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In my fantasy series, there’s this city called Pharcos situated on top of nearly vertical 3,500ish foot high sandstone cliffs above the river it uses for water.

This river, called the Clazelis, along with the Thuridos that flows into it just south of the city, forms a sort of Mesopotamia-esque floodplain that makes agriculture possible in this otherwise desert landscape, and is deep enough to be navigable from Kerkapeze (a city even further upstream) all the way down to the coast.

However, the city of Pharcos was built on top of these riverside cliffs instead of below them directly along the river because the location on top of the cliffs gives Pharcos some access to the trade routes that go through the passes of the Monsaltu Mountains to the north, and the city was meant to be a sort of port where the goods carried overland on these trade routes could be put on ships and sent to buyers downstream, and because of this there are docks below the city along the river where this is supposed to happen.

My question is essentially how could a pre-industrial city in such a hard-to-reach location keep itself supplied with food and water and connect the docks along the river with the high-up city proper?

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    $\begingroup$ No, sorry, nobody builds a port at 1000 meters above the level of the water. Not in Middle Ages, not even now. There is a city a thousand meters above the level of the water, fine; there is a port at the level of the water, obviously; and there is a road between them. There are quite a few old-world very old cities at 1000 meters elevation ASL, such as Yerevan, or Amman, or Ankara; but they are not ports. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 10 at 22:15
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    $\begingroup$ Angel Falls (tallest waterfall in the world) is about 980 meters above the rivers it feeds. The environment on the tapui, the large mesa that collects the rainfall that feed the waterfall, is very very different than the rivers and jungles below. So that might be a consideration. Masada in Israel is about 400 m on one side and 90 meters on the other, might be a different city to look at. $\endgroup$
    – UVphoton
    Apr 10 at 23:21
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    $\begingroup$ Just put the city below the cliff and have the caravans walk pass it to get to the city. Even if the floodplains below are unpredictable and dangerous, it would be more realistic to cave a city on the cliff side than to but it on the cliff. This way they would not have to carry all their food and water over 1km vertically (it would already be quite a long way if it were on horizontal), which would be simply insane unless magic $\endgroup$
    – LuizPSR
    Apr 11 at 2:36
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    $\begingroup$ "you could lower a rope or a tree branch" -- The Princess Bride (re: Cliffs of Insanity) $\endgroup$
    – Wyck
    Apr 11 at 13:55
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    $\begingroup$ I have concerns about the cliffs being sandstone with a river at the bottom. Sandstone is very easily eroded. I doubt a city built at the top of such a cliff would last long. $\endgroup$ Apr 12 at 2:58

14 Answers 14

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  • Windmills and archimedian screws. The winds rush frequently past the cliffs, turning the archimedian screws that bring crescents of water ever upward. Each screw goes for only fifty feet or so, but the water pours out into a solid stone reservoir with a spectacular overlook of the cliff, from which the next screw takes up passengers.* The water flow brings along unmanned cargo pods as well, without the need for human intervention. After many such trips, the cargo eventually rides a river into the city. (*Passengers are rather discouraged, as the water quality can be rendered dubious if vessels remain trapped in the screws for days of calm weather, and captive riders may not practice good toilet etiquette)

  • Stairs. Come on, people climb Everest with packs on their backs. That's what exploited lower classes were made for. (No, not slaves. You need people who will line up in the morning for turnips - and you only take as many as you need that day. When their knees give out, you send them away to blame the gods for their misfortune, not their city's illustrious merchants. Besides, flogged backs would stain the fancy bolts of cloth)

  • Lifts. Like stairs, but you pull on ropes and pay careful attention to balancing your counterweights. The trip should probably be broken into several segments as with the screws. This can easily be done pre-industrially but there is more potential for entertaining mishaps. (These are manual, not water powered. The capital cost of another sequence of archimedian screws to bring up that water is a lot more than the capital cost of carving another shaftway or staircase and planting another acre of turnips)

  • Pneumatic tube. After the bronze smiths broke the Bellows Union, the city snapped up the unemployed bellows operators. A steady stream of packages ride up the carefully-greased tube all the way to the city. Occasionally someone sends up a kid that way, though the tyke had better hope the package ahead of him doesn't get stuck because the guys downstairs aren't going to stop pumping!

