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Lost Cities: Now you see me, now you don't


The colossal Indus region, which remained undiscovered until the 1920s, was home to the largest of the four ancient urban civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, South Asia and China around 2500BCE. Much of its ruins have yet to be excavated, but one can tell that the cities were well planned with wide streets, public and private wells, drains bathing platforms and reservoirs. Currently, many questions about the Indus people who created this highly complex culture remain unanswered. This is because despite having many remnants of the script on pottery vessels, seals, and amulets, without a "Rosetta Stone" linguists and archaeologists have been unable to decipher it. Nevertheless, other aspects of their society can be understood through various types of archaeological studies.

Mohenjo-Daro translates to “Mound of the Dead Man” in Sindhi and it is an archaeological site built in the province of Pakistan around 2500 BCE. Dubbed as being one of the largest settlements of the Indus Valley Civilizations and the world’s earliest major urban settlements, it was unfortunately abandoned in the 19th century BCE as the civilization declined.

Regardless, the discovery of Mohenjo-Daro led to excitement for archaeologists and historians as this was their outlet for renewing their passion. The ruins surrounding Mohenjo-Daro were left undocumented for around 3,700 years and was only re-discovered in 1920s. Many rounds of excavation have since been taking place in that region and it was designated to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.

It is known for its unique layout dating back to its ancient roots as part of the Indus Valley Civilization. Its ruins were once part of this ancient society and at its peak, its population might have been well over five million as documented by the archaeologists. It had a well-planned grid that had structures constructed of dried bricks made from baked mud and burned wood. The occupants of that time and the urbanistic nature of the architectural layout hints a relatively high level of social organization prevalent at that time.

Religious practices and norms were carried out through the ritualistic act of bathing in what was known as ‘The Great Bath’. Bathing was considered to be a significant part of their life and while how the ‘Great Bath’ was used remains a mystery, one could probably tell the significance water had in their lives, probably using it as a means of cleansing or purifying themselves.

Besides Mohenjo-Daro itself, Harappa was another neighboring city, located just 350 miles to the north of the tributary river, Ravi. Many similarities arose between the two cities and they were both considered a part of Indus Valley Civilization. The main streets of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa had shops and the houses built were connected to a vast network of drainage system that provided sufficient sanitation. There was also a distinct feature notable in Mohenjo-Daro and that was the underground furnace and dressing rooms hinting an air of sophistication. Also, this was seen again through their usage of sophisticated system of weights and measures and although it is unclear as to whether that symbolized written-language, some scholars have highlighted that while inscriptions that were seen engraved and symbols on religious possessions may have been there for their own mode of communication, it is not evidence for a fully developed written language.

Also, the Harappans utilized the same size sun-dried bricks and standardized weights as were used in other Indus cities such as Mohenjo-Daro. Material culture and the skeletons from the Harappa cemetery and other sites also testified to a continual intermingling of communities from both the west and the east.

Similarities between Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro transcend mere geographical and infrastructural entities. The civilization's economy appears to have depended significantly on trade, which was facilitated by major advances in transport technology. The Indus River Valley Civilization may have been the first civilization to use wheeled transport, in the form of bullock carts that are identical to those seen throughout South Asia today.

In terms of governance, Mohenjo-Daro was governed as a city-state with no obvious sign of government or evidence of kings or queens. It appears that the Harappan and other Indus rulers governed their cities through the control of trade and religion, not by military might. There were regardless, certain rules or law they abided by such as the preference for modesty, having a certain sense of order and cleanliness were preferred themes they valued.

Art was also a much valued topic by the people of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. They mass-produced pottery with fine designs and made clay figurines that were representative of their own attitudes and reflective of their own background that they came from. There was also clear signs of trade as seen by the seals and weights and even the art, pottery, that they valued was standardized from having tool made of copper and stone.

Seals are one of the most commonly found objects in Harappan cities. They are decorated with animal motifs such as elephants, water buffalo, tigers, and most commonly unicorns. Some of these seals are inscribed with figures that are prototypes to Hindu religious figures as seen today. Ivory, Capis, Carnelian and gold beads and baked-brick city structures symbolized the city’s wealth and stature. However, just as quickly as the entire civilization thrived, it diminished soon after between 1800 and 1700 BCE.

What led to its decline remains a mystery but it is perpetrated that the Aryans supposedly destroyed many ancient cities around 1500 B.C. and this could account for the decline of the Indus civilization. However, the continuity of religious practices makes this unlikely. In addition, more probable explanations for the decline of the Indus Valley civilization have been proposed in recent years; such as climate shifts which caused great droughts around 2200 B.C. that forced abandonment of the Indus cities impelled a westward migration. Recent findings have brought to light that the Sumerian empire declined sharply around this time due to a climate shift that caused major droughts for several centuries. The Harappans being so close to Sumer, would in all probability have been affected by this harsh shift in climate.