Animated Map: Where Are the Largest Cities Throughout History?
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 Period||Largest City||Population (Millions)||Country|
|3000-2501 BCE||Uruk||0.08||Iraq 🇮🇶|
|2500-2251 BCE||Lagash||0.06||Iraq 🇮🇶|
|2250-2001 BCE||Girsu||0.08||Iraq 🇮🇶|
|2000-1751 BCE||Isin||0.04||Iraq 🇮🇶|
|1750-1251 BCE||Babylon||0.06||Iraq 🇮🇶|
|1250-1001 BCE||Pi-Ramesses||0.16||Egypt 🇪🇬|
|1000-601 BCE||Thebes||0.12||Egypt 🇪🇬|
|600-301 BCE||Babylon||0.20||Iraq 🇮🇶|
|300-201 BCE||Carthage||0.40||Tunisia 🇹🇳|
|200 BCE-270 CE||Alexandria||0.60||Egypt 🇪🇬|
|271-350 CE||Rome||0.39||Italy 🇮🇹|
|351-500 CE||Constantinople||0.49||Turkey 🇹🇷|
|501-640 CE||Ctesiphon||0.50||Iraq 🇮🇶|
|641-644 CE||Constantinople||0.40||Turkey 🇹🇷|
|645-795 CE||Chang'an||0.59||China 🇨🇳|
|796-963 CE||Baghdad||1.10||Iraq 🇮🇶|
|964-975 CE||Constantinople||0.32||Turkey 🇹🇷|
|976-984 CE||Córdoba||0.33||Spain 🇪🇸|
|985-1144 CE||Bian||0.44||China 🇨🇳|
|1145-1199 CE||Constantinople||0.24||Turkey 🇹🇷|
|1200-1275 CE||Lin'an||0.36||China 🇨🇳|
|1276-1278 CE||Cairo||0.37||Egypt 🇪🇬|
|1279-1315 CE||Hangzhou||0.43||China 🇨🇳|
|1316-1348 CE||Cairo||0.50||Egypt 🇪🇬|
|1349-1353 CE||Hangzhou||0.43||China 🇨🇳|
|1344-1380 CE||Cairo||0.35||Egypt 🇪🇬|
|1381-1394 CE||Vijayanagara||0.36||India 🇮🇳|
|1395-1426 CE||Yingtian||0.50||China 🇨🇳|
|1427-1441 CE||Vijayanagara||0.44||India 🇮🇳|
|1442-1612 CE||Beijing||0.70||China 🇨🇳|
|1613-1678 CE||Constatinople||0.74||Turkey 🇹🇷|
|1679-1720 CE||Dhaka||0.78||Bangladesh 🇧🇩|
|1721-1826 CE||Beijing||1.30||China 🇨🇳|
|1827-1918 CE||London||7.40||UK 🇬🇧|
|1919-1954 CE||New York||13.20||U.S. 🇺🇸|
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.
|Rank||3000 BCE||2250 BCE||1250 BCE||200 CE|
|1||Uruk (0.04) 🇮🇶||Girsu (0.08) 🇮🇶||Pi-Ramesses (0.16) 🇪🇬||Alexandria (0.60) 🇪🇬|
|2||Memphis (0.02) 🇪🇬||Mari (0.05) 🇸🇾||Yin (0.12) 🇨🇳||Pataliputra (0.35) 🇮🇳|
|3||Umma (0.02) 🇮🇶||Umma (0.04) 🇮🇶||Thebes (0.08) 🇪🇬||Carthage (0.20) 🇹🇳|
|4||Nagar (0.02) 🇸🇾||Mohenjo-daro (0.04) 🇵🇰||Sapinuwa (0.07) 🇹🇷||Luoyang (0.20) 🇨🇳|
|5||Lagash (0.02) 🇮🇶||Akkad (0.03) 🇮🇶||Babylon (0.07) 🇮🇶||Seleucia (0.20) 🇮🇶|
|6||Larak (0.01) 🇮🇶||Uruk (0.03) 🇮🇶||Hattusa (0.06) 🇹🇷||Pergamon (0.20) 🇹🇷|
|7||Eridu (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.
|Rank||271 CE||351 CE||501 CE||645 CE|
|1||Rome (0.39) 🇮🇹||Constantinople (0.29) 🇹🇷||Ctesiphon (0.41) 🇮🇶||Chang'an (0.38) 🇨🇳|
|2||Alexandria (0.37) 🇪🇬||Ctesiphon (0.25) 🇮🇶||Constantinople (0.40) 🇹🇷||Constantinople (0.32) 🇹🇷|
|3||Luoyang (0.20) 🇨🇳||Rome (0.24) 🇮🇹||Luoyang (0.20) 🇨🇳||Kanyakubja (0.24) 🇮🇳|
|4||Vaishali (0.17) 🇮🇳||Pataliputra (0.22) 🇮🇳||Teotihuacan (0.15) 🇲🇽||Luoyang (0.21) 🇨🇳|
|5||Carthage (0.16) 🇹🇳||Luoyang (0.20) 🇨🇳||Jiankang (0.15) 🇨🇳||El Pilar (0.17) 🇧🇿|
|6||Teotihuacan (0.14) 🇲🇽||Vaishali (0.16) 🇮🇳||Caracol (0.14) 🇧🇿||Ctesiphon (0.41) 🇮🇶|
|7||Antioch (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.
