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Animated Map: Where Are the Largest Cities Throughout History?

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Mapping the Largest Cities Throughout History

For much of human history, most people did not live in cities.

Cities—settlements that are densely populated and self-administered—require many specific prerequisites to come into existence. The most crucial, especially for much of human history, is an abundance of food.

Surplus food production leads to denser populations and allows for people to specialize in other skills that are not associated with basic human survival.

But that also means that cities usually consume more primary goods than they produce. And their size requires a host of many other services—such as transport and sanitation—that are traditionally expensive to maintain. So maintaining large urban centers, and especially the world’s largest cities, was a monumental task.

Mapper and history YouTuber Ollie Bye has visualized the seven largest cities in the world since 3,000 BCE. His video covers cities with a minimum population of 10,000 and hints at historical events which led to the establishment, growth, and eventual fall of cities.

The World’s Largest City Throughout History

With any historical data, accuracy is always a concern, and urban populations were rough and infrequent estimates up until the Industrial Revolution.

Bye has used a variety of data sources—including the UN and many research papers—to create the dataset used in the video.

In some places he also had to rely on his own estimates and criteria to keep the data reasonable and consistent:

  • In early history, some cities didn’t have given population estimates for long periods of time, and had to be equalized or estimated through other sources. For example, Babylon had a population estimate at 1,600 BCE (60,000) and at 1,200 BCE (75,000) but none in the 400 years between.
  • Cities that only briefly climbed above a population of 10,000, or that would have made the largest cities ranking for only a couple of years (and based on uncertain estimates), were not included.

Here’s a look at the largest city starting from the year 3,000 BCE, with populations listed in millions during the last year of each city’s “reign.” Cities are also listed with the flags of current-day countries in the same location.

Time PeriodLargest CityPopulation (Millions)Country
3000-2501 BCEUruk0.08Iraq 🇮🇶
2500-2251 BCELagash0.06Iraq 🇮🇶
2250-2001 BCEGirsu0.08Iraq 🇮🇶
2000-1751 BCEIsin0.04Iraq 🇮🇶
1750-1251 BCEBabylon0.06Iraq 🇮🇶
1250-1001 BCEPi-Ramesses0.16Egypt 🇪🇬
1000-601 BCEThebes0.12Egypt 🇪🇬
600-301 BCEBabylon0.20Iraq 🇮🇶
300-201 BCECarthage0.40Tunisia 🇹🇳
200 BCE-270 CEAlexandria0.60Egypt 🇪🇬
271-350 CERome0.39Italy 🇮🇹
351-500 CEConstantinople0.49Turkey 🇹🇷
501-640 CECtesiphon0.50Iraq 🇮🇶
641-644 CEConstantinople0.40Turkey 🇹🇷
645-795 CEChang'an0.59China 🇨🇳
796-963 CEBaghdad1.10Iraq 🇮🇶
964-975 CEConstantinople0.32Turkey 🇹🇷
976-984 CECórdoba0.33Spain 🇪🇸
985-1144 CEBian0.44China 🇨🇳
1145-1199 CEConstantinople0.24Turkey 🇹🇷
1200-1275 CELin'an0.36China 🇨🇳
1276-1278 CECairo0.37Egypt 🇪🇬
1279-1315 CEHangzhou0.43China 🇨🇳
1316-1348 CECairo0.50Egypt 🇪🇬
1349-1353 CEHangzhou0.43China 🇨🇳
1344-1380 CECairo0.35Egypt 🇪🇬
1381-1394 CEVijayanagara0.36India 🇮🇳
1395-1426 CEYingtian0.50China 🇨🇳
1427-1441 CEVijayanagara0.44India 🇮🇳
1442-1612 CEBeijing0.70China 🇨🇳
1613-1678 CEConstatinople0.74Turkey 🇹🇷
1679-1720 CEDhaka0.78Bangladesh 🇧🇩
1721-1826 CEBeijing1.30China 🇨🇳
1827-1918 CELondon7.40UK 🇬🇧
1919-1954 CENew York13.20U.S. 🇺🇸
1955-PresentTokyo37.30Japan 🇯🇵

Ancient Cities in the Fertile Crescent

Considered the “cradle of civilization,” the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East was home to all seven of the largest cities in the world in 3,000 BCE.

