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10 Magnificent Capital Cities of the Ancient World
By Debra Kelly,
Urban Ghosts Media, 3 November 2015.

Today’s world places an unprecedented focus on the ultra-modern. Cities pride themselves on their mass transit systems, connectivity and forays into solar power, wind power, and the next generation of skyscrapers. That’s all well and good, but in order to really appreciate the ingenuity of mankind, we’re going to take a look at a series of magnificent capital cities of the ancient world, awe-inspiring relics of advanced civilisations dating to a time before the advent of heavy machinery and other modern technology. Hundreds, and thousands, of years ago, these capital cities reigned supreme.

1. Assur/Ashur, Assyria

Image: US Army

The ancient site of Assur sits on the Tigris River in what’s now northern Iraq. The capital city of the Assryians, it was more than just a city - it was a god.

Ashur was a revered Mesopotamian deity, originating as a local god and steadily gaining popularity until he was firmly entrenched as the creator and a warlike force who oversaw Assyria’s political and military activities. Assur, as the capital city, became so closely identified with the deity that it, too, was considered deified. Founded sometime around 2500 BC, the city was strategically positioned on a rocky promontory looking out over the surrounding plain. Easily defensible with access to the life-giving waters of the Tigris, Assur thrived.

Image: Glasg

The kings in Assur weren’t simply kings, they were the hand of the god Ashur. Those that sat on the throne between the 13th and 10th centuries BC even adopted “Assur” as part of their names, and inscriptions found throughout the ancient city pay homage to the strength and will of the deity. Most of the kings contributed to the city’s main temple, adding or restoring to what was a symbol of their god - and themselves - in the very heart of the city.

Image: Wikipedia

Assur remained a formidable power for centuries, passing through five major building stages and laying the foundations for the Assyrian expansion westward. During the reign of king Ashurnasirpal II in 883 to 859 BC, the capital was moved to what’s now Nimrud, then called Kalhu. Assur remained a powerful religious centre, though, and even then future kings laboured to preserve the royal buildings and temples. The city remained standing when the Assyrian empire fell in the 7th century BC and for hundreds of years, the royal tombs, the double wall, and the ziggurat baked in the hot desert sun.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Assur has reportedly been targeted for destruction by ISIS and remains one of the ancient world’s most endangered relics.

2. Thebes, Egypt


Also a World Heritage site, Thebes was originally called Waset. The oldest parts of the ancient city were occupied as early as 2040 BC, serving as the capital of Egypt up until around 1070 BC. Sitting at a prime location on the River Nile, Thebes was something of a bridge between worlds, between the living and the dead, the mortal and the divine.

Image: Paul Mannix

On the east side of the river was the domain of the living. Luxor Temple, with its 1.9-mile-long promenade lined with sphinxes, was one of the most elaborate of Egyptian temples. Karnak, a vast complex almost a mile long, remains one of the largest, most awe-inspiring religious sites in the world. So important with ancient Thebes as a spiritual centre that ruler after ruler continued adding to it, resulting in an extensive complex full of obelisks, monuments, temples, shrines, columns and statues.


The west side of the river, meanwhile, was dedicated to the dead. Remains of the massive necropolis can still be seen, along with the Valley of the Kings (deceptively named, and actually sprawling over two valleys dedicated to royal burials throughout the era of the New Kingdom). It’s here that the enigmatic Tutankhamun was laid to rest, alongside his royal brethren; sadly, most of the tombs have been looted by grave robbers over the centuries. In addition, the west side of the city is also home to the Valley of the Queens, housing the tombs of more than 90 of Egypt’s ruling women.


Originally little more than a minor trading post, Thebes gained strength and notoriety as one of the Egyptian cities to challenge the invading Hyksos. For years, an uneasy peace prevailed among the two peoples, broken when the Hyksos king insulted his Egyptian counterpart - and Thebes declared war. Driving the invaders out of Egypt, Thebes re-stabilized a nation that had existed in pockets of rebellion and fear, cementing a rule that would continue until the capital shifted to El-Amarna during the reign of Akhenaten, between 1353 and 1335 BC.

3. Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka


In the 3rd century BC, a cutting from the Buddha’s Tree of Enlightenment was brought to Sri Lanka by an order of Buddhist nuns. The cutting grew into a fig tree, and the city of Anuradhapura began to thrive, developing into a political and religious capital that enjoyed 13 centuries of life.


