Special Report

Mega Cities of the Ancient World

Detailed findings & methodology:

Data obtained from this report has provided a more comprehensive understanding of ancient cities, how they were created, what industries flourished, the role geography played in their development, what contributed to their rise and demise, and how many people lived in them.

Based on this data, 13 of the 42 megacities of the ancient world are located in today’s China. Many of these cities served as capital of ancient China at one time or another. Qufu, one of the Chinese cities on the list, was the birthplace of the philosopher Confucius.

The rest of this list is more diffused, though no less interesting. Today’s Turkey has four cities on our list, including not surprisingly, Istanbul — known variously as Byzantium, Constantinople, and Stamboul. Less known is Pergamum, where the city of Bergama is today. Ancient Pergamum built a library that is said to have rivaled that of the legendary library of Alexandria. Parchment is said to have been created in Pergamum.

What are now India, Iraq, and Italy each have three cities on the list, and the histories of many of those ancient cities were defined by their proximity to major rivers. Pataliputra, located in northern India, developed near the Ganges River, and by 300 B.C., it had 400,000 people. In Iraq, the renowned city of Ur, which dates back from 4000 B.C., became important because it was located where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers pour into the Persian Gulf. Rome’s glory began on the banks of the Tiber River.

The famed Silk Road, the main trading artery in central Asia that connected China with the West, played a vital role in the development of cities such as Samarkand, Merv, and Xi’an.

No list of ancient cities would be complete without the inclusion of Egyptian cities Alexandria and Thebes. Alexandria is one of two cities on this list with a population estimated at 1 million people in ancient times. Thebes, whose population was 150,000 in 1200 B.C., was the center of of Egyptian civilization at its peak.

Three cities in the Western Hemisphere made the list in what are today Mexico, Bolivia, and Guatemala. The remains of those great cities from antiquity — Teotihuacan, Tiahuanaco, and Tikal — underscore the sophistication of the Aztec, Mayan, and pre-Columbian civilizations.

Advances in technology used for archaeological discovery have brought us closer to ancient times and civilizations, and to the understanding of how our world was made possible by the development of these great cities.

24/7 Tempo reviewed the February 2018 data set created by NASA Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC) “Historical Urban Population, 3700 BC – AD 2000,” originally developed by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Authors Reba, M. L., F. Reitsma, and K. C. Seto estimated city populations from 3,700 B.C. through A.D. 2000 for cities around the world by digitizing, transcribing, and geocoding historical, archaeological, and census-based urban population data. City names, latitude, longitude, year, population, and a reliability ranking to assess the geographic uncertainty of each data point were included in the data set.

We compared from 3700 B.C. to the 5th and 6th centuries (the end of Roman rule in the Mediterranean, widely used to mark the end of the ancient period) each city with a peak population of 100,000 or greater. To be considered, each city’s population reliability ranking needed to be 1.

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