Exploring Ancient Cities
What can we learn from exploring the ancient world? What do we take away from the wealth of knowledge uncovered as archaeologists investigate the ruins of past societies, while social scientists speculate about the economic process of past societies? Similar to the rationale of the study of history, we learn about them to learn more about ourselves; to take away lessons from their achievements and avoid the mistakes they had made. To quote Gary Feinman, MacArthur Curator of Anthropology, “Understanding the civilizations of the preindustrial past can help inform our decisions in the present.”
In this article, we will look at the fascinating histories and social organisations of the ancient cities of
- and Athens.
They have become popular tourist destinations in the modern age, but with this backgrounder we hope travellers will do more than take pretty pictures, and think about what the ancients can teach us to improve our lives today.
One of the oldest and most important cities in Ancient Egypt, Memphis’s fame in the ancient world was so legendary that even Alexander the Great insisted on holding his coronation here when he conquered Egypt. Following a lengthy decline in the Ancient Roman era, Memphis today is an open-air museum, packed with history and ancient wonders, in close proximity to Cairo and the Pyramids of Giza.
The site that would become Memphis was a natural choice for the capital city of Egypt. Like modern-day Cairo, it was a natural communication centre, located in the heartland between Upper Egypt, watered by the undivided Nile and the delta of Lower Egypt. When King Menes unified Egypt in 3000 BC he moved his capital here.
Menes’ successors continued to use Memphis as their capital. Compared to later developments, it was relatively modest. Egyptians built their towns and cities from mud-brick, reserving stone for temples and palaces. Mud-brick was cheap and fast, but dissolved easily, meaning that little remains. One exception is the workmen’s village of Deir el-Medina – home to the men who built the famous ‘Valley of the Tombs’ – which gives us a sense of what daily life was like for the Ancient Egyptians. They lived in long, narrow, and dark terraced houses, with a wooden front door opening directly onto the main street. Each house included two public rooms, where the family would receive guests, and private rooms – storerooms, bedrooms, and the kitchen, which was equipped with a mud-brick oven. The roof – accessible via stairs – was also used as a social space.
During the Middle Kingdom, the capital of Egypt moved to Thebes, but Memphis remained an important religious and cultural centre. It was a centre for trade across Egypt, and attracted visitors to the pyramids and shrines. Thebes remained capital into the New Kingdom, until Rameses II moved the capital to his new, specially built city of Per-Ramesses. Nonetheless, Rameses II built in Memphis on an unprecedented scale, rebuilding the central yet previously modest Temple of Ptah, and enlarging the temple district to nearly twenty-five hectares. His successor Merenptah built a new palace, covering five hectares between the city and the Nile.
Following waves of invasion by Babylonians and Persians, Egypt was finally conquered by the Macedonian king Alexander the Great in 332 BC. Alexander crowned himself King of Egypt in the Temple of Ptah according to ancient ceremonies, placing himself in the lineage of the past. His respect for tradition only went so far, however: soon afterwards, he sought to outdo the pharaohs by constructing his own, grander, city – Alexandria, on the Mediterranean coast. Following Alexander’s death Egypt was ruled by the dynasty of his leading general, Ptolemy, culminating in the reign of Cleopatra.
Alexandria became a centre of learning and culture, the largest and most important city in the ‘known world’, so Memphis very much became the second city of Egypt. The city did however, retain prestige as a religious centre. The early Ptolemies were crowned there, and pilgrims continued to trek to the Temple of Ptah, which was now consecrated in honour of Osiris. What we know about Memphis’s topography is mostly known from this era – Greeks and Carians lived to the north of the palace of the pharaohs, while to the south lay the Temple of Ptah, and the quarter of the Tyrians.
The famous Rosetta Stone was also created in Memphis. Known officially as the ‘Memphis decree’, it established the divine cult of the new ruler, Ptolemy V, and was written in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic and demotic script and Ancient Greek. Discovered in 1799 during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, the stone allowed modern Europeans to finally decipher hieroglyphs, opening up a window into the society of ancient Egypt.
