Senior City-zens : The 20 Oldest Still-Inhabited Cities

Urban society may seem a modern phenomenon but cities have been around for a lot longer than one might think. Indeed, once nomadic tribes began to settle in one location, they saw that it was good, became fruitful, and multiplied. Decades, centuries and millennia passed while war, climate change and human migration all took their toll. Relatively few ancient cities have managed to survive the test of time. Here are 10 that have not only survived, but continue to thrive.
Damascus, Syria

Damascus, the current capital of Syria, has a long and colorful history that stretches back nearly 12,000 years. Located in a fertile region well-watered by the Barada river, Damascus was a prime target of numerous kings and conquerors - and often wound up on the losing side.

Over 4 million people live in metropolitan Damascus today and, partly due to a skilfully constructed network of canals built nearly 3,500 years ago, boasts a multitude of parks and green spaces. Since 1979 Damascus has been UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Jericho, West Bank

The ancient city of Jericho is the world’s oldest walled city, with evidence of stone fortifications dating back nearly 9,000 years; long before the “walls came tumblin’ down” events depicted in the Bible. Archaeological digs have turned up traces of habitation that are even older: up to 11,000 years ago!

Not only has Jericho been continually inhabited for over one hundred centuries, scientists have uncovered a virtual layer cake of settlements - 20 in fact, built one on top of the other down to the present day. Now that’s something worth blowing your horn about… oh, wait.

Susa, Iran

Dating back to approximately 8000 BC, the ancient Iranian city of Susa rose to prominence again and again under Elamite, Babylonian, Achaemenian, Greek, Parthian, Sasanian and Persian civilizations.

Today Susa is known as “Shush” though things have rarely been quiet there over its very long life. Susa is where the sole representation of the Code of Hammurabi was found. The 7-foot tall basalt stele was taken back to Susa in the 12th century BC and rediscovered in 1901. It now resides in Paris’ Louvre Museum.

Plovdiv, Bulgaria

One way of measuring a city’s age is to note the number of names it has had. In the case of Plovdiv, the list begins with Eumolpias, changing to Philippoupolis when it was conquered by Philip II of Macedon (Alexander the Great’s father) in 342 BC. Centuries passed and Philippoupolis became Trimontium, then Philippoupolis again, then Paldin, Filibe and finally Plovdiv.

Presently home to around 380,000 (580,000 in the metro area), Plovdiv is Bulgaria’s second-largest city and one of Europe’s oldest - signs of urban activity there go back nearly 9,000 years.


Holy to a number of the world’s leading religions, 5,000-year-old Jerusalem was already settled centuries before any of them had their tenets put to paper, papyrus or pre-fired clay. According to the entry on Jerusalem in Wikipedia, “In the course of its history, Jerusalem has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times.”

Sadly, those numbers are likely not the final score for this exceptional city 747,600 people call Jerusalem, Yerushalayim, Al-Quds and… home.

Tyre, Lebanon

Source of prized Tyrian Purple dye and home base of those legendary master traders, the Phoenicians, Tyre was truly a wonder of the ancient world. The city was located on a walled island just off the coast of Lebanon and managed to thwart every siege until Alexander the Great built a causeway so his soldiers could march up to the city walls.

The causeway changed the flow of the sea currents and caused the island to become permanently joined to the mainland. Today Tyre is Lebanon’s fourth-largest city and can proudly trace its history back nearly 6,000 years.

Athens, Greece

The capital of Greece is home to over 4 million today and is the 5th-most populous capital city in the EU. With its soaring Acropolis and majestic Parthenon symbolizing the golden age of Classical Greece and the foundation of Western civilization, Athens has been lived in for approximately 3,400 years.

The city has not always enjoyed prominence, however - by the early 19th century it had deteriorated to a backwater town with only a few thousand citizens. That all changed when Athens was named capital of Greece in 1834, with the city truly coming of age due to the many infrastructure improvements completed in time for the 2004 Olympic Games.

Lisbon, Portugal

Due to its exceptional harbor situated where the Tagus river empties into the Atlantic Ocean, Lisbon has always been an ideal military and commercial location - incidentally attracting settlers to serve the soldiers and traders. Archaeologists have uncovered Phoenician objects at Lisbon dating back to 1200 BC; remnants of what was likely a Phoenician supply base for ships voyaging to and from the British Isles, an ancient source of tin.

