When we think of wealthy cities today, images of towering skyscrapers and modern, architecturally innovative buildings and infrastructure probably come to mind. Since sleek, modern cities are associated with wealth in today’s world, it can be easy to forget that the ancient world was also once home to empires and cities that enjoyed vast wealth and thriving cultural life.
Often capitals of great empires, such as Cuzco, the capital of the Incan empire, or Xi’an, one of China’s great historic capitals, were centers of wealth and prosperity because of their links to powerful trade routes. By modern standards, they were every bit as wealthy – if not more wealthy – than some of the cities we know today. In fact, they were often centers of technology, the arts and relatively modern conveniences that allowed inhabitants to live in comfort and even luxury.
The following are a few of the greatest, most powerful, and very wealthy cities we know existed in the world in ancient times.
12. El Dorado
El Dorado became a name that was synonymous with a legendary city somewhere in central or South America. During the age of exploration, the Spanish conquistadors heard rumors of a city with endless supplies of gold and streets paved in gold and they desperately tried to find it (and its treasures). Although no one is certain as to whether it existed (or if perhaps it referred to a number of thriving cities in the region at the time), a city of gold certainly would have been a wealthy city if it had been around. El Dorado literally means the “Golden One” and probably originally referred to the legendary Kings who ruled in a region that is now Columbia, in the northern Andes. It’s easy to see where the rumors of a wealthy city came from, as the people who lived in this region were talented metalworkers and had an abundant supply of gold. In addition to being used to produce works of art and offered to the gods, gold was used as a raw material for exchange. Gold could be owned by not only the nobility but also by anyone in society, which would have certainly surprised and impressed the greedy Spanish conquerors.
Cuzco was once the capital of the Inca Empire. It had actually been a city that pre-dated the Inca, originally the site of a fortress, which the powerful Incan people later occupied and made their capital. The city of Cuzco to this day reveals layers of history, its architecture demonstrating the technology and styles of the different eras, technology and people who lived in the city. During a period of Incan expansion, the Inca created a temple, roadway and aqueduct, and the city was modern, well-planned and flourishing at the time thanks to its position as a central city in the empire. It is still home to the elaborate art and exquisite architecture that its talented craftsmen once created.
Founded in 1325, this city was the capital of the Mexica people. Located in present-day Mexico, Tenochtitlan was an impressive and wealthy city that was carefully planned and actually built directly on water. Like Venice, the city was interlaced with canals and it could be visited by boat or on foot. Towers and massive buildings, which were made of solid masonry, rose majestically out of the water. The citizens had fresh running water and even bathed several times a day. There was a main marketplace in this city that was important to the region where specialized goods could be bought or traded. There were also many temples, public buildings, palaces and even zoos. When Spanish conquistador Cortes arrived, the city had a population of 200,000-300,000 people, which was probably more than most cities in Europe.
9. Great Zimbabwe
An ancient city in Zimbabwe, Great Zimbabwe was the capital of Kingdom of Zimbabwe in the Iron Age. It was a wealthy center of trade in the region, with trade routes extending as far away as China. It also was supported by a nearby gold mine, and much of its trade depended on gold. The city had a royal palace and was protected by high walls. Today, granite and stone ruins can still be observed. The magnificent city was abandoned in 1450 when its gold mines were exhausted.
Damascus is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. It was originally made wealthy by its many merchants who had important trade routes, and through the ages has been under the rule of everyone from the Romans to the Ottoman Turks. The city is home to impressive buildings built with the wealth from ancient times, including the Umayyad Mosque, which is one of the oldest sites of continuous prayer in the Islamic world. The city also features a beautiful citadel and old markets and city squares.
The capital of Shaanxi province in China, this city is more than 3100 years old. It has been called one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China for its wealth and power throughout history. In history, it was the start of the Silk Road, a powerful trading route. The city is perhaps most well known today as the home of the famous and stunning army of massive terracotta soldiers. Xi’an also has very well preserved walls and temples, which are examples of its wealth and importance to the region.
Cahokia was a pre-Columbian Native American city. Situated near theMississippi river near modern-day St. Louis, Missouri, this city, which very few people have heard of, was one of the largest and most influential settlements in the Americas in its time. It was established more than 500 years before the Native Americans had European contact. Sadly, all that is left of this powerful city now is a series of mounds that have slowly been excavated. In its time, however, this city was a significant city because it had extensive trade links. Archaeologists have uncovered pottery, shell, copper, wood and stone, and evidence that the site was also an important center of agriculture.
Located in Bulgaria, Plovdiv is a city that is over 6000 years old and was once an important part of the Roman Empire. Plovdiv was once called by Roman writer Lucian the largest and most beautiful of all cities. In line with this statement, ancient ruins prove that the city had many impressive public buildings, shrines, baths and theaters. The city also had an advanced water system and sewerage and was protected by a strong double wall. To this day, the city continues to be a “hidden treasure” where beautiful old art and architecture can be appreciated.
Babylon was a powerful, advanced and wealthy city, especially under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar. The city was enormous, with a large brick wall and 250 towers that were 450 feet high. The streets were paved and there were brass gates that led into the city. Babylon was surrounded by a moat and the Euphrates River also flowed through the city, bringing water to the people. Ferries and drawbridges provided efficient transportation around. The mythical Hanging Gardens of Babylon were supposedly also located here, which would have been a luxurious feat of engineering for the time. The Babylonians also created impressive works of art in gold: the city once had a golden image of Baal and a Golden Table that allegedly contained 50,000 lbs of solid gold, a golden lion and a statue of a human figure. As the icing on the cake, the King’s palace in this city was supposed to have been majestic and was considered the greatest palace ever built.
Athens is also another well-known city that was powerful in antiquity and is said to have laid the foundations for Western civilization. It has been continuously inhabited for at least 7000 years. Athens is known for its historical legacy of the arts, contributions to philosophy, academics, religion and more. Its architectural achievements testify to its power and wealth, including the massive public buildings like the Agora and Acropolis and later, important Byzantine churches. The wealth and prosperity of Athens has allowed democracy to flourish, along with a vibrant cultural life, for thousands of years.
It goes without saying that ancient Rome was a center for wealth, arts, culture, politics and more. It is often considered the birthplace of Western civilization. Evidence of Rome’s wealth and its ability to produce endless supplies of stunning art and beautiful architecture still remains today, from the Coliseum that still stands in Rome to the exquisite marble statues that have survived the centuries. Ancient Rome would have been a civilized, wealthy place in its time, with abundant shops and markets, bookstores, shoe stores and spices, providing citizens with a comfortable and affluent life.
Named for Emperor Constantine, the beautiful and wealthy city of Constantinople, which was the capital of the Byzantine Empire for a thousand years, became a major city that thrived for centuries. Technology, art and culture in Constantinople reigned over any other city in Europe for around a thousand years. The amenities in this city were plentiful: there was a great street, law court, senate building, extensive protective walls, and a massive golden gate, a forum, and much more. In the 12th century, Constantinople enjoyed a revival in the popularity of mosaic art and silk. The demand for art at this time was high, as its citizens enjoyed wealth and could afford to spend their money on expensive items. Needless to say, Constantinople had significant artistic and cultural influences on the West, especially on the city of Venice (its trade partner). In fact, the art of the Byzantine Empire is credited for helping stimulate the beginning of the European Renaissance.