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Metropolitan Glory

November 6, 2009

Tunku Varadarajan’s book review of The Great Cities in History in WSJ:

The world has, for much of its history, been a place of fragments. During the Middle Ages, many cities were so far-flung as to be virtually unknown to each other. Cairo, Palermo, Benin, Angkor and the Incan capital of Cuzco were “great” but only in isolation. And greatness, often, was a product of the imagination. Timbuktu’s aura, we learn, was built partially on a mythical reputation spread by word of mouth. During the 14th century, its ruler, Mansa Musa, went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, where he generously dispensed gold to the faithful. Thereafter writers and diplomats traveled to the supposed source of this largess, only to be disappointed.

How did cities arise in the first place? Hunting and gathering had kept people apart; so, as Mr. Norwich writes, “towns and cities could be said to be born of agriculture.” It was farming that united man in critical numbers and durable structures, resulting in “the world’s first city” in Mesopotamian Uruk.

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