  • Hamster wheel. An entrepreneur noticed the daily crush on the stairs had reached homicidal extremes, with frequent casualties landing on the docks and damaging ships. With some investors in the Merchant's Guild, he had bold acrobatic workers carve a series of regular niches into the stone all the way up the side of the cliff, bridged by bamboo in places, in a perfectly straight line. A wheel of bamboo was then constructed, with bronze legs that lock into the niches. All the traveller has to do is keep climbing the wheel so that it moves ever upward by rotating into the niches. There is a special mechanism at the top to catch it and bring it in safely, and most of the time that works.

The remainder of the cliff is a rather chaotic mess of "runner-up" solutions: trampolines, hanging Tarzan vines, Rube Goldberg trebuchet arrays ... people have made it up that way, on occasion.

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    $\begingroup$ Very good ideas. I think this takes a more steampunk (using the term very loosely) approach and results in a very busy architecture. The Archimedian screw solution for water is clever, but I seriously doubt it would be efficient in such a big scale. Lifts are a nice idea, but wear-and-tear would make maintenance a pain. Oh, and the hamster wheel is pretty fun haha. $\endgroup$
    – Lae
    Apr 10 at 22:32
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    $\begingroup$ I'd suggest combining the archimedies screw solution and the lifts - the screws pump water up, and the water is then used as a lift counterweight, which drains out at the bottom - the nice thing then is you can automate balancing - when the counterweight starts to move down, the water can shut off. $\endgroup$
    – lupe
    Apr 12 at 22:33
  • $\begingroup$ Using water as a counterweight creates more engineering problems than it's worth, even if you don't need a separate system for delivering the water to the top; you need a watertight vessel to hold large masses of water, which is not easy, and creates more points of failure. Much simpler and more reliable to use big rocks that are already present in the environment; they don't need to be delivered or returned because there is no shortage of them on either end. $\endgroup$
    – kaya3
    Apr 13 at 1:42
  • $\begingroup$ @kaya3 - actually, there's a very good example of the water-as-counterweight in the real world: the Falkirk Wheel. Since anything floating, like a supply boat, displaces its own weight in water, the system is always in almost perfect equilibrium and works wonderfully. Scaling it up is one hell of an engineering challenge, but the principle's sound and using a chainfall or belt arrangement rather than a wheel would make a grand-scale version easier to build. I like the sound of it, and what's a fantasy book (cont)... $\endgroup$
    – Spratty
    Apr 13 at 10:22
  • $\begingroup$ ...(cont) without the odd "wow" factor set-piece? The more I think about it, the more I love it. $\endgroup$
    – Spratty
    Apr 13 at 10:23
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Actual port is 2 miles upstream

savannah

Behold the port of Savannah GA. It is the 4th busiest port in the US. The actual port facility is nearly 3 miles up the river. The city of Savannah is itself set back from the coast a little bit which is eminently practical in this part of the country. It is protected from storms and the coastal land is not good for building. The port is set back even further. Porto in Portugal is up on a cliff like your city and so also has its working port at a different site, but I like the Savannah method better if you can do it.

So too with your people. Boats coming to the port come upriver more than a mile before reaching the harbor. This harbor is buffered from ocean storms by the intervening mile. It is even better protected from attackers who would need to come upriver beneath the cliff which they do not like to do.

The land is at the level of the harbor up where it is. The city is then supplied via roads.

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    $\begingroup$ A river that drops 1000 m over 3200 m is not navigable. $\endgroup$ Apr 10 at 23:23
  • $\begingroup$ @KerrAvon2055 - you are right. I presume therefore the land rises to the cliffs at the coast. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Apr 11 at 1:36
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    $\begingroup$ @KerrAvon2055 - if your port is set back on the river it would make sense to have defensive works on the cliff, and the city would grow up between the port and the defensive works. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Apr 11 at 2:31
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, having the port set back on the river for defensive purposes is fine, it just doesn't resolve the issue of how to traverse the cliff. I don't believe that it's feasible with pre-industrial material tech to move significant quantities vertically 1000 m, it will need a (still steep) sloped pathway 15-20 km long (may be switchbacks, spiral tunnel inside cliff, whatever) which is a day of travel each way. It makes sense to have a strongpoint at the top to control the area, but not to have the city there. No pre-industrial city anywhere a day's travel from the nearest water. $\endgroup$ Apr 11 at 2:47
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    $\begingroup$ @KerrAvon2055 The river does not go up with the land, instead it sort of moves past the cliffs. Think of the setup kind of like the Grand Canyon but with only one wall. $\endgroup$ Apr 11 at 4:09
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Realistically very difficult

Without an easy and cheap way to connect the sea-level and farm areas to the high up areas of the city, it is bound to fail. I do not have an accurate scale of what you are describing but I can not imagine many ways how people would solve this problem.
I think it is good to imagine how people would chose to start living in the area you are describing.


