How Ul'dah became the merchant hub it currently is has yet to be made fully apparent and may very well never be known to players. What is certain is that the city remains in control of one of the only viable routes to Vylbrand by sea and is the source for much material wealth in the form of precious ores. Far enough from Garlean influence to be comfortable, the city is a hub of all manner of finery. "Luxurious" and "Ul'dahn" are as good as synonyms.
In fact, one might argue that the city's core problems stem from that luxury. The city is in a highly defensible location, and it's too important from a mercantile standpoint to really attack directly. As such, the city's culture has looked away from external threats and toward internal ones. Neither of the martial guilds forms any sort of army; the Gladiators take to the arena and show off for crowds, while the Pugilists are bouncers for the city's most prestigious gambling house. Even the Thaumaturges focus on material gains instead of pursuing any sort of safeguard function.
So rather than expanding or defending itself, the city rests on its laurels and devotes more and more time to elaborate games of power and money. Businesses become more and more cutthroat. Keep in mind that this isn't modern society; this is a city where there's no real idea that consumers have any rights and an unscrupulous businessman can cut all sorts of corners to make a few extra gil. Even if the system itself doesn't bilk you out of every coin you have, someone might just sidle up to you in a dark alley, cut your purse free, and head off without a care in the world.
This is a place where there will be men in front of the inn charging you for lodging, then another one inside the inn charging you for lodging, and a third man at the actual service counter who informs you the first two men were not actually employees. And the room at the inn will be ruinously expensive. You will then go to see a man about work, and he will consign you to backbreaking conditions... and then fire you without paying anything.
It's like any city that advertises itself as a place to make your fortune. You could wind up becoming rich, but it's much more likely that the city will chew you up and spit you out -- and the spitting will be if you're lucky.
But if you manage to survive, the world opens up to you. Almost anything can be found in Ul'dah's markets for a price. That's true both in lore and in-game; at least on Besaid, the city has become the unofficial central city, and the market wards are generally quite full. There's also plenty of learning within the city walls, several crafting organizations, and all sorts of entertainment. It's pricey, but would you expect otherwise?
And for whatever cold comfort it affords, the city's backstabbing extends all the way up. Ostensibly, the city is a sultanate under the command of the current Sultana. In practice, the Syndicate -- a council composed of Ul'dah's wealthiest citizens -- makes most of the actual decisions on a day-to-day basis. The Sultana carries some weight, but she's not in charge by any stretch of the imagination.
That used to be the case, anyhow. With war on the horizon, Ul'dah is seeing its own power struggle come to the forefront. Raubahn Aldynn, general of the Immortal Flames, is forging the city's Grand Company into a fighting force to be reckoned with. He's also explicitly supporting the Sultana as the state's rightful ruler, placing himself directly between her and the Syndicate and throwing the entire power struggle out of alignment.
Aldynn isn't content to just move against the Syndicate and the Garleans, either. He's aiming at making Ul'dah not only necessary but feared. His initial speech to potential recruits of the Flames suggests that he intends to beat the Garleans until they beg for mercy... and then he will name the price. This is a war with an eye toward profit. And it would be surprising if someone in the Syndicate didn't get the idea that perhaps Ul'dah's loyalty might be for sale...
Ul'dah, in short, is the city of ambition. It's a collection of people striving to better themselves. At its best, it produces radiant flames. But too many flames competing for too little fuel results in a lot of ashes.
I hope you enjoyed this week's look at Ul'dah from a more lore-like perspective. If you did -- or didn't -- the usual communication options of email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and comments remain open. Next week, I'm going to go ahead and slaughter a sacred cow in full-on rant mode.
From Eorzea to Vana'diel, there is a constant: the moogles. And for analysis and opinions about the online portions of the Final Fantasy series, there is also a constant: The Mog Log. Longtime series fan Eliot Lefebvre serves up a new installment of the log every Saturday, covering almost anything related to Square-Enix's vibrant online worlds.