Archive for the ‘cities’ Category


teotihuacan1pTeotihuacan (fl. 300 to 700) was the ancient and holy city of Mexico, “the city where the gods were created”. At its height it had 160,000 people, making it the sixth largest city in the world at the time. In the centre of the city was the third largest pyramid of the world, the Pyramid of the Sun. Teotihuacan is about 40 km north-east of Mexico City.

We do not know what the city called itself. All we have is the Aztec name: Teotihuacan, “the city of the gods”. It was the seed of a civilization that had lasted more than a thousand years by the time the Spanish appeared. Only the Mayans were able to pass Teotihuacan in science and the arts.

The city fell in 700, destroyed by fire. Mexico fell into a dark age that lasted until the time of the Toltecs 250 years later.

In its day the city was the centre of religion and trade. It seemed to have been the centre of an empire too: it was rich yet had no walls and its gods demanded regular human sacrifice which meant fighting and ruling foreigners. Under one of their temples are 130 bodies.

We do not know what language the city spoke. It may have been Nahuatl, what the Aztecs spoke. None of its books have come down to our time.

Teotihuacan started out as a place where people journeyed to in order to worship the gods. In time it built huge pyramids to the gods and grew into a big city. It was ruled by priests who lived in palaces. On holidays the priests walked up the steps to the top of the pyramids and sacrificed humans to the gods.

The priests lived in the centre of the city. Further out were craftsmen and businessmen, who came from all over Mexico. About two-thirds of the people who lived in the city were farmers. They went out to work their fields in the morning and came back at night. Despite that the city did not grow enough food to feed itself but also needed trade and tribute to live.

The Street of the Dead is the main street. It is very wide and runs north to the holy mountain of Cerro Gordo. Along the street were the main temples, palaces and squares.  The two main temples were:

  • The Pyramid of the Sun at the centre of the city, the largest pyramid in Mexico and the third largest in the world. It is now 63 metres tall but once it was 73. The base 225 by 222 metres – about two Manhattan city blocks on a side.
  • The Pyramid of the Moon is to the north along the Street of the Dead. It is smaller, only 43 metres tall.

There is also the temple of Quetzalcoatl, a snake god with feathers seen in the sky as the morning star. The square in front of the temple can hold 100,000, more than half the city.

Under the city are caves and tunnels.

– Abagond, 2009.

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ancient Athens

Athens was one of the great cities of Europe in Greek and Roman times. It reached the height of its glory under Pericles in the -400s. Even under Roman rule, when Greece was poor and broken, Athens was still a great seat of learning.

Today Athens is the largest and greatest city in Greece, but for a over a thousand years Constantinople, not Athens, was the centre of the Greek world, from the 300s till the 1400s. It was not till the 1800s that Athens was back on top.

In the middle of Athens is a long hill with a flat top: the Acropolis, the high city. Its sides go straight down in cliffs. On top are the remains of ancient temples, the biggest and most famous one being the Parthenon.

The Parthenon was the temple to the virgin goddess, Athena. Later it became a Christian church and then a Muslim mosque. In the 1600s the roof was blown off during a war between Venice and the Turks. In the early 1800s in the time of Napoleon the British carted away parts of it and put them in the British Museum (losing some of it at sea).  But even so it is still a thing of beauty.

The Parthenon was built in the -400s taking the place of an older temple to Athena. It was partly painted in red, blue and gold. Inside was a huge statue of Athena made of gold and ivory. Its columns are not all straight and the same but are made so the temple “looks right” when viewed from the ground. That is what makes it look more graceful than most temples.

So many people have visited it over the years that some of the rocks nearby have become smooth enough that you can slip on them.

The Parthenon was built when Athens was a great sea power, the centre of an empire. Athens sold olive oil and pots. It had a silver mine, university-level schools and some of the greatest thinkers and writers of all time. People like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

Because of its writers, Athenian or Attic Greek became the way to write Greek for a thousand years. And because of its writers we know more about Athens than almost any other ancient city.

Athens could not grow enough of its own food. It was fed by wheat grown by Scythians on the shores of the Black Sea. So its food came from over the seas. That meant Athens needed to be a sea power: without control of the seas an enemy could cut off its food. Which is what did in Athens in the end.

After enjoying great wealth and power it overreached itself and found itself locked in a fight to the death with Sparta. Sparta won. Yet Athens shined brightest when it fell: those who lived through those times, like Plato, Thucydides and Aristophanes, produced some of its greatest works.

