Giant Metropolises of the Ancient World


Humanity gathered in communities, which evolved into cities, from the Neolithic age. Their reasons for creating communities included mutual protection, from the elements as well as from other communities. Gradually, they developed systems for the sharing of water, trade, the disposal of waste, and the means of government. From humble dwellings clustered together larger cities emerged, some with buildings of immense size and considerable luxuries. Cities learned to cope with problems familiar to current times, including housing the poor, enacting laws for the protection of all, and providing places of commerce, worship, entertainment, and governance.

Cities developed over the last 9,000 years, with Jericho regarded as the oldest known. Originally situated on land now submerged, humans have resided on the site for centuries, and archaeologists estimate over 2,000 people lived in Jericho seven millennia before the birth of Christ and the beginning of the Common Era. Natural springs made the spot a desirable one, and fertile land allowed the residents to create oils from plants, a source of lucrative trade. Though 2,000 residents is considered little more than a village today, in its time Jericho represented one of the largest cities in the world. Here are ten ancient cities considered metropolises in their day.

10. Uruk held a population of 4,000 at the time described in the Book of Genesis

The ruins of Uruk, all that remains of the once thriving city, are believed to be those of the city built by Nimrod described in the Book of Genesis. The biblical name for the city is Erech. Over the many centuries since, the city was rebuilt and expanded, using the materials from previous constructions in an early precursor of recycling. While undoubtedly efficient, the practice makes modern day excavations and analyses difficult. Estimates are that the city contained about 40,000 residents during its peak, who engaged in agriculture and trade. It reached its peak population circa 3100 BCE.

Ancient Sumerian traders and farmers took advantage of the city’s proximity to the Tigris and Euphrates to create a thriving community, developing considerable wealth and power. They built a canal system throughout the city, facilitating trade and travel. Some believe the practice of writing originated in Uruk, the discovery of some of the earliest known tablets in its ruins supports the hypothesis. It also housed the earliest architectural monuments in history. By the 3rd century of the Common Era the city was largely abandoned, in part due to changes in the course of the Euphrates River, and by 700 CE it was a ghost town. It was discovered by archaeologists in 1849, though serious excavations didn’t begin until the early 20th century.

9. The city of Mari developed as a trade capital in Mesopotamia

The land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Mesopotamia, saw the creation of one of the world’s earliest trade empires. Mari, an ancient city located in what is now Syria, did not evolve into a city from smaller settlements. It was instead one of the earliest purposely designed and constructed cities of history. Constructed circa 2900 BCE, it was intended to control the waterways on the Euphrates River, essential to trade. The original walled city was abandoned around 2550 BCE. Sometime before 2500 BCE the city was repopulated and largely rebuilt. It was designed with an elevated center, from which streets emanated downhill to the city’s walls, ensuring controlled drainage of rain water.

At least six religious temples were erected, as well as a palace, open markets, and other structures. It was abandoned, reoccupied, and abandoned again several times, each rebuilding being completed over the predecessor. The oldest known shop dedicated to the manufacture of wheels was discovered in the ruins of Mari. Its population likely peaked at around 50,000 prior to its final abandonment during the Hellenistic Period. Today, its ruins are continually looted and damaged by participants of the Syrian Civil War. Controlled excavations, which revealed much of what is known today of ancient Mesopotamia, were stopped in 2011. Since then, looting has destroyed much of the ancient ruins.

8. Some believe the ancient city of Ur to be the birthplace of Abraham

The ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur once sat on the coastline along the Persian Gulf, near the mouth of the Euphrates River in what is now Iraq. Over the several thousand years since, the coastline as shifted, and the ruins of the city believed by some to have been the birthplace of Abraham are situated several miles inland. Other archaeologists (and Bible scholars) dispute the ruins as being those of the city of Ur mentioned four times in the Book of Genesis. At its height, around 2200 BCE, the population of Ur is estimated to have been between 65,000 to 100,00.

