The most conquered places on Earth

Oliver Smith
Even Latvia and Sweden has ruled Tobago - This content is subject to copyright.

Seven hundreds years after the Scots, ruled by Robert Bruce, seized Berwick-upon-Tweed, we examine eight travel destinations around the world that keep changing hands. 

1. Berwick-upon-Tweed

This Northumberland town is famous for three reasons. Firstly, the - largely debunked - claim that it is (or recently was) still technically at war with Russia. According to local lore, Queen Victoria signed the declaration of the Crimean War as "Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, Ireland, Berwick-upon-Tweed and all British Dominions". But when peace was made at the Treaty of Paris, Berwick-upon-Tweed was left out. Ergo it was still at war with the Russian Bear.

Berwick has been fought over more than most Credit: STUART NICOL

Secondly, LS Lowry. “The artist painted coal-coloured canvases of working-class towns in the industrial North West. But where did he go when he wanted to get away from all that? Berwick-upon-Tweed,” explains Boudicca Fox-Leonard. “From the mid-Thirties to the summer before his death in 1976, Lowry inhaled the North Sea air while sketching and painting the historic Borders seaside town. It’s impossible to tell if there was much decent weather during this near four-decade period, so dedicated was the matchstick master to grit and grey. Presumably not one to go home boasting to the neighbours about his sun tan, his painting of Berwick’s market place immortalised the spire of the 1750 Town Hall as a dark monolith under a smoking sky.”

Thirdly, invasions. For four centuries it lay at the heart of the border wars between England and Scotland, changing hands on no less than 13 occasions (including in 1318 - exactly 700 years ago - when Sir James Douglas, on behalf of King Robert Bruce and four years after victory at Bannockburn, took it from the English).  

Visit the Elizabethan ramparts, built to keep invading Scots at bay, the Palladian stately home of Paxton House, and board the number 477 bus - one of the most scenic in the country, it links Berwick train station with Holy Island.

Holy Island Credit: JOHN COX

2. Palermo

Is this the most conquered city in the world? That’s the claim of several online sources and its list of former owners reads like a who’s who of Mediterranean powers. Founded by Phoenicians in the 8th century BC, making it one of Europe’s oldest cities, it has since been ruled by - among others - Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Holy Roman emperors, Angevins, Aragonese, Bourbons and Austrians.

Palermo is a stunner of a city Credit: GINA PRICOPE

It’s an absolute stunner of a city, with the influence of all those empires evident in its architecture. “Sicily’s regional capital is a fascinating historical palimpsest – and, with its palm trees, prickly pears and banyan trees, a botanical melting pot,” says Lee Marshall, our expert. “Don’t miss the glorious 12th-century mosaics in the church of La Martorana or Roger II’s private chapel, the Capella Palatina; and set aside half a day for the trip up to lofty Monreale, whose cathedral boasts yet more dazzling Norman-era mosaics.”

The 15 countries that have gone unconquered the longest

3. Tobago

A contender for the most fought-over island in the Caribbean. Columbus first sighted it in 1498, since then it has changed hands 33 times, according to some estimates.

The colonists have included the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia (now part of Latvia, it also seized Kunta Kinteh Island in the mouth of the Gambia River), the Dutch, the English, the French, the Spanish and even the Swedish (its 17th century empire building efforts included forts and trading posts in the Caribbean, West Africa and the rather less exotic Delaware River - New Sweden/Nya Sverige was found there for 17 years). However, for the most part it has been part of the British Empire (from 1672 until 1781, and from 1814 until independence in 1962).

Tobago is perfect for a laid-back holiday, says Fred Mawer, our Caribbean expert. “It has lovely golden-sand beaches, along with characterful fishing villages and protected rainforest,” he says. “The diving is outstanding, especially near Speyside, and Tobago also has an impressively abundant and varied avian population, best spotted in the rainforest and on Little Tobago, a seabird sanctuary.”

At a glance | The 22 countries Britain has never invaded

4. Szczecin

This Polish city is a tough one to pronounce - try “Shcheh-cheen” - but can be flown to direct thanks to Ryanair’s comprehensive route map.

