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The Ancient World’s Largest Cities

Cities have been crucial for human development. The blueprint for modern cities originated from the key hubs of civilization in ancient times.

ancient largest cities

Throughout history, communal living has played a vital role in human progress. Large-scale urban development facilitated this in ancient times. Cities began emerging around 10,000 BCE and have continued to evolve since then. Many of the largest ancient cities were situated in the fertile crescent, now known as the Middle East, but also existed beyond this region. Here are seven of the most prominent ancient cities:

1. Jericho

Jericho is believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities globally, with traces of human presence dating back to around 9000 BCE. Located in present-day Palestine, Jericho currently has a population of approximately 14,000 people.

A computer rendering of what ancient Jericho would have looked like, via The Archaeologist
A computer rendering of what ancient Jericho would have looked like, via The Archaeologist

Between 9000 BCE and 2000 BCE, Jericho experienced fluctuations in its development, reaching a peak population of 2,000 to 3,000 individuals. Despite its seemingly small size, Jericho was considered advanced compared to other settlements of that era. It showcased early agricultural practices and some of the earliest permanent settlements during the transition from nomadic to settled lifestyles.

The Canaanites, mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible, were among Jericho’s well-known inhabitants. They migrated to the area and established a distinct culture and civilization within the reconstructed walls of Jericho.

Archaeological findings of Canaanites’ homes and furniture offer insights into the culture that the Israelites assimilated after conquering and adopting aspects of the city. The Bible references the destruction and rebuilding of Jericho in both the book of Joshua and 1 Kings, where Hiel the Bethelite resettled in the city during the 9th century BCE.

Jericho later served as a winter residence for King Herod and continued to be occupied by various inhabitants for centuries. While not a modern urban center, Jericho was a significant early town in the region, showcasing urban development for archaeologists.

2. Uruk

Uruk, located on the Euphrates River in present-day Iraq, was pivotal in the Sumerian civilization of ancient Mesopotamia. By 3100 BCE, Uruk boasted around 40,000 residents, with an additional 80,000 in its vicinity, making it the largest urban area globally at that time.

In mythology, Uruk was renowned as the capital of King Gilgamesh, credited with constructing the six-mile stone wall encircling the city. Some believe Uruk is also the Biblical city of Erech, founded by King Nimrod, a descendant of Noah according to Genesis.

A virtual reconstruction of the ancient city of Uruk during a festival honoring the goddess Inanna/Ishtar, via Science.org
A virtual reconstruction of the ancient city of Uruk during a festival honoring the goddess Inanna/Ishtar, via Science.org

The city of Uruk flourished due to its strategic location on the Euphrates River, enabling agricultural success and cultural growth. The city’s control over agricultural development was mainly attributed to the domestication of grain within its borders.

In the district of Eanna, some of the oldest examples of writing in the world have been discovered in the form of cuneiform script, showcasing the advanced civilization that thrived in Uruk.

Throughout its history, Uruk remained a significant urban center until the 2000s BCE. It was first incorporated into the Akkadian Empire and later came under the rule of various empires, experiencing fluctuations in population and power.

Despite facing periods of decline, Uruk saw a resurgence in population under the Seleucid Empire, reaching around 40,000 inhabitants in the 200s BCE. However, with the fall of the Greeks and then the Parthians, Uruk gradually declined and was eventually abandoned by 700 CE.

3. Mari

The archaeological site of Mari in Syria was a significant ancient Semitic city-state that thrived as a trade center from 2900 to 1759 BCE. With a population of around 50,000 people at its peak, Mari was strategically located along Euphrates trade routes.

The ruins of Mari, Syria, via Heritage Daily
The ruins of Mari, Syria, via Heritage Daily

Mari was known for its diverse Semitic languages and was rebuilt multiple times, eventually becoming the capital of an East Semitic civilization before falling to the Akkadian Empire. The Akkadians reconstructed the city under military rule, but Mari’s independence fluctuated over time until it was abandoned during the Hellenistic period.

