If you keep swapping out the old planks of a ship for newer ones, at which point do you have a new ship entirely? Maybe the Ship of Theseus can apply to cities as well. If a city’s been destroyed and rebuilt from ash and rubble, is it even the same place? Maybe there’s no easy answer, but it’s a testament to human resilience that we’re able to do that at all, as was the case with the following cities…
9. Jerusalem (70)
You don’t have to be a student of history to know that Jerusalem has been the epicenter for religious struggles for thousands of years. From the days of the Old Testament, to the Crusades, to modern day, the city is constantly under siege, being sacked, or split down the middle. Perhaps the most infamous such event occurred just a few decades after the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
In 66 AD, Jewish rebels seized control of the area from Roman occupiers, who unsurprisingly, didn’t take too kindly to this. Emperor Titus marched down with around 70,000 men and besieged the Holy City for four brutal months (right around Passover) before storming it, burning the Second Temple, and slaughtering the remaining defenders. You can still see the Arch of Titus in Rome today, a symbol of Jewish diaspora (the decentralization of Jewish culture after the destruction of its long-time capital) commemorating this brutal victory.
8. Lisbon (1755)
There was widespread speculation that God had personally overseen the destruction of Lisbon, Portugal, since the earthquake that ravaged it in 1755 fell on November 1: All Saint’s Day. As is often the case with earthquakes, a tsunami was fired off, leading to further destruction roughly 40 minutes after the quake, and fires soon broke out that quickly grew beyond the ability of the already stretched-thin emergency services to control. They didn’t have the Richter scale in 1755, but modern seismologists (who can, notably, trace the origins of their field to efforts to study this particular disaster) pin the quake at an enormous magnitude of 8.5-9.0.
Given the weaker construction of the day, and the lack of modern response services, the death toll of between 30-40,000 that’s since been attributed to the disaster seems more or less in line with the data (some estimates put the death toll at closer to 100,000, but there’s no way to be sure). Either way, the Great Lisbon Earthquake had a profound effect on Portuguese politics, economics, and plans for further colonial expansion. Enlightenment philosophers throughout Europe struggled to rectify the carnage with their image of a benevolent God, leading to profound advancements in theological thought. When the city was rebuilt, far greater care was given to earthquake-resistant structures.
7. Chicago (1876)
As legend has it, Catherine O’Leary’s cow knocked a lantern into some hay and started a small fire. By the time the city’s 185 firefighters arrived at DeKoven Street, the fire had already consumed much of the block and was now raging towards the central business district, constantly strengthened by the city’s numerous wooden buildings. The hope that the Chicago River and a recently burned area with little remaining fuel would act as a natural firebreak were dashed, as the area along the river contained numerous lumber yards, coal yards, barges and bridges, all of which were swept up in what was now a massive inferno barreling towards the heart of the city. The overheated air produced a tornado-like fire whirl that launched flaming projectiles far and wide, adding to the blaze.
The city waterworks soon burned to a ground, ruining the water mains and leaving the city with no options but to evacuate as many panicking residents as they could and wait for the fire to burn itself out. It did, eventually, but not before 300 people were killed and 73 miles of roads, 120 miles of sidewalk, 2,000 lampposts and 17,500 buildings had been destroyed, resulting in $222 million in damages (a third of the city’s valuation at the time).
6. St. Louis (1896)
Tornadoes generally strike more rural areas, since the regions most prone to twister-spawning weather conditions tend to lack the major waterways along which cities are often built. St. Louis, Missouri, however, smack on the Mississippi, has the profound and unenviable distinction of being a dinner bell for funnel clouds. In the last century and a half, well over a hundred tornadoes have struck the metropolitan area directly, causing widespread destruction and thousands of deaths. The two costliest twisters in American history both struck the city.
The most expensive of the two, part of a larger outbreak (as is often the case), slammed into the eastern part of the city in May 1896, well before modern Doppler Radar technology had been developed and before even rudimentary sirens. The local weather services had only predicted light thunder storms for the afternoon. By the time barometric pressure plummeted and black-green cumulonimbus clouds appeared on the horizon, it was too late: a monster touched down in the middle of the city, then one of the country’s largest, and proceeded to wreak havoc. At least 255 people were killed, more than 1,000 were injured, and as many as 12,000 buildings were damaged. Total damage estimates at the time exceeded $10,000,000 ($4.65 billion today).
5. Galveston (1900)
The “Wall Street of Texas,” as the former capital of the Republic of Texas had once been nicknamed, is now most notable by far for the massive hurricane that brought it to ruin on September 8, 1900. The storm began off the west coast of Africa, gained steam as it headed towards the Caribbean, and grew into a monster by the time it hit the Gulf of Mexico. Although the storm’s existence was known to the United States, words like ‘tornadoes’ and ‘hurricanes’ were discouraged so as to avoid public panics.
Furthermore, trajectory updates from the Belen Observatory in Cuba, believed to be among the world’s finest meteorological institutions at the time, were buried due to tensions rising from the Spanish-American war. Thus, the city of Galveston was woefully unprepared when the Category 4 (a retroactive assignment) monster made landfall there. The city was flattened, causing the 2020 equivalent of over $1 billion in damage, and between 6-12,000 people lost their lives (the most quoted figure is 8,000). This makes it, by quite a significant margin, the deadliest natural disaster in the history of the United States.
