The City

In The City: A Global History noted urban scholar Joel Kotkin considers humankind’s unique and brilliant creation, the city, as this phenomenon has occurred throughout history and around the globe. Kotkin argues that, from its inception, the human city was based upon three fundamental concepts: The city is a place that is sacred, a place that is safe, and a place that is busy with commerce. Kotkin commences his study with the first known human cities, created about 5000 b.c.e. in the fertile crescent known to the Greeks as Mesopotamia. The oldest cities in this region were established in the valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Each of these cities began as the location of a sacred place.

In Ur, the largest of the ancient Mesopotamian cities, the city center was the seventy-foot shrine to Nannar, the Moon god. This tower dominated the entire city. Little wonder, then, that the priestly class dominated the city’s citizens. It was to protect the sacred place that Mesopotamian cities developed city walls. So protected was the sacred place that the court surrounding it became the central marketplace. This pattern of a city as a sacred space, dominated by priests and protecting the commerce at its center, was to spread across Mesopotamia and into Egypt. In the latter locale, the city was dominated by a single priest, the pharaoh, who ultimately claimed to be a god. Egypt’s great pyramids are still reminders of the power of the sacred place. China and India also developed cities featuring a sacred place often dominated by a single priest or prophet. Even as far away as the Americas, which had no contact with the rest of the globe, great cities, following the same pattern of sacred place, safety and commerce, were erected in Mexico and Peru.

An important variation in the pattern of ancient cities took place in Babylon, which Kotkin describes as deliberately established by Sargon to be his imperial city. This variation provides protection for a large empire associated with the imperial city, and, under this protection, commerce expands from the central market and embraces the entire empire. In the Far East, cities in China, Japan, and Korea also became imperial capitals. By the eighth and ninth centuries c.e., Phoenician Tyre and Sidon had become commercial giants, especially in trade involving shipping, and thus the power began to shift from the priests to the commercial class. Carthage, in North Africa, was the most powerful of such commercial cities. Cities built primarily for commerce were to fall to a new variant: the city designed for conquest.

Ancient Greek cities, on Crete as well as the Greek mainland, were organized around sacred places and supported large markets at their centers, but above all they were intended for conquest. The Athenian philosopher Plato was said to observe that every city is constantly at war with every other city. The greatest of these warrior cities was Athens, in which every male citizen was trained as a soldier. Famous for its center, which holds the sacred Acropolis, the Theater of Dionysus (also a place of worship), and the Agora or marketplace, Athens saw its natives produce great architecture, poetry, drama, visual art, and the creation of a governing democracy, but its main function was always military.

Athens and the other Greek city-states, however, could never form a permanent confederacy. Successful at joining together to turn back Persian imperialism, the Greek cities finally destroyed one another, the crowning blow being the conquering of Athens by Sparta. Weakened, the Greeks fell to Phillip of Macedonia, and it was his son Alexander who conquered the area from Greece to India. To rule over this vast empire, Alexander established in Egypt the grand Hellenistic city of Alexandria, which Kotkin labels the first cosmopolitan city. What characterizes the cosmopolitan attitude is that, although the culture is dominated by a central ideal, all other cultures, religions, and races are tolerated and even encouraged. The cosmopolitan ideal brings with it its own demise, for certain subcultures will eventually insist upon their right to be independent. This insistence was typified by the Jews, who ultimately reestablished their own independent state in Judaea. By 100 b.c.e. the Alexandrian empire had unraveled, but not before it had spread the Greek cultural vision throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Rome, was to inherit the Alexandrian ideal of cosmopolitanism. Kotkin classifies Rome as the first great megacity, a type which would ultimately include such modern urban monsters as New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles, London, and Mexico City. According to Kotkin, Rome was able to attain its great size and maintain its position of dominance...

(The entire section is 1975 words.)