The Sumerian city of Uruk (modern-day Iraq), allegedly home to the legendary king Gilgamesh, topped the list with 40,000 people. It was followed by Memphis (Egypt) with 20,000 inhabitants.

For the next 1,700 years, other Mesopotamian cities in modern-day Iraq and Syria held pole positions, growing steadily and shuffling between themselves as the largest.

2,250 BCE marked the first time a different Asian city—Mohenjo-Daro (modern-day Pakistan) from the Indus Valley Civilization—found a spot at #4 with 40,000 people.

The table below is a quick snapshot of the seven largest cities in the world for from 3,000 BCE to 200 CE. Again, populations are listed in millions.

Rank3000 BCE2250 BCE1250 BCE200 CE
1Uruk (0.04) 🇮🇶Girsu (0.08) 🇮🇶Pi-Ramesses (0.16) 🇪🇬Alexandria (0.60) 🇪🇬
2Memphis (0.02) 🇪🇬Mari (0.05) 🇸🇾Yin (0.12) 🇨🇳Pataliputra (0.35) 🇮🇳
3Umma (0.02) 🇮🇶Umma (0.04) 🇮🇶Thebes (0.08) 🇪🇬Carthage (0.20) 🇹🇳
4Nagar (0.02) 🇸🇾Mohenjo-daro (0.04) 🇵🇰Sapinuwa (0.07) 🇹🇷Luoyang (0.20) 🇨🇳
5Lagash (0.02) 🇮🇶Akkad (0.03) 🇮🇶Babylon (0.07) 🇮🇶Seleucia (0.20) 🇮🇶
6Larak (0.01) 🇮🇶Uruk (0.03) 🇮🇶Hattusa (0.06) 🇹🇷Pergamon (0.20) 🇹🇷
7Eridu (0.01) 🇮🇶Memphis (0.03) 🇪🇬Uruk (0.03) 🇮🇶Taxila (0.10) 🇵🇰

It wasn’t until 1,250 BCE that the top two spots were taken by cities in different regions: Pi-Ramesses (Egypt) and Yin (China), both with more than 100,000 residents.

Egyptian cities would continue to be the most populous for the next millennium—briefly interrupted by Carthage and Babylon—until the start of the Common Era. By 30 CE, Alexandria was the largest city in the world, but the top 10 had representatives from the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Asia.

All Roads Lead to Rome

One city in Europe meanwhile, was also beginning to see steady growth—Rome.

It took until halfway through the 3rd century C.E. for Rome to become the most populous city, followed closely still by Alexandria (Egypt). Meanwhile in Iraq, Ctesiphon, the capital of the Sasanian empire was growing rapidly.

Rank271 CE351 CE501 CE645 CE
1Rome (0.39) 🇮🇹Constantinople (0.29) 🇹🇷Ctesiphon (0.41) 🇮🇶Chang'an (0.38) 🇨🇳
2Alexandria (0.37) 🇪🇬Ctesiphon (0.25) 🇮🇶Constantinople (0.40) 🇹🇷Constantinople (0.32) 🇹🇷
3Luoyang (0.20) 🇨🇳Rome (0.24) 🇮🇹Luoyang (0.20) 🇨🇳Kanyakubja (0.24) 🇮🇳
4Vaishali (0.17) 🇮🇳Pataliputra (0.22) 🇮🇳Teotihuacan (0.15) 🇲🇽Luoyang (0.21) 🇨🇳
5Carthage (0.16) 🇹🇳Luoyang (0.20) 🇨🇳Jiankang (0.15) 🇨🇳El Pilar (0.17) 🇧🇿
6Teotihuacan (0.14) 🇲🇽Vaishali (0.16) 🇮🇳Caracol (0.14) 🇧🇿Ctesiphon (0.41) 🇮🇶
7Antioch (0.12) 🇹🇷Teotihuacan (0.15) 🇲🇽Chang'an (0.10) 🇨🇳Teotihuacan (0.15) 🇲🇽

Towards the end of the 3rd century, the Roman empire was divided into two, with Constantinople becoming the new capital for the Eastern half. Consequently, it had outgrown Rome by 353 and become the world’s most populous city, and for the next few centuries would reclaim this title time and time again.

