Politics Make Strange Cities

I am republishing this based on a brief, but interesting article I read about Cairo, with info and links inserted below . . .


The ancient Persian Empire usually doesn’t get the credit it deserves.  I reflected on this as my son read the graphic novel 300.   I give the book credit for its entertainment value and reasonable historical accuracy.  But at one point the story declares that in fighting Persia, the Spartans fought to preserve freedom and the light of truth and reason.  This strikes me as an almost dangerous absurdity, considering that the Spartans enslaved a native population and practiced infanticide.  The Persians built their extensive empire largely on the back of tolerance (note the praise for Cyrus the Great in Isaiah), pioneered some legal improvements, and often paid even their lowliest workers.  One can root for the Greeks against the Persians, as I do, but not quite for the reasons given in 300.

The Persians also are interesting case study in the building of cities.  As a people they originated in the mountainous Iranian plateau, but as their empire spread, Persian natives found themselves far afield from their native climate.  How could they hold their rapidly expanding empire together?  I already mentioned the legal and philosophical approach, but they matched this by having three distinct capital cities scattered in different parts of their empire.

Only Ecbatana, their summer capital, had any proximity to their place of origin.  It made sense to make it their summer capital as it lay further north.  But they gave Susa prominence in the South by making it the final/first stop on their royal road, and they willingly went further south still to Persepolis for symbolic purposes.  Having three different capitals demonstrated the broad-minded, inclusive approach of the Persians.

The very flexibility that allowed them to grow so quickly, however, proved a double-edged sword.  Being Persian came to mean nothing more than having a better economy — in other words — very little about Persia touched the soul.  When Alexander invaded between 333-323 B.C., many willingly and easily switched allegiances to him.

I admire Persia’s feat of flexibility.  No capital city today could “move” to a new location every few months.  We have far too much bureaucracy to achieve that.  Also, they “walked the walk” as well as talked.  They said they were inclusive, and they demonstrated this “on the ground.”  But Persia’s story begs the question of whether or not one can invent history on the fly, whether one can “create out of nothing” a culture and a way of life.  I touched on my skepticism about invented cities in this post a few months ago, and the reasons for the failures of St. Petersburg to lead Russia are quite similar to Persia’s ultimate demise.

Cairo is about to attempt an experiment not unlike Persia.  With their population growth outpacing their population, they plan to build a massive “New Cairo” directly adjacent to the old city to serve as Egypt’s capital.

Ordinarily I might think this a fool’s errand, but Egypt has gone through several distinct historical phases and may not quite have a distinct identity in the modern era.  Maybe, just maybe, this could work (read more here).

America has some similarities to Persia, especially lately with our emphasis on tolerance.  Again, there are many worse things to be known for, and besides, I think being “American” involves more of an inner identity than Persia ever had.  But, we, like Persia, invented our capital city, and we might inquire how that has worked out.

Like Persia, we picked the location of our capital for purely political reasons.  Tradition and geographical position probably pointed to Philadelphia as the best choice.  But, despite a lack of clarity on exactly how we ended up making the decision, it appears that we decided on Virginia both to help them ratify the Constitution and perhaps to honor Washington, Madison, Jefferson, etc.  To build the buildings we had to clear a swamp and import people into it the city from outside.  The transience of the D.C. area has to do with military and government turnover, but has its roots in the fact that most everyone in the region originally got imported. Their homes lay elsewhere.

Thus, D.C. never had a history of its own. It had to be invented, and history has to “happen”–it can’t be invented.  So while New Orleans has Bourbon Street, Memphis has Beale Street, New York has Harlem, D.C. has K Street, where lobbyists and bureaucrats cut a rug.  Not exactly the stuff of legend.

As Toynbee pointed out in Cities on the Move, no city worthy of the name can sustain itself.  It has to import the necessities of life, but evens out the balance sheet in other ways.  All capital cities, for example, export law and national directives.  But one also hopes that they might export some sense of cultural identity, some sense of “soul” for the nation (with the caveat that it need not dominate, but only add flavor).  D.C. will never be able to do this, and we should not expect it.   The town got created out of nothing purely for the function of exporting administration, and a leopard can’t change its spots.

It is a shame that all D.C. can export is bureaucracy, but our invention of the capital does testify to our inherent flexibility as a nation.  Our lack of attachment to History itself has given us the ability to adapt quickly to challenges and allowed individuals in every generation to make of themselves what they will.  The question for the future remains whether or not the lack of cohesive cultural and historical identity will ultimately hurt us as it hurt the Persian Empire 2500 years ago.