The rise of Christianity put Memphis into decline. In AD 302, when the emperor Constantine the Great passed through, the city was in ruins. In subsequent years, many of the temples and shrines of the city were dismantled and used to build Fustat, the first capital of Muslim Egypt, and modern-day Cairo. The outlines of the palace and citadel and the Temple of Ptah were excavated by archaeologists and the city is home to the spectacular alabaster sphinx and the colossus of Ramesses II.
The largest city in ancient Greece, Athens dominates our understandings of the classical world. After all, it was here that humans invented democracy, philosophy, tragedy and the theatre. Ancient history is manifest in the modern city of Athens, which is still loomed over by the hilltop remains of the ancient Acropolis.
For all its later fame, the beginnings of the city are shrouded in mystery. By 600 BC, when the historical record opens, it was clear that the city ruled the small hinterland of the peninsula of Attica. The area probably had around 100,000 people, mostly settled in small communities by the sea. Athens at this point was only a hilltop castle, with a growing town at its feet.
While Athens early leaders had been ‘tyrants’, when the opportunity came to develop a new system of governance, the people of Athens opted for something unique and unprecedented – a democracy. Under the leadership of Cleisthenes, a populist faction triumphed over the aristocratic party, and proceeded to give Athens a constitution which held that all important decisions, political or judicial, would be taken by the people as a whole. All men of military age or older had the right to vote, and an executive of 500 people – comprising of representatives from every community in Attica – was established.
At this time, the city probably had a population of around 7, 500, making it one of the biggest towns in Greece at the time. Following an attempted Persian invasion, Athens liberated the small towns of eastern Greece from the invaders – and then proceeded to bring them under its own influence, establishing an Athenian empire. This political success led to rapid growth. The statesman Aristides advised his fellow citizens to leave their farms and live in the city. The result was an influx that brought the population to a peak of 35, 000.
Athens was definitively the intellectual capital of the Greek peninsula. Here Herodotus chose to read his History; the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides were first performed to Athenian audiences, and here Socrates questioned shoppers at the central Agora on the meaning of life.
Athens’ empire would be destroyed due to Spartan victory in the Peloponnesian war, but the city remained a cultural centre, and democracy was retained. By the fourth century BC, Athens was essentially a ‘university town’, receiving what Colin McEvedy refers to as ‘imperial handouts’ from Hellenistic and Roman emperors. Finally, the town was sacked by Germanic Heruls in AD 267, bring its classical history to an ed.
The city of Athens was laid out around several monuments. Most famous is the Acropolis, built on a hill overlooking the city. It is made up of three main buildings: the instantly recognisable Parthenon; the Propylaia, which was regarded as more elegant by the ancient Athenians; and the small Erechtheion, with columns in the shape of women representing the ‘maidens of Karyai’, a small town in the Peloponnese with a temple to the goddess Artemis.
In the lower town, the main focus was the agora, the open space that served ancient Athenians as an informal meeting place, around which were situated the law courts and buildings of the political executives. Athenians flocked to the small Theatre of Dionysus at the foot of the acropolis, where they watched the first tragedies by Euripides, Sophocles, and Aristophanes.
The Romans, particularly the Emperor Hadrian, added considerably to Athens. Particularly notable is the Theatre of Herod Atticus, with an amphitheatre that today remains intact. Though the stage is in ruins, you can clearly see where the stage actors would have entered from.
Hadrian also covered the existing athletics track, the Panathenaic Stadium, in marble. Refurbished in the 19th century, it played host to events during the 2004 Olympics, and is used as a venue for rock concerts, including performances from international acts such as R.E.M., Depeche Mode, and the Scorpions. While its hard to imagine what Socrates would have made of new wave or heavy metal, its use is a testament to the way that ancient and modern intermingle in this extraordinary city. The classical world is not kept in museums, but part of the tangible fabric of everyday life.
