Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Great Cities in History

The Great Cities in History
© 2009 ed. John Julius Norwich
302 pages

            The Great Cities in History takes readers on a literary world tour, traveling through space and time to visit the greatest political bodies in history.  Civilization is nothing if not the ‘culture of cities, and here we experience its hotspots.  Historian John Julius Norwich and a host of other historians deliver celebratory treatments of cities within their realm of expertise, covering six continents and lauding every place from the ancient to the modern.  Here are the locus points of empires, world-spanning religions,  and prosperous commercial enterprises  This is a work of historical tourism; the authors are sharing each site and its community’s story with us in the way that a tour guide might. Most of the cities are still occupied in the present day, but the challenges mentioned are limited to environmental degradation.  The text is lavishly decorated with hundreds of illustrations, including full-page photographs, art reprints that show scenes of local culture, and photos of surviving artifacts (in the case of extinct cities).  The cities are organized on the basis of when they achieved their greatest historical impact, so we begin with Uruk and end with cities that appear to be leading the way into the future, like Shanghai and New York. Some cities merit multiple mentions; Constantinople reappears as Istanbul, Rome and London  pop up twice, and Mexico City questionably qualifies given its siting upon the also-covered Tenochtitlan.  The near east and the adjacent Mediterranean world predominate, of course.  The dozens of sections are organized by timeframe, but not linked together with a common narrative; some authors focus onl y on their city’s greatest moment, while others track to the current day. They make for fun reading, however, least for those with even the slightest appreciation for history. Modern readers accustomed to the world being divided up by nation states, drawing great boxes around swathes of earth and claiming them as their own,  should find a renewed appreciation here for the fact that human history has been dominated not by kings and abstract empires, but physical polities defined by stone walls.   Great Cities is a treasure to look at and makes for excellent light historical reading.

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