The legacy of cities

Within hours of arriving in Prague from my home in Cairo, I was sitting by the Vltava sipping a beer and congratulating myself for escaping the stifling heat of Egypt’s dusty, crowded capital. It had been a difficult post-revolution year, full of movement (elections, strikes, demonstrations, some violent) against the background of fading hopes for real change.

Foto: Creative Commons/ thills1988

The Cairo summer began in April, along with the usual electricity cuts and water shortages. Then came Ramadan when much of the city’s population avoids food and drink until sunset and everything practically shuts down. By the time I reached Prague in late-July, I needed that beer.

But as I sat admiring the people walking by (mostly young and by Cairo standards, half-naked) the facades on the river’s far bank and the swans gliding beneath the Palackého Bridge, I felt strange. Here were two worlds living side by side yet largely ignorant of one another; two great cities with similarly long, illustrious histories (Prague was founded around 880AD, Cairo in 641AD) as centers of commerce and culture that have followed dramatically divergent paths, like siblings separated at birth.

Where is everybody?

If I had a wish in that first Pilsner moment it would have been for half of Prague’s people to trade places with half of Cairo’s so we could experience this strangeness together and talk about it. Perhaps between Cairo’s austerity and Prague’s surfeit of pleasures, a balance could be struck.

Although I am American, I’ve mostly lived in Cairo, a city renowned for its inhabitants’ generosity, resilience, and humor and for a history so lovingly documented we can discern its patterns and see ourselves reflected there. But you can’t walk in Cairo; there are too many cars, the sidewalks are packed and broken and the air is toxic. As for green space, if you divided it equally, each Cairene would have just enough to stand on one foot, like a flamingo. There are no free public entertainments, aside from political demonstrations, which is partly why they’re so popular among youths. Most of them would give their right arm for a passport like mine, which allows me to travel to places they will never go.

Sixty percent of Cairo’s population (est. 23 million) now lives in ‘informal housing’ (a euphemism for ‘slum’) and the urban sprawl stretches deep into the desert where hi-rise apartment blocks stand shoulder-to-shoulder as far as the eye can see. No wonder when I came to Prague the first thing I asked was ‘where is everybody?’ Compared to Cairo it looked empty.

‘Yeah, it’s nice’

I remember my first Prague shower (which in Cairo involves a tepid trickle if you’re lucky); the water pressure was so strong it hurt. I walked up the lushly wooded Petřín Hill, prime real estate left virtually untouched as a shrine to nature, and discovered public orchards of apple, pear and plum trees.  I stood with closed eyes listening to ripe fruit fall to the ground, thinking: is this for real?  I walked home along streets of astounding diversity, lined with shops selling things like antiques, model-airplane kits and bee-keeping equipment.  I came across a public concert, a celebration of the city in summertime where everyone was invited. After Cairo’s repressed, monotone environment, Prague’s bounty and well-being struck me full force.

When I gush about these things to my Prague friends, they nod and say ‘yeah, it’s nice’. But it’s more than nice, it’s the result of a positive synergy involving centuries of effort. The ornate architecture interspersed with parks and vineyards, the decisions regarding the city’s management, people’s choices regarding commerce and lifestyle,  and above all the work of their hands, when taken together creates a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. The result is a city that embodies the values of its inhabitants while enhancing their quality of life.

But if the right effort can produce a positive synergetic effect, then wrong efforts can produce a negative one. In the words of Lewis Mumford, twentieth-century chronicler of cities, ‘when the city ceases to be a symbol of art and order, it acts in a negative fashion: it expresses and helps to make more universal the fact of its disintegration.’ Witness Cairo, where a combination of demagoguery, greed and mismanagement have destroyed much of the city’s historic fabric and made living conditions a nightmare.

How long can Prague last?

‘A world city, in order to function as such requires a world order’ Mumford wrote presciently in the late 1930s, ‘a world in disorder can find no use for such a city except to make it a center of political aggression and financial aggrandizement, incapable of performing the essential functions of a city even for its own teeming population.’ Cairo’s not the only city Mumford might have been describing. I look at Prague and wonder how long can it last in a disordered, unbalanced world, where the status quo seduces both the privileged who live in a dream and the poor who only dream of dinner.

Poverty and corruption contributed to Cairo’s diminished condition, but consumerism is doing the same in many wealthy European capitals where the high streets are almost interchangeable, the same rows of name-brand stores and labyrinthine shopping malls built in glass and chrome. A city’s decline is not always readily visible, but it starts with a collective failure to identify the interacting factors that can make or break it. The values that cities embody and preserve, if not constantly reassessed and reaffirmed, will surely disappear.

Everyone must feel nostalgic when they reach a certain age, noticing how things have changed, but it seems that in our urban world something is receding from us all. Cities are the legacy humanity leaves to itself, living archives of the past and portals to the future that despite their different characters belong to the same family. Sitting beside the Vltava, I wished their individual wisdom and experience could be acknowledged and exchanged to ensure their survival, not just as our homes and inheritance but as the kind of legacy we, in our turn, would wish to leave behind.

Maria Golia

Maria Golia

is author of the non-fiction books Cairo, City of Sand and Photography and Egypt, lived in Rome, Paris and Ft. Worth Texas before moving to Cairo in 1992. She visits Prague frequently. Her newest book Meteorites: Nature and Culture will be published this Fall by University of Chicago Press. Visit for more.