World Building #4
THE ETERNAL CITY:
Do-It-Yourself Political Geography
Now you have a world. If your adventurers
are just going to explore wilderness full of primitive tribes,
go to it! On the other hand, if you are going to have civilizations,
then you have to have cities, civitas, and cities do not
spring up just anywhere, at random. Cities are living entities
and require certain basics to stay alive. Some grandiose kings
have decided to build new capitals on virgin ground, but most
of these have faded back to wasteland when the power of the king
to force people to live there waned.
What Makes a City?
First off, cities do not need a high
technology. The earliest cities were Middle Stone Age, Late Mesolithic,
predating even the development of agriculture. They weren't as
big as ag-supported cities, but cities have grown and shrunk
independent of agriculture -- a good point to remember.
The reason most cities come into existence
is trade (the notable exceptions are Central American cities,
below). They first spring up at the crossing of trade routes.
Trade routes run along the path of least resistance between two
sources of goods. So traders will not hike over the mountains
if the plains are an easier path, unless there are extenuating
circumstances, like zero water in the plains balanced by a not
too-difficult mountain pass. For thousands of years, though,
traders have packed water for themselves and their beasts or
dug hundred-meter-deep wells rather than climb unnecessarily.
Jericho, the oldest known city, is at the
junction of routes trading Baltic amber for African ochre, and
the western terminus of the trade in obsidian, carnelian, and
lapis lazuli from the Persian highlands. In a stone-age culture,
stone is valuable. Equally, in North America, which remained
Stone Age until the Europeans brought hard metals, copper from
the Great Lakes was traded for shells from the Pacific coast
and jade from deep in the Yucatan. Tracing the network of pre-Columbian
trade-trails is a fascination for many, professional scholars
as well as hobbyists. (However, note that cities didn't quite
develop: wait until later for why.)
London sits at the lowest fordable point on
the Thames river. Overseas ships could travel up the Thames this
far, while traders from either side of the valley could cross
here. The same applies to Rome, Paris, and a number of other
cities. By the time a culture has boats, which is at least Neolithic
agricultural technology, water travel is easier than land travel,
especially for massed goods, so cities become very oriented to
harbors and rivers, unless they are on the inland caravan trails.
Simply, you don't get a grand, gigantic city
in the middle of nowhere, to which no one ever travels. You may
have a small city, the remnant of other times, in which the survivors
of the culture huddle. However, the average person does not get
any joy from squatting in the shadow of past glory. They will
only stay as long as they are forced to. The middle class, dependent
on trade, decamps the soonest. The commoners trickle away, looking
for greener pastures, and the remnants of the upper classes either
then migrate for want of a lower class to supply their needs,
or take up a different way of life, like banditry. Cities shrunken
to villages dot Mesopotamia and China.
Not infrequently the abandonment takes place
very quickly, leaving ghost cities like those of the Maya in
Central America or the Khymers in Southeast Asia.
Always, cities need water enough for their
populations. Cities have died when wells dried and rivers changed
their courses away.
That's another reason the greatest cities
used to be on rivers: water. Caravan cities like Samarkand drink
from a vast number of wells (see #2
on springs and wells). If going in a straight line across the
desert means no water, the caravan trail will curve and jog to
go oasis to oasis. Determined merchants or local entrepreneurs
will dig wells to fill in gaps. When a very water-logged aquifer
is found, a lot of wells can be dug, farms set up as well as
caravanserais, and a city begun.
Once a city has developed, it may outgrow
its water supplies if and only if the technology figures out
viaducts or other means to easily transport huge amounts of water
from somewhere nearby. Viaducts are basically a form of artificial
river that can cross valleys in a raised channel, going right
from one ridge to the opposite one without getting caught in
the gravitational trap of the valley.
Feeding the Rabble
Food can be imported and in great quantities.
Normally, though, if there is enough water for the population,
some area around the city will have irrigated farming. Caravan
cities make a business selling caravans fodder for their animals.
