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Portraying Mediterranean Cities

Catherine Bernié-Boissard, Guy Burgel and Régis Darques
p. 17-23
This article is a translation of:
Villes méditerranéennes en représentation(s) [fr]

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From impressions to reconstructions (Guy Burgel)

1Dedicating a special issue of the Méditerranée journal to Mediterranean cities, mainly seen through writers’ eyes, is a choice. From the “Arab springs” that shook capital cities (Tunis, Cairo) to the interethnic conflicts that divide cities and territories (Israel, Palestine, Jerusalem, Greek and Turkish Nicosia), to the flow of political and economic migrants who risk their lives to cross the sea and wash up in Greek and Italian island ports, to Islamic terrorism, there are more than enough news events to remind us that the famous Mare nostrum is as much a space of birth of urban democracy than a space witnessing an explosion of inhumanity and the violence of people and the elements. These resurgences are accompanied by a universal feeling of helplessness from social sciences, geography first included, to give a full report of the difficulty to understand and take action in the contemporary city. The use of “the urban tale”, “genius loci”, “the founding myths” is becoming too common amongst specialists for us not to be tempted to go and see the literary authors. It would be a sort of rejuvenation.

2The result can be as enriching as comforting in its essential themes. It is, first of all, time, that is solicited by all, even more than space, whether marine or coastal, built-up or in its natural state. Cities are remembrance and oblivion, they are covered by the tide of a material story that fixes personal memories in place but at the same time troubles them with its immediate and continuous changes. In Mediterranean cities, often richer in toponymic continuity than in construction durability –Athens being the absolute caricature– each of us seeks to retrieve our own personal, familial and amicable marks, their geographical and emotional bearings, in city areas, atmospheres, buildings, that are not quite the same anymore, like loved ones that we meet again after a long absence, identical but aged at the same time. More so than others, Mediterranean cities make us reflect on the relativity of history, the duration of beings and things but also the resilience of individuals and territories to resist the wear and tear and the misfortune and rebuild an unplanned future in an uncertain present (cf. Vincent Lemire, Jérusalem, 1900, la ville sainte à l’âge des possibles, Armand Colin, 2013).

3In these blurred perceptions, the visitor, just like the reader, is torn between the permanency of confirmed citadinités (citizenships) and urbanités (urban life), often brutally shown, to get back to the two Latin terms of the Mediterranean city (the material urbs and the institutional civitas). Thessaloniki is probably the best example of these ambivalences. In turns Macedonian and Byzantine, Ottoman and Jewish, Balkan and Greek, open to the world and closed at its borders, the northern Greece metropolis has not stopped for more than two millennia to play on its continuity of situations and stories. Facing a city of Athens that came back too late (1834) within the circle of Mediterranean capital cities not to be “low class”, to reuse an expression from the Hellenic Francophonie (French speaking), Thessaloniki plays the part of the bourgeois, enlightened and commercial, industrious and refined one. And at the same time, like every urban settlement in the area, there is an unfinished side to it that the crisis made even more fragile with shops being shut down at the very heart of city centre, and it gives the constant impression of a lack of public services with roads that are, at times, uncertain, random pavements, piled-up rubbish, deficient public transport associated with traffic that is as noticeable as it is noisy. Never has the city shown its two-face sides of reality and appearances more.

4And yet, it’s the gentle lifestyle that seems to be mentioned the most. It is the warmth of the climate, but also the warmth of the people that enable to celebrate, from one side of the Mediterranean to the other, sea bathing in the cities, strolls in shady lanes, or al fresco evenings to savour the same mézés from an inn, basically, the warmth of the Greek summer once sung by Jacques Lacarrière (Plon, 1976). But everywhere, at the same time, the image of violence, uncertainty and death hovers about. From the dark basements of Exarchia in Athens where there is drug traffic, watched from time to time by the black uniforms of the intervention section of the Greek police, holding their helmet on the belt, greave on the calves, and shields on the feet, to the extreme violence, contained, but let loose at times, of the national, racial, religious extremists that threaten the pacific coexistence of the communities in Alger, Beirut, Nicosia, and obviously Jerusalem, and now to the blind and barbaric terrorism that strikes the most famous places of Mediterranean urban tourism (Nice, 2016; Barcelona, 2017), the city can oscillate between uneasiness and horror. The presence of refugees from the South (Africans) and the East (Syrians, Afghan Kurds) strengthens the feeling of uncertainty and that the world is changing, that the economic crisis, especially in Greece, gave rise to in all generations in the country. Follows a feeling of a Paradise not yet lost but irremediably threatened. The Mediterranean city lives ‘in the red’ and one day at a time.

