Reading History #1: Introduction

Copyright @2015 Robert Shurmer.

Vista La Inmobiliaria, Buenos Aires by Roberto Fladone, 2011

Vista La Inmobiliaria, Buenos Aires by Roberto Fladone, 2011

The 2005 U.S. Census Bureau counts 232,581,397 Americans, 82.6% of the population, living in the nation’s cities, but if our moralists and intelligence services are to be believed, they do so at no small risk to the safety of their persons and the security of their souls. There is an obvious contradiction. If the city is a sewer of vice and a slough of despond, why do so many people choose to live there? On what  toxic landfill does the city stand as the embodiment of its ennobling cognate, civilization? The questions bear asking because the future is urban, and the answers are what the new millennium is likely to make of its art and religion as well as of its government and working arrangement with nature. (Lewis H. Lapham)

The U.N. projects that by 2050, when you will be about 50 years old, almost 70% of the global population will live in an urban area. Given the span of human recorded history, approximately 5500 years, this urbanization is a relatively new phenomenon. Great Britain was the first nation to have a majority of its population living in cities, and this only in 1851. At the same time, just prior to the U.S. Civil War, the vast majority (75-80%) of the United States’ population was rural. Today, that statistic has be up-ended; less than 18% of us in the United States now live in a rural setting. While farming was, and is, certainly important for feeding large populations, since ancient times we have discovered a more dynamic and intellectually productive life within the city. It is arguable that humanity’s greatest creation, and the one thing that sustains a global population of over six billion today, has been the city.

Hangzhou, Athens, Rome, Tenochtitlan, Kyoto, Chicago and Mumbai all share certain characteristics that allow for large, high-density populations to exist in relative peace and they provide public and private space that fosters social complexity. On the contrary, places such as Caracas, Bagdhad, or Detroit, likewise share certain characteristics that can certainly lead one to the opposite conclusion that the city creates an environment of chaos, violence, and misery on a grand scale. What explains the divergent outcomes? Why do certain cities demand our attention as historical players of major importance while others simply exist without generating much interest at all beyond their suburbs? What, for example, do you know (or should you know, for that matter) about the history of Shàntóu? Despite being China’s fourth largest city with a metropolitan population of over 11 million, nearly 5 million more than Hong Kong, I would be surprised if many students had even heard of it. In Medieval England, by contrast, a city of over two thousand definitely stood out. There were fewer than ten of them in the entire country at the time of William the Conqueror. Because of its intellectual importance, for example, Medieval Oxford was well known throughout Europe despite being a city of only 3000 souls. Because city life has become so ubiquitous in the developed world since, a city of over 11 million is no longer necessarily a big deal simply because it supports an exceptionally large population.

No matter if we speak of China, India, Africa or Europe, certain cities are essential elements to the story of each civilization and fundamental to understanding historical development. Cities provided both the space and the opportunity for man to begin making serious technological and cultural advancements. “Cities,” says one recent commentator, “compress and unleash the creative urges of humanity.” (Kotkin, 2005) As if to underscore the point religiously, Hebrew Scripture even locates the famed Garden of Eden and the origin of man precisely in the region where cities and civilization first made their appearance, that is, between the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. One highly regarded author and web guru (and St. Albans alumnus), Steven Johnson, has gone so far as to argue in a recent book that the history of Homo sapiens as a species should begin and end with a single story line: we learned to live in cities. (The Ghost Map, 232)  It is in cities that humans collectively designed the way they wished to live together, organized government and commerce, and shaped enduring and beautiful cultural traditions.

