12 Of The Most Important Cities In History - And Why They Fell From The Top

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Vote up the ancient cities you wish you could visit in their prime.

In ancient times, the most powerful and influential cities in the world were located primarily in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Places like Alexandria, Jericho, and Carthage once were thought to be as influential or powerful as cities like London, Tokyo, or Washington, DC, are today. While many faded from prominence, some of the ancient powers continued to thrive after the rise of the Roman Empire and other European nations, while newer cities like Timbuktu also became important trade, cultural, or religious centers. 

By the 21st century, the majority of cities that were military, economic, and religious powers hundreds or thousands of years ago no longer have that kind of influence. Although some of the powerful ancient cities like Alexandria and Baghdad do still exist, many more of them have been forgotten or left in ruins.

Which of these ancient cities do you wish you could have seen at the peak of their power and influence?


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    107 VOTES

    Jericho Was A Bronze-Age Metropolis Until It Was Decimated By An Earthquake In 1573 BCE

    According to the Bible, God brought down the walls of Jericho for Joshua, a leader of the Israelites. After razing the city and plundering its treaures, Joshua proclaimed, "Cursed before the Lord is the one who undertakes to rebuild this city." 

    That's the biblical explanation for what happened to the fabled walled city of Jericho, a place that is known to have been one of the oldest settlements - with the oldest known protective wall - in the world.

    The area surrounding Jericho was a popular hunting ground even before it became a year-round settlement when the last ice age came to an end c. 9600 BCE. Excavations have revealed evidence that, by c. 8000 BCE, the site was surrounded by a stone wall nearly 12 feet tall and 6 feet wide. It is thought that the wall was built to protect the settlement from flooding.

    Jericho was at its most prominent between c. 1700 BCE and c. 1550 BCE. The city and the surrounding area had been more urbanized due to the rise of aristocrats known as the Maryannu in the Mitannite state located north of Jericho. By this time, Jericho was encircled by two impressive looking - but not very stable - walls made of mud brick. Around 1573 BCE, the city was destroyed by a major earthquake.

    This obviously contradicts the story in the Bible that says that Jericho was the first city destroyed by the Israelites after they crossed into Canaan c. 1400 BCE. Archaelogical evidence suggests that Jericho was actually uninhabited from the late 15th century BCE to the 10th century BCE, which would make it impossible for the story recorded in the Book of Joshua to be true.

    Instead, non-biblical scholars believe the Bible story (which was written sometime after 722 BCE, or hundreds of years after the described event) is simply an allegory.

  • Babylon Was Home To One Of The Earliest Written Legal Codes
    Photo: Maerten van Heemskerck / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Perhaps the most famous walled ancient city is Babylon. Located on the banks of the Euphrates River in what is present-day Iraq, it was founded in c. 2300 BCE. It became a major military power during the reign of King Hammurabi (c. 1792-1750 BCE), who created one of the earliest known written legal codes, known as the Code of Hammurabi. 

    The empire fell apart after Hammurabi's demise. For several centuries it was a small kingdom, but under the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II (c. 605-562 BCE) Babylon once again became a historically powerful city. By 600 BCE, Babylon was considered by many to be the center of the world. Nebuchadnezzar II ringed the city with walls 40 feet high and thick enough that chariot races could be held on them. The walls circled Babylon three times. 

    Probably because he had conquered Jerusalem and destroyed its temple, Nebuchadnezzar II is not favorably depicted in the Bible. Babylon is described as a city of sin and evil, while in the Book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar II is described as a stubborn tyrant who recognizes the power of Daniel's god but won't submit to him until he is driven insane.

    Other ancient texts, however, depict Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar II's reign as being a cultural and intellectual center, a place where women enjoyed equal rights to men, and where there was tolerance for gods and beliefs of people of other faiths and cultures.

    Babylon swiftly declined after Nebuchadnezzar II's passing in 562 BCE. The city fell to the Persians in 539 BCE and, despite efforts by people like Alexander the Great, never regained its previous prominence.

  • Alexandria Was The Cultural Center Of The Ancient World Before The Rise Of Christianity
    Photo: Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Alexandria is named after Alexander the Great, who founded the city located in Northern Egypt in 331 BCE. But the city blossomed under the rule of Ptolemy. Following the wars of the Diadochi, Ptolemy established Alexandria as the new capital of Egypt. It also replaced Tyre as one of the most important cities for trade and commerce in the region. During the Ptolemaic dynasty, which lasted from c. 320 BCE to c. 30 BCE, Alexandria grew into the largest city in the world. 

    In 48 BCE, Pompey fled to the city seeking sanctuary after being defeated by Julius Caesar at the Battle of Pharsalus, only to be slain by Ptolemy XIII. When Caesar arrived in the city, he declared martial law and sent for his exiled co-regent Cleopatra. Much of the city was burned in the ensuing civil war. Cleopatra's suicide in 30 BCE ended the Ptolemaic dynasty.

    The city was rebuilt, sacked, and rebuilt over the next few hundred years and became a religious center for people of different faiths. But the rise in Christianity led to its decline. 

    In 313, the Edict of Milan gave Christians more freedom - and more power. Paganism, meanwhile, was outlawed during the reign of Theodosius (379-395). In 391, the pagan temples in Alexandria were either destroyed or turned into churches. After the philosopher Hypatia was slain in 415, residents began to flee Alexandria, leading to the city's swift decline in power and influence.

