New York City is a world capital in every sense of the word — it’s a cultural and economic powerhouse, and arguably the most influential city on the planet. But it wasn’t always this way, as the following cities once dominated the world around them.
The city of Vijayanagara (“the city of victory”), located in Southern India, was the capital of an empire by the same name. This empire held power in the 14th to 17th centuries and covered much of the Indian subcontinent. Its existence is due to the power vacuum left behind by the Delhi Sultans, who wreaked havoc and then abandoned the region. Using the threat of encroaching Muslims as an incentive to bring all the Hindu people together, the first Vijayanagaran rulers managed to create an empire capable of holding rival Sultanates in check.
The capital of the empire, as described by Dr. George Michell, “Was perhaps the most complete example of an imperial city… situated in one of the most extraordinary landscapes to be found in Asia, not just in India…” A granitic landscape through which the Tungabhadra River flows allowed the people to build irrigation canals, while at the same time offering natural protection from surprise invasions. The region also holds tremendous religious importance for the locals.
Eyewitness accounts, provided to us by Persian and European visitors, paint a picture of life in Vijayanagara as well as the magnificence of the local Maha Navami festival. Among the lavish palaces and temples, archeologists have found the remnants of army garrisons and elephant stables. With the major defeat of its army in 1565 AD at the hands of the Muslims, the city was abandoned and burned to the ground. Unlike most Indian settlements, Vijayanagara was never repopulated, despite multiple attempts to do so.
After the split of the Roman Empire into two, the city of Rome gradually lost almost all of its former glory. In 330 AD, Emperor Constantine moved the seat of power from Rome to the small town of Byzantium and then transformed it into Constantinople. The capital of the Byzantine Empire for over 1000 years, this mighty city became the wealthiest and most influential metropolis in Europe.
It had the largest walls the continent had ever seen, the Theodosian Walls, sparing the city from many attacks across the centuries. The imposing cathedral of Hagia Sophia, built by Emperor Justinian I in 537 AD, was one of the Wonders of Late Antiquity, and the Hippodrome, where horse races were held, surpassed even the Coliseum of Rome.
Situated on the strait of Bosphorus, which seperates the Mediterranean from the Black Sea and Europe from Asia, Constantinople helped, among other things, turn future European empires into world dominating forces. Not even after the fall of the Byzantines in 1453 did the city lose its power; it simply changed its name to Istanbul under the new rule of the Ottoman Turks.
Trade has always been a great source of wealth and knowledge for human civilization. Cities like Palmyra (“place of palms”), situated in the desert of present day Syria, are perfect examples. Built by the Romans when they seized control of the region in the first century AD, Palmyra acted as a central hub for trade within the Silk Road network.
All goods coming to the West from China and India went through this city, which charged the traders as much as 25% for this privilege. Palmyra offered in return security, water, food, shelter and shade for travelers who were happy to pay to have access. Its design and architecture show the mercantile nature of the city — by connecting the Temple of Ba’al, Diocletian’s Camp, the Theater and the Agora with colonnaded streets some 1100 meters long, shade was provided for all sorts of traders and craftsmen.
Palmyra had been a semi-independent city state influenced by Roman rule. When the city’s ruler, Odaenathus, was assassinated, his wife Zenobia came to power. Under her dominion, the city began to expand its rule throughout the Middle East, triggering a conflict with Rome. After Zenobia’s defeat and capture in 272 AD, she was paraded in golden shackles by Emperor Aurelian through the city of Rome, while Palmyra was sacked and never truly recovered.
Built some 2500 years ago by King Darius the Great, Persepolis was known as “the richest city under the sun” and the capital of the Achaemenid Empire. Founded by a nomadic branch of the Indo-European family who settled the Iranian plateau, no empire before it had ever been as large. It stretched all the way from the borders of present day India to Greece, Egypt and Russia. Regarded as “the King of Kings,” Darius the Great ruled over 28 other kingdoms within his realm, and together with his successors were quite tolerant and accepting of different cultures and religions.
The city of Persepolis currently lies in ruins, pillaged and burnt down by Alexander the Great in 330 BC, but back in its heyday this metropolis was like no other. The Apadana, the centerpiece of the entire palace complex, was the chamber in which the emperor received envoys and ambassadors from all corners of his realm. This structure alone had over 72 columns 82 feet high, which held together the beautifully adorned rooftop. Before entering this forest-like chamber, foreigners first had to pass the “Gate of All Nations” which was guarded on both sides by huge stone bull-bodied bearded men representing the might of the Empire.
The majority of buildings we can still see at Persepolis are the work of Emperor Xerxes, the son of Darius, and his son Artaxerxes I. Some still argue that the defeat of the Persians in 490-480BC by the city-states of Greece wasn’t a good thing, since the Persians had a much more open society. They offered freedom of religion for all cultures within their domain, while their own religion, Zoroastrianism, forbid the practice of slavery. Not to mention the fact that women had many more rights and liberties than most world cultures at the time, especially compared to the Greeks.
Legend has it that Carthage was founded by Queen Dido of the Phoenicians. She fled the city of Tyre located in present-day Lebanon in order to escape the wrath of her brother Pygmalion, who was her contestant to the throne. Along with a group of settlers, she traveled a great distance by sea and landed in North Africa, where she met King Iarbas. He offered to give them land in order to build a settlement, but no bigger than the surface covered by the hide of an ox. They cleverly cut the hide into thin strips and were able to enclose a fairly large area of land. On this land, the mighty city of Carthage was built.
These stories are most likely just that, but the fact that the Phoenicians built the city around 760 BC is true. Located in such a good position — in the middle of the Mediterranean, close to Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, and a pretty good distance from Egypt — helped make Carthage a leading trade center and military power. The population soon reached half a million citizens and, in order to house them all, buildings were all built five or six stories tall. Carthage was the first city in Antiquity to have a centralized sewage system, linking all buildings within the city walls. The most notable of structures among the ruins was the “Thophet,” which is believed to be an altar for child sacrifice.