|Rank||850 CE||985 CE||1316 CE||1381 CE|
|1||Baghdad (1.00) 🇮🇶||Bian (0.35) 🇨🇳||Cairo (0.44) 🇪🇬||Vijayanagara (0.36) 🇮🇳|
|2||Chang'an (0.60) 🇨🇳||Cordoba (0.33) 🇲🇽||Hangzhou (0.43) 🇨🇳||Cairo (0.35) 🇪🇬|
|3||Constantinople (0.27) 🇹🇷||Constantinople (0.32) 🇹🇷||Dadu (0.40) 🇨🇳||Paris (0.29) 🇫🇷|
|4||Kanyakubja (0.21) 🇮🇳||Angkor (0.18) 🇰🇭||Paris (0.25) 🇫🇷||Yingtian (0.27) 🇨🇳|
|5||Luoyang (0.20) 🇨🇳||Baghdad (0.17) 🇮🇶||Kamakura (0.20) 🇯🇵||Hangzhou (0.23) 🇨🇳|
|6||Bian (0.17) 🇨🇳||Kyoto (0.15) 🇯🇵||Guangzhou (0.15) 🇨🇳||Beiping (0.15) 🇨🇳|
|7||Cordoba (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.
|1||Beijing (0.51) 🇨🇳||London (2.2) 🇬🇧||New York (7.6) 🇺🇸||Tokyo (13.7) 🇯🇵|
|2||Vijayanagara (0.44) 🇮🇳||Beijing (1.6) 🇨🇳||London (7.4) 🇬🇧||New York (13.2) 🇺🇸|
|3||Cairo (0.37) 🇪🇬||Paris (1.3) 🇫🇷||Paris (4.7) 🇫🇷||Osaka (8.6) 🇯🇵|
|4||Hangzhou (0.24) 🇨🇳||Guangzhou (0.87) 🇨🇳||Tokyo (4.3) 🇯🇵||London (8.2) 🇬🇧|
|5||Tabriz (0.21) 🇮🇷||Constantinople (0.71) 🇹🇷||Berlin (3.7) 🇩🇪||Paris (6.7) 🇫🇷|
|6||Nanjing (0.18) 🇨🇳||Edo (0.78) 🇯🇵||Chicago (2.9) 🇺🇸||Buenos Aires (5.9) 🇦🇷|
|7||Granada (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.
|1||Tokyo (23.2) 🇯🇵||Tokyo (32.7) 🇯🇵||Tokyo (34.3) 🇯🇵||Tokyo (37.3) 🇯🇵|
|2||New York (16.1) 🇺🇸||Osaka (18.5) 🇯🇵||Osaka (18.6) 🇯🇵||New Delhi (31.1) 🇮🇳|
|3||Osaka (15.2) 🇯🇵||New York (16.2) 🇺🇸||Mexico City (18.4) 🇲🇽||Shanghai (27.7) 🇨🇳|
|4||Mexico City (8.8) 🇲🇽||Mexico City (15.9) 🇲🇽||New York (17.8) 🇺🇸||Sao Paulo (22.2) 🇧🇷|
|5||Buenos Aires (8.4) 🇦🇷||Sao Paulo (15.0) 🇧🇷||Sao Paulo (17.0) 🇧🇷||Mexico City (21.9) 🇲🇽|
|6||Los Angeles (8.3) 🇺🇸||Bombay (12.7) 🇮🇳||Mumbai (16.1) 🇮🇳||Dhaka (21.7) 🇧🇩|
|7||Paris (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.
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.
How the Russian Invasion of Ukraine Impacts Science and Academia
What is the impact of war on science and academia? We examine how nations and the scientific community have responded to the conflict
One Year of War
On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded the eastern territories of Ukraine, claiming ownership of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. This began one of the largest military conflicts in modern European history.
After a year of casualties, structural devastation, and innumerable headlines, the conflict drags on. Many report the impacts to the economy, social demographics, and international relationships, but how do science and academia fair in the throes of war?
Within the actions and responses of the conflict, we take a look at how six key scenarios globally shape science.
War’s Material Impacts to Science
1. Russia Invades Ukraine
The assault to research infrastructure in Ukraine is devastating.