– Abagond, 2008.

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That is a picture of one of the most famous factories in history. It used to produce a thousand Model Ts a day. You can see it and the other fabulous ruins of Detroit at detroityes.com.

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A parody of white gentrifiers

Gentrification (1964- ) is where a poor neighbourhood in the city turns into a well-to-do one. Not because the people living there are doing better, but because well-to-do people are moving in.

It causes a good deal of bitterness: while the neighbourhoods do become safer and better, the rents and taxes also go up. That means the people who have lived there all their lives are forced out, one by one, one way or the other. So are small businesses.

Some point to studies showing that the poor stay on. Some do for a time, but not forever: Park Avenue and 52nd Street in Midtown Manhattan are no longer poor neighbourhoods. Neither are Greenwich Village, the West 90s or Park Slope, places in New York that were poor within living memory.

So gentrification often becomes the rich against the poor. And in America that can mean whites against blacks or whites against Hispanics. But not always: in Harlem the gentrification is largely black-on-black.

In the 1950s and 1960s whites in America left the cities in large numbers and moved to the suburbs. The black middle-class soon followed. Factories left too, going to places with cheaper labour, like East Asia. The cities became poor and violent and began to fall apart.

But starting in the 1970s the middle-class started moving back. At first it was just the brave few: artists, students, gays and bohemians.

Their money – or their parents’ money – followed them and the neighbourhoods started to get better. More to the point, they became hip and fashionable. That brought in others, those with less courage but more money. That in turn pushed out the poor – and the bohemians too – as the place gentrified: new apartments went up, upmarket shops began to appear. In time you had to be a doctor, a lawyer or a banker to afford to live there – and the place becomes quiet and boring.

In the meantime the bohemians have moved on to another neighbourhood and the process starts all over again.

Knowing this some city governments and land developers try to draw artists to their city hoping to jump-start gentrification and make a mountain of money. But sometimes city governments simply pour in their own money, offer tax breaks and cross their fingers.

Gentrification means more tax money for city governments – and huge profits for land developers. The price of apartments in Harlem, for example, nearly doubled in 2007. Yet 20 years ago owners were giving them up to the city as a lost cause.

There have been several studies on gentrification. Most of the ones I have read about argue that it is not so bad for the poor after all. One of those studies was done at Columbia University, which stands to gain hugely from the gentrification of Harlem. But, so far as I know, no one has studied what becomes of all those poor people who once lived where the Starbucks now stands.

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Beijing (北京)

Beijing (北京) is the capital of China, once known as Peking or Peping. It has been the capital, more often than not, ever since the 1200s when Kublai Khan built his palace there. It stood at the end of the Silk Road. Marco Polo lived there for a while. He said it was one of the most amazing cities in the world.

It is where the Olympic games will be held in 2008. China is busily giving the city a facelift: they are adding a runway to the airport, tearing down old neighbourhoods and even putting ads on buses in New York. But what can they do about the dirty air?

In Chinese Beijing means “Northern Capital”. Yes, there is a southern capital: Nanjing, near Shanghai. It is near the mouth of the Yangtze, the river that goes down the middle of the country. It is a natural place for the capital. But Nanjing has been the capital only on occasion.

Beijing is far to the north, near the Great Wall, close to the homelands of the Mongols and Manchus who ruled China for a good part of the past 800 years.

To someone from Paris or New York it seems spread out, full of wide roads and highways.

In the middle is the Forbidden City. Behind its walls are 800 buildings, done in the Ming style. This is where the emperors lived behind big red doors. No one lives there now.

Across the street is Tiananmen Square. It is vast. This is where Mao raised his red flag in 1949. He is laid to rest in a building at the edge of the square. This is also where the army killed thousands one night in June 1989 to put down protests for democracy.

North of the Forbidden City is where the Olympics will be held.

Mao made Beijing a centre of industry in the late 1900s. He also killed all the dogs and closed down most of the temples.

Beijing is not as big or rich as Shanghai or as advanced as Hong Kong. Nor does the city give you a good idea of what the rest of China is like. It is to China like what the Emerald City is to Oz. Even in Marco Polo’s time that was true.

All the main rail lines end at Beijing. One line goes south all the way to Vietnam. Another goes north through Manchuria, Mongolia and into Russia.

It is hot and uncomfortable in the summer. In the winter bitter winds blow in from the plains to the north.

