Géopolitique, Réseau, Énergie, Environnement, Nature
Recreation – Metaphorical territories
Issue #4


Issue #4


Georgios Maillis

Published by the Groupe d'études géopolitiques, with the support of the Fondation de l'École normale supérieure

The Fossil Crescent! It is a striking image and mirrors its ancient twin, the Fertile Crescent. If the one refers to a fertile region where the agricultural revolution was born, allowing for the development and manipulation of “living things” to increase our population, the other takes us into the depths of the Earth’s geological stratum where ancient living material has slowly transformed into fossil material. In the 19th century, we began to extract this material from below ground and convert it into energy, the driving force of our Industrial Revolution. 

When it comes to the fossil crescent, we are not far off from the stories of writer H.P. Lovecraft. A number of his literary works explore the underground terrors of ancient worlds that are hidden beneath vast swaths of Earth’s surface that humans unknowingly walk upon. Something will happen that unleashes something that had been confined to the depths since time immemorial. 

Two thoughts come to my mind when considering the fossil crescent. One concerns the reading I have done on the Fertile Crescent and Mesopotamian creation myths. Another concerns Le Corbusier’s astonishment at the sight of the black mountains dotting our Belgian landscape — new forms that emerged from our Industrial period.

In the book The Oldest Cuisine in the World, historian Jean Bottero explains how the massive melting of snows is the origin of an immense river winding between the Caucasus Mountains and the Syrian Desert. The widespread drying-out caused by the last Ice Age transformed this single riverbed into a region drained by two waterways: the Tigris, to the east, and the Euphrates, to the west. It was on these alluvial soils deposited over thousands of years that a landscape shaped by man-made canals would develop. The planning, creation, and control of irrigation would allow two new human activities to emerge: agriculture and animal husbandry. This new environment would be the birthplace of the first cities. 

Historians are still unable to explain the origins of this ingenious idea, which enabled man to control his environment and make it more fertile by using connecting canals. Ancient Mesopotamian myths attributed this seminal idea to the gods.

For 2,500 years, the minor gods worked to carve out waterways, build mountains and organize the great swamp. “Great was their task, burdensome their drudgery, unending their toil. It was a time when there were not yet human beings. It was a time when the minor gods made man, when they behaved like men, when they were entrusted by the supreme gods with the labors that would later become the lot of humans”.

These minor gods began to complain and so the Mother Goddess, Belet, created man to take on the gods’ toil. “Among the tasks and labor assigned to men to appease the gods, there are two radically new activities that the minor gods did not perform until then: agriculture and animal husbandry.”

This agricultural transition — beginning with the foraging of wild plants and ending with the order of wheat fields — took place about 10,000 years ago. The domestication of living things led man to devote all his energies to organizing and investing in his lands in order to produce good harvests of wheat and look after his herds.

It is on these foundations that the first cities were built and new ways of living and thinking came to be. The first cities were located close to rivers on fertile land ideal for agriculture. These urban centers, no matter their size, were always closely linked to the surrounding cultivated areas: the countryside. This creation of a new landscape is first and foremost the result of a natural process spanning thousands of years, culminating in man’s intervention in the management and optimization of irrigating vast tracts of land as a means of settlement and development. Even the materials used to construct buildings were local: either mud or baked bricks depending on the size of the architectural structure. These landscapes, which shaped both cities and countryside, would remain the norm for thousands of years, with the city at the center of vast, flourishing farmlands. This was a case of the Earth’s superficial strata being organized and managed by a new civilization of sedentary men.

During his youthful travels to the Far East in the early 20th century, Le Corbusier sketched landscapes in which the architecture was influenced by historical and archaeological strata. This was a pivotal moment for the young architect which allowed him to develop and sharpen his eye thanks to his daily practice of drawing. For him, in addition to being a tool of presentation and representation, drawing was a tool for understanding the world. Some time later, when he traveled to Belgium with his experienced eye, he was surprised by the black mountains dotting the landscape. Our country, known for being flat, presented the architect with nearly perfect black cones which rivaled the massive dimensions of the pyramids. A new typology of landscape was appearing before him. Despite the century-old presence of these striking new forms, they were still largely undiscovered and confined to these regions that would go on to fundamentally change our societies. 

We can easily understand the questions an outside visitor may have as they cross these territories marked by our industrial activity. These are landscapes that represent the exploitation of our subsoils in order to extract this dead fossil material in order to feed the machines of our civilization. 

Coal extraction, which supplied the energy needed to power our industries, transportation and homes, significantly altered the topography and nature of our territory. Made up of mining waste, these artificial mountains were composed of shale and waste rock, creating a new distinctive feature characteristic of the transition from an agricultural to an industrial civilization. 

Charleroi, also called the Pays Noir (The Black Country) is one of the centers of Europe’s Industrial Revolution. Built on one of the coal seams that would be industrially mined, the city, besides its fortress, saw its territory shaped in accordance with the rights granted to mining companies. It was these fossilized, subterranean deposits that would become the vectors of the region’s development as mining sites required the construction of heavy infrastructure as well as roads and railways to connect industrial areas. Residential zones were then created to house workers and their families near their place of work. 

Neighborhoods sprang up along and around the industries that would contribute to the region’s and the country’s economic development. Even though the fortress was built in 1666, Charleroi only became a “city” in the early 18th century.