The Largest Cities Reach 1 Million

In the 9th century, Baghdad became the first city to have 1 million residents (though historians also estimate Rome and the Chinese city of Chang’an may have achieved that figure earlier).

It would be nearly nine centuries until a city had one million inhabitants again, and Baghdad’s reign didn’t last long. By the 10th century, Bian, the capital of the Northern Song dynasty in China, had become the largest city in the world, with Baghdad suffering from relocations and shifting political power to other cities in the region.

Rank850 CE985 CE1316 CE1381 CE
1Baghdad (1.00) 🇮🇶Bian (0.35) 🇨🇳Cairo (0.44) 🇪🇬Vijayanagara (0.36) 🇮🇳
2Chang'an (0.60) 🇨🇳Córdoba (0.33) 🇪🇸Hangzhou (0.43) 🇨🇳Cairo (0.35) 🇪🇬
3Constantinople (0.27) 🇹🇷Constantinople (0.32) 🇹🇷Dadu (0.40) 🇨🇳Paris (0.29) 🇫🇷
4Kanyakubja (0.21) 🇮🇳Angkor (0.18) 🇰🇭Paris (0.25) 🇫🇷Yingtian (0.27) 🇨🇳
5Luoyang (0.20) 🇨🇳Baghdad (0.17) 🇮🇶Kamakura (0.20) 🇯🇵Hangzhou (0.23) 🇨🇳
6Bian (0.17) 🇨🇳Kyoto (0.15) 🇯🇵Guangzhou (0.15) 🇨🇳Beiping (0.15) 🇨🇳
7Córdoba (0.16) 🇪🇸Cairo (0.12) 🇪🇬Fez (0.14) 🇲🇦Tabriz (0.14) 🇮🇷

From the 12th century onwards, Mongol invasions in the Middle East and Central Asia severely limited population growth in the region. European cities too were ravaged in the 14th century, but by plagues instead of marauders.

For the next few hundred years, Cairo (Egypt), Hangzhou (China), and Vijayanagara (India) would top the list until Beijing took (and mostly held onto) the top spot through the 19th century.

Industrial Revolution and Rapid Urbanization

The start of the Industrial Revolution in the UK—spreading to the rest of Europe and later on the U.S.—led to hitherto unseen levels of urban population growth.

Factories needed labor, which caused mass emigration from the rural countryside to urban centers of growth.

In 1827, London passed Beijing to become the largest city in the world with 1.3 million residents. Over the next 100 years, its population increased nearly 7 times, remaining the most populous city until the end of World War I, by which time it was overtaken by New York.

Rank1442185119191955
1Beijing (0.51) 🇨🇳London (2.2) 🇬🇧New York (7.6) 🇺🇸Tokyo (13.7) 🇯🇵
2Vijayanagara (0.44) 🇮🇳Beijing (1.6) 🇨🇳London (7.4) 🇬🇧New York (13.2) 🇺🇸
3Cairo (0.37) 🇪🇬Paris (1.3) 🇫🇷Paris (4.7) 🇫🇷Osaka (8.6) 🇯🇵
4Hangzhou (0.24) 🇨🇳Guangzhou (0.87) 🇨🇳Tokyo (4.3) 🇯🇵London (8.2) 🇬🇧
5Tabriz (0.21) 🇮🇷Constantinople (0.71) 🇹🇷Berlin (3.7) 🇩🇪Paris (6.7) 🇫🇷
6Nanjing (0.18) 🇨🇳Edo (0.78) 🇯🇵Chicago (2.9) 🇺🇸Buenos Aires (5.9) 🇦🇷
7Granada (0.15) 🇪🇸New York (0.56) 🇺🇸Vienna (1.9) 🇦🇹Moscow (5.7) 🇷🇺

From 1920 to 2022, the world population quadrupled thanks to improvements in farming and healthcare, and cities saw rapid growth as well. The beginning of the 20st century saw the top 10 largest cities in the world in the U.S., Europe, and Japan.

