Tel Megiddo in Israel holds the outlines of the ancient city of Megiddo, which overlooked crossroads of trade and war.

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.

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 centers, thriving with palaces, temples, markets, and taverns serving fig wine. Although little remains of these once grand civilizations, 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.

“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 its peak around the third millennium B.C. Some 40,000 people buzzed around the walled city, 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.

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