Heaps of Cities
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It's a hot day in the Middle East, where The Urban Man finds himself on a kind of archeological safari. Just now, I'm standing above a wide valley in Northern Israel, staring at a dusty heap of stones that used to be a city. They call a little hill like this a "tel," which means an artificial mound of many layers where people once loved, argued, enslaved one another, and made a lot of pottery. Cities were small in those days: you can stroll around the average tel in half an hour.
Me, I've wandered away from the group. Like every Urban Man, I enjoy idling in important places. I go sit in the crumbled throne room of some forgotten king. I kick dust around the scattered ruins of once sacred temples. This activity offers a certain giddy thrill: like sneaking into Sumner Redstone's office after hours and tap dancing on his desk.
Some tels, like this one called Megiddo, are composed of twenty-plus layers of city, piled one atop the other over 7,000 years. Does Megiddo sound familiar? In Hebrew, the word for mountain is "har" and "Har Megiddo" got corrupted into the word Armageddon — but let's not go there.
The Urban Man always wondered about the whole phenomenon of cities layered one atop the other. I mean, how did that happen, exactly? Did, like, a lot of dust blow in to cover a city once it was abandoned? Then someone else built on top, not knowing what was underneath?
No, explained my amused guide. It's because of a special urban renewal strategy in olden times. Back then, people conquered cities for the same reason we conquer cities today: First to pacify them, then to make them look like our cities and make the people there act like our people.
After a bloody siege, and after killing off, like, every male over 16, the conquerors would set about making the city look like home. Buildings were made of stone, so it was too much trouble to raze them to the ground: they'd just tumble upper stories into lower stories, and cover them over with dirt and rubble. On top, the happy conquerer could then build whatever city he liked: a city that, well, looked just right.
For thousands of years, I can see that the whole layering strategy worked pretty well—in other words, people got conquered and stayed conquered. Cultures got obliterated, and with very few exceptions, stayed obliterated. Everyone left alive was forced to act Greek or Roman or Edomite or whatever.
This strategy offered a nice "I win, you lose" kind of conclusiveness. It was a really clean way of resolving a conflict.
Nowadays, of course, people rarely get conquered completely, and try as you might, it's damn hard to keep them conquered. In fact, you might say that given modern technology, the whole conquering concept has become passé. I mean, these days, it takes so little to maintain a culture: you can fit the whole thing on a two-gig flash drive, or a MySpace page. And how do you end a war when five guys can fight on with a little C-4?
In fact, the concept of cultural persistence seems to be screwing up the concept of "history" itself. Civilizations probably won't ever disappear again. Not completely. And the ruins of cities won't come in layers, dusty or otherwise. More like a patchwork of survivors: This part Jewish. This part Muslim. Georgian. Serbian. Croat. Tamil. Kurd.
If you read the news, you'll notice that plenty of folks haven't yet realized that they will never quite win and never quite lose a war again. It's going to take some shift in strategy. Some change in flags and anthems they don't yet seem to grasp. Today, as the Urban Man strolls the ruins of Har Meggido, I sit on a fallen stone from the throne of some old king and try to imagine how it might work.
Copyright (c) 2008 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
Banner image: Replica of Biblical Megiddo, 1000 BCE
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