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  • Writer's pictureSofia Greaves

Cities as Palimpsests?

Updated: May 31, 2022

Many cities have classical origins, because in the ancient Greco-Roman world, founding, building, talking about and destroying cities was all a means to express, control and reproduce values.

Cities in the Greco-Roman world continue to have a wide-ranging impact. This impact is dual, involving both their physical remains - their representation, adaptation, transformation, demolition - and their legacy of 'ideas', from concepts like citizenship and layout to 'civility' and health. The ERC Impact of the Ancient City Project, of which my Phd is a part, investigates and questions the diverse nature of this impact, in the Islamic and European world, across the Mediterranean region.


The watercolour above is (most likely) going to be the cover art for the forthcoming ImpAncCit Palimpsest Volume, and was painted in layers, one each day, over two weeks. This built up translucent shapes which hint at the form of a city. It's supposed to mimic a palimpsest.

A palimpsest is a piece of writing material like a manuscript, which is reused, several times. During that reuse, whatever has been written is erased, but this can leave traces of the previous document. As a result, multiple 'layers' are visible at the same time. Famously, the mind is a Palimpsest, as argued by Freud. This also seems an apt metaphor for a city, in which structures representative of different moments are built up and taken away, and clues from the past remain. Thus the idea is very often used - it has become a trope. But the forthcoming ImpAncCit Palimpsest volume questions this metaphor, and points out both its suitability and inadequacies. For one, a city is living, and not a piece of paper.

Sofia Greaves, artwork for the Impact of the Ancient City Project volume, publications from the City as a Palimpsests? Conference, Istanbul, May 2019. More information here

Edit: The whole Palimpsest? Book is now available open access here:

The Impact of the Ancient City Project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 693418).

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