—rome—the pur­pose of the city was clear and highly im­por­tant: the dis­play of power. A large-scale plan of the city, the Forma Ur­bis Ro­mae, was in­cised on a wall for pub­lic view. The dis­play of maps was used by Julius Cae­sar and other lead­ers to demon­strate how Rome was ful­fill­ing its des­tiny through im­pe­rial ex­pan­sion. The rise of Rome stim­u­lated an in­ter­est in the wide world among the polity’s lead­er­ship, which re­sulted in the ear­li­est known globe of the earth be­ing pro­duced there in about 150bce by the Greek scholar Crates of Mal­los. A city with a large pop­u­la­tion had to be sus­tained through well-or­ga­nized, well-main­tained in­fra­struc­ture, and this cre­ated a need for maps that could record use­ful in­for­ma­tion in graphic form. Rome’s pop­u­la­tion may have reached about a mil­lion in the sec­ond cen­tury ce. The sup­ply of goods to sup­port this pop­u­la­tion was a ma­jor eco­nomic, govern­men­tal, and lo­gis­ti­cal achieve­ment, no­tably for the sup­ply of grain from Si­cily, Tu­nisia, and Egypt, with Alexan­dria op­er­at­ing as a key en­tre­pot. Ma­jor ware­houses in the south­west of Rome along the River Tiber tes­tify to the im­por­tance of trade. Rome also de­pended on a net­work of aque­ducts to sup­ply it with wa­ter.

Jeremy Black is Pro­fes­sor of History at the Univer­sity of Ex­eter and a Se­nior Fel­low at the Cen­ter for thes­tudy of Amer­ica and the West at the For­eign Pol­icy Re­search In­sti­tute in Philadel­phia. He is the au­thor of more than eighty books and has lec­tured ex­ten­sively around the world. Jeremy’s re­cent pub­li­ca­tions in­cludeav­oid­ing Ar­maged­don: From the Great War to the Fall of France, 1918-40 (Blooms­bury, 2012), The Great War and the Making of the Mod­ern World (Con­tin­uum, 2011) and Lon­don: A History (Carnegie, 2009).


Hard­cover: 224 pages Pub­lisher: Con­way Pub­li­ca­tion Date: Oc­to­ber 13, 2015

Ex­cerpted from Chap­ter 6 of The Poet’s Se­cret, a novel by Ken­neth Zak © 2015. Used with per­mis­sion of Penju Pub­lish­ing.


In­tox­i­cant, so rare

Ex­otic, ex­traor­di­naire

Se­duc­tress, sur­real En­chantress, re­vealed. Imag­ine. All this, yet more

Come hither, ex­plore

All dared, all dreamed Eclipsed emer­alds, this sea.

Cameron awoke alone in the hill­top hut. He had planned to write the en­tire day. He needed to re­mem­ber why he had come to the is­land. He closed his eyes and en­vi­sioned sable-trimmed pe­tals, in­ter­laced with patches of cop­pery gold web­bing fram­ing bril­liant emer­ald dag­gers, the mark­ings of the is­land’s rare siproeta ste­lenes. In full blos­som it re­sem­bled a Mala­chite but­ter­fly in flight. A lo­cal had told him it blos­somed once ev­ery ten years, and then only for sev­eral days: brief, bril­liant, doomed. Un­til its next bloom it was noth­ing more than the barest twig.

Cameron had seen the but­ter­fly orchid’s blos­som once, a few sum­mers be­fore.

He had knelt by the orchid in awe of its wild per­fec­tion. Some­thing about

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