The Great Cities in History by John Julius Norwich (ed) - review by Gillian Tindall

Gillian Tindall

Urbs Et Orbis

The Great Cities in History


Thames & Hudson 304pp £24.95

First, the acclaim. This is a beautiful and instructive book in the best Thames & Hudson tradition. Too weighty, perhaps, to take on a train to Moscow or Istanbul (when one really wants it), it is compact enough to browse at home; it is stuffed with well-informed descriptions and colour pictures, all of them appropriate and some of them exquisite, that carry each story further – for stories, narratives of origin, growth and change, are what cities are about. Storm clouds gather, in a double-page spread, above the ruins of the Roman forum. Giant tree roots twine themselves around the ruined walls of Angkor. Between the courtyard arches that frame the Mamluk minaret of the great Damascus mosque, trinkets and soft drinks are sold and birds fly up at the evening call. Gleaming frescoes and centuries-old tiles enchant the eye. In modern Shanghai a glittering jewellery of neon signs hangs above a murky, watery street. And much, much more, for the geographical extent of this book is the entire globe and the time span is from pre-history to the present day. (Hands up, those who had heard before of Uruk, ‘the world’s first city’, whose story can only be summoned up by conjecture and whose few ruined mounds lie in an isolated Iraqi desert. No, I hadn’t either.)

To impose some order on this cornucopia of material, the book is divided into five chronological sections – ‘The Ancient World’, ‘The First Millennium AD’, ‘The Medieval World’, ‘The Early Modern World’ and ‘The Age of the Modern City’, each one containing fifteen to eighteen short articles, each

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