their structures and characters


Merida's street names

Venice as maze

Antananarivo's thousand villages

Istanbul and the City of the blind

Seven-Gated Thebes

Four-Gated Thebes

Hundred-Gated Thebes

Aswan at cusps of earth and sky

Bivalve Dubrovnik

Atrani between headlands

Three-bayed Watamu

Deep-Moroccan Marrakesh

There will be more.


Guy Ottewell

Antananarivo's thousand villages

Madagascar's capital has a long name, like many other places and people there, but it is often shortened to Tana. Tanána means “village,” and An-tanána-arivo is “the thousand villages.”
        The island is two and a half times the size of Great Britain, the city is in the middle, and the chain of mountains runs close to the nearly straight eastern coast. So most of the river valleys slope westward, and Tana covers an area where several tributaries meet to form the plain of the Digue.
        Imagine a lot of little cups placed upside down on a sheet of glass. The mountains ramble down into hills and these become separated by winding lanes of flatland covered with rice paddies (or, increasingly, with brick-making fields). The cups are the little hills, some touching each other, some separated by the rice flats. Each round hill is covered by a village, with its own name. Each in the past had its feudal clan lord; their descendants are now the rich class. Each village has its jumble of roofs pierced by the small spires of two churches, Protestant and Catholic, because the British and French took turns turning the Malagasy into Christians. On Sunday even the poorest walk to church in good clothes, washed on Saturday in Lake Anosy. There are no direct highways through this wide-scattered tangle, across which our journeys kept taking us by one long traverse or another.
        The road crosses a flat rice-paddy corridor on a straight causeway; hits a village, twists around the base of its hill and curves up and twists through the center. Here the village is densest; people and chickens swarm beside and vaguely across the road, stepping perhaps a little faster toward the sides as the driver mildly toots his horn. Traffic isn't ferocious; it might not be particularly dense if there weren't the chickens and lorries to hold it up. Stalls encrust the street, selling tomatoes, roasts, radios. Where do the people get money to buy them? They buy cooking oil, fetched up from the vat with a long dipper in the small quantity that a family can afford per day. The road twists down again, off the hill onto another causeway that lances it at its next entanglement with a village.
        The lanes of rice-paddies that were once swamps gradually merge into the plain of the Digue, which joins many other rivers to come out on the west coast at Majunga, where at the end of the rainy season the sea for hundreds of miles around is red with topsoil washed off Madagascar.
         The “thousand villages” are the embryo of Antananarivo, but so much of the population of Madagascar has been drawn into the city that it now spreads over the hills far around.