Smaller villages are built next to the docks and farms.

This is done by the workers at those places and by businesses for logistical reasons. As these villages are concerned with resource production or supply, some of the people turn to marketing and caravans to sell the goods. The local market is small, just to satisfy the needs of the village but most devote a good part of their week transporting goods to the city where they cooperate with larger shopkeepers or operate stands at a big open market.

Caravans and transport services are expensive.

This is not an actual business for those who handle animals capable of dragging carts and caravans and offer to transport goods from the docks and farms to the city. Strong animals are valued for this. But, due to the high transport cost, the cost of the food/goods increases to make up for loses.
Does it make sense to live in the city and pay so much for the food?

How does the city solve the water problem?

This is something to consider for a city that is so high up and away from water. I imagine there must be some infrastructure or a number of individuals willing to make it to-and-from the river daily. I think this compliments the transport-heavy scenario. Keep in mind that water is consumed a lot faster that any food, especially in very hot areas.

Final thoughts

Location is very important when it comes to solving this problem. It is a lot more likely that the docks and farms would prosper and grow first, and as the city extends into the land, the high altitude of the cliffs could be used for scouting, lookouts or landmarks. Imagine something like Athens and the Acropolis.
I can also picture a select few that can afford the cost, to chose to have residents or important buildings away from the noise of the working or residential parts of the growing town.

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    $\begingroup$ If you want an idea of scale, have a look at Hobart, Tasmania and Mt Wellington (1271 m), which are unusually close for a riverine city and a mountain. There's a half-marathon called the Point to Pinnacle from the casino next to the river to the top of the mountain. Applying to this situation, need 15-20 km of horizontal pathway to cross the vertical distance. Start as paths carved into side of cliffs, carve out tunnels in the long term (not too bad in sandstone, though still a mammoth effort). A full day of travel for a merchant caravan from top to bottom or vice versa. $\endgroup$ Apr 10 at 23:29
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Elevators

A wooden platform hangs from a sturdy pulley mounted at city level, with a heavy stone counterweight on the other end of the rope.

Because 1 kilometer is probably way too great a distance for the tensile strength of rope (and they won't have anything better), there will need to be many platforms built into the face of the cliff at intervals.

Wind will be a major hazard that not only threatens the lives of the staff at each platform, but also jeopardizes the freight or passengers being raised or lowered. So, the platforms will need to be shielded from the wind, as will the elevators; even so, you'll have occasions when something is too valuable to risk the elevators and must take the long road, and you'll probably also have people selling insurance that covers just the vertical transit.

If this situation persists long enough, I'd expect them to carve vertical tunnels into the rock to house the elevators.

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Track-Climbing Elevators

Regular elevators generally operate by use of a very long cable and counter-weights.
Obviously a kilometer high cliff is far too high for any conventional rope, and steel cabling is perhaps outside the scope of your civilisation's technology.

However, a very clever artisan came up with a system of toothed tracks and gears which allow an elevator to climb any height as long as it has power.

A pair of oxen in a large hamster-wheel can provide that necessary power, which is translated through gears to the track and hauls the entire carriage up the cliff at a steady pace.

It may take a while, Oxen are not inclined to go quickly, and what with gearing the oxen are going to be travelling a lot further than the kilometre of the climb itself.

But you'll get there in a few hours, which is better than sailing downstream and walking a five or ten kilometres uphill.

Technical Challenges

"But wait! What's stopping the hamster wheel from spinning like a blender and killing the oxen?"
I hear you ask?

Worm Gears my friend.

A Worm-Gear is essentially a rod with a helix-shaped gear running down its length. Imagine a screw-thread without the pointy bit or the bit for the screwdriver on the other end.

With this, the motion is one-way. A cog cannot turn a worm-gear, but the worm-gear can turn the cog.

Consequently, with enough torque from the hamster-wheel and its oxen (and probably some clever gearing) You can travel up and down in complete safety.
The oxen can even get out of the hamster-wheel and be changed for fresh oxen at the end of each journey without the need for brakes!

The other concern of course is wear on the tracks themselves. Most likely you'd want to make them in sections as pieces of bronze or steel, but really if you make them chunky enough, wood will do fine.

You would want to have the mechanisms redundant and applying their forces across all four corners of your elevator too.