Disaster struck Lisbon in 1755 when one of the most destructive earthquakes ever to strike Europe, accompanied by a massive tsunami and wildfires, leveled much of Lisbon and killed tens of thousands of residents.

Lisbon quickly bounced back from the disaster to regain her rank as one of Europe’s leading cities, a distinction she still holds today.

Varanasi, India

The city of Varanasi, formerly known to English-speakers as Benares, has been a religious and cultural center for at least 3,000 years. Over one million pilgrims from across the Hindu world visit Varanasi each year to participate in ceremonies and swim in the sacred Ganges river.

Varanasi is as close to being a true “living city” as one could imagine. Every bit of space is utilized, every disused building is re-worked into a new purpose and over centuries of conflict and conquest, the city heals itself through the power of human conviction and devotion to a greater glory.

Cholula, Mexico

Arguably the oldest continually inhabited city in the western hemisphere, Choloula was a contemporary of more famous Teotihuacan yet never suffered the crisis that saw it’s neighbor abandoned in the 6th century AD. By the late Aztec period more than 100,000 people lived in Cholula, and the city near Puebla is home to over 90,000 today.

Cholula rose to prominence in the 2nd century BC but settlement on a more modest scale goes back a further thousand years. The partially excavated monumental buildings at Cholula are among the largest in the world, with the Great Pyramid of Cholula being the largest man-made monument ever made! Its base covers approximately 25 acres and the pyramid’s total volume is estimated at 4.3 million cubic yards.

What’s it take to make a long-lived city? The same thing any realtor will tell you: location, location, location! Prime real estate does tend to attract the wrong crowd - conquerors have a way of ruining anyone’s backyard barbeque - but once all the fuss has died down people do what they’ve always done; keep on coming back for more.

Byblos, Lebanon

The city of Byblos, Lebanon has been a thriving urban center for at least 7,000 years but it really hit its stride around 3,200 years ago when it became an important player in the papyrus trade. In fact, the word “byblos” is Greek for “papyrus”, an early form of paper made from wetland plants that grew in Egypt’s Nile delta. From the word byblos we get the root word biblio, as in bibliogrphy.

To the Phoenicians, master traders of the ancient world, Byblos went under the name of Gubla and later Gebal. Today its Arabic name is Jbeil and much of the city’s ancient and medieval glory is available for appreciation by natives and tourists alike.

Faiyum, Egypt

Cities first rose up out of Egypt’s Faiyum Depression nearly 6,000 years ago, nourished by the life-giving water which collected in the low oasis west of the river Nile. In the heyday of Pharaonic Egypt the city was known as Crocodilopolis, the leading center for the cult of the crocodile-god Sobek. In the Roman era, citizens of Faiyum used a distinctive painting technique known as encaustic. The pigmented wax used to paint the portraits of the dead on their coffin lids has withstood the passage of time to a remarkable degree, as can be seen in the lifelike portrait at above top left.

Faiyum today has a population of several hundred thousand and both it and the surrounding area are well watered by an effective system of canals first built around 1800 BC by the pharaoh Amenemhat I. Twelve massive waterwheels keep the flow steady and are a popular tourist attraction.

Gaziantep, Turkey

Gaziantep is the oldest inhabited city of Hittite origin - the Hittites were one of the great civilizations of the fertile crescent and jostled with Ancient Egypt for centuries. The Hittites were also the first to smelt and forge iron on a large scale, giving them a huge advantage over their rivals. Before the rise of the Hittites, however, Gaziantep was ruled by other civilizations including the ancient Akkadians approximately 5,000 years ago.

Gaziantep today is home to 1.5 million people and seems to be somewhat of an international real estate hotbed - wealthy foreigners have been swooping in, buying up old Turkish houses, and are restoring them for use as vacation homes.

Beirut, Lebanon

Beirut first entered the historical record in the 15th century BC, making the city at least 3,500 years old though archaeological finds have extended its timeline back an additional 1,500 years. Even the city’s name has remained remarkably consistent over the centuries - in ancient times it was known as Berytus.

