The cities that shaped the ancient world bore hardly any resemblance to cities as we understand them today, just as the ancient world itself had little in common with that in which we live. But we owe them, none the less, an enormous debt. It was they, after all, who laid the foundations for life as we know it; they who saw the birth of literature, of drama, of painting, sculpture and architecture; they who learnt the first painful lessons of large communities living together; and they who gradually, over countless generations, built up the knowledge and the experience that we nowadays take for granted.

These cities also differed widely from each other. The ancient cities of Europe developed in an entirely different way from those of the Near East or the Americas. This was largely because of climate and geography. A quick glance at the list of the cities represented in this book will make one consideration abundantly clear: virtually all of them enjoyed, for most of the year at least, a mild and beneficial climate. Human beings, if they are to thrive, need warmth. The populations of our ancient cities were used to seasonal change; but that change was less between heat and cold than between wet and dry – and both wetness and dryness are equally important for survival.

All that remains of the great city of Babylon, once the centre of the world, as seen from the air, with the Euphrates river in the background. Much damage has been inflicted on the city and its buildings over the centuries, including as a result of modern reconstructions and conflicts.

© Georg Gerster/Panos.

Geography, in those early days, meant above all proximity to water, or substantial rainfall. Water was not only necessary for sustaining life, it was also the principal – if not, on occasion, the only – means of communication. Roads, particularly in the desert countries of the Near and Middle East where so many of our early civilizations began, were virtually non-existent; the only effective method of transportation was by water, first by river, then – rather later – by sea. And water had another advantage that can hardly be overemphasized: given a good strong raft, it was capable of transporting almost infinite weights. Without the Tigris, the Euphrates and the Nile, the Old World of early antiquity could hardly have existed at all.

In ancient Thebes, modern Luxor, the temples and settlements lay at the edge of the low floodplain of the Nile, green with vegetation, but the vast estates of Amun extended into the deserts beyond.

© Werner Forman Archive/Heritage Image/

On the other hand, most of our ancient cities enjoyed one other inestimable blessing: the Mediterranean. Seeing it on the map for the millionth time, we tend to take it for granted; but if we try to look at it objectively we suddenly realize that here is something utterly unique, a body of water that might have been deliberately designed, like no other on the surface of the globe, as a cradle of cultures. Almost enclosed by its surrounding lands, it is saved from stagnation by the Strait of Gibraltar, with the ancient Pillars of Hercules protecting it from the worst Atlantic storms and keeping its waters fresh and – at least until recently – unpolluted. It links three of the world’s six continents; and its climate, for much of the year, is among the most benevolent to be found anywhere. Small wonder, then, that it nurtured three of the most dazzling civilizations of antiquity and witnessed the birth or blossoming of three of our greatest religions.

But even in the Mediterranean it remained a fact that the early maritime cities – those that depended on the sea rather than on a river – took a good deal longer to develop; by the time Athens was born, Uruk was probably over three thousand years old. There were two obvious reasons for this delay: shipbuilding and navigation. Few ships worthy of the name existed before about 2000 BC, and for several centuries after that they remained distinctly unreliable. With the art of navigation still in its infancy, early sailors were greatly assisted by the fact that throughout much of the eastern Mediterranean it was possible to sail from port to port without ever losing sight of land.

Yet there was no point in taking unnecessary risks; and so the first Mediterranean seafarers wisely kept their journeys as short as possible. Whenever they could, too, they hugged the northern coasts, which are full of incident. The southern shore, by contrast, is essentially featureless except, in the east, for the all-important delta of the Nile. And, even there, the desert is never very far away. Beyond it, however, we must not forget those flourishing inland cities like Meroë and Aksum, religious centres and vital stopping-places for the camel caravans transporting the riches of Africa across the continent.

