11 of the Most Ancient and Continually Occupied Cities in the World
Time travel is one of the most intriguing scenarios humans have ever fantasized about, but unfortunately for those curious minds and wild dreamers out there, many modern physicists claim that outside of science fiction, time travel is impossible. However, we have some good news for fans of antiquity who wish they could have visited all the great places of the past. The cities that follow, eleven of the oldest continually inhabited places on Earth, are as close to time travel as you can get – and the best thing about visiting them is that it won’t cost you more than a plane ticket, a hotel stay, and some spending money for food and souvenirs. Here’s a summary of some of the worlds most ancient cities that you can still visit to have a glimpse of the past.
Athens is without a doubt one of the most famous, vivid, successful, and most visited ancient cities, with a history that exceeds seven thousand years of civilization. A center for the arts, learning, and philosophy, and home to Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, Athens is widely referred to as the cradle of Western civilization and the birthplace of democracy. The latter is largely due to the impact of its cultural and political achievements in the 5th and 4th centuries BC on the rest of the then-known European continent. In modern times, Athens is a mecca of tourism, it hosted the modern summer Olympics twice, and is a large cosmopolitan metropolis that is central to the economic, financial, industrial, maritime, political, and cultural life of Greece. In 2012, Athens was ranked among the world’s top thirty-five richest cities by purchasing power, even though Greece has been dealing with a severe economic crisis.
‘The Acropolis at Athens’ (1846) by Leo von Klenze. (Public Domain)
Faiyum was an ancient city (now Medinet el-Faiyum) in an area of Egypt known as the ‘Faiyum Oasis’. This area rose from the desert to become a land of plenty after it became naturally irrigated by a newly flowing branch of the Nile. This cultivated flora and encouraged fauna to come to the area, eventually developing into an Egyptian city that has now been inhabited for thousands of years. Located 100 kilometers (62 miles) southwest of Cairo, it is the capital of the modern Faiyum Governorate. The town occupies part of the ancient site of Crocodilopolis, or Arsinoë. Founded around 4000 BC, it is the oldest Egyptian city and one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world.
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Ruins of the stone temple of Soknobkonneus, Umm el-Athl (Bacchias), el-Fayyum, Egypt. (Roland Unger/CC BY SA 3.0)
Many archaeologists and historians agree that Jericho is the oldest inhabited city on Earth, dating back almost 12,000 years. Excavations at the Tel-al-Sultan ruins show Jericho settlements as early as 10,000 BC. It has an abundance of water sources, and it is believed that the fresh spring water at Tel-al-Sultan is the reason for the site’s early development. Its original name, Yereha (“perfume”), signified its lushness and is preserved in its present Arabic name, Ariha.
Quarantal Monastery, Jericho, Palestine. (Tamar Hayardeni/CC BY 3.0)
Balkh was an ancient city and center of Buddhism, Sufism, and Zoroastrianism in what is now northern Afghanistan. Today it is a small town in the province of the same name, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) northwest of the provincial capital, Mazar-e Sharif. It was one of the major cities of Khorasan, since the latter’s earliest history. Marco Polo described Balkh as a “noble and great city” while the ancient Greeks called it Bactra, giving its name to Bactria. Balkh is now, for the most part, a mass of ruins that attract thousands of tourists every year.
15th century Green (Sabz) Mosque in the city of Balkh, Afghanistan. (Public Domain)
Located in the western part of Henan Province, central China, Luoyang city is situated at the meeting of the Luo River and the Yellow River. It is one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China and was capital city for thirteen ancient dynasties, starting with the Xia Dynasty (21st - 16th century BC). Luoyang is considered an ancient sacred territory and so has attracted the building of monuments, statues and temples over the millennia. The phenomenal Longmen Grottoes with thousands of statues of Buddha are a highlight for tourists and equally enthralling are the Shaolin Temple and the Museum of Luoyang that protects the Eastern Zhou Royal horse and chariots. The historical evidence and archaeology here is abundant, telling the long story of the city. Luoyang has survived as an important city throughout the centuries and now has a population of over 6.5 million people.
