Age-old secrets revealed from the world's first metropolises

The hidden wonders of long-vanished cities that once housed kings and hummed with everyday life are being rediscovered thanks to modern-day archaeology.

By Patricia S. Daniels
Published 27 Jul 2022, 11:31 BST
Opener or Megiddo
Tel Megiddo in Israel holds the outlines of the ancient city of Megiddo, which overlooked crossroads of trade and war.
Photograph by Greg Girard, National Geographic Image Collection

Uruk, Ur, Meggido, Babylon, and Nineveh rose among the planet’s first major urban centres, thriving with palaces, temples, markets, and taverns serving fig wine. Although little remains of these once grand civilisations, modern archaeology is uncovering pieces of their crumbled pasts, piecing together fascinating stories about their residents—both rich and poor—who once lived there. Spoiler alert: These tales include dental plaque, sleeping potion, and Armageddon.

Uruk: Cradle of writing

Cuneiform is the world’s first known system of writing.
Photograph by CPA Media Pte Ltd, Alamy Stock Photo

“He is the stench of a mongoose . . . a smitten man who makes himself important.” No, this isn’t clunky dialogue from a low-budget film. It’s one of the many pieces of correspondence archaeologists have discovered etched on clay tablets in Uruk, the chief city of Sumer, the earliest known civilization in southern Mesopotamia (near present-day Samawah, Iraq).

Active from around the 4th millennium B.C., the city reached it’s peak around the third millennium B.C., the walled city buzzed with some 40,000 people, working as craftspeople, managers, and priests. The clay tablets, inscribed by priests and scribes with sharp-edged shapes and symbols, comprise the world’s first known system of writing, called cuneiform because of the wedge-shaped imprints from which it’s formed.

A temple in ancient Uruk, probably dedicated to the god Anu, once rose high above the city.
Photograph by Nico Tondini,

Archaeologists have focused attention on two sacred precincts dedicated to Anu, Sumerian god of the sky; and Inanna, Sumerian goddess of fertility and war. They have determined some temples took the form of ziggurats—massive stepped towers built of brick where priests made offerings to the temple’s god. Thousands of unnamed workers spent years of heavy labour constructing these buildings, leaving behind little about their daily existence.

Ur: Prosperous port

As Uruk’s power faded in the late third millennium B.C., another ancient Mesopotamian city rose in dominance. Ur (present-day Tell el-Muqayyar in Iraq), south of Uruk where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers run into the Persian Gulf, was founded sometime in the fourth millennium B.C.

The great ziggurat of Ur, partially reconstructed today, was once dedicated to the moon god Nanna.
Photograph by Asaad Niazi, Getty Images

By 2000 B.C., it thrived as an affluent port of roughly 60,000 people who enjoyed a level of wealth unknown in other Mesopotamian cities. Its markets pulled in trade from all over the ancient world—from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf to India. Conquerors came and went in Sumer, but at its peak, Ur was the seat of empire, home to rulers and powerful priests. As it faded through the centuries, Ur is remembered chiefly as the birthplace of the biblical patriarch Abraham.

In the 19th century, English scholar Leonard Woolley discovered hundreds of buried tombs near a ziggurat filled with spectacular artefacts, including a gold dagger with a lapis lazuli handle, gaming boards, and a hammered gold helmet. He also uncovered the resting places of royalty, including an early queen, Puabi. Buried with her were many more people, arranged neatly with their musical instruments, carriages, and weapons. They were servants, warriors, and others who were sacrificed and buried with their rulers. One large pit contained six armed guards and 68 serving women—one of whom still held a silver ribbon in her hair before the sleeping potion she took carried her off to the underworld.

Sir Leonard Woolley uncovers a Mesopotamian statuette
Photograph by The Trustees of the British Museum
Many spectacular Sumerian artifacts have been unearthed, including this detailed gold-and-lapis head of a bull found in the Royal Cemetery at Ur.
Photograph by Image courtesy of the Penn Museum, object no. B17694

Megiddo: Battlegrounds

Megiddo, near present-day Haifa in Israel, grew and receded and grew again from 6000 B.C. until 500 B.C., peaking around 1600. At that time, it was an impressive walled city perched at the vital crossroads of trade and military routes linking Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Asia Minor. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of lavish palaces, massive fortifications, and sacred buildings intermingling with private dwellings.

