Posted by: kshayes513 | November 7, 2008

Designing a city

Khasran was originally modeled after medieval Baghdad: a city straddling a major river on a desert plain, with a magnificent walled palace/citadel at its heart, crowded streets and suks, and massive outer walls with 4 huge gates facing each of the 4 compass points. A worldbuilder with an architectural turn of mind might have created detailed plans and maps of this city to nail down specifics and make it more realistic. I was, and remain, much more interested in telling stories than in making maps, so I never got past the most general notion of the city’s layout, and working out whatever specific details I might need for a particular scene.

You’ll observe, though, that this isn’t the city described in The Master Patterns. Somewhere along the way, the walled city in the desert began to seem rather commonplace. I think what inspired me to change it was the very end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which was shot at Petra. I had seen images of Petra’s temple, of course; it’s a standard of ancient history classes. But I don’t think I’d ever seen that narrow, twisting canyon only a few yards wide, cutting a long lane through towering walls of rock, before it opens suddenly on the carved city. Now that is a very cool city entrance! No army in the world could get through that gorge if it were defended by archers shooting from windows high in the walls.

Of course, I wanted my city inside the canyon to be much grander—and greener—than desert Petra. In designing the new Khasran, I pulled bits and pieces from all over ancient and medieval architecture. Terraces green with trees and gardens (like the hanging gardens of Babylon, or any hillside city of the Mediterranean); waterfalls and fountains, pumps and cisterns and channels to move the water all over the city and power the fans that circulate air to the innermost chambers (modeled on the hydraulics of medieval Sri Lanka, and also a little on the cisterns under Istanbul, which I first saw in From Russia With Love. I get a lot of visual inspiration from location movie footage!); vast gathering halls and intimate private chambers each with its own balcony (pick any palace you want for inspiration; but perhaps especially some of the Mughal architecture of India, and the Renaissance palaces of Italy and Spain).

A lot of the invention came simply from logical extrapolation. Khasran’s canyon was carved by a river which still flows at the bottom of it. The best locations would be low down, close to the river and the fertile floodplain alongside it. So the palaces and mansions, the stables for horses and other animals, and the markets and public gathering places would all be on the lower levels. Workers and servants’ rooms would be higher, so they get the long climbs up stairs and ramps. Kitchens, furnaces and forges, perhaps, would be highest of all, so the smoke would go up away from the dwellings. (Observant worldbuilders will notice that in working out these ideas, I was also making a lot of assumptions about social structures based on class and wealth)

In visualizing the original canyon, I was thinking mostly of the canyonlands of the west. Khasran isn’t remotely close to the size of the Grand Canyon, but it’s probably several miles long and several hundred feet deep. Putting a city in the walls of a canyon raises some questions for the naturalist, too: what kind of rock is soft enough for water to erode, but hard enough to carve a city? How high does the river go in a year of heavy rains? And what kind of microclimate does a canyon like this have? Heat or cold being trapped by the walls, and wind being funneled by them, might be especially important in extreme weather.

The biggest question of all occurred to me quite late. Khasran is a remarkable feat of engineering, with massive chambers and miles of passages carved into solid rock, and elaborate systems to move air and water wherever they are needed. The Khasrani are, or were nomads, not builders and engineers. They couldn’t have built such a city themselves. So who were the city’s builders? And what happened to them?

I’m still working on that!



  1. I like your ideas. I’ve got a pending project for designing some fantasy cities and I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Also looking for good source of maps of ancient cities that show a the layout of the buildings and streets.

    You take any inspiration from the Anasazi or Pueblo people, who build up on walls of caves and canyons?

    Who says these nomads couldn’t have built this city? If it was a good place to settle, they would have developed it. On the other hand, ancient builders is usually a cool story hook.

  2. Apparently some cities in India have been on the same site for thousands of years; maybe some maps of them might be inspiring! (this form watching a new PBS documentary series on India)

    I am of course aware of southwestern cliff dwellings, but from the images I’ve seen, these are to Khasran like a hobbit hole to Khazad Dum. Still I’ll probably get around to reading more about them. And ideally, I’d love to get out to that part of the country, to get a feel for the landscape.

    Who says the nomads didn’t build the city? I do, and I’m god in this world!

    No, that’s not the last word. Like most creators, I lit the spark to the big bang, and have mostly watched it unfold on its own, taking notes and occasionally prodding it along with my pencil. I discovered the builders of Khasran by accident when I started a new story set very early in Khasran’s history, without knowing how it would end. The builders showed up during my search for a resolution. One more culture to explore!

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