How 10 great World Cities used to look

How 10 great World Cities used to look

Reconstructions of how 10 of the world’s greatest cities looked when they were first settled.



1.     Athens

Athens has been continuously inhabited for at least 7,000 years.  By 1,400 BC the settlement had become an important centre of the Mycenaean civilization.  By 400 BC it had become the leading city of Ancient Greece, with its cultural achievements laying the foundations of Western civilization.  By the end of Late Antiquity the city went into decline, but recovered in the Middle Ages as it benefited from Italian trade.  In 1458 it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire and entered a long period of decline.  Following the Greek War of Independence, Athens was chosen as the capital of the newly independent Greek state in 1834.  At the time it was a town of modest size built around the foot of the Acropolis, so a modern city plan fit for the capital of a state was designed.  Today, Athens is a cosmopolitan metropolis and is the southernmost capital on the European mainland.

Athens c.400 BC and today

The Acropolis of Athens is a flat-topped rock that dominates the city.  The Parthenon and other main buildings on the Acropolis were built by Pericles in the 5th century BC as a monument to the city’s cultural achievements.  As well as being a sacred place, the Acropolis was also a place of secure refuge for Athenians in times of conflict.

The Acropolis c.400 BC and today

Acropolis Reconstruction by National Geographic

2.     Rome

According to Roman legend, the city was founded by Romulus on 21 April 753 BC.  Archaeological evidence suggests that Rome grew from pastoral settlements, possibly around that time.  The original settlement developed into the capital of the Roman Kingdom, then the Roman Republic from 510 BC, and finally the Roman Empire from 27 BC.  Its dominance expanded over most of Western Europe and the Mediterranean up to the 5th century AD.  After the eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, Rome alternated between Byzantine and Germanic control.  Its population declined from more than a million in 210 AD to a mere 35,000 during the early Middle Ages, reducing the sprawling city to small groups of inhabited buildings among large areas of abandoned and overgrown ruins.  However, it remained home to the Bishops of Rome and has kept its status as Papal capital and ‘holy city’ for centuries.  The Papacy wanted to equal the grandeur of other Italian cities during the Italian Renaissance in the second half of the 15th century which led to the building of ever more extravagant churches, bridges, town squares and public spaces.  During Napoleon’s reign, Rome was annexed into the French Empire.  After the fall of Napoleon, the eventual reunification of Italy and the recapture of Rome from French protection in 1870, it finally became the capital of Italy.  The city’s population rapidly grew under Benito Mussolini’s control from 1922-44, and it managed to escape the large scale destruction that hit other European cities during World War 2.  Rome grew momentously after the war and became a fashionable city in the 1950s and early 1960s, the years of ‘la dolce vita’.  Today Rome is one of the most important tourist destinations of the world, due to the immensity of its archaeological and artistic treasures.  Its historic centre is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Rome c.300 AD and today

Reconstruction model of Ancient Rome, Museum of Roman Civilization at EUR.  Image of modern Rome from Google Earth

The Colosseum is considered one of the greatest works of Roman architecture and engineering.  Its construction started in 72 AD and it was capable of seating 50,000 spectators.  It was used for gladiatorial contests and public spectacles such as mock sea battles, animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas.  Although in the 21st century it stays partially ruined, the Colosseum is an iconic symbol of Imperial Rome and is one of Rome’s most popular tourist attractions.

Colosseum c.320 AD and today

 Colosseum Reconstruction by Rome Reborn

3.     Istanbul

Recent archaeological finds show that the the Istanbul peninsula has been populated for at least 9,000 years, before the Bosphorus was even formed.  Thracian tribes established two settlements near where Topkapı Palace now stands, between the 13th and 11th centuries BC.  The history of Istanbul generally begins around 660 BC, when the settlers from Megara, under the command of King Byzas, established Byzantium on the European side of the Bosphorus.  Byzantium officially became a part of the Roman Empire in 73 AD.  In 324 AD the Roman Emperor Constantine rebuilt Byzantium as a new Christian city, officially named Nea Roma (New Rome); however it simply became known as Constantinople (‘the city of Constantine’), a name that persisted into the 20th century.  It became the capital of the Byzantine Empire.  Constantinople’s location and fortified construction secured its longevity; for many centuries it was Christian Europe’s bulwark against invaders from the east and was the largest and wealthiest city on the continent.  Following a long decline it finally fell to the Turkish Ottomans in 1453, after a siege during which the last Roman Emperor, Constantine XI, was killed.  Constantinople was declared the new capital of the Ottoman Empire, which lasted until 1922, and was transformed from a bastion of Christianity to a symbol of Islamic culture.  Today, the megacity of Istanbul is home to a population of 13.5 million and is the only metropolis in the world situated on two continents (Europe and Asia).

