Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.

Cities and Towns, formed by Public Establishments, disappear as Sovereigns and Governors change their Abodes

On the 17th and 18th,[1] we went on twenty miles to Palwal,[2] which stands upon an immense mound, in some places a hundred feet high, formed entirely of the debris of old buildings. There are an immense number of fine brick buildings in ruins, but not one of brick or stone at present inhabited.

The place was once evidently under the former government the seat of some great public establishments, which, with their followers and dependants, constituted almost the entire population. The occasion which keeps such establishments at a place no sooner passes away than the place is deserted and goes to ruin as a matter of course.

Such is the history of Nineveh, Babylon,[3] and all cities which have owed their origin and support entirely to the public establishments of the sovereign—any revolution that changed the seat of government depopulated a city.

Sir Thomas Roe, the ambassador of James the First of England to the court of Delhi during the reign of Jahāngīr, passing through some of the old capital cities of Western India, then deserted and in ruins, writes to the Archbishop of Canterbury:

'I know not by what policy the Emperors seek the ruin of all the ancient cities which were nobly built, but now be desolate and in rubbish. It must arise from a wish to destroy all the ancient cities in order that there might appear nothing great to have existed before their time.'[4]

But these cities, like all which are supported in the same manner, by the residence of a court and its establishments, become deserted as the seat of dominion is changed. Nineveh, built by Ninus out of the spoils he brought back from the wide range of his conquests, continued to be the residence of the court and the principal seat of its military establishments for thirteen centuries to the reign of Sardanapalus.

During the whole of this time it was the practice of the sovereigns to collect from all the provinces of the empire their respective quotas of troops, and to canton them within the city for one year, at the expiration of which they were relieved by fresh troops.'

In the last years of Sardanapalus, four provinces of the empire, Media, Persia, Babylonia, and Arabia, are said to have furnished a quota of four hundred thousand; and, in the rebellion which closed his reign, these troops were often beaten by those from the other provinces of the empire, which could not have been much less in number. The successful rebel, Arbaces, transferred the court and his own appendages to its capital, and Nineveh became deserted, and for more than eighteen centuries lost to the civilized world.[5]

Babylon in the same manner; and Susa, Ecbatana, Persepolis, and Seleucia, all, one after the other, became deserted as sovereigns changed their residence, and with it the seats of their public establishments, which alone supported them.

Thus Thebes became deserted for Memphis, Memphis for Alexandria, and Alexandria for Cairo, as the sovereigns of Egypt changed theirs; and thus it has always been in India, where cities have been almost all founded on the same bases—the residence of princes, and their public establishments, civil, military, or ecclesiastical.

The city of Kanauj, on the Ganges, when conquered by Mahmūd of Ghaznī,[6] is stated by the historians of the conqueror to have contained a standing army of five hundred thousand infantry, with a due proportion of cavalry and elephants, thirty thousand shops for the sale of 'pān' alone, and sixty thousand families of opera girls.[7]

The 'pān' dealers and opera girls were part and parcel of the court and its public establishments, and as much dependent on the residence of the sovereign as the civil, military, and ecclesiastical officers who ate their 'pān', and enjoyed their dancing and music; and this great city no sooner ceased to be the residence of the sovereign, the great proprietor of all the lands in the country, than it became deserted.

After the establishment of the Muhammadan dominion in India almost all the Hindoo cities, within the wide range of their conquest, became deserted as the necessary consequence, as the military establishments were all destroyed or disbanded, and the religions establishments scattered, their lands confiscated, their idols broken, and their temples either reduced to ruins in the first ebullition of fanatical zeal, or left deserted and neglected to decay from want of those revenues by which alone they had been, or could be, supported.[8]

The towns and cities of the Roman empire which owed their origin to the same cause, the residence of governors and their legions or other public establishments, resisted similar shocks with more endurance, because they had most of them ceased to depend upon the causes in which they originated, and began to rest upon other bases.

When destroyed by wave after wave of barbarian conquest, they were restored for the most part by the residence of church dignitaries and their establishments; and the military establishments of the new order of things, instead of remaining as standing armies about the courts of princes, dispersed after every campaign like militia, to enjoy the fruits of the lands assigned for their maintenance, when alone they could be enjoyed in the rude state to which society had been reduced—upon the lands themselves.

For some time after the Muhammadan conquest of India, that part of it which was brought effectually under the new dominion can hardly be considered to have had more than one city with its dependent towns and villages;[9] because the emperor chose to concentrate the greater part of his military establishments around the seat of his residence, and this great city became deserted whenever he thought it necessary or convenient to change that seat.

But when the emperor began to govern his distant provinces by viceroys, he was obliged to confide to them a share of his military establishments, the only public establishments which a conqueror thought it worth while to maintain; and while they moved about in their respective provinces, the imperial camp became fixed. The great officers of state, enriched by the plunder of conquered provinces, began to spend their wealth in the construction of magnificent works for private pleasure or public convenience.

In time, the viceroys began to govern their provinces by means of deputies, who moved about their respective districts, and enabled their masters, the viceroys of provinces, to convert their camps into cities, which in magnificence often rivalled that of the emperor their master.

The deputies themselves in time found that they could govern their respective districts from a central point; and as their camps became fixed in the chosen spots, towns of considerable magnitude rose, and sometimes rivalled the capitals of the viceroys. The Muhammadans had always a greater taste for architectural magnificence, as well in their private as in their public edifices, than the Hindoos,[10] who sought the respect and good wishes of mankind through the medium of groves and reservoirs diffused over the country for their benefit.

