Outstanding ancient cities and towns around the world
Here are selected more than 60 exciting ancient cities and towns of the the world. These cities are arranged by the part of the world and in an alphabetic order.
- Abydos – Egypt, Sohag. Ancient city, established more than 5000 years ago. One of the most important ancient metropolises in Upper Egypt, important cult centre. Contains ruins of numerous magnificent buildings, such as the temple of Seti I.
- Ancient Carthage – Tunisia, Tunis. Once very important, legendary city, established as Phoenician colony in the 9th century BC. Carthage as the capital of Punic culture was the main rival of emerging Rome and finally was destroyed by Romans in 146 BC. Then it was reestablished by Romans and destroyed by Muslims in 698 AD.
- Dougga – Tunisia, Béja. Extensive ruins of magnificent Punic, Roman and Byzantine city, one of the best preserved Roman cities. Contains ruins of many buildings, notably, a mausoleum, capitol, theatre, temples of Saturn and Juno Caelestis.
- Ghadames – Libya, Nalut. Beautiful, walled desert town with excellent infrastructure providing a protection from heat. One of ways to avoid the heat are covered walkways between the buildings. City first mentioned in the 1st century BC.
- Leptis Magna – Libya, Murqub. Some of the best preserved Roman ruins. This city was founded by Phoenicians around 1000 BC and in the 1st century AD was incorporated into Roman Empire. Abandoned around 650 AD.
- Memphis – Egypt, Cairo. The first capital of Lower Egypt in the times of Old Kingdom. Established roughly in 3000 BC and declined around 1300 BC, was one of the first metropolises in the world. Contains remnants of numerous valuable structures, including several Temples of Ptah and many other temples, Saqqara necropolis, royal palaces.
- Meroë – Sudan, River Nile. Ruins of ancient city, former capital of the kingdom of Kush in 800 BC – 350 AD. Most amazing monuments are more than 200 pyramids, mostly in ruined state – an ancient necropolis. Once important metallurgical centre.
- Thebes – Egypt, Luxor. Former capital of Egypt in the times of Middle and New Kingdoms, one of the earliest metropolises in the world. Inhabited around 3200 BC – 84 BC. City contains ruins of numerous buildings of world importance, including the Temple of Ramses III, Ramesseum, Luxor Temple, Temple of Hatschepsut, Columns of Memnon.
- Merv – Turkmenistan, Mary. Once magnificent oasis city on Silk Road. Settlement established in the 3rd millenium BC, but flourished in the 8th century – 1221, when it briefly was one of the largest cities worldwide. Today are seen remnants of four walled cities close to each other.
- Anuradhapura – Sri Lanka, North Central Province. Capital of Sri Lanka in the 4th century BC – early 11th century AD. Anuradhapura was one of the largest urban centres in the world, it was considered to be sacred by Buddhists. Contains ruins of many magnificent structures, such as Ruwanwelisaya – 91 m tall stupa, built in the 2nd century BC and Jetavanaramaya – one of the largest structures in the world, 122 m high, built in the 3rd – 4th century AD.
- Lothal – India, Gujarat. One of most important cities of the ancient Indus Valley Civilisation. Built roughly in 2400 BC as trading city with its dock – the oldest known in the world. Numerous discoveries of world importance have been made here including the oldest known realistic sculptures in world. Novadays remain lower parts of buildings.
- Mehrgarh – Pakistan, Balochistan. One of the most important Neolithic monuments in the world – a precursor of Indus Valley Civilization. A settlement existed here in 7000 – 5500 BC.
- Mohenjo-daro – Pakistan, Sindh. Remnants of one of the largest settlements of the Indus Valley Civilization and one of the earliest known cities in the world with up to 35,000 inhabitants. Developed since 2600 BC and abandoned around 1800 BC. City exhibits great skills of ancient urban planners.
- Sigiriya – Sri Lanka, Central Province. One of the most interesting monuments of urban planning worldwide. Sigirya was developed around and on the top of 370 m high rock peak. The construction took place in 477 – 495 AD. Later, until the 13th or the 14th century this city was used for Buddhist monastery. This complex includes several unique monuments – including a giant lion whose mouth serves as the entrance to rock fortress and beautiful frescoes – a masterpiece of world importance.
