Big cities are quite a feat. They require lots of organization. They need constant food and water supply and a way to dispose of massive residues. All those inhabitants crammed up in a small-ish space also mean that laws are needed, among many other things. So it is quite surprising that big cities, with 100,000 inhabitants or more, already existed 4,000 years ago.
Here are these wonders of ancient logistics. These were the five largest cities between 2,000 BC and 1,000 BC:
(Wondering which were the biggest cities during the first millennium BC? Wonder no more, here they are.)
1. Ur (Iraq). 100,000 inhabitants in 2000 BC
Ur was first a settlement, but by about 3,500 BC, it had become a proper city. From then on, this famous city in Mesopotamia kept prospering and growing.
Ur: the oldest writing system and other accomplishments
By the 3rd millennium (2,000 -1000 BC), Ur was quite wealthy and highly refined. It traded with India and other lands.
And Ur’s cultural achievements are right-down impressive. Writing was probably born in this city. At least the world’s oldest known writing system was found there. The Mesopotamians were writing before the Egyptians and the Chinese.
As if that was not enough, the world’s oldest code of law was also found in Ur. So they were pioneers in writing and law.
And since a big city like Ur needed to feed its people, Urians became great engineers. They learned to control the water. They had irrigation systems, regulated floods, and managed 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 monumental city of Ur
Ur had wide avenues, which were paved. The city had public spaces for gatherings. And on the street corners, there were small shrines dedicated to the gods -just like the Roman streets would have a thousand years later.
Ur had monumental architecture. And since, as we have seen, they were into culture, they also had schools.
Urians also liked the arts and made beautiful objects.
People of all social classes lived in Ur, but each group had its distinct quarter in the city. So artists, farmers, doctors, scribes, priests, and nobles lived in separate neighborhoods. There, of course, were also slaves in Ur.
Ur’s houses were made of mud-brick. Most homes were two stories high. And most had many rooms to accommodate family and servants.
And the houses, like the streets, had a small shrine inside. Underneath the houses, Urians buried their family’s ancestors.
The monarchs, on the other hand, were usually buried in cemeteries. They were interred with a few belongings, such as weapons, jewels, and servants. The buried servants were expected to attend them in the afterlife.
The great King Ur-Nammu
In c. 2100 BC, a man named Ur-Nammu seized power. He is considered one of Ur’s greatest rulers.
It was Ur-Nammu who wrote a code of law, the oldest known in the world. He also built the largest ziggurat -a sort of pyramid- in his country.
During his reign, Ur had around 100,000 inhabitants and was the largest city in the world.
2. Avaris, Egypt. 100,000 inhabitants in 1600 BC
Avaris began as a small settlement in Egypt. It kept growing thanks to its location in the mouth of the Nile.
Avaris had a busy harbor, which was used for both military and commercial purposes.
From 1800 to 1600 BC, waves of immigrants settled in and around Avaris. Scholars believe they may have come from nearby Canaan (Palestine). Contemporary Egyptian texts only refer to them as ‘Asians’ and, later on, as ‘Hyksos’, which means ‘rulers of foreign lands.’
In 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 and name Avaris their capital
At the time, Egypt was weak. Passed were the golden days. Its power was divided between two capitals. One was in the north, the other in the south.
The following dynasty, the 16th, of properly the Hyksos, was established in 1640 BC. They also ruled from Avaris.
Under the Hyksos, Avaris tripled its physical size. And it became the home of 100,000 people. During the trading season, its harbor received 300 ships.
The city was wealthy.
The eastern part of Avaris had large two-story houses. Smaller houses, that belonged to dependents, surrounded each large house.
Foreign traditions in Avaris
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. And the cemeteries were built over. So the inhabitants copied another Middle Eastern practice and started burying their dead under their houses.
The south rises and destroys Avaris
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 thoroughly Egyptian city of Thebes, in the south, rose against Avaris. And won.
In c. 1539, Theban king Ahmose I established the 18th dynasty. He reunited Egypt under Egyptian rule and made Thebes the sole capital of the country.
Avaris was partially destroyed and abandoned.
3. Thebes, Egypt. 100,000 inhabitants in 1375 BC
Some of the most famous sites in Egypt are in Thebes (modern Luxor). For example, the monumental Temple of Karnak and the valley of the kings -with its magnificent tombs and temples.
Thebes began as a small trading settlement around 3200 BC. It was built on the banks of the Nile but inland, far from the Mediterranean Sea. The town grew steadily through the next millennium.
Thebes takes the lead, twice
By 2055 BC, the capital of Egypt, Hierakonpolis, was weak, and the country was divided. The Thebans, that by then 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 great temple of Karnak in Thebes
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, they said they had achieved it with Amun’s help. So the cult of the god became widespread through Egypt. And Thebes, with its temple, became a place of pilgrimage.
In 2055 BC, the Theban pharaoh had built the Temple of Amun, aka the Temple of Karnak. It remains one of the largest religious buildings ever built.
During the next centuries, the pharaohs commissioned other temples in the city. They also built palaces, monuments, obelisks, gardens, and even artificial lakes – one of them covered 36 hectares.
Thebes’ famous valleys of the kings and queens
The city occupied the East Bank of the Nile. And its cemeteries -Egyptians loved their cemeteries- occupied the West Bank.
The West Bank contains the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. There, the royals built their magnificent tombs and mortuary temples. Tutankhamun and Hatshepsut were interred in those valleys. 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.
4. Yinxu, China. 120,000 inhabitants in 1250 BC
A Shang king, Pan Geng, decided he needed a new capital for his kingdom. And he thought the perfect for place for it would be both banks of the Huan River. So there, he started building Yin in 1300 BC.
Yinxu was divided into districts
The layout of the city shows a rational approach: it is divided into 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.
King Pan’s city grew to be 6 km long by 5 km wide. The palace and the temples stood at 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 the prototype for the Chinese architecture that became so widely popular afterwards.
And there is evidence that Yin had sewage pipes.
The notorious female general Fu Hao is buried in Yin
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. And she 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.
The earliest writing in China was found in Yin
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. Pi-Ramesses, Egypt. 160,000 inhabitants in 1200 BC
Pharaoh Ramesses the Great did everything on a grand scale. His long reign is known, mostly, for his extensive building program.
As soon as this self-loving king took the throne, he founded a new capital. He called it 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.
Pi-Ramesses, the Egyptian Venice
Both Egyptian and foreign texts describe Pi-Ramesses as an impressive and beautiful sight. It had palaces, temples, gardens, and two harbors.
The buildings were erected on top of earthen mounds. That way, during the flooding season of the Nile, the valleys were flooded. They became canals, while the buildings remained dry. Ramesses’ vision was that the city would be crossed by boat. Like an ancient Amsterdam or Venice.
A temple marked each cardinal direction
Four temples marked the cardinal directions. To make things even more symmetrical, two were dedicated to goddesses and two to gods. The Temple to goddess Wadjet was built in the north of the city. A temple for the god Set, in the south; the one for the goddess Astarte, in the east; and Amun’s, in the west. Each temple 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 them were 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.
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. Memphis was the capital of the first pharaohs (3100 BC). In 1000 BC, it had 100,000 inhabitants. While other Egyptian cities rose and declined, Memphis remained prosperous for 4,000 years.
Luoyang, China. Luoyang was the capital of nine dynasties and has been continuously inhabited. It reached the 100,000 residents in 1000 BC.