Four Lost Cities

Four Lost Cities is a book about, well, four cities that are supremely different than they once were, if they’re even still with us at all. She is looking, I think, to explain how different cities exist, but also about how they end.

The first one is Çatalhöyük, in Turkey. This is a ruin of a city that is so old that it’s impossible to tell if it really was a city. I mean, it’s a large gathering of people who seem to live permanently together, but there’s little evidence of serious coordination of effort. So, everyone was making their own bread, tending their own farms, gathering their own food, burying their own dead. People started moving elsewhere when the 8.2 kilo-year climate shift happened, to where they could grow food more easily.

The second lost city is one you’ve probably heard of: Pompeii. Vesuvius exploded in 79CE, covering the city in super-heated ash. It was uninhabitable for a long time to come. I’m not going to cover what life was like in a Roman Imperial City – you can find that elsewhere – but I am going to talk about why it wasn’t rebuilt. The Roman Empire did a good job at making sure refugees from Pompeii were able to settle elsewhere, and there’s evidence that they formed communities in other cities relatively near Pompeii. The new information to me was just how terrible the ash was. The actual rock-and-mud flows were over 340F and with the layers of ash on top, they retained that heat for years. Not to mention that ash is incredibly fine and dense – the fact she cites is that new snow is 50-70kg per cubic meter; the ash is 700-3200kg/cubic meter. It’s a lot of work; resettling the refugees was a much more practical solution.

The third “lost” city is Angkor, in Cambodia, and I’m sure that the people living there were surprised when a French explorer in the 1800s decided they were a lost city. It was an extreme bit of colonization. Though, to be fair, it was a much larger city, primarily existing for worship, when changes in rainfall made its extensive reservoir-and-canal system unworkable. They couldn’t keep up with repairs and there were other power centers that the royal family could use instead. So the city shrunk and was mostly reclaimed by the jungle.

The last lost city is one that is truly lost: Cahokia, which was a major center of civilization near St Louis, MO from 900CE until it finally completely was lost in about 1350. It’s known as the Mississippian culture, largely because its artifacts have been found all up and down the Mississippi River. The city was larger than Paris in 1050AD, but there is no written record of it and study really only started in the mid-twentieth century. Researchers don’t even know if they called themselves the Cahokia; the Cahokia were the tribe that was in the St Louis when white people arrived. There is some evidence of Cahokian – the city, not the current day Tribe – stories integrated into the Sioux myths. This is the city that for me is the most intriguing – this one is part of American history that I didn’t learn in school (that may be different now), and I am eager to learn more.

Overall, Four Lost Cities is a very broad book covering a lot of ground. There isn’t a compare-and-contrast section, like you might expect in an academic work. It’s a popular book, designed to give the reader an overview. It was good, but I was left wanting for more.


I coordinated my reading of Metropolis with listening to the episodes of The Tides of History about the rise of civilization and Uruk, the first city in Mesopotamia. Only the first chapter of Metropolis is about Uruk, but the podcast gave me structure of: what does civilization mean? What makes a city possible? Spoiler: a certain degree of wealth; often, religion is involved; and some sort of organization to coordinate activities.

Metropolis grazes over 6500 years of human history, from the founding of Uruk to the modern day – Covid-19 even makes its way into the introduction. Each era of human history is looked at through the focus of the city and what the city meant to that era of history. For example, for the Roman era, the book focuses on bathhouses, because they’re a stand-in for the engineering feats that were needed to get the plumbing in place, but they also signify how Roman culture evolved from the non-bathhouse-having hard-nosed citizens of the early republic to the more decadent subjects of the late empire.

The cities profiled are all over the world, too. While history tends to focus on European cities – and there’s a lot of Europe in here – Metropolis is doing its best to bring in cities from around the world: Baghdad, Malacca, Tenochtitlan, and Lagos to name a few. (It gets bonus points for making you really detest the combination of ignorance and superiority complex of the conquistadors.)

I’m personally a fan of cities. I like their energy and creativity and the way that they bring people together and make things happen in a way that being out in the country, or even in suburbia just doesn’t. Metropolis really captured that for me; I would definitely recommend it.

A couple of days in Copenhagen


We took a vacation! A big one, too. We spent a little more than two weeks in Scandinavia. I’d never been to Denmark, Norway, or Sweden before, and we managed to hit all three.*

I’m going to be spreading out the photos over the next couple of weeks in a series of posts, so stay tuned if there’s a particular destination/sight you’re interested in.


We spent a total of about three days in Copenhagen, much of it just walking around the city. Urban hiking is the best.


city hall balustrade
There are a row of these on the balustrade outside Copenhagen’s city hall. I have no idea what animal this is. Dragon? Elephant? Serpent? Some combo of the three? (FWIW, there are lions on the city’s coat of arms. This isn’t a lion.)


little mermaid
The Little Mermaid, possibly the most famous statue in Copenhagen. Everyone tells you that you’re going to be disappointed when you see it – it’s smaller than you think. Hans Christian Andersen is Danish, and they’re very proud of him.


random statue
A statue in a park not too far from The Little Mermaid. I’m not sure who it is or what it’s of, but I do enjoy how much random artwork there is on the streets in Europe.


