Cosmopolitan cities and speakers

Alexandria was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the ancient world. By the late middle ages, the city was understood to be something quite different, as this illustration of the city of Alexandria imagined by a 15th-century French illuminator. The image depicts Alexandria after the death of Alexander the Great in a universal chronicle, Le Puy-en-Velay, Cath., 4 

The modern metropolis may be a hub of languages and cultures, a shared space where strangers become less strange and everyone finds a place. Yet the Industrial Revolution which produced the modern city, vertical, busy, industrious, was not particularly inclined, it seems to me, towards the form of urbanity that we are so familiar with today. The Industrial Revolution was the progeniture of the age of nations, with which the small community, the mingling of races, languages, customs, did not find much favour. The modern city emerged as a proclamation of national power, of national industry, of a common purpose derived from an understanding of a common history and destiny – conformity, uniformity, the dissolution of difference in the face of monolithical identities. There had been cities before the Industrial Revolution, but they were nothing like the big industrial urban centres which developed in the 19th and 20th centuries. In many such cities, workers started arriving en masse from outside the cities to fill the factories and to build new ones. Milan, for instance, had been a city in Roman times. It was another before the Industrial Revolution, quite another afterwards and certainly a beast of a different kind after the Second World War, when multitudes of Neapolitans and Sicilians were drawn to its new industries.

The ancient city, on the other hand, was a haven of multiplicity. Just to take the example of the Roman world and of the cities in the Roman Mediterranean, languages were so diverse that the only language common to all was a language which didn’t belong anywhere and which hadn’t developed in any defined community. This was common Greek, the koine of the Hellenistic East and of the New Testament. A language which, though unique, betrayed the linguistic multiplicity of its speakers.

Cosmopolitism and multilingualism may seem very modern, but they are in fact as ancient as democracy itself. The ancient cities of the East were cities (poleis) of the world (kosmos) where the collision of languages and cultures assured a gentle instability  between the local and the global. We find it hard to understand how interwoven identities, languages and cultures were in the cities of the ancient Mediterranean, and we are shocked to find out that not all Romans spoke Latin, or that code-switching was as common in Alexandria and Antioch as it is in Luxembourg, Zurich or Singapore. Once again, it seems that the wheel has already been invented.

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