The Logistics of Minas Tirith

I wrote this text about 20 years ago for the now-defunct Tolkien gaming journal Other Hands. It deals with issue of city planning in a fantasy context.

Minas Tirith is a city planner’s nightmare—a big city on a hill with seven concentric walls and a very small number of gates (The outer wall has only one gate through which all traffic in and out of the city must pass.), which creates a serious logistical problem. Due to the lack of primary source references, my reasoning in the following paragraphs is speculative, though it is based on sound historical and military facts.

If we assume that the city has approximately 50,000 inhabitants—a realistic figure, given the size of Gondor—and that each of these consume 2.5 kg (6 lbs) of food per day (excluding wa­ter, which is supplied by internal wells and rain cisterns), the city must daily receive about 150 tonnes of food supplies. There would obviously need to be a steady stream of wagons coming into the city from the Harlond docks and the Anórien and Lebennin roads.

Assuming that one wagon can load 450-500 kg (about 1,000 lbs) of supplies, 300 wagons a day must reach the city, which makes approximately one every five minutes if the wagon traffic runs 24 hours a day. However, it seems unlikely that wagons would be working during night due to the ab­sence of proper artificial lighting. Instead, it is more realistic to assume that the tempo is one wagon every two minutes. The roads running to Minas Tirith would clearly need at least two (and preferably three or four) lanes in order to be able to deal with this amount of traffic. Four lanes would certainly be necessary for the Harlond road.

The layout of Minas Tirith prevents the use of large wagons in the city. Instead, the city porters must use smaller and more agile carts, perhaps something similar to a hand-drawn rickshaw, in order to navigate the numerous tunnels and tight street curves. In ancient Rome, transportation of goods was only allowed during the dark hours to prevent conges­tion of the streets during the day-time. Most likely there were similar regulations in Minas Tirith. Outside the Great Gate there would have to be a reloading and storage depot area where goods could be transferred from wag­ons to carts. The wagons would arrive by day to deposit goods there and, after sunset, the city porters would come with their carts to take the goods inside the walls. One consequence of this arrangement is that the city’s bakeries and butcher shops should be located on the lowest level, preferably as close to the Great Gate as possible.

Another consequence is that the people running teamster and carting businesses should be influential in city politics; after all, their hard work ensure that the city stays well-fed. Most likely, the official overseeing the depot area is a senior “civil servant” who is appointed by the Steward and who reports directly to him.

It might be possible to have hoists on top of the walls to alleviate the congestion, but this would only be practical at the outermost city level, where flour sacks could be lifted straight from a wagon over the city wall to the backyard of a bakery. Such devices are not mentioned in The Return of the King, but it is likely that the Steward would have ordered their removal when the war approached in any case.

Every morning, a swarm of servants would have to descend from the upper city levels to buy fresh food. If there were a day-time city food market (very likely), it would probably be located in an open field just outside the Great Gate so that the peasants would not have to enter the city to sell their wares. There should also be a similar fish market right next to Harlond. In addition to foodstuffs, there would also be deliveries of raw materials to city arti­sans and the problem of transporting their products to other parts of Gondor, creating additional traffic through the Great Gate.

A big fortified city of medieval Europe had numerous gates in its outermost wall just to be able to deal with the transportation of goods. Medieval Visby in Sweden (a town much smaller than Minas Tirith) had three gates that opened onto the adjacent farmlands and a big port. Minas Tirith’s layout is clearly that of a fantasy world, making her an imposing beauty, though quite improbable.

12 thoughts on “The Logistics of Minas Tirith

  1. Well I might not be an expert but it is said clearly that ,,townlands were rich” and there were many granaries and oasts (so apparently they have fields of hops and can brew beer, especially ale, and Pippin probably tasted just that local product in his ,,picnic” with Beregond) there are also orchards and other crops in Pelennor, and pastures for cattle, and for the most part they are stored there and transported to the city when needed, port and docks of Harlond possibly had some warehouses for cargoes brought by ships. There is certainly a market place in the city as Ioreth claims it telling us that due to war, blocked roads (which are well build and maintained, whole kingdoms seems to have net of good roads and there are roads cutting Pelennor fields) no carrier came to market from Lossarnach (it’s another inmportant source of food, fertile farming region, and the lower vallyes of Lossarnach have orchards that give supply of fresh fruits for the city, Pippin also had apples ,,last of winter store”, ,,wrinkled but sound and sweet” hmm now that’s interesting they had technique of preserving food??! And it was beginning of spring, month of march when they ate it I believe).