If you are visiting the city, you should see:

  • The Forbidden City
  • Tiananmen Square
  • Temple of Heaven, built in the 1400s, where the emperor used to pray on the first day of summer
  • Qianmen, a bit of the old city that might still be left
  • The Chinese opera

Also take a bus to the north and see the Summer Palace and, of course, the Great Wall.

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Dunedin (1848- ) is a city in south-east New Zealand, the largest on the South Island after Christchurch. The name sounds like “Done Eden”.

Its latitude and longitude is -45.8741, 170.5035, putting it almost on the other side of the world from London.

It was once the largest city in New Zealand, back in the late 1800s when gold was discovered nearby. But now Auckland has 40 times more people and seven other cities have since passed it. Even so, it is still seen as one of the four chief cities of New Zealand – along with Auckland itself, Christchurch and Wellington.

“Dunedin” is Gaelic for Edinburgh. It was founded by the Free Church of Scotland in 1848 and was designed with Edinburgh in mind. Many of the names are the same. It is much like an Edinburgh built in the style of the late 1800s on the remains of an ancient volcano.

Like Edinburgh it is an intellectual city. It has the oldest university in New Zealand, the University of Otago. The city is strong in software, medical research, architecture, painting, art, fashion and music. It is more a university town than anything.

Of its grand old Victorian buildings the best-known is the railway station, which looks like something from a storybook.

To Australians, Americans and New Zealanders from the north, the weather seems cold and wet. But Auckland, in fact, gets more rain, though it also gets more sun. Dunedin, by comparison, is a place of cloud and mist. It is closer to Antarctica than any other city of the English-speaking world – you can even see penguins living along the sea nearby! Yet Dunedin does not get as much snow as, say, New York. It gets a heavy snow only once every two or three years.

Captain Cook came here in 1770. He named Saddle Hill and Saunders Bay. He saw penguins and seals. This later drew sealers to the area, which led to fighting with the Maori. Disease from the sealers nearly killed off the Maori.

The area was first settled in the 1100s by men who ate moas, large, walking birds taller than men. The Maori lived here as late as 1785. Then came the sealers and whalers, then the Scottish and, when gold was found, everyone came, including the Jews and the Chinese.

To the west you can see the Southern Alps. They begin to turn white with snow in March.

Nearby is a town called Middlemarch and mountains called the Remarkables.

Dunedin governs the Otago region. New Zealand is divided into regions, not states or provinces.

At the heart of the city is not a town square but the Octagon. The chief streets start here.

Dunedin has the steepest street in the world, Baldwin Street. It rises one metre for every three.

Dunedin was favoured over Auckland by British shipping till the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. It has a deep harbour at Port Chalmers through which it sends frozen meat and chocolate, among other things.

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Washington, DC

Washington, DC (1792- ) is a large city that is the seat of the American government. It is where the president lives in the White House to lead the country, where Congress meets in the Capitol building to make laws and where nine judges dressed in black meet in the Supreme Court to pass final judgement. Across the river the top generals meet in the Pentagon, the building with five sides.

Washington is named after the first president, George Washington. He never lived there, but at his house down the river nearby.

The city is famous for its cherry trees, just like the cherry tree that George Washington himself cut down as a boy.

There is also a state called Washington, in the north-west at the other end of the country. Most people will say “Washington, DC” when they mean the city not the state. The city itself is not in any state but in what is called the District of Columbia – or DC for short.

Washington, DC is in the east. It is the last in a chain of cities near the sea stretching from Boston in the north, through New York in the middle down to Washington in the south.

Americans like to put their capital cities in the middle of the land they rule and not, as in Europe, in the most important city. So, even though Washington is now “back East”, when it was built nearly everyone lived in the East. So, given where people lived then, Washington was in the middle of the country, standing between the north and south.

Washington did not spring up naturally like most cities from trade or industry. It was created by an act of Congress. Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a Frenchman who fought for America against Britain, designed the city to one day equal the great cities of Europe.

The White House, the president’s house, was built first. It was started three hundred years to the day after Columbus discovered America.

Going round the city is a great circle road known as the Beltway. On the maps it is called I-495. Those who live “inside the Beltway” are said to be out of touch with what lies beyond the road – the rest of the country.

Near the river stands the Washington Monument, a tall, thin white building, the tallest building made of bricks in the world. To the north is the White House, to the east is the Capitol, to the south is the Jefferson memorial and to the west the Lincoln Memorial, the building that is on the back of the penny. Between the Washington monument and the Capitol building are museums, including the largest in the country if not the world: the Smithsonian.

