I was intrigued recently by this article on the Guardian website, a history of the cities which have been, at some time in the last five thousand years, the greatest city on Earth. It is an incredibly romantic, surprisingly long and notably heterogenous list: China is of course well-represented, as is Earth’s current number one metropolis, Tokyo. But the cities sprawl across four continents – Africa, interestingly, included – and contain a host of names that once represented vibrant, thrusting world capitals which have now been all but completely forgot. There is Merv, the Central Asian trading post subsumed into the Soviet Union and now an historical monument in Turkmenistan. As well, the list contains a trio of Ukrainian obscurities which each housed up to forty thousand people three-and-a-half millennia before Christ, making them the largest (known) Neolithic settlements on the planet. Rome is there, of course, and Constantinople. New York. London. But also Cordoba, Carthage (really?), Fez – the Athens of Africa under the Almoravid dynasty – and a host of cities in modern-day Iraq like Seleucia and Cstephon, the ancient Babylonian capital set upon by the Roman and Muslim legions. India is represented by Shravastri, lying under the shadow of the Himalayas, and Pataliputra, while the forgotten tropical Buddhist port of Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka also makes the list. So does amphibious Ayutthaya, now a provincial town on the outskirts of Bangkok but until its sacking by the Burmese in the seventeenth-century, the great trading centre of South East Asia, its canals buzzing with commerce and its palaces home to a Greek Prime Minister, his Indian-Portuguese wife and an army of Japanese samurais under the command of a naturalised Japanese lord-cum-Thai-aristocrat.
The article is a thrilling reminder that the world has always been a more complex, and more fluid, place than we sometimes give it credit for.