If they can manage hay-making in nearby mountain valleys, they
will. This, as well as a greater likelihood of water, is why
caravan cities of Central Asia stick to the south, on the northern
rim of the mountain mass that includes the Himalayas.
If a city, as a center of political administration
and markets for skilled craftsmen, becomes overpopulated, it
may become dependent on imported food. Rome certainly did. In
its heyday any interruption of the annual grain fleets from Egypt
resulted in sky-rocketing wheat prices and famine in the lower
classes. When London in its turn was the largest city in the
world, not only was grain shipped up the Thames from Europe but
Kentish produce constantly came in on the roads, especially livestock.
A road leading to London could be frequently blocked with flocks
and herds being driven to the city butchers. Turkeys could be
driven in herds, unlike chickens, and for the trek would have
their feet dipped in tar to give them a protection like shoes.
Such a city, if fully beseiged, is going to
have famine problems sooner than a smaller one whose lord may
actually be able to keep supplies ahead for quite a bit of the
population. These sort of vast, unwalled megalopoli will not
be city-states. They will be capitals of nations, surrounded
by lots of friendly territory and with no way for enemies to
easily strike at them by sea, either.
This didn't used to be too well thought of.
If you look at the age of coastal big cities, they are almost
all modern, like many in the various European colonies (San Francisco,
New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Sydney, Melbourne). Traditionally,
the big city was up a river estuary with a smaller, dependent
port on the sea: Rome and Oporto, Athens and Piraeus; or completely
an estuarial port: Quebec, London, Paris.
You can already guess this has to do with
fresh water and trade trails, but the main one involves security.
If you're right on the coast, you can be hit repeatedly by pirates.
Either you build from the beginning great fortifications that
can stand them off (Tyre, Havana, Marseilles) or you will be
hit by them so often that you will never develop the wealth to
be a big city. This is one of the major reasons the attempted
Spanish cities around the Caribbean stayed small and poor: the
pirates of the Spanish Main. When the area got too poor and too
well-patrolled (about 1700), piracy largely shifted to the rich
pickings of the Indian Ocean trade, attacking Indian cities and
their mercantile fleets.
Sometimes, though, the natural port is so
great it can't be resisted as a harborage. In that case, it would
be very silly not to give it big walls, a fleet of fast ships
to fight off war fleets and pirates, and a great citadel. No
city could survive in a middle tech world without them in that
sort of locale.
In the Americas, you will find a non-traditional
city form: the ceremonial center.
Trade in North and Central America was very
small scale, limited to luxury goods. The trade trails were extensive,
so that Pacific abalone shells were swapped for Guatemalan quetzal
feathers and Great Lakes copper, but the volume was limited to
what a trader could carry. Cities did not grow up on trade routes,
any more than the old Irish ever built cities (cities were an
idea brought in by Norse settlers, who founded Dublin). Not every
culture goes to cities.
Rather, in the Mayan realms of Central America,
city sites were selected to be in the middle of virgin lands
(this is the trad explanation taught me in college). While the
people were clearing brush or jungle for fields, they were also
building those temples and pyramids. Because of the slash-and-burn
method of farming, and the thin limestone soil, the fields would
wear out. To support the population accrued, more and more jungle
would have to be cleared, farther and farther out. Farmers can't
live very far from their fields, or there isn't time to walk
there and back as well as do the work. When the land played out,
the cities closed down. The population, farmers, priests, and
nobles, moved elsewhere. It may also be that the development
of satellite villages near the far fields resulted in a breakdown
of the hold of the noble priests on the populace.
This ceremonial center is reflected in North
America, in the Mound Builder culture. The building here primarily
was in earth, rather than stone, but each of them required that
a great many people gather to dig soil and move it in baskets.
We suppose that they met again at the mounds for festivals and
ceremonies, and did not live too far from them, though without
an architecturally distinct nobility. They do seem to have had
one, as concepts of noble and common are frequent in tribes along