Many cities, particularly in the Middle East, may lay claim to being the world’s oldest city. But many cities have come and gone whilst some have remained. These four places are ones which have are considered some of the longest continuously inhabited cities on Earth.
The Neolithic Revolution is up there with the most important parts of human history. This event is sometimes referred to as the Agricultural Revolution. It is this name which surely provides a great insight in to its significance. The whole thing took place over many years and, depending on which specific area of the planet to which we chose to refer, began its earliest stages sometime around 10,000 BC in some parts of the globe or as recently as 2,500 BC in other parts.
At its most basic level of interpretation, it gave humans the chance to develop crops. These crops became valuable and were the root of the need for a society. At the cessation of their nomadic ways, people formed these societies, not only out of the necessity that they stay in the same place to tend to these crops, but also that they set up systems to manage this newly valuable resource.
Then of course, what followed were ever-increasing gatherings of people. The increased population-density encouraged by farming and the increased output of food per unit of land created conditions that gave birth to cities.
Depending on who you happen to talk to or which book you decide to read, your interpretation of the word “city” may differ almost as much as the time frames that different sources will say that cities began. It has often been suggested that either of the two Mesopotamian cities Eridu and Uruk was the world’s first city. Both cities are believed to have sprung up some time a bit earlier than 5000BC.
Some of the planet’s earliest cities also arose in ancient China, the Andes, and one of the largest, Mohenjo-daro, was located in the Indus Valley (modern day Pakistan). Ancient cities were notable for their geographical diversity in addition to their diversity in form and function. Excavations at early urban sites show that some cities were sparsely populated political capitals, others were trade centres, and then others whose main focus was religion. Some ancient cities grew to be powerful capital cities and centres of commerce and industry, at the centres of burgeoning empires.
Most of these initial cities however, were not to last. There are varying reasons as to why some of these ancient cities ceased to be, although it appears that a most common reason being abandonment due to war. Other reasons include natural disasters, climate change and the loss of important trading partners. But there are a few cities have managed to withstand the test of time. Whilst they have had their ups and downs, they remain settlements to this day, after thousands of years passing by and millions of people passing along their streets. These are four such cities; some of the oldest continuously populated cities on our humble little planet, Earth.
Today Athens is the capital and largest city of Greece. It dominates the Attica region and is one of the world’s oldest cities, with its recorded history dating back about 3,400 years and the earliest human presence in the area known to be around 11th–7th millennium BC. Ancient Athens, a landlocked location, was a powerful city that emerged next to the seagoing development of the port of Piraeus. The city is important to mankind in that it has historically been a centre for the arts, learning and philosophy, and also home of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum. The cradle of Western civilization, one of the most notable things about Athens is that it is regarded as the birthplace of democracy, mostly due to the impact of its culture and politics during the 5th and 4th centuries BC. This things had a profound effect on the rest of Europe and eventually the world as a whole.
Evidence of its long history abounds in the city. The heritage of the classical era is to this day still quite evident in the city. Perhaps the most famous of all ancient monuments and works of art is the Parthenon which is considered a key landmark of early Western civilization. The city also retains Roman and Byzantine monuments, as well as a smaller number of Ottoman monuments.
The oldest known human inhabitation of the area known as Athens is the Cave of Schist, which has been dated to between the 11th and 7th millennium BC. For at least 7000 years, Athens has been continuously inhabited. By 1400 BC the settlement had become an important centre of the Mycenaean civilisation and the Acropolis was the site of a major Mycenaean fortress, whose remains can be seen from sections of the characteristic Cyclopean walls. Unlike other Mycenaean centres, such as Mycenae and Pylos, it is unclear if the city suffered from destruction at the time around 1200 BC, however it did, along with many other Bronze Age settlements, sink in to some type of economic decline for a period of about one hundred and fifty years afterwards.
Although it endures its share of economic instability, Athens today is a cosmopolitan metropolis, which remains central to economic, financial, industrial, political and cultural life in Greece.
Damascus is the present day capital and second largest city of Syria. Carbon dating at a little place on the outskirts of the city named Tell Ramad, suggests that the site may have been occupied since the second half of the seventh millennium BC. However, there is even earlier evidence of a settlement in the wider Barada basin dating back to about 9000 BC. All this despite there being no large-scale settlement was present within Damascus walls until the second millennium BC. Perhaps it is these sorts of issues which make it difficult to sort through the claims of which cities are older than others, and exactly which city is the oldest. I guess it really depends upon your definition of a city; and there are many.
Damascus was part of the ancient province of Amurru in the Hyksos Kingdom, from 1720 to 1570 BC. Some of the earliest Egyptian records are from the 1350 BC Amarna letters, when Damascus, which was then known as Dimasqu, was ruled by King Biryawaza.
