It may at first seem surprising that so enormous a continent should be apparently represented by only five cities; but we are not concerned here with all Asia – only Asia minus the Near East, which merits its own section. But these five – though two or three of their names may be relatively unfamiliar – are of immense importance. The first of them, Mohenjo-daro, was built around 2500 BC and was perhaps the most extensive settlement of the ancient Indus Valley civilization, one of the three early cultures of the Old World.

The city of Xianyang, now part of modern Xi’an, was the ancient capital of more than ten dynasties in Chinese history. Of these the best known to most visitors was the Qin (221–206 BC). It was here that the ruler Qin Shi Huangdi constructed his palaces and gardens, and nearby his massive mausoleum, guarded by the celebrated Terracotta Army, over 8,000 strong. Our other Chinese city is Linzi, which was the capital of Qi in what is now Shandong. It was one of the great capitals in the period known as the Warring States, from the 5th to the 3rd centuries BC. These capitals had to be redoubtable fortresses; what made Linzi special was its academy, to which thinkers and philosophers were invited to provide constant intellectual stimulus to the kings and ruling aristocracy.

Pataliputra, the modern-day Patna, reached the pinnacle of its prosperity when it served as the capital of the two magnificent Mauryan emperors, Chandragupta and Asoka the Great. Together, these two subdued nearly all the Indian subcontinent, and Pataliputra had a population of up to 300,000 inhabitants. It also became an important Buddhist centre, with a number of large and influential monasteries.

Last on our list, the Sri Lankan city of Anuradhapura is one of the principal shrines of Buddhism. It was founded in the 4th century BC, and the great Bodhi tree, said to have grown from a cutting from the fig tree of Buddha, spreads its shadow over the centre of the shrine. Anuradhapura flourished for some 1,300 years, but was abandoned in 993 and was lost in the dense jungle. Now recovered, this fascinating ancient city with its palaces and monasteries is once again accessible, and has been listed as a UNESCO Heritage Site.

Detail of a ‘moonstone’, sandakada pahana, at Anuradhapura, a semicircular carved stone placed at entrances and at the base of stairs and possibly symbolizing the cycle of existence.

© Jane Taylor (


Mysteries of the Indus Civilization


Rarely has it been granted to archaeologists, like Schliemann in Tiryns and Mycenae or Stein in the deserts of Turkmenistan, to reveal to the world the remains of a long-forgotten civilization. Nevertheless, we are now apparently on the very brink of such a revolutionary discovery in the Indus Valley.


In the 2nd century AD, Buddhist devotees constructing a monastery beside the Indus river reused bricks from earlier structures that they had found at the site. Abandoned within four centuries, the ruins of this monastery, now in modern Pakistan, became known as Mohenjo-daro, or the ‘Mound of the Dead’. When R. D. Banerjee, the first archaeologist to excavate at the site, began work there in 1921, he believed that all the mounds were historic in age, but quickly recognized that its seals bore the same indecipherable script discovered the previous year at Harappa. The British archaeologist Sir John Marshall soon resolved the issue, when he announced that the similarity of the two sites, 400 km (250 miles) apart, confirmed the presence of a previously unknown Bronze Age civilization in the Indus valley.

Mohenjo-daro is both the best-preserved city of this civilization – which spread over an area of half a million sq. km (193,000 sq. miles) between 2500 and 1900 BC – and also its largest, covering 200 ha (494 acres), of which only a small fraction has been excavated. The site was first occupied around 3500 BC as hill farmers and herders settled on the river floodplain, but these levels are now metres below the water table. Enveloping its predecessor, Bronze Age Mohenjo-daro was pre-planned, and although only the final phases of its 600-year life are now exposed, the streets still echo this first blueprint. A work of some 4 million days of communal labour, the city was formed by erecting two enormous silt platforms stabilized by facings of mud brick.

Crowned by a 3rd-century AD Buddhist stupa, the Citadel mound of Mohenjo-daro rises 30 m (100 ft) above the Lower Town. This Bronze Age metropolis is an advanced example of early urban planning but is now under threat from erosion.

© Yoshio Tomii/SuperStock.

The Lower Town was divided by a grid of wide streets into city blocks, each with access to wells for water close by. Side streets and lanes provided entry to individual courtyard houses. Mostly extremely regular, a few of the compounds were larger than average and perhaps had a non-residential function. Evidence indicates that the majority of households were engaged in the manufacture of shell, stone, ceramic or metal objects. A further unifying feature was the widespread provision of bathing platforms, emptying through a network of drains leading into lanes and through silt traps into the city’s thoroughfares. A vast investment, the baths may have performed a ritual role, as well as coping with the bathwater and the little annual rain.

If the Lower Town is characterized by uniformity, its neighbour to the west, the ‘Citadel’, is distinguished by its unique monuments. Its most exceptional structure is the Great Bath, measuring 12 by 7 m (39 by 23 ft) and 2.4 m (8 ft) deep, made waterproof by setting brick in bitumen and surrounded by a colonnaded courtyard. Narrow entrances on minor streets suggest that access to it was restricted. A second monument to its west comprised rows of mud-brick podiums. First identified as a hypocaust for underfloor heating, the archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler later interpreted it as the state granary; analogies with a similar structure at the site of Lothal (in India) suggest it did have a storage function. At the southern end of the mound is a large hall, with four rows of five rectangular brick piers. Despite these grand monuments, the absence of anything resembling palaces, temples or royal tombs is puzzling, suggesting that the civilization’s rigid uniformity was guided by less overtly hierarchical values than its Mesopotamian neighbours.

Scholars have long tried to ascertain why the city fell into ruin almost four thousand years ago. One theory saw invasions from outside the region as the main culprit, while another pointed to natural catastrophes. It is likely, however, that the end came gradually, with the inhabitants moving back to the countryside as the river shifted its course away from the city, and the annual inundation on which its farmers relied became unpredictable. Mohenjo-daro was a unique experiment in urban planning and it was to be another thousand years before urban communities were re-established in the region – though never again in such a regimented style.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!