WWII memorial
The World War II memorial. Possibly the unknown solider memorial?


This is the bit of Copenhagen that’s on all the postcards. It’s like the Eiffel Tower in Paris: it’s the most touristy thing ever, but you have to go.

nyhaven boat
This boat has its own lighthouse. Nyhaven is a harbor (I *think* haven (Danish) = harbor (English); there are tons of boats. I also like the rust red of the boat with the dark blue of that house in the background.


nyhaven legos
Not the actual harbor. This was in the Copenhagen Lego store. (Remember kids, Lego is a Danish company.)


nyhaven reality
We saw this style of architecture – colorful row houses next to a harbor – all through Scandinavia. It’s what Scandinavian design used to mean before it was all clean lines and white and minimalist.


christiansborg palace
It wouldn’t be a European city without a palace or two. This is the Christiansborg Palace; the Danish royal family uses the Amalieanborg Palace. This one has a lot of official government offices.


church and fountain
It also wouldn’t be a European city without a church or three. This was a lovely church near The Little Mermaid statue. I tried to get arty by putting the fountain in the foreground. I’m not sure it worked.


copenhagen jewish museum
We’ve covered palaces and churches…. Can I interest you in a museum? This one’s the Copenhagen Jewish Museum. We didn’t go in, I just liked the building.


opera house
This crooked photo (seriously self, learn to hold the camera level) is the new Copenhagen Opera House. It’s on the main canal/river through town. If you’re thinking it looks like a giant diving platform, well, you’re not the only one. Red Bull hosted a diving competition off the roof the weekend before we were there.


Tivoli Gardens
And this building is the entrance to the Tivoli Gardens amusement park, which includes the highest swing ride I have ever seen. To quote my husband, “That’s high enough to make you calculate the tensile strength of those cables.” Yes, I married an engineer.

Gardens and Flowers

I was surprised through the whole trip to see an amazing number of flowers. My kid (who lives in drought-riddled California) couldn’t get over how green everything was. It made me remember how much you enjoy nature when it’s cold and white and grey for winter.

Amalianborg Garden
This is the garden/park across the street from the Amalieanborg Palace. It’s also across the canal/river from the Opera House. It’s a lovely pale and there were lots of locals eating lunch on its benches and low walls.


flowers in copenhagen
This is on Hans Christian Andersen Blvd. Permanent flowerbeds on the streets. I also like that you can see the omni-present bike lanes. (We were taking a tour bus to the port for the next stage of our trip and an older American woman couldn’t stop exclaiming [loudly, sigh] over how many bikes there were in the city. “I could never live here, I can’t ride a bike!”)

park in copenhagen
I don’t remember which park this was, and I’ve no idea what that building is – but I’m pretty sure it’s offices or apartments or shops. Nothing remarkable. This one’s just pretty.

Random leftovers

These are a couple of photos that don’t really fit into categories, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave them out.

herring for breakfast
Herring for breakfast is a thing in Copenhagen. Fish is everywhere, as you might expect. (So are pickled vegetables and the food was more salted than I was used to.) An acquaintance of mine is married to a Danish man. She claims to enjoy the curry herring. I couldn’t work up my nerve to try it at 8am.


This was the fanciest light pole I’d seen in awhile. It’s got a date on it from 1676, but the lights in it are fluorescent.

Did I mention that we did a lot of walking? And we only stayed in the center (largely). I’d’ve loved to explore more. Next time!

* I should tell you: I don’t enjoy the if-this-is-Tuesday-it-must-be-Belguim cramming in of sights and stops. I would have loved to spend way more time in each city/country. Nonetheless, we got a decent overview of each place. I think. Next time, in depth!


Not glamorous

all fall down by Ally Carter


What’s it about?
All Fall Down is a story about an ambassador’s granddaughter, Grace. There has been an accident and her mother is dead. She, however, is convinced that it wasn’t an accident. But no one will believe her. How will she ever prove that there is more going on than meets the eye?

Why should you read it?
You should read it if you, like me, are an Ally Carter fan (the Gallagher Girls and Heist Society series are fun). Otherwise, I might give it a pass. Ms Carter is a practical person – it helps her write no-nonsense characters who are good at getting things done. But All Fall Down should be about glamour. There are grand balls, tuxedoes, gowns, and secret tunnels. There is diplomacy and doublespeak and old European cities. Grace should remind me a bit of James Bond; but she is damaged in a way that isn’t, to my mind, alluring. (Her mother is dead. It would be weird if she were normal.) There is a way to make a character damaged and still fascinating – La Femme Nikita comes to mind. Grace should be competent but off her game. Instead she just came across as blundering. I didn’t get the underlying competence.

I will read the sequel – I am sure Grace has underlying competence. This is an Ally Carter series. I look forward to Grace finding it.