By the 21st century however, growth shifted away to other parts of the world and by 2021, the top seven had cities only from Asia and the Americas.

Rank1970199020002021
1Tokyo (23.2) 🇯🇵Tokyo (32.7) 🇯🇵Tokyo (34.3) 🇯🇵Tokyo (37.3) 🇯🇵
2New York (16.1) 🇺🇸Osaka (18.5) 🇯🇵Osaka (18.6) 🇯🇵New Delhi (31.1) 🇮🇳
3Osaka (15.2) 🇯🇵New York (16.2) 🇺🇸Mexico City (18.4) 🇲🇽Shanghai (27.7) 🇨🇳
4Mexico City (8.8) 🇲🇽Mexico City (15.9) 🇲🇽New York (17.8) 🇺🇸Sao Paulo (22.2) 🇧🇷
5Buenos Aires (8.4) 🇦🇷Sao Paulo (15.0) 🇧🇷Sao Paulo (17.0) 🇧🇷Mexico City (21.9) 🇲🇽
6Los Angeles (8.3) 🇺🇸Bombay (12.7) 🇮🇳Mumbai (16.1) 🇮🇳Dhaka (21.7) 🇧🇩
7Paris (8.2) 🇫🇷Buenos Aires (11.2) 🇦🇷New Delhi (15.6) 🇮🇳Beijing (20.8) 🇨🇳

Tokyo, which took the top spot in 1954, is the largest city in the world today with a population of 37 million (including the entire metropolitan area).

It is followed by New Delhi with 31 million, but by 2028, the UN estimates that positions will switch on the leaderboard and New Delhi will overtake Tokyo.

What Does Population Growth Say About the Past (and Future)?

The rise and fall of cities through the sands of time can give us insight into the trajectory of civilization growth. As civilizations grow, become richer, and reach their zenith, so too do their cities blossom in tandem.

For example, of the modern-day seven largest cities in the world, four of them belong to countries with the 10 largest economies in the world.

Meanwhile, sudden falls in urban population point to turbulence—political instability, wars, natural disasters, or disease.

Most recently Ukraine’s cities are seeing depopulation as residents flee conflict zones, raising the specter of a demographic crisis for the country should the war continue.

Thus, tracking the size of urban population can help policymakers forecast future roadblocks to growth, especially when prioritizing sustainable growth for a country.

Data note: The dataset uses the name of the city in that year, leading to the same city being named differently through the years.
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This article was published as a part of Visual Capitalist's Creator Program, which features data-driven visuals from some of our favorite Creators around the world.

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Countries

Mapped: Africa’s Population Density Patterns

We map out Africa’s population density, spotlighting the continent’s most populous countries and cities.

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A cropped map of Africa’s population density, spotlighting the continent’s most populous countries and cities, and the fastest-growing regions.

Mapped: Africa’s Population Density Patterns

This was originally posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on iOS or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

Africa, the world’s second largest continent, spans over 30 million km2, home to the not only world’s biggest desert but also the second-largest tropical rainforest, and of course, approximately 1.4 billion people.

In this infographic, we map out the continent’s population density patterns. It’s a prime example of how humans congregate near fresh water and around the edges of natural obstacles.

This population density data comes from the Gridded Population of the World dataset created by the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) hosted by NASA’s Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC).

Ranked: Most Populous African Countries

Africa’s second largest economy, Nigeria, is also its most populous: more than 220 million people live in this diverse West African country with 250 ethnic groups, speaking over 500 different languages.

