London reawakens: lessons from ghost cities of the past


One morning last spring, during the earliest days of London’s lockdown, my wife and I got up early. Dawn was still a couple of hours away as we walked from our house in Brixton to Putney Bridge. This was where, a century and more ago, during the city’s Victorian heyday, HG Wells had opened a chapter in his novel The War of the Worlds.

The scene the chapter paints is a dramatic one. The unnamed narrator, a witness to the first arrival of the Martians outside Woking, to the advance of the invaders on London and to the utter failure of humanity to combat their superior technology, has returned to the abandoned capital. Crossing from Putney into Fulham, he walks through the empty streets.

“It was curiously like a Sunday in the City,” he observes, “with the closed shops, the houses locked up and the blinds drawn, the desertion, and the stillness.” The title of the chapter: “Dead London”.

To us too, that spring morning in 2020, London seemed dead. Following the path taken by Wells’s narrator, past the Natural History Museum, across Hyde Park, along Baker Street, we saw no one. Covid might not have arrived in London as the Martians had done, at the controls of tripods and armed with death-rays, but it had come as a conqueror no less.

By midday, as we approached Primrose Hill, we had begun to see signs of life — the odd car, the occasional pedestrian out for a stroll — but even these barely disturbed the oppressive sense of stillness. To Wells’s narrator, “the windows in the white houses were like the eye sockets of skulls”. It was hard, pausing in St John’s Wood to read this, not to shiver with a sense of London’s ruin ourselves.

Yet Wells, having put the city on the verge of obliteration, had chosen to redeem it. Climbing Primrose Hill, his narrator discovers that the Martians have become food for the birds: slain by invisible pathogens. The war is over. The death sentence pronounced on humanity has been lifted.

“And as I looked at this wide expanse of houses and factories and churches, silent and abandoned; as I thought of the multitudinous hopes and efforts, the innumerable hosts of lives that had gone to build this human reef, and of the swift and ruthless destruction that had hung over it all; when I realised that the shadow had been rolled back, and that men might still live in the streets, and this dear vast dead city of mine be once more alive and powerful, I felt a wave of emotion that was near akin to tears.”

Primrose Hill, where HG Well’s narrator climbs to survey the aftermath in ‘The War of the Worlds’ © Chris Dorley-Brown for the FT

Already, a year and more on, the spectacle of dead London that my wife and I experienced that morning last April seems an eternity away. Eerie it certainly was; but it was also unforgettable. The spectacle of great cities emptied of their inhabitants has always been one to haunt the imagination. “How unreal it is,” people kept saying in the early days of the lockdown, “how like a film!”

The silent streets of the world’s great cities seemed simultaneously incredible and familiar: for apocalypse, whether at the hands of aliens, or zombies, or super-smart chimpanzees, has long been a favourite theme of Hollywood. “You maniacs! You blew it up!” Charlton Heston’s bellow of agony at the end of Planet of the Apes, prompted by the discovery of the Statue of Liberty half buried in sand, is memorable not just as one of cinema’s great plot twists, but as the expression of something more timeless: humanity’s sense of dread before the spectacle of toppled greatness.

Abandoned cities seem always to have provoked reflections on the ephemerality of human life, and its relationship to the cosmos. Again and again in the Bible, they are invoked as evidence for the power of God: “So will you know that I am the LORD.” Troy, which had perished in a glow of such terrible splendour that it never ceased to blaze in the imaginings of the Greeks, served as a scene of hero-cults even into the Christian era.

In Tenochtitlán, the famously beautiful Aztec capital obliterated by Spanish conquistadors in 1521, its inhabitants had long dreaded that another capital, on the far side of the lake from their own city, offered them an ominous foretaste of their own doom. Teotihuacán, like Tenochtitlán, boasted great temples and palaces; and once, just like the Aztec capital, it had been home to hundreds of thousands of people. All, however, had vanished — and so utterly that today we do not even know the name of the people who lived there.

Illustration of the Aztec’s capital city Tenochtitlán
Illustration of the Aztec’s capital city Tenochtitlán © Dea Picture Library/De Agostini via Getty Images

The Aztecs honoured them as “wise men, knowers of occult things, possessors of tradition” and the Aztec kings, as a marker of respect, would make periodic pilgrimage to the deserted city. The temples raised in Tenochtitlán were a conscious attempt to stave off the pattern of ruin that had claimed Teotihuacán: for without the human sacrifice that was performed on their summits, so the Aztecs believed, the gods themselves might weaken, chaos descend, and the sun start to fade. Only chalchiuatl, “the precious water” pumped out by a still-beating heart, could serve to preserve them, and to keep the rhythms of their city alive.

The Aztecs, when they attributed the collapse of Teotihuacán to forces greater than they could understand, were not so wrong. Whatever the proximate causes of its decline in the mid-6th century AD, few archaeologists today doubt the ultimate reason: the exhaustion of the ecosystem on which it had depended. There is no city so venerable, no city so celebrated, that it cannot, deprived of the means to sustain itself, crumble to dust.

