Mapping The City & The City on “real” Maps

To aid the thought process, I have created a very basic map in Google Map Engines. Overlaid on the map of Sofia, Bulgaria, (a city that could, geographically, represent Besźel and Ul Qoma), the map contains three main types of sections – red for Besźel, blue for Ul Qoma, yellow for crosshatch. A more accurate layout would perhaps be red for Besźel, blue for Ul Qoma, and purple where they overlap. But yellow is for simplicity and visibility.

Creating a map, not like Moretti does, of concepts, or of movement, but an actual map, highlights some important issues.

When creating the crosshatched sections, it struck me that if this was actually what the map looked like, that would immediately imply an actual cross hatch in the most traditional fantasy/science fiction sense, as defined by John Clute in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy:  a space where “two or more worlds may simultaneously inhabit the same territory”.

If every inch of every yellow area is completely crosshatched, that means that every building exists as one version in Ul Qoma, and one version in Besźel, or that each Ul Qoman building exists in the same space as each Besźel building – and given the suggestion by Miévilles distinct descriptions of the varying architectures of the two cities, such as this section: “Swaying under the cared and clockwork figures of Besź burghers on the town facades, ignoring, unseeing, the shinier fronts of the elsewhere, the alter parts”, this seems unlikely to apply to the cities.

A more likely scenario seems that a “cross hatched area” means a mixture of Ul Qoman and Besźel buildings, whether it be all divided on either side of a street used by both cities, like this:

Or, a block interspersed with Ul Qoma and Besźel buildings, like this:

What we want to find/create/visualise with these maps is “layered representations of the relations of culture to a physical place”(Jones, 113) – “a map of ideology emerging from a map of mentalité, emerging from the material substratum of the physical territory”(Moretti, 42) – which can in turn help us understand the physicalities of the place, and explore theories in a visual manner. Because, as Jones makes clear, “every model of the world, including those that model it’s materialities, is constructed, a representation, open to interpretation, rather than the given “substratum to the data”” (Jones, 113).

Miéville stresses, repeatedly, that Ul Qoma and Besźel are physically, visually, distinct. The citizens use pointers in architecture, streets, dress, movement, cars and technology to aid their seeing and unseeing: “I did the tests, pointing with a cursor at an Ul Qoman temple, and Ul Qoman citizen, an Ul Qoman lorry” (Miéville, 134). These are all visual and physical indicators of two distinct cultures – yet often not two distinct physical locations. When trying to understand whether or not this is a fantastical description, or merely a utopian/dystopian/futuristic reality, the maps I have created is one approach only.

However, to supplement and make meaning of these maps, we need close reading and attention to what the text is saying. As such, we can approach the idea of mapping, not (as Moretti suggests) as abstractions, but rather as de-abstractions.

“Maps are analytical tools in the sense that they shed light on patterns in data that might otherwise stay hidden. ” (Jones, 119)

Incidentally, others have imagined Besźel and Ul Qoma as layered onto real maps. Here, “Copula Hall” as a roundabout in Budapest, Hungary:

Similarly, the students at Georgia Tech divided their own campus into “Ul Qoma” and “Besźel” – again suggesting a physical split reading, rather than a more magical or science fiction palimpsest.

Pink: “Ul Qoma”

Green: “Besźel”

Yellow: “Crosshatch”

Furthermore, it is clear that the idea of split cities and border towns are of general fascination – especially those that exist in the real world. Here, an article from The Atlantic, on life in 7 border towns around the world.

The imagery in the article is taken from the Border Town project, appropriately located at

An art project exploring all manner of split and divided cities and places, and the functions of borders,  the abstract for the project effectively highlights this unease, fascination, and almost disbelief that this can be real:


Your farm is completely surrounded by a foreign country because the king lost it in a game of cards. You live in Cooch Behar.

You are eating at a cafe when you are informed that it must close. If you’ll just shift to a table in the other country, service is still available. This café is in Baarle/Hertog.

You work in the mayor’s office. Down the hall is a parallel mayor’s office with a whole mirror set of city officials to govern the other half of your city. You work in Texarkana.

* * * * *

We believe that a great deal can be learned by investigating the strange edge cases of the world. Border towns are the extreme edge of where geography and politics collide. They throw the abstractions of governance into sharp physical relief. They are a fertile site for investigation into questions of security, freedom, architecture, immigration, trade, smuggling, sovereignty, and identity.

Reading this, the Ul Qoma/Besźel situation Miéville conjures seems less unlikely than ever.


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