Ultimately, it'll have to be quite a large elevator. Think in terms of a structure comparable to a small building, with a hamster-wheel of oxen and gears in the lower half, and the cargo/passenger area on the upper level.

Of course, If it takes hours to get up and down you'll definitely want to have multiple elevators operating in parallel.

Most likely they run on a rigid schedule, perhaps with three or four elevators running, one might begin its journey each hour, every hour, and so workers in the port may live in the city above and commute each morning and evening.

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  • $\begingroup$ "if it takes hours to get up and down" is at odds with "commute each morning and evening" I think. Your workers are going to need faster ways up. $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    Apr 13 at 23:59
  • $\begingroup$ Ballparking time: Oxen pushing heavy loads travel around 1 - 2 mph. Which for sake of mathematical convenience I'll say is 2km/h (somewhere in the middle of that estimate). If the gearing down halves their speed, that's an hour to traverse the height, which is actually a lot better than I thought! If the gearing reduces it down to 1:8th, we can expect them to take four hours to traverse the kilometer height, which is definitely at the upper end of commute-able territory. If it's nearer the first estimate, passengers can commute, if it's nearer the second, then it's more of a cargo lift. $\endgroup$
    – Ruadhan
    Apr 14 at 7:29
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Basic/easy answer: The cliffs are only steep on one side. The locals already called dibs on the easier side.

Maybe the mountains are further inland from the cliffs, and the river itself is a trade-route to the sea? I could easily see the river being (part of?) a gap/pass through the mountains, which is why the city doesn't need too much help with supplies: Because the locals wouldn't be CLIMBING the cliffs, just following the river upstream a mile or two, where the ground is much more level.

This means it's on the rainy side of the mountains as well, and the desert would naturally be on the other side; invaders would get bottle-necked if they want water AND a safe journey.


Edit to add: OP mentioned that this city is inspired by St. Louis in Missouri, so here's my comment for "making the geography make sense."

St Louis is also by TWO major rivers (the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers meeting up) with at least one smaller river splitting off. With your rocky terrain full of mountains and cliffs, your Mississippi-sized river would inevitably split off into a few NORMAL-SIZED rivers. Perhaps your fantasy-St. Louis is technically in an oxbow of your fantasy-Mississippi, but the cliffs and mountains mean they're functionally located on "a huge river-island" instead of "inside the river-bend."

Edit 2: Here's St. Louis' geography from Wikipedia, showing the Mississippi River on top, the Missouri River in the middle, and two smaller rivers at the bottom. Even considering their much lower cliffs in real-life compared to OP's city of Pharcos, St. Louis' area was inhabited for a LONG time before Europeans, and their preindustrial inhabitants were clearly not suffering for lack of water or supplies.


Edit 3: My answer would shift into:

-"Pharcos city's cliffs and mountains get really steep along X stretch of the main river. Sure, we've got plenty of those on Earth.

-The port-town is a few miles up/downriver. Also believable; it's not like sending boats or wagons an hour or two away is HARD.

-There's a lake or stream near Pharcos proper for water, irrigating crops, and local ferries with supplies. This seems almost inevitable for me, since this is such rocky terrain and especially if Pharcos is supposed to be preindustrial. Most people who know preindustrial logistics would "fill in the gaps" that there's the port-town, then there's Pharcos city a while off on the cliffs, and there are also nearby villages and farmlands for food-supplies.

I think OP is actually overthinking things a bit, because unless logistics for Pharcos are a recurring part of the story, people have built settlements in all sorts of highlands without a problem, and huge Mississippi-sized rivers are PRIME areas for building. Readers would see "Pharcos is on massive river-cliffs and there's a port X hours away. Yeah, they'd probably go overland or ship supplies over."

