BMCR 2020.12.30

Broken cities: a historical sociology of ruins

, Broken cities: a historical sociology of ruins. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020. Pp. 184. ISBN 9781421438429. $34.95.


The last decade has produced a bumper crop of books on ruins. Susan Stewart’s recent book, Ruins Lesson, as one very recent example, traces the Western fascination with ruins from the Renaissance to T.S. Eliot’s view of the World War I landscapes of France.[1] Felipe Rojas’s work, which explores the range of different responses to the pre-Roman past across Anatolia, epitomizes current trends toward the more subtle and complicated understanding of ruins in antiquity and in the present.[2] The Ruin Memories Project (and resulting volume) explored the multiple manifestations of the modern ruin and its personal, social, and political meanings.[3] Hein B. Bjerck, Bjørnar Olsen, and Elin Andreassen’s stunning volume on the ruins of the Soviet mining town of Pyramiden in the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago reflects on the (non-)place of ruins in our hypermodern world in a way that complements Felix Ringel’s study of the former East German model city of Hoyerswerda which after German reunification falls into steep decline, forcing its residents to negotiate life among the ruins of its once idealized (and ideological) urban fabric.[4] The prevalence of ruins in our cultural life and our challenges to come to terms with decline, decay, and collapse framed Caitlin DeSilvey’s brilliant, Curated Decay, which offered strategies for the cultivation and curations of buildings, objects, and places during the often slow process of ruination in the contemporary world.[5] The interest in ruins is not simply an academic concern; it parallels a popular and scholarly interest in “ruin porn.”[6] As any number of commentators have observed, our attraction to ruins reflects our fears of the failure of capitalism, the fragility of democracy, the inevitability of, climate change, and the persistence of war as well as long-standing personal anxieties about death, physical and mental decline, and forgetting. That this fertile, expansive, and diverse conversation would prompt another book on ruins is hardly surprising.

Martin Devecka’s Broken cities: a sociology of ruins contributes to this expansive and thriving discourse with focused studies of ruins in Classical Greece, Imperial Rome, Medieval Islam, and in the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan. Unlike many recent works which look to ruins themselves or depictions of ruins in art, Devecka’s book considers the role of ruins in select Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern texts. Moreover, his book emphasizes the ruins of cities, rather than specific buildings, monuments, or landscapes as is common in other recent work. He argues that ruins had significantly different meanings in each period and situation and manages the fine line between presenting an essentialized view of ruins for each period and demonstrating how certain views of ruins emerge in particular historical situations.

In the first chapter, Devecka argues that in Classical Greece, the kind of persistent ruins that have characterized our historical imagination were impossible. In the Classical period, Greeks rebuilt and reoccupied ruined cities and revived their institutions, religious sanctuaries, and public spaces. The Persian sack of Athens marked only the most vivid example of this kind of recovery. Despite this reality on the ground, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Isocrates, paradoxically, used the threat of permanent ruination as a way to articulate the short-term economic, political, and physical pain of destruction. Devecka does not discuss the reuse of spolia from the damaged Archaic temples in the Classical Periklean Acropolis and its role in commemorating the Persian sack of Athens.[7] This backdrop presumably would have strengthened the view among contemporary Athenians that ruination was ephemeral.

Chapter two considers the role of ruins in Roman Imperial literature from the age of Augustus into Late Antiquity. Devecka sees Roman attitudes toward ruins as part of a complex dialogue with their imagined Trojan past and a potential future for Rome itself. Just as Vergil’s Aeneas abandoned the ruined Troy, so Romans feared that Rome itself would succumb to ruination and abandonment in the future. This created a tension between the possibility of abandonment and a desire to preserve and protect Rome. It was met with a growing ambivalence toward the expectation that communities and individuals stayed in one place to preserve cities from permanent ruination while at the same time enjoying the freedom of movement afforded by the Roman Empire. This tension became all the more pressing in the 5th and 6th centuries when the ruination of Rome became a real possibility. In this more perilous context, the potential of movement in the Roman world and Aeneas’s flight from Troy allowed Late Roman authors to imagine abandoning a ruined Rome with their Roman identity intact.