4. San Francisco (1906)
San Francisco is currently facing a public housing crisis due to the out of control price of rent. But that’s nothing compared to what happened to the city in 1906, when a 7.9 magnitude earthquake destroyed nearly 80% of the city’s buildings, ended 3,000 lives and left as many as 300,000 people (roughly 75% of the city’s population at the time) homeless. This particular slip of the San Andreas fault had been coming for years, rattling the Pacific coast with impending foreshocks. But there’s simply no way the public at the time, with 1906 detection methods, 1906 disaster relief systems, and buildings up to 1906 codes, could’ve adequately prepared for the quake that shook the city (and several surrounding ones) for 42 seconds at 5 in the morning on April 18.
Notably, the shaking itself only caused about 10% of the damage that forced hundreds of thousands of survivors to live in tents for months and led to widespread rioting and looting as public services broke down. The other 90% was caused by numerous fires, themselves the result of ruptured gas lines. It remains the deadliest natural disaster in Californian history.
3. Warsaw (1944)
Neither the Germans nor their Soviet opponents on WWII’s eastern front had invested into the long range, four-engine bombers the western Allies had in abundance, which allowed the latter group to deliver unprecedented amounts of damage from the sky. So, the cities that were destroyed here were crushed with ground forces (there are exceptions, like the August 1942 Stalingrad bombing which immediately preceded the battle of the same name). But the destruction of Warsaw by the Nazis in late 1944 stands out even in a theater of combat defined by a complete and total disregard for human life, property, and dignity.
This wasn’t the result of a conquering army acting out its bloodlust before officers regained control, since the city had already been occupied for roughly five years at this point. No, like most Nazi atrocities, the razing of Warsaw was premeditated and administered by the state, in this particular case to exact revenge on the Poles for their failed but costly August 1944 rebellion. While Stalin held his Red Army on the east bank of the Vistula and watched, the Nazis took forces desperately needed at the front and handed them the strategically worthless task of dismantling the Polish capital, along with its historically precious collection of medieval libraries and cathedrals, brick by brick. Roughly 90% of the city was razed to the ground with a combination of artillery, dynamite and flamethrowers, a higher percentage than any other metropolitan area in the war.
2. Tokyo (1945)
Any of the cities that were bombed into oblivion during the Second World War would be fair game for a list like this, but lots of them (Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, etc.) are mainly notable because of their destruction. So instead, we’ve decided to take this opportunity to discuss Operation: Meetinghouse, the March 1945 US bombing raid against the Japanese capital. It wasn’t the first assault against the city (the April 1942 Doolittle raid, which was only effective enough to serve as a propaganda win for the then-struggling US, has that honor). But it was the deadliest, by far. In fact, it was the deadliest bombing raid not just against Tokyo, not just of the Pacific War, and not just of World War II, but in all of human history. Yes, it even beats out the two atomic bombings that, along with the declaration of war against Japan by the USSR, brought the conflict to an end a few months later.
There’s a simple reason for this: the bombs used in Meetinghouse were incendiary devices, which bring destruction and death not through a direct blast effect, like most bombs, but instead by starting uncontrollable wildfires. The attack lasted less than three hours and involved fewer planes than many of the other mass raids that characterized the final years of the war, but it still razed eastern Tokyo to the ground, killed between 90-100,000 people and left more than a million homeless. In typical World War II fashion, the vast majority of the victims were innocent civilians. Emperor Hirohito later cited his post-bombing tour of the city as one of the main reasons he later overruled his military council and decided to ‘endure the unendurable’, and surrender.
1. Belgrade (Just… Constantly)
You’d think being situated along the fertile banks of two major commercial waterways and being the gateway between continents would be an envious position for any city. All regional trade would have to pass through its gates, which should result in immeasurable wealth, prestige, and power. Unfortunately, it also means that all invaders have to pass through town at least once, too. Enter Belgrade: current capital of Serbia (formally Yugoslavia), where the Danube meets the Sava. Europeans can’t get to Turkey (and therefore, Asia) without passing through, and Asians can’t get to Europe without doing the same. So you can see the problem here. Here’s a quick rundown of its history: early farmers were conquered by the Celts, who lost the area to Rome, who lost it to the Huns, who lost it to Rome again, who lost it to the Ostrogoths, who lost it to the Eastern Romans, who lost it to the Avars, who lost it to Attila the Hun, who lost it to the Byzantines, who fought the Avars, Hungarians, Gepids and Bulgarians for the place over the course of roughly 400 years.
Later, armies from all three crusades passed through, before the Serbian empire took the land and lost it to the Hungarians. Then the Ottomans took and destroyed it, enslaving its Christian inhabitants, and held the land for quite some time before both the Allies and the Central Powers fought ferociously over the territory in WW1. A few years later, the Nazis rolled into town with plenty of high-powered explosives before losing it to the USSR, which collapsed and left the area to be ripped apart by the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, at which point it was bombed back into rubble by NATO. All in all, Belgrade has seen 115 wars and has been razed to ash not once, not five times, not 10 times, but 44 times. Maybe it’s time to move to somewhere more peaceful, like Baghdad.