Cities that Shaped the Ancient World

Kindly contributed by Darrel Schoeling, world traveler and Longitude's co-founder.

  Petra, Palenque, Persepolis and Pataliputra (center of the Mauryan empire on the Ganges in India). Travelers, tour operators, hey, anyone with an interest in the (mostly western) roots of civilization will delight at the places included in Cities that Shaped the Ancient World, this latest book by the inestimable John Julius Norwich.

It's not a glossy photo-book, nor a guidebook (site plans are noticeably absent) but rather a series of engaging essays by big-name archaeologists and historians rounded up by editor JJN. Forty ancient cities are profiled — from the world's first, Uruk on the banks of the Euphrates, across millennia and the continents (Near East, Africa, Europe, Asia, The Americas) — each beautifully illustrated with modern photographs. A handsomely packaged 8 x 10 inch beauty, the compact 240-page book invites browsing. Quibble as much as you like over the places included, this is a dream book (how many have you visited?), valuable reference and, just to be clear, the perfect gift for you or the traveler in your life.

I've been to 12 of the cities featured (Pergamum, Jerusalem, Petra, Ephesus, Knossos, Mycenae, Athens, Rome, Monte Alban, Teotihuacan, Tikal and Palenque) and the book rekindled my interest in Pompeii and Paestum (see the fresco above, one of several intriguing distinctly Greek symposium scenes surrounding the Tomb of the Diver at Poseidonia-Paesteum southeast of Naples).

Born in 1929, Viscount Norwich (appointed to the Royal Victorian Order in 1992 by the Queen, son of Lady Diana Cooper and father of Patrick Leigh Fermor biographer Artemis Cooper) has written or edited a string of marvelous books over a long career from his 1966 Mount Athos to ByzantiumThe Middle Sea and A History of Venice. No sequestered academic, Norwich has inspired a cruise line, Voyages to Antiquity (where he has been known to lecture. Click for his favorite places in the Med) and has written and hosted dozens of television documentaries.

This latest book is a follow-up of sorts to The Great Cities in History, from which a few of these essays were recycled). Not confining itself to important ancient cities Timbuktu, Damascus, Constantinople, London, Paris and Shanghai are all included, depicting the rise (and occasionally fall) of cities from earliest Mesopotamia through the great trading centers of the first millennium to medieval Europe and the modern megalopolis. Each city, beautifully illustrated, is paired with an essay by diverse dignitaries including Jan Morris (New York), Colin Thubron (Samarkand), Simon Schama (Amsterdam) and Michael Coe (Angkor). For more great gift ideas for the traveler, look out for our yearly travel gift guide.