Broken Cities

This weekend, I read Martin Devecka’s short book titled Broken Cities: A Historical Sociology of Ruins (2020). I’m to write an academic review of it in the next few weeks and I usually find it easier to start with some casual observations here on my blog, which I then refine and formalize into a review.

So here goes:

The last decade has seen a bumper crop of books on ruins. Susan Stewart’s recent book, Ruins Lesson, as one very recent example, traces the Western fascination with ruins from the Renaissance to the T.S. Elliot’s view of the WWI landscapes of France. The Ruin Memories Project (and resulting volume) explored the multiple manifestations of the modern ruin and its personal, social, and political meanings. Hein B. Bjerck, Bjornar Olsen, Elin Andreassen stunning volume on the ruins of the Soviet mining town of Pyramiden in the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago reflects on the (non-)place of ruins in our hypermodern world in a way that complements Felix Ringel’s study of the former East German model city of Hoyerswerda which after German reunification fells into steep decline, forcing its residents to negotiate life among the ruins of its once idealized (and ideological) urban fabric. The prevalence of ruins in our cultural life and our challenges to come to terms with decline, decay, and collapse framed Caitlyn DeSilvey’s brilliant, Curated Decay, which offered strategies for the cultivation and curations of buildings, objects, and places during the often slow process of ruination in the contemporary world. The interest in ruins is not simply an academic concern; it parallels a popular interest in “ruin porn.” As any number of commentators have observed, our attraction to ruins reflects our fears of the failure of capitalism, the fragility of democracy, the inevitability of, climate change, and the persistence of war as well as long-standing personal anxieties about death, physical and mental decline, and forgetting. That this fertile, expansive, and diverse conversation would prompt another book on ruins is hardly surprising.

Devecka’s contribution offers four case studies on ruins: Classical Greece, Imperial Rome, Medieval Islam, and in the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan. Unlike many recent works on ruins which look to ruins themselves or depictions of ruins in art, Devecka’s book focuses on the role of ruins in texts. Perhaps as a consequence of that decision, his book emphasizes the ruins of cities, rather than specific buildings, monuments, or landscapes. He argues that ruins had significantly different meanings in each of these situations. While this observation is unremarkable, his careful reading of select texts from each context does offers intriguing insights into the diversity of perspectives on ruins.

In the first chapter, Devecka argues that in Classical Greece, the kind of persistent ruins that have characterized so much of our contemporary imagination were impossible. In Classical Greece, even ruined cities were rebuilt and reoccupied and their institutions, religious sanctuaries, and public spaces revived. The results of the Persian sack of Athens marked only the most vivid example of this kind of recovery. Despite this reality on the ground, Herodotus, Thucyides, and Isocrates, paradoxically, used the threat of permanent ruination as a way to articulate the short-term economic, political, and physical pain of destruction. A reader is left wondering how the evidence for the reuse and commemoration of the Persian sack of Athens in the architecture of the Classical Acropolis would have strengthened and complicated his nevertheless compelling reading of contemporary Athenian texts.

Chapter two considers the role of ruins in Roman imperial literature from the age of Augustus into Late Antiquity. Devecka saw Roman attitudes toward ruins as part of a complex dialogue with their imagined Trojan past and a potential future for Rome itself. Just as Vergil’s Aeneas abandoned the ruined Troy, so Romans feared that Rome itself would succumb to ruination in the future. This created a tension between possibility of abandonment and the desire to preserve and protect Rome which emphasized the expectation that communities and individuals stayed in one place to avoid permanent ruination and possibility of movement within the Roman Empire. This tension became all the more pressing in the 5th and 6th centuries when the ruination of Rome became a real possibility and Late Roman authors returned earlier imperial themes. Devecka argued that the potential of movement in the Roman world and Aeneas’s flight from Troy allowed individuals to imagine abandoning a ruined Rome while still being Roman.

Medieval Islamic attitudes toward ruins reflected their ambivalence toward previous non-Muslim states throughout the Near East. The presence of ruins throughout Muslim lands provided an opportunity to address concerns about Qur’anic originality. Ruins made clear the relationship between Islam and earlier monotheistic faiths, while also providing the basis for an interpretation of this relationship that emphasized primacy of Muhammed’s revelation. Because ruins offered a more fluid basis for interpretation they served a key role in helping Islam overcome the “double bind” of Qur’anic originality and its debt to Judaism and Christianity. The ambivalence toward ruins persisted throughout Medieval Islam with the ruins of earlier states representing both the evidence for the strength of dominated foes and their decadence. As a result, Muslim rulers tended to found new cities and neighborhoods and avoid reusing material from earlier ruins. This created a landscape of ruins as each successive ruler sought to establish their own place and leaving as ruins previous buildings, cities, and neighborhoods.      

The final chapter of the book considers the role of ruins in the destruction of Tenochtitlan at the hands of Hernán Cortés in 1521. Devecka argues that Cortés destruction of the Mexica capital not only reflected the incommensurability between European views of conquest and those of the Mexica but also a creation of ruins that Europeans increasingly associated with barbarism. The preservation and reuse of Muslim buildings after the 15th century Reconquista in southern Spain stood in stark contrast to the destruction of Tenochtitlan by Cortés and his soldiers. As a result, Cortés and his successors went to some length to justify their actions and to diminish the status of the Mexica city, even after initially celebrating the size and wealth of Tenochtitlan as a way to increase the significance of his invasion. The long shadow of this pivot contributed to diminish the size and monumentality of Mesoamerican civilizations and to rank them as inferior to those of Europe.

Devecka eschews a formal conclusion and instead offers an epilogue where he considers how attitudes toward ruins have changed over time. If ruins tend to reflect the spatial fix of empire and the reach of their political, social, and cultural hegemony, the more recent the empire the more historically distant ruins are. If they represented an immediate risk to Classical Athenians and, in Late Antiquity, the reality of a vulnerable Rome. In Medieval Muslim culture, ruins represented an past made obsolete by the Qur’an or the contemporary situation; for Cortés, the ruins of Tenochtitlan represented the remains of a civilization understood as being far less advanced than Europeans. Today, ancient and modern ruins alike become an “icon of pastness” both situated outside of the present and incommensurate with the future.  Devecka’s epilogue challenges such an essentialized view of ruins. He urges us to recognize in the different attitudes toward ruins in the past, the potential for different views of ruins in the present.

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