And the nation is only growing. By 2100, it’s estimated that the Nigerian population could be more than three-fold its current size, at nearly 800 million residents, becoming the second-most populous country in the world.

RankCountryPopulation
1🇳🇬 Nigeria224M
2🇪🇹 Ethiopia127M
3🇪🇬 Egypt112M
4🇨🇩 DRC 102M
5🇹🇿 Tanzania67M
6🇿🇦 South Africa59M
7🇰🇪 Kenya55M
8🇺🇬 Uganda49M
9🇸🇩 Sudan48M
10🇩🇿 Algeria46M

Source: UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, World Population Prospects. (2022)

Across the continent, along its eastern side, Ethiopia, is the second-most populous country on the continent. Unlike Nigeria—which has nearly 20 cities with at least half a million residents—more than three-quarters of Ethiopia’s 127 million people live in rural communities.

Ranked third, Egypt (112 million) is the only North African country in the top five by population. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) comes in fourth (102 million), with Tanzania (67 million) rounding out the top five.

Ranked: Fastest Growing African Countries By Population

In the year 1900, Africa accounted for 9% of the world’s population. Currently its share stands close to 18%. By 2025, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects one in four people in the world to live in Africa, and says the continent’s demographic transition has the power to “transform the world.”

The most populous African countries (DRC, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Egypt) will contribute the lion’s share to this growth of course, but within the continent, other countries are also seeing relatively rapid population growth.

RankCountryGrowth Rate
1🇸🇸 South Sudan4.78%
2🇳🇪 Niger3.66%
3🇧🇮 Burundi3.59%
4🇬🇶 Equatorial Guinea3.36%
5🇦🇴 Angola3.34%
6🇧🇯 Benin3.31%
7🇺🇬 Uganda3.22%
8🇨🇩 DRC3.13%
9🇹🇩 Chad3.05%
10🇲🇱 Mali2.93%

Source: CIA World Factbook.

In South Sudan, the world’s newest country, the population is growing at nearly 5% every year. The broader sub-Saharan population meanwhile is growing at half that rate. Aside from a higher fertility rate, the country is also seeing an influx of refugees from conflict areas in neighboring Sudan.

While no other African nation is quite matching South Sudan’s population growth, several of Africa’s poorer economies are also posting an annual population increase of more than 3% including Niger, Burundi, and Chad.

Ranked: Most Populous African Cities

About half of Africa lives in urban areas, which is less than the global average of 57%. The 10 most populous cities on the continent together account for about 115 million people, more than 1.5x the UK’s total population.

Egypt’s capital, Cairo, built along the banks of the Nile, is home to more than 22 million residents, and ranks as Africa’s largest city. This bustling metropolis has stood as an important trade juncture between continents for more than 1,400 years—and is still somehow one of Egypt’s younger cities.

RankCityCountryPopulation
1Cairo🇪🇬 Egypt22.2M
2Lagos🇳🇬 Nigeria21.4M
3Kinshasa🇨🇩 DRC 15.0M
4Johannesburg🇿🇦 South Africa14.8M
5Luanda🇦🇴 Angola9.0M
6Khartoum🇸🇩 Sudan6.9M
7Abidjan🇨🇮 Cote d'Ivoire6.6M
8Nairobi🇰🇪 Kenya6.6M
9Accra🇬🇭 Ghana6.4M
10Dar es Salaam🇹🇿 Tanzania6.0M

Source: Urban agglomerates (2023) Citypopulation.de.

Down south, across the Sahara desert, and near the shores of the Atlantic, Nigeria’s former capital Lagos has slightly more than 21 million people. The city’s name comes from the numerous surrounding lagoons, and its original name in Yoruba, “Eko”, also means “lake.” Population estimates for the city are often disputed because of several different administrative regions, but also because of how fast Lagos is growing: it’s estimated 2,000 new residents move in every day.

Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC ranks third with about 15 million residents, and is slated to become the fourth largest city in the world, with 35 million people, by 2050.

Johannesburg, South Africa (15 million), and Luanda, Angola (9 million) round out the top five most populous African cities.

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