The forces of good face the forces of evil in a depiction of the battle of Armageddon.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Christopher Wood Gallery, London, UK, Bridgeman Images

Beneath one palace, they found a hoard of gold and lapis jewellery, ivory plaques and furniture, and gold vessels. Another buried tomb yielded bodies, among them a man, woman, and child bedecked with gold and silver jewellery.

The remains of Megiddo overlook Israel’s Plain of Esdraelon.
Photograph by Zoonar RF, iStock, Getty Images

Excavations continue at the site, with modern genetic techniques offering insights into the city’s everyday folks. Scientists studying bodies from the area are thankful the residents didn’t brush their teeth thoroughly, because fossilised dental plaque turns out to contain residues of the person’s diet. Upper-class people ate local grains and fruits, but also delicacies important from abroad, such as sesame, soybeans, turmeric, and even bananas.

But Megiddo was also a warring city, the scene of innumerable battles over its long history. History’s first recorded battle, the Battle of Megiddo, in which Egyptians under Thutmose III conquered Canaan, unfolded here in the 15th century B.C. Perhaps it’s because of this history that the Book of Revelation names Megiddo as the setting for the future apocalyptic battle between good and evil—Armageddon (which means “hill of Megiddo”).

Babylon: Building boom

A reconstruction of Babylon, ca 550 B.C., showing the Marduk temple complex and the Etemenanki as seen from the Euphrates River.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Album, Alamy Stock Photo

Of all the cities that bloomed along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in ancient Mesopotamia, none was grander than Babylon. Located south of present-day Baghdad, it flowered early in the second millennium B.C. before falling to Hittite invaders in 1595 B.C. By the late seventh century B.C., it was once again the dominant city-state of the region under the ruler Nebuchadrezzar II.

A successful military leader, Nebuchadrezzar was also a vigorous builder. During his 40-plus-year reign, Babylon’s walled city spread over more than three square miles. The spectacular Ishtar Gate framed one entrance to the city. Over 38 feet high, its blue and gold glazed tiles featured a symmetrical array of fantastic creatures (it’s now in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum). Leading away from the gate, a straight processional way shot past Nebuchadrezzar’s palace and an assortment of temples—one of which, Etemenanki, may have given rise to the biblical story of the Tower of Babel.

The glorious Ishtar Gate once framed an entry to Babylon. It now stands restored at Berlin’s Pergamon Museum.
Photograph by Adam Eastland, Alamy Stock Photo

Within a generation of Nebuchadrezzar II’s death, Babylon fell to the Persian conqueror Cyrus the Great. Nevertheless, the city retained its grandeur through the days of the conqueror Alexander the Great, who planned to make Babylon his capital but died there instead in 323 B.C.

Nineveh: Garden city

Human and animal figures fight with daggers on the walls of Nineveh’s palace.
Photograph by UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE, Universal Images Group, Getty Images

Located on the east bank of the Tigris (and now encompassed by the city of Mosul, Iraq), Nineveh sat amid trade routes and fertile fields and existed, in some form, for thousands of years. A famous bronze head from the third millennium B.C. found there may depict King Sargon of Akkad. The city reached its height around 700 B.C. under Assyrian king Sennacherib. Some three square miles of palaces, temples, markets, and canals flourished within its doubled walls. Citizens worshipped at temples to gods and goddesses such as Ishtar (Inanna).

The famed Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, may have been in Nineveh. Some scholars believe they adorned the grand Assyrian capital city; the remains of a royal greenspace nurtured by an ingenious system of waterways hint at a once-spectacular botanical delight.

Archaeologists excavate canals built under the rule of Assyrian king Sargon II. The canals would have watered fields that fed the citizens of Nineveh to the south.
Photograph by Alberto Savioli

Merchants and craftspeople sold cloth, bronze work, and spices and wines from abroad, while taverns served locally made fig beer. Royalty hunted lions from their chariots in game parks outside the city. A later ruler, Ashurbanipal, established a library of roughly 30,000 tablets and boards—legal documents, myths, histories, and tales, including the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The Battle of Nineveh took place in 627 A.D. between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Sasanians, the last Iranian empire before the Muslim conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries. Under Arabian control, Nineveh became an administrative centre, but declined and fell into ruin by the 13th century.

A visitor to London’s British Museum photographs clay tablets taken from Nineveh’s great library, established by Ashurbanipal.
Photograph by Russell Boyce, Reuters, Alamy Stock Photo

Portions of this work have previously appeared in Lost Cities of the Ancient World. Copyright © 2021 National Geographic Partners, LLC.
To learn more, check out Lost Cities of the Ancient World. Available wherever books and magazines are sold.


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