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Today’s post is taking us all the way back. We are going to the beginning of civilization ca. 3700–3500 B.C. when the first cities sprang up from the mud of Mesopotamia and the near East. This figurine is one of thousands and thousands which were found in Tell Brak, a vast mound which is what now remains of one of humankind’s first cities—an urban settlement which was built at around the same time as Ur and Sumer (although Tell Brak was in what is now–or recently was– Syria). Tell Brak is the name of the mound of rubbish, dirt, and artifacts where the ancient city once was—the original name of the city is unknown (although the city which sprang up nearby, after the destruction of the first metropolis, was known as Nagar).
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The urban inhabitants of Tell Brak loved these evocative little eye statuettes, but sadly we don’t really know what they are either. The best guess is that they were votive statues. Supplicants would leave them at the temple as a sort of offering for the god or goddess. An alternate theory is that they are simplified idols of Inanna–THE goddess of war, sex, and the planet Venus. The wide eyes are thought to betoken adoration or excitement or maybe the attentiveness of the gods. Sometimes there are multiple sets of eyes or smaller eyes beneath a larger pair. Some of the statues had ornamentation or even jewels.

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As you have probably surmised from this meandering speculation, we don’t really know what the eye statues symbolized or what reason people made them (although it was almost absolutely certain that they are religious). Whatever their original purpose was, I love them. I can’t think of a more evocative religious artform to come from a nameless early city. The simple haunting lines and wide-eyed knowingness of the unknowable mystery forms is exhilarating. You can practically feel them looking at you out the internet (to say nothing of when you are in an abandoned corner of the Met with other objects from 6,000 years ago…or on some mud hill in Syria). Ferrebeekeeper has long been fascinated by the art of the first cities…and by cities in general. I am going to be writing more about urban culture and meaning…and I will be featuring more art. So keep your eyes open!
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I have been deeply dissatisfied by contemporary events…so much so that I am going to look away from our time and gaze back through classical antiquity to the Peloponnesian War…but bear with me. Some say there are lessons in history which pertain to current world. The definitive story of the Peloponnesian War is told by Thucydides, an Athenian general who took part in the proceedings and had the grace to explain why he wrote his history (and what he thought his biases were). Thucydides’ great work is arguably the first real work of history but it is also the first great work of political science. The way that leaders manipulated people and events and news turned out to have strange consequences that the protagonists did not foresee (but, in hindsight, clearly should have).
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The war is the story of a fading power being supplanted by a rival. The fading power, Athens, had unrivaled naval supremacy, but the upstart power, Sparta, had an enormous ever-victorious army. Athens had a league of close allies, the Delian league who supported them and were a great source of their strength (a fact not always appreciated by the proud Athenians). Many American theorists of the Cold War found these principal characters disturbingly familiar—a broad-minded yet imperialistic democracy versus an autocracy where all aspects of life were controlled by the state. Even the style of the nations seemed familiar—a nation based on wealth and trade and webs of friendship (and superior naval technology and prowess) versus a thuggish nation which ham-fistedly squashed its rivals into submission and dominated the battlefield through numbers and pure aggression.

Enough backstory. Let’s get to the central point. At the moral heart of the book is the story of the Siege of Melos.
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Melos (which should be familiar to sculpture fans as the discovery place of the Venus de Milo) was a small yet prosperous island originally colonized by Dorian people, who shared cultural heritage with the Spartans. Despite this cultural background, the Melians remained neutral in the war, until one day the Athenians showed up demanding punitive monetary tribute and other concessions. The Melians argued that they were neutral and Athens was in the wrong. Surely the Spartans (or perhaps the gods) would come to the rescue of Melos if the Athenians abused their military supremacy for a very slight monetary/strategic gain. The Athenians, who had lost some of their famed thoughtfulness through the exigencies of war and political struggle responded by laying siege to Melos. When starvation forced the little city state to surrender, the Athenians executed all of the adult men and took the Melian women and children as slaves. Afterwards, the island was repopulated entirely by Athenian colonists.
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This…lapse…shocked the people of Athens (Euripides’ agonizing “Trojan Women” which came out shortly afterwards is a story of the writer’s own time clothed in a story about a bygone age). The brazen, terrible behavior also shocked the allies of Athens. Perhaps that was actually the point: to remind recalcitrant allies that the Athenians were strong enough to be brutal and act for naked self-interest.
But, despite the ostentatious show of naked power, the conquest of Melos did not help Athens very much. In a world where Athens and Sparta seemed increasingly alike, the old alliances broke apart. Also, Athens was not as good at autocracy or thuggery as the Spartans (who, by the way, DID show up to avenge Melos and kill off the Athenian colonists). Back in Attica, things got worse and worse. The story of the first great democracy became an increasingly dark tale of venal & selfish leaders—demagogues—who were replaced willy-nilly by the fickle mob. Factions fought each other more vehemently than they fought the Spartans.