Constantinople c.1250 AD and Istanbul today


4.     Barcelona

Neolithic remains have been discovered on the coastal plain near Barcelona and there is clear evidence that the ‘Old City’ was settled in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC by the Laietani people, who called it Barkeno.  The area was occupied by Carthaginian troops in 218 BC under the leadership of Hamilcar Barca, father of Hannibal, who is credited with the foundation of the city.  The Romans later conquered the Iberian peninsula and had settled Barcelona, under the name of Barcino, by 14 AD.  The first raids by Germanic tribes started around 250 AD and by 414 Barcelona had fallen to the Visigoths.  After being conquered by the Arabs in the early 8th century, it was reconquered in 801 AD by Charlemagne’s son Louis.  The succeeding Counts of Barcelona expanded their territory to include all of Catalonia, and the period marked the city’s height of prosperity and power.  Barcelona’s decline came following the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1469, which saw Madrid became the centre of political power in Spain, whilst the colonisation of the Americas began to reduce the relative financial importance of Mediterranean trade.  The Napoleonic wars left the province ravaged, but the postwar period saw the start of industrialization.  Today, about 5 million people live in the Barcelona metropolitan area and it is Europe’s largest metropolis on the Mediterranean Sea.

Barcelona c.15 BC and today


5.     Paris

The earliest archaeological signs of settlements in the Paris area date from over 6,000 years ago.  The Parisii, a Celtic tribe, inhabited the area near the river Seine from around 250 BC.  The Romans conquered the Paris basin in 52 BC, and built a permanent settlement by the end of the century on the Left Bank Sainte Geneviève Hill and the Île de la Cité.  The Gallo-Roman town was originally called Lutetia.  It expanded greatly over the following centuries, becoming a prosperous city with a forum, palaces, baths, temples, theatres, and an amphitheatre.  The collapse of the Roman empire and the 5th-century Germanic invasions sent the city into decline.  By 400 AD, Lutèce was largely abandoned by its inhabitants and was little more than a garrison town in the fortified central island.  The city became more widely known as ‘Paris’ towards the end of the Roman occupation.  The Paris region was under full control of the Germanic Franks by the late 5th century.  By the early 9th century Viking invasions of northern France had spread as far as Paris, forcing its inhabitants to build a fortress on the Île de la Cité.  During the Middle Ages, Paris’s population was repeatedly ravaged by outbreaks of plague and was effectively under English rule during the Hundred Years’ War, until it was reclaimed in 1436.  In 1789, Paris was the centre stage for the French Revolution, which led to the overthrow of the monarchy and the rise of Napolean.  Paris was occupied by Russian and Allied armies upon Napoleon’s defeat in 1814.  The city’s greatest transformation came in the 1850s, when Baron Haussmann levelled entire districts of Paris’ narrow, winding medieval streets to create the network of wide avenues and neo-classical façades that still make up much of modern Paris.  The creation of wide boulevards beautified and sanitized the capital, as well as increasing the effectiveness of troops and artillery against the uprisings for which Paris was so famous during the 18th and 19th centuries.  During World War I, Paris was at the forefront of the war effort, having been spared a German invasion by the French and British armies in 1914.  Following the outbreak of World War II, however, an undefended Paris fell to German occupation forces in 1940, which remained until the city was liberated in 1944.  In the post-war era, Paris experienced rapid development, and today is classified as an Alpha+ World City by the Globalization and World Cities Research Network (GaWC), which ranks the major cities of the world by their importance in the global economic system.

Paris c.100 AD and today

Reconstruction model of Paris c.100 AD from  Image of modern Paris from Google Earth

The Eiffel Tower has become both a global cultural icon of France and one of the most recognizable structures in the world.  It was built in the Champ de Mars as the entrance arch to the 1889 World’s Fair, and is now the most-visited paid monument in the world. It is named after the engineer Gustave Eiffel, whose company designed and built the tower.

