Sunday, October 25, 2009

Looking for a particular type of ancient hillside city

I am looking for comparative examples of ancient cities with these characteristics:

(1) Most or all of the residential settlement is on hillsides or mountainsides, and,
(2) Most or all of the civic architecture is at the BOTTOM of the hill.

At the Aztec site I'm working on, Calixtlahuaca, the housing was built on terraces and covered the sides of a small mountain (2-3 sq km total). The heaviest occupation was on the north face (the right slope in the above photo). The royal palace was built on the plain at the base of the hill, and the main temples were built on huge terraces near the base of the hill. There were also some (now destroyed) temples on top of the hill. The second photo, looking down from about 2/3 of the way up the hill, shows one of the large temples, and the palace is barely visible at the base of the hill (yellow ellipse).

Most Mesoamerican cities whose housing covered hillsides had their civic architecture on top of the hill (Monte Alban, Xochicalco, many more examples), and defense was a major consideration. At Calixtlahuaca, they put a lot of effort into living on terraced slopes and building big terraces for their temples, yet there are no defensive features (walls, ditches, caches of weapons, etc.) and the royal palace was the most exposed building in the city.

I'd appreciate hearing about comparative examples that might help me understand this strange urban layout. Someone suggested Ephesus, which seems to fit, although I can find no information about the hillside housing. The excavated "slope houses" or "terrace houses" at the site are in the civic center, not up on the hillsides. Are there other examples of ancient cities with these traits? And can they help interpret Calixtlahuaca, or do the idiosyncratic factors of each site dominate, making comparisons like this superficial and not informative?

Suggestions are welcome!

-Mike Smith


Judith Weingarten said...

I haven't looked at it for a long time (so might be a bit out of date regarding residential buildings) but it has always struck me that Late Minoan I Zakro in eastern Crete is peculiar in this regard, with the palace below the many houses up on the northeast hill behind. As I wrote in 1983 (The Zakro Master and His Place in Prehistory, 5,6), 'the palace lies lower than these buildings and no prince wishes to be look down upon by outsiders. One could go further and declare simply that no prince likes to be looked down upon.

I still think so.

All good wishes,


Bill said...

Thessalonica, but the deep shoreline near the hill was the primary draw. Regardless, Cassander built the walls , even at the acropolis, at a point where they were commanded by the upper reaches of Mt. Kissos.

There's another coastal/sloping city North of Ephesus, if memory serves, but I can't remember which one.

Michael E. Smith said...

Can you provide citations for plans of the setting?

Bill said...

From my bibliography

Βακαλοπουλος, Α., «Ιστορια της Θεσσαλονικης» Θεσσαλονικην Φιλιππου Βασιλισσαν, p.239-266. Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki and University Studio Press. Thessaloniki, 1985.

Touratsoglou, Ioannis, Macedonia: History, Monuments, Museums. EKDOTIKE ATHENON, 1999.

Vickers, “Therme and Thessaloniki.” Θεσσαλονικην Φιλιππου Βασιλισσαν, p.232-238. Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki and University Studio Press. Thessaloniki, 1985.

Vickers, M., “Hellenistic Thessaloniki.” Θεσσαλονικην Φιλιππου Βασιλισσαν, p.486-499. Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki and University Studio Press. Thessaloniki, 1985.

Vickers, M., “Towards Reconstruction of the Town Planning of roman Thessaloniki.” Θεσσαλονικην Φιλιππου Βασιλισσαν, p.466-476. Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki and University Studio Press. Thessaloniki, 1985.


Also, from my notes, you might google Priene. And I clipped a topo plan of Olynthus that shows an old city considerably downhill from the hellenistic enlargement, which ran up to the peak, 40m higher.

Happy hunting.

Judith Weingarten said...

If you want plans of Zakro, there is a Google Earth site (search Aegean Minoans, palace settlement, Zakro) at 100309 kmz, owned by W. Sheppard Baird @ which gives a good idea of the palace location and some of the settlement. Also see

As I said, I'm not really up to date so can't cite recent plans in print.