- Taxila – Pakistan, Punjab. Important urban centre of ancient India, established around the 6th century BC. City has survived three periods of development under different cultures. Early centre of higher education. Today in the area of city are located ruins of different structures.
- Varanasi – India, Uttar Pradesh. Ancient holy city of Buddhists, Hindu and Jains, with approximate 3000 years age one of the oldest inhabited cities of the world. Contains huge amount of valuable monuments of architecture and history, location of living unique traditions.
- Historical centre of Isfahan – Iran, Isfahan. Some of the most outstanding architecture monuments of Iran are located in Isfahan. Some of the most outstanding ones are located around Naqsh-e Jahan Square – one of the most impressive historical city squares in the world. City has several mosques of exceptional beauty as well as a group of interesting bridges.
- Historical centre of Shiraz – Iran, Fars. This city has been very important in the past and is housing numerous monuments of world importance. Chahar Bagh (Charbagh) is one of the first known boulevards in the world: enormous, 6 km long rectangular park – street developed in the time of Abbas I in the early 17th century. It served as a model of modern boulevards in the world, notably Champs-Élysées boulevard in Paris and Gardens of Paradise at the Taj Mahal. Karim Khan’s royal complex (Zandyeh Ensemble) is a complex of beautiful structures in the historical centre of Shiraz, built mainly during the time of first Zand ruler – Karim Khan in the middle of the 18th century. It includes Vahil Mosque, Vakil Bath, Arg of Karim Khan (fortress) and other buildings.
- Historical centre of Yazd – Iran, Yazd. Enormous, authentic historical city built entirely of adobe. It is characterised by multiple beautiful houses and amazing ancient desert city infrastructure. Infrastructure includes one of the most sophisticated system of qanats – underground water supply system – in the world, as well as system of wind catchers for ventilation of city and numerous underground structures. Ancient centre of Zoroastrianism with a Fire Temple having eternal fire since 470 AD.
- Persepolis – Iran, Fars. Ceremonial capital of Achaemenid Empire, developed since 521 BC on an enormous, partly artificially made terrace. Contains ruins of numerous architecturally impressive buildings such as Apadana Palace, Throne Hall and numerous others. Contains also numerous valuable sculptures and reliefs. Destroyed by troops of Alexander the Great in 330 BC.
- Shahr-e Sukhteh (Burnt City) – Iran, Sistan and Baluchistan. Remnants of Bronze Age city, one of the largest cities in the world at the dawn of city development era, area 151 ha. Developed roughly in 3200 BC and burnt down around 2100 BC. Includes large cemetery with more than 25,000 graves. Created by the little known Jiroft culture – possible inventors of writing.
- Susa (Shush) – Iran, Khuzestan. One of the oldest true cities in the world founded by Sumerians sometimes around 4200 BC, although the site is inhabited since 7000 BC. Initially it had an area of mere 18 ha, with 6 m thick walls. Once important city, literary centre around 2240 BC and important political centre for several thousands of years, gradually looosing its importance around the 3rd century BC but existing up to this day. Ruins nowadays take 350 ha.
- Amediye (Amedy) – Iraq, Dohuk. One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, established in the 9th century BC. City is built on a mountain plateau and is accessible only by a narrow stairway. The city is the home of Magi – priests of Ancient Persia.
- Citadel of Arbil – Iraq, Erbil. A citadel – a fortified hilltop town, rising 25 – 32 m above the surrounding Arbil City. One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, inhabited since 6000 BC at least. The houses on the citadel though are comparatively new.
- Hatra – Iraq, Nineveh. Ancient Parthian capital, founded in the 3rd century BC, flourished in the 2nd – 1st century BC. Later it became a capital of Arab Kingdom. The best preserved Parthian city, with numerous amazing structures, influenced by Greek and Roman architecture styles.
- Nineveh – Iraq, Nineveh. Ancient Assyrian capital city with comparatively well preserved remnants of structures. Nineveh has been one of the most important urban centres in Mesopotamia, established sometimes around 6000 BC and abandoned sometimes around 600 AD. City was enclosed with approximately 12 km long wall, excavated city gates and royal palace, many other structures and sculptures.
