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When building a city, one must consider why one is building a city. It's all very well imagining a city perched on top of an inaccessible mountain peak, but a believable world requires that we consider why on earth anyone would ever live in such a place.

With that in mind, imagine a city. This late Bronze/early Iron Age city is located in an inhospitable antarctic desert region, in an area otherwise uninhabited because, well, it's a freaking antarctic desert. We have an excellent design for this city, but we need a reason for it to be there.

In the middle of the city is a butte of igneous rock, rather like the famous Devil's Tower. Around the city, geothermal activity heats subterranean water and forces it to the surface, providing a fresh water supply and nutrients to the population (think Yellowstone, rather than Hawaii). So, in search of a reason to build a city here, I have to wonder:

What valuable geological deposits are likely to be found in a geologically active zone? Can the extraction of precious ores justify a city built in this harsh, forbidding place?

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    $\begingroup$ There are, if I remember, a handful of places where there is a city in that location simply because it's the only decently habitable area in a significant distance. Also, strange animals/plants (AKA, food) being traded to others somehow could provide incentive for living in a terrible location. $\endgroup$ – Andon May 4 '17 at 20:24
  • $\begingroup$ That's more or less the idea - that this is the only source of water nearby - but you still need a reason for people to be in the area in the first place. If it's not on the way to somewhere else, it needs to be the destination. $\endgroup$ – Werrf May 4 '17 at 20:27
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    $\begingroup$ Geological active like Hawaii (active volcanoes), or geologically active like Yellowstone (geothermals)? Also feel the need to point out Death Valley, potentially the harshest place to live this world has to offer, is inhabited due to minerals (salts) in particular Borax. Mineral resources could be an easy reason, and those minerals could easily be there regardless of what the current state of the land is (Does it even have to be mineral? land was originally tropic and teaming with early life, land moved to antarctic over billions of years, now antarctic contains silly amounts of coal). $\endgroup$ – Twelfth May 4 '17 at 20:30
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    $\begingroup$ A place to dispose of sewage and garbage that doesn't pollute the limited water supply is nice. Super-reliable energy and heat for the residents is critical. Consider every gram of food (and other goods) must be imported thousands of miles by air, year-round. Fuel for all that flying. Fighting the Antarctic wasteland seems ruinously expensive - the unobtanuim deposits under the city must be phenomenally valuable. Diamonds-the-size-of-an-apple valuable. $\endgroup$ – user535733 May 5 '17 at 1:44
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    $\begingroup$ Well, you got the "freshest" lava! "You humans like lava, right?" On a more serious tone, in this place you got both a lot of cold ("antarctic desert" around) and a lot of heat ("geothermal activity heats subterranean water"). Both of these, happening naturally in the same area, could be very valuable for industrial purposes, like power production (steam turbines) and metallurgy. $\endgroup$ – xDaizu May 5 '17 at 10:02

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Cities are often built near resources

The key mining/mountains example would be Potosi, a city of 100,000+ that grew up around the famed silver deposits of Cerro Rico in Bolivia, despite being in a desert at over 4000m elevation. It was by far the largest city in the Americas in the late 1500s and early 1600s.

San Francisco, in turn, saw a massive influx of people as the chief port of the gold chasing 49ers. In 1848, it had a population of under 1,000; in 1849 25,000; and in the 1850 census (conducted in 1852, for complex reasons) 34,776.

So there are ample historical precedents for such a city to spring up, literally overnight.

Volcanic minerals

There are plenty of examples of minerals being mined from currently active volcanoes or recently extinct volcanoes. Some of the other answers mention diamonds. While diamonds are moved to the surface by volcanoes, they were moved millions to billions of years ago. Most of the big diamond regions of the world (Angola, CAR, South Africa, Russia) haven't seen volcanic activity in a long time. I don't think diamonds fit the bill for what you are looking for.

Lets restrict our search to things that are mined from currently active volcanoes, or at least extinct volcanoes close to currently active ones.

  • Sulfur is mined at the active Kawah Ijen complex in Indonesia on the island of Java.

  • Gold is mined at the extinct Luise caldera on the Papua New Guinean island of Lihir. This operation is somewhat complex, as geothermal vents have been cut to lower temperatures around the gold deposit so it can be mined. It is one of the largest gold deposits in the world. While the caldera itself is extinct, the region is still part of the Ring of Fire, with many active volcanoes nearby on New Britain and New Ireland.