The medieval Islamic world likewise approached ruins with ambivalence that reflected their attitude toward the ruins of the earlier non-Muslim cities throughout the landscape. Intriguingly these ruins, especially in Arabia, the Levant, and Mesopotamia, provided an opportunity to address concerns about Qur’anic originality. The existence of ruins paralleled the relationship between Islam and earlier monotheistic faiths, while also providing the basis for an interpretation of this relationship that emphasized primacy of Muhammed’s revelation. Because the interpretation of ruins was more fluid than the interpretation of sacred texts, they served a key role in helping Islam to resolve tensions between Qur’anic originality and its debt to Judaism and Christianity. The ambivalence toward ruins persisted throughout Medieval Islam with the ruins of earlier cities representing both the evidence for the strength of dominated foes and their decadence. As a result, Muslim rulers tended to found new cities and neighborhoods and to avoid reoccupying and reusing material from earlier ruins. This created a landscape of ruins as each successive ruler sought to establish their own place, in the process leaving as ruins previous buildings, cities, and neighborhoods.

The final chapter of the book considers the role of ruins in the destruction of Tenochtitlan at the hands of Hernán Cortés in 1521. Devecka argues that Cortés’s destruction of the Mexican capital not only reflected the incommensurability between European views of conquest and those of the Mexica but also put him outside of prevailing European attitudes toward ruining the cities and monuments of vanquished foes. The preservation and reuse of Muslim buildings after the 15th century Reconquista in southern Spain stood in stark contrast to the destruction of Tenochtitlan by Cortés and his soldiers. As a result, Cortés and his successors went to some length to justify their actions and to diminish the status of Tenochtitlan, even after initially celebrating its size and wealth, as a way of increasing the significance of his conquest. The long shadow of this pivot contributed to views that diminished the size and monumentality of Mesoamerican civilizations and assigned them an inferior rank compared with those of Europe.

Devecka eschews a formal conclusion and instead offers an epilogue where he considers how attitudes toward ruins have changed over time. He argues that ruins tend to reflect imperial attitudes toward space and the temporal reach of imperial political, social, and cultural hegemony. As a result, the more recent the empire, the more historically distant ruins tend to be. Ruins represented an immediate risk to Classical Athenians and, in Late Antiquity, the reality of a vulnerable Rome. In Medieval Muslim culture, ruins represented a past made obsolete by the Qur’an and the Muslim conquests. For Cortés, the ruins of Tenochtitlan represented the remains of a civilization that was already old and, consequently, far less advanced than Europeans. Today, ancient and modern ruins alike become an “icon of pastness” situated outside of the present and incommensurate with the future. In his critical reflections on the ruins of Greece, Rome, Islam, and the Spanish conquest, Devecka challenges such a historically essentializing view of ruins. He urges us to recognize in the different attitudes toward ruins in the past, the potential for different views of ruins in the present.


[1] The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture, Chicago 2020.

[2]  Felipe Rojas, The Pasts of Roman Anatolia: Interpreters, Traces, Horizons, Cambridge 2019.

[3] Bjørnar Olsen and Þóra Pétursdóttir, Ruin Memories: Materiality, Aesthetics and the Archaeology of the Recent Past, London 2014.

[4] Elin Andreassen, Hein Bjartmann Bjerck, Bjørnar Olsen, Persistent Memories: Pyramiden, a Soviet Mining Town in the High Arctic, Trondheim 2010; Felix Ringel, Back to the Postindustrial Future: An Ethnography of Germany’s Fastest-Shrinking City, New York 2018.

[5] Caitlin Desilvey, Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving, Minneapolis 2017.

[6] Tanya Whitehouse, How Ruins Acquire Aesthetic Value, Cham 2018; Siobhan Lyons, Ed., Ruin Porn and the Obsession with Decay, Cham 2018.

[7] Sarah A. Rous, Reset in Stone: Memory and Reuse in Ancient Athens, Madison 2019.