THE 16 GREATEST CITIES IN HUMAN HISTORY
January 26, 2013
The resource and idea for this posting came from an article written by Robert Johnson and Gus Lubin, published in The Business Insider, January 20, 2013. Some of the text is copied from their fine article. All of the pictures come from other sources.
It’s absolutely amazing how cities seem to grow over the years, decades and centuries. What attracts individuals to these metropolitan areas? Jobs, commercial opportunities, medical facilities, cultural centers, military service. Probably all of these reasons and many, many more. The greatest and largest cities in the world were arguably epicenters of human civilization. The cities we will discuss led mankind to new heights of culture and commerce—though in the end each of them was surpassed and some were destroyed. Have you ever thought about the great cities that existed over the centuries? Where were they and what do historians feel were their drawing powers? Recently a two-man team put together their candidates for the greatest cities of their time. Let’s take a look.
Jericho— Jericho may be the oldest continually occupied city in the world, with evidence of settlement dating back to 9000 BCE. The population was thought to be around 2,000 people, which was considered to be a huge metropolitan area for the time. During the Younger Dryas period of cold and drought, permanent habitation of any one location was not possible. However, the spring at what would become Jericho was a popular camping ground for Natufian hunter-gatherer groups, who left a scattering of crescent microlith tools behind. Around 9600 BCE the droughts and cold of the Younger Dryas Stadial had come to an end, making it possible for Natufian groups to extend the duration of their stay, eventually leading to year round habitation and permanent settlement. An artist’s rendering of the city may be seen as follows:
Uruk— Uruk is famous as the capital city in the epic of Gilgamesh; also thought to be the Biblical city of Erech, built by King Nimrod. The domestication of grain and its close proximity to the Euphrates River allowed Uruk’s harvest to swell, leading to trade, advancements in writing, and specialized crafts. The city, with a population of 4,000, declined around 2000 BC due to regional struggles and was finally abandoned around the time of the Islamic conquest.
Mari—Mari, a city of 50,000 was the robust trade capital of Mesopotamia, central in moving stone, timber, agricultural goods and pottery throughout the region. The city was home first to the Sumerite kings, then the Amorite kings, one of which built a massive 300-room palace. Mari was destroyed in 1759 BC by Hammurabi of Babylon and then abandoned. In the 1930s a French archaeologist discovered 25,000 tablets written in an extinct language called Akkadian. Most were municipal documents, economic reports and census rolls—a third were personal letters. The find changed our understanding of the ancient Near East.
Ur–Ur was the most important port on the Persian Gulf. It was also a rich city, which held huge amounts of luxury items crafted from precious metals and semi-precious stones imported from throughout the known world. Because of possible drought, or changing river patterns, Ur was no longer inhabited after 500 BC. It remained a holy site, however, and a burial site for people around the region. When archaeologists began sincere excavations in the mid 1850s, they discovered an immense necropolis, or city of the dead. 100,000 citizens occupied Ur at its height.
Yinxu— An old village of 120,000 on the Huan River, Yinxu was reborn as the capital of the Shang Dynasty. It would be abandoned with the beginning of the Zhou Dynasty. The city is a major archaeological site for its immense deposits of Oracle Bones, which contain the earliest form of Chinese writing. Pieces of ox bone and tortoise shell were inscribed using a bronze pin, heated until the bone cracked and then presented for divination. Later when the tradition changed to ink and brush, entire genealogies and city histories were written on the fragments and deposited in central pits.
Babylon– Just the word Babylon today conjures up images of decadence and hubris. It was here the Bible says residents believed so fully in themselves that they tried to build a structure into the heavens. God was not impressed with the Tower of Babel, and the narrative holds that He assigned every resident a different language to confound any future teamwork. Regardless of belief, Babylon was an epicenter of wealth, power and prestige from 2000 to about 538 BC. That year Cyrus of Persia is said to have re-routed the Euphrates and sent his army into the city on the bare riverbed and routed the Babylonian forces. As with Yinxu, the population was thought to be around 120,000 individuals.
Carthage– Carthage is said to have been the greatest city in the world for a short time span before getting reduced to ash by the Romans in 146 BC. Because all records of Carthaginian life were destroyed by the Romans in such a swift and thorough rage, little is known of the city through its former residents. It wasn’t even until 1985 that a formal peace treaty between Rome and Carthage was signed, finally ending the 2,100-year period of conflict. 100,000 individuals lived in Carthage.
