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CITY SUBLIME


History is full of cities: there are imaginary, half-imaginary cities, fabled cities, ruined and lost cities. And there are real cities; but even these, for all their reality, still implausible, still mythical, always more than the sum of their parts. Cities embody Dreams, Faiths, Heavens, Hells. (Hells always better than Heavens; for is not Heaven an essentially suburban idea?) Cities are the great embodiments of Idea. (And it has always been cities; there are few mythic towns or villages.)

The Seven Golden Cities of Cibola, (which alas, turned out for their sixteenth century discoverers to be no other than as many dusty villages, each with no gold at all.) City of Babel, Petra, The Nasca City of Cahuachi, the Mississippian city of Cahokia, on the site of St. Louis, Hiraizumi, Byzantium-Constantinople-Istanbul; Sodom and Gomorrah ; Alexandria and Persepolis; Vilcabamba, Samarkand;, Tenochtitlan and Babylon. Bacon's New Atlantis, Thomas More's Utopia; Campanella's City of the Sun; Corbusier's Ville Radieuse, Ubar the Atlantis of the Sands, Quintzoy, ("the greatest city in the world" says Wing's Almanac for 1665) of which we know only that it is 7272 miles from London. And what of the Violet Purple Forbidden City. (Ah, real enough! After checking into my randomly chosen hotel in Beijing (fourteen storeys of 1970s concrete) I walk innocently onto the balcony and catch my breath for there it is in its entirety, in the violet purply dusk!)

Through the long centuries of exploration by Portuguese caravela, by Viking knorr, by Arab camel train came reports of cities; and how seductive they are. Marco Polo tells us of "the splendid city of Kansai, whose name means 'City of Heaven…its grandeur and loveliness, its temples, palaces, monasteries and gardens with their towering trees, running down to the water's edge". Yet the very discoverers of strange cities were often unsure of the truth of what they saw. Bernal Diaz de Castillo tells us Spanish troops, on entering Tenochtitlan in Mexico in 1519 "asked whether the things we saw were not a dream."

   
 

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