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The Walled Cities: Keeping Out The Joneses
July 18, 2009 10:30 PM   Subscribe

The first human settlements... before the bronze age, before the iron age and even probably before the stone age, didn’t happen because people liked each other’s company. "As the old saying goes, there's safety in numbers... and fortifications. "If you have any doubt about how wood, stone and later even steel walls helped shape human civilization, all you need to do is take a close look at most of our cities, especially the older ones."
posted by Effigy2000 (38 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
"...didn’t happen because people liked each other’s company."

I think that conclusion is based upon faulty logic.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 10:58 PM on July 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


Another reason why the battlements in Europe crumbled was because of a force even more powerful that the weapons of the time: money. As trade increased and financial empires bloomed war became a bad investment.

It's like in Civ4 how you can't use your castles anymore when you discover economics!

Back to the Viking domination of the world.
posted by TypographicalError at 11:02 PM on July 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Is that a literal or metaphorical viking domination?
posted by stavrogin at 11:04 PM on July 18, 2009 [5 favorites]


thanks! brings back a lot of memories of travels...

my last big trips were to morocco and korea. they have walled cities and ancient (and not so ancient) battlements everywhere. couldn't help but think of them again reading this.
posted by artof.mulata at 11:05 PM on July 18, 2009


Yeah, I don't see this as being defenses against immigrants so much as defenses against brigands -- the type who would happily sack your city and leave without a fare-thee-well.
posted by dhartung at 11:14 PM on July 18, 2009


they have walled cities

yeah, in Chinese there's semantic overlap between fortified wall 城 and city.

so much as defenses against brigands

That was the beauty of The Road Warrior (and what was IIRC lacking in Mad Max), the necessity of fortifications to survive out in the wild.

This is also why I laugh at Y2K/Dollar Collapse/EOTWAWKI types talking about their "defensible" doomsday acreage out in the boonies. In Vietnam we actually developed the art of field fortification such to be able to created manned outposts that could hold their own against determined inflitration, but the amount of labor and materiel required to create, maintain and adequately man these defenses when under attack is significant. The best defense for the apocalypse is GTFO.
posted by @troy at 11:30 PM on July 18, 2009


That's why I think it's funny when a bunch of screechers try and poo-poo hundreds of millennia of social evolution.

Oh noes the Israelis are building a wall we must stop the wall the wall is eeevil!

Not just fortifications. I could give dozens of examples… but let's not derail the thread, hmmm?
posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:57 PM on July 18, 2009


Yeah, I don't see this as being defenses against immigrants so much as defenses against brigands

There are still pieces of the wall that used to go around our city, and we still have some of the big gates they used to close at night to keep out the riffraff after hours.

Depending on what era you're talking about (a walled city might exist for many years) and what was going on that time and who lived inside the walls (populations change over time), the wall here was for keeping out invaders (Teutonic Knights or Swedes or Turks or whoever was invading at the time), but also to manage the daily influx of residents and traders and sailors. A wall focused people on a few gates, and a gate provided a bottleneck where you could watch who came and went, charge them for the privilege, and keep them in or out at night so you could relax without drunken sailors coming and going. Certain populations (such as Jews) were allowed to live outside the walls and to function inside the walls for trade. The wall was a regulatory organ, the skin of the city.
posted by pracowity at 1:07 AM on July 19, 2009 [4 favorites]


It's like in Civ4 how you can't use your castles anymore when you discover economics!

*a dim light bulb slowly brightens*

I never made the connection. I always wondered what was it about economics that made castles useless - it's not like all the extra money was used to undermine those thick, stone walls.

Now I think I get it.
posted by WalterMitty at 2:43 AM on July 19, 2009


I have been to about half of the places pictured there. I highly recommend a visit to Noerdlingen and Dubrovnik, gorgeous places.
posted by Meatbomb at 3:59 AM on July 19, 2009


Fujian Toulou are also interesting.
posted by fleacircus at 4:21 AM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


ummm... this website auto-downloaded a pdf... among other things.
posted by geos at 6:16 AM on July 19, 2009


Nice pictures, incredibly stupid text.

didn’t happen because people liked each other’s company.

