Searching for Our Urban Future in the Ruins of the Past

Historians in the News
tags: archaeology, books, urban history, ancient history


A Secret History of the Urban Age
By Annalee Newitz

I don’t know about you, but I find myself, throughout this long slog of pandemic-plus-political turmoil, alternating between feelings of warmth and camaraderie for my fellow human beings — it is so heartening to see millions pulling together in an urgent situation — and periods of wanting to punch people’s lights out. Navigating the pools of disinformation and ignorance makes one actually fear for the future of the human race. And the crises are focusing particular attention on our cities. Idea factories as they are, they would seem to hold the keys to that future, yet at the same time they suddenly seem shockingly vulnerable.

Though Annalee Newitz began work on “Four Lost Cities” long before the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s impossible to read it today without periodic is-this-where-we’re-headed? musings. The book functions as a travel guide to places that no longer exist. As with most any guidebook, I found myself drawn to some sites more than others. The chapters on Pompeii, the volcano-buried city in the orbit of ancient Rome, famous for its exquisitely preserved ruins, its brothels and taverns and graffiti, and on Angkor, a metropolis of medieval Cambodia, didn’t fire my imagination so much, perhaps because I already knew something of their histories.

They still have their charm and their surprises, these sections. I had no idea, for instance, that the Roman emperor Titus, after touring the smoking ruins of Pompeii, initiated a massive and surprisingly modern-seeming project to relocate thousands of survivors to other parts of the empire. Or that Angkor, which reached its height around A.D. 900, had an economy based on a system of debt slavery that sounds much like what middle-class Americans endure today.

But the parts of the book devoted to two other “lost” cities, places I had never known existed, filled me with wonder. Nine thousand years ago, the people of Catalhoyuk, maybe 10,000 of them, lived in cuboid clay houses packed against one another above the Konya Plain of south-central Turkey. Their dwellings were uniform, suggesting a highly regulated society: one or two rooms, painted in white or with red ocher designs. You exited not via a front door but by climbing a ladder to the roof. Much of life was lived up there: cooking, socializing, ambling along sidewalks that ran across the top of the city.

Let me say that again in case you missed it: This was 9,000 years ago. In terms of human society, that is just an imponderable span of time. The oldest of the books of the Hebrew Bible date to roughly 3,000 years ago; the pyramids of Egypt go back about 5,000 years. These were not prehumans or near relatives. They were like us: complex, organized, alive to meaning and living at a time beyond reckoning.


The theme of how cities die runs as a dark undercurrent through the book. Newitz devotes space to debunking the popular notion that civilizations of the past “collapse” and become “lost,” pointing instead to indications of gradual change.

Near the end, Newitz attempts to bring the study of the distant past to bear on today: “Globally, we’re in a period of political instability and authoritarian nationalism. Unfortunately, evidence from history shows that this can be a death knell for cities.” But while warning that “the combination of climate change and political instability we face in many modern cities suggests that we’re heading for a period of global urban abandonment,” Newitz notes too that “if we’ve learned anything from history, we know the death of a few cities doesn’t mean the world will collapse into dystopia.”

Read entire article at New York Times