Big Systems

The Past From Above


A high view of civilization

Civilization is a pattern best seen from above, at an altitude that encourages a long view. Master aerial photographer Georg Gerster has spent the last 40 years photographing ancient archeological sites around the world from the passenger seat of rented airplanes. His portraits of large-scale human works are stunning. Meta-patterns emerge. We see the persistence of the past in the most modern places. We see the anticipation of the modern in the most ancient places. Many of these vast sites are legendary, but totally new seen from above, others will be unfamiliar to readers: Alexander’s Wall, Chimu at Chan Chan Peru, the circular city of Hamadan, Iran, and so on. Gerster’s chapters are brilliant; he clusters cities as if they were ideas: “Seeing and Being Seen – Festival Sites and Places of Assembly,” “For Safety’s Sake – Fortifications and Bulwarks,” “Building For Eternity — Graves and Cemeteries.” The big book is heavy with full-page full-color images, as one would hope; 240 in all. But the best and most important part of this big long view are the meticulously researched notes on each overhead image. You get a succinct, but masterful, footnoted treatise on what you are seeing, written by an archeologist. From them you get the aha behind the ooooh. Gerster is a floating eye with a brain. He gives tours of our biggest achievements on this planet.

— KK

The Past from Above
Georg Gerster
2005, 415 pages
Available from Amazon

Sample excerpts:

The Median capital at Hamadan, from 7th century BC, Iran, 1976

According to Herodotus, Hamadan – the ancient Persian Hagmatana, Greek Ecbatana – was built by the first king of the Medes, Deioces, as a residence and as the first city of the Medes. Herodotus’s description of seven concentric walls, each a different colour and slightly higher than its neighbour, is entirely fanciful. Situated on the main road to Mesopotamia at a height of almost 2000m, with a good climate, plentiful supply of water and on a large fertile plain, this was the most important city on the plateau during the Achaemenid period. Alexander the Great hoped to turn it into the capital of the eastern Empire.


The northern cemetery at Hierapolis/Pamukkale, 3rd century BC – 3rd century AD, Turkey, 2002. World Heritage Site.

The best advertisement of every ancient city was its cemeteries, which tended to be located along its main arterial roads in front of its gates. Here the number and size of the tombs was an indication of the city’s economic importance and of the hierarchical status of its individual families. Few cities in Asia Minor had as many lavish funerary buildings as Hierapolis in Phrygia. Especially impressive is the cemetery by the north gate, which marks the end of the city’s broad main street, an impressiveness due not least to the great variety of different types of tomb. Among the oldest are those that date from the hellenistic period when the city was founded and which include simple underground chamber tombs for the less wealthy and round tumuli for well-to-do families. The brick base houses an underground chamber over which a conical burial mound has been raised. Typical of the Roman period are the 2000 or so limestone sarcophaguses on differently designed stone bases and mausoleums in the form of miniature temples or entire houses on some of which a sarcophagus additionally stands as if on a platform. Many graves bore inscriptions giving information about their occupants or about commemorations held in the small gardens beside them. But they also document the size of the area covered by individual graves and threaten punishment for illegal building. This was no doubt necessary because, as our photograph shows, the cemetery became increasingly crowded with the passage of time, especially in the first row of graves along the street and in the immediate vicinity of the city gates.


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