    Both Lossarnach and Harlond and river traffic and Pelennor are immediate source of supplies for the city, most foodstuffs of other regions of Gondor would come either by river or roads. The Great Gate was quite huge ,,wrought of steel and iron, and guarded with towers and bastions of indomitable stone”, being the only entrance would be problematic but not so much as it seems (though there is possibility there are some secret routes of escape as Beregond mentions something like that) first factor is that the city is rather well lit by lamps (it’s mentioned many times, so possibly the nights in Minas Tirith would be rather bright, the stone walls possibly by some numenorean art could reflect light of moon and stars, something like walls of Minas Ithil that long ago held imprisoned light of moon, hell they have Rath Celerdain, the Lampwright’s Street so this lamp production and maintaining is a big deal, Denethor also requests oil to be brought and judging by the fact that in Ithilien, and presumably in whole Gondor we have mediterranean climate and olives grow there, Gondor can produce olive oil and to fuel lamps with it 🙂 who knows maybe there is a headquarter of special guild of craftsmen, we know that in the city there were many workers and craftsmen who aided armies) so night activities might, with enough light, allow for redistribution of goods, we see Minas Tirith in state of war so supplies are already stored, civilians are evacuated and only those aiding war effort remain workers and craftsmen, errand boys, women of the Houses of Healing, soldiers of regular army and of course garrisons of Tower Guard of at least three companies maybe more, martial law appears to be instated, the Seven Gates in the city require passwords to come through to each level, meaning freedom of movement at war is limited and Great Gate heavily guarded as it’s the weakest point, food is rationed as meals are rather modest (,,food is now doled up by order” and Theoden asked gondorian messangers if they had store of food but army of Rohan brought also besides 6 thousand fighting men also hundreds of other men ,,with spare horses and lightly burdened” so possibly non combatants with food :), but again this is all war state order. This city in the beginning was mainly a fortress and summer home of kings, only later in it’s history it became a capital. The animals in the city are few and traffic of horses is sparse but not non existant (there appears that in the city some hens and roosters 🙂 and we have another even more important factor the efficiency in transport:

    ,,Many roads and tracks crossed the green fields, and there was much coming and going: wains moving in lines towards the Great Gate, and others passing out. Now and again a horseman would ride up, and leap from the saddle and hasten into the City. But most of the traffic went out along the chief highway, and that turned south, and then bending swifter than the River skirted the hills and passed soon from sight. It was wide and well-paved, and along its eastern edge ran a broad green riding-track, and beyond that a wall. On the ride horsemen galloped to and fro, but all the street seemed to be choked with great covered wains going south. But soon Pippin saw that all was in fact well-ordered: the wains were moving in three lines, one swifter drawn by horses; another slower, great waggons with fair housings of many colours, drawn by oxen; and along the west rim of the road many smaller carts hauled by trudging men.

    ‘That is the road to the vales of Tumladen and Lossarnach, and the mountain-villages, and then on to Lebennin,’ said Beregond. ‘There go the last of the wains that bear away to refuge the aged the children, and the women that must go with them. They must all be gone from the Gate and the road clear for a league before noon: that was the order. It is a sad necessity.’ He sighed. ‘Few, maybe, of those now sundered will meet again. And there were always too few children in this city; but now there are none-save some young lads that will not depart, and may find some task to do: my own son is one of them.’”

    That sounds like it is very highly organized though it’s a special transport (and the last one) so I’m thinking that normal traffic is also ordered enough :).

    As for water supply well if they have fountain that shoots into the air (on the highest level to that) they must know how to use water pressure, possibly with their engineering knowledge the numenorean civilization is a bit like ancient Rome or similar (if not even more advanced).

    • Thanks a lot for this lengthy comment. It certainly adds a different perspective to the problems I have outlined.