The tree that was planted centuries ago still. Today, it’s in the centre of a sanctuary and a protected World Heritage site. Prospering until an invasion in 993 AD, the city was a technologically advanced site long hidden by the dense jungle, reclaimed by nature until it was decided that it must be open and accessible, but also protected.


At the centre of Anuradhapura is the Brazen Palace, a nine-story masterpiece given to the monks who lived at the site. There’s also the Abhayagiri Monastery, built of rage and revenge. The story goes that a first-century BC king was driven from his city by invaders. Forced to seek refuge in the forests, he was heckled by a hermit one day while out wandering. When he finally regained his city he immediately destroyed the heckler’s hermitage. In its place he built the Abhayagiri Monastery, combining his own name and that of the hapless heckler in a word that means ‘Mountain of Fearlessness’.


By the 3rd century, the city including extensive public works and services, including an irrigation system with 16 huge holding tanks to store water. They can still be seen today, preserved, in part, by the very thing that led to the city’s downfall. Once protected by thick forest, the trees thinned as the city spread. Anuradhapura became increasingly vulnerable and was sacked by the Padyan kings. Control was ransomed back, but the damage had been done and the sacred city was abandoned in favour of Polonnaruwa.

4. Mdina, Malta

Image: R Muscat

Today, Mdina is called The Silent City, and it’s home to only about 300 people. Few cars are allowed inside the city walls, and there are strict noise regulations in place. The result is eerie, an entire city, existing in a time capsule.

Image: Tony Hisgett

Around 4,000-years-old, Mdina was originally built by the Phoenicians and was later conquered by the Normans. The Norman-influenced architecture seems to have changed little over the centuries. It was the Normans who added the distinctive stone ramparts that surround the city, though the entrance to Mdina was added later when it became necessary to build a bridge for cars. The ancient entrance is still there, though.


One of the ancient city’s most fascinating legends is that of St. Paul. According to the story, when St. Paul the Apostle was shipwrecked on the islands, he made his temporary home outside Mdina. The grotto where he lived, now known as Fuori le Mura or St. Paul’s Grotto, can still be visited in the suburb of Rabat.

Image: John Haslam

Mdina has had a number of different names, roles and titles over the years, but today, visitors suggest that walking its back streets and narrow alleyways is little different from the days when it was home to the Knights of Malta. The order occupied the city from the early 1500s to 1565, when they moved the country’s capital to what’s now called Vittoriosa. After that time, Mdina entered a strange sort of status. Even today, the night-time streets are lit by lamplight and it’s almost possible to imagine a 16th century knight striding through the narrow streets. Briefly a shooting location for the first season of Game of Thrones, the ancient allure of the city is unmistakable.

5. Ecbatana, Iran

Image: ninara

Ecbatana is an ancient Iranian capital that’s shrouded in mystery. A major city of the Parthian age (around the 3rd century BC), the city was associated with a little-known group of people who reigned for around four centuries, and resisted Roman rule.

Since the area once occupied by the city has been built over, excavating it is tricky and only sections have thus far been examined. Historians and archaeologists are faced with the challenges of determining where exactly the city is and which layers of construction denote the correct time period.

Image: Wikipedia

What’s more, Ecbatana is steeped in myth and legend. According to the works of Herodotus, the ancient city was founded by the first king of the Medes, Deioces, who ordered his people to build a capital that was worthy of him. The city was protected by a series of walls, of circles within circles, each one a different colour and protecting a different group of buildings. In the centre was the palace and the treasure vaults, and the innermost two circles were said to be covered with gold and silver. Deioces’s took up residence in the central palace, while his people lived around him.

Image: Mehran

Fanciful, perhaps, almost like a scene from Lord of the Rings. But some historians have posited the idea that the description is very real, and that it represents a ziggurat. Other texts raise even more questions; some refer to Ecbatana not as a city, but as a country - which may reflect the cultural difference between the Median peoples and their conquerors.


Most of what we know of the city’s past comes from other Greek historians. Xenophon writes of how the city became a summer home for Achaemenid kings when it was seized by a Median called Phraortes, before falling to Darius the Great. Polybius describes a city built on an artificial terrace with no walls, one of the richest cities in the world. Later, it would be renamed Epiphneia, and disappear from history.

6. Chang’an/Xi’an, China

Image: Bobak

The ancient city of Chang’an, now called Xian, has centuries of Chinese rule layered upon its soil. The capital of the first unified China sat just north of where the city is today, and even though Qin Shi Huang’s rule was brief, it was world-changing.

