Children left homeless during the London Blitz
Children left homeless
during the London Blitz
Plaster cast of cavity found in Pompeii
Plaster cast of cavity
found in Pompeii

A artist's woodcut of a home in Pompeii
A artist's woodcut
of a home in Pompeii
Ruins of a house in Coba
Ruins of a house in Coba


A small town as seen from the air

One cannot talk about ancient cities without eventually wondering what kills a city. How will our city one day die? We've found that cities turn out to be remarkably resilient to simple destruction. Hitler set out to destroy London in 1940 and failed. Then our bombers turned on Germany. But Dresden and Berlin are alive and well today. When we tried to bomb Hanoi into submission, we lost Viet Nam. Even Hiroshima remains a living city. Why should cities be so hard to destroy?

Historian J. W. Konvitz tells how, as soon as we had airplanes analysts began telling generals that bombs could destroy cities. A 1931 expert flatly said cities were too fragile to weather aerial assault — too dependent on transportation and supply systems, on electricity and waterworks. A few years later, a book on The Air Defence of Britain, trumpeted London's vulnerability. We read:

If it had been done deliberately, we couldn't ... have produced a social pattern ... more favorable for aggression from the air. Our millions are bottle-fed ... by a system ... so intricate, and so haphazardly evolved, that once dislocated beyond the power of immediate repair, they would be as helpless as newborn babes ....

And yet, during the Blitz, parts of London kept functioning without any essential utilities and with half the housing gone. It seemed to defy all reason.

The experts went wrong when they looked at cities and saw only large machines. They made the same error that we often make when we look at our machines. They saw only the gears. They failed to see the human heart at their center. Well, a city is no simple gear train. It's a system woven through its human habitants — a corporeal expression of their determination and resourcefulness.

My first exposure to the idea of a killable city occurred when I was five. My parents took me to the Uptown Theater on Grand Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota to see The Last Days of Pompeii. Basil Rathbone played Pontius Pilate, before he became typecast as Sherlock Holmes. The primordial special effects in that early talking picture raised the hair of this little boy's neck. Vesuvius erupting — fire and lava consuming the corrupt citizens on that terrible day of August 24, 79 AD.

Here was a rare instance of a historical city being suddenly killed. Pompeii and Herculaneum had a fifteenth the population of Hiroshima and were hit by a volcano with twice the force of the Hiroshima bomb. They weren't flooded by lava (as the movie suggests). They were simply blanketed with volcanic ash and mud — the same way Mt. St. Helens obliterated Spirit Lake.

Four or five thousand fleeing Pompeians died of asphyxiation and were entombed until the city was rediscovered in 1748. The nearby town of Herculaneum suffered far greater material destruction. It was flooded by boiling mud and encased in hard clay.

You and I can walk the streets of a greatly restored Pompeii, today. And there's a curious wrinkle here. A decade before the eruption, a warning earthquake had laid Pompeii in ruins. For ten years, its people had rebuilt their city into a model of urban renewal. What we find beneath the ashes is state-of-the-art, 1st-century Roman construction along with a great trove of fresh art.

The city of Pompeii, with Mount Vesuvius in the distance
The city of Pompeii, with Mount Vesuvius in the distance

This lovely city, so gracefully and beautifully restored, has become cold news. During the 1960s, people fixated on some erotic art that turned up in a few buildings. Once I overcome the image of flames washing over some Hollywood Babylon, I see a very real place -- the baker's shop, the wine merchant, fast-food diners along the streets. Mud solidified around some bodies which have long since gone to dust. The mud became clay casts from which a few citizens and animals have been recreated in plaster.

An artist's rendering of the discovery of body-shaped voids in the ruins of Pompeii

But this was no Babylon, no theater set of some imagined past. Rather, it was a center of upscale shops and theaters -- a lot like Grand Avenue in St. Paul today. Pompeii was where ordinary hardworking people lived the good life until that unlikely instant when they ceased to live at all.

So we meet the living ghost of the rare city that actually was killed. But cities rarely do die with a bang. Even the atom bombs twice failed to erase a city. When cities do die it's with a whimper. And that brings us to the city of Coba.

Seventh-century Mayans didn't have the wheel. They didn't have anything like the mathematics that was already old in Europe and Asia. Yet they built the huge city of Coba in northeastern Yucatán — thirty square miles and home to 50,000 people. Its crowning glory is a 120-foot pyramid rising out of the undergrowth. From the top one can see 6500 mounds where the jungle has grown over its buildings and buried them.

From this perch, we also discern a web of roads radiating outward — stone footpaths that reach as far as 60 miles through flat jungle and swamp terrain. Along those paths are ceremonial stones engraved to great people and events. And there are toll booths.

Coba flowered between 500 and 900 AD. Then its people walked away and let the jungle grow over it. They left 600 years before the Spanish invasions. They weren't driven out; so what did happen?

The answer is that, though Coba is a tribute to organization and cooperation, its people were isolated from other advanced peoples. They used what they themselves invented; but other cultures did not feed them with ideas. Without the wheel, they didn't have pulleys — no block and tackle. They used less technology than the Egyptians 4000 years before them. They made majestic structures without the keystone and without geometry.

The lack of one technology in particular killed Coba. The Mayans did not know about crop rotation. Agriculture was first invented in the Middle East, in a much harsher land. Those first farmers learned to nurture the soil that nurtured them. But the Mayans planted corn, over and over, on a shallow bed of topsoil. In the end they killed the earth and drove themselves away.

A Mayan ball court in Coba

The people of Coba showed so much inventive genius — sewage disposal, plumbing, art, fish farming, even the idea of an alphabet. But that one key idea, well-known in the world across the sea, was missing. It's the same story when we look at most cities that have died. There's usually just one important thing that its occupants cannot see — until it's too late.

Well, enough of death. The birth of cities is very different and often well-defined. So let us next look at two examples of how cities are born.


Konvitz, J.W., Why Cities Don't Die. American heritage of Invention and Technology, Winter, 1990, pp. 58-63.

Bulwer-Lytton, E. The last days of Pompeii. New York: Heritage Press, 1957. (The original publication date was 1835.) The movie version was: The Last Days of Pompeii, RKO, 1935.

L. W. Yaggy and T. L. Haines, Museum of antiquity: A description of ancient life. (New York: Standard Publishing House, 1882): pp, 117-112.

The old Uptown Theater lay on the north side of Grand Ave. in St. Paul, between Lexington and Oxford. It has long since been torn down and replaced with another business. I mention this in deference to Engines listeners in Minneapolis, who still have an Uptown Theater of their own.

V. Barr, A Mayan Engineering Legacy, Coba. Mechanical Engineering, Vol. 112, No. 2, 1990, pp. 66-71. Barr's article is based on material from Glenn Barr, Santa Barbara Community College, and Brian Dillon, UCLA.

Blitz photo, and images of the ruins of Coba courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. Photographs of the Pompeiian ruins courtesy of Andrea and Ed Sutcliffe. Pompeiian drawings from Yaggy, L. W., and Haines, T. L., Museum of antiquity: A description of ancient life. New York: Standard Publishing House, 1882, pp, 117-112.

See Episodes 1731, 1679, and 389.

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