Excavations led by André Parrot in 1936 uncovered important artifacts like the statue of Akkadian military Governor Ishtup-Ilum, shedding light on Mari’s history. The discovery of 25,000 tablets provided detailed insights into the city’s administration, diplomatic relations, and extensive trade networks during the 20th century BCE.

Excavations by the archaeological team of André Parrot in 1936.
Excavations by the archaeological team of André Parrot in 1936. Discovery of the statue of Akkadian military Governor Ishtup-Ilum, via France Ministère de la Culture

Despite being a short-lived regional capital, Mari’s archaeological findings have greatly contributed to our understanding of ancient Mesopotamia’s geopolitics. The city, once a bustling urban trade hub, fell under various empires’ control before being deserted in the Hellenistic era.

4. Ur

The Great Ziggurat temple in the ancient city of Ur, located in southern Iraq’s Dhi Qar province, is a significant historical site. Ur was a prominent city in ancient Mesopotamia for over 1,500 years, known for its thriving trade and opulent lifestyle. At its peak between 2030 and 1980 BCE, Ur may have been the world’s largest city with a population of approximately 65,000.

The Great Ziggurat temple in the ancient city of Ur in southern Iraq’s Dhi Qar province, via Al Jazeera
The Great Ziggurat temple in the ancient city of Ur in southern Iraq’s Dhi Qar province, via Al Jazeera

Situated as a major port on the Persian Gulf, Ur played a crucial role in trade, evident from the luxurious Royal Tombs found within the city. These tombs were filled with imported treasures such as gold and lapis lazuli, showcasing Ur’s economic significance in Mesopotamia.

Archaeological discoveries, including numerous cuneiform tablets, reveal that Ur had a socially stratified society, with priests at the top and enslaved foreigners at the bottom. The city’s dominance in trade is also evident from these tablets, which detail relationships between civilizations of that era.

Aerial photograph of Ur in 1927, via Wikimedia Commons
Aerial photograph of Ur in 1927, via Wikimedia Commons

There is speculation that Ur could be the same city mentioned in the Bible as Ur Kasdim, believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, a key figure in the history of Israel. While the Book of Genesis and Book of Nehemiah mention Ur several times, scholars are uncertain if it refers to the city of Ur or another location in the region.

The archaeological findings dating back to the 1850s suggest that the Ziggurat of Ur, regardless of its connection to Abraham’s birthplace, held significant importance in the city of Ur. It functioned as a necropolis for many years and may have been revered due to its ties to the Babylonian Empire.

Ur was a crucial city in ancient Mesopotamia, serving as the main port. However, its significance declined over time as the coastline of the Persian Gulf receded. By 500 BCE, Ur had been abandoned.

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5. Memphis

Memphis, the capital of ancient Egypt for eight dynasties, was established during the Old Kingdom. It became the royal capital from the First Dynasty onwards, with a population of around 45,000 during the 2000s BCE, making it one of the largest urban settlements at the time.

An artistic rendition of Memphis, with the Temple of Ptah to the right, via Ancient Origins
An artistic rendition of Memphis, with the Temple of Ptah to the right, via Ancient Origins

During the Fourth Dynasty, Memphis was declared the first capital of unified Egypt and housed the Pharaohs who wore the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. The city’s importance was solidified by being a center of worship for the Egyptian god Ptah, maintaining prestige for centuries.

Although the political capital shifted to Thebes after the 18th Dynasty, Memphis remained a significant megalopolis due to its extensive networks of necropoles, contributing to its urban sprawl.

During the New Kingdom, Memphis was Egypt’s center for culture and art, as well as a place of education for royal princes. Many important temples, some yet to be discovered, were believed to have been constructed in Memphis.

Alexander at the Temple of Apis in Memphis by Andre Castaigne
Alexander at the Temple of Apis in Memphis by Andre Castaigne, 1898-1899, via alexanderstomb.com

Tutankhamun, within two years of his reign, relocated the royal court back to Memphis, reinstating it as Egypt’s capital. Throughout the Late Period of ancient Egypt, Memphis held varying levels of significance, becoming the political capital once more in 525 BCE before being conquered by the Greeks.