Today Beirut is the capital of Lebanon, a bustling cosmopolitan center with a population of just over 2 million. Its recent history has been as troubled as its ancient history… many residents can recall the sound of gunfire and bombs bursting in the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Aleppo, Syria

Situated at a strategic point between the Euphrates river and the Mediterranean Sea, Aleppo was prominent in the ancient world as a center of trade. Archaeological work has been difficult in Aleppo since the modern city sits directly atop a series ancient ones. Aleppo has had a tumultuous history in more ways than one. A deadly earthquake in the year 1138 AD killed as many as 230,000 people. The city had just begun to recover when it was conquered by the Mongols in 1260, 1280 and finally in 1400 by Tamerlane.

Modern Aleppo from the air is one of the world’s most striking cities - the 13th century AD moated central citadel rising 150 feet into the sky resembles a meteor crater in reverse. The area of the Citadel shows evidence of human occupation going back 7,000 years though ancient Aleppo gradually grew into what we consider to be a city.

Asmara, Eritrea

Though Asmara’s recorded history only goes by 700 years, recent excavations in the city’s suburbs have uncovered an extensive urban settlement dating back as much as 3,000 years. According to a BBC report on what city life in ancient Asmara would have been like, “The settlement’s inhabitants lived in stone houses, ate cows and goats, drank beer, farmed fertile land and wore animal skins.” The more things change, the more they stay the same!

Asmara looks like a typical modern city today, thanks (or no thanks) to Italian occupiers who revamped the city to a European plan following its conquest by Italy in 1889.

Cadiz, Spain

Gadir, Gades, Cadiz! That’s what a presumed sign on the immense city walls found 7 meters (roughly 21 feet) deep under Cadiz’ city center might read to, successively, Phoenician, Roman and Spanish visitors. Roman sources praised the beauty of Gades’ dancing girls but much earlier, like Lisbon, Gadir (meaning “The Fortress”) was a stopover for Phoenician ships plying the long tin route to and from the British Isles.

Though the recently discovered walls date back to the 8th century BC, most archaeologists agree the site on southern Spain’s Atlantic coast was a fully functioning city as long as 3,000 years ago, if not longer.

Xi’an, China

Over the past 3,000-odd years Xi’an has been the capital of 13 different imperial dynasties. The most striking reminder of Xi’an’s ancient glory comes in the form of the Terracotta Army, buried in the year 210 BC along with Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. Though most of the lifesized figurines have not been excavated, it’s estimated that the army consists of over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots pulled by 520 horses, and 150 cavalry horses.

Notice the rather large and obtrusive KFC billboard in the view of downtown Xi’an above? Not to worry, it’s not long for this world - as are 190 other designated “eyesores” due to be removed from Xi’an’s city center when their current contracts expire, after which time no new advertising contracts will be accepted. That’s one sign of the times we can all appreciate!

Rome, Italy

“The Eternal City”, Roman legends state that the city was founded in the year 753 BC by co-kings Romulus and Remus - who were raised by a she-wolf. Regardless of the fine details, Rome can trace its history back to those times. The city reached the height of its glory following the decline of Classical Greece and after the Roman army’s final victory over Carthage in the battle of Zama. By the time of Julius Caesar and the establishment of the Roman Empire, it could be said with certainty that “all roads lead to Rome”.

Rome and Romans endured difficult times following the Empire’s last gasp in the year 476 AD but with the growth of Christianity it once again rose to pre-eminence. Much of Rome’s ancient glory has been lost but much still remains.

Istanbul, Turkey

Rome’s successor after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Constantinople was founded by the Roman emperor Constantine in the year 330 AD and remained one of the world’s greatest and wealthiest cities throughout the medieval era. It was built on the site of an existing city named Byzantium which was founded by early Greek colonists in the early 7th century BC. After shining brightly for over 1,000 years, Constantinople finally succumbed to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and a new era in the city’s life began, this time under the name of Istanbul.

The Blue Mosque, built between 1609 and 1616, is one of Istanbul’s most popular tourist attractions. In its awe-inspiring size, interior decoration and above all beauty, it ranks with Constantinople’s magnificent Hagia Sophia basilica (now a museum) commissioned by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in the early 6th century AD.

Life attracts life, a pull made stronger with the passage of time. Those who have had the privilege and the pleasure of visiting an ancient city say they can feel the city’s lifeblood flowing down well-worn streets and pulsing through centuries-old marketplaces. Time passes; our lives flicker by like moths to a flame yet our eternal cities remain, burning bright, into the future.

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