Tokyo Move Aside: These Big Cities Were Thriving 4,000 Years Ago

These were the 9 biggest cities back in the day

Big cities are quite a feat. They require organization, constant food and water supply, laws, means to dispose of massive residues, among other necessities. So it was only about 4,000 years ago (second millennium BC) that nine settlements were able to grow into the first really big cities. Each welcomed 100,000 inhabitants or more.

Wondering which were the biggest cities during the first millennium BC? Here they are.

*Estimating ancient populations is not an exact science. The estimates used for this article are the work of Professor Georges Modelski and historian Tertius Chandler.

1. 2000 BC: Ur (in modern Iraq). 100,000 inhabitants.

While Ur was first settled in 6500 BC, it was about three thousand years later that it became a proper city. And it kept prospering and growing.

Writing and other accomplishments

By the 3rd millennium, Ur was a wealthy and highly refined city. Its inhabitants traded with India and other lands. Their writing system is the oldest in the world, and so is their code of law. Their engineering skills allowed them to control irrigation and floods, and to manage water supply. Ur’s wide avenues were paved, and the city had schools. As to the arts, they made beautiful objects and built monumental architecture.

The city

The social classes of Ur were made up of slaves, artists, farmers, doctors, scribes, priests, and the nobility. There were distinct quarters in the city for each of them. This big city had public spaces for gatherings, and the street corners had small shrines dedicated to the gods -just as Roman streets would have a thousand years later.

Most of their mud-brick houses were two stories high, and had many rooms for the family and servants. The houses, too, had a small shrine. Underneath it, the family’s ancestor were buried. The monarchs, on the other hand, were usually buried in cemeteries with a few belongings, such as weapons, jewels, and servants to attend them in the afterlife.

The great Ur-Nammu

In c. 2100 a man named Ur-Nammu seized power. He is considered one of the greatest rulers of Ur. Ur-Nammu wrote the code of law that is the oldest known in the world, and built the largest ziggurat -a sort of step pyramid- of his country. During his reign, Ur had around 100,000 inhabitants and was the largest city in the world.

2. 1600 BC: Avaris, Egypt. 100,000 inhabitants.

Avaris began as a small settlement that kept growing thanks to its location in the mouth of the Nile. It had a busy harbor, used for both military and commercial purposes.

From 1800 to 1600 BC waves of immigrants, perhaps from neighboring Canaan (Palestine), settled in and around Avaris. Contemporary Egyptian texts only refer to them as ‘Asians’ and later on as ‘Hyksos’, which means ‘rulers of foreign lands.’

At the beginning, the foreigners were herdsmen, but over time they gained wealth and probably became the ruling class of the city.

The ‘Asians’ seize power in the north

At the time, Egypt was weak, with its power divided between two capitals, one in the north and another one in the south. The ‘Asians’ seized power in the north and established the 15th dynasty, with Avaris as their capital.

The following dynasty, the 16th, of properly the Hyksos, was established in 1640 BC and also ruled from Avaris. Under the Hyksos, Avaris tripled its physical size, and became the home of 100,000 people. During the trading season its harbor received 300 ships. The city was wealthy. The eastern part of the settlement had large two-story houses. Smaller houses, that belonged to dependents, surrounded each large house.

Foreign traditions

Originally, the customs of Avaris were different from those of other Egyptian cities. They buried their dead within the city walls, while Egyptians built necropolises far from their cities. They indulged in donkey sacrifices, a practice unheard of in their new land but common in Syria. Their murals were heavily influenced by the Minoan civilization (Greeks). Their pottery and architecture were distinct. And they had horses and chariots, which were imports new to Egypt.

As the city grew, it became overcrowded. The cemeteries were built over, so the inhabitants copied another Middle Eastern practice and started burying their dead under their houses.

The south rises

Although in time they began to act in a more Egyptian manner, their native subjects were not happy. The texts describe the Hyksos as tyrants. The city of Thebes, in the south, raised against Avaris. And won. In c. 1539 Theban king Amhose I established the 18th dynasty, reunited Egypt under Egyptian rule, and made Thebes the sole capital of the country. Avaris was partially destroyed and abandoned.

3. 1375 BC: Thebes, Egypt. 100,000 inhabitants.

Some of the most famous sites of Egypt are in Thebes (modern Luxor), like the monumental temple of Karnak and the valleys of the kings and queens with their magnificent tombs and temples.

Thebes began as a small trading settlement around 3200 BC on the banks of the Nile. It was built inland, far from the Mediterranean sea. The town grew steadily through the next millennia.

Thebes takes the lead, twice

By 2055 BC the capital of Egypt, Hierakonpolis, was weak, and the country was divided. The Thebans, that now were prosperous and strong, rebelled against Hierakonpolis. When they won, they unified the kingdom and made Thebes its capital. But three hundred years later Egypt had weakened again, it was once more divided, and an Asian dynasty, the Hyksos, was ruling in the north. The Thebans rose again, and in c. 1530 they expelled the Hyksos and, for a second time, reunited Egypt and named Thebes its sole capital.

The temple of Karnak

Aside from being Egypt’s capital several times throughout the millennia, Thebes was also an important religious center. It housed the temple of the popular god Amun. Amun was originally a local Theban god, but after the Thebans reunited Egypt the second time -stating they had achieve it with Amun’s help- the cult of the god became widespread. And Thebes became a place of pilgrimage.

