The 8 Largest Cities of the Medieval World

In the medieval world, life shifted as people moved into cities. Populations grew, and these eight cities became the most notable in the world.

Apr 30, 2024By Madison Whipple, BA History w/ Spanish minor

largest cities medieval world


The Medieval Period, which lasted roughly 1,000 years between the 470s CE and 1400- 1450 CE was a period of cultural evolution and religious power. Growing populations gave way to major urban developments and became symbols of power that benefited the ruling class through the system of feudalism. These eight cities were not necessarily the largest in terms of land area, or even population in some cases, but they were large in their sense of importance to the medieval era.


1. Angkor

angkor wat temple
Angkor Wat, the largest temple of medieval Angkor. Source: Lonely Planet


Ankor was once the jewel of the Khmer Empire in present-day Cambodia. The city was massive, both in land and population and in 1100 CE, it was considered the largest city in the world. The metropolis sprawled over 1,000 square kilometers (390 square miles) and housed around one million people.


While the only thing remaining from the grand city today is its central temple, Angkor Wat, the capital city of the Khmer Empire was once a modern urban center, with roads as wide as airplane runways, canals, rice farms, the world’s largest hand-cut water reservoir, and an intricate system of working with the monsoon season to make its harvests bountiful.


The city of Angkor was a city of god-kings, who all were supposed earthly incarnations of the Hindu God Shiva. The city’s population flourished, with schools, public hospitals, and an intricate irrigation system that allowed rice cultivation on a massive level.

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The “temple city,” as it is called today, was abandoned around the 1400s, but today is still an incredibly popular tourist site. However, several conflicts throughout the past few hundred years have made the excavation and analysis of the site difficult, so archaeological work is still ongoing.


2. Baghdad

medieval baghdad map
A map of Baghdad between the 8th and 10th centuries by William Muir, 1883. Source:


Baghdad, in modern Iraq, was the capital city of the Abbasid Caliphate beginning in the early Middle Ages. Construction on the city began in 762 CE, and by the end of the eighth century, the city was already home to half a million residents. It was the political and cultural center of the Middle East during its height, and between the 700s and 900s, approximately one million people lived in Baghdad or its suburbs.


The city was built in two semi-circles on either side of the Tigris River. The infrastructure of the city was modern, with aqueducts and sewage systems, several public squares and gardens, and wide avenues. According to Yaqut, an Arabic scholar who lived a few centuries after the city’s heyday, the avenues of the city were built to be 40 cubits (60 feet) wide, and the city did not allow garbage or refuse to collect within the walls.


While Baghdad remained important throughout the Middle Ages and into the modern day, the Abbasid Caliphate was not what it once was after the 10th century, and the city declined. Two major attacks occurred during the Middle Ages, one in 1258 and one in 1401. Today, it is still the capital of modern Iraq and is the second-largest city in the Arab world.


3. Constantinople

reconstruction of constantinople
Constantinople, as it would have looked around the 10th century, rendering by Antoine Helbert. Source: Vivid Maps


Constantinople served, and continues to serve, as the great epicenter of the Byzantine Empire. Though it was founded in 330 CE by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, the city reached its zenith in the early medieval period. The fall of the Western Roman Empire shifted global focus to the Eastern Roman Empire, with its Emperor, Justinian, ruling from Constantinople.


The city itself was large throughout the transitions it faced, from Roman to Byzantine to Ottoman and back again. The population, at various periods in history, was approximately one million people, and it served as a major hub for trade. Constantinople’s unique position that straddled Europe and Asia poised the city to become a key player in international affairs and commerce. The Venetians, along with traders and merchants from the Middle and Far East, came to the city to do business, making its economy boom.


However, Constantinople faced near-constant challenges, with sieges and battles often threatening to wipe it away. However the city endured throughout the age of great medieval cities, becoming the capital of the Ottoman Empire in 1453. The city would remain a key player throughout the Middle Ages and into the modern period. Today, Constantinople is known as Istanbul in modern-day Turkey and is still a huge city with strategic importance in the international affairs of both Europe and Asia.


4. Cairo

cairo citadel 12th century
Cairo’s Citadel, built in the 12th century. Source:


Cairo, Egypt, was built in 969 CE by the Fatimid Dynasty to rival Baghdad as the largest city in the Islamic world. It was the capital of the dynasty, and served as an example of the power and enlightenment of Islam during the Middle Ages.


Cairo is known as “The City of a Thousand Minarets” for good reason. A truly Islamic city, the number is not fabricated, and some claim that there are even more than 1,000 mosques throughout the city. These places of worship, however, also served as places of administration and learning in the medieval city of Cairo. The Al-Hassan Mosque, Cairo’s first, was a center of education where thousands of young Egyptians and foreigners could learn, whether they were rich or poor.


When the city was taken over by the Mamluk Dynasty, mosques also served as hospitals and centers of community. The rulers, who had risen from slavery to power, cared for the lower classes of the city, and helped fortify the city as an Islamic stronghold against the Crusades. Cairo was also a key hub of commerce, as it sat at the confluence of European, African, and Asian trade. This position would make Cairo one of the world’s wealthiest medieval cities.


Today, Cairo is still the capital of Egypt, and is the largest city in the Arab world. It is a center of Islamic power in Northern Africa, despite several modern conflicts.


