In 1849 British explorer and archaeologist William Loftus discovered the ruins of the world’s very first city: Uruk. The following year at the ancient Mesopotamian site, 250km south of Baghdad, Loftus and his team began excavations. A wealth of pictorial and written clay tablets show such things as seals marking property, the use of ploughs and possibly even wheeled vehicles. Two major religious centres tell of the worship of a sky god named An and a goddess of both love and war called Inanna. The city sprang up during the fifth millennium BC and remained the world’s largest and among the most powerful for the following 3,000 years, also giving rise to history’s first empire.
While no other ancient city boasts such a heritage, there is an array of storied settlements that still thrive today.
Excavations in this ancient West Bank city show Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) hunters made visits to the region 11,000 years ago. By 8,000 BC a series of independent communities had been established, each containing up to 3,000 people; the discovery of wheat and barley implies evidence of agriculture. By the turn of the fourth millennium BC, pottery was introduced to the area, probably from Syria, though it would be another 2,000 years before the region was established properly as a permanent town. There are numerous references to Jericho in the Bible, such as that about the attack by the Joshua-led Israelites and that it was the place where King Herod died.
The site of Faiyum, inhabited since around 4,000 BC, is among the world’s oldest continually settled cities and the oldest in Egypt. It rests 100km to the south-west of Cairo, partly where the ancient town of Crocodilopolis once stood. The town, a religious centre for the worship of Sobek, the crocodile god, was renamed Crocodilopolis, or ‘Crocodile City’ by the Greeks. A sacred crocodile was kept in Lake Moeris. The city was later renamed Arsinoe. Today mounds mark this ancient site to Faiyum’s north.
This ancient settlement sprang from the crossroads of significant trade routes, most significantly upon the Silk Road, and its importance is reflected by its succession of rulers, which included the Assyrians, Arabs, Mongols and Ottomans. Aleppo’s fabled 13th-century Citadel is famed for its array of baths, palaces and mosques. It has been settled since at least the third millennium BC, with tablets found in Mesopotamia mentioning the city’s commercial and military might. Though it is still the largest city in Syria, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 heralded its commercial decline. This, however, has served to preserve much of its heritage and, in 2006, it was named the Islamic Capital of Culture.
This iconic town is home to an incredible 125 monuments from different periods of its history — which is in the region of 6,000 years — with one of its finest being the Umayyad Mosque, also known as the Great Mosque of Damascus, constructed in the eighth century. During the Middle Ages, Damascus blossomed into a craft hub, with different regions specialising in specific trades. Remnants of Roman and Greek history remain in this Islamic city, such as the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter. Other significant monuments include the Citadel and the Azem Palace.
The city of Susa, first inhabited some 6,000 years ago, was among the most important centres of the Elamite, Persian and Parthian empires and is now occupied by the city of Shush. It rests between the biblical rivers Choaspes and Eulaeus, where Daniel received his vision. In the seventh century BC, Assyrian king Ashurbanipal razed the city; it was rebuilt over the following century then conquered by Cyrus the Great, then made capital of the Persian Empire by Darius the Great. Ancient Greek writings comment on the city’s magnificence and, for centuries, it remained a cultural mecca until it was sacked and destroyed by Muslim armies in the seventh century, was rebuilt once more then obliterated by the Mongols in 1218.
Europe’s oldest continually inhabited city was established as a Neolithic settlement in 4,000 BC, predating even Athens. The town was, at the time, known as Thracian; it was captured by the Greeks then later the Romans who renamed it Philippopolis after King Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, who claimed it in 342 BC. Like Rome, Plovdiv once had seven hills, but only three of any significance remain due to quarrying. Now Bulgaria’s second-largest city, the old town is filled with 19th-century architecture, museums and galleries. Its colonial history is still very much evident, most notably with its stunning Roman amphitheatre which is still used for performances.