Palembang and Malacca
The Strait of Malacca played a crucial role in trade from the 7th to early 14th centuries. The strait provided a means for transportation among world traders, and allowed Asia to play a vital role in the world commerce and production of the time. In these early years, Malacca, Palembang, and Jambi – major Asian ports cities– were thriving “world cities” who dominated the world system thanks to their active and successful harbors. Years later, however, it is impossible to picture what these thriving cities once were by looking at the dead emporium that remains. At one time, ships from four regions of the world system could be found docked and trading at the channel of the Malacca River, but today this channel is merely a swamp of green-gray sludge and silt with rickety wooden piers and fragile sailing boats. The graphical demise and present state of these former “world cities” illustrates the instability of those who dominated the world system prior to Europe.
The dramatic decline of Malacca and Palembang highlight an unusual characteristic of the regions and their urbanization. Great cities tend to persist through the ages, with archaeological excavations finding layer upon layer of successive settlements. Neither Malacca nor Palembang, however, possessed this characteristic. Rather, the entrepots of the Strait had port after port, with traders moving from one to the other. The regions had no great ecological features to encourage settlement, which is why the famous port cities eventually fell to their demise. There ecological features did, however, encourage trade. There was an unruffled surface of water, which produced a yearly cycle of sailing seasons interrupted by long windless periods; two shores with low-lying coasts; and a series of rivers flowing down the strait. Behind the coasts lied highlands, where tin, wood, and other forest products could be found, and from the inlands, minerals, camphor, resins, and tress could be found. It was the abundance of these resources, along with easy access via waterways, that made Malacca and Palembang so famous.
In the ecological setting that Malacca and Palembang are in, a stable urban hierarchy is very unlikely because there is neither an agrarian region nor a differentiated terrain. As a result of these ecological faults, the entrepots of the Strait failed to provide an adequate stopping point or settlement area for the traders that frequented them, hurting their reputation as great port cities, and leading to their geographical demise.
Are there any examples of world cities/nations that fell from power after Europe became hegemonic and are in geographically despair now?