In 2055 BC the Theban pharaoh built the Temple of Amun, aka Temple of Karnak, which remains one of the largest religious buildings ever built. During the next centuries the pharaohs commissioned other temples in the city, as well as palaces, monuments, obelisks, gardens, and even artificial lakes – one of them covered 36 hectares.

The valleys of the kings and queens

The city occupied the East Bank of the Nile, while its cemeteries occupied the opposite side, the West Bank. That West Bank contains the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, where the royals of the period built their magnificent tombs and mortuary temples. Among the pharaohs interred there are Tutankamon and Hatshepsut. The latter, a female pharaoh, built one of the most impressive mortuary temples of the area.

At its height, in 1537 BC, Thebes spanned 93 km2 (36 mi2) and had 100,000 inhabitants. Two hundred years later, the population was 120,000. (See also: If an ancient Egyptian saw our “modern” sports, he would recognize a few.)

4. 1250 BC: Yinxu, China. 120,000 inhabitants.

The twentieth Shang king, Pan Geng, decided to build a new capital in 1300 BC. So he chose both banks of the Huan river as the site for Yin, his new city.

A district for each activity

The layout of the city shows a rational approach: it is divided in districts. There is a residential district, one for burials, another for the magnificent palace and, surrounding the palace, a district of workshops. But the different industries were not thrown in together, either. Those who worked with bronze and copper had their own area, so did the ones that crafted ceramics, or stones, or bones.

Pan’s city grew to be 6 km long by 5 km wide, with the palace and temples standing in the center.

Yin’s inhabitants had a powerful slave-owning nobility. They used chariots pulled by horses, had solar and lunar calendars, made bronze decorative objects, and indulged in animal and human sacrifice. Their architecture is a prototype for the Chinese architecture that was to come. And there is evidence of sewage pipes.

The tomb of female general Fu Hao

Yin reached its height under Shang king Wu Ding, c. 1250. He was a strong ruler that submitted his neighbors through military campaigns. Famously, his wife Fu Hao was a general that led several of those campaigns. Hers is the only royal tomb that archaeologists found intact in Yin. Her burial contained almost 2,000 precious objects, plus 6 dogs, and 16 servants.

Earliest writing in China

China’s earliest writing system was found in Yin. Archaeologists unearthed more than 130,000 inscriptions carved in bone and shell. The carvings record historical events, dream interpretations, the weather, harvests, births, and military campaigns.

Yin was the capital of China for 255 years, until the last Shang king was deposed in 1046 BC. Yinxu (The ruins of Yin) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site nowadays.

5. 1200 BC: Pi-Ramesses, Egypt. 160,000 inhabitants.

Ramesses the Great did everything on a grand scale. His long reign is known for his extensive building program and a few of his wars. As soon as this self-loving king took the throne, he founded a new capital: Pi-Ramesses, which means “the house of Ramesses.” The site he chose for it is near the mouth of the Nile, two kilometers north of Avaris, the abandoned capital of the Hyksos.

Egyptian texts confirm the construction was on its way in 1275 BC.

At its height Pi-Ramesses spanned 15 to 20 km2 (6-7 mi2) and had from 160,000 to 300,000 residents.

Egyptian Venice

Both Egyptian and foreign texts describe it as an impressive and beautiful sight. It had palaces, temples, gardens, and two harbors. The buildings were placed on top of earthen mounts. That way. during the flooding season of the Nile the valleys became water canals -while the buildings remained dry. And the city could be crossed by boat.

A temple for each cardinal direction

Four temples marked the cardinal directions. The Temple to goddess Wadjet in the north, to Set in the south, Astarte in the east, and Amun in the west. Each was surrounded by a specialized district.

The royal district was in the west, for Amun was the personal god of Ramesses. The palace measured 200 x 160 m (656 x 525 ft) and was filled with giant statues of Ramesses, as was every corner of Egypt, actually.

The south was all work with its harbors, huge factories and workshops. The bronze factory could process tons of bronze per day. The south was also the home of the stables with their 480 horses and training grounds. Next to the them rose the army’s barracks.

The north and east were mainly residential. The larger mansions had walled gardens and decorative pools.

Pi-Ramesses remained the capital of Egypt through the 19th and 20th dynasties, until around 1000 BC. (See also: 4 huge African kingdoms nobody told you about.)

Other cities that reached the 100,000 mark just before 1000 BC.

Four other cities in the world could boast of having 100,000 inhabitants by 1000 BC:

Haojing, China. Haojing became the capital of the Zhou dynasty around 1050 BC. Fifty years later it had 100,000 inhabitants.

Memphis, Egypt. The capital of the first pharaohs. Memphis started out with 20,000 inhabitants in 3100 BC. In 1000 BC it had 100,000 inhabitants. While other Egyptian cities emerged and declined, Memphis remained prosperous for 4,000 years.

Babylon, Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). The famous city already had 60,000 inhabitants during Hammurabi’s reign (c. 1700 BC). In 1000 BC it reached the 100,000 mark.

Luoyang, China. Luoyang was the capital of nine dynasties and has been continuously inhabited. It reached the 100,000 residents in 1000 BC. And today it has a population of c. 1,000,000.

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