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13 Mighty Historical Cities That Once Ruled the Ancient World


Fact about Egyptian metropolis of Thebes

until the time agriculture became mainstream, our human ancestors rarely had permanent settlements. Their nomadic groups made it easy for them to scavenge, hunt, and support each other on the move. However, once agriculture did arrive, wanderers became settlers, the groups increased dramatically in size, and not having to invest a lot of time in searching for food created other interests; entire cities and empires were born.

Depending on circumstance, location, and a bit of luck, some of these cities were much more successful culturally and economically, gaining military strength and political influence, which affected civilizations from all corners of the globe. We present 13 such cities that once ruled the ancient world.

Veliky Novgorod

This city in present-day Russia, whose name means Novgorod the Great, actually was true to its name between the 12th and 15th centuries. Although the city was constantly under threat by the Swedes and Teutons, the people of Novgorod successfully defended it under the leadership of their prince Alexander Nevsky. Eventually, though the city was defeated by the Mongols, it still managed to negotiate and retain a large degree of its independence, and soon reached its peak of prosperity.

In the 14th century, Novgorod had a huge population of over 400,000 people, and was arguably the busiest port city in all of Europe. With the settlement thriving as a center of commerce, the Novgorod empire expanded dramatically, eventually extending all the way from the Arctic circle to the Ural mountains.

Unfortunately, the fortune of the city could not last. The leaders of the neighboring kingdom Muscovy (Moscow) were very envious of Novgorod’s fortunes, and the city’s close ties with the Catholic Lithuania caused heavy friction with Muscovy’s largely orthodox population. Finally, in 1478, Muscovy, under Ivan the Great, attacked Novgorod, which robbed the city of most its riches. The city struggled to hold on to its former glory. However, its fate was eventually sealed when a hundred years later, Ivan the Terrible attacked it, executed huge numbers of its citizens, burned much of the city down, and destroyed priceless records. The city never recovered fully from this blow. Muscovy became the new center of politics and society in Russia.


The Mongols, once a group nomadic tribes, established the biggest contiguous empire in human history, under the leadership of Genghis Khan. Until the Mongolian conquest was active, the Mongols were constantly on the move, building temporary yurts, and traveling from place to place on horseback. However, once the Mongol empire was largely established, Genghis Khan started the construction of Karakorum, in the year 1220, which was to be the capital of his empire and the central base of operations.

The city was constructed near the Orkhon river, more than 200 miles from Ulaanbaatar (current capital of Mongolia), which made it an important stopping point along the silk road, providing travelers and traders with security, and also a place of worship. However, it was only after the death of Genghis Khan and the rise of his son Ogodei, did the development of the city really pick up pace. Although the city was a small one of only 10,000 people, the influence it had on the immense Mongol empire brought in people from across the globe, who wanted to serve or build political relations with the Khan. The city diminished gradually under the reign of Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, who moved the capital to Khanbaliq, present- day Beijing. Karakorum was mostly destroyed by the Chinese in 1388.


Ancient Egypt was a civilization which reached the peak of its glory when most other people in the world were still following the nomadic way of life. The Egyptians produced numerous artifacts, monuments, and other priceless pieces of history. Egypt was socially and economically one of the biggest forces in the world at the time. With time, kings, governments, capitals, and religions of this great nation were constantly changing. However, one thing remained constant. The city of Thebes was always maintained as the cultural center of ancient Egypt. Currently known as Luxor, the city of Thebes housed both, important religious structures and buildings meant for secular purposes. It controlled the Egyptian empire from its inception till the decline of the civilization, making a permanent impression in the history of the nation.


Eridu in ancient Sumerian means ‘The Home of Gods’, and the city is considered to be the first to be built in the history of man. It was founded in 5400 B.C. near the banks of the Euphrates river in present-day Iraq. Considering that it was the only sign of advanced civilization at the time, the people of Eridu built great structures, both, for public and religious reasons, in dimensions which can be considered large even by today’s standards. It is not clear why, but the city was abandoned around 600. B.C. With the ravages of time, most of Eridu is now gone, leaving behind only traces of windswept ruins and an empty desert.


Today, despite being in a largely Islamic nation, the island of Bali is filled with ancient Hindu temples. These architectural work can be traced back to the great Mahapajit empire of Java and Indonesia, who around the year 1200 controlled most of the sea in the Indian ocean, obtaining large amounts of goods or money from any kingdom wishing to use the sea routes in this area. These huge tributes made the empire extremely strong in economic terms and world politics. The city/town of Trowulan is believed to be the capital of the empire.

From here, King Hayam Wuruk ruled his kingdom, with the able assistance of his prime minister Gaja Mada and despite him being Hindu, Buddhism also flourished without any conflict. Eventually, with the decline of the Majapahit empire, Trowulan lost its significance. However, many of the people in Bali today still consider themselves to have descended from the Majapahit.


The ancient city of Caral was discovered in 1994 near the western coast of Peru. Archaeologists who first studied the area were stunned to find an extremely well-developed city, including remains of pyramids, plazas, amphitheaters, and residential plots. The site was eventually dated to have been created around 2600 B.C., which meant that the Olmec civilization, which was till then believed to be the first great civilization of the Americas, came more than a thousand years after Caral.

What is unique about the site is that, there were no signs of weapons of battlements, which indicated that the people of this city did not come together for warfare or defense, but for trade. It is now believed that Caral might have been the capital of an empire which stretched across northern Peru.


