Top five… history’s greatest cities

People have always thronged to centres of civilisation, commerce and culture. But which were the most important in their day?

Top five… history’s greatest cities © Getty Images
1

Athens

Heyday: Fourth century BC
Art, literature and philosophy all flourished in Ancient Greece. But perhaps the greatest achievement of this influential culture evolved in Athens: democracy, from the Greek demos kratos – people power. After the city’s people revolted against the harsh aristocratic regime, reforms introduced by Cleisthenes around 508 BC enabled each adult male Athenian citizen to contribute to the rule of the city.

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2

Baghdad

Heyday: Eighth century
Founded in AD 762 by the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur as his capital, Baghdad soon became the intellectual focal point of the Islamic Golden Age – the centre of global thinking. This circular city included parks and gardens as well as a central mosque.

The House of Wisdom, built by caliph Harun al-Rashid in the late eighth century, attracted philosophers and scholars, writers and mathematicians to debate, create and share ideas, and within 50 years had become the largest repository of books in the world.

3

Uruk

Heyday: Fourth millennium BC
The greatest city you never heard of is probably the earliest large urban settlement on Earth. In the fertile region of Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (in modern-day Iraq), the burgeoning Sumerian civilisation developed writing, the wheel and war. By 3000 BC, Uruk was the world’s biggest city, with a population of some 50,000. A change in the course of the Euphrates saw it abandoned by AD 700.

4

London

Heyday: 19th century
‘Londinium’ first became an important settlement during Roman times. Over the centuries, its fortunes rose and fell, but between the Viking and Norman invasions, great expansion saw it become England’s capital. By the 1830s, it had become the planet’s largest city and would remain so until after World War I. The one-time centre of Britain’s vast empire has been devastated by fire, plague and bombing over the centuries but today it remains the world’s most-visited city.

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5

Hangzhou

Heyday: 13th-15th centuries
This lakeside city is known as ‘Paradise on Earth’ thanks to a glowing review by Venetian merchant Marco Polo, after he visited in 1290. He marvelled at the bustling, sophisticated hub. During the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), the city had flourished and, by the time the European arrived, at least 1 million people were spilling out of its walls. It was ten times the size of Venice. Later, the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) saw Hangzhou become China’s silk capital, ensuring its wealth and prosperity for centuries.

This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of History Revealed.