You come across it constantly in fantasy. An ancient city, dreaming in its senescence. A city so old that no records have survived of when it was founded. A city as old as time.
But surely that’s nonsense. Cities don’t really last that long, do they? Don’t they come and go, lasting a few centuries before being overtaken by the new city on the block?
Well, sometimes they do, but not always, and maybe not even usually. If we look around our own world, there really are cities here that, if not quite as old as time, are extremely ancient indeed. But not senescent. Cities are dynamic affairs, and the most ancient are often also the most modern.
How Old Can a City Be?
There’s no doubt that cities can be extremely young — even barely out of their adolescence. I live not far from a city that was planned and built in the 1960s, and there are many similar examples around the world.
This is anything but a new process. The ancient Greeks, for example, were forever founding new colony cities, and the Romans continued the process, while it was a similar story in many other parts of the world. And, needless to say, even the most ancient city must have been young once.
On the other hand, there are also many ancient cities. Just restricting it to Europe and the Middle East as the area I know most about (China, India and many other parts of the world can boast the same), there are towns and cities that have been thriving for thousands of years. In England, most towns, villages and cities go back a minimum of a thousand years, and often two thousand.
London, for instance, is around two thousand years old (and there’s evidence of much earlier settlements there). Paris is a similar age, as are many other cities of Western Europe, while further south, Rome, Istanbul and Alexandria are among the major cities founded between two and three thousand years ago.
There are much old cities, though. Athens and Jerusalem both go back well beyond three millennia, while Damascus is around five thousand years old — the oldest capital city in the world. But all of these are children compared with Jericho. The city is believed to have existed (with defensive walls) as far back as 9,000 BC — and it’s still there.
Names Have Been Changed — or Have They?
For the most part, settlements whose histories are measures in the thousands of years will have completely different names now from what they were called in older times. This can be seen very clearly in England, where the names given to towns by the Romans are rarely recognisable, and even most listed in the 1086’s Domesday Book, are radically different.
On the other hand, it’s often possible to follow a thread. The evolution of Roman Venta into Winchester is clearer is you remember that the V was pronounced w, while the “chester” ending was simply tacked on by the Anglo-Saxons to indicate a Roman site. And a few have changed very little. The evolution of Londinium to Lundenwic (“wic” meaning a port) to London is hardly radical, for instance.
Most of the ancient cities I’ve mentioned have been known by the same or similar names as long as records go back — though, of course, we’ve no idea what the Mesolithic settlers called Jericho. In general, the more prestigious the city, the more consistent its name seems to remain.
The biggest exception in that list* is Istanbul, which has previously been Byzantium (or more correctly Byzantion) and Constantinople (more correctly Constantinopolis) — and this illustrates a significant reason why a city’s name might change.
Each of these changes of name was a deliberate political act by a powerful man. Roman emperor Constantine the Great chose the old Greek city of Byzantium as his new capital in 330 and rebranded it with his name (literally “Constantine’s City”), while Mustafa Kemal Atatürk changed its obviously Greek name in 1930. Ironically, the new name was also Greek in origin — eis ten poliv, meaning “to the city” had evolved into Istanbul.
In general, ancient cities in fantasy worlds tend to keep the same names throughout their history. This isn’t necessarily as unrealistic as it might seem — but it might be a good idea to throw in a few name changes, to keep it real.
Plus Ça Change
Civilisations tend not to stagnate (or, at least, they don’t last long if they do) and cities are the same. Perhaps the most ancient-feeling city I’ve ever visited is Venice, even though it’s younger than any of the cities on the list above. Wandering around, it felt as if age had soaked into the walls.
On the other hand, even Venice hasn’t actually stood still. Quite apart from innovations like the motorboats plying their trade (gondolas are strictly for the tourists), the more outlying parts of Venice — the Lido and the Mestre, for instance — are as contemporary as anywhere in the modern world.
Today, if you wander through cities like London, Paris or Rome, you’ll find ancient buildings — sometimes intact, sometimes in ruins — rubbing shoulders with modernist creations of glass and steel. In fact, you don’t even need to visit a great city for that. My home town’s centre contains buildings ranging from the 16th to the 21st centuries, and there are older buildings in nearby towns.
A living city is constantly changing, evolving, keeping the best and altering the rest, like a living thing. That’s likely to be true of the cities in a fantasy world, too — assuming, of course, that they’re human cities. A race to whom a millennium is merely the blink of an eye may well live in a dreaming city as old as time.
But not human cities. We don’t stay still — and nor do our creations.
* It might seem that Paris is also a major exception, as it was normally called Lutetia by the Romans. However, its full name was Lutetia Parisiorum, after the local Celtic tribe, the Parisii — not such a big change, after all.
One thought on “A City as Old as Time”
Great, Nyki! I thoroughly enjoyed this.
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