Szczecin? That's easy for you to say Credit: JULIUSZ SOKOLOWSKI

Pitched on the Oder River, it has a rich history, starting in the 8th century when it became a Pomeranian stronghold (that’s the historic Baltic region best known today for its lap dogs). Easier to pronounce is its former German name, "Stettin", and it featured in Winston Churchill's famous Iron Curtain speech (“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent...”). In between the Pomeranians and Churchill’s speech it was part of the Swedish empire (1648-1720), the Kingdom of Prussia (1720-1871), France (which occupied it from 1806 to 1813) and Germany (1871 to 1945). The Soviets occupied it at the end of the Second World War and it has been part of Poland since 1945. Why go? There are plenty of museums and galleries, while the Szczecin Lagoon boasts a set of glorious beaches. Like those found on the (Polish) island of Karsibor. Yes – it’s probably too cold for sunbathing at present. 

Russian history buffs should enjoy the fact that Catherine the Great was also born there.

5. Gdansk

The history of this Polish city, formerly known as Danzig, mirrors that of Szczecin, with periods of Pomeranian, Prussian and German rule. In 1308 it was captured by the Margraviate of Brandenburg, and as many as 10,000 residents massacred; subsequent wars saw it passed back and forth between Teutonic and Polish rulers. Prussia annexed it in 1793, crushing a student uprising, but after the First World War, and in accordance with the Treaty of Versailles, it became a “free city” (though with external affairs largely under Polish control). Hilter used the status of Danzig as a pretext for invading Poland in 1939 and the first battle between German and Polish forces took place at the city’s Westerplatte peninsula. The Westerplatte Monument can be seen at the site of the battle. During the Cold War Gdansk shot to prominence as the birthplace of the Solidarność movement that helped hasten the fall of the Soviet Union.

Gorgeous Gdansk Credit: ©rh2010 - stock.adobe.com

Those that visit today - and, once again, it’s Ryanair that flies there - can admire an astounding mixture of medieval, Renaissance and Gothic architecture, including St. Mary's Church, one of the largest brick churches in Europe, and visit a clutch of engaging maritime and military museums. Unesco-listed Malbork Castle, meanwhile, is an easy day trip.

6. Edirne

John Keegan’s A History of Warfare reckons this Turkish city, formerly known as Adrianople (after the Roman emperor Hadrian), is the most “contested” place on the planet. It was the focal point for battles or sieges in 313, 324, 378, 718, 813, 914, 1003, 1094, 1205, 1254, 1255, 1355, 1362, 1829 and 1912, and has been ruled by Romans, Goths, Bulgarians, Byzantines, Ottomans, Greeks and Russians. Why? Simply put, its location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia has put it in the crosshairs of marauding armies time after time.

Today it’s one of Turkey’s overlooked gems, according to our expert Terry Richardson. He adds: “Pleasant, riverside Edirne, on the Greek-Bulgarian border, possesses the splendid architectural heritage you'd expect of a city that was once capital of the mighty Ottoman Empire. Jewel in the crown is the Selimiye Mosque, masterpiece of the greatest Ottoman architect, Sinan.”

Selimiye Mosque Credit: GETTY

7. Jerusalem

Many cities in the Middle East boast a tumultuous history. Baghdad is a contender for the most-attacked metropolis on Earth, but isn’t an option for sensible travellers (the Foreign Office advises against all but essential travel to Iraq). Jerusalem, however, is a must see. Thanks largely to its importance to followers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, it has been attacked 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, besieged 23 times, and destroyed twice. Its status - both Israelis and Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital city - remains a point of contention today.

Chris Moss writes: “When you see the faces of the faithful as they walk in groups along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, or approach the Wailing Wall, or see the Dome of the Rock for the first time, you know that for many people a trip to the Holy Land is a genuine trip of a lifetime. Part of the reason for the Holy Land being so affecting is the spiritual predisposition of visitors; they come here to seek God, to feel blessed. But it’s also due to the many layers of architectural and archaeological heritage left by the civilisations that have held sway here, from the Canaanites, Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians to the Romans, Crusaders, Ottomans and imperial British.”

No city has a history like Jerusalem's Credit: SALVATOR BARKI

8. Nice

This cultured and racy city feels awfully French, but was part of Italy until as recently as 1860. Founded by the Greeks of Massalia and named Nike after the goddess of victory, it joined the Genoese League in the 7th century. The Counts of Provence captured it on numerous occasions during the 13th and 14th centuries, and it became part of the Duchy of Savoy in 1388. Franco-Ottoman forces attacked it in 1543, the House of Guise - a French noble family - nabbed it in 1600, and the French often held sway until 1814, when it was handed to the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. The Treaty of Turin in 1860 gave it back to France for good.

Confusingly, today you’ll find a Promenade des Anglais and a Russian cathedral.