Viewing a City Holistically: On Van de Mieroop’s “The Urban Landscape”
“The city in its complete sense… is a geographic plexus, an economic organization, an institutional process, a theater of social action, and an esthetic symbol of collective unity” (Mumford 59). While in his essay, “What is a City” Lewis Mumford refers in particular to the modern urban setting, the idea of looking at a city holistically can be applied to the study of the ancient city and to better understand archaeological evidence. In studying Mesopotamian cities, Marc Van de Mieroop uses this idea, elaborated by Mumford, Kevin Lynch and Diane Favro that in order to fully understand a city, one must study it in the context of each of its functions as well as holistically.
Van de Mieroop seems to attempt to define the ancient Mesopotamian city from the bottom up, as if using a physical footprint to find the person who stepped in wet cement. He uses the evidence left behind in the landscape to try to create the image of a city in addition to archaeological resource he finds, whether it be a plan of the city of Nippur, the writings of Assurnarsipal II about where he planted certain rare trees in Kalhu, or the remains of foundations of city walls in Ur, Kar-Tukulti-Ninurta, Kalhu, Dur-Sharrukin, Nineveh or Babylon (95). While it would be difficult to make assumptions on a city based on only one form of evidence, whether it be written, pictorial, or archaeological, Van de Mieroop’s strength is that the portrait he creates of the cities lies in a combination of different types of evidence. He frequently uses documents to gather information and then confirms the information using archaeological evidence. For example, he writes that the Epic of Gilgamesh reveals that about two thirds of the inner city of Nippur was comprised of open space and gardens; however, these sites have not as of yet been located with certainty (83).
Van de Mieroop’s technique of backing up written evidence with physical makes sense especially when one considers Lewis Mumford’s idea that “varied groups support themselves through economic organizations… all housed in permanent structures within a relatively limited area (Mumford 59).” The result is a very tangible image of the city whose validity will not be questioned; the evidence of Van de Mieroop’s conclusions is sufficiently cited and leaves one without doubt. While it seems that the physical remnants and precisely their location within the city are most important to Van de Mieroop in constructing the image of the city, he also attempts to grasp the evidence of Mesopotamian cities using physical evidence from other nearby cities. While this can be considered a sound method of interpreting a city, it is more difficult to understand the peculiarities of a particular city without certain information about the social culture, which could somehow change the meaning of the city. For example, Van de Mieroop writes that although there is sufficient evidence as to the existence of suburbs or smaller settlements that seem directly related to the main city, not a lot is known about the activities and settlement outside the city walls. One could venture to say that the suburb’s economy was directly linked to the inner city, but it would be difficult to define the lifestyle outside the city walls without more evidence and thorough excavation.
Van de Mieroop’s focus in defining the ancient Mesopotamian city is mostly through the material culture found within the city wall. Although he does create quite a vivid image of these cities, his approach is somewhat cautious of describing the social interactions that occur within a city. However, some urban theorists would argue that certain aspects of a city must be difficult to understand without experiencing social interactions. For example, Kevin Lynch writes that districts, the “relatively large city areas which the observer can mentally go inside of” are generally recognized internally by the city’s residents (66). Lynch cites specifically the different districts within the city of Boston, which a person familiar with the city would likely use to give directions or to identify a location within the city. Of course, recognition of districts is not exclusive to familiarity with the particular area and its inhabitants: texture, space, form, detail, symbol, building type, use, activity, degree of maintenance, and topography are all physicalities that Lynch writes can aid one in distinguishing districts, and luckily, many of these characteristics like texture, building type, degree of maintenance and topography can generally be read through archaeology. However, expanding on the example of Boston, it would be more difficult to distinguish subtleties about people living in the various districts using only physical evidence.
