The (once) most beautiful city in the world


Before talking of my sojourn in Nara, I want to describe why it's so interesting to me.

When it was founded, Nara was probably the most beautiful city of the time in the whole world.

The first city in Japan, and one of the first in the world, to be planned in every detail, it's building would span for about 16 years, to be completed in 710 C.E (in the meanwhile the Capital was temporarily set in the home town of the Fujiwara clan).

A square of roughly four kilometers per side with its north side gently lying against a hill ridge, its east side protruding in another sub-city one kilometer and a half comprising the temples of all the faiths active in Japan at the time, lying its eastern border on the slope of the Wakakusa mount, with many gardens, small hills, natural and artificially reshaped streams running through its border, Nara would have looked an image of a celestial town to any visitor.

Internally, it would be organized as a set of square quarters, each delimited by white walls, with streets paved with small white pebbles, with private gardens and houses sized accordingly with the position of each citizen -- most of them known in advance because of their noble ranking, their standing as artisans, or with a system of reservations similar to those adopted in modern building blocks.

The governamental block was in the center of the north side, about one kilometer deep and two wide, with the Imperial palace at its center. A boulevard large about 50 meters, starting from the southern gate and stretching three kilometers to the north, would be the main street around which everything else would be organized.

Walking through the south gate and in this majestic boulevard, stretching beyond the horizon, surrounded by trees and then shining white walls in on every side till the eye can see, except for the hills, the hill-sized emperor's tombs, and 50 to 100 meters tall pagodas stretching up in various places of the city, would be an awesome and humbling view even for a modern city dweller.

Pitifully, almost nothing of the ancient city remains today. The gardens in the east and most of the temple town are practically all that remains, but the cause for this wasn't a violent one, as usually happens when a city is destroyed. Indeed, the city didn't have any serious defensive capability, not even a real castle, and its outer walls, probably somewhere two and three meters hight and less than one meter wide, had just decorative purposes. At the time, there was no enemy. The perspective of an army attacking Nara then would have been seen like attacking Washington, London or Tokyo today: no one would simply even think of that. And it wasn't even a natural catastrophe, or a fire, as often happened in ancient times. In fact, when the city was named capital, the place was renamed Hei'an-jou, the "Castle of Peace".

In the year 784 C.E., the contrast between the secular government and the Buddhist temples had become so harash that the former decided to move the capital elsewhere, abandoning Nara. After just 74 years of service, the most important part of the city were literally dismantled and used as materials to minimize the cost of construction of Kyoto, that would then become the capital for the next thousand years.

Too much relevance was given to the religious practices in controlling the state affairs, and too many resources were spent in the building of the city and then the enrichment of the temple area. The little empire of the Yamato, at the time barely covering half of the main island of modern Japan, was practically bankrupt in the effort of building the city, and covering the temples with gold and precious woods. The Temple Toudai had the largest wooden structure in the world, hosting the biggest statue of the Buddha, which was fully plated with gold: that effort alone would have been too much for the Yamato of the time.

The governamental palaces and the most important family houses of the court nobles were transferred wholesale. The need of getting far from the religious egemony was so urgent that, in the wait, the capital was temporarily moved to Nagaoka, in the ten years needed to build the new Capital from the ground up.

With its raison d'etre gone, and no real government entity controlling the city, the population would have gravitated around the temples and the areas providing services for the agricultural population of the rest of the plain, abandoning the original city and moving around the only blocks "still alive".

The ancient world would have never seen another city of that size and magnificence built from scratch with a careful planning just to be a place of peace and harmony. I want to go there and see if some of this ancient magnificence can still be found.