The industrial exploitation of these sites had significant environmental impacts, from deforestation to the filling in of waterways. Like the agricultural activities of the Mesopotamian era, these mining sites created significant wealth. The fertilizing of soil 10,000 years ago led to establishing the Fertile Crescent’s territories and first great cities. After the industrial revolution, it was through intensive exploitation of subsoils that caused the depletion and disappearance of living surface layers (also known as the organic horizon) that new human activities emerged. These activities produced enormous wealth and profits that both disregarded and disrupted the natural environment in the concerned areas.

The first Mesopotamian cities were built on and thanks to the living geological surface strata that make up arable land.

Industrial cities — such as Charleroi, the land of 60 mountains — were built through the extraction of deep, fossilized strata and the use of dead materials for their urban development. A true inversion of landscape design can be seen here. Charleroi is a young city compared to most medium-size European cities and is purely a product of the Industrial Revolution. Its spatial structure consists of scattered urban centers, heavy infrastructure linking these centers, slag heaps, as well as working and derelict industrial zones. All these structuring elements are intrinsically linked to human activity in the 19th and 20th centuries and understanding this is vital if we are to best position ourselves for the city’s future development. 

Today, the large industrial zones and slag heaps that used to punctuate Charleroi’s landscape have undergone a transformation, accompanied by urban projects that have been implemented since the last political legislature. This area, which is typical given its industrial history, is being developed and shaped according to an urban and rural intensification plan. 

The industrial approach, based on pragmatic engineering and economically efficient methods, has destroyed large areas of arable land. This intensification plan does not seek to once again upend this heritage. On the contrary, this plan seeks to give meaning to this devastating industrial layer, transforming it into a stratum over which nature will regain its rights in order to best accommodate one of its smallest components, the human being.

The links between the Fertile Crescent and the Fossil Crescent raise questions about our relationship with the land. The Mesopotamians explained the creation of this landscape through the intervention of the gods. This was their way of explaining the laborious and extremely long creation of fertile land linked to water. 

This region of the world would see a civilization develop that would form the basis of our culture, however, since the Industrial Revolution, we no longer need gods to perform these impossible tasks on time scales beyond human comprehension. Our industrial civilization — like Lovecraft’s ancient creatures who built gigantic cities and structures far beyond our comprehension — has succeeded in deliberately modifying and disrupting its environment on a planetary scale.

Thousands of years separate these two major revolutions. This time period, which is barely perceptible at the human level, is nothing compared to the geological timescale of our planet’s formation.

And yet, this is our time. It is the time when human beings began to modify and organize these natural landscapes to create productive ones. These landscapes have a singular purpose: the development of our civilizations. Whereas the agricultural revolution was able to build on the long natural evolution of geological strata, the industrial revolution is a period of great acceleration in human activity and the planetary changes we are witnessing today.

Man’s back-breaking work in the Fossil Crescent must be put into perspective with the myths that describe the labor of the minor gods who shaped the region of the Fertile Crescent. A new mythology has emerged from the Industrial Revolution that no longer focuses on the creation of man and the world, but on new narratives linked to the ideas of progress and innovation, as well as the emergence of new social classes and their struggles. Recently, a new narrative is being written for this new period, known as the Anthropocene. It is a new narrative focused on the state we have put our environment into in such a short space of time, compared with the infinite age of our planet. 

This is why we believe that, at the political level, Charleroi, like all cities born in this industrial period, can only be shaped by proposals as strong as the forces that created it. These must be proposals that are the polar opposite of the destructive forces that were put in place in the past centuries. Proposals that include the notion of humility. Humility that is proportional to our fleeting presence on Earth. The word ‘humility’ has the same root as the words ‘human’ and ‘humus’. It is this layer that we destroyed during the Industrial Revolution, whereas it had been nurtured during the agricultural revolution.

It is this same lack of humility that drove Dr. Victor Frankenstein to surpass the natural limits of science and life to create, as a god would, a living being from pieces of corpses. The creature, in contrast with the hubris of his creator, Victor, suggests that humility is essential to live. The Fossil Crescent would appear to be the land where we have awakened these buried and forgotten monsters, reminding us of our humanity’s fragility.

Bibliography : Bottéro, Jean. La plus vieille cuisine du monde. Seuil, 2006. Bottéro, Jean. Kramer, Samuel Noah. Lorsque les deux faisaient l’homme. Mythologie mésopotamienne. Gallimard, Bibliothèque des Histoires, 1993. Charleroi, Le projet métropolitain. Publication de Charleroi Bouwmeester, 2022. H. P. Lovecraft, Dans l’abîme du temps : Les montagnes hallucinées. Folio Science-fiction, 2012. H. P. Lovecraft, Dans l’abîme du temps : Dans l’abîme du temps. Folio Science-fiction, 2001. H. P. Lovecraft, Je suis d’ailleurs : La cité sans nom. Folio Science-fiction, 2012. Radio Program Ameisen, Jean Claude. Sur les épaules de Darwin Eclats de passé : Le croissant fertile. Radio France, France Inter. 13 janvier 2018.

voir le planfermer
citer l'article +--

citer l'article


Georgios Maillis, Recreation – Metaphorical territories, Jan 2024,

notes et sources +