When China…uh, I mean Sparta! finally won the war it behaved with much greater leniency and restraint than the Athenians showed the Melians. The Spartans installed a crooked counsel of oligarchs (who had maybe been pushing Spartan interests there at the end). The Greek golden age was over.
Political scientists tend to think the Melian story illustrates the principal of “might makes right” (I left out the famous back-and-forth dialogue, which you should definitely read about on your own). Yet perhaps there are larger lessons to the larger story.
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Thoughtful citizens might extrapolate that a nation is only as powerful as its allies and its leaders of the moment…and friendship and admiration can be easily squandered for very little gain. Throughout secondary school I was always taught that democracy is clearly superior in every way to every other system. Thucydides’ history reminds us that there are dark perils inherent within the very nature of group rule. Our classically minded founders knew this story and thought about it a great deal. It is unclear whether today’s legislators (or citizens) have given as much heed to the lessons of how Athens abandoned its principles and treated its friends like underlings and split into antagonistic factions and was swiftly broken to bits like a vase bumped off a plinth.
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Here’s some exciting news from Rome: the catacombs of Domitilla (a noble family of classical antiquity which commissioned the original construction) have been painstakingly restored using state of the art scanning technology and careful craftsmanship. The catacombs stretch for over 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) and descend through multiple levels near the ancient Appian Way. Constructed between the second and the fifth centuries AD, the underground necropolis has over 25,000 known graves.
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The catacombs also show how pagan art and culture and early Christian imagery and religion mixed freely. Grapes and cupids give way to saints and crucifixes almost imperceptibly (with an uncertain period in the middle featuring lots of folks standing around in robes). I am presenting some of the highlights in a little gallery here so we can all take a virtual tour of the ancient graves (a good virtual tour of amazing, beautiful catacombs—unlike some experiences I could mention). My favorite image is here below: a cubicle with doves and robed figures. I cannot tell if this is Christian or Pagan, the imagery could go either way, but I find the ancient painted pigeons exceedingly compelling. Even in the funereal darkness of a tomb excavated beneath the eternal city, this cubical looks more pleasant than mine.
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Happy Halloween!  This year, I have been working on a new series of artworks centered on flatfish.  I suppose flatfish have supplanted toruses as the primary focus of my art. People seem to like flounder better than donuts (the asymmetric fish have more personality…or at least they have faces), however the universe is not shaped like a flatfish (according to current models), so it raises the question of what the flounder means symbolically.  Flatfish are regarded as a delicious prey animal by humans, however they are excellent predators in their own right:  they are sort of the middle-class of the oceans.   Like the middle class, the pleurectiformes are experts at blending in, and they change their color and pattern to match their circumstances.  Today’s circumstances, however, are not merely muddy sand flats—the whole world is filled with wild eclectic ambiguity which is hard for anyone to follow (much less a bottom-dwelling fish). My full flounder series thus explore the larger human and natural ecosystems of the late Holocene and early Anthropocene world.  Each one lives in a little predatory microcosm where it is hunting and hunted.

The bizarre asymmetry of the flatfish also appeals to me.  Since my artwork seemingly concerns topology, this may be significant—although a classical knot theorist would blithely observe that a flatfish is homeomorphic with a torus (assuming one regards the digestive tract as a continuous tube).  At any rate it is currently Halloween and the flounder need to blend in with the monsters, goblins, witches, and mummies of the scary season! I made three black and white pen and ink flounders to use as Halloween coloring pages. These are supposed to print out at 8.5 inches x 11 inches, but who knows how wordpress will format them for your device?  Let me know if you want me to send you a JPEG.

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The top flounder is a classical Halloween artwork of haunted houses bats, witches, pumpkins, and mummies. In the center, mortality and the devil grasp for the human soul. The mood of the second artwork  is more elusive and elegiac: dark fungi grow upon the sole as an underling hauls a dead gladiator away in the depths.  Serpent monsters fill up the sky and our lady of the flowers blesses a corpse.  The final pen and ink drawing is unfinished (so you can add your own monster) but it centers around a haunted jack-in-the-box and a ruined windmill. A bog monster, scarecrow and lady ghost haunt the doomed landscape.