5To express these uncertainties, the authors use different writing methods. They help to understand how diverse and varied the city tales that we get from expert knowledge are. Some limit themselves to the cultivated “itinerary” that drove the orientalists crazy in the nineteenth century and made the first guides for enlightened travellers happy (cf. the Baedeker guides). Others construct real novels, where, as in Balzac’s Human Comedy, the characters and the setting are more real than the daily banality that they illustrate with their invented fiction. The compositions themselves show different styles. Most of them proceed from impressionism, reconstructing by successive strokes of their palette, an urban atmosphere, a landscape or familiar places. But some prefer bits of reality, Short cuts, as in the Los Angeles of Robert Altman (1993), patiently gathered and stuck back together ingeniously.

6These authors’ original ways of proceeding are a lesson in urban pedagogy. They underline the essential distinction between the plurality of our understanding and the reproductions of cities and the necessity for clear choices discriminating between the strategies for the future of the city. In this beginning of millennium, more than ever, rich from their past, the Mediterranean cities are facing ecologic, economic and political challenges of their future. Let’s hope we have contributed to shedding some light on them.

From figurations to representations (Régis Darques)

7The fact that a geography journal gives writers a place of honour is not surprising in itself. The close links between geography and literature, in their complementary ways of apprehending lands, are clearly evident (Collot M., Pour une géographie littéraire, 2011; Mallory W. et Simpson‑Housley P., Geography and Literature, 1987). Numerous geographers have indeed focused their attention on written works, especially in the urban field, finding in novels, fictions and poetry a different source of information, likely to give a new eye to representations, to smash into pieces the far too narrow frameworks that the academic world can impose on itself.

8In reverse of the strictness that is proper to scientific journals, this volume presents itself like a breath of fresh air. Using standardised articles is in fact an exercise that quickly finds its limits. Communication limits, as the readership often comes down to only a circle of specialists; limits in scientific added value as the hyper‑segmented works can sometimes lead to fine findings; limits of durability due to how fast the world is changing, taken in a flow of constant revolutions.

9The different authors who have contributed to this publication adopted resolutely non‑compliant approaches. The informal setting of the exercise proved to be conducive, beyond any expectations. The gathering of experiences, impressions and memories leads us imperceptibly to shifting grounds. The most established certainties run up against the vagueness, the undefined, the incomplete, the feelings and their transience. All elements that match perfectly with the troubled times that we live in and to the indistinct places in the middle of which we evolve.

10Cities have become too complex. Rare are the people who are able to characterise the Mediterranean urban phenomenon nowadays. The diversity of cultures, the gigantism reached by some metropolises, the concentration of geopolitical and economic interests, the rhythm of (r)evolutions, the multitude of environmental debates are as many considerable challenges to take up. The difficulty is increased by an acceleration of territorial fragmentation which reveals itself as much between urban units (concurrence, conflicts) as within metropolitan regions. In response to this intense spatial partition is a fragmentation of thoughts clearly highlighted in Lindsay Waters’ pamphlet (Enemies of Promise, 2004). Our understanding of the world has become poor. We are helpless flabbergasted spectators of the sprawl of interconnected and fractal world cities that cartography cannot grasp anymore.

11Made of isolated groups scattered in worlds that ignore one another, the scientific community tries its best to shed some new light on the situation but the scale of the task is such that the chances of success are low. The number of monographic studies have collapsed in the course of the last years; the themes studied leave the most difficult questions out, those that require the production of new databases; the research conditions worsened in several regions with the extension of conflict zones; numerous information sources ran dry. The deficit we are facing is awkwardly hidden by the pointless information overload that the numeric society provides.

