War and the City within a Historical Perspective

According to oxford dictionary, the definition of war is;

“A state of armed conflict between different countries or different groups within a country.” (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/war)

With respect to this definition and the historical examples, war and the city have a strong relationship. Cities always took an essential role in the warfare; sometimes as a battlefield sometimes as a target and sometimes even as a place of strategic wars so that warfare shaped the cities most of the time. For instance, if we consider the target period of cities, the needs of defense are operated by physical components of cities such as geography, morphology and architecture. Therefore, cities are used as a strategic tool in the military science.

Peltier and Pearcy justify the neglect of the city by military science with an historical argument:

“As long as urban areas were small, or could be easily bypassed, there was little reason to consider an urban kind of military theater. Under the changing importance of urban areas and the growing extent of cities and suburbs, however, it does seem useful not only to distinguish this type of environment but to characterize its specific effect on military strategy.” (Peltier and Pearcy 1966:119)

Throughout the history, different kind of war concepts such as cold war, cyber wars occurred and urbanism has been shaped according to it.

City as a Battle Terrain

Ancient cities

Cities of ancient lands like in Egypt example, are surrounded by walls mostly. Later than Egypt there were temple cities. Mesopotamia empires became monumental cities. Cities were the battle terrains of wars. Each town was heavily fortified in order to resist the enemies.

Battle of Opis: the battle was fought near the strategic riverside city of Opis, north of the capital

Classical period

Hellenistic cities, humbleness disappeared. Genuine character of Hellenistic city was degenerating into a hallow form of a decaying social structure. New city plans to serve all people. Functions of buildings and public spaces were recognized in the arrangement of streets. A merchant middle class emerged. Decline of cities at 4th century, a widening gap among the classes.

Peloponnesian War: Greek city states failed to unite.

Medieval Period

Western civilization declined, trade disintegrated. Urban population returned rural life. Cities started to shrank. Barbaric rulers for military support for the kingdom. Feudal system was the new order. Wars among the feudal lords were frequent. Strategic sites were sought for their castles and within these fortified strongholds the serfs of the surrounding countryside found the protection. Then the people returned to urban life since countryside is not safe. Fortification walls were extended. Trade in 11th century was advantageous for feudal lords. A wealthy mercantile class began to rise. Early medieval time was dominated by church and lords castle. Castle was surrounded by its own walls for protection.

The irregular street pattern was devised as means to confuse an enemy in the event he gained entrance to the town. Hand to hand combat was the principal form of military action.

Norman Conquest: one of the biggest battles of medieval times. City still as a battle terrain.

City as Target

Renaissance Period

Vienna Conflict: The fortifications were continually being strength and modernized. Renewed city with big gardens after siege was lifted. Both rural and urban suffered from the negativeness of war.

Baroque Period

Physical size of the cities were limited by the fortifications. But cities were getting bigger with rapidly increasing population. Danger of military aggression gradually diminished, and safety for travel increased. Feudal lords lost power. Diseases, plagues and congestion emerged in slums. Problems about sanitary conditions.

30 Year Wars: Cities were affected by the long lasting wars. Villages’ destructions were more than towns. Both rural and urban life was affected

Neoclassic Period

Using gunpowder. New techniques of warfare were introduced. Citizen soldiers were relied upon but new techniques required Professional soldiers. Fortifications were extended and heavy bastions, moots and outposts were built. Extension of the area occupied by the fortifications created a no man’s land. And separation between town and country became more distinct.

7 Years War: National territorial changes occurred. The war brought the end of the alliance system in Europe. Not only one city was either target or battlefield. Lots of cities even from different lands affected. So many targets and battlefields.

City as Place of Strategic Wars

Modern Period

Modern war term emerged. Shaping of this term was by revolutions. Advancement in technology called as military revolution.  New methods to European acquisition of overseas. Invention of hydrogen bombs. Understanding of war as fought to seize or defend land, protecting vulnerable areas were shifting. Dynastic and territorial ambitions of rulers were existing. New approaches like nationalism gained importance.

American War of Independence: Second military revolution. National territorial changes occurred. Domination of Europeans in overseas lands.

WW1: development in air force techniques. Marine Powers were almost replaced with air forces. National borders were redrawn; Nations gained regained or lost territory. Several independent nations restored or created. Strategy of uniting against the less powerful one.

Russian Revolution: In late 1917, thousands and thousands of urban residents, workers and non workers, were abandoning the cities for the relative security of provincial towns and rural hamlets. Population loss was a common problem in major cities.

WW2: the countries that fought with Hitler lost territory and had to pay reparations to the Allies. In April 1945 fifty countries signed a charter and gave birth to the United Nations. Armed forces were well used by Germans.

Post Modern Period

Strategies and global geography gained importance. New strategies; more effective but smaller armies. Dominant but physically less existing on battlefield. Fighting with powerful ones was no longer impossible. Example of Ukraine- Russia. Strategic war of USA and China is another example. China used the decisive model and multiple strategies for success.


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  • Yarwood, J. R. (2010). Urban planning after war, disaster and disintegration: Case studies. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing


Authors: Mert Akay, Nacize Gözel, Selen Karadoğan