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The Urban Anthropocene: Lessons for Sustainability from the Environmental History of Constantinople

Ljungqvist, J., Barthel, S., Finnveden, G., and Sörlin, S. (2010) In Paul Sinclair, Frands Herschend, Christian Isendahl and Gullög Nordquist. (Eds). The Urban Mind, cultural and environmental dynamics Studies in Global Archaeology 15. Sweden, Uppsala University Press.


Constantinople is a city whose origin can be traced back to the establishment of Greek cities and colonies in early antiquity. Eventually it became the capital of the East RomanEmpire, and since then its major role in the region has not diminished, whether under the rule of Byzantine emperors or Ottoman sultans. For more than 2000 years the city and its inhabitants have endured numerous changes and crises. Plague, war and economic regression have at times reduced its population to only a fraction of the previous size. The city has been subject to numerous sieges, the longest lasting eight years! Conquered only once prior to the major transformation in 1453, the city flourished again after each crisis and today it is still an important centre in this part of the world, on the border between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. How could Constantinople maintain its leading position for such a long time, after suffering so many crises? In this chapter, the authors emphasize that the ability of a city to survive under stress has its fundamental origins in how the city was organized and maintained. Special focus is put on the organizational and ecosystem services aspects of urban agriculture in the city. The authors explore how the inhabitants of the ancient city of Constantinople managed to maintain a resilient food supply system. Constantinople differs in many ways from our modern cities, which are dependent on resources from a global hinterland that are transported using fossil fuels, and thus it can serve as an educational example for our time. At its first peak during the 6th century it was dependent on a complex grain transport system with ships travelling all the way to North Africa. This system collapsed in conjunction with the Arab expansion in the 7th century, and the collapse became a major part of a long recession that profoundly affected the city. That the city nonetheless survived cannot be explained by any single factor. The answer must be sought through a holistic perspective in which the variety of resource assets is seen as playing a major role. A particularly interesting aspect, related to today’s global transport system, is the urban agriculture system within and just outside the city walls. The walls did not constitute the limits for a densely populated area. They rather delimited an area with dispersed “sub-communities” and numerous acres of, for example, orchards and vineyards. These areas could apparently sustain the population with a considerable amount of food and probably were important for the city’s ability to withstand sieges and periods of food shortage. This system was continuous and was maintained by the inhabitants’ living memory as well as by important institutions. In our society, where the supply of food is considered as something obvious, one can question whether we lack memory as well as preparations for similar crises despite the fact that the food supply crisis of the Second World War is only 65 years behind us.

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