How the fuck do you know why the first human settlements happened? You don't. Do you know anything at all about the first human settlements from looking at a bunch of medieval cities? No.

Like with the ancient cities all around it, the Maginot Line proved that the idea of hiding behind walls is, in the end, futile.

No, it proved the French General Staff made a bad bet. And "in the end" everything is futile because of the heat death of the universe; those walled cities did their job fine for centuries. The people who built them didn't give a fuck whether they would be useful in our day.

Another reason why the battlements in Europe crumbled was because of a force even more powerful that the weapons of the time: money. As trade increased and financial empires bloomed war became a bad investment.

War "became a bad investment"? What are you, deaf, dumb, and blind? Have you not read the news for the last few centuries? That may be the stupidest single statement I've ever read on MetaFilter. The reason the battlements in Europe crumbled is that advances in military technology made them obsolete. Jesus.

I could go on, but I'd just get myself wrought up, and it's a beautiful Sunday. Enjoy the nice pictures.
posted by languagehat at 6:47 AM on July 19, 2009 [7 favorites]


Another reason why the battlements in Europe crumbled was because of a force even more powerful that the weapons of the time: money. As trade increased and financial empires bloomed war became a bad investment.
I'm really not sure I buy this. It always seemed to me that once we developed canons and artillery that was strong enough to blow through city walls, suddenly it was no longer useful to defend against an enemy by forcing a siege. Walls became a waste, and defending against an invader became more focused towards meeting the enemy on the battlefield.
posted by deanc at 6:49 AM on July 19, 2009


fwiw, there was a great exhibition of 17th century dutch cityscapes recently at the national gallery, viz. :P
There are occasional departures into less public, more mysterious territory. “The Golden Bend in the Herengracht in Amsterdam,” a painting of row houses and treeless, sparsely populated sidewalks along a glassy canal by the excellent Berckheyde, has a strangely empty, moody feeling that artists like de Chirico and Hopper would have appreciated... But none of the usual evils of city life — crime, poverty, pollution, injustice and so on — are to be seen.

The city as envisioned by these artists is one of the great collective endeavors of humankind. People are born, live and die; cities live on. The Dutch cityscapists were not social critics or utopian visionaries, but believers in the real possibility of creating worlds of peace, order, beauty and well-being. People can, at times, all get along and build something bigger than themselves.

A quiet spiritual urgency animates nearly every painting in the exhibition. In one by van Ruisdael, the feeling is almost cosmic. We find ourselves on the roof of Amsterdam’s new town hall, still under construction. Blocks of stone and scraps of wood lie at our feet, and we look out over a vast metropolitan panorama, its countless little buildings each noted with a tenderly deft touch. The sky is roiled by clouds, and sunlight spills across the middle of the city while darkness obscures the closer and further distances.

Although the canvas measures just about 17 by 16 inches, the view is breathtakingly expansive, powerfully meditative and eerily disquieting. It seems almost biblically prophetic, a vision of the city on the brink, soon to be engulfed by the anarchic shadows of modernity.
cheers!
posted by kliuless at 7:25 AM on July 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think he has his effect pulling his cause.

There is almost no evidence of organized warfare in pre-hey-let's-build-cities humanity. The why of this is not really hard to put together when you start to think about motives - your worldly possessions are a bag of chipped rocks, some sticks and bits of hide. Even if I steal your rock tied to a stick I'm going to have to chip out a new pointy rock in pretty short order. I mean, there's a reason EVERYONE on Earth used the same Clovis point, and it wasn't because they were all hiding in caves eying every passer-by with distrust.