Ur stood as a major seaport and trading center, and developed a society marked by several levels of class. The highest ranking, wealthy merchants, members of the nobility, and religious leaders, lived in considerable luxury, with excavations revealing numerous palaces and mansions. Excavations also revealed thousands of cuneiform tablets (Sumerian writing) included business contracts, deeds, court documents, and even personal letters. Today, after a period under the control of the US Army, Ur’s ruins are under the control of the Iraqi government, which plans to develop them as a tourist attraction and research center.

7. Yinxu’s ruins contain one of the largest troves of ancient Chinese writing

The ruins known as Yinxu are those of the ancient Chinese city of Yin, the final capital of the Shang Dynasty. Yin was referred to as ruins as early as the 5th century CE. As the capital of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE), the population of the city exceeded 100,000, and may have been as many as 125,000. The city contained royal palaces, royal tombs, temples and numerous buildings dedicated to entertainment and pleasure. Among the royal tombs was that of Fu Hao, a warrior queen who led the Shang armies in several conflicts. She became the most powerful of the Shang military leaders of her day.

The Yinxu ruins revealed ancient Chinese oracle bones, a form of writing and record keeping. Over 100,000 oracle bones depicted the complete written signs used by the Shang. Yin was abandoned sometime around 500 BCE, and the site remained relatively untouched until its discovery in 1899. Since then, it has been closely studied and excavated by archaeologists, and today it is open to the public for tours.

6. Two cities named Babylon were once the largest population centers in the world

The first Babylon was built into a large fortified city by Hammurabi, an Amorite king. By 1670 BCE it was the largest city in the world, according to some estimates, with a population well over 150,000. After Hammurabi’s death, the city fell into decline, and was ruled, at different times, by the Elamites and the Assyrians. The latter destroyed the city and built a new Babylon on the site of the old. It was this second Babylon which included (allegedly) the Hanging Gardens, listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Unfortunately, the existence of the Hanging Gardens and their whereabouts has never been confirmed by archaeology or historical scholarship.

According to the Babylonian and the Hebrew Bible, King Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem and exiled the Jews to Babylon, where they joined a population believed by some to have exceeded 200,000 during the 6th century BCE. In the late 20th century Saddam Hussein decided to build a modern palace on the ruins of the old city, and like Nebuchadnezzar had before him, used bricks inscribed with his name during the construction. Saddam styled himself as “son of Nebuchadnezzar,” and had portraits of himself and the ancient king installed on the gates of the ruins.

5. Carthage rivaled Rome as the most powerful city in the Ancient Mediterranean

The Roman poet Virgil described ancient Carthage as containing “marvelous buildings, gateways, cobbled ways, and the din of wagons … Here men were dredging harbors, there they laid the deep foundations of a theatre, and quarried massive pillars.” Ancient Carthage grew to eventually support a population of nearly half a million people. They traded with other Mediterranean cultures, in olive oil, wines, grains, leathers, and fabrics. Surrounding the city were extensive farmlands and orchards. On its waterfront, two man-made harbors supported its maritime industry. One housed its massive war fleet of over 200 ships, the other its trade operations.

Building codes controlled the layout of the city’s districts and the design of its houses and places of business. Some structures in Carthage reached the height of six stories, most private homes were of one or two. A wall fronted them to the street, inside of which was an open courtyard, often landscaped with fruit trees. The Romans famously razed Carthage and later rebuilt it under Julius Caesar in 49-44 BCE. By the beginning of the 2nd century of the Common Era, Carthage was the second largest city, in terms of population, in the Roman Empire, again housing about 500,000 people. It also became a major center of early Christianity, which led to the destruction of many of the shrines and temples erected by the Romans.