The Damascus region, along with the remainder of Syria, became a battleground just before 1260 BC, in a war between the Hittites from the north and the Egyptians from the south. It ended in a signed treaty between Hattusili and Ramesses II where the former relinquished control of the Damascus area to Ramesses II in 1259 BC.
1200BC saw the arrival of the Sea Peoples and marked the end of the Bronze Age in the region. This in turn, meant new developments in warfare. Damascus was merely a peripheral part of these goings on, mostly affecting larger settlements of ancient Syria. Despite this, those same events had contributed to the development of Damascus which became an influential centre that emerged as the Bronze Age led in to the Iron Age.
Today, Damascus remains an important city within Syria, as its capital, and the Middle East. Located in south western Syria, Damascus is the centre of a large metropolitan area approaching three million people. Unfortunately, some of the ancient buildings of Old Damascus have been neglected and fallen in to disrepair as people move from the old city to newer parts. The government has destroyed parts of the old city despite it being placed on a World Monuments Fund Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world. There has been relatively very little archaeological research carried out in Old Damascus when compared to places like Athens. Despite warnings issued by UNESCO World Heritage, much of the old city has been destroyed. In October 2010, Global Heritage Fund named Damascus one of 12 cultural heritage sites most “on the verge” of irreparable loss and destruction.
Balkh, also called Vazīrābād, is a small town in northern Afghanistan that was formerly called Bactra, the capital of ancient Bactria when the area was controlled by the Greeks. The small size of present day Balkh, lies in contrast to what Marco Polo once described as a as a “noble and great city”. It is considered to be the first city to which the Indo-Iranian tribes moved from the North of Amu Darya, between 2000 and 1500 BC.
The city was traditionally a historical centre of Zoroastrianism. Also known as Zarathustraism, Mazdaism, or Magianism, it is an ancient monotheistic Iranian religion and accompanying religious philosophy. Balkh is said to be the place where Zoroaster, a religious philosopher, first preached his religion, as well as the place where he later died.
Following the city becoming the capital of Bactria, in succeeding centuries the city fell to various nomadic invaders, including the Turks and Kushāns, until it was decisively taken by the Arabs in the 8th century. It then began to grow in size fairly rapidly until it was completely destroyed by the Mongols under Genghis Khan in 1220.
From here the once great city lay in ruins awaiting the capture of the area by Timur, a Turkic conqueror who was most notable barbarity of his conquests from India and Russia to the Mediterranean Sea in addition to the cultural achievements of his dynasty. It was during this time, in around 1500, that the place was rebuilt. But in 1480 the alleged discovery of the tomb of ʿAlī, the Prophet Muḥammad’s son-in-law, in neighbouring Mazār-e Sharīf once again reduced Balkh to insignificance before it was eventually made part of Afghanistan in 1850.
Today, the population of Balkh number a little over the 7,000 mark, far from the glory of yesteryear. The modern village is surrounded by ancient ruins, the walls of Bactra still stand and are about eleven kilometres, or seven miles, long. A project of modernisation began back in 1934, which saw eight streets laid out, with housing and bazaars built. Modern Balkh is a centre of the cotton industry, of the skins commonly known in the West as “Persian lamb”, and for agricultural produce like almonds and melons.
The site has suffered somewhat from looting and uncontrolled digging in the recent wars, and remarkably, no archaeological research was conducted before 2003.
Erbil is the largest city and capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and has a population of around a million and a half people. Also known as Irbil or Hewlêr, history in this settlement has been traced back to around 6000 BC.
The city has a long and somewhat colourful past, changing hands many times during its long history. In the early part of the 3rd millennium BC, the Hurrians from Asia Minor established Urbilum and expanded their rule to parts of northern Mesopotamia. The city became an integral part of Assyria from the 25th century BC to the 7th century BC, but after it lost its independence at the end of the 7th century BC, both Assyria and the city of Erbil came under many different rulers, including the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians and Greeks. After the Arab Islamic conquest of Mesopotamia, the Arabs dissolved Assyria (or Assuristan or Athura, as it could have been known at the time) in the mid-7th century AD. Then, during the Middle Ages, the city was ruled by the Seljuk and Ottoman Empire.
Today, unlike the previously mentioned Damascus, Erbil is a celebrated site for archaeological research. Erbil’s archaeological museum hosts a large collection of pre-Islamic artefacts, and is a centre for archaeological projects in the area. The city officially has been appointed Arab Tourism Capital 2014 by the Arab Council of Tourism, and quite recently, in July 2014 it was appointed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Despite many centuries of ups and downs, even until recently during United States occupation of Iraq which saw sporadic bombing, the ancient city wall still dominates the centre of Erbil and many well-preserved ruins of an ancient civilisation, still remain scattered about the modern city itself.