Throughout history, humans have developed in the context of group living. One of the ways by which this was made easier in the ancient world was large-scale urban development. Cities began to spring up by about 10,000 BCE and haven’t stopped since. Many of the largest cities of the ancient world came from the fertile crescent in what is now the Middle East, but also from outside of this area. These are seven of the largest and most important cities of the ancient world.
Jericho is, perhaps, the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, with remains dating human presence in the area to around 9000 BCE. Today, it sits on the West Bank in Palestine, and its population is only around 14,000 people.
From 9000 BCE to 2000 BCE, developments in the town ebbed and flowed, with an ancient population peak of around 2,000 to 3,000 people. While this sounds small, in comparison to the human development surrounding Jericho, the town was quite advanced. It not only bears archaeological evidence of early agriculture but also of some of the earliest permanent settlements during the shift between nomadic and settled lifestyles.
Jericho’s most well-known inhabitants come from the Old Testament of the Bible, the Canaanites. The Canaanites were immigrants to the area and developed a culture and civilization within the rebuilt walls of Jericho.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Discoveries of the Canaanites’ homes and furniture give archaeologists a look into the culture that the Israelites infiltrated and adopted after their siege and destruction of the city. Following the attack on Jericho in the book of Joshua, the Bible mentions the constant destruction and reconstruction of the city again in 1 Kings, where it is mentioned that Hiel the Bethelite established himself in the city in the 9th century BCE.
Later on, the city of Jericho became a winter residence for King Herod, of Biblical fame, and was continuously occupied as such by many other people in the area for thousands of years to come. Though it is not an urban center by modern-day standards, it was one of the largest early towns to emerge in the region and a hallmark of urban development for archaeologists.
Situated on the bed of the Euphrates River in what is now Iraq, Uruk was the keystone of development in the Sumerian civilization of ancient Mesopotamia. By 3100 BCE, the city may have had around 40,000 residents, with around 80,000 people in its surrounding areas, making it the largest urban area in the world at the time.
In ancient myth, the city of Uruk was known as the capital of the legendary King Gilgamesh, who supposedly built the six-mile diameter stone wall surrounding the city. It is also said that the city is also the Biblical city of Erech, which was the second city founded by King Nimrod, a great-grandson of Noah, according to the Book of Genesis.
The success of agriculture, due to the city’s location on the Euphrates River, allowed it to grow in both population and culture. This control of agricultural development was largely due to the domestication of grain in the city. In the district of Eanna, archaeologists have found perhaps the oldest examples of writing in the world in the form of cuneiform script.
Uruk remained an important urban center in the ancient world through the 2000s BCE. First, it was annexed by the Akkadian Empire, after which it came under the rule of several successive empires.
It experienced sharp declines, as well as massive population increases. The city of Uruk returned to its former population of around 40,000 in the 200s BCE under the Seleucid Empire, a Greek state. However, with the fall of the Greeks and then the Parthians, Uruk fell into disuse and was fully abandoned by 700 CE.
Mari was an ancient Semitic city-state situated in what is now Syria, which flourished as a trade center between 2900 and 1759 BCE. The city was built to best accommodate trade in the middle of several Euphrates trade routes. At its height, the city’s population was around 50,000 people.
A hub of ancient Semitic languages, the city was built and rebuilt several times, becoming the capital of a hegemonic East Semitic civilization sometime before 2500 BCE. Mari was a Semitic city with a distinct affinity for Sumerian culture until it was besieged and destroyed by the Akkadian Empire.
The Akkadian Empire then rebuilt the city again, this time under a military governor. The city gained and lost its independence several times after this and was then ultimately abandoned during the Hellenistic period.
Though Mari was a relatively short-lived regional capital in Mesopotamia, its impact on our modern understanding of the region was integral in the realm of geopolitics. In 1933, when Mari was discovered by French archaeologists, some 25,000 tablets were found, which described in great detail what the administration and diplomatic relations between states looked like in the 20th century BCE, as well as providing new insight into the breadth of trade networks that had been developed at the time.
While the city served as a great example of an ancient urban trade hub, its power did not last beyond the 1700s BCE and was, in turn, passed through the control of different empires before being ultimately abandoned sometime in the Hellenistic period.
Ur was a city situated in modern-day Iraq that served as the gateway to Mesopotamia for at least 1,500 years, a rich city built on trade and importation of luxury goods. Ur may have been the largest city in the world between 2030 and 1980 BCE, with a population of around 65,000.
Ur was also a major port on the Persian Gulf, the coastline of which extended much further inland in ancient times. Ur was a center of trade and luxury, which was confirmed by the presence of Royal Tombs within the city. These tombs were resplendent with imported goods, including precious metals and stones like gold and lapis lazuli. The tombs themselves are also an example of Ur’s economic importance to Mesopotamia.
According to the tens of thousands of cuneiform tablets found in the city’s remains, Ur’s society was socially stratified, with priests at the top and enslaved people (captured foreigners) at the bottom. These tablets have also identified the relationships between civilizations of the time, owing to Ur’s dominance in trade.
