Cities that shaped humanity

04 April 2022 - 10:42
By Hamilton Wende
Author of 'Ten Cities that Led the World: From Ancient Metropolis to Modern Megacity'.
Image: Supplied Paul Strathern Author of 'Ten Cities that Led the World: From Ancient Metropolis to Modern Megacity'.

Ten Cities that Led the World ★★★★
Paul Strathern
Hodder & Stoughton

We all carry contrasting images of vanished and of still-living cities inside of us. The house of our childhood, the exciting streets of our adolescence, the cafes and restaurants of our first romantic assignations — these memories live within, shaping our characters and our destinies.

In this wonderful, kaleidoscopic, and well-written book Strathern unveils 10 cities that have shaped the psyche and the ongoing destiny of our broader humanity. He takes us on a fascinating and varied journey through the history of these cities that have, in one way or another, made us who we are today.

He begins with Babylon, and it is the only one that no longer exists as a living city today. The Hanging Gardens, the Tower of Babel, complex early mathematics and astronomy, the first glimmerings of mercy in the legal code of Hammurabi with its limits to human revenge in the decree that a victim may only demand one eye from the perpetrator for the loss of his own. These are all that remain of the ancient, and monumental, human shift from the isolated, wide-open space lives of the hunter-gatherer clans to the teeming, walled-in diversity of cities.

From Babylon, Strathern segues neatly to ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy, even if it was limited only to free men. It was also the home of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and their enduring legacy of philosophy.

Paul Strathern
Image: Supplied Ten Cities that Led the World. Paul Strathern

After Athens, we look to the power, cruelty and glory of Rome and its inheritor, late medieval Constantinople/Istanbul and then a massive jump in time to Enlightenment Paris. These are all utterly fascinating in their own right and intriguing to compare to the living cities of today.

But it is here that the thread of memory and ideas these cities represent frays a little as one wonders where in the narrative Cairo is, the home of the astonishing pyramids and ancient temples. And where is Jerusalem, the centre of three world-changing faiths? And what about Timbuktu, the home of Mansa Musa, once the richest man in the world, who transported his gold in a vast train of camels across the Sahara Desert to do the hajj? It is a hard choice, to limit the number of world-changing cities to 10, but it is a gap in the ongoing broad tale that Jerusalem is only referred to once, in the introduction, and Cairo and Timbuktu not at all. He also hardly mentions the grandeur of the ancient South American cities, while he ignores entirely the splendour of Abbasid Baghdad.

Still, one cannot quibble with London of Queen Victoria, Oliver Twist and a drunken Karl Marx smashing streetlamps on a binge which leads straight into the snow-covered labyrinth of revolutionary Moscow where the idea of communism was all-consuming, but ultimately betrayed by the horror of Stalin and his mass murder of “counter-revolutionaries”, only equalled by Hitler’s Berlin and, in our times, the Rwanda genocide centred on Kigali.

The final three: New York, Mumbai and Beijing are the real leaders of our world today. Unimaginably rich New York and Mumbai, with its terrible shantytowns existing along with its wealth are allied in their chaotic embrace of capitalism and democratic freedoms, while orderly but deeply authoritarian Beijing provides an alternative vision for 21st-century prosperity.

Which of these visions of a city and the societies they represent will prevail in the coming decades? This is the question Strathern ends on, and we put down his book fascinated by the thought of what our future holds, having been on a wide-ranging and extremely readable journey of erudition that brings together history and the growth of competing ideas through nearly 4,000 years of human construction, ingenuity and fate. @Hamilton Wende