April 10, 2013

Resurrecting Ancient Cities from the Dead

Ankor Wat Temple Complex, Cambodia.   Photo by Mitch Sutika Sipus 2013.
Yesterday I read the recent National Geographic article on the new possibilities to re-introduce extinct species of animals into the world via genetic engineering.   The idea is to utilize DNA from animals that have died as a consequence of human intervention, such as the passenger pigeon, to repopulate the planet.  Some researchers felt an ethical obligation to pursue the de-extinction of these animals, others note that due to environmental change, the native habitats of these species no longer exists and that repopulating the species might only lead to its eventual disappearance, again.

I found the article compelling, but it immediately made me question the ability to regenerate ancient cities from the dust.   Rather than continually build new towns on the outskirts of today's cities or struggle with creating a sense of place in newly constructed environments, could we resurrect old settlements to connect the old with the new?  Do archaeological sites of vast cities such as Pakistan's Mohen Darjo or Cambodia's Angkor Wat need to remain isolated like museum specimens? 

I recall last year on a visit to Istanbul, Turkey the amazement that the historic fabric of the urban landscape was so neatly woven into contemporary living.   There was little distinction between old and new, tourist zone and local habitation, business and residential.  Unlike other ancient cities, such as Amman Jordan where the architectural heritage of the Roman Empire sits isolated from the urban core, Istanbul neatly integrated the past and the present.  By resurrecting ancient cities from the dust, we could potentially create more urban environments as harmonious as Istanbul.

Human settlements rarely pop up by accident.  So often they arise when one form of transportation intersects with another - such as a road and a river - and their lifespan is interconnected with the regional economic geography.  By resurrecting a settlement, we could theoretically guarantee a particular type of economic and social success and likewise project a lifespan for the settlement based on our understanding of that settlement's history.  

In this manner,  we would have the choice to utilize or negate previous assets and obstacles to the settlement based on archaeological evidence and historical research.  In settlements that consist of multiple layers of archaeological evidence, diligent mapping of the spatial allocation of artifacts and digital reconstructions might facilitate the conceptual rebuilding of historical events so as to better understand the spatial failures and advantages of previous civilizations.  With a rough map of resource allocation and planning from multiple civilizations, we could better engineer a new city from the old.  

Is this feasible?  No idea.  But if we can resurrect extinct animals, as far back as Mammoths, then why not resurrect civilizations?  


  1. From what I recall, most of Angkor Wat was a ceremonial city that normal people didn't live in or probably even get to visit. One temple was reserved just for the king. It was more akin to say the National Mall or some modern religious complexes like Mecca. If you mean the area around the complexes, well a lot of people do live there in Seim Reap just to the south.

  2. Perhaps Angkor isn't a very good example in this article, as I agree with your assessment as a monument. But I was just there a few weeks ago so it was fresh in my mind. When tossing around the idea of resurrecting ancient cities, I was specifically thinking about the irrigation system embedded in Angkor and how this system was critical to the survival of the civilization. Could rebuilding a city again allow us to better manage such systems? Thanks for the useful comment.

  3. Interesting concept, but I think there's a huge difference between a case like Istanbul, where the preservation of the ancient alongside the modern has happened more or less organically, and a complete reconstruction of a habitable city on the ruins of an ancient one. Certainly useful planning ideas can be gleaned from ancient cities, but I don't think it's feasible to "resurrect" a long-abandoned site.