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I also threw in three little colored Halloween flounder at the bottom–as a teaser for my Instagram page.  You should check it out for your daily flounder (free of commentary and text, as is increasingly the way of our digital age).  I hope you enjoy these colorful treats and have a wonderful holiday!

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My grandfather owned a house in the strange & problematic city of Baltimore (which was one of the first urban areas I got to know very well).  One of grandpa’s tenants was an opioid addict.  This guy’s life was inexorably destroyed by debt, communicable disease, and appetite…and the poor soul ultimately went back to wherever he came from. But he left all of his empty aquariums, Apple computer games, and his weird science fiction literature behind.  In due time, these things found their way into my hands, and they were a huge part of growing up. Among the science fiction books were Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series where the capital of the old Galactic Empire was the fictional world “Trantor.” Planet Trantor was entirely a city:  the oceans had been drained away into underground cisterns.  The farms were all replaced by administrative buildings.  It was a metal and plastic world of skyscrapers, enormous conference rooms, huge statues, and titanic space co-ops.  On Trantor, there was no more primary sector work…everything was brought to Trantor from other planets. This explains how I first ran into the concept of an ecumenopolis—a planet which is entirely covered in a city—it is a forboding idea which blew my mind as a kid. I have been thinking about a lot lately.

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If contemporary English writers need to invent new words, they don’t go back to grub for syllables in ancient guttural Saxon words of earthy doom.  Instead they glue together neologisms from Greek and Latin roots.  This is how we have the word “ecumenopolis”, which literally means universe-city. The word does not come from Athens or Rome, where such a concept was undreamt of.  It is a word from America in 1967, when the world’s planners and scientists began to comprehend that invasive humans were spreading through every ecosystem of a finite Earth.  However the concept came from Asimov—who, in turn, borrowed it from a weird utopian American preacher.  The word was thus coined just before the dawn of the space age, when the finitude of the planet was beginning to become evident.

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Lately, this idea came to the masses in the form of planet Coruscant, the administrative world of the much-derided Star Wars prequels.  The best aspect of those movies was staring at the endless lines of spaceships flying between enormous  buildings or taking off from huge engineered megastructures. Coruscant had its own dark glistening beauty yet it was also painful to think about, and whenever the characters went down into the city, the effect was risible. It is hard to capture the cliquish and modish aspects of urban life on film in a way which makes them seem appealing (which is probably why Coruscant got blown to bits by a stupid plot contrivance in the new series).  This illustrates a point too: in fiction, the inhabitants of cities are corrupt and interchangeable (whereas country folks are salt-of-the earth heroes).

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We don’t really have any other planets: and if we do they will be hell worlds or ice desert worlds–like Venus and Mars (come to think of it, they will be Venus and Mars).  Those worlds would be lovely ecumenopolises: it isn’t like you were going outside there anyway.  Whereas if Earth’s deserts, reefs, rainforests, elephants, and golden moles are replaced with concrete and billboards it would be a tragedy beyond reckoning (although maybe future children would read about such things in antiquarian blogs).  That is a profoundly sad thought, but it doesn’t mean that things have to be that way.  If we can urbanize well, we can still have space and resources left over for agriculture and for the natural world (while we get our act together and make some synthetic mega habitats elsewhere where everyone can have a gothic mansion and a robot army).

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I introduced this post with an anecdote about the city, albeit the city of Baltimore which seems hopelessly tiny and provincial now (to say nothing of how it seems compared with imaginary planet-wide cities).  I want to write a lot more about cities.  The Anthropocene is upon us.  More than half of all human beings now live in a city! Indeed I live in Brooklyn, and I work on Wall Street (don’t worry: I am untainted by the corrupt wealth of global finance because none of it ever reaches my hands). Talking to people I have realized that the story of my grandfather’s tenant is unremarkable: city dwellers know all about such things. Yet the story of my renegade turkeys is unfathomable to most people.

 

Cities are the natural habitation of humans (well—I guess the margin between forests and grassland in Africa is our natural habitat, but most of us have moved away from there and cities are our new home). The question of whether we can make cities better and find a way to live in greater density in a safe and healthy way is a very pressing one. Or will the entire planet become a horrid strip mall…or worse a sprawling slum.

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Let’s talk about cities! We need to build better cities…and some day, an ecumenopolis.  We need to make sure that it is not here though, because that will be a true Apokolips, er…apocalypse.

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