Though less well-known today, the city of Syracuse was renowned across the classical world. Ancient Athens was so jealous Syracuse’s prosperity that they launched a famous flotilla of 5, 100 foot-soldiers and 480 archers to defeat the city – and were promptly defeated. In the Roman era, Syracuse retained its prestige, described by the famous statesman Cicero as ‘the greatest of all Greek cities, and the most beautiful of them all’. Today, Syracuse is home to extensive Greek and Roman ruins, integrated into a charming and picturesque medieval and baroque city.
Located off the south-east coast of Sicily, the island of Ortygia has been occupied since Paleolithic times. The island was colonised in around 733 by Greeks known as Corinthians, and grew to include the adjacent mainland. Syracuse defeated the Carthaginians, located on mainland Sicily, and the city grew to become a major Mediterranean power. In 413, Athens launched the famous invasion to be roundly defeated. Under the rule of the tyrant Dionysius I, Syracuse became a cultural centre, attracting distinguished visitors from all over the Mediterranean world, including Plato.
The independence of the city came to an end when Syracuse aligned with the Carthaginian general Hannibal in the Second Punic War. In 213-211 BC the city was taken by Rome, following a prolonged siege, during which the Syracusans used ingenious weapons developed by Archimedes, the famous mathematician. Archimedes devised a grapnel that could hoist the prows of besieging ships until their crews fell out into sea, and according to legend, used mirrors and lenses to focus sunlight and burn enemy ships.
As a Roman city, Syracuse remained its prestige. During the reign of Augustus, it was beautified with a triumphal arch, new square, aqueduct, and amphitheatre. The city remained an important centre through the Middle Ages – passing from Christians to Arabs to Christians again, before coming under Spanish rule.
Today, Syracuse is home to a significant archaeological site in the northwest of the town, full of well-preserved Greek and Roman ruins. The main attraction is the Greek theatre, dating back to the 5th century BC. Hosting 15,000 spectators, it was among the largest theatres ever built. The famous Athenian playwright Aeschylus was asked to open the theatre’s premiere season with a production of Women of Aetna. Since 1914, the theatre has been host to reproductions of Greek plays, in a season running from May until the end of June each year.
Near the theatre are old stone quarries, which were used to house 7,000 prisoners of war after the Athenian invasion. Particularly famous is the ‘Ear of Dionysus’, a 20 metre high, slender pointed arch cut into the rock face with a depth of around 65 m. Named by the famous Renaissance painter Caravaggio during a visit in 1618, legend tells us that it was used by the tyrant Dionysus as a prison for all his bitterest enemies. The echoey acoustics of the cavern meant, the legend claims, that he could hear their conversation from outside.
Syracuse is also home to an impressive Roman amphitheatre, built in the 3rd century AD. 140 m long, it is one of the largest found anywhere. In contrast to the high art of the Greek theatre, the amphitheatre offered the more violent pleasures of watching gladiators battle wild animals. You can see in the centre of the theatre a rectangular hole – which some historians suggest was used as a drain for all the blood and gore.
The island of Ortygia is a living city packed with history and charm. See the fountain of Arethusa, a fresh-water spring that inspired Greek poets to create a myth about the water nymph Arethusa, who chose to be a spring rather than accept the advances of the river god. The spring has since inspired subsequent poets, including John Milton, Wordsworth, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Nearby are the remains of the 6th century BC Temple of Apollo, the first Doric temple built in Sicily. Ortygia is also home to a charming medieval Norman and Baroque old town. The Baroque Duomo is built on the site of an ancient Temple of Athena, with Doric columns visible in the building’s main structure.
If you’re eager to explore the cities of the classical world, why not join an Odyssey Traveller tour? Odyssey specialises in small group educational tours for mature and senior travellers. Visit Memphis and the other sites of Ancient Egypt as part of Odyssey’s tour of Egypt, with sites explained by a qualified Egyptologist. Odyssey visits Athens as part of both a specialised history tour, led by an expert on Ancient Greece, and as part of the European Cities history and culture winter tour. The rich ancient history of southern Italy, including Syracuse, is explored on a specialised tour.
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