12Aiming to be comparative, the interdisciplinary works admittedly renewed urban studies but their increasing weight has pushed into oblivion entire sections of structural knowledge that are yet indispensable for the understanding of profound changes. In short, there is a lack of information and clear understanding on many subjects and many places. Faced with an unpromising and abstruse real world , do we need to advocate a return to literature with Emmanuel Ruben (Dans les ruines de la carte, 2015)? How can we participate in the reconstruction of the chaotic socio-political space left behind by decades of dehumanisation (Freyermuth S. et al., Ville infectée, ville déshumanisée, 2013 ; Paquot T., Désastres urbains, 2015) ?

13When landscape observation triggers more questions than it gives answers, it is necessary to widen the scope of analysis and let other readers of urban reality express themselves. In Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin’s footsteps, we will assume that the surface of things (the way they manifest) reveals the existence of diverse underlying forces that are in turn inventive and destructive. In this respect, urban landscapes only ever consist of series of spatial images waiting to be deciphered (Leach N., The Hieroglyphics of Space : Reading and Experiencing the Modern Metropolis, 2001). In order to understand these hidden forces, the analysis of the surface takes on a crucial importance, as the relevance of the interpretation depends on it.

14Exist through images or die. Such could be the adage of all audacious urban planners. In order to reinvent the city, the construction sites must reach exceptional dimensions. Such undertakings imply a combination of global and local ambitions. The last decades have thus seen major projects multiply, rather unscrupulous of the collateral damage to the urban landscape, sedimented in the course of centuries. If the future success of metropolises in the international competition is decided by way of emblematic initiatives, the silence of intermediate marginalised cities already betrays a failure. It is therefore not by chance that this issue of Méditerranée places emphasis on major urban groups. Metropolises convey an enormous symbolic power, they focus the concerns of this modernity whose ambitions the old Mediterranean cities are commited to carry. Any resistance will be considered as archaism. The old world can only exist under the protection of a glass case, captive of open-air museums, drowned under tourist flows. However, in the background of this media-friendly show, other discrete revolutions occur: those that change the world deeply, that go through details of insignificant political decisions, that are expressed in laborious spatial practices, that engage the crowd of anonymous people too used to live in places that others specially designed for them.

15As a geography journal, we could only attempt to respond to textual approaches with maps. How so? Would novelists and essayists deal with territories better than the best spatial analysts? Faced with this paradox, an atlas project quickly emerged. The general idea was to accompany the texts with suitable images, likely to show the pertinence of urban rambles while outlining the limits of personal experiences, inevitably incomplete. It is indeed striking to notice a strong convergence between texts and maps: in scientific literature as in the civil society in general, urban representations are fragmented. Bits of neighbourhoods, crumbs of maps, city blocks are frequently used scales. But there is no global vision of metropolises.

16Unthinkable cities escape any mapping application. Analysed by X-ray, transformed by invasive surgery, the city body is being torn apart. The gigantism of capital cities is such today that acquiring a paper map is practically impossible. For major urban regions, most publishers often prefer atlases to foldable maps. The users find themselves confronted to geographic objects scattered over pages, and this scattering makes any global representation impossible. The urban cartography produces closed spaces, unable to interact, mute. The city centre obviously keeps a strong symbolic significance –it concentrates space–, but the city teeming with demographic masses, ordinary buildings and constant traffic does not deserve too much attention. Disconnected suburbs are places to leave. They will take pride in invisibility.

17Of course, one might argue that IT gave a solution to this fragmentation. It is said that Google Earth has apparently made the scale barriers fall. Geolocalisation mobile devices would positively respond to this specific need for universal representation, unmet until then. There are multiple faults in these tools though: the segmentation of screens has replaced the one of paper sheets –automobile sat navs give us access to a window-city in tatters; the representations are highly standardised, may the images be raw (the natural colours of satellite imagery) or vectorially coded (the extremely impoverished cartography used for geolocalisation). In both cases, the switch to digital introduced biases.

18Text and map are often pitted one against the other in their way of dealing with geographic realities. Subjectivity versus objectivity, volatility of feelings versus realism of numerical data, sketches versus models. This opposition seems fake to us. Writings and (carto)graphy have in common their capacity to produce archetypal images. The city-map relationship is in this way similar to the dialectical city-text relationship. Cartography and literary essays participate in the same creative impetus, supplier of collective imaginary that one might characterise as space poetics or geopoetics. Faced with the infinity of possible figurations, the writers’ heteroglossia finds a precious ally in the most original cartographers’ heterography.