- Uruk – Iraq, Muthanna. Possibly the oldest true city – metropolis in the world, developed as urban area since 4000 BC. Sometimes around 2900 BC there were some 50 – 80 thousand inhabitants. Abandoned around the 4th century AD. Notable is Eanna district – possibly the first urban area in the world, where the oldest writings in the history have been found.
- Citadel of Aleppo and Old City – Syria, Aleppo. One of oldest continuously inhabited cities. Settlement existed here already in 6000 BC, development of city started sometimes around 2000 BC. Citadel of Aleppo rises 50 m above the city and contains ruins of magnificent Arab buildings and older structures. Old City has retained its Graeco-Roman planning and contains remnants of the 6th century Christian buildings and other old structures. Urban fabric of Aleppo is distinct, with separate districts.
- Damascus – Syria, Damascus. Very old city, inhabited since 6300 BC, developed as a city in the 3rd millenium BC. Important centre of steel and lace production in medieval times. City has hundreds of beautiful and historically significant buildings, such as Umayyad Mosque – one of the most significant buildings in Near East.
- Mari – Syria, Deir ez-Zor. Under a hill are remnants of very old city. Mari was inhabited since the 5th millenium BC, flourished in 2900 -1759 BC. The city had a strict circular form (diameter – 1.9 km) with fortification wall around it. The placement of palaces and shrines in the centre of the city testify that this city was strictly planned.
- Palmyra – Syria, Homs. Important ancient city – caravan stop. Existing since at least the 2nd thousand years BC, abandoned after the 16th century AD. Now impressive ruins remain – temple of Ba’al (the 1st – 2nd century AD), decumanus with arch, theater and others.
- Baalbek – Lebanon, Beqaa. Very old settlement, inhabited for some 9000 years. Especially impressive are the ruins of Roman times, when this was an important regional city. For the construction of Roman temples here were used some of the largest stone blocks ever moved around – up to 1,650 t heavy.
- Beidha – Jordan, Ma’an. One of the oldest known settlements in the world. First occupied by the people of Natufian culture in the 11th millenium BC, but in the 7th millenium BC it was a fortified settlement, enclosed with a wall and with circular buildings inside. Houses had subterranean floors. Sometimes around 6650 BC destroyed by fire and rebuilt with rectangular buildings. Abandoned around 6500 BC.
- Byblos – Lebanon, Mount Lebanon. Possibly the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Settlement started to develop here sometimes around 6230 BC, town with buildings of similar size developed during the 3rd millenium BC. Today it contains remnants of Phoenician temples and medieval architecture.
- Çatalhöyük – Turkey, Konya. One of the earliest towns in the world, this Neolithic settlement had some 1000 inhabitants already roughly at 7000 BC and, possibly, up to 10000 around 6500 BC. During the excavations have been found multiple valuable items – sculptures, frescoes, home utensils.
- Hattusa (Hattusha) – Turkey, Çorum. Ancient Hittite city, established as urban centre in the Late Bronze Age before 2000 BC, although inhabited since at least 6000 BC. Flourished in the 14th century BC, when here were living some 40 – 50 thousand inhabitants. Destroyed around 1200 BC.
- Jericho – Tell es-Sultan – Palestine. The lowest inhabited place and possibly – the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Already at 9400 BC here lived more than 1000 people, at 6800 BC the city was fortified with more than 3.6 m tall wall and there was a stone watchtower with stone stairway. Since then city has been several times abandoned and resettled – also today there is a city next to the old mound.
- Jerusalem Old City – Palestine, West Bank, Jerusalem. One of the most significant cities in world history, meeting place of cultures and world religions. City was inhabited and heavily fortified already in the 11th century BC. Current 4.5 km long walls were built by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1538. Includes the Western Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Temple Mount, al-Aqsa Mosque and other monuments.
- Mada’in Saleh (Al-Hijr) – Saudi Arabia, Al Madinah. Ancient Lihyan and Nabatean city with 131 monumental rock-cut structures, mostly tombs. City developed since approximately the 6th century BC, flourished in the 1st – 2nd century AD.