Mumford writes, “Social facts are primary, and the physical organization of a city… must be subservient to its social needs” (60). This suggests that the physical result can be a product of a combination of social requirements, and it is also possible that two or more different social interactions can result in the same urban built environment. Since the social interactions cannot be witnessed firsthand, it is possible that Van de Mieroop’s methods of studying past documents to define a long-abandoned city is not perfect. However, Favro suggests that combining this study with the study of images such as maps or plans can provide some important insight that one could easily overlook in only studying ruins and artifacts found in the archaeological site. “Filtered through the eye and mind of the image-maker, patron and viewer, [maps and images] reveal contemporary interpretations as well as ideological biases” (Favro 366). One can say the same of textual evidences such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, which Van de Mieroop cites frequently, as well as letters such as one found at Mari which Van de Mieroop also cites. This letter not only conveys the writer’s interpretation of the city, but it also reveals that certain parts of the city were restricted to certain people (Van de Mieroop 85). This fact might have remained a mystery if, for instance, only the ruins of the city wall had been studied. .
The other difficulty in Van de Mieroop’s approach in city analysis is the idea that “cities transcend history, constantly redefining themselves and only rarely becoming obsolete” (Favro 365). Although archaeological evidence, especially combined with written and pictorial evidence, can provide a variety of layers of a city’s history, because a city has a transient nature in which its function, size and character are frequently in a state of change, in the end there is always missing information, artifacts whose use remains a mystery, population sizes to be debated. For example, Van de Mieroop admits the difficulty in estimating exactly the population size and density of a city such as Kalhu. Despite the fact Assurnasirpal II claims in records to have fed 69,574 men and women, because census records appear to be missing it is difficult to say whether this was true or not. This also poses a problem when one tries to fully describe the domestic architectural structures and the way the city’s inhabitants lived within the city walls (Van de Mieroop 95-97). The way in which people live is very important to the city’s definition because as Mumford writes, “the city is a related collection of primary groups and purposive associations: the first, like family and neighborhood, are common to all communities, while the second are especially characteristic of city life.” Just like a single photograph can rarely accurately provide an entire narrative, the city’s state of fluidity makes it difficult for an archaeological footprint to be sufficient in explaining a city.
In the context of a city and religion, it seems a good idea to try to get a sense of the city using whatever information is found on festival practices. For example, Hattusha, a city defined as a ceremonial center because of its wall that is separated by ceremonial gates used in religious processions, can be characterized by what archaeologists have learned about his procession. Viewing a city from this perspective can explain a lot of the city’s ambiguities. Expanding on the example of Hattusha, the city was eventually conquered because its fortifications did not serve a defensive purpose; instead they were used strictly for ceremonial practices. Many elements in ancient Mesopotamian can be defined because of their ritual functions; this is useful if one considers Kevin Lynch’s idea that “paths may not only be identifiable and continuous, but have directional quality as well” (Lynch 54). He writes that paths, in particular, could have a different meaning because of either topography or their use.
Furthermore, because “the image of a given physical reality may occasionally shift its type with different circumstances of viewing… none of the element [of a city] exist in isolation in the real case” (Lynch 48). It could be interesting to define these cities with respect to their religious context. Because no element exists in a vacuum, if an urban theorist is to analyze a certain element of the city through the perspective of religious festival, one would have to take the other elements of the city into consideration as well in order to grasp the greatest possible understanding of the city, and especially analyze the city as a whole through this critical lens. These elements could hint at an urban history that may be somewhat more vague in the artifacts or writings found; for example, it seems that some cities have been found to have begun as “central meeting places for a region inhabited by seminomadic groups” (Oppenheim 113). It could be interesting to define a city through its development as a sanctuary and its eventual resultant growth.
Marc Van de Mieroop’s approach seems to suggest that the best and most thorough way of looking at a city is through an approach that takes all types of evidence into consideration. Although this method of investigating is very thorough and provides reliable results, first understanding a city and then choosing a particular critical lens, for example, the perspective of religious practice will reveal still more insight about the peculiarities of an ancient city and an ancient people.