Shortly after you had cities, you had stuff that might actually be worth fighting over.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:28 AM on July 19, 2009


Language Hat, what countries that have really gone in for war have done really well for themselves? The United Sates came into the industrial revolution with about a half a continent of virtually untapped resources, and so is a fluke, but after that? I mean the Soviets bled themselves dry trying to maintain a giant military.

If war is such a hot investment why are so many of the countries on the global axis of really shitty hell holes I wouldn't visit on a bet also countries that have embroiled themselves in on-again warfare for the past 30 years or so? Hell, Congo, which has a civil war about as often as I change my oil, ought to be the undisputed capital of the Earth by now.

War is a big hole that fools and their unfortunate neighbors get to pour money into from time to time.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:55 AM on July 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


This website did very nasty things to my computer.
posted by yhbc at 8:14 AM on July 19, 2009


Even a city as enormous and frequently re-configured as Paris still has remnants of the old walls if you know where to look. I used to walk by a fragment of the old Enceinte de Philippe Auguste in the Marais almost every day.

Most of those charming little European towns pictured in the article all clustered in their old wall are like that because they are stagnant. They grew and prospered, but then sometime by the 17th century they stopped growing and so never needed to knock down their walls to expand. Bruges is particularly striking this way. It's beautiful now, but that preservation mostly comes from the fact that after their canal silted up in the 16th century the town fossilized.
posted by Nelson at 8:23 AM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


what countries that have really gone in for war have done really well for themselves?


Roman Empire, Aztec Empire, Spanish Empire, Ottoman Empire, British Empire. Just off hand.

They decline and even fall in the end, expansion sowing the seeds of its own destruction and all that, but then so do we all in the end. But you can do really well for a long time by going in for war.

(Well, some of you can. If you do it right. Congo doesn't do it right.)

As to the post - nice pictures, but no revelations. I was hoping to get insight into defensive strategies of early civilizations.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:50 AM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


The first human settlements... before the bronze age, before the iron age and even probably before the stone age,...

I'm going to bet on probably not, unless we get some good evidence that australopithecines were urbanizing the savanna.

There's also a distinct lack of evidence in this article from early periods when cities were just emerging, which might be useful if you're trying to construct an argument as to why they first came about. Otherwise, pretty pictures! Ooh!
posted by Sova at 8:52 AM on July 19, 2009


There's also a distinct lack of evidence in this article from early periods

I'm not so sure that's true; there's a lot of well preserved Indian towns in the American Southwest. Only 600-1200 years old, so preserved, but effectively stone age technology. Not so much walled towns as built in cliffs, but the effect is much the same. Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, Tsankawi. The major difference to me seems to be size, not layout.

The linked article isn't great, but real live anthropologists make careers out of trying to figure out why towns were built the way they are. Tsankawi seems to be designed to capture the water falling on top of the mesa, with cliff-side dwellings for defense. Mesa Verde has a fantastic location for water, green vegetation, and game and is also highly defensible. Chaco is still a mystery though, last I looked into it there was a lot of debate about whether it was ever permanently inhabited.
posted by Nelson at 9:05 AM on July 19, 2009


> Language Hat, what countries that have really gone in for war have done really well for themselves?

Who said anything about countries doing well for themselves? War is good business for businessmen, not countries. Who do you think gets the U.S. involved in all these stupid wars that drain the economy and kill productive young people? It wasn't the great body of citizens who demanded we invade Iraq or pretty much any other country. It's the people who finance wars (and politicians) and the people who make the weaponry and provide ancillary services who want wars, and they do very well off them, thank you.

> The linked article isn't great, but real live anthropologists make careers out of trying to figure out why towns were built the way they are.

I'd love to see a link to a discussion by a real live anthropologist who knew what they were talking about. The link here is to an idiot rambling on about shit he knows nothing about.
posted by languagehat at 9:14 AM on July 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


You are all wrong the earth isn't old enough for this "stone age" theory to be true.
posted by oddman at 9:14 AM on July 19, 2009


what countries that have really gone in for war have done really well for themselves?