- Old City of Sana’a – Yemen, Sana’a. Impressive display of the unique Yemeni urban planning and architecture. Sana’a is founded before 500 BC and here are buildings which are more than 1,400 years old. The city walls are 9 – 14 m tall, the old city contains more than 100 mosques, 6,500 houses. Most of the houses represent highrise buildings and are ornamented.
- Petra – Jordan, Ma’an. Ancient capital city of Nabateans, established around the 6th century BC in the site of ancient sanctuary. Contains some of the most beautiful and intricate rock-cut architecture in the world, available after walking through some 1.2 km long, narrow gorge.
- Shibam – Yemen, Hadramaut. Unique, fortified city. Shibam is old city, first mentioned in the 3rd century AD. This densely built city has some 500 tower houses, each rising 5 to 11 stories (more than 30 m) high. Most houses have been built since the 16th century. City is enclosed with wall.
- Acropolis of Athens – Greece, Attica, Athens. One of the most important European heritage monuments – citadel of the city of Athens. Contains ruins of numerous Greek temples which have left huge impact on world architecture. Most buildings were built in 460 – 430 BC, but the history of the citadel goes back to the Late Bronze Age.
- Ávila – Spain, Castile-Leon. Medieval city with some of the preserved city walls in world. City walls have nine gates and 82 semicircular towers. Ávila was a fortified settlement already in the 5th century BC. Current medieval city flourished in the 11th – 18th century. Old city has numerous valuable buildings.
- Cité de Carcassonne – France, Languedoc-Roussillon. Medieval walled city, surrounded by 3 km long double wall with 53 towers. Walls built by Romans in the 3rd century AD and further fortified by French in Romanesque style.
- Historic centre of Rome – Italy, Lazio. According to legend, Rome was founded in 753 BC and, possibly, has been the most important city in the history of Western civilization. Rome was centre of Roman Republic and Empire and since the 4th century is capital of the Christian world. The enormous historical city contains immense number of architecture and art values, here have arised numerous global styles in architecture and art. Outstanding structures are Roman Forum, San Giovanni in Laterano, Pantheon, Colosseum, St. Peter’s Basilica and numerous others. – Italy, Lazio. According to legend, Rome was founded in 753 BC and, possibly, has been the most important city in the history of Western civilization. Rome was centre of Roman Republic and Empire and since the 4th century is capital of the Christian world. The enormous historical city contains immense number of architecture and art values, here have arised numerous global styles in architecture and art. Outstanding structures are San Giovanni in Laterano, Pantheon, Colosseum, St. Peter’s Basilica and numerous others.
- Mycenae – Greece, Argos-Mykines. One of the major centres of Greek civilization, this city flourished in 1600 – 1100 BC. Citadel of Mycenae is built of enormous stone blocks, interesting feature is the Lion Gate.
- Pompeii – Italy, Campania. The best preserved ancient Roman town eliminated by volcanic pyroclastic flows in 79 AD. The town has been excavated and now represents an amazing display of Roman life.
- Rhodes – Greece, South Aegean. One of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. Although the city contains ruins of Ancient Greek and Roman buildings, the most impressive today are the fortifications and other structures built by Knights Hospitallers in the 14th century.
- Sassi di Matera – Italy, Basilicata. Group of prehistoric cave dwellings, continuously inhabited for 9,000 years up to this day.
- Toledo – Spain, Castile – La-Mancha. Very well preserved andcient and medieval city with a huge number of valuable buildings. The fortified city is located on a hill and surrounded by Tagus River from three sides. Served as administrative centre in Roman times, capital of Visigoths, city flourished also in the 16th century AD.
- York walled city – England, North Yorkshire. One of the most beautiful and historically most significant cities in England. Founded by Romans in 71 AD, for many centuries the most important city in Northern England. The structure of this historical city is very well conserved and such places as The Shambles provide insight into medieval city planning. Preserved streets with runnels, overhanging timber frame buildings. Fortification walls include older Roman walls (Multangular Tower, 211 AD and seven more towers) and four medieval gatehouses. There is a possibility that the small Anglian Tower is from Saxon times, built in the 7th century.
- Calakmul – Mexico, Campeche. One of the largest cities of ancient Maya with remnants of nearly 7000 structures still existing. Largest building – 55 m high pyramid. 117 stelae and numerous other important monuments of history and art.