      We must commend the administration of Minas Tirith for its well-executed evacuation of civilians. Most likely there were plans prepared in well in advance, because the city had been in a danger zone since Sauron reclaimed the throne of Mordor in the 30th century of the Third Age.

      • I think that Tolkien must have considered logistics to some small extent (he served in army after all and Middle Earth despite mythical layer is very realistic world and it’s interesting that logistics and economic activities always shine through the exciting adventure stories heh there is even one sentence amng works of Tolkien said by an elf of all people that regards…logistics 🙂 ,,The lord of a great host has many needs. He must have a secure refuge and he must have wealth, and many whose work is not in war. With numbers come the need of food, more than the wild will furnish to hunters. And there comes the passing of secrecy…” quite practical approach for a ,,magical, mystical elf” hahahha 🙂 ).

        I also found a curious detail while re-reading the chapter Minas Tirith that seems to support my notion that in natural state, nights in the city would be quite bright 🙂 it is told that the night Pippin returns to his quarters it is unnaturaly dark due to clouds sent by Sauron AND because by order of Denethor all lights in the city were supposed to be dimmed and none should have been lit on the battlements, but still lights from houses windows was enough to give some illumination :), blackout is a typical wartime activity for XX century, fascinating it’s used here.

        Also we are told that first circle has rather wide streets and outside before the Great Gate there is very wide paved space (,,great stone-paved space”) where roads leading to city run together this is quite useful to allow for better organization of traffic and indeed quite a crowd can gather there and still allow for unperturbed incoming transports.

        Well Gondor definitely has a thing for effective, organized administration :). I always wondered whether the role of lord Hurin the Tall who helds title Warden of the Keys some sort of high ranking official of the city was involved with day to day administration maybe besides military duties he also has to contend with civilian affairs (either some sort of Middle Earth version of castellan running the domestic staff or even fulfilling the role of local authority in the city like a mayor of sort 🙂 ), this is really fascinating topic.

        Also the Citadel and it’s Tower Guard (as mentioned at least three companies exist, likely more than that, and each has it’s own buttery and storage), Targon is one minor character who runs the buttery of Third Company in which Beregond, basically a commoner, is simple man-at-arms, which is still considered a great honor, so Tower Guard must be elite forces of regular full time professional soldiers (as both in Gondor and Rohan armies appear to be mostly professional with levies being called in need).

        Gondor definitely would be operating very much unlike any mediaval state, the soldiers speak the words of an oath to ,,lord and realm” not to specific ruler which implies there is NO FEUDALISM as many believe it is the case (and is used in most of other generic mediaval fantasy) in Gondor even lords and knights are something different than me stereothypically imagine (knights are not feudal lords but rather special rank of elite warriors termed in numenorean word roquen, and lords or Captains of the Outlands specific regions of Gondor are more like officials or governors of each province than what we typically associate with feudal masters and ,,fiefs” also have different meaning).

        We know that there are secret strongholds and refuges in mountains, when palantiti were in use there were ,,appointed wardens” of the stones and other people too had authority to survey them including ,,ministers of the crown concerned with ‘intelligence'” (now that is telling, hehe spy agency or secret service 😉 who knows kingdom of Gondor might have great use of spies, besides the seeing stones, especially in times of their imperial glory and possibly even more later on when the stones fell out of use, maybe Gondor was sending spies among realms of men from East or South, Beregond had some news of great movements of enemy beyond INLAND SEA, they must have some sparse news of the enemy movements beyond Sea of Rhun, Denethor of course used palantir so he had deeper knowledge, well even Elvenking Thranduil had his own spies operating outside Woodland Realm, well but it’s not surprising Gondor even had special forces in military: Rangers of Ithilien, acting like a commando unit hahahaha, but seriously they had really superb stealth skills ,,vanishing almost in twinkle of an eye” moving with marvellous speed, the skillful use of navy even long after Gondor ceased to be major sea power and forces of cavalry and of course perhaps one of the best infantry tells us how diverse and well organized is the whole gondorian military) even in the Hobbit we glimpse the efficient logistics showing us than Wood Elves are not as primitive as many would think (they are skilled craftsmen and workers, they cooperate with highest efficiency, with methodical divions of labour), the whole effort for helping Lakemen refugees and all required some serious organizing skills on the part of Thranduil showing he is a good ruler and administrator, similarly Denethor.