Construction of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 and how it appears today


6.     London

Although there is evidence of Celtic Iron Age dwellings around London, the first major settlement, Londinium, was founded by the Romans in 43 AD.  In 61 AD, the Iceni tribe led by Queen Boudica stormed it and burned it to the ground.  The city was rebuilt became the capital of the Roman province of Britannia in 100 AD.  When Roman rule collapsed in the early 5th century, Londinium was effectively abandoned.  By the 7th century, the Anglo-Saxons had created a new settlement called Lundenwic over a mile upstream, but repeated attacks by Vikings in the 9th century led to a relocation back to Londinium’s protective walls.  Following the unification of England in the 10th century London, already the country’s largest city and most important trading centre, became increasingly important as a political centre.  After the Norman Conquest in 1066, the institutions of central government, which had previously accompanied the royal court as it moved around the country, grew in size and sophistication and became increasingly fixed in London.  The Black Death in the mid-14th century claimed nearly a third of London’s population, and the city was the focus of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381.  During the Tudor period, monopoly trading companies such as the East India Company were established and London became the principal North Sea port as trade expanded to the New World.  London continued to be plagued by disease, culminating in the Great Plague of 1665–1666, which killed up to a fifth of the population.  The Great Fire of London broke out in 1666 and quickly swept through the city’s wooden buildings, leading to them being rebuilt in stone.  London, as the heart of the British Empire, was the world’s largest city during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Bombing by the German Luftwaffe during World War II killed over 30,000 Londoners and destroyed large tracts of housing and other buildings across the city.  Gradual post-war regeneration coincided with London’s ever-increasing role as a major international financial centre and today it is classified as an Alpha++ World City.

London c.120 AD and today

Image of Londinium c.120 AD from the Museum of London.  Image of modern London by Will Pearson

There has been an Abbey at Westminster, upstream from old Londinium, since the 960s.  Edward the Confessor had the Abbey rebuilt from 1042 and he was buried there in 1066.  His successor, Harold II, was probably crowned in the Abbey, then William the Conqueror later the same year.  Thereafter, Westminster became a favoured royal residence and later the seat of national government.

Westminster Abbey c.960 AD and today

Reconstruction of the Norman Westminster Abbey, with the Palace of Westminster, by Terry Ball

The history of London is well reflected in this selection of pictures of the Tower of London by artist Ivan Lapper; the full series can be seen on the Royal Armouries website.  It shows the changes to one of the oldest parts of London.  Archaeological evidence shows that there was originally a Bronze Age settlement there, and that it later marked the eastern extent of the Roman city wall around Londinium.  The Tower of London itself was founded towards the end of 1066 as part of the Norman Conquest of England, and the site was expanded in phases over the centuries.  It has served variously as a royal residence, an armoury, a treasury, a menagerie, the home of the Royal Mint, a public records office, the home of the Crown Jewels, and, most notoriously, as a prison.  Many famous figures from history have been incarcerated there, including William Wallace, Anne Boleyn, (the future) Elizabeth I, Guy Fawkes, Sir Walter Raleigh, Samuel Pepys and Rudolf Hess.  Today the Tower of London is one of England’s most popular tourist attractions and is protected as a World Heritage Site.

 Tower of London through the ages – by Ivan Lapper

7.     Cologne

The first settlement on the grounds of what today is the centre of Cologne was Oppidum Ubiorum, founded in 38 BC by the Germanic Ubii tribe.  In 50 AD, the Romans founded Colonia on the Rhine and the city became the provincial capital of Germania Inferior in 85 AD.  In the 3rd century AD it became the capital of the Gallic Empire.  The imperial governors of Rome resided in the city and it became one of the most important trade and production centres in the Roman Empire north of the Alps.  In 459 AD, the Franks captured Cologne and made it their capital city.  Cologne’s location on the river Rhine placed it at the intersection of the major trade routes between east and west and was the basis of the city’s growth in the Middle Ages.  In the early 19th century Cologne was occupied by the French and was part of Napoleon’s Empire until his fall in 1815 when it was made part of the Kingdom of Prussia.  During the 19th and 20th centuries, Cologne absorbed numerous surrounding towns, and by World War I industrialisation had changed the city and spurred its growth.  The city survived World War I without significant damage and until 1926 was occupied by the British Army of the Rhine under the terms of the Armistice.  Cologne prospered during the Weimar Republic (1919–1933) but the centre of the city was effectively destroyed by bombing in World War II.  Cologne endured 262 air raids by the Allies, including ‘Operation Millennium’, the first 1,000 bomber raid by the Royal Air Force in 1942, which destroyed 600 acres of built-up area in about 75 minutes.  By the end of the war, the population of Cologne had been reduced by 95%, mainly caused by massive evacuation to rural areas.  The postwar reconstruction of the city centre lasted until the 1990s.  Today Cologne prospers as a centre for media companies, and its superb traffic infrastructure makes it one of the most easily accessible metropolitan areas in Central Europe.

