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I'm currently rereading "The City and The City", by China Mieville. This is a New Weird crime fiction novel set in two cities/city-states (Beszel and Ul Qoma) in SE Europe which occupy the same location - 'grosstopically', in the terminology of the book - and whose inhabitants are culturally conditioned to ignore everything that is not in their own city for fear of invoking a possibly supernatural force called Breach (about which we learn a little more later in the book).

My question is whether we can work out from the book where these cities are. On first reading I think I assumed that the location was deliberately inconsistent or ambiguous, but I'm noticing a number of potentially informative details. For example:

  1. In chapter 1 it is mentioned that Beszel is either on the coast or very close.
  2. At the start of Chapter 7 it is mentioned that you can fly direct to Beszel airport from Skopje, Budapest and Athens
  3. at the end of Chapter 3 it is mentioned that Mikyael Khurusch occasionally drives his van to Varna (Bulgaria), Bucharest (Romania) and Turkey.
  4. At one point I think they mention that a railway goes out of the north of the cities and through a mountain pass, but I can't find the reference.

There are a number of linguistic and cultural details that probably count as clues to someone more familiar with the region than me.

Using this and any other details (I will edit more in if I spot any), can we work out where the Cities are? The closest I can get is either between Bulgaria and Romania on the Black Sea coast, or between Bulgaria and Turkey on the Black Sea coast.

@Daniel-Roseman's comment reminded me there are other hints that Ul Qoma is formerly part of the Ottoman Empire and has parallels to Turkey, such as:

  1. the alphabet; Besz is written left-right using 34 characters, Illitan (the language of Ul Qoma) is written in Latin but was written in something inbetween Arabic and Sanskrit until reforms in the early C20th (and the book explicitly mentions that this was in 1923, shortly before Ataturk's similar reforms in 1928).
  2. the dress; formal Ul Qoman dress for men includes collarless shorts and dark lapel-less jackets, although for women it is a 'spiral semi-wrap' which I don't remember coming across in Turkey.

I believe the Besz protagonist also mentions something about the architecture which struck me as vaguely Ottoman, but I can't find the quote. It's clearly supposed to give the impression of inheriting substantial cultural aspects from the Ottoman Empire but that could still place it almost anywhere in SE Europe.

I also know almost nothing about present-day Ottoman influences on Bulgaria, Romania, etc, so although these would all be consistent with a location on the Turkish-Bulgarian border I don't know to what extent they make other locations less likely. Also, the fact that Beszel does not display these influences could suggest a location closer to the fringes of the former Ottoman Empire.

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    Given the fact that Ul Qoma seems "Islamic" whereas Beszel is Slavic, the second of those sounds more likely. – Daniel Roseman Mar 20 '17 at 18:38
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    It feels like its intentionally vaguely some where in between Turkey and eastern Europe. – Mark Rogers Apr 9 '18 at 22:37
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The Evidence

I tried to mark all references to real-world or large-scale geography when reading the book (except some redundant ones later), so the following should at least be close to exhaustive:

  1. [Besźel’s district] Lestov [… was] on a bit of land between Bulkya Sound and, nearly, the mouth where the river joined the sea.

  2. […] Besźel’s fatuous recent self-description as ‘Silicon Estuary.’

  3. […] for at least two hundred years, since refugees from the Balkans had come hunting sanctuary, quickly expanding the city’s [Besźel’s] Muslim population, […]

    Note how the Balkans are referred to as something considered elsewhere, but close.

  4. ‘Kitsov says [Khurusch] just piddles stuff up and and down across the river. The occasional import, on a very small scale. Pops abroad and pick up stuff to resell: cheap clothes, dodgy CDs.’

    ‘Abroad where?’

    ‘Varna. Bucharest. Turkey sometimes. Ul Qoma, of course.’

