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Innovative Memory and Resilient Cities: Echoes from Ancient Constantinople

Barthel, S., Sörlin, S., Ljungqvist, J.(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.


This chapter uses insights from resilience thinking in analysing a two-thousand-year period of ancient and modern Constantinople, addressing one of the great challenges of the Urban Anthropocene: how to nurture an ecologically sound urbanisation. One of the lessons is that Constantinople maintained a diversity of insurance strategies to a greater degree than many historical and contemporary urban centres. It invested heavily not only in military infrastructure but also in systems for supplying, storing, and producing food and water. From major granaries and at least four harbours the citizens could receive seaborne goods, but during sieges the trade networks broke down. At those times, when supplies ran dry, there were possibilities to cultivate food within the defensive walls and to catch fish in the Golden Horn. Repeated sieges, which occurred on average every fifty years, generated a diversity of social-ecological memories – the means by which the knowledge, experience, and practice of how to manage a local ecosystem were stored and transmitted in a community. These memories existed in multiple groups of society, partly as a response to the collapse of long-distance, seaborne, grain transports from Egypt. Food production and transports were decentralized into a plethora of smaller subsistence communities (oikoi), which also sold the surplus to the markets of the city. In this way Constantinople became more self-reliant on regional ecosystems. An additional result was that the defensive walls were moved, not in order to construct more buildings but to increase the proportion of gardens and agricultural land. In a comparison with Cairo, it can be seen that these innovations related to enhanced self-reliance in food production made it possible for 392 Constantinople to bounce back from extreme hardships, such as extended sieges, without collapsing into chaos or moral decay. Transformed urban morphology of the city would simply remind residents, through the visual presence of a living garden culture, of the importance of the latter for food security. Without the gardens the long intervals between sieges would probably have been enough to dissolve living memory. Hence, the urban resilience of Constantinople was enhanced, promoting well-established old regimes and traditions of importance for producing ecosystem services to society while at the same time testing and refining new and successful regimes, or in other words through the interplay of memory and innovation. Currently, and even more so in decades to come, the mindsets of urban people hold power in a global arena. Questions related to how the loss of green space in metropolitan landscapes will affect worldviews are worrisome since it is the desires and demands of urban people that will affect future decisions and essentially determine the fate of the planet. People throughout the world, and not least in Western societies, need to be constantly reminded of our dependence on a living planet and stay motivated to support it. Social-ecological memories related to local food production have to be nurtured in urban landscapes as well, and an urban morphology is needed.

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