THIS IS SPARTA!
posted by oddman at 9:52 AM on July 19, 2009


as someone who has spent a little time researching how cultures "evolve" from one level of complexity to another, I was underwhelmed by the article. The writer would have done better by simple amassing these images and talking about them from an aesthetic standpoint.
posted by edgeways at 10:26 AM on July 19, 2009


There is almost no evidence of organized warfare in pre-hey-let's-build-cities humanity. The why of this is not really hard to put together when you start to think about motives - your worldly possessions are a bag of chipped rocks, some sticks and bits of hide.

I think that's only because there's so little evidence of anything. If modern forager societies are any guide -- and to be fair, there is no inherent reason that they should be, but they are our only measuring sticks -- many Neolithic societies probably participated in frequent, brutal raids against their neighbors. Pride, revenge, manhood, women, any number of reasons would have done.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:06 PM on July 19, 2009


There is almost no evidence of organized warfare in pre-hey-let's-build-cities humanity. The why of this is not really hard to put together when you start to think about motives - your worldly possessions are a bag of chipped rocks, some sticks and bits of hide.

You could always study civilisations with stone-age technology and no cities. These are, happily, still abundant as of the last couple of hundred years. You can go to Puapa New Guinea and visit the highlands, you could have come to pre-colonisation New Zealand, or Hawaii, and guess what - you'd find people whose possessions are "chipped rocks, sticks and bits of hide" having well-organised warfare.
posted by rodgerd at 3:57 PM on July 19, 2009


"Walls became a waste, and defending against an invader became more focused towards meeting the enemy on the battlefield."

Siege mentality and keeping the barbarians out still lives writ large by the US and Israel.
posted by Mitheral at 4:04 PM on July 19, 2009


Puapa New Guinea

Gah. Paupa.
posted by rodgerd at 4:07 PM on July 19, 2009


Puapa New Guinea
Gah. Paupa.
Papua :)
posted by Flunkie at 5:18 PM on July 19, 2009


There is almost no evidence of organized warfare in pre-hey-let's-build-cities humanity. The why of this is not really hard to put together when you start to think about motives - your worldly possessions are a bag of chipped rocks, some sticks and bits of hide. Even if I steal your rock tied to a stick I'm going to have to chip out a new pointy rock in pretty short order.

Thirding the objection. Even chimps have wars. A neolithic society may not have stuff worth stealing, but it can certainly have territory worth stealing --- a given area with lots of cozy safe nesting sites and plentiful food and water. The whole point of war is not to acquire objects, that's what trade is for. It's to acquire territory.
posted by Diablevert at 7:59 PM on July 19, 2009


The best defense for the apocalypse is GTFO.

*makes mental note to stop stockpiling guns and food, start stockpiling single-family spaceships*
posted by DU at 5:04 AM on July 20, 2009


What I don't get is where he's pulling this "stone age" bullshit from when the whole post is about medieval city planning... Me thinks he's also the sort of person who continually sets his alarm for "PM" when he means "AM" since he obviously has no sense of linear time.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 12:13 PM on July 20, 2009


War Before Civilization (via iGreed)
posted by kliuless at 6:28 PM on July 20, 2009


Puapa New Guinea

Gah. Paupa.

Papua :)


Dammit.

Anyway, one of my pet peeves is people making sweeping pronouncements about "stone age cultures" based on speculative horsehit when we have a bunch of stone age cultures that survived to, or developed in, recorded history.
posted by rodgerd at 10:27 PM on July 20, 2009


If you think the present-day cultures conventionally called "stone age" are directly comparable to cultures that existed tens of thousands of years ago, you're as foolish as the people who ignore them. They can provide interesting avenues of speculation, nothing more.
posted by languagehat at 5:51 AM on July 21, 2009


Glad you liked the article! It was a lot of fun to write.

Chris (M.Christian)
posted by MChristian at 2:03 PM on July 26, 2009


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