  • Pure Rhenium was discovered in the active Kudriavy volcano in the Russian Kuril Islands. Rhenium isn't used in a lot of things so it isn't super expensive(thought at $85 dollars per ounce it is still 5 times more expensive than silver), but it is rarer in the Earth's crust then gold or platinum. So if it were in demand for some high tech (or magical?) application, it would be very expensive indeed.

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    $\begingroup$ Other examples of mining cities in inhospitable places might be Virginia City, Nevada during the 1860-1870 period, or Coober Pedy in Australia. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf May 5 '17 at 5:17
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Sure

Starting from geothermal water sources, they may be rich in minerals similar to what you find near deep sea vents. Sulpher and Iron compounds are very common and useful. Additionally, the action of the hot water over time creates veins of economic minerals, like gold and silver, that could be exploited for profit. Depending on the type of volcanic activity in the area, if there was a Diatreme eruption there at some point in the past, then diamonds could easily be found. Again, depending on the volcanology there may be a Volcanic Pipe which are also rich in precious gemstones.

Depending on tech level, the geothermal sources could also be used a source of energy.

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I know you (the OP) have settled on commercial reasons; but in reading the setup I imagine privacy and/or military advantage could be at stake. The inhospitable environment make for a natural "moat" around the city; difficult to attack by surprise and defensible. The nature of the city makes it an oasis in this inhospitable environment: If there is any military advantage in dominating this area, then this is the place to build. For secret research or other operations (like keeping prisoners), this city is difficult to observe secretly, and any escapees probably cannot leave the city without dying.

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    $\begingroup$ Adding to this. (1) If there is any reason to travel the desert, then controlling the only oasis in a large area is profitable. (2) If the desert is a natural boundary, the controlling the only oasis in a large area makes invasions from this direction impractical. $\endgroup$ – Matthieu M. May 5 '17 at 9:21
  • $\begingroup$ This is a good idea, but the role of the city in the story more or less requires it to be a trading post, and a trading post needs some resource to be traded. The site isn't between any other important locations, so it can't just be a waystation - we need some reason for people to be in the area in the first place. $\endgroup$ – Werrf May 5 '17 at 14:38
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    $\begingroup$ @Werrf: Fair enough; but security is a valuable commodity; too. An armed police state can welcome traders and ensure their safety, from robbery or violent customers, sabotage or destruction of their goods by competitors --- for a fee. A modern mall (open or closed) or even a flea market charges tenants for common security, parking and patrols. Your city doesn't actually need a product of its own, its product can be water, food, shelter and, above all, safety and law enforcement. $\endgroup$ – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica May 5 '17 at 14:45
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    $\begingroup$ trading post don't need something to trade, they just need to be in between two highly valuable trade resources. The middle east had so much trade partially becasue it was halfway between europe and the far east. $\endgroup$ – John May 5 '17 at 17:36
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My Goodness, Yes!

Many of the most valuable mineral deposits in the world are found in similar spots - including the famous silver mines of Potosi. There are two primary mechanisms that concentrate ores in such locations. First, magma is a liquid in which many chemicals are dissolved. As magma cools, different chemicals fall out of solution at different temperatures. If you had a ball of magma, after it cooled it would be something like an onion, with each layer having concentrations of specific minerals. Of course, in real life you don't get such a neat arrangement.

The second mechanism serves to further concentrate the ores. As superheated water travels through the ground it dissolves minerals. As it cools, it deposits them again. Most mineral "veins" are the result of this action, and the results are often near the ground (as hot water bubbles up from below and cools as it nears the surface).

Certain ores lend themselves to either type of ore formation, depending on their solubility in water and magma. You can study a good geology textbook, or you can just look at a map of mines in places such as Nevada and Peru and steal their examples.

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If it's a dormant volcano, then the ash and lava fields left behind from previous eruptions could potentially create a layer of fertile soil within proximity to it. As long as you could keep the ice from the surrounding Antarctic desert from covering it over (geothermal heating or ice walls for example) you could potentially grow food to sustain a city there.

If you combine that with the rich mineral deposits and the defensive advantage of it's location (as the other answers state), then you could potentially have a reason to build a city there.

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How about diamonds? I posit that your 'devil's tower' is actually a Kimberlite pipe, chock full of diamonds.
See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volcanic_pipe#Kimberlite_pipes

And in addition to diamonds, Kimberlite may also contain garnets, spinels, and peridot.