The Carthaginians inevitably encountered the Romans, and soon after that a series of battles known as the Punic Wars took place. Following the loss of Sicily and other territories, Cartage itself came under attack and was ultimately destroyed in 146 BC. Even though the Romans vowed to never rebuild it, Julius Caesar founded the “Colonia Junonia” in 44 BC on the grounds of the old city. In only five years it was named the capital of the African province. Today this city is known as Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, and is home to over two million people.
Rome was considered by its citizens to be the center of the world. In a time when explorers hadn’t yet discovered the Americas, Australia or the Pacific Ocean, the view of the Earth was much smaller and a lot flatter. The “boot” that is the Italian peninsula, surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, made the city of Rome look like it was right in the middle of everything.
Starting off as a small town on the Tiber River, Rome gathered all the skills required to thrive from its neighbors. From the Greeks to the south it received a model of religion and architecture, while the Etruscans to the north offered the gift of trade. This small town steadily flourished into a magnificent metropolis, mostly through the exchange of goods, but the Italian peninsula was soon too small and these neighbors and benefactors had to go.
War was the next step into Rome’s evolution, and not long after both the Greeks and Etruscans were gone from the mainland. One after the other, neighboring states fell in the face of this new superpower. The Greeks, Carthaginians, Egyptians, Gauls, the Germanic tribes… all bent the knee to Rome, giving way to the saying “All roads lead to Rome.” But everything has to end eventually, and so did the glory of Rome. But even after 2000 years the lives of people around the world are influenced by this once mighty city.
Tenochtitlan was the capital city of the Aztec Empire. It was built on an island surrounded by Lake Texcoco deep inside the jungles of Central America. By the time the Spanish Conquistadors were aware of its existence, the population was around 200,000. This was a city very different from what the Europeans were used to. Founded in 1325 AD, the Aztec capital was joined to the mainland by three causeways. It was laid out in straight street grids and encompassed enormous pyramids at its center, which were surrounded by the skulls of the dead and elaborate ceremonial sculptures.
With only a handful of men, Herman Cortez managed to take over the city in 1521. It’s true that they were wielding firearms and had help from other local tribes, but if it hadn’t been for the frenzy of human sacrifice to appease the gods and the scourge of smallpox, it’s likely they would have never succeeded. In any case, the capital city was conquered and razed to the ground by the Spanish, only for them to build present-day Mexico City on the same spot.
Paris, Madrid, Amsterdam and Lisbon can all be considered good candidates for a spot on this list, but as far as the race for Empire building goes, London is the winner simply because English is the most widespread language of them all.
London was built by the Romans in 50 AD and bears a Celtic name derived from the word “Londinios” meaning “the place of the bold one.” The city had a rocky start, being invaded by the Celts and the Vikings on several occasions. It was abandoned a couple of times, but people managed to find their way back. By the 1800s the population grew to over 950,000.
During the expansionist era France, Spain, England, Portugal and the Netherlands were no longer fighting for European territories, but over colonies. Each Empire had its successes and mishaps throughout the centuries, but with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and with the French Revolution and later the Napoleonic Wars, England came out ahead. With the help of their colonies and their wealth, London reached a population of six million by the beginning of the 20th century. The influence it exerted on the whole world was enormous. By 1939, at the start of World War II, the population was 8.7 million. Only after the end of the war did the country relinquish most of its colonies and steadily slip from the number one spot in favor of New York City.
Around the 13th century AD, in the area we now know as Thailand, the first Siam Kingdom was formed, and its political and administrative capital was Sukhothai. This is considered to be the first ever Thai state, and under King Ramkhamhaeng the first ever centralized Thai language and alphabet were created. A set of codified laws and a powerful military and administrative organization, all held together by strong Buddhist religious beliefs, have led modern people to consider Ramkhamhaeng “the Founding Father of the Thai Nation.”
In the city of Sukhothai we see the first evidence of a pure Thai culture and architecture, as well as Thai hydraulic engineering. They managed to build canals, reservoirs and dams to prevent flooding and aid in agriculture, as well as part of the city’s sewer and water provision systems. Sukhothai kings were acknowledged for their ability to seize and control the kingdom’s water.
With the death of Ramkhamhaeng, the Sukhothai kingdom dissolved as vassal states broke away one by one. The city of Sukhothai fell under Ayutthayan control in 1378 AD, and by 1583 was deserted because of both a powerful earthquake and a Burmese conflict in the area. Sukhothai and other cities were later repopulated, but not to the extent they previously were.
In the flood lands of the Niger delta people have been building houses and other structures with clay for centuries. The town of Djenne-Djenno is made entirely out of clay. It was inhabited as far back as 250 BC, and became an important link in the trans-Saharan gold trade. Constructed on hills called “toguere,” the city managed to escape the marshy landscape and annual floods produced by the rainy season. Djenne-Djenno is believed to be one of the earliest settlements in the sub-Saharan region, and is considered by some to be “the typical African City.”
Archeological evidence shows us a continuous human presence in the area up until the 14th century AD, when people moved to the nearby town of Djenne, founded in the 11th century. Further evidence points out that even before the city’s construction, the Bozo people were growing wild rice in the region. In the 13th century AD, with King Koumboro’s conversion to Islam, its palace transformed into a mosque.
This mosque stood until 1830, but was rebuilt in 1907 and is the largest mud-brick building in the world. Because clay is easily washed away during the rainy season, the Grand Mosque needs to be maintained. And so each year at the beginning of April, the people of Djenne gather for a local ritual of adding a fresh layer of mud, covering it from top to bottom.