Cologne c.85 AD and today

 Reconstruction of Roman Cologne from the Römisch-Germanisches Museum.  Image of modern Cologne from Google Earth

The site of the present Cologne Cathedral was probably occupied by a temple during the Roman era, before the Christian era took over in the 4th century.  Construction of the current cathedral began in 1248 and continued over the next couple of centuries, but halted in 1473.  The south tower was only completed up to the belfry level and the huge crane which lifted the heavy stone and timber in place was left in place; it became a landmark of the Cologne skyline for 400 years.  It wasn’t until the 19th century, and the accidental discovery of the original plans for the cathedral, that it was decided to complete it (though at enormous cost).  The completion was celebrated as a national event in 1880, 632 years after construction had begun.  The cathedral survived 70 hits during World War II bombing raids, although the city was flattened around it.  War damage to the cathedral was repaired by 1956, and in 1996 it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Cologne Cathedral – top 1890s, left 1945, right 1965


8.     Dublin

The area of Dublin Bay has been inhabited since prehistoric times.  The earliest historical reference to a settlement there was by the Egyptian cartographer Ptolemy around 140 AD, who called the settlement Eblana Civitas.  In the 9th and 10th centuries, there were two settlements where the modern city of Dublin stands.  The Viking settlement founded around 841 AD was known as Dyflin, from the Irish Duiblinn or ‘Black Pool’, referring to a dark tidal pool where the River Poddle entered the Liffey, and the Gaelic settlement, Áth Cliath or ‘ford of hurdles’ was further up river.  The Vikings ruled Dublin for almost three centuries, though they were expelled in 902, only to return in 917.  Their defeat by the Irish High King Brian Boru at the battle of Clontarf in 1014 reduced them to a minor political force, but they dominated commercial life in Ireland with Dublin as its hub.  Viking rule of Dublin ended following the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169-71 and the city became the centre of Anglo-Norman power in Ireland.  By 1400, many of the Anglo-Norman conquerors were absorbed into Irish culture, leaving only a small area around Dublin, known as the Pale, under direct English control.  Dublin prospered as a trade centre, but it remained a relatively small walled medieval town under constant threat from the surrounding native clans.  The Tudor conquest of Ireland in the 16th century spelt a new era for Dublin as the centre of administrative rule in Ireland.  The city prospered as a result of wool and linen trade with England and, by the 18th century, Georgian Dublin briefly became the second largest city of the British Empire and the fifth largest city in Europe.  The vast majority of Dublin’s most notable architecture dates from this period.  Dublin suffered a period of political and economic decline during the 19th century, following the transfer of government to the Westminster Parliament in London.  The Easter Rising of 1916, the Irish War of Independence, and the subsequent Irish Civil War resulted in a significant amount of physical damage in central Dublin, but the city centre was rebuilt as the capital of the Irish Free State (1922–1949) and Dublin is now the capital of the Republic of Ireland.  From 1997, the landscape of Dublin developed dramatically as the city was at the forefront of Ireland’s rapid economic expansion during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ period; today it is classified as an Alpha- World City.

