The Doomed City

Chapter 3 imageA few years ago two Italian students of archaeology and I hired a taxi from Baghdad and travelled south about 100 kilometres until we reached the Euphrates River. The countryside was only sparsely populated. What I had gone to see was quite uninhabited. It was the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon. First I climbed and walked over a shapeless mound of dry earth. Although only about 20 metres above the completely flat landscape, one could nevertheless see quite a distance, including the palm—trees growing on the bank of the Euphrates. This mound is all that is left of what legend calls the Tower of Babel.

Archaeologists call it a ziggurat. Several were built in ancient Mesopotamia and some remain in much more of their original shape than this one, for after this one was destroyed for the last time it served as a quarry of sun-dried brick for builders for centuries to come. This ziggurat once stood about 90 metres — a most imposing structure. It started as an ancient Sumerian village some 5000 years ago.

Then the invading Semitic Akkadians built a tower-like ziggurat as a temple to their goddess Ishtar and they gave it the name Bab—el, which means Gateway of God. The name of the city which grew up round about took its name from that tower and became Babylon. The story of Babylon is the story of construction and destruction — more than once. The earliest destruction of the tower gave rise to the biblical legend of the Tower of Babel.

There were two great periods of Babylonian prosperity. The first was about 1800 years before Christ when it became the religious and administrative capital of an empire ruled by Hammurabi. His law-code carved in rock can be seen in the British museum to this day. But that city of Babylon was destroyed and rebuilt by successive waves of foreigners. More than 1000 years after Hammurabi came the second great flowering. We may call it the New Babylon. It was the capital of the greatest empire the world had then seen. This Babylon was the city of Nebuchadrezzar who, in his victorious marches, captured, among many other cities, the holy city of Jerusalem. It was to this Babylon that he took into exile as captives the Jewish priests and aristocracy. It is probably in this Babylon that the first five books of the Bible were compiled into their present form.

I thought of all these things as I walked through the ruins of what was in its day the greatest city mankind had ever built. The hanging gardens of Babylon were long regarded as one of the seven wonders of the world. All that I could see were toppled, broken-down walls of sun-dried brick. It needed the expertise of an archaeologist even to discern what was left of temples, palaces, theatres in this heap of rubble. It was not hard to conclude that in the course of time all the greatest and noblest of human constructions ultimately end like this. The words of the Bible came to mind;

Fallen, fallen is Babylon; and all the images
of her gods the Lord has already shattered 
to the ground.

The Jews, because of their close association with this city of Babylon seized upon it as an image of the wicked city. The early Christians inherited this image. But Babylon also became the chief example of the doomed city. Babylon thereafter became a symbol of every city doomed for destruction.

More than 400 years after the time of Nebuchadrezzar, when the enemies of the Jews were no longer the Babylonians but the Hellenistic kings of Syria, an anonymous Jew tried to encourage his persecuted fellow-Jews by writing of the fate of Babylon. He portrayed Nebuchadrezzar strutting proudly over the roof-top of his royal palace saying, "Is not this great Babylon which I have built by my own mighty power for the glory of my own majesty?" While the words were still in his mouth a voice from heaven called to him, "Your kingdom has departed from you — you will be driven out from humankind and forced to live like an animal."

But though Babylon became the chief symbol of the city doomed for destruction, it was not, of course, the first to suffer that fate. Rather it was the largest in a long line of cities which, in Jewish memory and experience, had been reduced to ruins. The pages of the Old Testament are full of stories of doomed cities from Sodom and Gomorrah onwards. The most persistent message in the renowned prophets of Israel is one of impending doom for one city after another. One can open the books of the prophets almost at random and come across such words as:

Behold, Damascus will cease to be a city, 
and will become a heap of ruins.

