Get ‘Lost’ in These Four Cities

According to the U.S. Census, over 80% of the country’s population lives in urban areas—and it’s even higher for Puerto Rico and other territories, where urban living is well over 90%. It didn’t always used to be this way, but the world is marching toward a far more urban future than our ancestors could have dreamed.

But humans aren’t strangers to urban living, and for we’ve been engaged in what author and journalist Annalee Newitz calls a great “social experiment” for over 9,000 years. To demonstrate this, Newitz surveys four lost cities around the world in their new book called, well, Four Lost Cities, and compares and contrasts how those ancient hubs of civilization relate to the places we live today. The result is engaging and not the slightest bit dry. (If you want a taste of what’s inside without actually opening the cover, Newitz has given several excellent interviews, including here and here).

It’s too bad none of these were desert cities, because that would have been a great pun.

Newitz starts with the oldest known city, Çatalhöyük, located in what is now Central Turkey. That nascent city was likely more accidental than planned, and drew thousands of people away from their nomadic lifestyle for a more settled-down existence. It wasn’t the first permanent structure people made for themselves, but it’s likely the first one made with the intent for people to stay, to live, to build. Although it would seem to us like only a small city, Çatalhöyük would have been far larger than anything its new residents would have encountered. Thousands of miles and years away, Angkor, in modern-day Cambodia, had at its height nearly a million residents, which would have put it on par with Rome at its height. Newitz includes Pompeii, too, which offered a far richer life for its inhabitants than popular media might suggest. And in North America, the medieval city of Cahokia gives life to the “mound people” history teachers love to mention for two seconds and then never again.

It’s all fascinating, and Newitz’s selections—and what they point out about them—provide a rich and varied look at why people gather, why they stay…and why they leave. Which, as they point out in the epilogue, is relevant today as boomtowns shift and then disappear, and as we redefine where we work in the age of COVID and beyond. Newitz also takes on the fable of the intrepid adventurer “finding” a “lost” city, and how preconceived notions of past peoples have colored our view of the past.

Okay, yes, this is a better attitude than “I’m taking these gold artifacts for my private collection” but Indiana still has a ways to go.

Four Lost Cities is a quick read, too, both because of Newitz’s deft prose and the actual length (less than 300 pages including notes and an index), and even in writing this review I found myself flipping through whole sections to verify a detail—something that could be nearly impossible in some books, but not this one.

Which is good, because I did feel like I was flipping back to verify details even as I was reading it. Although Newitz is a gifted writer and that skill does shine in Four Lost Cities, the selection and presentation of some facts seemed, at times, confusing. For example, Çatalhöyük started in what archaeologists call the East Mound, on the east side of the Carsambra River, but spread to the West Mound, as well, after a few hundred years. Newitz largely references the city’s timeline using the East Mound as reference, but when discussing its decline, uses the West Mound’s founding as a reference point instead. Very small thing, but it made an otherwise clear piece a little confusing, and that kind of thing popped up here and there. Another thing on the same caliber of both irritation and nitpickiness was the occasional inconsistency with how information was explained or presented—say, a term used and perhaps briefly explained, and then introduced more fully several pages later. Again, not major, but I wonder if there was some late-stage reorganization and some bits didn’t get the memo.

But again, those are small things. Four Lost Cities is a trip through time and around the world, and is making me think about my neighborhood, my city, my civilization differently, as parts of a timeless and borderless whole rather than silos unaffected by what came before or what will follow.

Just like in fashion.

“Cities may die, but our cultures and traditions survive,” Newitz writes. “As long as we tell our urban ancestors’ stories, no city is ever lost. They live on, in our imaginations and on our public lands, as a promise that no matter how terrible things get, humans always try again. In a thousand years, we’ll still be working on the urban experiment. Sure, we’ll fail again—but we’ll also learn how to make things right.”

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