Approximately 27% of buildings are damaged or destroyed. The country’s leading scientific research centers, like the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology, or the world’s largest decameter-wavelength radio telescope, are in ruins.
While the majority of research centers remain standing, many are not operating. Amidst rolling blackouts and disruptions, a dramatic decrease in research funds (as large as 50%) has cut back scientific activity in the country.
Rebuilding efforts are underway, but the extent to which it will return to its former capacity remains to be seen.
2. Ukraine Fights Back
As research funds have been redirected to the military, and scientists, too, have pivoted in a similar way. Martial law and general mobilization have enlisted male researchers, especially those with military experience and those within the 18-60 age range.
Women were exempt until July 2022. Those with degrees in chemistry, biology, and telecommunications were required to enter the military registry.
For both men and women researchers alike, these requirements meant staying in the country for the remainder of the year. Extensions for mobilization have subsided as of February 19th, 2023.
Social Impacts of War to Science
3. Western Leaders Exclude Russia
One year ago, scientists and institutions around the world immediately launched into protest against Russia’s escalation:
- The European Commission agreed to cease payments to Russian participants and to not renew contract agreements for Horizon Europe
- The $300-million, MIT-led Skoltech program was dissolved one day after the war began, with no foreseeable restart in the future
- Various governments and research councils in the European Union froze collaborations and discouraged working with Russian institutions
- The European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, barred all Russian observers and will dismiss almost 8% of its workers—about 1,000 Russian scientists—hen contracts expire later this year
These condemnations, and more, remain in effect today and are emboldened by what has come to be known as a “scientific boycott”.
Journal publishers around the world imposed some of their own sanctions on Russian institutions and scientists in light of this boycott. These range from prohibiting Russian manuscript submissions (Elsevier’s Journal of Molecular Structure) to scrubbing journal indices of Russian papers and authors.
4. Russia Dissociates from the West
As a response to the sanctions imposed on the Russian economy, Russia ceases to sell natural gas to most of Europe. Institutions are reassessing their usage and dependence on Russian energy, but alternatives are not yet affordable.
The German Electron Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg, home to the world’s most powerful X-ray laser, is struggling with rising electricity costs. CERN, for instance, has already cut its data collection for the year by two weeks in order to save money.
This makes it difficult for pre-war projects to continue collaborating with Russia. As a result, there are questions about how withdrawals may be affecting Russian science, too.
For now, that remains relatively unknown, though some have guesses. Young scientists, many barred from attending international conferences and meetings, may seek employment or opportunity elsewhere to develop their careers. Some speculate a “brain drain” effect may occur, similar to the academic fallout of the Soviet Union’s collapse in the 1990s.
How Russia will participate in pre-war international research collaborations is still unknown. For now, a number of pre-war projects ranging from the Arctic to the fire-prone wilds of northern Russia are on hold. All of these scenarios paint a concerning picture about the progress of research.
There are indications that Russian scientific collaboration may already be shifting eastward.
Philanthropic Impacts of War to Science
5. New Homes for Ukrainian Science
Finding support for Ukrainians emigrating from the conflict is difficult, but not impossible. Though many Ukrainians scientists remain in the country making the best of a difficult situation, approximately 6,000 are now living abroad.
Most Ukrainian emigrants are now living in Poland and Germany. Some scientists continue to work remotely, supporting projects at their home institutions or with new research programs they’ve found since relocating.
These success stories are thanks to the work of a number of ad-hoc mobilizations that help keep researchers working in the European cooperation. Groups like MSC4Ukraine help postdoc students and researchers find new opportunities across Europe. Social media trends like #Science4Ukraine help connect researchers to other supportive movements.
6. The International Rebuilding of Ukrainian Science
Various research institutions have also lent support to the survival and rebuilding of science in Ukraine:
- The largest science prize, the Breakthrough Prize, recently donated $3 million to fund research programs and reconstruction efforts
- Federal research councils, like those in Netherlands and Switzerland, also have programs to formally support displaced scientists and researchers
- The European Union is investigating new funding schemes that could repurpose almost €320 billion of frozen Russian Federal Reserves
No Consensus on Boycott
While the Western front seems united in it’s condemnation of the war, the international science community isn’t in total agreement with a science boycott.
Some scientists argue that excluding Russian scientists—especially those who have vocalized their disdain for the war—serves to punish unrelated individuals. This fractures the benefits of international scientific exchange.
Others, especially those in countries who are economically dependent on Russia, have remained silent or even supported the invasion. In these cases, Russia’s science initiatives may lean more heavily in their direction.
It’s easy to appreciate how war complicates many different angles of the global research ecosystem. After one year, how things will turn out remains a mystery. But one thing is for certain: science adapts and progresses even in the bleakest times. For now, supporting all efforts to reduce conflict remains in science’s best interests.
Full sources here
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