Moreover, this gloomy message of destruction to come was not confined to foreign cities, the strongholds of one’s enemies. Finally the prophets told of the coming destruction of their own cities — including the holy city of Jerusalem. This was particularly the case with the prophet Jeremiah who declared "a destroyer of nations" was already on the way:

to make your land a waste; your cities 
will be ruins without any inhabitants,

For this subversive talk he was reviled, imprisoned and tortured. He was regarded as a traitor and was almost put to death, yet he lived to see his words come true.

In 586 B.C. the Babylonians destroyed, sacked and burnt both the city and temple of Jerusalem.

A whole book of the Bible is devoted to Jewish lamentation over this ultimate disaster;

How lonely sits the city 
that was once full of people. . . 
Women are ravished in Zion 
virgins in the towns of Judah. 
Princes are hung up by their hands 
no respect is shown to the elders. 
The joy of our hearts has ceased 
for Mount Zion lies desolate; 
and jackals prowl over it.

Now we must ask the question — why has this image of the doomed city been such a persistent one? It is found not only in the biblical heritage, but in human experience everywhere. So many of the cities of the ancient world like Asshur and Babylon, like Byblos and Ugarit, like Memphis and Palmyra exist today only in ruins.

Why is this so?

The answer given by the Bible is simple. They long associated the image of the doomed city with that of the wicked city. They firmly believed that human history moves onward according to moral laws because it is ultimately controlled, not by men but by a righteous and all-powerful deity. Therefore all cities, being wicked, must ultimately end in destruction. In the long run this answer has turned out to be over-simplistic and even false.

All of us would hesitate to apply that superficial answer today. Did major earthquakes devastate Lisbon, San Francisco, Tokyo and Napier because these cities were especially wicked? Of course we dare not say so. We need to enquire further to find satisfactory reasons for the phenomenon of the doomed city.

Actually the first reason why the frequency of city destruction led to the prevalent image of the doomed city is very simple. A city brings a lot of people into close and interdependent relationship. Any natural calamity will as a consequence, appear much worse and often be much worse than it would have been in sparsely settled countryside. Life in the city multiplies the degree of vulnerability already present in human existence.

In the earliest cities fire was the chief cause of destruction. It took a long time to realise that cooking methods which were relatively safe in the country became highly dangerous in the city. As recently as the great fire of London, started in a baker’s oven, the lesson had not been learnt. Not only was fire one of the simplest weapons for the ancients to use to destroy the cities of their enemies but some ancient cities such as Persepolis were destroyed by accidental fire (or so it is thought).

Then lack of adequate city planning contributed to urban disaster. The early cities grew up like Topsy as the result of unrelated factors working blindly together. People needed a water supply. So they built beside rivers. This left them unprepared for the "one in a century" flood which swept the city away. Indeed one of the reasons why the early inhabitants of Mesopotamia built their large artificial towers or ziggurats was to provide a refuge. The surrounding land was so flat that when the Euphrates flooded, as it sometimes did without any warning, cities found themselves in the midst of a shallow sea.

Then thirdly there is the phenomenon of disease and plague. Contagious diseases spread very quickly in the city, not only because people are in closer contact, but because cities which are unplanned and uncared for create the conditions conducive of diseases — such as bad drainage, impure water, and no sewerage. More recently it has been air pollution and the hazards of traffic congestion. For all these reasons "it is little wonder" as one sociologist has said "all of the early cities were eventually abandoned or overrun by enemies".

Not just wickedness but ignorance lies behind city destruction. The less planned a city, the more likely it will end in ruin. City planning is a relatively new art, only really in its infancy. Already it has done much to improve the prognosis of the modern city. But this in itself is not sufficient t0 overcome the challenge of the doomed city.

We must never forget that the city is a human construction. It is artificial. City buildings are themselves lifeless and static and like all human products are finite. They have a limited time span, having a beginning and an end. This is something we could hardly help noticing as we have been walking through the streets of Wellington in the last twelve years, as we have observed one building after another being demolished. The chief features of the countryside result from the living forces of nature. Whereas a deserted city only falls more and more into ruin, a deserted countryside has the natural capacity to re-establish itself. This contrast is strikingly illustrated by the unexpected discovery of Angkor Wat. What had been an impressive structure of Buddhist civilization, once deserted, became hidden and swallowed up in the encroaching jungle.