Many also believe that Ur is the Biblically mentioned Ur Kasdim, the birthplace of the father of Israel, Abraham. It is mentioned three times in the Book of Genesis and once in the Book of Nehemiah, but scholars are unsure whether the text refers to the city of Ur or another location in the region.
Regardless of whether the city of Ur was the birthplace of Abraham, archaeology dating to the 1850s revealed that the ancient Ziggurat of Ur was a place of importance to the city and served as a necropolis for hundreds of years. Its sanctity may have been tied to its connection with the Babylonian Empire.
Regardless, archaeology reveals that Ur was one of the most important cities in ancient Mesopotamia, as it served as its main port. However, the Persian Gulf’s receding coastline meant that the city waned in importance throughout the years, and by 500 BCE, it was abandoned.
Memphis was the capital of ancient Egypt for eight consecutive dynasties and from its foundation during the Old Kingdom. From the First Dynasty, Memphis served as the royal capital, and its population hovered around 45,000, making it one of the largest urban settlements during the 2000s BCE.
Memphis came to prominence during the Fourth Dynasty, when it was named the first capital of the unified Egypt and was the home of the first Pharaohs to wear the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. It was a center of worship for the Egyptian god Ptah, which cemented its importance and prestige among other cities in Egypt for hundreds of years to come.
After the 18th Dynasty, the political capital of Egypt was moved to Thebes, but Memphis was still known as a megalopolis due to its several networks of necropoles that contributed greatly to its urban sprawl.
Memphis also remained Egypt’s cultural and artistic capital, and during the New Kingdom, it served as the place of education for royal princes. Several important temples, some that have yet to be discovered, are said to have been built in Memphis as well.
Before the end of the second year of his reign, Tutankhamun moved the royal court back to Memphis, reviving the city as the capital of Egypt once more. Successively, throughout the Late Period of ancient Egypt, the city held varying degrees of importance. It became the political capital of Egypt once more, in 525 BCE, for the last time, before being invaded by the Greeks.
In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great was crowned King of Egypt in Memphis at the Temple of Ptah. The city would not see a native ruler again until the 1952 Egyptian Revolution. After the capital’s move to Alexandria and the rise of the Ptolemaic period, Memphis was abandoned, and the city’s ruins lie within the village of Mit Rahina.
The rise of the Old Babylonian Empire in the 18th century BCE gave way to the growth of Babylon, situated in southern Mesopotamia on the Euphrates River. Babylon had been a small religious town under the Akkadian Empire, but under the Babylonian Empire, it became the capital of Mesopotamia.
Hammurabi, the first of the Babylonian kings, built Babylon into a significant urban center. From 1770 to 1670 BCE, Babylon was the largest city in the world and perhaps the first to reach a population of over 200,000 people.
After the death of Hammurabi and the destabilization of the Old Babylonian Empire, Babylon again became a small city-state and was passed from empire to empire until 609 BCE, when the Neo-Babylonian Empire came to power and restored Babylon as the capital of the empire.
The most famous Neo-Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar II, was responsible for one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar was also responsible for the Babylonian Exile of Jewish people to the capital, which is recorded in the Hebrew Bible, along with the king’s supposed destruction of Solomon’s Temple.
The Persian Empire then conquered the city and maintained its importance as a political and cultural capital until the invasion of Alexander the Great in 331 BCE. Babylon remained an important city until the Muslim conquest of the 700s CE. By the 10th century CE, Babylon was referred to by Ibn Hawqal as “the small village of Babil.”
The decline of the great city may have occurred during the fall of the Persian Empire, but renewed interest in modern times has allowed its legacy to carry on.
In 2019, UNESCO designated Babylon as a World Heritage Site.
Founded by the Phoenicians in the 9th century BCE, Carthage became a city-state and then an empire that encompassed the western and central Mediterranean region. Located in modern-day Tunisia, Carthage was among the largest metropolises in the world at its height in the third and fourth centuries BCE, with its population of free males alone numbering at roughly 200,000.
By 300 BCE, Carthage was the largest city in the world, with a population of about 500,000 people. The Carthaginian Empire was known for its prowess in maritime commerce, as well as its expertise in agriculture. The culture was based heavily on these two industries, and the population was known for its Semitic language, called the Punic language.
Punic culture distinguished itself from other Phoenician cultures due to its military expertise and republican government. Carthage was an urban center of modernity for the time, but little is known about it beyond the accounts of Roman and Greek scholars, whose accounts date from after the Punic Wars.
The Carthaginian Empire was dominating but is not well known for much beyond its wars with the Roman Empire. After the Third Punic War, Rome took control of Carthage and maintained it as one of the wealthiest colonies of the empire. While officially under Roman control, several of the colony’s governors were of Punic or Berber descent, and the Punic language was still pervasive.
In addition to the preservation of language, Carthage brought several Punic influences into the Roman mainstream, such as agricultural and mosaic techniques. While for several hundred years, Carthage was portrayed by Roman scholars as the foil of Rome, it is evident to modern scholars that Carthage was a capital of a nuanced and complex society that influenced Western history beyond the Punic Wars.