Construction in Chang’an began in 202 BC at the behest of Han dynasty rulers. Their capital had originally been Louyang, but it was decided that the first true, glorious city of China would be built just south of the Qin city. Its proximity meant the area captured the attention of he world with the astounding discovery of the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, filled with hundreds of terracotta warriors.

Image: Wikipedia

Chang’an’s history has been anything but peaceful. Sacked, burned and ravaged in 24 AD, it fell with the Han dynasty. Later, in 292, poets mourned the death of the once-great city, which would be revived as the capital in the 4th century. A place of Buddhist learning, it fell again in 417, and in 581, the Sui emperor ordered the construction of a city that would stand where Xian does today. The site was deemed sacred and chosen for favourable astronomical portents.

Image: Mountain

Perhaps the stars were right; Chang’an thrived, and during the Tang period in the 8th century it was home to around a million inhabitants. A major religious centre, the city welcomed not only Buddhism and Taoism, but also Manichaeism, Nestoianism and Zoroastrianism. The shift in religious freedom is particularly evident in the story of the Buddhist Xuanzang, who fled the city in 629 but was heralded as a hero when he returned sixteen years later, bearing religious texts from across the continent. Chang’an would become a safe haven for religious refugees at a time when persecution was widespread.

Image: airunp

When the Tang collapsed, the city’s prosperity came to an end. With a brief revival in the 14th century much of the city was rebuilt, and most of the structures still seen today date from the Ming period. Chang’an is also connected with the Lantian Man, discovered only about 30 miles from Xian. The fossils, thought to be as much as 600,000-years-old, are from an early human that echoes the area’s status as one of the oldest inhabited places in China.

7. Memphis, Egypt

Image: via Wikipedia

Memphis was considered an ancient wonder of the world at the time of its construction by the first king of a unified Egypt between 3100 and 2613 BC. Throughout history, it’s had several names, including Men-nefer, meaning “established and beautiful” and Ineb-hedj, meaning “white walls”. Just south of the Nile River Delta, there’s sadly little left of the original, ancient site. Much has been incorporated into the current town of Mit Rahina, and even more has been buried under the ever-shifting silt and sands. Other parts have been covered with modern buildings, but traces of ancient Memphis still survive.

Image: via Wikipedia

Much of it dates to a period after the New Kingdom, from 1550 BC and onward. That includes the temple of Ptah, the local god of craftsmen and creation, and an embalming house. And, of course, there’s the city’s necropolis, the largest in Egypt, stretching for more than 18 miles.

Image: Sebi

The first of the great pyramids in Egypt stands in Saqqara, built by the founder of the Third Dynasty and forever changing the landscape of Egyptian burial grounds. Earlier tombs were rectangular; with the adoption of the pyramid, rulers began to build ever more grand funeral complexes. The founder of the Fourth Dynasty further cemented the role of the pyramid in Egyptian architecture, establishing the use of the four-sided base.


It was his son, Cheops, who built the pyramids of Giza, one of the most famous and breathtaking monuments of the ancient world. The oldest of the pyramids is officially called the Horizon of Cheops, while the other two were known to the ancient Egyptians as Great is Chepren and Divine is Mycerinus.

Image: Gary Ku

Although Memphis had a resurgence as the capital under Tutankhamun, it wasn’t to last. The location of the capital changed many times between the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, eventually becoming - and remaining - Alexandria around 332 BC.

8. Calah/Nimrud, Assyria

Image: M.chohan

Also known as Kalhu, Nimrud thrived as the Assyrian empire rose to power. The ancient city lies on the eastern bank of the Tigris River in what’s now northern Iraq, and has been inhabited by humans since prehistoric times. Originally an administrative centre for the expanding Assyrian empire, it became the capital under the king Ashurnasirpal II, who reigned between 883 and 859 BC. While it remained the capital for the next century and a half, major construction projects were undertaken to create some of the most stunning artwork of the era.

Image: Jastrow

Excavated in the 1840s, a number of artefacts were moved and taken to the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Archaeologists couldn’t possibly have known that the clay tablets, the murals, and the winged bull gatekeeper statues that they were removing - from where they had stood for many centuries -  would save them from eventual destruction at the hands of modern day terrorists.

Image: oncenawhile

When Ashurnasirpal II and his son, Shalmaneser III ruled, Nimrud developed into an incredible city. Words carved into the limestone speak of the treasures that were once held there - gold and silver, copper and iron. Other inscriptions tell stories of victory in battle, of the bloody fate of their prisoners and those who stood against them. The beautiful palace, made from white limestone and alabaster, is also mentioned.