The development and evolution of cities are fundamental parts of the story of humanity and, to be sure, key elements of what constitutes a civilization. While man has been around for tens of thousands of years, our collective history, strictly speaking, does not extend much beyond the past five thousand years. The historical era begins roughly around 3500 BC. This is due to the fact that what we call ‘historical time’ only comes about when man began to keep written records. And writing itself first appeared only where human beings came together to live collectively within an urban environment, that is in the cities, which first appear in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, and then later in India and China. Writing allowed for the more efficient transmission of ideas from generation to generation. In short, it allowed men and women to learn from those who went before, preserved knowledge, and passed it along to those who followed. It was also in the city that man first adopted a settled life, stopped following the herds of animals from which he fed, began to construct much larger structures, and began living in much larger communities. History in the strictest sense, therefore, begins in the city. So it follows that the study of history in the Upper School begins with an investigation into the nature and origin of cities and these first civilizations which they helped create.

Where, then, do we start? What themes should we follow in such an investigation? At its most basic level, because collective activity demands a degree of restriction and mass work for common goals, the city imposes order and control, ordering talent and manpower, controlling nature and human interactions. The original city builders from Mesopotamia, Africa, and China all imposed radically new orders (or systems) upon the regions dominated by their cities and in so doing forged entirely new social, political, and economic arrangements for the people that came under their influence. Despite vast differences in culture, geography, and climate, city-dwellers across the globe share similar experiences when it comes to the very basic idea of living cheek-by-jowl in an ordered space. When the Spanish conquistadors first laid eyes on the great Aztec city of Tenochtitlan in 1519, for example, they discovered a man-made environment that functioned in quite the same way as Seville or Madrid and one that possessed recognizable structures. Commonalities of urban life existed thousands of years ago, and they still exist today. City dwellers across the globe, whether in Nairobi or New Orleans, still attempt to impose order on their environments, to regulate human relationships, and to harness the natural resources of the surrounding region in order to improve living standards for as many people as possible. And, on the other hand, city dwellers across the globe are vulnerable to similar threats, whether natural (think New Orleans and Hurricain Katrina) or man-made (crime in modern New York City, for example, is not much different from crime in Medieval London). As the famous French historian Fernand Braudel pointed out, cities cannot exist without some form of power, protective and coercive. “A town is always a town,” writes Braudel, “wherever it is located, in time as well as in space.” (Civilization and Capitalism, p.481)

So, it is the city that allows men and women to live together in large numbers, allows them to pool and share resources efficiently, allows them to share ideas that lead to technological innovation, and even, we are discovering, allows them to reduce their environmental footprint. If you want a million people to share an environment and benefit from each other, it simply makes more sense, for a variety of reasons, to put them all in ten square miles (think ancient Rome) than to spread them out over several hundred square miles (think strip-mall sprawl south of Washington). While agricultural production (i.e. farming) is often synonymous with rural, rural life throughout history simply has not offered the same opportunities for advancement, intellectual, political, economic, cultural or technological. “Cities are centers of opportunity, tolerance, wealth creation, social networking, health, population control, and creativity.” (Johnson, 237) There is a feel that we get when we walk through a city, a perception that things are happening around us, that stuff is being made, bought and sold, that things are happening, and that possibilities for human interactions abound. The very fact that we can actually WALK in a real city seems significant as well (again, think strip-mall suburbia which rarely even provides sidewalks for its non-existent pedestrians). Cities, quite simply, are where the action is.

A contemporary journalist, Joel Kotkin, has identified three critical functions common to all urban environments throughout history. All cities, according to Kotkin 1) create sacred space for the religious practices of a society, 2) provide basic security for a large number of people, and 3) provide greater opportunities for commercial exchange among people of every economic category. Today, different cities around the world carry out these three functions with varying degrees of success. Where one of the critical functions is lacking, we often see serious problems. Throughout history, successful cities, on the other hand,  have universally gone beyond the normal limits imposed by nature and served as the impetus for crucial improvements to the human condition. Despite differences of origin and development – different histories that is – and despite being governed by radically different ideas, the ancient cities we will be investigating throughout the course of the semester have all provided environments that offered many more opportunities to their populations than any village or tribe could possibly hope to, and in so doing, they attained a certain status at the core of a civilization.



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