4. Pompeii was one of the Roman Empire’s most prosperous cities

Although relatively small in terms of population, which peaked at about 20,000 just prior to the city’s burial under volcanic ash, Pompeii presented a prosperous community. Its residents enjoyed many amenities, including a large amphitheater, public baths, temples, indoor theaters, and markets. The Macellum of Pompeii, a large urban market, contained multiple food stores, butchers, wine merchants, and fishmongers. Some workers in the market lived on the large second story of the building. Some citizens purchased their olives and figs at the market, while others with larger gardens grew their own.

Pompeii prospered by receiving goods arriving by sea and shipping them to other destinations in the Empire, facilitated by the nearby Appian Way. It was an important link between Rome and the North African and Middle Eastern elements of the empire. The city was largely, though not entirely, buried under up to 20 feet of volcanic ash following the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. Vandalization and looting began on the remnants still exposed within days. Later excavations revealed that about 1100 people died during the eruption and its aftermath, with most of the population of the city escaping with their lives, and at least some of their property.

3. Alexander the Great founded the ancient city of Alexandria

Alexander the Great reportedly envisioned the city he named for himself as a large Greek influenced city, though he remained at the site for only a few months before resuming his conquests. He never returned while alive. Instead, construction of the city fell to his general, Cleomenes, who hired an architect, Dinocrates of Rhodes, to design and supervise its construction. Alexander died in 323 BCE. Ptolemy, a former general under Alexander, seized control of Egypt. Most of the city named for Alexander was built under Ptolemy, who moved the capital of Egypt there in 305 BCE, declaring himself as Pharaoh.

Alexandria grew rapidly under Ptolemy and his successors, and became a seat of advanced learning, including its famous library, said to have been the largest in the world. By the time of Augustus, Alexandria was home to over 500,000 people, mostly of Greek, Jewish, and Egyptian descent. Large parts of the city were destroyed by ensuing wars, and a tsunami which struck in 365 CE, the result of an earthquake centered near Crete. The famed Library of Alexandria was destroyed nearly a century earlier, the result of rebellion against Roman rule. The Great Lighthouse of Alexandria, also called the Pharos, was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In 1994 its ruins were discovered by French archaeologists, submerged in the seabed of the harbor.

2. Athens has been occupied by humans continuously for 5,000 years

The city of Athens bears the honor of being one of the oldest named communities in history. It grew to be the largest of the Greek city-states, and contributed more to western culture and evolution than any of the others. Among the residents of Athens are counted the physician Hippocrates, from whom the Hippocratic oath was derived. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle lived and studied in Athens, as did ancient historians Herodotus and Xenophon. By the second century of the Common Era, Athens was regarded as the seat of learning and philosophy in the western world.

The city’s population grew and contracted over the centuries due to war, plagues, famines, and other disasters, some man-made and some acts of nature. In the late 4th century CE it was sacked by the Visigoths who destroyed much of the ancient city. Over the centuries it fell victim to the Saracens, Turks, Slavs, and others, but the city also rebounded. Today, the ruins of Hellenistic Athens stand among the buildings of the modern capital of Greece. The ancient Parthenon is a frequently referenced symbol of antiquity, easily recognized around the world.

1. Rome reached its ancient population peak in the 2nd century CE

Ancient Rome grew from a small riverside community on the Tiber around 1000 BCE to the capital of a huge empire by the end of the first century CE. Its roads emanated from the city to points across Europe, North Africa, and the Mideast. Aqueducts carried water from faraway points to the cities and towns of the empire. Roman citizens enjoyed a standard of living far above those of the lands which its armies conquered. By the beginning of the 2nd century of the Common Era, about 1.5 million people lived in Rome and its suburbs.

Following the reign of Commodus Rome entered a period of decline, hastened by the raids of Germanic tribes and the Franks. With the Western Empire collapsing the capital of the Eastern Empire, Constantinople, surpassed Rome in both size and influence. Near the end of the 3rd century Rome, for all of its reflected glory, contained fewer than half a million residents. It took several centuries more for the empire to collapse, and the causes were too numerous to relate. But it never surpassed its peak of glory from the late 2nd Century, when the phrase “all roads lead to Rome” was considered to be based in truth.

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