19Can we still imagine what a Mediterranean city is in any other way than through advertising artefacts and hackneyed clichés? Are we condemned to create new urban myths, to succumb to deformed media representations so prompt to fill in the gaps of our personal experiences? Should we consider that contemporary fractal cities have no spatial limits –interconnection, flow, atopy of urban territories– or are we still able to isolate them from their environment, natural environment in particular, and therefore to identify them? Failing that, vagueness will prevail. Geographers and writers meet through marks, fragments and atmospheres. A same heart unites them.

Invitations to travel (Catherine Bernié‑Boissard)

20This issue of Méditerranée could bring out the dialogue imagined by the Italian writer Italo Calvino (1923-1985) in his book Les villes invisibles (1972). The Chinese emperor Kubilaï Khan –here, he takes the place of the reader– asks the Venetian traveller Marco Polo –here, he takes the place of the authors– to describe him the cities that he conquered although he is unable to cross and know all of them. Since the reader is going to live a “small Odyssey”, using the term taken from the member of the French Academy André Chamson’s (1900-1983) travel writing.

21A small odyssey because we don’t go through all the countries or all the cities that border or surround the mare nostrum, that give it all its “salt” (Gabriel Audisio, Jeunesse de la Méditerranée, 2009), in other words its singular personality of mare urbanitas, sea of urbanities. But it is an odyssey after all, because it enables us to begin the adventure of travelling to Jerusalem (Israel) continuing through to Tunis (Tunisia) and passing through Beirut (Lebanon), Nicosia (Cyprus), Istanbul (Turkey), Athens (Greece), Barcelona and Valencia (Spain), Algiers (Algeria)…

22This listing is enough to sense that the Mediterranean –medio terra– is ultimately and before anything else, a true mater urbanitas, the mother of urbanities. It created the city; in return, the city characterises it. The civilisations of the Mediterranean space all relied on the cities. The city, throughout the Mediterranean, is truly this cultural collective and diverse creation that Hélène Ahrweiler talks about. The Greek and Latin languages remind us of it through their etymology (city/civilisation; polis/politismos). And language calls for literary writing, and therefore an original form of representation(s). Thus, travel narratives, romanesque fictions or geopolitical analysis essays pile up in front of us. So much so that the mere evocation of a Mediterranean city triggers in the somewhat cultured reader the reflex of mentioning a work that has a link to it, either in its title or in the main body of the text.

23Let’s take the example of the most spontaneous one: Jerusalem. And naturally comes to mind « L’Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem » by Chateaubriand (1811). But travel writing is so to speak the palimpsest of the Book, on the land of the three monotheisms: “Indeed, it is the Bible and the Gospels in hand that one should travel around the Holy Land”. The Turkish novelist Nedim Gürsel (Oublier Jérusalem) reminds that it “is a holy city, for which a lot of blood was shed in the disarray of our world in the process of globalisation”. Quoting “what Fatih Rıfkı Atay wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century (which) is still relevant now:

Jerusalem is an Occidental style theatre where religion is made a spectacle. Hotels are half churches, the servants half priests and the servers half nurses. Cassocks and white hats, suits, suspenders and aprons pile up in the same wardrobe. I did not think that Orthodox priests of the Holy Sepulchre wore fake beards: when they lean forward, the grip of their guns juts out.

24King David’s Zion, place of sacred inspiration that Lamartine celebrates with emotion, is however only a stone’s throw away from Beirut, in this Lebanon which is exuding the captivating aroma of rose water… Beirut, the colonial metropolis of the Levant that charms, captivates and seizes the infatuated hero of La Châtelaine du Liban (1924), a true mantis invented by Pierre Benoit, the successful novelist of the 1920s and 30s of the last century… But with Fadi Tofeili, we are far from clichés found in popular novels. Nassim Hourani, the hero of his short story (Les images sérielles de Nassim Hourani), a former blacksmith who has become a photographer, goes through a city with the “air filled with black smoke coming from the rubber of enflamed used tyres blocking the way between the regions of Beirut (…). The international airport being closed, the roads leading to it being closed off, armed men being deployed around the entrances of the port recalled the atmosphere of a besieged city, progressively plagued, left to be destroyed little by little”. We go from Saron’s rose to the period of civil war in Lebanon.