This contrast between the natural countryside and the artificially made city leads us to distinguish between two aspects of the city — the buildings and the people. We often refer to each as the city, but in fact a city consists of both. Empty buildings constitute only a dead city. Buildings plus people constitute a living city. A living city, like the natural forces in the countryside, does have the power to grow, to change, to transcend earlier mistakes and disasters, to rise again out of the ruins and partial loss of population, and destruction of buildings. We have seen this happening all over Europe since World War II.

Doom need not be the ultimate end of every city. Because cities are man-made they can not only be rebuilt; they can be remodelled. They can grow into something different. The awareness of the vulnerability of the city and its possible doom can so spur the creative human imagination that the city may grow to be something different from what it has been. It is for this reason that even the Bible itself, in its evolving thought, completely changed its stance on how it saw the city. Its very first image, as we have seen, was that of the wicked city, from which we can expect no good at all. But its very last image was that of the eternal city as we shall later see. The middle step in this metamorphosis of images was the image of the doomed city.

For a long time in history one of the chief ways men attempted to overcome the vulnerability of city life was simply to strengthen its defences by building walls. Cities came to be built in places which were more easily defended from enemies.

This process gave rise to a new image of the city as a fortress. Indeed, in the Teutonic languages, the word for fortress, ‘burgh’, became the commonly used synonym for city. The relics of this remain to this day in such place names as Edinburgh — and in our own use of the ‘borough’ for small towns. Both in the ancient world, and in the European world, until two or three hundred years ago, a city always implied a walled city. The gates were closed at nightfall. The walls were manned by night-watchers. People felt much safer in cities than in the countryside. They believed the early vulnerability of cities had been overcome. Cities had become invulnerable. They had become places of safety, fortresses, sanctuaries of peace.

Today cities no longer have walls. They have ceased to be places of safety. The simple reason is that the ingenuity of man can work both ways. The ability to build walls which are impregnable can be matched by the ability to build weapons and machines of war which make walls useless. In the modern world the vulnerability of the city has re-emerged in a starker form than ever before. This was clearly illustrated by the bombing raids in World War II. The city, long thought to be a refuge and place of safety, had become a hot spot of danger. Britain encouraged as many non-combatant and non-essential personnel as possible to leave London for the countryside. Children in particular were sent out of what had become the danger zone.

One of the memories I have of World War II is of the day news reached us of Pearl Harbour. I happened to be living in Wellington then. What I remember was this. At every petrol-bowser there was a queue a mile long, with people anxious to fill their cars with petrol so that they could leave the city at a moment’s notice. The city had ceased to be a sanctuary and had once again become vulnerable as a place doomed for destruction by enemy action.

This vulnerability of the city has not decreased since World War II but, because of missiles with nuclear warheads, has actually increased many times over. Practically all such missiles if ever used, will be targeted on cities, for their aim is to do the greatest possible damage in the shortest possible time. And that is only part of the story.

The age of nuclear war began, of course, with the dropping of the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That news sent a spine-chilling wave around the world. I know to many it brought a sense of victorious relief in that it would hopefully bring a speedy end of hostilities with Japan — which in fact it did. But that is not how everybody saw it even then. I was living in a small country town of North Otago at the time. The day the news came through I went in to the village store. To my surprise I found the storekeeper almost beside himself with rage and indignation, that the human race could sink so low as to use such a monstrous weapon on relatively innocent citizens. When I think back to that initial reaction of a relatively simple New Zealander whom I would have thought of as possessing only average ability and moral sensitivity, I am amazed how dulled has become the moral sensitivity of the western world today. We seem to have become quite blasé about nuclear war, as if it is something we have become adjusted to, and have learned to take in our stride. Moral aspects of it are rarely discussed any more.

