Although people may have lived in this area since as early as the 10th century BC, Anuradhapura became a great city after the arrival of a cutting from the Bodhi Tree (‘tree of enlightenment’), the Buddha’s fig tree, in the 3rd century BC. The sacred branch was brought to Sri Lanka by Sanghamitta, the founder of an order of Buddhist nuns.

Anuradhapura ranked alongside Nineveh and Babylon in its colossal proportions—its four walls, each 16 miles (26 km) long, enclosing an area of 256 square miles (663 km²)—in the number of its inhabitants, and the splendour of its shrines and public buildings.

The city also had some of the most complex irrigation systems of the ancient world. Most of the great reservoir tanks still survive today, and some many be the oldest surviving reservoirs in the world.

Such a splendid city proved a magnet for invading South Indian kings and so Anuradhapura suffered repeated harassment from the 3rd century BC. Then, in the reign of Sena 1 (846-866AD), Anuradhapura was sacked. Nevertheless, Anuradhapura had a glorious history, having served as the capital for 1,400 years and witnessed a succession of no less than 113 kings.

After an invasion in 993 AD, Anuradhapura was permanently abandoned. For centuries, the site lay hidden in the jungle. Rediscovered by the British in the 19th century, Anuradhapura became a Buddhist pilgrimage site once again.

The revival of the city of Anuradhapura began in earnest in the 1870s. The modern city (population 40,000) is a major road junction of northern Sri Lanka and lies along a railway line. The headquarters of the Archaeological Survey of Ceylon is in Anuradhapura.

Today, the splendid sacred city of Anuradhapura, with its palaces, monasteries and monuments, draws many Buddhist pilgrims and visitors.