25Being close to Lebanon, does Cyprus belong to the Near East or is it European through the history of successive occupations that it lived through –the Lusignans French family, the Venetians and then the Ottomans? It is the latter that Shakespeare defended since “Othello’s tower” in Famagusta somewhat inspired the story of his Moor of Venice… Grégoire Polet (Nicosie mon amour) hesitates: “Nicosia is a gothic city, actually nearly like Jerusalem, I am not going to say that I felt as if I were in Paris near Saint‑Séverin but almost (…)”. Maybe it is in Nicosia that we become aware that the Mediterranean is a sea of urbanities overhung by a sea of conflicts. The wall that separates the Greek and Turkish communities is like a replica of the wall that divided Germany into two parts: “It is a landscape of desolation (…) to Occidental men, it’s prettily picturesque, it reminds them of Berlin, it gives them the impression that a war in Europe is still possible”.

26Going up North, our eyes now turn to Istanbul. Istanbul, “a city that is unique in the world” according to Pierre Loti (1850‑1923), that Orhan Pamuk the literature Nobel Prize mentions in his metamorphoses, themselves parallel to his life trajectory from his childhood to adulthood, influenced by the occidental vision of the city a lot more than by the perception that Istanbul inhabitants have of it, majorly incurable nostalgics of the splendour of the Ottoman empire… However, for Timour Muhidine (On the edge of the city : Suburbia and thugs’ novels in Turkish Literature (1990-2016), the real city is in the suburbs, the antithesis of Orhan Pamuk’s city, showing the mutations of sociology as well as urban landscapes and the integration of Turkish literature in the contemporary world literature with the “badboys”.

27Nostalgia could be a synonym for Athens since so many people make allegorical speeches at the mention of this name since “La Prière sur l’Acropole” by Ernest Renan (1899) up to the lyrical invocation of André Malraux (1959) inaugurating the Sound and Light show of the Parthenon, as well as with Ch. Maurras, reporter of the first Olympic Games in the modern era, in 1986. But as the essayist Sébastien Lapaque (Le goût d’Athènes, 2004) points out, the city of Athens cannot simply be summed up as nostalgia, legend and mythology. Athens, “it’s a people who lives, neighbourhoods that one needs to learn to like”. It was the process of the novelist Vassilis Alexakis (Paris en grec, Athènes en français) who, on his return to Greece, observes: “The Greek words made the Parisian landscape more familiar, brought Luxembourg closer to the National Garden of Athens. Translating myself, I was rubbing a border out (…), I was all in all in a quite paradoxical situation since I was alluding to Paris in Greek and Athens in French (…). Was I really in Athens? I was still haunting the Pierre‑Sémard street, Montholon Square…”. Carrying on his itinerary in the streets of a city where Parisian Didot street and the Athenian bourgeois neighbourhood of Colonaki are overlaid on each other, V. Alexakis finds bins surrounded “until late at night, by four or five people going through their content”. Soti Triantafyllou (Athènes, ville mal aimée) plays opposite him bringing up the neighbourhood of Exarchia, which became in the 1980s “a clear zone for sale and use of heroin, vandalism, squats, refusal of any form of power. The last image I have of Exarchia is old newspapers and burnt bins; greasy papers from “souvlaki”, take-away food wrapping; homeless people and junkies asleep on benches”.

28In contrast, in Thessaloniki, “something good comes from the sea” Soti Triantafyllou decides. To get away from Athens while celebrating its Greek summer seems to have become the ambivalent sign of tourism in the beginning of the twenty-first century. It’s Nikos Belavilas’s point of view (The Myth of Greek Summer): “The myth of the ‘Greek summer’, in spite of the tectonic changes in the conditions, the quality, and the nature of tourism, compared with its early period, has survived –in a social and economic framework totally different from that which gave it birth”. As Hellenist Jacques Lacarrière writes: “The Greek summer –much more than the tourist and beach season– was for me synonym of fruit collecting and memory seasons”. There is a big difference indeed between the Caramanlis era (1980-1985) that followed “the dictatorship of Colonels”, and the present Tsipras government, especially after the economic crisis.

  • 1 Montalban M.V., (2002), Barcelones, Le Seuil, Paris, p 284.