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    87 VOTES

    Carthage Ruled The Mediterranean Until Rome Wiped It Off The Map

    Located on the coast of North Africa, Carthage was the most powerful and affluent city in the Mediterranean for hundreds of years. The city is thought to have been founded c. 814 BCE by a Phoenician queen known as Dido.

    In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great destroyed the powerful city of Tyre. Many Tyrian refugees fled to Carthage, bringing with them their wealth and influence. The city also formed a working relationship with the Masaesyli and Massylii tribes. These were the main reasons Carthage became the most affluent and powerful city in the Mediterranean. A port city, its power was driven by its maritime trade that moved in and out of the city's harbor. 

    But Carthage's expansion into the most powerful city in the region brought it into conflict with others. In 317 BCE, Agathocles of Syracuse invaded North Africa in an attempt to take over Carthage. He was defeated, but in 264 BCE, the Carthaginians plunged into war again - this time with Rome.

    Because of its superior naval power, Carthage had been able to enforce its treaty with the Roman Republic, which kept the latter from engaging in trade in the western Mediterranean. The Romans secured several victories during the First Punic War, finally defeating Carthage in 241 BCE. Carthage ceded control of Sicily and was ordered to pay a war indemnity.

    The Second Punic War broke out in 218 BCE when Hannibal attacked a Spanish city that was an ally of Rome. In 202 BCE, he was defeated at the Battle of Zama, in North Africa, and Carthage was again hit with a heavy war indemnity. It also entered into a peace treaty with Rome that forbade it from mobilizing an army. 

    The Third Punic War broke out in 149 BCE after the Carthaginians rejected Rome's list of demands, including that Carthage be dismantled and then rebuilt further inland. After three years of fighting, the Romans sacked Carthage in 146 BCE and burned it to the ground.

    Julius Caesar planned to rebuild Carthage, and five years after his passing, the city rose again, replacing Utica as the most powerful of Rome's African colonies. But the city fell to the Vandals in the year 439. Carthage rose once again in the sixth century as part of the Byzantine Empire, but in the year 698, it was destroyed in the Battle of Carthage as the Muslims drove the Byzantines from Africa. 

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    98 VOTES

    Prior To Spanish Conquest, Tenochtitlan Was The Center Of Aztec Civilization

    According to Aztec legend, the people who founded Tenochtitlan in the year 1345 had migrated from a cave in the northwest desert of Mexico to Lake Texcoco. During the journey, Aztec priests carried a large idol of the god Huitzilopochtli, who whispered directions, gave the Mexica their name, and promised great wealth and prosperity if he was worshipped in a way he thought suitable.

    During the journey, Copil,  the son of Huitzilopochtli's sister Malinalxochitl, attempted to start a rebellion in revenge for the Mexica abandoning their goddess mother. Copil was slain, and Huitzilopochtli told the migrants to throw Copil's heart as far as possible into Lake Texcoco. Where the heart landed was where they ended up building Tenochtitlan.

    The heart of the city was the walled sacred precinct, which had three entrances and reportedly consisted of 78 separate structures, the most important of which was likely the the Great Temple or Temple Mayor. On top of the pyramid platform, which was reached by two flights of stairs, were twin temples. The northern temple was dedicated to Tlaloc, the god of rain, while the southern shrine was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the god of war.

    Tenochtitlan was the capital and religious center of the Aztec civilization for nearly 200 years. At its height, it had a population of more than 200,000. In the year 1521, Spanish conquerors led by Hernán Cortés attacked the Aztec city. Cortés only had about 500 men under his command, so he recruited the Tlaxcalans and others to join his fight. 

    Cortés's army sacked Tenochtitlan on August 13, 1521. This event marked the end of the Aztec civilization - most of the structures were looted and destroyed, while what remained of the city soon became the capital city of New Spain. The area has since become the capital of Mexico, Mexico City.

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    73 VOTES

    Many Believe Ur To Be The Birthplace Of The Biblical Abraham

    Located in Southern Mesopotamia (now Iraq), Ur was an important port on the Persian Gulf. Thought to have been established as a small village sometime between 5000 and 4100 BCE, it was known as an established city by 3800 BCE. 

    The city's location was the reason for its importance as a trade center. It was located at the point where the Tigris and Euphrates run into the Persian Gulf. Excavations of the area have found proof that, at least early on, Ur was a city of great wealth and its residents lived much more comfortably than the citizens of other cities in the region.

    Ur-Nammu, who reigned from 2047-2030 BCE, created a codified law system that predates the one developed by King Hammurabi of Babylon by some 300 years. Ur-Nammu's son, Shulgi of Ur (r. 2029-1982 BCE), attempted to create an urban community that was devoted to cultural progress and excellence. He also built a 155-mile-long wall along the border of the region of Sumer.

    But the wall wasn't anchored at either end, so potential invaders could just go around it. In 1750 BCE, the kingdom of Elam went around the wall, sacked Ur, and took the reigning king as a prisoner. 

    Ur also had a possible link to the biblical figure of Abraham. In the Book of Genesis, it is mentioned that Abraham was born in the city or Ur Kasdim. Many believe that Ur and Ur Kasdim are the same place. However this idea has been contested by scholars who believe Abraham came from an area called Ura, near the city of Harran, and that the writers of the Book of Genesis simply confused Ur and Ura.

    Although Ur remained a center of culture for hundreds of years after being sacked in 1750 BCE, climate change and overuse of the land slowly led to the residents migrating either to the northern parts of Mesopotamia or south to areas like the land of Canaan. As the Persian Gulf receded further and further from the city, Ur lost its importance and eventually became deserted by approximately 450 BCE.