Whenever a Muhammadan camp was converted into a town or city almost all the means of individuals were spent in the gratification of this taste. Their wealth in money and movables would be, on their death, at the mercy of their prince—their offices would be conferred on strangers; tombs and temples, canals, bridges, and caravanserais, gratuitously for the public good, would tend to propitiate the Deity, and conciliate the goodwill of mankind, and might also tend to the advancement of their children in the service of their sovereign.

The towns and cities which rose upon the sites of the standing camps of the governors of provinces and districts in India were many of them as much adorned by private and public edifices as those which rose upon the standing camps of the Muhammadan conquerors of Spain.[11]

Standing camps converted into towns and cities, it became in time necessary to fortify with walls against any surprise under any sudden ebullition among the conquered people; and fortifications and strong garrisons often suggested to the bold and ambitions governors of distant provinces attempts to shake off the imperial yoke.[12] That portion of the annual revenue, which had hitherto flowed in copious streams of tribute to the imperial capital, was now arrested, and made to augment the local establishments, adorn the cities, and enrich the towns of the viceroys, now become the sovereigns of independent kingdoms.

The lieutenant-governors of these new sovereigns, possessed of fortified towns, in their turn often shook off the yoke of their masters in the same manner, and became in their turn the independent sovereigns of their respective districts.

The whole resources of the countries subject to their rule being employed to strengthen and improve their condition, they soon became rich and powerful kingdoms, adorned with splendid cities and populous towns, since the public establishments of the sovereigns, among whom all the revenues were expended, spent all they received in the purchase of the produce of the land and labour of the surrounding country, which required no other market.

Thus the successful rebellion of one viceroy converted Southern India into an independent kingdom; and the successful rebellion, of his lieutenant-governors in time divided it into four independent kingdoms, each with a standing army of a hundred thousand men, and adorned with towns and cities of great strength and magnificence.[13] But they continued to depend upon the causes in which they originated—the public establishments of the sovereign; and when the Emperor Akbar and his successors, aided by their own [sic] intestine wars, had conquered these sovereigns, and again reduced their kingdoms to tributary provinces, almost all these cities and towns became depopulated as the necessary consequence.

The public establishments were again moving about with the courts and camps of the emperor and his viceroys; and drawing in their train all those who found employment and subsistence in contributing to their efficiency and enjoyment. It was not, as our ambassador in the simplicity of his heart supposed, the disinclination of the emperors to see any other towns magnificent, save those in which they resided, which destroyed them, but their ambition to reduce all independent kingdoms to tributary provinces.


1. January, 1836.

2. A small town, thirty-six miles south of Delhi, situated in the Gurgāon district, now included in the Panjāb, but in the author's time attached to the North-Western Provinces. The town is the chief place in the 'pargana' of the same name.

3. Nineveh is not a well-chosen example, inasmuch as its decay was due to deliberate destruction, and not to mere desertion by a sovereign. It was deliberately burned and ruined by Nabopolassar, viceroy of Babylon, and his allies, about 606 B.C. The decay of Babylon was gradual. See note post, note 5.

4. Extract from a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, dated from Ajmēr, January 29, 1616. The words immediately following 'rubbish' are 'His own [i.e. the King's] houses are of stone, handsome and uniform. His great men build not, for want of inheritance; but, as far as I have yet seen, live in tents, or in houses worse than our cottages. Yet, when the King likes, as at Agra, because it is a city erected by him, the buildings, as is reported, are fair and of carved stone.' (Pinkerton's Collection, vol. viii, p. 45.) The passage is not reprinted in the Hakluyt Society edition (vol. i, p. 122), where only extracts from the letter are given.

5. The site of Nineveh was forgotten for a period even longer than that stated by the author. Mr. Claudius Rich, the Resident at Baghdad, was the first European to make a tentative identification of Nineveh with the mounds opposite Mosal, in 1818. Real knowledge of the site and its history dates from the excavations of Botta begun in 1843, and those of Layard begun two years later. (Bonomi, Nineveh and its Palaces, 2nd ed., 1853; Layard, Nineveh and its Remains, 2 vols, 1849.)

The author's account of the fall of Nineveh, based on that of Diodorus Siculus, is not in accordance with the conclusions of the best modern authorities. The destruction of the city in or about 606 B.C. was really effected some years after the death of Sardanapalus (Assur-banipal), in 625 B.C., by Nabopolassar (Nabupal-uzur), the rebel viceroy of Babylon, in alliance with Necho of Egypt, Cyaxares of Media, and the King of Armenia.

The Assyrian monarch who perished in the assault was not Sardanapalus (Assur-banipal), but his son Assur-ebel-ili, or, according to Professor Sayce, a king called Saracus, After the destruction of Nineveh, Babylon became the capital of the Mesopotamian empire, and under Nebuchadrezzar (Nebuchadnezzar), son of Nabopolassar, who came to the throne in 604 B.C., attained the height of glory and renown. It was occupied by Cyrus in 539 B.C., and decayed gradually, but was still a place of importance in the time of Alexander the Great. The eponymous hero, Ninus, is of course purely mythical.

The results of modern research will be found in the Encycl. Brit., 11th ed., 1910, in the articles 'Babylon' (Sayce), 'Babylonia and Assyria' (Sayce and Jastrow), and 'Nineveh' (Johns). See also, ibid., 'Cyrus' (Meyer).