- Chichen Itza – Mexico, Yucatán. Major urban centre of lowland Maya culture with numerous monuments of world importance and fame. Chichen Itza became important centre around 600 AD and remained such centre until its fall around 1000 AD. Some of the best known monuments are El Castillo pyramid, the Great Ball Court, Temple de los Guerreros, El Caracol observatory, Ossario pyramid. The unique Sacred Cenote is natural sinkhole – human sacrifice site. In deposits of cenote have been discovered huge amounts of gold and jade artefacts as well as human remains.
- Copán – Honduras, Copán. Remnants of Maya city which flourished in the 5th – 9th centuries AD, when Copán was a capital city. City was located on the south-eastern border of Maya realm, surrounded by non-Maya peoples. City covered area of more than 250 km² and had population of more than 20,000 people. Abandoned around the 10th century AD. Here have been preserved stelas of high artistic quality, as well as the Rosalila temple and numerous other structures and artwork.
- El Mirador – Guatemala, Petén. Possibly the largest Maya city, early centre of this civilization which flourished in the 2nd century BC – 150 AD. In the city is one of the largest pyramids in the world – La Danta, 70 – 72 m tall, volume 2.8 million m³.
- Palenque – Mexico, Chiapas. Ruins of Mayan city which flourished in the 7th century AD. City is important nowadays due to several reasons. One is magnificent, romantic location in the middle of jungle, on the hill overlooking the coastal plains. Another is the fact that Palenque contains some of the finest known Mayan architecture and artwork. Most interesting structures are Palace of Palenque and Temple of the Inscriptions with important records of the history of the city and sarcophagus of Pakal – ruler of the city.
- Tikal – Guatemala, Petén. One of the largest and most important cities of Maya civilization. City flourished in the 3rd – 10th century AD. City contains impressive complex of ruined structures, including a 47 m high pyramid. Numerous art values – stelae, burials.
- Uxmal – Mexico, Yucatán. Important centre of ancient Maya culture with exceptionally well preserved structures. Founded around 500 AD and inhabited until the 1550s, flourishing in 700 –1100 AD. Architecture of Uxmal is considered to be of very high quality visually and structurally and belongs to the best achievements of Puuc style. Impressive buildings are The Governor’s Palace with the longest façade in ancient Mesoamerica, the Adivino – surprising pyramid with ovate sides and Nunnery Quadrangle – governor’s residence with interesting façades.
Other ancient settlements in North America
- El Tajín – Mexico, Veracruz. One of the most important ancient cities of Mesoamerica. Flourished in 600 –1200 AD, inhabited by people of diverse nationality. Impressive monuments are Pyramid of the Niches, Building 5 (also a pyramid) and other pyramid shaped temples.
- La Venta – Mexico, Tabasco. Impressive achievement of ancient urban planning, art and architecture, one of the important centres of the ancient Olmec culture. Occupied since 1200 BC and becoming important centre 900 –400 BC. Complex of clay buildings extending for some 20 km, includes 33 m tall pyramid. Renowned monuments of ancient art – four colossal sculptures of heads.
- Monte Albán – Mexico, Oaxaca. One of the earliest urban centres in Mesoamerica, centre of Zapotec culture for nearly 1000 years. Founded roughly in 500 BC and inhabited until 750 AD. Contains remnants of many impressive structures such as Main Plaza, Ballgame Court, numerous stone carvings.
- Taos Pueblo and Acoma Pueblo – United States, New Mexico. Some of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in United States, outstanding urban planning monuments built by Native Americans starting from around 500 -1000 AD. The apartments form a single, enormous structure, built of adobe.
- Teotihuacan – Mexico, México. One of the largest ancient cities in the world containing numerous monuments of architecture and art. Established around 200 BC and was abandoned in the 7th – 8th centuries AD. Hugely impressive monument of urban planning is Avenue of the Dead. Exceptional structure is Pyramid of the Sun – third largest ancient pyramid in the world. Height – 71,2 m. Pyramid of the Moon is an older pyramid from 200 – 450 AD, 42 m high. Site contains numerous valuable murals.
- Caral – Peru, Barranca. The oldest known city in Americas, inhabited somewhere between 2600 -2000 BC. The pyramids in this city were built at the same time when pyramids were built in Egypt. The largest pyramid here though is 18 m tall. It is considered that this was a sacred city.