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    $\begingroup$ I like your thinking but I probably should have been a bit clearer describing the geography of the area. The river does serve as a trade route to the sea, but the sea is still a ways away from here. In terms of distance from the sea, imagine this is the Mississippi River and Pharcos is St. Louis. The cliffs I'm talking about eventually rise even more into the mountains further north, while the river curves away into the desert. The cliffs formed from this bend of the river cutting into the foothills of the mountains over hundreds of thousands of years. $\endgroup$ Apr 11 at 4:14
  • $\begingroup$ St Louis is also by TWO major rivers (the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers meeting up) with at least one smaller river splitting off. With your rocky terrain full of mountains and cliffs, your Mississippi-sized river would inevitably split off into a few NORMAL-SIZED rivers. Perhaps your fantasy-St. Louis is technically in an oxbow of your fantasy-Mississippi, but the cliffs and mountains mean they're functionally located on "a huge river-island" instead of "inside the river-bend." $\endgroup$
    – Jamie L.
    Apr 11 at 19:01
  • $\begingroup$ @JamieL. Which river splits off from the Mississippi? $\endgroup$ Apr 11 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ @JamieL. There is another river that splits off. Like I said, the Thuridos splits off from the Clazelis here and goes east-southeast, while the Clazelis goes directly south. Once the two rivers meet against the bottom of the cliffs, this incredibly steep terrain to the north forces the river to turn west towards the coast. $\endgroup$ Apr 11 at 21:23
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    $\begingroup$ @TheWeaselSagas check out the West Coast of New Zealand. You have the coast which receives ludicrous amounts of rain, mountains, and then arid plains to the East a mere 200 or 300 km away. $\endgroup$ Apr 14 at 9:58
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Many real cliffs have man made roads slanting upwards across their faces and sometimes zig zagging up the faces of the cliffs.

And sometimes those man made roads use natural features for much of their lengths.

And sometimes steep cliffs have natural features that make for easier climbs all the way to the top.

If the city is on top of cliffs at the junction of two rivers possibly a few streams or creeks enter the rivers near the city. And at least one of the creeks comes down from the cliff top near the city. It may have created a narrow canyon reaching down to the bottom of the cliff. A canyon with winding roads zig zaging from side to side and many bridges over the creek, and gated walls across the canyon to keep out invaders.

Or possibly there was a massive avalanche leaving a rockfall into the canyon of one of the rivers, forcing the river to divert around the rockfall. And maybe a winding road was built up the rockfall to the top of the cliff, or to a canyon of creek going the rest of the way up.

So possibly there is a much gentler slope up to the city on the cliff top, which helps traveling up to the city and down to the rivers, and which makes it easier to pump or carry water up to the city. But this slope is narrow enough to be well fortified against invaders. So presumably the city would only have to have a long wall on the side upstream to keep invaders from coming down the slopes to the city.

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The town is above its harbor

The river is flowing right to the edge of the cliff, having cut it down akin to a canyon. But the people of the town have cut the harbor into the very foundations of the town, making space for whole ships right under the town and its subbasement. The result is, that the harbor is extremely protected from storms, super easily defensible, and has a lively community of tugboat rowers.

To get from the harbor to the town proper 3500 feet above takes a ride on the tunnel roads painstakingly cut through the rock, going up in serpentines. Straight parts are hugging the cliff faces with long, open-air windows, and with a moderate inclination of just about 5 feet per hundred feet, it's just about 70000 feet or 13.25 miles to get to the harbor. That's about three hours by foot. Considerable, but Rome's harbor Ostia was about 16 miles away, and Piraeus was about 6 miles from Athens, so we are right in between. As a result, there will be thousands employed in just ferrying the goods up and down the tunnel road.

Aquaeducts still the town's thirst

The town has built long and covered archway bridges that channel water from the Monsaltu Mountains to the north down to it and from higher land upriver, keeping it at a very shallow angle. With a width of a little more than two feet (70 cm) and having a depth of 5 feet (150 cm), that means when filled to the brim, we'll see about one ton of water per yard of aqueduct. That's very much the roman dimensions, and they managed such, so even with iron time tools, it is possible.

The aqueduct upriver might even be wider, possibly built in the shape of a long canal, and then used to ferry goods along it and irrigate the plains between it and the river. In that case, the construction will more look like the Los Angeles Aqueduct from Owens Valley in the Alabama Hills division: a 35 feet wide trench with 45° angles in an earthen embankment that offers 12 feet of depth at full capacity. Or, if we skip the need to ferry on that aqueduct, a 12 feet wide and 10 feet deep channel with a cover, like in the Mojawe division.

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Assuming that the higher level has access to a lot of water - maybe there is a mountain range and a river that follows nearby over a water fall... With such an arrangement the water could be used to fill a large container on a trolley car with water at the top of the cliff. If that trolley car was connected to another trolley car via a rope over a pulley the weight of the first trolley car could pull the second trolley car up as it went down.

At the bottom the water in one trolley car would be released and the other trolley car would be filled allowing the process to reverse. With suitable control overt he amount of water cargo could be carried up or down.

With primitive technology it would probably require a series of such trolley cars as the ropes would not be up to a 1km stretch but with 5 or 6 it should be doable.

