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Cities of Desire

August 14, 2014 7:02 am


By: Ömür Harmanşah

Cities Between Imagination and Political Desire

In his Invisible Cities, the Italian writer Italo Calvino wrote that “cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”[i] Study of ancient cities has been dominated by talk of imperial projects and the will of rulers. Yet, understanding the city in any historical period would be deficient without considering the experience of its citizens and the myriad ways which urban communities transform and shape urban landscapes. Making special places in the city, notions of desire, memory, smell and sound, are as central to cities as the utopic projects of ruler who make the grand decisions.

Harmanshah cover

The origins of my book Cities and the Shaping of Memory in the Ancient Near East go back to my first year of college education in architecture at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. In the Basic Design studio, we were given Calvino’s fantastical book Invisible Cities and were asked to visualize his imagined cities. In the book Marco Polo recounts the cities he visited in the presence of Kubilay Khan, the great ruler of Central Asia, offering descriptions of fabulous urban landscapes. At the end we learn that all of these descriptions, plazas, streets, imaginations of cities that had dazzled the reader (and Kubilay Khan) with their powerful magic, were derived from Marco Polo’s hometown Venice. Calvino cleverly points out how the shape of urban space is intimately linked to the lives of its inhabitants, their dreams and desires. The urban form is like a piece of undeciphered writing, but these forms and their meanings are never static. Charles Baudelaire said the “form of the city changes so fast, alas! faster than the heart of a mortal.”If this is so, as archaeologists, architectural historians and urban historians, how do we account for the pace of change in the shape and meaning of urban spaces, the rhythm of everyday life, juxtaposed against the long term utopic visions, planning gestures, desires, senses of belonging, and shared memories, associated with urban environments? For archaeologists who work on ancient cities of Middle East, this is a difficult task, mainly because a powerful tradition of historicism governs Near Eastern Studies as a field; textual sources from elites are often given priority over other evidence. The authorship of public spaces are often awarded to the “dead white men” of the Near Eastern past, the political actors, the kings, the powers that be.

Founding a City

My book is about founding and building cities in the ancient Near East during the earlier part of the Iron Age (1200-850 BCE), a period following the systemic collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean world around 1200 BCE. In the aftermath it seems that the entire Upper Mesopotamian and Anatolian geography not only saw the flourishing of a dramatically new political landscape, but also new lifestyles, new technologies such as ironworking, extensive cultivation of olives and grapes, and introduction of pigs to the diet. Despite the collapse, a level of cultural and linguistic continuity linked these communities to the Bronze Age past. This is the period of the emergence of the Assyrian Empire in northern Iraq, the Syro-Hittite regional states of Northern Syria and Anatolia, and the Urartian Empire of Eastern Turkey, Transcaucasia and Iranian Azerbaijan. Assyrian and Syro-Hittite rulers of Northern Mesopotamia and Anatolia carried out ambitious building projects including constructing capital cities from scratch, and boasted about accomplishments on their urban monuments. Building new cities was a cross-cultural practice as well as part of the official discourse, the royal rhetoric, among these states.

Map of Upper Mesopotamia during the Iron Age, with cities, settlements, and sites mentioned in the text. (Base Map by Peri Johnson, using ESRI Topographic Data [Creative Commons]: World Shaded Relief, World Linear Water)

The ostentatious claims by Iron Age rulers about city building were declared eloquently in their monumental inscriptions. Assyrian rulers published them in cuneiform Akkadian, Syro-Hittite rulers in Hieroglyphic Luwian, Aramaic or Phoenician, and Urartian rulers in cuneiform Urartian. In these inscriptions we read about their desire to build the perfect city- almost characterized as a paradise with utmost prosperity. Water is brought from far distances, exotic plants are brought and planted in their paradisiac gardens, most proficient craftsmen are brought for the construction. The innovative energy in these projects was tremendous. These foundations had regularly been presented as eccentric acts of powerful political agents and explained away as megalomaniac building projects based on the narcissist decisions of kings. Instead, I see a complex scenario, bringing landscape archaeology and the work of paleo-environmental scientists to challenge historical and historicist reconstructions on the one hand, and to introduce cultural studies approaches, by looking at questions of memory, desire, politics of representation, narrative, commemoration and the idea of the monument. The process of building a city was broken down into three different scales, long term history of ecologies of settlement, the specific urban histories of particular cities, and the architectural technologies and materials, how specific symbolically charged materials and techniques shape the urban environment. Instead of a traditional chronological structure, I created a spatial one, moving from the broader expanses and the slow moving history of the countryside, to everyday urban gestures and performances. And rather than accepting politics as the most powerful force, I looked at the tensions between the utopias of the rulers and practices that deconstruct those grand schemes and urban ideals. Those same tensions exist today.