 Viking Dublin c.1000 AD

Medieval Dublin c. 1500 from 

Modern Dublin from Google Earth

9.     New York

In the pre-colonial era the site of modern-day New York City was inhabited by various Native American Algonquian tribes.  There were a couple of recorded visits to the area by European explorers in the 16th century, but it was the English explorer Henry Hudson who claimed the region for his employer, the Dutch East India Company, when he sailed into New York Harbour in 1609.  A Dutch fur trading settlement was founded on the southern tip of Manhattan in 1614, which became known as New Amsterdam in 1625.  The following year, the Dutch purchased the island of Manhattan from the Lenape Indian tribe for the nominal fee of 60 guilders.  In 1664 the Dutch surrendered the fledgling city of New Amsterdam to the English without a fight.  It was renamed New York and the city grew in importance as a trading port while under British rule.  The Battle of Long Island, the largest battle of the American Revolutionary War, was fought in August 1776 in the present-day borough of Brooklyn. After the battle, in which the Americans were routed, the city became the British military and political base of operations in North America until the war ended in 1783.  New York was briefly made the national capital of the USA in 1785 (until the creation of the present national capital, Washington DC), and in 1789 the first President of the United States, George Washington, was inaugurated at Federal Hall on Wall Street.  In the 19th century, New York was transformed by immigration and development.  A significant free-black population existed in Manhattan and Brooklyn when New York became a focal point for the abolition of slavery in the 1830s.  The Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s brought a large influx of Irish immigrants, and by 1860, one in four New Yorkers had been born in Ireland.  Today New York exerts the greatest global influence on finance and culture, and, along with London, is classified as an Alpha++ World City.  As the home of the United Nations Headquarters, it is also the world’s focal point for international diplomacy.

New York in 1609, image by Markley Boyer – Modern New York, image by Robert Clark

The Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island in New York Harbour has become an icon of the United States.  The statue, designed by Frédéric Bartholdi, was a centennialgift to the United States from the people of France.  The statue represents Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom, carrying a torch and a tablet which bears the date 4 July 1776, the date of the American Declaration of Independence.  Bartholdi completed the head and the torch-bearing arm in Paris before the statue was fully designed, and exhibited them for fund-raising publicity at international expositions.  The arm was transported to the US in 1876 for display at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and then in New York’s Madison Square Park from 1876 to 1882.  The head was exhibited at the 1878 Paris World’s Fair.  Bartholdi engaged the help of engineer Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame) to design the massive copper sculpture.  Eiffel’s design comprised an immense iron pylon and secondary skeletal framework, which allows the Statue’s copper skin to move independently yet stand upright in the strong winds of New York Harbour.  The Statue was completed in France in 1884 and arrived in New York Harbour in 1885.  For it’s journey across the Atlantic, it was reduced to 350 individual pieces and re-assembled on her new pedestal.  The Statue of Liberty was dedicated in front of thousands of spectators on 28 October 1886.

Statue of Liberty’s head at the 1878 Paris World’s Fair and arm at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia


Liberty Island 1886 and today


10.    Sydney

The archaeology of the Sydney region suggests that it has been inhabited by Aboriginal Australians for at least 30,000 years.  Sydney itself was founded as a convict settlement on behalf of the British government by Arthur Phillip, who arrived at Sydney Cove with a fleet of 11 ships on 26 January 1788.  His original destination was Botany Bay, discovered by English sea captain James Cook in 1770, however the site was deemed unsuitable for habitation due to poor soil and lack of fresh water.  The new colony, located further up the coast, was originally to be named Albion, but instead Phillip named it Sydney after the British Home Secretary, Lord Sydney, who had issued the charter authorising the colony’s establishment.  The British colonists called the indigenous Australians in the area the ‘Eora’, because when asked where they came from, they would answer: “Eora“, meaning “here”, or “from this place”.  In 1789 a smallpox epidemic spread through the Eora people and surrounding Aboriginal groups with catastrophic results.  They died in their thousands, and by the early 1800s the Aboriginal population of the Sydney basin had been reduced to around 10% of the 1788 level.  Initially there was violent Aboriginal resistance to British settlement and conflicts were common in the area, but by 1820 the severely depleted indigenous population were subjected to initiatives to ‘civilise, Christianise and educate’ them by removing them from their clans.  By this time, the city of Sydney had developed from its basic beginnings, with the construction of roads, bridges, wharves and public buildings by British and Irish convicts.  By 1822 Sydney had banks, markets, well-established thoroughfares and an organised constabulary.  Urban development expanded in the 1830s and 1840s with the arrival of immigrants from Britain and Ireland.  Further rapid development began towards the end of the 19th century with industrialisation and the advent of tramways and railways .  Throughout the 20th century, especially in the decades after World War II, Sydney continued to expand as large numbers of European and later Asian immigrants settled in the metropolitan area.  Today it is the most populated city in Australia with 4.6 million people and is classified as an Alpha+ World City.

 Sydney Cove – in 1788 by Ian Hansen – and today from

View of Sydney from Chiarabilly – in 1811 by John Lewin from the State Library of NSW – and today from

Earth's History in 1 Minute

Earth's History in 1 Minute - 4½ billion years in a 1 minute video

Posted by Abroad in the Yard on Friday, 14 August 2015