After the fall of the Roman empire in the 4th century, all of Europe was thrown into chaos. Tribes and clans of all types were pillaging, murdering, and creating havoc across the towns in northern Italy. Left with no option, the Italian people sought refuge in some marshy islands in the Adriatic sea. Although the islands gave them security from the murderous tribes, they were not suitable for making a permanent residence, as there was no source of freshwater.

And as they say, necessity is the mother of invention. The islanders found that they could create potable water as well as salt when they boiled sea water. Salt, known as ‘edible gold’, due to its high value at the time, become an essential commodity for the Venetians, providing them with money for sustenance. The next problem was that, it was very difficult to build houses on the island, which was mostly made of mud and sand. To solve this issue, the Venetians inserted thousands of wooden pillars in the ground, which created a stable foundation for sizable buildings, even palaces.

Soon, the people of the Islands became experts in building ships and traveling sea routes. Funded by selling their salt, Venice soon turned into the trading capital of the Mediterranean area. After sacking Constantinople in 1204, it became the wealthiest city in Western Europe.


Of the six capitals of ancient China, Xi’an is the most well-known, as it was home to both, the Han and Qin dynasties. It was behind the walls of this city that Emperor Qin Shi Huang had the famous army of terracotta soldiers built.

Historians believe that most of China’s important inventions, such as paper, gunpowder, currency, and silk were created while Xi’an was in power. The city was also the starting point of the Silk Road, which connected China to the Western world. Caravans from the city carried a large variety of goods and materials, but they also played the important role of sending out and bringing in new ideas and technologies, which improved the standard of living for the whole world. In fact, the Silk Road brought Xi’an so much trade and fame, that in the 8th century, the city held a population of 2 million people, a world record for the time.


For around 300 years, from 1336 to 1646, the Vijaynagar empire ruled southern India. Chroniclers from all across the world marveled at the size, architecture, and cultural diversity in the city. The city thrived with a population of over 500,000 citizens, especially during the reign of King Krishnadevraya, when the empire managed to fend of several Muslim invasions, and trade peaked, with connections all across Asia and Europe.

However, after the death of the king, his son-in-law usurped the throne, conspired to get the neighboring sultanates to fight amongst themselves, giving him an opportunity to attack when they were weakened. However, the plan backfired, and the sultanates forgot their rivalries and came together to destroy Vijayangar. The armies of the once magnificent city were routed, the new king executed, and the city was pillaged, with murders and looting going on for nearly six months, leaving plain ruins that were a mere shadow of the great empire. These ruins of the city are today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Chan Chan

The Chimu kingdom ruled over northern Peru from around 800 to 1500. Chan Chan was the capital of the kingdom until 1470, when it was captured by the Incans. The city was the largest of pre-Columbian America, and was made entirely out of adobe bricks, and consisted of nine citadels, each with its own temples, gardens, palaces, water reservoirs, etc.

When the new Incan capital of Cuzco was built in the 13th century, the people gradually moved out of Chan Chan, eventually abandoning the city completely. Today, the ancient site is at risk of completely disappearing, because the old adobe bricks, are very vulnerable to rain and wind. So, archaeological expeditions are making efforts to preserve the structures for as long as possible.


At the height of the 15th century, the province of Burgundy was one of the most richest and powerful kingdoms in Europe, encompassing the city of Burgundy, Lorraine, Flanders, and also Holland. Trade from across the continent, and a thriving population, saw the kingdom grow leaps and bounds.

However, Burgundy’s intense rivalry with France became its downfall. The sudden death of the Duke Charles the Bold in 1477 became a huge issue. The duke had only one daughter, who was to marry into the French Royal House. However, she married Maximilian the First, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the Head of the House of Hapsburg in Austria instead. In the race of acquiring Burgundian lands, the city of Burgundy dissipated between Austria, Spain, and France.


The Hatti people were the first to build and inhabit the city of Hattusa, in 2400 B.C., in present-day Turkey. They were defeated by the Hittites in 1700 B.C., and the city was rebuilt into a vibrant metropolis, bustling with traders and travelers from far-flung places. The Hittite empire lasted until the 12th century B.C., when Phrygians attacked and burned most of the city to the ground. The site was then abandoned till the 7th century, when the city was partially repaired and restored. However, it never regained the fame and glory of its past.

Great Zimbabwe

When the nations of Europe were on a colonization spree, explorers in Eastern Africa found an immense stone building in the heart of what is present-day Zimbabwe. Due to the racial prejudices of the time, credit for building the structure was wrongly attributed to a number of other civilizations, excluding native Africans, as the archaeologists assumed that Africans were not capable of building such a structure by themselves.

However, recent studies of the complex indicate that the structures were built by the African Shona tribe around 1100 A.D. It was deduced that the place acted as the kingdom’s capital for more than 400 years. Other clues show that the city of Great Zimbabwe was a prosperous one, housing over 25,000 people, supplying items such as ivory, wood, gold, etc., to trade in the areas of the Indian ocean to countries such as Arabia, China, and India. Why Great Zimbabwe was abandoned still remains a mystery, but the city is testament to the heights of Africa’s mysterious past.

These were some of the settlements of the ancient world which acted as international centers of commerce, culture, and politics. If you think any other place deserves a mention, please share your inputs in the comments section below.

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