Urban Utopias: from Modernist Ankara to Gezi Resistance in Taksim

I grew up in Ankara, which was refounded as the new capital city of the Turkish Republic in 1923 with the architectural and social engineering ideals of European modernism. Founders of the state in Turkey were keen on distancing themselves from Istanbul, the aged capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. They intended to open up ideologically and socially fresh ground for their modernist utopias. This newly constructed capital was an “architecture of revolution” and adopted the styles and the visual culture of the Modern Movement in Europe. Ankara’s ceremonial spaces were designed as spectacles of this modernist state. In the nationalist education system, we were taught the myth that Ankara rose from a tiny and dusty Anatolian town to a modern capital. Later I would learn with astonishment that sixteenth century Ankara was probably the largest city in Central Anatolia and that this was probably also the case during the Phrygian and Early Roman periods.

Karkamiš. Lower Palace Area and the Great Staircase. General view of excavations. (Woolley and Barnett 1978: Plate 31a). (Copyright: The British Museum)

Gezi Protests in Taksim Gezi Parkı, Istanbul Source:]

From the long-term perspective Ankara as the new capital of modern Turkey was not random but a historically informed decision; the myth of the dusty Anatolian town turned miraculously into a modernist capital was mostly a fabrication of official history. The official histories from Assyrian, Hittite and other imperial eras must be viewed with similar suspicion and as texts obscuring real social relations and violent state policies. Also significant is that modernist narratives about planned cities and democratic lifestyles in a 20th century city like Ankara have gradually been undermined and large portions of the city have been transformed into nightmares. This history now makes better sense of today. In the summer of 2013, as the Turkish government and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pushed forward development agendas to control and transform urban space and take it away from the citizens of the city, the Gezi Movement in Istanbul was in full force. The Gezi Movement was about ordinary people in Turkey who wanted to claim their rights to urban space and to their environment. The Movement erupted precisely at one of the most significant and contested public spaces in Istanbul, Taksim Square. Erdoğan’s intention was perfect in its developmental and Neo-Ottoman logic: to achieve a symbolic takeover of public space by reconstructing a 19th century military barracks, transform it into a shopping mall and a hotel, and thus create his capitalist development utopia. This kind of intervention into urban space boldly recreates select episodes from a complex and layered history while it silences other unwanted layers of urban heritage embedded in the same place.

Ancient Spaces of Modernity, Love and Desire

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563). The architecture of ancient Mesopotamia has always been associated with kingly desire to build in post-Enlightenment European imaginary. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Our understanding of how the built environment is produced is strongly conditioned by modernity, and the modernist production of space. Space is a social product, never under the discretionary prerogative and extraordinary power of the monarch! Modernist thinking about architectural and urban space has been shaped by the 19th century discourses on space, particularly in Germany, and 20th century practice gradually alienating “users” from the spaces in which they live in. Modernist ideas of space suggest that it can be designed and constituted before it was used, and not as it is being used. This modernist concept obstructs our interpretations of ancient and pre-modern periods. The model that ancient historians have cheerfully adopted about the foundation of Near Eastern cities is anachronistic and misleading, based on the idea that cities were created from scratch, and that political statements boasting of such accomplishments reflect historical reality. Building practices cannot be reduced to political decisions. The famous architectural historian Alberto Perez-Gomez wrote “architecture has been and must continue to be built upon love.” True architecture according to Perez Gomez “responds to a desire for an eloquent place to dwell, one that lovingly provides a sense of order resonant with our dreams.[ii]”

Ömür Harmanşah is Associate Professor of Art History at the School of Art and Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. 

For Further Reading Sibel Bozdoğan, Modernism and Nation Building: Turkish Architectural Culture in the Early Republic. (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2001). Zeynep Kezer, “Contesting urban space in Early Republican Ankara,” Journal Architectural Education 52 (1998): 11-19. [i] Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974), 37. [ii] Alberto Perez-Gomez, Built upon Love: Architectural Longing after Ethics and Aesthetics, (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006), 3-4.

Anatolia bronze age Cities of Desire Iran Mesopotamia Near East Northern Syria Ömür Harmanşah Urartian Empire Utopia
Cities of Desire Reviewed by Kaitlynn on . By: Ömür Harmanşah Cities Between Imagination and Political Desire In his Invisible Cities, the Italian writer Italo Calvino wrote that "cities, like dreams, ar By: Ömür Harmanşah Cities Between Imagination and Political Desire In his Invisible Cities, the Italian writer Italo Calvino wrote that "cities, like dreams, ar Rating: 0


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