9 of The World's Greatest Ancient Cities

Ancient cities and settlements are dotted on every continent of Earth; many of them have been lost to time and some are even hidden in plain sight. The study of these human civilizations of old has inspired scholars, the excavation attempts of archeologists, and the minds and hearts of tourists all over the world. 

What follows is a sampling of ancient cities which continue to be investigated from new angles as we persist in our desire to understand the ways in which human beings have lived both with one another and with our planet.  

Memphis, Egypt

The Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx, Egypt

Memphis was the capital city of ancient Egypt, founded in the year 2925, Before Current Era (BCE) by a king named Menes. Menes famously united what had formerly been known as Upper and Lower Egypt. At its creation, Memphis was known as the White Walls, because that was the color of the king’s palace.

Around 2100 BCE the city was re-named Men-nefer after the sixth dynasty and their nearby pyramid.

The god of Memphis was Ptah, who was thought to be the god of artisans and crafts-people. There was a temple dedicated to him, but the most famous ruins surrounding Memphis include The Pyramids of Giza and The Great Sphinx.

Memphis continued to be culturally significant all the way up until the beginning of Christianity in the first century Current Era (CE). From the first to the fifth century, many of the pagan monuments were destroyed to make room for Christian monuments.

When Muslims conquered Egypt in 640 CE, what remained of Memphis was dismantled and by the time Cairo was formed in the tenth century, the materials once used to build Memphis were transported to support creation of the new capital.

Thebes, Greece

View of Thebes (1819) by Hugh William Williams, via Wikipedia

Thebes is a city in Central Greece and was an important geographical location for many Greek myths, most famously the birthplace of the hero Hercules (sometimes called Heracles). It was the largest city in the Boeotia region of Greece and sided against Athens in the invasion by Persia in 480 BCE. In fact there was much alliance-making and subsequent switching of alliances between Athens and Thebes (as well as Sparta) throughout the city’s relatively short-lived predominance.

In Homer’s The Iliad, Thebes, Greece was called “Seven-Gated Thebes”, differentiating it from Thebes in Egypt, which was called “One-Hundred Gated Thebes”. In fact, Thebes turns up in ancient myth and literature several times, including in the stories of the god of wine and pleasure, Dionysus and was featured in the story of Oedipus.

Thebes’ was veritably destroyed by Alexander the Great in 335 BCE and future attempts to resurrect it were largely unsuccessful. The current ruins are sprinkled throughout the modern city.

Babylon, Iraq

Restored ruins of ancient Babylon, Iraq

Babylon was also a city in ancient Mesopotamia. Some historians say it was founded in 1894 BCE and abandoned in 1000 CE. Others say it was founded around 2300 BCE. Consensus seems to surround its original rise to power around 1792 BCE under the rule of the Amorite king, Hammurabi. He turned Babylon into a city-state under his military power and created one of the first known written legal codes, called The Code of Hammurabi.

Babylon rose to power once again during what is historically known as the Neo-Babylonian Empire from 626 BCE to 539 BCE. Its power during this period was short-loved once again after it fell to the Persians, led by Cyrus the Great.

Panorama of partially restored Babylon ruins, Hillah, Iraq

Babylon is one of history’s most well-known ancient cities due to its appearance in both Christian and Jewish religious literature and also due to its having been a supposed home to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Though there is no archaeological evidence to suggest that the Hanging Gardens were more than myth, their description as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World have captivated historians for centuries.

The ruins of Babylon are located south of Baghdad and were designated a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in 2019.

Athens, Greece

Skyline of Athens with the Monastiraki square and the Acropolis hill during sunset, Athens, Greece

Athens is one of the oldest cities in the world and has been continually inhabited for as many as five thousand years. It was named for Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare in

Athens’ cultural contribution to world history cannot be overstated — indeed democracy itself is said to have originated there. Every citizen was given the right to vote on important issues, which we see versions of in modern democratic nations to this day. Furthermore, Athens is generally considered to be the birthplace of Western civilization.

Amphitheater of the Acropolis of Athens, UNESCO World Hetiage site

Though Athens was once the biggest and most powerful of Greek city-states that grew up from disparate villages combining together for military and political strategy, it declined over the ages due to arrogant leadership. What began as a trade-based economy grew into an agriculturally-focused one, with land becoming the greatest commodity. Colonization spread forces thin and opened the oligarchical powers of older aristocratic rulers to being over-thrown by tyrants.

During this time, the democracy that Athens became known for was formed and a great renaissance of arts and culture emerged.

There are currently eighteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Athens.

Persepolis, Iran

The Ancient City of Persepolis, a UNESCO world heritage site in Shiraz , Iran

Persepolis was the ceremonial capital of Achaemenid Empire and was widely considered to be the capital of Persia. Archaeologists have dated the ruins of Persepolis as far back as 515 BCE. It was declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

The ruins are Persepolis are located 70 kilometres northeast of modern day Shiraz, Iran. The city was constructed in the Achaemenid architectural style, which features government and ceremonial buildings, religious temples, and mausoleums to house the bodies of important people. Persepolis took one hundred years to be constructed and was first established by Darius the Great. It was not the largest city in ancient Persia, but was one of the four capitals of the empire nonetheless.