Relief depicting the Great Aten Temple in Amarna, with altars piled high with offerings. It is thought that blocks such as this found across the Nile river at El-Ashmunein were reused from buildings at Amarna.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Of the very earliest cities featured in the pages that follow, it is perhaps hardly surprising that relatively little is left above the ground. Apart from a few fragmentary texts, we can rely for our knowledge on the archaeologist’s trowel alone. The civilization of ancient Egypt, represented here by the cities of Memphis, Thebes and Amarna, is the first culture of which, thanks to its surviving monuments, sculptures, paintings and inscriptions, we can begin to form a distinct idea in our minds. Of Athens and Rome, too, there is fortunately enough still standing – to say nothing of the considerable body of superb literature – to enable us to build up an even clearer picture of what these cities looked like, and of the sort of life that was lived by their inhabitants. Our choice of cities, however, was based not on the extent of our knowledge, but on the essential importance of the cities themselves.

The Acropolis, the ‘high city’, dominates Athens and is the location for a number of great temples of the 5th century BC, not least the Parthenon, dedicated to the city’s patron deity Athena. The well-preserved theatre in the lower right, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, dates from the 2nd century AD.

© Georg Gerster/Panos.

Mohenjo-daro, the ‘Mound of the Dead’, is the best-preserved city of the ancient Indus civilization. At the foot of the citadel mound lay the lower residential settlement, with individual houses divided into blocks by streets and lanes.

De Agostini Picture Library/akg-images.

A few of them constitute exceptions to the general rules outlined above and need, perhaps, one or two additional words of explanation. There are, for example, those merchant cities which owed their prosperity above all to their strategic location. Petra is probably the best example, with its extraordinary approach through a narrow cleft in the surrounding rocks making it the perfect safe haven, meeting-place and clearing-house for the caravans on both the north–south and the east–west trade routes. Palmyra is another. Unlike Petra, it is surrounded by a featureless desert; but the caravans plying between Persia and the Mediterranean ports needed an oasis and a resting-place, and Palmyra provided both.

We thought long and hard before we chose our five Asian cities for inclusion. Mohenjo-daro, the ‘Mound of the Dead’, has lain in ruins for nearly four thousand years, but in its heyday it ruled over a Bronze Age civilization in the Indus valley covering half a million square miles. The cities of Warring States China – represented here by Linzi – were of key significance in the rise of Chinese civilization; and how could we also not include Xianyang, China’s first imperial capital? By the 1st century BC it was probably the most splendid city on earth. In India Pataliputra was the capital of the Mauryan dynasty of Asoka the Great in the 3rd century BC; and in Sri Lanka the ancient Buddhist city of Anuradhapura – my own personal favourite – is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities of the world. It is now, most deservedly, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Finally, the cities of the Americas. The mystery here is that the pre-Columbian civilizations, principally of Mexico and Peru, despite the apparent lack of any communication with the other continents, should have been so nearly contemporary with those of the rest of the world. Not surprisingly, however, the American cities developed somewhat differently; their peoples possessed no wheel, no written language, no scales or weights, nor – until the arrival of the conquistadors – did they have any horses. Yet their architecture was deeply impressive, while the Maya, with the beauty and complexity of their hieroglyphic script and their astonishing astronomical calculations, were in a class of their own.

Tikal – with its iconic temples and tombs, raised on high stepped platforms, piercing the top of the rainforest canopy in Guatemala – has today become the signature for ancient Maya culture. Its sizeable population once lived not in a jungle but in a cultivated landscape of mixed agriculture and orchards.

© Vladimir Korostyshevskiy/

Let me conclude with a warning: this is not a history book. Although inevitably it must cover many centuries, these centuries are now so far distant that they can be viewed, as it were, through the wrong end of the telescope until they are, in the words of the old hymn, like an evening gone. It does not, like history books, trace progress. Instead, it spins the globe and watches, as the earth’s endlessly varied peoples take their first tentative steps in that most challenging art of living together, gradually shaping the ancient world – just as that ancient world has shaped our own.



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