We envision the history of our cities to be a step-by-step sequence of accomplishments, from small settlements to towns to the sprawling metropolises we see today. The darker parts are remembered as merely interludes – ‘dark ages’ – in the grand story, when in reality those dark ages have had a much larger impact on the course of our history than most periods of peace and prosperity.
Timur, or Tamerlane, was one of the more successful Turko-Mongol rulers that swept across Asia in the aftermath of the Mongol conquests. At its extent in the 15th century, the Timurid empire stretched from Russia to the southern coast of Iran. The Timurid Renaissance – a golden age of arts, culture and science across the empire – would have a lasting impact on the region for centuries to come.
Timur was also, to change the subject a bit, extremely brutal and fanatical in his conquests, and that’s saying something for a Mongol ruler. One of Timur’s most brutal campaigns was staged against the Delhi Sultanate in 1398, ruled by the Tughluq dynasty from their capital at New Delhi. The Tughluqs were, according to Timur, too soft on their non-Muslim subjects, making them a fitting target for brutal conquest and enslavement.
The Battle of Delhi was short-lived and hardly noteworthy, as Timur’s forces soundly defeated Tughluq defenses and proceeded to sack the city. For weeks, up to 100,000 citizens were put to the sword, along with widespread looting, arson, rape and systematic destruction of Delhi Sultanate infrastructure.
The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD has come to be associated with the city of Pompeii, as its preserved artifacts and bodies give us a visual sense of the tragedy. Most of the victims died due to the thermal shock caused by the burning hot debris and lava, though the temperature wasn’t high enough to burn them. While we wouldn’t call them ‘lucky’ by any definition of the word, they certainly got off light compared to the folks over at Herculaneum.
A Roman town settled at the base of the mountain, Herculaneum was a prosperous trading center at the time, though all that (obviously) changed on the day of the eruption. The remains here are much harder to dig up, as they’re covered in about five times the amount of ash as Pompeii. There are no well-preserved bodies, either. Only bones.
One recent study on the bones suggests that the victims died due to volcanic heat, as many of the bones have signs of fracture caused by severe heat. More disturbingly, they also found fragments of skulls. Unlike the people of Pompeii, citizens of Herculaneum were hit by a much more severe burst of heat, which made their blood boil to the point that their heads exploded.
The Plague of Justinian – named after the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, for some reason – was the first documented outbreak of the bubonic plague caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. It was the same disease that would return to decimate the European population in the 14th century, also known as the Black Death. It was almost as deadly, too, killing about one-third of the affected population within a few months of the outbreak.
Constantinople – now Istanbul – was the worst affected city. At its peak, the plague was claiming more than 10,000 lives per day, which was comparable to numbers recorded during the worst phases of the Black Death. The few records we have from that time describe a scene of utter horror and destruction, with scores of bodies just lying unclaimed throughout the city’s streets for months on end.
At one point, city officials were just throwing the bodies – which were often fully covered in infectious blood and pus and had to be tied to keep all that from disintegrating – into the sea, as the cemeteries and other burial grounds were filled to the brim.
The firebombing raids carried out across major Japanese cities at the end of WW2 are rarely, if ever, remembered in the same vein as the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The latter still provokes questions about the morality of deliberately using weapons of mass devastation against a civilian population, while the former is usually only mentioned in passing as wartime collateral damage.
Yet, the raids were as devastating and horrific as the atomic bombs – if not more so – both in scale and their intended aims: to create terror among the civilian population to force their military to surrender. The only difference was the speed of the massacre – as the atom bombs were almost instant in their execution – though that difference hardly matters to someone burning to death in the streets.
The casualty figures for the entire campaign were as high as about 387,000 civilians, out of which about 97,000 died in a matter of a six-hour period on the night of March 9, 1945. The Great Tokyo Air Raid, as it’d come to be known in the post-war period, leveled everything in a 16 square mile region of the city. Most of its structures were made up of wood and paper, intentionally chosen to inflict maximum damage to the citizenry.
A total of 1,665 tons of incendiary bombs were dropped on Tokyo that night, erupting in huge, violent walls of firestorms that trapped and burned people alive inside. People died from all sorts of reasons, too – severe burns, getting trampled under stampeding crowds, carbon monoxide asphyxiation, and even being boiled alive, as some people had taken refuge in swimming pools and other bodies of water. American pilots flying overhead reported a strong stench of burning flesh whenever they opened the hatch, along with high turbulence caused by winds generated by the firestorm. Many of the survivors that were found only managed to survive by being buried under huge piles of burning bodies, which would have been the only effective shelter against the flames at the time.
The siege of Leningrad – now St.Petersburg – by German and Finnish forces in September 1941 was the longest siege of the war, lasting for a total of 872 days. As the previous capital of Russia, the site of the Bolshevik revolution, and the home base for the dreaded Baltic Sea fleet, the city held strategic and ideological importance for both Germany and Russia. While it was lifted by the ending stages of the war, those 872 days were perhaps one of the worst 872 days experienced by any civilian population in history.
Accurate figures are hard to come by, though even by the most conservative estimates, more than 800,000 Russians lost their lives during the siege. Extreme hunger and lack of supplies were the primary causes – it wasn’t uncommon for people to boil household items like upholstery, wood, paint off the walls or anything they could find to make a meal. Cannibalism was shockingly common, too; more than 2,000 people were arrested for eating or attempting to eat human flesh in just the first half of 1942.