    You already mention this, but it is important to note that Khurusch’s nature of business and logistic resources mean that he operates on low profit margins. This in turn makes only geographically close locations economically viable targets. Therefore Varna and Bucharest must be very close (though not too close to be as obvious trade targets as Ul Qoma), Turkey a bit further. In particular, all other big cities politically accessible states must be further away. For example, geographical distance is probably the reason why Khurusch deals with Varna, but not with Sofia.

  5. Sometime between two thousand and seventeen hundred years ago [Besźel] was founded, here in this curl of coastline. There are still remains from those times in the heart of the town, when it was a port hiding a few kilometres up the river to shelter from the pirates of the shore.

  6. There are direct flights to Besźel from Budapest, Skopje, and […] Athens.

    From this, we can conclude that Budapest, Skopje, and Athens are close, but not in the direct vicinity – such as Bucharest, which has to be so close that operating flights to Besźel is not economically viable.

  7. I asked her if she had ever left Besźel.

    ‘Sure,’ she said. ‘I’ve been to Romania. I’ve been to Bulgaria.’

    ‘Turkey?’

    ‘No. You?’

    ‘There. And London. Moscow. Paris, […]

    This again indicates that Romania, Bulgaria, and – to a lesser extent – Turkey are easily reachable, with the first two likely directly bordering Besźel and Ul Qoma.

  8. [Mrs. Geary:] ‘We’ll come [to Besźel] through Hungary and, or, we’ll come up via Turkey or Armenia – there are ways we can get in, you know …’

    This is contrary to all other evidence, but then Mrs. Geary may just be geographically confused. (She is an American who just lost her daughter and is visiting this region for the first time.)

  9. ‘[…] But [Jaris] only called me because he was en route, to tell me what he thinks happened. His phone’s probably smashed up by the tracks in the middle of Cucinis Pass, halfway to the Balkans by now.’

    Again, the Balkans are referred to as somewhere else, but close by.

  10. Moldova and the Ukraine are never mentioned; neither are Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Italy, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Russia.

Summary

Besźel and Ul Qoma are:

  • at the estuary of a river to a ragged coast featuring sounds;

  • not on the Balkan, but close – by whatever Besźs consider the Balkan;

  • close to Bulgaria and Romania (specifically Varna and Bucharest); almost certainly bordering at least one of them;

  • a bit further off from Turkey;

  • not in the direct vicinity of Budapest, Skopje, and Athens;

  • at most bordering the Ukraine.

Conclusion

All of these points are fulfilled only by a location near the Black Sea somewhere between Varna and the Ukraine:

Potential location of Besźel and Ul Qoma

Map based on Wiki Commons: Ausschliessliche Wirtschaftszonen Schwarzes Meer.

The most fitting locations within this are:

  • Between Romania and Bulgaria. This would explain these countries being prominently mentioned, while the Ukraine isn’t.

  • In the Danube delta, which is the most prominent river mouth of the region and features a ragged coast.

… and what about culture?

Either way, this location also is in line with most of the cultural and linguistic hints we are given about Besźel and Ul Qoma:

  • It’s at the outskirts of the former Ottoman Empire at most of its time, explaining or suggesting its architectural, typographic, and linguistic influence.
  • It’s at the border between Latin and Cyrillic scripts and not close to the furthest past reaches of Arabic script.
  • Languages families spoken in the vicinity (currently and historically) include Romance (Romanian), Slavic (Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, Ukrainian, Russian), Uralic (Hungarian), and Turkic (Turkish, Gagauz), which allows for a lot of leeway as to what is linguistically plausible.

More precision

I don’t think it’s feasible to use culture or geography to further narrow down the location. Somewhere you have to leave reality and enter fiction. Moreover, this region is full of language and cultural islands, historic borders, and so on, which makes about every location within the region depicted above equally plausible in this respect.

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I've tried to pinpoint on the map, but at best I can say that is somewhere in SE Europe, between Adriatic and Black Sea, probably north from Aegean Sea and south from Hungary/Romania.