The Avenue of the Dead in the ruins of the Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacán
The Avenue of the Dead in the ruins of the Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacán © API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Uruk, the world’s original metropolis, the mother-city of Mesopotamia, had been in existence for more than 4,000 years when, some time around the birth of Christ, the wetlands from which it had emerged began to dry up. Within a few centuries, its fields had been swallowed by desert, and its monuments left as nothing but sand-blown mounds. In due course, its very existence would come to be forgotten. The city to which — according to the Sumerians — the goddess Inanna, back in the early days of time, had brought the secrets of civilisation, and thereby made urbanisation possible, had returned to dust.

Yet if Uruk can serve us as a minatory parable, a reminder of the end to which all cities will ultimately come, it can offer us as well, perhaps, a degree of reassurance. Its history is striking not just as a record of annihilation, but of resilience. Over the course of its millennia-old history it was repeatedly conquered, repeatedly put in the shade of upstart powers, repeatedly battered by waves of destruction — and yet repeatedly it recovered.

There can be a great deal of ruin in a city. There are ancient capitals that are still capitals today. In the late 6th century, even as Teotihuacán was plunging into its doom spiral, another imperial metropolis seemed on the brink of total ruin as well. Rome, only a few centuries previously, had been the largest city on the face of the planet, and its concentration of monuments a peerless display of wealth, magnificence and might.

By AD600, however, the vast expanse of palaces, triumphal arches and amphitheatres, constructed over the centuries to serve as the capital of the world, had come to stretch abandoned, a wilderness of ruins. This was the same wilderness that, more than a millennium on, would inspire Edward Gibbon, “musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol”, to see the city as a monument to utter decay. Rome’s post-imperial history serves, to this day, as a byword for decline and fall.

Yet what to Gibbon seemed a marker of degradation — the sound of barefooted friars singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter — could seem to others something very different: striking evidence that the city was indeed eternal. “Daily, rising up out of the ruins of shattered walls and decayed temples, we see the fresh stonework of churches and monasteries.” So wrote a German monk in the early 11th century.

The medieval history of Rome did not at all strike those who lived through it as a story of decline. Capital of the papacy, it sheltered treasures infinitely more precious than anything the Caesars had boasted: the bones of martyrs. Everywhere, repositories of an awesome supernatural power, churches stood guard over these relics, their stonework suffused with the charisma of the departed saints themselves. Rome, to medieval Christians, provided a vision of how the world itself might be renewed.

Cities are tenacious creations. Even the worst catastrophes — war, fire, pestilence, famine — can serve as opportunities for renewal. Not every city, of course, can claim, as Rome did, a sacral quality for itself; but most cities that have endured for many centuries into the present can draw on attributes that, no matter how severe current tribulations, will not have been eliminated merely by the onset of Covid.

HG Wells’s narrator in The War of the Worlds, standing on Primrose Hill, is thrilled with the knowledge that the dead city stretching out before him would soon be restored to life. “All the gaunt wrecks, the blackened skeletons of houses that stared so dismally at the sunlit grass of the hill, would presently be echoing with the hammers of the restorers and ringing with the tapping of their trowels.”

The crowds return at Mile End Tube station in east London
… and Gerrard Street in the West End © Chris Dorley-Brown for the FT

Wells, by ending his novel on such a positive note, was very much going with the grain of history. London may never have suffered an invasion by Martians; but it has certainly suffered numerous disasters. Compared to Boudicca’s incineration of the city in AD60, or the Black Death, or the Blitz, Covid barely registers as a serious calamity. The record of the past 2,000 years suggests that London is almost indestructible.

Back in AD550, as Teotihuacán and Rome were both suffering precipitous population collapse, the city was already empty. A traveller standing then on Primrose Hill and looking towards the Thames would have seen a spectacle of abandonment far more advanced than anything witnessed by Wells’s narrator: collapsed roofs, crumbling walls, monuments lost beneath ivy. London had been a creation of the unitary geopolitical entity established in lowland Britain by the Romans; and, with the end of that unitary geopolitical entity, so had London too come to an end.

The fragmentation of the early medieval period, however, did not last. By the 10th century a unitary kingdom, in the form of England, had begun to emerge. London duly returned to life. A site that combined the lowest bridging point on the Thames with a port open to continental Europe had far too many natural advantages not to flourish. As it had done under the Romans, so it did now under the late Anglo-Saxon kings: it took its place as the largest, richest and most important city in Britain.

It is a status it has never lost since. “The Great Wen”, Cobbett famously called it. A metaphor that casts London as a boil that just grows and grows, and can never be healed, is one with which many environmentalists today, looking at the spread of cities far beyond their previous bounds, and across the planet, might well find an apposite one: for urbanism, despite the role it played in spreading Covid, will hardly be checked by the pandemic.

Cities will recover, and flourish, and grow. Even if infection rates persist, and the twenties fail to roar, the patterns of innovation blazed by urban areas as varied as the Bay Area, Beijing or Lagos will continue to evolve; and whether these megalopolises are best compared to acne or to blooms in a flower bed will obviously depend on perspective.

For 6,000 years now, cities have been sinks of suffering and disease; and for 6,000 years now they have served to foster the solutions to suffering and disease. Whether ruin or redemption is to be humanity’s fate, cities will be at the heart of all our futures. They are where the war to save our world will be fought.

Tom Holland is a historian and author

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