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Assuming that deliveries must be sent vertically because there is no economical route along less-steep terrain, the most realistic answer is a series of lifts with stone counterweights. That's already been covered in @Tom's answer, so here's a significantly less plausible but perhaps more interesting answer:

There is a spring which is powerful enough to push water up to the top of the cliff where the city is, but a tunnel has been dug into the cliff face at the bottom so the water normally flows out of that tunnel instead. However, there is a heavy stone which can be moved with levers or pulleys to block the tunnel so that the water instead flows up through the shaft of the spring to the city at the top. Packages are placed at the bottom of the shaft, and then carried upwards by the water.

Everything arrives soaked, of course. That's fine for meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, non-ferrous metals, and anything that fits in a glass bottle. Heavy items must be tied to something that will float. You can send cloth, silk, rope, hardwood, and coal, if you leave it to dry after it arrives. Paper is difficult, but can be rolled up and sent in long thin bottles which are specially made for the purpose. If something must stay dry but won't fit through the neck of a bottle, then it must be wrapped and sealed with wax. It is not recommended to send non-aqueous livestock, pets, or people.

It's not very realistic, but it would be cool.

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Pulleys. Lots and lots of pulleys. And some strong animal to pull the rope horizontally.

The basic setup is a block and tackle at the top, and a really really really long chain that attaches to the bottom block and your supplies. The setup could be broken up into a few separate ledges to make the chains less prone to breaking, although it would increase the cost and number of workers needed. A hook attached to the bottom allows you to pick up practically anything you'd want. To pull it, attach a bunch of slaves horses/oxen to the top end of the chain.

Block and Tackle

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I had a similar setup in a fantasy city. A continental cataclysm had caused a massive cliff to split it across the middle at some unknown time in the past. The secondary trade river, tributary to the primary, ran to the cliff and fell off, over time eroding a canyon up to the main river. The canyon wasn't navigable, but the river was once you got above the waterfall.

The city was built on both sides and the dwarves had hacked the switchbacks into the cliff, with breathtaking bridges where they crossed back and forth across the canyon. Ships came up the main river, unloaded onto carts and wagons, and the wagons headed up the road. Once at the top, they unloaded onto a new set of ships bound upriver. Basically, the caravans just served as dedicated porters, constantly traveling up and down the cliff roads, and their support structure had moved into the galleries along the route, expanding them, setting up shops for food, drink, rest, etc. An entire suburb now exists along the route serving the caravans.

There were, of course, elevators provided for those who could really afford it, but the prices were exorbitant. Ballast was always stored at both top and bottom to serve as counterweights, so that the actual lifting effort was minimized, but it still took massive chains and ropes to lift even moderate cargo.

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Water Columns

This is generally a one-way option for lighter freight, particularly for messages.

A water-filled tube has been created running the entire kilometer height of the cliff. Most likely drilled down from the top, through solid rock to port-level.

Via a modestly complex airlock, buoyant cargo pods with flotation devices can be transferred into the tube, where they will quickly rise to the top and can be retrieved easily.

This is largely unsuited for people, though a sufficiently large water-column might be able to carry a person in a cramped capsule.

It is however highly suited for sending important messages and small items quickly to the city.

Responses can be easily returned by being dropped down a similar tube with no water in it. It may be worth padding the bottom of the return-tube with straw or something similar to prevent the container being too damaged for repeated messages.

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Rain, gold, and caves

This may be too simple, but there are places in the world that receive stupendous amounts of rain due to local microclimates. The West Coast of New Zealand gets 6700 mm of rain on average each year in the wettest places. A mere 300 km away, over some mountains, the climate is arid as almost all the water falls on the mountains. (Both regions are beautiful and a lot of fun to drive through).

The problem is that you've specified a desert climate around the city. So you need to either handwave a freak local wind that brings rain and dumps it only on the cliffs / mountain (not that silly), or have a very small, steep mountain range ringing the city on one side that does the same thing a bit more plausibly. If the mountains were virtually solid granite and also incredibly steep, rivers would form canyons and run away without making the area fertile.

Re: trade, if the upper cliffs are absolutely full of gold (or diamonds, or some other precious substance), even if all the port and agricultural work is done down below, people will ascend to trade for the gold up the top.

Finally: Maybe there's a limestone cave system that runs through the middle of the mountain in a really convenient spiralling way? It may have been widened into a smooth, convenient (albeit dark) path. It may also contain giant karsts that act as resevoirs at elevated levels.

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