29It is another crisis, a political one this time, that Javier Callizo-Soneiro tackles (La ville espagnole à l’âge post-industriel. De la crise du « fordisme » à l’éclatement de la bulle immobilière) analysing urban metamorphoses from post-Franco Spain (1975) to the edge of the property market crisis of the 2000s. “With the scenery of devastation left by the Fordism crisis in the 70s, Spanish cities had to reinvent themselves in view of surviving the globalisation era.”. Taking the example of Barcelona, we can say with Manuel Vasquez Montalbàn (1939-2003), that the urban reconstruction in the 1900s buried urban imagination. “Barcelona destroys the archaeological traces of class conflicts, scatters its residential areas (…), cuts in its marginal flesh and relegates it to the outskirts, disinfects its paupers to the point of making risible ghosts haunting the labyrinths created by the bulldozers out of them…The packaging and sham culture dominates the reinauguration of a city that opens up to the sea and to the exterminators of all its bacteria1”. The anticipating power of literature…

30We now go back to Ulysses, Ulysses of the Homeric “Odyssey”, which created the map of his itinerary in front of Hercules’ Columns, according to Hellenist Victor Bérard (1864-1931). In other words, in the Strait of Gibraltar. This gate to the world, a world unknown to the Greeks, and which Dante will call the gate of Hell, now opens up to what was the French Maghreb: the two old protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia and the Algeria colony settlement.

31Slimane Aït Sidoum (Alger, ville de fortune) confirms the magic “in the relationship to the white city that tumbles down to the Mediterranean sea”. In his opinion, it is founded on memory interlaced with history, under this “bright and brutal (light) on the reliefs that showcase all the beauty of the mountainous landscape overlooking the sea” the historian Emile Témime writes (Un rêve méditerranéen, 2002). To such an extent that the author, a humble “provincial in prestigious travellers’ footsteps”, who was born by the Saharan desert, dreams of retracing great writers’ steps -Fromentin, Gautier, Maupassant- who “saved (him) from boredom and heatwave” in the shade of some municipal library… Slimane Aït Sidoum, Algerian, has the same shared enthusiasm than the Frenchman from Algeria, Camus, all different generations put aside. He talks about “renewed awe”, whereas the writer of L’été à Alger exalts the bay, the sunshine, the red and white games on terraces… Stroll or idleness, this is the memory of the colonial era associated with the study of life today… Here the cultural consequences of the “black years” of Islamic terrorism are mentioned, sign of a sort of rebirth, and still in the shadow of the founding fathers of Algerian literature, from Mouloud Mammeri to Assia Djebar, passing through Kateb Yacine and Mohamed Dib, a constant feeling of astonishment like a sea that continuously ebbs and flows.

32Did Ulysses know Tunisia? According to Victor Bérard, the pearl island of Djerba would be the land of lotus-eaters, this people who, eating lotus, sank into oblivion… Oblivion, remembrance, memories, returns are themes that are present in Janine Gaida’s contribution. Back in Tunis after the “Arab spring” and the downfall of Ben Ali, the author rediscovers the Tunisia of her childhood, “its culture, its history, its tolerance, its landscapes that lulled us with their colours and the emanation of jasmine or orange trees scent”. She brings women’s freedom up with the friend who hosts her. As, more than a pilgrimage, it is about diving in a both traditional and shaken urban society. The itinerary ends on the Kasbah, the government square which, with “Bourguiba avenue (was) a key landmark of the revolution”. It may be what expresses the best the fraternity feeling that unites all inhabitants of this earth that the writer Jean Amrouche (1906-1962) said to be “an earth of light and humans in their day, open to all winds like a rose like a house without a master”.

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1 Montalban M.V., (2002), Barcelones, Le Seuil, Paris, p 284.

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List of illustrations

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Bibliographical reference

Catherine Bernié-Boissard, Guy Burgel and Régis Darques, Portraying Mediterranean CitiesMéditerranée, 129 | 2017, 17-23.

Electronic reference

Catherine Bernié-Boissard, Guy Burgel and Régis Darques, Portraying Mediterranean CitiesMéditerranée [Online], 129 | 2017, Online since 06 July 2018, connection on 01 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Catherine Bernié-Boissard

Université de Nîmes, UMR 5281 ART-Dev, Montpellier

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Guy Burgel

Université Paris Nanterre

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Régis Darques

CNRS, UMR 5281 ART-Dev, Montpellier

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