In the ancient past, the city that is today Kirkwall sat on the very fringes of the Tevinter Imperium. It was the heart of the Empire’s slave trade, at one point housing almost a million slaves taken from elven lands as well as the more barbarous regions to the east and south. They were transported there by sea, and fed into the unquenchable fires of the city’s industry: massive jet-stone quarries and a sea of foundries that produced the steel the rest of the Empire needed. The slavers of ancient city grew wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, but it was all built on the backs of the downtrodden. This was a place of darkness and despair, a pit that few escaped, and when the tide finally turned against the Empire the slaves rose up here in an orgy of violence that has rarely been matched. The city that exists today is built upon the bones of that past, one that most citizens today would prefer to forget.
That past, however, is still very much visible. Any ship approaching Kirkwall will first see the cliffs – the “wall” that the city is named for – from many miles off. This sheer cliff is made of the same black stone that the city was built on, a pantheon of vile guardians representing the Old Gods carved into its face. Over the years the Chantry has effaced many of these profane sentinels, but it is next to impossible to destroy them all.
A channel has been carved into this cliff, allowing ships to sail through a dark corridor with sheer walls hundreds of feet high into the city’s interior. Flanking either side of this channel are the “twins of Kirkwall”, two massive bronze statues that are present for more than show: the city sits next to the narrowest point of the Waking Sea, and a massive chain net can be erected between the statues and the lighthouse on the nearest outcropping of rock that marks the edge of the narrow navigable lane. This stranglehold on sea traffic is jealously guarded by the ever-changing rulers of the city for the wealth of tolls, taxes and extortions it has allowed; the transitory politics of Kirkwall are as brutal and treacherous as the sea currents below.
The city is wealthy from its position on the Waking Sea but there are still many decrepit areas. Much of the destruction caused when the Empire fell has never and can never be repaired. Although the Chantry and the Keep are visible from most of the city it is easy to get lost in the maze of dwarven courtyards and prowling groups of outlaws prey on those who travel through Lowtown without a reliable guide or map. Lowtown is perpetually smothered in black smoke billowing from the many foundries. When the air is cleared by cold winter storms the baleful howl of wind over the open mouths of abandoned shafts is hardly better. These haunted pits occasionally erupt with gouts of foul air known as “chokedamp” and it is not uncommon to find whole slums silently suffocated, frozen in the midst of everyday activity. Outside of the Kirkwall the remnants of the oldest slave quarries still remain in the mountains, most abandoned and some haunted by spirits clinging to the memories of the torture inflicted on those enslaved long ago.
Fundamentally then, Kirkwall still resembles its ancient self; greed drives the ragged and dispossessed scum of Thedas to its cursed shores and the unscrupulous consume them.