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The provided information is (intentionally) not really sufficient:

The Ottoman Empire was big - really big, and its border were changing a LOT over the years: At 1882 it was covering most of the region:

enter image description here

Then lost Bulgaria in 1912 and most of the Balkans by 1913. You can expect, that those territories will still have culture heavily influenced by the Ottoman period.

Language helps a little bit: Bosnia, Serbia and Moldova use both Latin and Cyrillic alphabet, Bulgaria and Ukraine use Cyrylic, Greek has its own alphabet, the rest uses Latin one.

Flying and travelling distance won't say much, since the distance between the corners of the triangle that I've made on the map are barely 1000 km long - close enough for any plane or car trip.

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My presumption has been that the "cities" might be based upon Sarajevo, given the cultural history between east/west, Christian/Muslim, Cyrillic/Latin alphabets, Ottoman/Austrian imperial history, etc....

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    There are many cities in Europe with mixed heritages. What makes you pick Sarajevo? – Blackwood Oct 26 '17 at 3:27
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Drawing parallels between the fictional cities and the real world 1.Language of ul qoma - Hebrew looking 2.The ancient archaeological site well guarded - Solomon 's temple 3.The organized soldiers of Ul-qoma- Israeli defense Force 4.The high tech scientists working confidentially - Israeli especially their accents. 5.The highly well organized security at borders - Israeli like which is only seen in Israel today 6.American students in Ul-Qoma- wouldn't see in Palestine

They tried to throw off this obvious resemblance by European style buildings - really crafty in my opinion

The name Ul-qoma was an irony at most telling you that it's actually Palestine - metaphorical irony meaning Arabic name but occupied by an alien people

Beszel Now this showed an English speaking shanty town looked like Palestine territory . (English language being used was a to throw you off but English resembled Arabic style writing)

the far right nationalists asking for a separate state but tried to show the irony that they are skinheads. Meaning skinheads and Palestinians asking for freedom are one and the same thing.

Then , people who believe in unification of the two cities not exactly Palestinians by showing a bit of Berlin there.

The ill developed city shows the same image as an occupied land People from Beszel working for better opportunities in Ul-qoma-- shows you something about areas where Israelis and Palestinians co exist.its not all war as media paints.

The day to day Protests and unrest echoes gaza and West Bank conflicts

The see and the unsee shows how both citizens are trained to ignore what atrocities are carried out; what social inequality exists and what barriers exist between both cities.it mostly exists in conflicted areas again like Palestinian and Israelis.

peace will never come to both cities as Ul-qoma has chose to accept the problems and ignore them completely. While Beszel has chosen to dwell in their hate and continue to be exploited by people SEAR AND CORE ( who don't want peace in any shape and form between two cities ) who they think will bring peace to them ( they talk to Americans for peace treaties at Camp David)

Orciny is the metaphor in this black comedy/ peace will only come when we die where all people are equal. No time and space laws hold. You are only invited by death

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    Is there any proof in canon for this interpretation? – Obsidia Apr 9 '18 at 22:29
  • What do you mean? In canon? – Futuresoul Apr 10 '18 at 9:58
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It seems to me that the cities best represent the idea of Israeli/Plaestinian divided territories, so that is where I tend to mentally place them.

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    Can you provide any reasoning as to why they represent the idea, whether this is something the author would've entertained or whether there's official sources discussing the matter? – Edlothiad Jan 14 '18 at 22:29
  • In interviews Miéville has said that the cities don't represent any one situation, he describes it as "metaphorical" vs "allegorical," and says he's interested in it having many interpretations instead of any single "correct" one. That being said, you can get something interesting out of examining Israel / Palestine in its context, regardless of how perfectly it maps, so I suspect he'd approve of that reading. – porglezomp Apr 21 '18 at 5:36
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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgia_(country) its the country where some of the scenes were shot :) even many signs are on Georgian :)

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    and there are lots of stories about Georgia you can find, not only russia is interested in georgia and has already occupied 20% of our country, but ottomans have also had lots of impact on our country. :) see our history :) – Salome Gabunia Dec 1 '18 at 16:27

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