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    $\begingroup$ This just one city, smack in the middle of some godforsaken antarctic desert. Diamonds have very little use apart from the aesthetic. From the economic point of view, going to such great lengths to build a city there is highly unlikely. $\endgroup$ – paracetamol May 5 '17 at 9:16
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    $\begingroup$ @paracetamol ..what? Diamonds have tons of industrial applications! It's arguable if it's "enough to build a city", granted, but the "Diamonds have very little use apart from the aesthetic." line is plain wrong! $\endgroup$ – xDaizu May 5 '17 at 10:08
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    $\begingroup$ @paracetamol the OP never said there was no contact with the outside world. Diamonds could be traded. And this would work even if travel to the location is extremely difficult, since they have such a high value for their size. $\endgroup$ – user16107 May 5 '17 at 11:25
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    $\begingroup$ I considered diamonds, but most of the sources I can find suggest that kimberlite is rarely found in currently active geological areas. $\endgroup$ – Werrf May 5 '17 at 14:42
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Political reasons.

Greenland is claimed by the kingdom of Denmark, but some parts are completely inhabitated. To maintain their claim, they must keep continued presence there. They have a special patrol whose only purpose is wandering around the huge unhabitated parts of Iceland. (Sirius Dog Sled Patrol). This is cheaper than permanent stations.

In this case, let's pretend that a permanent base is better than a continued patrol. Or maybe the city is a base for the patrol.

In this case, a king maight want ownership of the volcan. Many possible reasons:

  • to prevent others from placing military bases on it,
  • for personal pride (only kingdom with city in antartica),
  • to prevent rivals from claiming it (petty personal disputes between 2 kings),
  • national pride (it's claimed by a long-time rival),
  • to put a prison,
  • to put a concentration camp,
  • to torture prisoners far from prying eyes (think Guantanamo)
  • to place a secret military base.

The king could hide his true reason with plausible excuses: * order his bishops to create a religious order that worships the volcano. * order an existing religious order to create a monastery for meditation/penitence/etc. * order his science minister to put a permanent base to study the volcano.

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Historic reasons: Long ago the climate here was different, it was a lush paradise. No one knows why it changed (continental drift, volcanic eruptions). It was so long ago few even remember that it changed. Slowly the population dwindled as the land could not support them. Until only a remnant of a remnant survive. Eking out a living on what sustenance can be provided from this small heat source. That, and from what the penguin hunters bring in.

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In short, yes, availability of some kind of valuable mineral resource is enough to build city in inhospitable remote place. The resource does not have to be particularly precious : if its extraction generates profit even after extra cost imposed by geography, it is enough. As an example, please consider Russian city of Norilsk: it is located in place that is probably closest thing to Antarctic desert and without the bonus of geothermal heat! Primarily they extract nickel or, but also some precious satellite metals as well.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norilsk

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"What valuable geological deposits are likely to be found in a geologically active zone?" You name it. The ones we exploit, directly or indirectly (as in placer deposits), most often are, in no particular order: gem seams in the form of Diamonds in Kimberlite, and Corundum and Beryl AKA Sapphires and Rubies and Emeralds respectively in both intrusive and extrusive igneous deposits, Gold left over from intrusive melts and geothermally enriched Copper bearing ophiolites. Also of importance to human habitation in many active volcanic areas is the relative abundance of trace nutrients brought to the surface by eruptions which enrich farming soils in many parts of the world.

Two notes, one, cities often come to be because of forces that are purely social rather than physical, geographic or economic although the original settlement may have formed for one or more of those reasons. Two you do not, I repeat not, want to use geothermal fluids as drinking water, not with human kidneys you don't the high levels of dissolved minerals will kill you. Additionally that water could carry Gold and Silver in solution until it cools and most of it's minerals precipitate, the Arsenic is pretty much the last to go.

So in summary sure there could be definite incentives to build in such a place but not necessarily the ones you'd think and possibly you don't need that much by way of an incentive to have a city anyway.

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The reason for the city being located there? Because the tower is sacred to the people. The gods of Sky, Fire, and Earth all live there. The city is to support the priests who live on the top tower to observe the stars and planets for augury.

Fortunately the water allows for crops to be grown and livestock to be kept, so a city can be supported.

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Honestly, a source of fresh water and heat is enough to have built a city in an otherwise inhospitable climate. Humans flourish anywhere there is a reason to survive.

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