Every travel opportunity is a chance to fall in love with a new city. On my latest journey, the lengthiest in recent memory, I was lucky enough to fall for not one but three of the world’s biggest and longest-surviving modern metropoles: Boston, USA; Paris, France; and Rabat, Morocco. But apart from my having set foot in these places over the past few weeks, what do they have in common? Why are they worth remembering in tandem?
There are a few possible answers, but one thing that stands out is how each city’s history is marked by an astonishing transition from backwater settlement to political, economic and cultural hub. Yet in each case, this transition occurred because one people was able to brutally impose its conquering will over another. Such tension between the violent beginnings of civilization and its often wondrously beautiful fruits marks the founding of any city or country, a fact that should give pause when considering the human costs that have been paid for the freedoms of modern life.
When the first Massachusetts Bay Colony settlers founded what would later become Boston, it was a vast expanse of marshes and mudflats. The second attempt at colonization after the failed Dorchester Company at Cape Ann, this new settlement didn’t have to wait long before becoming entangled in armed conflicts with native tribes for control of the fur trade. Both the Pequot War (1636-1638) and King Philip’s War (1675-1678) led to hundreds of lives lost or displaced, as both English and Dutch settlers expanded their territories through land reclamation over the next two centuries.
At the same time that this violent expansion took place, the settlers of Boston imagined for themselves a higher moral standard. This is captured most succinctly by John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” delivered aboard the ship Arbella on its way to the new colony. Among other scriptures, the homily invokes the biblical parable of Salt and Light as a standard for living in the New World. “We shall be as a city upon a hill,” Winthrop solemnly declares. “The eyes of all people are upon us.” Whether we agree that the founders and their descendants have lived up to this aspiration, it would be hard to deny the fruits born of their attempts to do so. Modern Boston’s alluring architecture, revered educational institutions and quality of life continue to draw the eyes of all people to that city.
Although its current grandeur and refinement could only be described as overwhelming, Paris was once little more than a rural fishing village. In 52 BC it was conquered by Julius Caesar, rebuilt as a Roman garrison town, and given the name Lutetia, possibly from the Latin word for mud or swamp, luta. The Romans continued erecting buildings and roads until the Salian Franks took it from them in 481 AD after an incredible decade-long siege. For the next thousand years, the city was subject to various monarchies—Merovingian, Carolingian, Capetian, the houses of Valois and Bourbon—all marked by such ruthless conflicts as the Crusades, the Hundred Years’ War, the Mad War, the Italian Wars, and finally the French Revolution in 1789. Taking into account the many battles that have been won and lost there, Paris is one of the most violent cities in world history.
Yet each of these ruling dynasties left their mark on the City of Light by building museums, cathedrals, gardens and universities. They invested in public works and infrastructure. Cardinal Richelieu, known today as the conniving and iron-willed “Red Eminence,” also happened to be a major patron of the arts. He spearheaded efforts like renovating the Sorbonne, amassing a huge personal library, establishing the Académie française and giving support to such authors as Pierre Corneille. In every phase of Paris’s history, the same power that waged war and oppressed the weak also fostered art and culture that continues to be the envy of the world. One wonders if these aren’t two sides of the same coin, at odds in spirit and yet somehow inseparable in their capacity to effect radical change.
Both Rome and France also had their hand in cultivating my new home base, Rabat. For over a thousand years, the site currently known as the Chellah was a fortress of the Phoenician, Carthaginian and finally Roman civilizations, each imperial power layering over the one before. Seventh-century Arab conquests eventually led to an independent Muslim Berber state that later dynasties tried to bring into their orbit, like the Almoravids and Almohads. These and other medieval Islamic powers continued to hold Rabat and neighboring Salé as a key defensive port, although its importance was eclipsed by larger cities of the interior like Fez and Marrakech. It was the 1912 beginning of the French Protectorate, yet another instance of political rule imposed from above, that brought Rabat back to prominence as the new political capital, which it remains up to the present day.
As with Paris especially, Rabat’s history is a tale of imprints left by the various civilizations that have claimed it through the centuries. The very ground holds a record of the strata formed as one power succeeded another. The Chellah, for example, contains the site of a 4th-century Roman temple alongside a 14th-century necropolis built by the Marinids. For a long time the entire city was bounded by the area of Rabat’s current medina, relatively small compared to the sprawling souks of Fez and Marrakech. But the French, eager to leave their own stamp on Morocco, built up the ville nouvelle of Rabat around the medina into a spacious and orderly city. They infused it with French architectural styles, promenades and cafés. Today Rabat is a cosmopolitan diplomatic center largely because of the investments made in it by Morocco’s European overseers.
To paraphrase Edward Said, a beginning is a fundamentally violent act. Although he was referring to writing as much to politics, the violence of beginnings is one of the threads running through these three cities that I have so much affection for. The cost of building each of them was great, far greater than any one person would be prepared to take on. At the same time, the fruits bought with human life have simultaneously enriched the human life that came after. Would that the wonders of these cities had not come at such a cost. But now that they are here, we should do our utmost to appreciate them, to let their legacy humble us to the earth, so that the lives spent in their foundation were not in vain.