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Lijing Gate in Luoyang, Henan, China. (CC BY SA 2.0)
Inhabited since Neolithic times, Byblos has been closely linked to the legends and history of the Mediterranean region for thousands of years. Byblos is a testimony to the history of uninterrupted construction from the first settlement by a community of fishermen dating back 8000 years, through the first town buildings, the monumental temples of the Bronze Age, to the Persian fortifications, Roman roads, Byzantine churches, the Crusade citadel, and medieval and Ottoman towns. The first city built by the Phoenicians, Byblos is also directly associated with the history and diffusion of the Phoenician alphabet. The origin of our contemporary alphabet was discovered in Byblos with the most ancient Phoenician inscription carved on the sarcophagus of Ahiram.
A 19th century Lebanese house amongst ruins on the seafront near Byblos Castle, Byblos, Lebanon. (CC BY SA 3.0)
Argos is a city in Peloponnese, Greece. A settlement of great antiquity, Argos has been continuously inhabited as at least a substantial village for the past 7000 years. The city has many important ruins, while a few kilometers outside it is the archaeological site of Mycenae. Argos is also a member of the Most Ancient European Towns Network.
Reconstruction of the Heraion in the ancient city of Argos, Greece. (Public Domain)
Now bearing the terrible scars of the recent 4-year Battle of Aleppo (2012-2016), this is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and has been inhabited since perhaps as early as the sixth millennium BC. Located at the crossroads of several trade routes, Aleppo was ruled successively by the Hittites, Assyrians, Arabs, Mongols, Mamluks, and Ottomans.
Panoramic view of the old city of Aleppo, Syria. (Craig Jenkins/CC BY 2.0)
Situated near the town of Nasiriya, about 365 kilometers (227 miles) south of Baghdad, Ur, which means “city” in the Sumerian and Akkadian languages, is one of Iraq’s most imposing ancient sites. It was the capital of the ancient Sumerian civilization. This city, which is mentioned several times in the Bible as Ur of the Chaldees (referring to the Chaldeans, who settled in the area about 900 BC), as the birthplace of the prophet Abraham (Ibrahim Al-Khalil), was one of the most important Sumerian cities in the fourth millennium and the first half of the third millennium BC. It was also considered one of the most active and vital cities in southern Mesopotamia during the ensuing centuries.
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The alleged ‘Abraham house’ in Ur city, Dhi Qar, southern Iraq. (Aziz1005/CC BY 4.0)
Varanasi is another city on the list of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Its early history is that of the first Aryan settlement in the middle of the Ganges River Valley. It had become an established city by the the second millennium BC, was a center of Aryan religion and philosophy and is today known as the religious capital of India. Varanasi was the capital of the kingdom of Kashi during the time of the Buddha, who is said to have gave his first sermon nearby at Sarnath in 528BC.
‘Temple on Ganges in state of collapse, India, ca. 1906’ in the city of Varanasi, India. (Public Domain)
Luxor is the modern name for the ancient city of Thebes, the former capital of Egypt during the New Kingdom (about 1550-1050 BC), although a city is known to have existed here as an administrative center a millennium or more earlier. It was also known as the glorious city of the god Amon-Ra. Luxor has frequently been characterized as the “world’s greatest open-air museum,” as the ruins of the temple complexes at Karnak and Thebes stand majestically within the modern city. Thanks to the city’s very ancient history, thousands of tourists from around the world visit these monuments every year, contributing a significant amount to the city’s economy.
First pylon of Luxor temple, Egypt, seen from the west. (Przemyslaw “Blueshade” Idzkiewicz/CC BY SA 2.0)
Top Image: ‘Temple on Ganges in state of collapse, India, ca. 1906’ in the city of Varanasi, India. (Public Domain) Lijing Gate in Luoyang, Henan, China. (CC BY SA 2.0) Quarantal Monastery, Jericho, Palestine. (Tamar Hayardeni/CC BY 3.0) The alleged ‘Abraham house’ in Ur city, Dhi Qar, southern Iraq. (Aziz1005/CC BY 4.0) ‘The Acropolis at Athens’ (1846) by Leo von Klenze. (Public Domain) A traditional (at least for the 19th century) lebanese house on the seafront near Byblos Castle, Byblos, Lebanon. (CC BY SA 3.0)
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Subhamoy Das, (2017), The City of Varanasi: India's Religious Capital. ThoughtCo. Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/indias-religious-capital-varanasi-banaras-1770628
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, (2017) Varanasi, India. Encyclopædia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Varanasi
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