Rome– From its humble roots as a small Italian village 1,100 years earlier, Rome in the second century AD was enjoying the pinnacle of its influence and achievement. A city of 1,200,000 people. At this time, the city was a military dictatorship under Septimius Severus; a move the people welcomed to correct the corruption instilled by Emperor Commodus. Do you recall Joaquin Phoenix in “Gladiator“? He portrayed Commodus in that movie. Rome reached this size because it could draw food and taxes from most of Europe and the Mediterranean, but it proved an untenable position. By 273 AD, Rome had fewer than 500,000 inhabitants and the Dark Ages were looming on the horizon.
Constantinople– Constantinople, population 600,000, was in a fight for its survival in the year 600. The nomadic Avars and the Eastern European Bulgarians were crushing the city from the west, and the Persians had completely overwhelmed the city’s defenses in the east. The metropolis was spared through a combination of impenetrable walls, its navy, and the arrival of soon-to-be emperor Flavius Heraclius Augustus, who eventually routed the Persians from Asia Minor. The city is now known as Istanbul. By 618, however, as the Persian Wars dragged on and decimated the city’s supply of grain from Egypt, Constantinople’s population dwindled to one tenth what it was 18 years before.
Bagdad– In the year 900, Baghdad was the center of the Golden Age of Islam—A 500-year Mid-East renaissance that began with the founding of the city and ended in 1250 AD with the Mongol invasion. Home to the House of Wisdom, where the entire world’s knowledge was laboriously transcribed into Arabic, Baghdad’s enlightenment saved innumerable ancient texts from the western world. This free exchange of ideas is probably what led to the population explosion, as traders from around the known world came to the city and exchanged farming techniques. The result was the Arab Agricultural Revolution and a scientific approach to agriculture still used today. In the year 900, the population of Baghdad was thought to be around 900,000 people.
Kaifeng–For centuries, because of its central location on four major canals, Kaifeng was the capital city for a huge swath of China. By 1200, the city was surrounded by three rings of walls to offset the vulnerability. Despite the fortifications, Kaifeng was an early casualty in what would become a forty-year war with the Mongols — it was sacked and its residents numbering 1,000,000 fled in 1234. Kaifeng is also home to the Kaifeng Jews, the most ancient Jewish population in China.
Beijing–To feed its growing population and vast number of troops in 1400 AD, Beijing officials constructed the Jingtong storehouses to house grain it received as tax from the region. The practice helped control prices and prevent inflation until the city grew to the largest in the world and the demand outgrew supply. The population of 1,000,000 was then forced to consume the regional forests for housing and firewood leaving only coal, mined from the Western Hills, for heat and fuel. The resulting pollution changed the ecological makeup of the entire region.
Ayutthaya–The island Ayutthaya, the capital of Thailand for over 400 years, was often referred to as the most beautiful city in the world by the diplomats who traveled there. It was so appealing, in fact, that in 1767 it was sacked by the Burmese, and the capital was moved to its current location in Bangkok. At its height, 1,000,000 people lived in Ayutthaya.
London– While the British Empire was flung around the globe bringing in immense wealth for a small portion of England; London was largely a slum in 1825. And crime was rampant. Not until 1829 did government activate a full-time police force. Named after the Prime Minister at the time, Robert Peel, they’re called “bobbies” to this day. In 1829, 1,335,000 people lived in London proper.
New York— New York City took on its modern shape in 1914, when the Bronx was added as the fifth borough. It was a city that looked to the future as it built skyscrapers and laid plans to build them even larger. Despite the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, New York went ahead and built the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the Lincoln Building and One Wall Street by 1931, just to name a few. A whopping 7,774,000 liven in NYC in 1929.
Tokyo– The economic toll of World War II continued to threaten Japan’s economic future into the 1950s. But by 1968, Japan had reached an economic and population growth curve that has carried it into the 21st century. The years from 1950 through 1990 in Japan are referred to as the post-war economic miracle, the most prosperous time ever in Japan’s history. 20, 500,000 live in Tokyo.
If we flash forward 100 years we may find cities such as Chicago, Sao Paulo, Los Angeles will have gone the way of several ancient cities we have taken a look at. Only time will tell.