- Chavín de Huántar – Peru, Ancash. The former capital of Chavín culture, a place of high spiritual importance. Occupied since at least 3000 BC, sacred site since the end of the 2nd millenium BC. Site contains numerous diverse temple structures and amazing artworks including the sculpture of the Lanzón, created some 3000 years ago.
- Tiwanaku – Bolivia, La Paz. A capital of the pre-cursor of Inca Empire, developed in 300 -1000 AD. Ancient pilgrimage center of high spiritual importance. Remnants of monumental, megalithic stone architecture with carved sculptures.
Described ancient cities and towns
What is an ancient city or town?
There could be several ways to define the ancient cities and towns and then – to select monuments which fit into this category. Unfortunately none of them draws a strict divide between ancient settlements and all other things and places.
Wondermondo uses the following definitions:
- City or town corresponds to urban area – densely populated area with closely located structures and specific urban infrastructure which may (but may not) include a common fortification system, common water supply and sewage collection, ventilation and other systems. City should have regional importance as a trade, religious or other centre.
- Ancient: something from a remote period. Wondermondo includes in the category of ancient cities and towns those settlements which have developed as urban areas at least 1500 years ago – around 500 AD. Some very old cities, such as Aleppo (wahh! 8,000 years old!) are still inhabited and are included in this category as well – but most ancient cities are abandoned and fit also in the category of abandoned cities and towns.
Oldest urban areas
There are no strict differences between truly urban areas and other settlements. Due to this the question: "Which is the oldest city / town in the world?" will always remain open.
It is almost certain that the oldest urban areas developed in the Fertile Crescent.
Jericho (Palestine) had a 3.6 m high fortification wall 6800 BC, but was rather densely built already at 9400 BC. Çatalhöyük (Turkey) has similar age – it had urban character already sometimes around 7500 BC. Many specialists thus see it rather as a large village of local importance. The first true urban metropolis was Uruk (Iraq), which developed since 4500 BC.
The oldest cities outside the Fertile Crescent were located in Indus Valley. Mohenjo-daro (Pakistan) and Harappa (India) were founded around 2600 BC and were built as a strictly planned citis with state of the art urban infraastructure.
It is surprising – but the oldest urban areas in Americas have similar age. Caral (Peru) developed as urban centre around 2600 BC.
Only the burial sites can compare to ancient cities and towns regarding the richness of archaeological finds. Here are no unimportant things – the work of archaeologist in some ways is similar to the work of Sherlock Holmes. Everything here is a value.
Human settlements contain the evidence of technical skills and artistic abilities, diet and ailments, structure of society and governance. While digging through the cultural layer, scientists can restore (to some extent) the history of the settlement.
Besides the scientific importance ancient cities and towns provide inspiration for arts, literature, cinema and, of course – architecture and urban planning.
The urban fabric of ancient settlements – their structure and evolution gives a lot of food for thoughts about the nature of humans and civilization.
It turns out that urban planning is very old profession. Many ancient cities were thoroughly planned and these plans were observed very strictly. Thus, some 5,000 years ago Mari (Syria) was perfectly round city with a diameter of 1.9 km. Everything here was strictly planned. Many ancient civilizations built strictly planned cities, such as Mohenjo-daro (Pakistan, 4,500 years old) or Teotihuacan (Mexico, 2,200 years old). Ancient cities had intricate water supply and sanitation systems and often they were visually impressive.
Who planned these cities? Most likely there did not exist construction boards and city planning advisory companies – but somebody many thousand years ago did this and somebody supervised the actual construction.
Today we take living in cities, with all their attractions and annoyances, for granted. But when did humans first come together to live in large groups, creating an urban landscape? What were these places like to inhabit? More than simply a history of ancient cities, this volume also reveals the art and architecture created by our ancestors, and provides a fascinating exploration of the origins of urbanism, politics, culture, and human interaction.
Ancient Cities surveys the cities of the Ancient Near East, Egypt, and the Greek and Roman worlds from the perspectives of archaeology and architectural history, bringing to life the physical world of ancient city dwellers by concentrating on evidence recovered from archaeological excavations.