Romans were known for their ruthlessness on the battlefield, though their most brutal campaigns were reserved for rebelling populations. The Jewish citizens of Jerusalem had the misfortune of finding that out firsthand in 70 AD – four years after the Jerusalem riots of 66 AD that overthrew the Romans and installed a revolutionary government.
The Roman response to the rebellion also happens to be one of the darkest chapters in the history of Jerusalem. Led by Titus, the city was put under an unrelenting siege for over four months, as thousands of its citizens gradually lost their lives to famine, disease, and even cannibalism. One particularly harrowing account speaks of a woman in the streets killing and roasting her own child for a meal. When the siege was lifted, the city’s citizens were murdered or sold into slavery once the soldiers got tired of killing.
The Bosnian War was one of the many conflicts that erupted in the wake of the dissolution of Yugoslavia. It was marked by systematic ethnic cleansing, mass rape and a degree of brutality not seen in European warfare since WW2. Tensions from WW2 also played a prominent role, as Yugoslavia saw some of the worst violence of the war in the European theater.
One of its worst episodes was the siege of Sarajevo – the capital of the newly formed republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina – by nationalist Bosnian Serb forces in April 1992. While the war was multi-faceted and rather difficult to wrap your head around without a keen study of the region’s long history, the siege itself was quite easy to understand.
For more than three years, Serb forces – stationed in the picturesque hills surrounding the city – bombarded the city’s population with sniper rifles, artillery shells and air strikes. Their aim was to force the Bosnian government – primarily made up of Bosniak, Croat and Serb officials – to surrender and make way for a Greater Serbian empire.
Throughout that time, the civilians were indiscriminately bombed or shot from a distance, making everyday chores like going to the market a terrifying, life-threatening affair. By the end of it in February, 1996, the siege had claimed the lives of more than 5,000 civilians, making it the longest, deadliest siege of any city in the modern era of warfare.
When Nazi forces invaded the Polish capital of Warsaw in October 1939, Heinrich Himmler’s orders to his officers were devilishly simple – raze it to the ground and convert it to a transport hub for the Wehrmacht, or ‘no stone to remain standing’. During the course of the next five years or so – before it was finally liberated by Soviet soldiers in January 1945 – those orders were put into effect with the sort of efficiency you only associate with Germans.
The first Red Army soldiers into the city described a scene of complete and absolute destruction. Buildings had been systematically leveled to ensure that they can’t be repaired or built upon, and that was repeated with every structure – no matter how large or small – down to the brick. It was perhaps the only city in the war that was completely destroyed – it won’t be a stretch to say that pre-WW2 Warsaw ceased to exist during the occupation. The war – or more specifically the Nazis – turned Warsaw from a multiethnic, cosmopolitan capital to a war-torn wasteland that would take decades to completely rebuilt.
The Baghdad of 1258, by all accounts, was a city without parallel in the known world. Easily the largest and most prosperous city in the world at the time, it was the epicenter of the Golden Age of Islam – a nearly five-century-long period of renaissance in fields like medicine, military technology, philosophy, culture, and art, among others. House of Wisdom – the city’s central library – was said to be the largest repository of knowledge ever put together in one place by that time, including knowledge that was once thought to be lost after the fall of ancient civilizations like China, India and Rome.
Unfortunately, 1258 was also the year Hulagu Khan – a feared-yet-brilliant Mongol commander – decided that he wanted to conquer the Levant, and amassed perhaps the largest Mongol army ever put together to conquer Baghdad. This proved to be rather unnecessary, however, as the siege lasted for barely 12 days.
For about a week after the conquest, Mongol soldiers raped, murdered and pillaged across Baghdad, reducing its world-class infrastructure to unrecognizable rubble. This was the fate of most Mongol adversaries that didn’t surrender and chose to fight. The Caliph himself was rolled inside a carpet and trampled to death, bringing a brutal and sudden end to the golden Islamic age, as well as the Abbasid dynasty.
By the end of it, the House of Wisdom – like most other buildings in the city – was utterly destroyed, with all of its books burned or thrown into the river Tigris. The destruction was so complete that it would be centuries before the city was even rebuilt, let alone completely restored to its former glory.
The invasion of China by Japanese forces in 1937 didn’t come as a surprise, as they had already invaded Manchuria – or northeastern China – and installed a puppet government there back in 1931. What was surprising, however, was the sheer degree of brutality and violence Chinese civilians were subjected to throughout the length of the occupation.
The Rape of Nanking – as its worst episode would come to be known – started in December, 1937, and claimed the lives of over 300,000 civilians over the next six weeks. The victims were often bayoneted to death in various ways, though beheading, disemboweling, impaling and cutting into pieces using swords was quite common, too. Rape of women of all ages was particularly widespread, and the victims were often mutilated and violently killed in the aftermath.
Over the course of the massacre, people were buried alive, ran over by tanks, nailed to walls or burned to death. Two Japanese soldiers were even competing for the total number of people they could behead with their swords, as their exploits were regularly recorded by a photographer and published in newspapers back in Japan.