To the extent that this is so I believe we are today living in a fool’s paradise. It is true that for a decade after Hiroshima there was a widespread fear of nuclear war. Then in the period of détente, that fear became less acute. Unfortunately, during that lull, the perfection of much more powerful nuclear warheads went on apace until the arms race once again accelerated. Today the threat of nuclear war hangs over us like the sword of Damocles. The image of the doomed city has never been such a threatening reality in all human history as it is today. This time it is not a few selected cities only which are threatened. It is all cities. It is in fact the emerging global city which lives under the shadow of the doomed city.

The reason is that nuclear war, if it breaks out, will escalate so fast that all the fatal decisions may have been made in the first half-hour. From what the experts tell us there seems to be no way of limiting a nuclear war. The only alternatives are; either an all-out nuclear war or no nuclear war at all. An all-out nuclear war would not only produce destruction and death on an unbelievable scale — but its aftermath is likely to spell the end of all higher forms of planetary life. A nuclear war would bring the ultimate end of the city for all time.

Even many of those who support the possession of nuclear arms as a necessary deterrent agree with this Either—Or. They say we must have nuclear arms equal to those of our potential enemies in order to prevent the ultimate disaster of a nuclear war. I respect the sincerity of those who produce this argument but I find the logic puzzling and unconvincing. It is like saying — "We are living dangerously — we are sitting on a gigantic powder keg which may explode at any moment. Our only hope of survival is to add more explosive so that no-one will dare light the fuse!"

Without realising it, our potential enemies are no longer what they once seemed to be. It is no longer the yellow peril, the Russians, the Communists which constitute the real enemy. Our real enemy today is this gigantic Frankenstein which, because of our mutual distrust and hostility, our own minds and skill have created. It is not our human enemies, but this potentially dangerous and unstable state of affairs which, if not defused, will destroy both us and our so—called human enemies. The global city of the world stands under threat of ultimate doom.

And the cause? It is not the wrath of a righteous God. It is not the wicked designs of our enemies. It is the fact that human ingenuity has outreached both the moral and rational capacity to control what we have created. The famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, in his last public interview for the B.B.C., was asked about the human future, and whether there would be a Third World War. He made a significant reply.

"Man himself is the origin of all coming evil." This means that if the ultimate doom falls it will be because the human race through blind ignorance, wilful short-sightedness and narrow-minded self-centred has brought about its own destruction.

We witness today a growing tide of concern around the world as the image of the doomed city shows up more clearly on our horizon. Yet those who point to what they see are often reviled, sneered at, and dismissed as prophets of doom. Such is frequently the treatment meted out by people in high places. Prophets of doom have never been popular, even in the ancient world. Although the ancient prophets were seen as traitors in their own day their words came to be collected and placed in the Bible because they came true.

It won’t be like that this time. If the words of today’s prophets of doom come true, because they are not heeded, there will be no one left to ponder and record their words. The global city will lie in ruins, uninhabited, for the last time in the history of this planet.

This is the season of Lent. It is a time of reflection and stock-taking, a most suitable time of the year for trying honestly to meditate on our present human predicament without trying to score points off those who see it differently. An incident relating to the Jesus whose death is remembered in the Lenten and Good Friday season is very relevant. If you visit Jerusalem you will find halfway up the hill, called the Mount of Olives, a tiny church. There is a window over the altar. Through that window one has a breath-taking panoramic view of the old city of Jerusalem. The church is called Dominus Flevit. (The Lord Wept). It marks the approximate point in which, according to Gospel tradition, Jesus paused as he approached Jerusalem with his disciples and he wept as he thought of the destruction which was shortly to befall that city. "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you would not. Behold your house is to become forsaken and desolate." Jesus too was a prophet of the doomed city!

No prophet of the doomed city, either from the ancient world or the modern world, takes pleasure in what they foresee. They weep! Nor are they fatalistic. They know the dangers are real but they see a glimmer of hope. It is that hope which is expressed in the final image of the city which we shall turn to next.