Panoramic view of ancient Persian capital city of Persepolis, Iran

Alexander the Great ransacked and destroyed Persepolis in 330 BCE. It was excavated by archeologists in 1930.

Alexandria, Egypt

A drawing of ancient Alexandria in Egypt

After Cairo, Alexandria is the second largest city in Egypt. It was founded in 331 BCE by Alexander the Great as a port city on the Mediterranean.  Alexandra grew rapidly and quickly replaced Memphis as Egypt’s capital city.

Alexandria was home to the Lighthouse of Alexandria, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was also home to the famed Great Library, which is known in its current iteration as Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

At its peak, Alexandria was the largest city in the ancient world, before being out-sized by Rome, Italy.

Much of the modern city of Alexandria is located on top of the ancient ruins and excavation beneath the existing infrastructure is cost prohibitive. Furthermore, much of the ancient part of the city is underwater, having been subsumed by cycles of earthquakes and tsunamis over the centuries. Abu Mena is an early Christian holy city located southwest of Alexandria and was designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

Carthage, Tunisia, North Africa

The ruins of Carthage in Tunisia

Carthage was a settlement in northernmost African, where modern day Tunisia is located. Carthage started out as a settlement, grew into a city-state, and eventually became an empire.  It was originally created by colonists from Tyre called the Phoenicians. They created their empire primarily in maritime areas. When Phoenicia was conquered in the seventh century BCE, Carthage gained independence.

As a major maritime merchant, Carthage found itself in three major wars with Rome, called the Punic Wars. It finally succumbed to Roman forces in the third Punic War in 146 BCE. Carthage was destroyed and Rome built a new city in its place. Due to the destruction of nearly all of their written texts after the third Punic War, most of what we now know about Carthage comes from Greek and Roman texts.

Substantial ruins of Carthage are protected as World Heritage Sites, in spite of urban sprawl.

Rome, Italy

One of the most famous landmarks in the world: the Roman Forum in Rome, Italy

Rome began as a settlement along the Tiber River in approximately 750 BCE. The settlement grew into a city, which eventually colonized an Empire throughout the Mediterranean and much of Europe with their military powers. The city of Rome was founded in the eightgh century BCE and the Roman Empire fell in the fifth century CE.

At its peak, the Roman Empire encompassed approximately 1.9 million square miles and had anywhere between fifty and ninety million citizens. At the height of its colonial power in 117 CE, as many as 20 percent of the world's population were Roman citizens. 

Rome originated as a Kingdom in its earliest days, though it evolved to a system of elected monarchy and held places for kings in the realm of spiritual and religious (if not political) life up until the Roman Republic was formed near the end of the sixth century BCE. Romans experimented with a variety of elected positions, lengths of terms, and democratic processes during the transition from kingdom to republic.

Beginning in the fourth century BCE, Rome began the process of attempted (and often successful) colonization from North Africa to the Middle East and all over Europe. During three successive Punic Wars, Rome triumphed over Carthage and slid into military dictatorship. 

As the Empire progressed deeper into dictatorship, so too began the process of decline of the Roman Empire. Much of this decline can be attributed to civil war and in-fighting, invasions by external armies, pandemics, and economic depression. It became the capital of the Christian Empire in the fourth century CE. 

At present, there are thirteen World Heritage Sites in Rome, in addition to the bustling modern city thriving around them. 

Nineveh, Iraq

Lalish, Nineveh Plains in Iraq

Nineveh was an ancient city in Upper Mesopotamia, surrounded today by what is known as the modern city of Mosul, Iraq. It was the oldest and most heavily populated city of the Assyrian Empire, one of the most powerful Empires in Middle Eastern history. Nineveh is located on the east bank of the Tigris River

Nineveh was initially a small hamlet, settled on the bank of the Tigris, but grew into the largest city in the world and maintained that position for approximately fifty years until approximately 612 BCE. 

Artifacts recovered from Nineveh suggest that the city possessed early copper smelting technology that seem to have contributed to its growth trade status. The city is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, The King James Bible, and several other religious texts 

In 627 Nineveh was site of a battle between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Sasanians. The city was conquered by the Arabs in 641 and reduced to an administrative center where it was successively demoted until it was left in little more than ruins.

The excavation of Nineveh commenced in 1842 and at present, all that remains of the once-great city are two mounds, surrounded by what still stands of the city walls. The structures which have been excavated from these two mounds have faced extensive looting and destruction by the Islamic State of Iraq. 

Ancient cities tell us so much about the way we as humans have lived throughout the ages. From these sites, we can learn how civilizations rose and how they fell. Perhaps, by learning what befell our ancestors in these once-great cities, we can avoid their mistakes and extend greater longevity for ourselves in the cities and states that have succeeded them. 

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