Image: Levantine

The treasures of Nimrud have always been in danger. In 2003, The WSJ reported on the discovery of five crates of invaluable artefacts, recovered by Iraq’s National Museum and US agents. The artefacts, which were removed to a vault in a bid to keep them safe during the invasion, included 613 pieces of gold dating from around 800 BC. The treasure trove, which was excavated in 1988 and hidden in 1990, represents part of what’s been salvaged from the ancient city.

In March of 2015, news agencies around the world reported the near-complete destruction of Nimrud by ISIS. Condemned for its idols, the city was one of many victims of the terror group’s actions - which UNESCO has condemned as nothing short of a war crime.

9. Ctesiphon, Iran


From the earliest days of Ctesiphon, the city lay in the heart of the empire. Close to the Tigris River and the Royal Road, it became a capital city when the Parthians decided they needed a western capital in addition to their eastern location of Seleucia. Opis was renamed Ctesiphon. While it began life as something of a summer home for Parthian royals, when soldiers brought back the spoils of war from their campaign against the Romans in 41 BC, significant funds were allotted to building the city - and Ctesiphon blossomed.

Image: Wikipedia

Over the next few generations, defenses were improved, walls were built, and the population increased. That, unfortunately, made it a target for their Roman enemies, and when the city was captured so much gold and silver was looted that Rome avoided financial ruin for several more decades, and Ctesiphon‘s decline began. Then, when rebellion broke out in 224 AD, the Parthian empire fell. The city was later rebuilt and by the 5th century had become a major Christian centre. Barely a century later, though, it was looted by Muslim invaders and was never restored. Another city, upriver, was constructed in its place, and in 762 AD Baghdad became the new centre of Mesopotamia.


Remnants of the ancient city still survived into modern times, particularly the ruined palace with its distinctive arch. Now in the town of Salman Pak, the magnificent Archway of Chosroes is estimated to have been built sometime between the 3rd and 6th centuries.

Image: US Army

In November 1915, during World War One, fighting broke out at ancient Ctesiphon. The three-day battle saw British troops looking to continue their advance into Baghdad, as much for a much-needed propaganda victory than for any real, strategic value. Casualties were high, and ultimately the British retreated.

10. Babylon, Babylonia

Image: US Navy

After the fall of the Assyrian empire, the Babylonians ruled Mesopotamia for hundreds of years. Around 4,000 years ago, Babylon was an administrative centre under the control of ancient Ur. In 1894 BC, it became an Amorite centre before being settled by a group of people from what’s now Syria. It was only when Hammurabi came to power in 1792 BC that the era of a unified Babylon began.


Hamurabi expanded and conquered while Babylon grew. Unfortunately, there’s now no way to excavate the earliest remnants the city’s history, as the water table has risen to flood the area. But according to ancients texts Hammurabi was nothing short of a god, and his “eye for an eye” code remains one of the most well-known in ancient history.

Even though the city changed hands numerous times, it remained a major imperial centre. Nebuchadnezzar II would build three palaces there, and the Babylon’s massive ramparts, ziggurats, shrines and gardens make the history and legend of the city that much more difficult to separate.

Image: Wikipedia

Ancient Greek scholars wrote of a mighty ziggurat that towered over Babylon. The tower to Etemenanki was rumoured to be a solid structure that dominated the surrounding city, where no person - save a single woman, chosen by God - would spend the night. Today, it’s thought that the ziggurat might have been the inspiration for the biblical Tower of Babel.

Also lurking in the shadow lands between history and legend are the enigmatic and evocative Hanging Gardens of Babylon, referenced by the likes of Philo of Byzantium and Diodorus Siculus. Supposedly built by a king for his favourite concubine, who longed for the gardens of her home, a number of in-depth descriptions of the gardens - one of the seven wonders of the ancient world - exist, but no real trace has ever been found.


Babylon is rather distinct in that we know exactly when it fell - October 29, 539 BC. Conquered by Cyrus the Great, the last king was exiled and Babylon would forever become a component of other empires, but never again its own. Today, at the heart of ancient Mesopotamia, the ruins of Babylon still stand, while efforts are underway to ensure they stand the test of time amid an unstable region of the world.

Top image: The ancient temples of Nimrud, Assyria. Credit: James Fergusson/Wikimedia Commons.

[Source: Urban Ghosts Media. Edited.]