5. Hangzhou

leifeng pagoda hangzhou
Leifeng Pagoda, built in the 10th century in Hangzhou. Source: Hangzhou Tours


One of the seven ancient capitals of China, Hangzhou may have been one of the largest cities in the world in the twelfth century. With a population of at least one million people and its position at the end of the Grand Canal, Hangzhou thrived as a capital for several Chinese dynasties.


Hangzhou’s location was paramount to its prosperity, as it sat directly within the Silk Road trade network. It flourished as a trading city, with archaeological evidence of products from Hangzhou being found as far away as Iran. It was the capital for both the Wuyue Kingdom and the Southern Song Dynasty. Even when it was not serving as a capital city, the strategic location of Hangzhou made it a powerful city.


Though it was well known for its wealth, Hangzhou was also a great center of Chinese culture, especially as it related to early literature and Buddhism. Its cultural and economic prowess attracted travelers like Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta, who wrote of the city in grandiose terms. Marco Polo declared that it was “without a doubt the finest and most splendid city in the world,” and he marveled at the city’s paved streets and numerous bridges. Polo’s writings elucidate the splendor of Hangzhou in the 13th century, when it was still the largest city in the world.


Hangzhou is still an important economic and cultural center today, with thriving rice and silk production. Though it is no longer a capital, it is still a metropolis with a modern population of at least ten million people.


6. Paris

medieval paris notre dame
The Right Hand of God Protecting the Faithful against the Demons by Jean Fouquet, ca. 1452-1460. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Still the capital of France today, Paris came out of relative obscurity and developed into the large, cosmopolitan city we know today beginning in the Middle Ages. In the 10th century, Paris was considered little more than a provincial city that housed a cathedral and not much else. This changed, however, when the Capetian Kings decided to rule France from the Île de la Cité, not only making it the site of their royal palace, but also of the new Notre Dame Cathedral.


Under the Capetians, Paris became a city that was important on three fronts: religious, educational, and commercial. The Left Bank of the Seine was a hub for important French monasteries, as well as several colleges, which, at the time, became the leading educational institutions in Europe. On the Right Bank, the ports, merchants, and markets made the city into a commercial hub. Its prosperity, combined with a focus on religion and education, led to Paris becoming an important center of illuminated manuscripts and the first city to develop buildings in the Gothic style.


Before 1328, there were no concrete numbers of people living in Paris. However, the census of that year counted over 61,000 households within the city, making the population estimate anywhere from 210,000 to 270,000. Though the city faced several hardships, including sieges and the Bubonic plague, it recovered to become one of the most populous cities in the western world during the Middle Ages.


7. Tenochtitlan

tenochtitlan map 1500s
A map of Tenochtitlan, published in Nuremberg in 1524. Source: Dumbarton Oaks


Perhaps the largest city in pre-Columbian America, Tenochtitlan was the capital of the expanding Aztec Empire from the 14th to the 15th century. It was built on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco and was the site of royal palaces, temples, markets, and other public buildings that served the Aztec people well and contributed to the prosperity of the city and the empire.


The Aztec Empire, from Tenochtitlan, had vast trade networks from the Gulf of Mexico and possibly into the Inca Empire. The population was probably around 200,000 people, and was split into complex social classes, the most complex in the Mesoamerican world.


When Spanish conquistadors arrived in the capital, they found a thriving city that was rivaled in population only by Paris or Venice in Europe. The palace of the emperor, Moctezuma II, was a sprawling complex that boasted zoos, botanical gardens, and aquariums. The city was, however, conquered by the Spanish, led by Hernan Cortes, and turned into a municipality of the Viceroyalty of New Spain.


While the city remained under Spanish rule for several hundred years, the capital of Mexico did not move, and was built around the medieval capital. Tenochtitlan sits at the historic center of modern day Mexico City and is still one of the most populous cities in the Americas, with a population of almost ten million people.


8. Venice

venice middle ages
The Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross on the Rialto Bridge by Vittore Carpaccio, 1494. Source: British Library


Considered by many to be the greatest maritime power of the Middle Ages, Venice began as a safe haven for refugees fleeing from the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The marshy lagoon would serve as an important strategic location for what would become the Republic of Venice, as its access to the Mediterranean Sea allowed trade on a wider scope than the rest of Europe.


The city-state of Venice began conquering areas within the Eastern Mediterranean while it retained a high level of independence, both in religion and government, from Rome and other powers on the Italian peninsula. Venice was ruled by a doge, or a duke, who served for life and was elected by the Great Council of Venice. It was billed as a republic but was, in practice, ruled by oligarchs of the merchant classes.


The city-state of Venice grew steadily and became a great center of art, architecture, and publishing during the Middle Ages. Its Renaissance, considered to have begun before the general Italian Renaissance, was a direct result of its economic prowess and fostering of the arts in service to the maritime republic. Venice’s power was relatively unchecked until trade routes to the East Indies and Americas opened in the 16th century, granting other European powers the same ability to foster effective trade as Venice.


Venice was incorporated into a unified Italy in the late 19th century, and though it is still a center of culture within Italy, it is not considered the power that it once was. Venice was a unique and completely maritime-focused power, thanks to its canals, which are now used for the likes of tourist gondola rides and water taxis rather than vast naval fleets.

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By Madison WhippleBA History w/ Spanish minorMadison is a contributing writer with specialties in American and women’s history. She is especially interested in women’s history in the context of the American Civil War. In her free time, she enjoys going to museums, reading, and jogging.