Most of the important buildings are done in the style of ancient Rome.

President Kennedy said that Washington has Northern charm and Southern efficiency, meaning it has the worst of both.

President Truman said that if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.

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Qom or Kum (sounds like “come”) is the religious capital of Iran and one of the holy cities of Shia Islam. After Najaf in Iraq, it is the greatest seat of learning in the Shia Muslim world. These days Qom is much richer and safer than Najaf. It is a place to go if you want to study to become a mullah or an ayatollah. Ayatollah Khomeini once lived and taught there.

Many of the top people who run Iran and Hezbollah studied in Qom.

In Qom there are several universities and dozens of religious schools (madrasas). There you can wear robes and study the Koran, the hadith, Islamic law, theology, philosophy and logic. Its teaching of philosophy is very thorough. It takes 20-30 years of study to become an ayatollah, at least six for a mullah.

Qom has been a centre of Shia learning since at least the 1500s.

Qom is an hour south by car from Tehran on the road to Isfahan. It stands at the edge of the Great Salt Desert.

Qom is also a place where ten kings and 400 saints have been laid to rest in beautiful buildings from another time.

The most famous of the dead is Fatima the Pure who died in Qom in 816. She was the sister of the eighth imam and has made Qom into a place of pilgrimage. Her body now lies beneath a gold dome.

Outside of Qom is a well. People drop messages in it for al-Mahdi to read. No one knows where he is, but they say that at the end of the world, al-Mahdi will come up out of the well and bring justice and Islam to the whole world.

If you go to Qom you will have to dress so that your arms and legs and everything in between are covered. Women must cover their hair. It is a strict Muslim town.

In addition to religious education, Qom also has centres for computer science and medicine. It is one of the two places in Iran that tests long-range missiles.

Qom is not just a town of schools and beautiful buildings. It also has industry. Oil has been discovered in the area, but it is not high quality.

Qom has been destroyed several times over in its history: by the Mongols in the 1200s, by Tamerlane in the 1300s and the Afghans in 1700s.

A town has stood there since ancient times. Qom first became an important city under the Arab empire. The Arabs planted their armies at the edge of the desert. This made Qom the perfect place to station their army in Iran. In fact, “Qom” with a “Q” is the Arab spelling of the town’s name.

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New York

steinberg.jpgNew York City (1613- ) is the largest city in America. From 1925 to 1965 it was the largest city in the world. It is not so much a large American city as a world city that is in America. The people in New York come from all over the world.

Where Washington is the capital of American government, New York is the capital of American business.

Among other things, New York gave the world: Santa Claus, pizza, Billie Holiday, electric power, hip hop, baseball and the New York Times.

When you live in New York it seems like the centre of the world. It is just like that Saul Steinberg cover of the New Yorker which shows everything between Ninth Avenue and China: New York takes up more than half the picture.

I do not know why, but when I walk down Fifth Avenue I feel more alive and more right in my skin than anywhere else. One time I had been away from New York for a number of years and when I came back I felt like I had grown old. There is just something about New York.

New York is in the north-east of the country on the sea, at the end of a long island. In the harbour is a tall green woman, Lady Liberty. If you come from over the sea she is the first thing you see of New York.

New York is a world unto itself and it has worlds within worlds. You will see more change and difference in one mile of New York than in 500 miles of the middle of America. You could visit every part of New York and when you were done, it will have all changed and you could do it all over again.

New York has prostitutes, madmen, killers and drunks, but most people are like those anywhere. It is true New Yorkers do not always seem nice, but it is more their manner than their hearts. They do not trust charm and want you to tell it like it is.

New York has beautiful women of every shade and colour.

In New York no one knows you. They do not know your past in wherever it was you came from. Nor do they care. This gives you the freedom to leave your past behind and start all over.

What helps is the feeling in the city that life is not ruled by fate or chance but by what you make it.

The crime in New York is not like it was. If you keep your wits about you and use some common sense, you will be safe enough.

New York is made up of five boroughs, all but the last have  a million or two each:

  • Manhattan
  • Brooklyn
  • Queens
  • The Bronx
  • Staten Island

Most New Yorkers work in Manhattan but live in one of the other boroughs – the “Outer Boroughs” – where it is cheaper to live. Manhattan is the heart of the city.

– Abagond, 2006.


Manhattan in 1609 and 2009.

New York in 3978.

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