In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great was crowned King of Egypt in Memphis at the Temple of Ptah. The city did not see a native ruler until the 1952 Egyptian Revolution. After Alexandria became the new capital and during the Ptolemaic period, Memphis was abandoned, with its ruins now located in the village of Mit Rahina.

6. Babylon

The rise of the Old Babylonian Empire in the 18th century BCE led to the development of Babylon, located in southern Mesopotamia on the Euphrates River. Initially a small religious town under the Akkadian Empire, Babylon grew into the capital of Mesopotamia under the Babylonian Empire.

An artist’s depiction of Ishtar Gate as it may have appeared around the time it was constructed in Babylon
An artist’s depiction of Ishtar Gate as it may have appeared around the time it was constructed in Babylon, c. 575 BCE, from the game Old World, via the World History Encyclopedia

Hammurabi, the first Babylonian king, transformed Babylon into a major urban hub. Between 1770 and 1670 BCE, Babylon was the world’s largest city, possibly the first to surpass a population of 200,000 people.

After Hammurabi’s death and the collapse of the Old Babylonian Empire, Babylon became a small city-state that changed hands between different empires. In 609 BCE, the Neo-Babylonian Empire rose to power and made Babylon its capital once again.

One of the most famous Neo-Babylonian Kings, Nebuchadnezzar II, built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. He also exiled Jewish people to Babylon, an event recorded in the Hebrew Bible, and is said to have destroyed Solomon’s Temple.

The Hanging Gardens by Felix Gardon, c. 1930s, via The Garden Trust

The Persian Empire later conquered Babylon and maintained its significance as a political and cultural hub until Alexander the Great invaded in 331 BCE. Babylon remained important until the Muslim conquest in the 700s CE. By the 10th century CE, it was described as a small village by Ibn Hawqal.

Though Babylon’s decline may have started during the fall of the Persian Empire, modern interest has helped preserve its legacy. In 2019, UNESCO recognized Babylon as a World Heritage Site.

7. Carthage

Carthage, an ancient city, faced attacks during the Punic Wars, notably the Third Punic War from 149-146 BCE. The Roman naval attack on Carthage during this conflict is depicted in historical art.
Carthage, an ancient city, faced attacks during the Punic Wars, notably the Third Punic War from 149-146 BCE. The Roman naval attack on Carthage during this conflict is depicted in historical art.

Carthage, established by the Phoenicians in the 9th century BCE, evolved from a city-state to an empire that dominated the western and central Mediterranean region. Situated in present-day Tunisia, Carthage reached its peak in the 3rd and 4th centuries BCE, boasting a population of around 200,000 free males.

By 300 BCE, Carthage had become the world’s largest city, with approximately 500,000 inhabitants. The Carthaginian Empire was renowned for its maritime trade and agricultural expertise, shaping its culture around these key industries. The populace primarily spoke the Semitic Punic language.

Distinguished by its military prowess and republican governance, Punic culture set Carthage apart from other Phoenician societies. Despite being a hub of modernity during its time, much of what we know about Carthage comes from accounts by Roman and Greek scholars post-Punic Wars.

Although the Carthaginian Empire is often associated with conflicts against Rome, particularly after the Third Punic War resulted in Roman control over Carthage, the city remained one of the wealthiest colonies within the Roman Empire. Even under Roman rule, elements of Punic heritage persisted, including the use of the Punic language by some governors.

Carthage’s influence extended beyond warfare, introducing agricultural and mosaic techniques into Roman society. While historically depicted as Rome’s rival, modern scholars recognize Carthage as a sophisticated society that significantly impacted Western history beyond its clashes with Rome.

History Affairs
Kim Luu is a writer specializing in Chinese history and civilization. Born and raised in Vietnam, a country with a shared cultural heritage with China, he developed an early fascination and conducted in-depth studies on the greatest civilization in East Asia.

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