        • Oh and it should be noted that the Beacon-hills system is also a sign of logistics (there are at least two one to sent out messages to Rohan and the other to the southern provinces, at the cape of Andrast they even maintained ,,a Coast-guard force and beacons”) some outposts of the beacons had their garrisons and maintenance service for roads and errand riders stables with spare horses and so on.

        • I covered the matter of Gondorean intelligence extensively in the MERP module “The Kin-strife”, where I used the Renaissance Habsburg realms as templates. It is obvious that the ruler in Gondor has a good input from abroad about politics and events.

          As for the general organization of Gondor, that matter is discussed in the two late MERP modules on Gondor (those edited by Chris Seeman). It is a decidedly non-feudal empire, in which Belfalas has a status of its own. Perhaps the centralized Byzantine empire would provide some inspiration (disregarding the far too frequent palace coups)..

          • Really fascinating! 🙂 Renaissance Habsburg realms, nice comparison (overall there seems to be many details that appear to be anachronisms, waistcoats with brass buttons, handkerchiefs, apparently folding umbrellas, game of golf 🙂 and football as mentioned in The Hobbit, several musical instruments like clarinets, clock on mantlepiece in Bag End, some sort of primitive mechanical wind up clock, if try to explain it in-universe? Maybe dwarven handiwork hahah ;), coffee drinking in The Hobbit, apparently common glass window panes at least in some places, and things like potatoes, pipe weed though that one is actually explained in story 🙂 ).

            Hmm I always thought that Princes of Dol Amroth who had their own sort of principality (though still subject to the kings and Ruling Stewards) was specifically region called Dor-en-Ernil (Land of the Prince in translation) containing northern part of the Belfalas, and not whole of it, hmm maybe I just imagine things, Ethir Anduin on the other hand ,,the mighty delta” of Great River, appears to be separate region in administrative and geographical division of Gondor (as it was specifically mentioned as providing some hundred men spared from the ships). Ringlo Vale too appears to be separate region with it’s own lord whose son Dervorin came to Minas Tirith with reinforces (hm I wonder whether Ethring is a sort of capital city, on map we have only marked crossing point, bridge but settlement surely should have been there). I also thought what social and economic model would be in place in Gondor, there definitely seems to be operating on free market, commoners are freemen (Beregond who had ,,neither rank nor lordship” and yet was respected by the very position he had as Guard of the Citadel, the people also definitely had freedom of movements in peace time when no martial law was instated, in Rohan Eomer called all people, herdsfolk of northern parts of East Emnet to evacuate but nothing indicates they are serfs binded by some restrictions, especially when in the open plains herdsfolk often camped in tents), the matter of gender appears too to be of little difference in rights (though women as a rule don’t serve in army or inherit kingship in Gondor or Rohan, though some queens apparently won great renown in-story as Aragorn claims Eowyn won hers) maybe Gondor as the Dunedain draw strongly from elven culture followed the elven customs where women and men having not only roles dictated by custom but also by personal preference and are in all matters equal. What do you think?

          • A long comment and I am too pressed for time to write an equally long response. There will only be three paragraphs this time.

            When I mentioned Belfalas above, I meant Dor-en-Ernil (mea culpa). Chris Seeman wrote a lengthy discourse on its particular status in the MERP Gondor books.

            Serfdom or slavery did not exist among the Free Peoples in NW Middle-earth. It is obvious that such arrangements are deviations from the natural law set down by the Valar. Thay only appear in polities that are in opposition to the West.

            When it comes to the positions and privileges of men and women among the Free Peoples: Eowyn speaks clearly of the constraints forced upon her by Rohirrim’s customs: to stay at home while men go abroad.

  2. Pingback: The Modified Old World: Some Notes on Middenheim’s Geography and Logistics – The Enemy Within: Remixed

  3. Thank you for writing this.
    long time Tolkien fan, and game DM
    I am running a campaign of AiME right now
    and appreciate all your work on MERP
    as it lends great depth to my games.

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