Older Than History? 3 Of the Most Ancient Cities on Earth Revealed

What is the oldest ancient city on Earth?

Identifying the most ancient of cities on Earth is an extremely difficult task.

Although archeology and history go hand in hand when understanding the past, the truth is that both history and archaeology can be extremely imprecise at times. History perhaps even more than archeology.

For centuries have scholars around the globe tried to understand what our ancestors were like. How did they develop? What kinds of lifestyles did they have? What did they worship? Where they obsessed with their origin and purpose as we are today? And how exactly did people live, and in what types of cities, thousands of years ago?

Identifying the oldest city in the world is hard. We’ve seen that archaeological excavations have pushed back our known history quite a few times, and as many authors would say, “things just keep getting older.”

Loss of archeological evidence is the greatest enemy in the study of ancient heritage. The Middle East is a clear example of that. In the past few years, priceless artifacts have been destroyed in wars. These items, which tell a story embedded in stone, have now been lost, taking with them the story our ancestors wrote thousands of years ago.

A map of the ancient city of Jericho.
A map of the ancient city of Jericho.

This is precisely reason why identifying the oldest city on Earth is such a hassle. In fact, the term oldest city on Earth is not specifically defined. Not only because “things just keep getting older”, but because we have still failed to identify many ancient sites mentioned throughout history.

Nonetheless, we have certain clues by which we can go by. I order to do that, we must first define what a city is.

According to Steven Snape, the size of population is crucial data, but it might relative. In his books ” the Complete Cities of Ancient Egypt,” Snape explains that in sparsely populated Norway, a center with a population of 20,000 inhabitants is seen as a city. However, in Britain, a center with a population in excess of 100,000 is seen as a large town.

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To understand how a city is defined, we must understand its functions: a city is generally acknowledged as a population center with a cluster of assets that relate to a region larger than its own immediate hinterland–government is perhaps the most important example of this, but so too are economic institutions and cultural institutions.

An image of a clay tablet with map of the Babylonian city of Nippur (ca. 1400 BC). Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain.
An image of a clay tablet with a map of the Babylonian city of Nippur (ca. 1400 BC). Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain.

The exact features designating a city have been amply discussed by a number of scholars, some of which have even produced what may be considered as a kind of checklist for designating cities.

Some of these attributes are listed here below:

A) The presence of an elite who are not directly involved in the production of agriculture.

B) A relatively high density of permanent population.

C) A significant level of participation in trade/exchange, including river/sea ports/harbors.

D) A concentration of crafts specializations.

E) A concentration of administrative functions over a territory greater than the city itself.

F) Control over an agricultural hinterland whose surplus maintains the city.

G) Institutions that promote a sense of specific civic identity.

However, if we look back at history, we will see that identifying the “modern” segments by which scholars designate a city is hard. That’s because some of the oldest cities on Earth are very, very ancient. In fact, some have argued that there are “cities” on Earth that can be traced back to periods stretching as far back as 13,000 years ago.

Certain archaeological discoveries–like Göbekli Tepe–have revealed that the history of civilization as we know it dates back further in time than we’ve ever thought possible. Göbekli Tepe is a fine example that more than 12,000 years ago, our ancestors were capable of erecting massive, intricate stone monuments.

The massive pillars at Göbekli Tepe. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The massive pillars at Göbekli Tepe. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Building a monument of the immense size of Göbekli Tepe more than 12,000 years ago would have required plenty of resources; this means that whoever built Göbekli Tepe more than 12,000 years ago was probably part of a well-developed city at the time. Both manpower and resources were needed to complete this project.

What city this was–if any–remains a mystery. Experts argue that Göbekli Tepe was built by no organized societies but by hunter-gatherers, apparently during a time before the Agricultural Revolution when fully permanent settlements came into existence and the development of cultivation and animal herding.

However, despite this, we know of the existence of ancient cities that span back further in history than we’ve ever thought possible.

Jericho is one such city. Evidence of human settlements at the site can be traced back to around 9,000 BC. Considered by many a wonder of the ancient world, this ancient city is also home to the oldest known protective wall on the surface of the planet. Not only that, but archaeological excavations have revealed that Jericho is also home to the oldest stone towers on the planet.

It is believed that the site where Jericho was eventually formed became a popular ground for “hunter-gatherers’ around 10,000 BC. Scholars believe that as the cold period caused by the Younger Dryas came to an end, around 9,600 BC, the area became the center of year-round habitation.

Archeological evidence indicates that by around 8,000 BC, the site grew to a city of 40,000 square meters (430,000 square feet). A protective wall already surrounded the city by then. Its dimensions: 3.6 meters (11.8 feet) high and 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) wide at the base.

When speaking about the oldest cities on Earth one cannot overlook the ancient city of Aleppo. Located in present-day Syria, this site has scarcely been excavated by archeologists. Archaeological excavations at Tallet Alsauda have revealed that organized human inhabitation can be traced to a period around 8,000 years ago. Scholars debate whether Damascus are Aleppo are older. However, Aleppo seems to appear in the archaeological records much sooner than Damascus.

Archaeological excavations at Tallet Alsauda offer evidence that the site was inhabited as long as 13,000 years ago. The first record of Aleppo comes from the third millennium BC, in the Ebla tablets when Aleppo was referred to as Ha-lam. 

Although Damascus is pretty old, a case can be made that Byblos is far older. Located in present-day Lebanon, the ancient city is believed to have been inhabited around 11,000 years ago.

Archeological excavations of the site revealed that it was continuously inhabited since around 5,000 BC which places it in the list as one of the oldest contentiously inhabited ancient cities in the world. Researchers argue that during the Old Kingdom in Egypt, the ancient city of Byblos was an Egyptian Colony.