great cities in history

While this horrid nativism has been sweeping around the world like a stinky tide, I have been finding solace in a book. John Julius Norwich's The Great Cities of History (and there is a 'coffee table' version, which would make a late, great Christmas gift!).

341 pages. 70 cities. That is less than five pages for each city. Short essays written by expert historians, often distilling a life's work into a few paragraphs. But, beautiful writers, too. Pick up and read, here and there. The book takes a vertiginous, roughly chronological, journey down through the centuries and across the time zones - 'from Mesopotamia to Megalopolis'.

Great Bibliography. Great Notes. But where is the Great Map?!  The omission almost put me in the fetal position. While on this theme of 'greatness', it is interesting to gather the features of great cities that tend to reappear. Greatness is linked to the capacity to host diverse peoples, particularly immigrants. Greatness is linked to the ability to provide safe harbour to artists and intellectuals. Greatness is linked to establishing peace. Greatness is linked to effective, enduring leadership. Greatness is not just European ('the fact of their being unknown to Europe in no way detracts from their greatness' (110), speaking of Benin and Timbuktu). Greatness doesn't last - it never does - and it is eclipsed by the greatness of God, for whom the nations (and their cities and leaders) are but 'a drop in the bucket' (Is 40.15).

Speaking of 'buckets', we'll come to bucket lists soon. But let's start where everyone will start, with 'how many of these 'great cities' have I visited?' And this is lingering-a-bit, not just in-transit at the airport. For me, the number was 16 (but 18 out of the 70 because two of my cities are mentioned twice):

Jerusalem, Constantinople/Istanbul (2x), Angkor, Cairo, Agra, London (2x), Copenhagen, Edinburgh, Budapest, Washington DC, New Delhi, Chicago, Los Angeles, Singapore, New York, and Sydney.

When my personal experiences are thickened with this elegant prose, my five favourite cities would have to be: Istanbul, London, New Delhi, Chicago and Budapest. Beautiful essays.

As is true for many New Zealanders, with our colonial history barely two hundred years old, I do feel the strength which eurogravity exerts on my wanderlust. I'd love to soak in the cities of Europe so amply distributed through this book: Athens, Rome, Paris, Florence, Lisbon, Prague, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Dublin, Vienna, Barcelona, and Berlin. I've never lingered in any of them. But then I am grateful that other overlooked great cities like Lagos and Jakarta, Lusaka and Phnom Penh, Kolkata and Lahore got into my heart first. It is helping to keep this horrid nativism at bay and prepare me better to participate in the mission of God in the world.

OK, so here is the deal. Based on this book alone, what cities head my 'bucket list'? Before I 'kick-the-bucket and die', what cities would I love to visit? I will restrict myself to a set of six, rather than sixteen, and then add a few sentences from the corresponding essay for some flavour.

'If Paradise be on earth, it is, without doubt, Damascus; but if it be in Heaven, Damascus is its counterpart on earth' (94, quoting the traveller, Ibn Jubayr). 'The citizens of Damascus considered it to be the oldest city on earth, for Cain slew Abel on the slopes of Mount Kassion ... For over a thousand years the vast crowds associated with the hajj pilgrimage would annually assemble outside the walls of Damascus for the desert crossing to Mecca' (94-95). [NB: it is where my namesake went after his conversion and I've always wanted to go there, too].

'Clearly, it could be successful in the long term only if three very different peoples, with three very different religions and speaking three different languages, could somehow be welded together into a single state; and this was the almost superhuman achievement of two men: Roger I and his son Roger II ... (the king's) court in Palermo was easily the most brilliant of 12th-century Europe. In the Middle Ages the two most important languages for science were Greek and Arabic, both of which were virtually impossible to acquire in northern Europe ... for any intellectual determined to master both, there was only Palermo' (117, 118). [NB: the 'three' being Greek, Arab, and Norman].

'Of all the great cities, Samarkand is the farthest from any ocean. It grew up instead on the human river of the Silk Road ... From this elysium, for more than thirty years, Tamerlane marched across Asia in a series of campaigns that devastated every state and city in its path, sacking Damascus and Isfahan, Baghdad and Delhi, crushing the Golden Horde and the Ottoman Turks, and leaving behind some 17 million dead ... The populace of Samarkand was a mine of expertise of diverse races and faiths, slave and free ... It was not its extent but its cosmopolitan splendour that provoked wonder. Perhaps never had a city been so purely the creation of one man ... Tamerlane coerced art and science to his own glory. In Samarkand, it seems, he aspired to concentrate and embalm the accomplishments of the entire world - a monument to himself, and perhaps to God' (124, 125, 126).  [NB; Samarkand is in contemporary Uzbekistan].

'But Venice remained apart. Those 3 km of shallow water - a far more effective defence than deep - served as a gigantic moat, giving her total protection from her envious and unruly neighbours and enabling her to turn her back on Italy and look to the East ... There, in the silks and spices, the gold and the furs and the slaves of the Orient, lay her wealth ... No other major Italian city could claimed to have remained inviolate for close on a thousand years. And no other could boast such wealth' (150, 152).

'Timbuktu is a city on the southern edge of the Sahara constructed of one part history and two parts myth ... It was only after the colonial presence of the French had ended that the true history and wealth of Timbuktu were revealed in the form of the great private libraries that their scholar citizens had patiently copied, preserved and transcribed ... The commercial lifeblood of towns such as Timbuktu had been sucked away centuries before (when) the inland trans-Sahara caravan routes were being replaced by seaborne traffic ... What has kept Timbuktu in existence for the last 400 years was neither gold dust nor slaves, but pride in a thousand years of Muslim scholarship and a carefully guarded inheritance of thousands of manuscripts' (161, 162, 164).

St Petersburg
'Peter the Great conceived his new capital as an elegant European paradise forged from the swamps and frozen wastes of northern Russia. It was to be the new Amsterdam or the new Venice, and was to act for Russia as a window on the West ... What always amazes about St Petersburg is the miracle of what has survived after war, siege and communism. The Hermitage remains one of the greatest museums in the world ... The churches of the city having been converted into swimming pools and gymnasia and, in the case of Kazan Cathedral, a museum to promote atheism, now resound again to the strong male voices singing the Orthodox liturgy ... St Petersburg has always fascinated its visitors - a city where the long dark winters and the sufferings of its recent past are relieved by the anticipation of the White Nights in the short summer, when darkness is entirely banished and beauty and optimism reigns' (242, 244, 245).

nice chatting - but where is the map? Or, did I already ask that question?



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