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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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Population Projections: The World’s 6 Largest Countries in 2075

See how the world’s 6 largest countries will grow (or shrink) by 2075, based on the latest UN population projections.

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A cropped chart with the population projections for the world's six most populous countries until 2075.

Population Projections for the World’s 6 Largest Countries

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

The end of the 21st century will see the first plateauing (and eventually shrinking) of world population since the Industrial Revolution. As birth rates fall across the globe, what does this mean for the world’s most populous countries?

To find out, we visualized forecasts for the world’s six largest countries using data from the latest revised version of the UN World Population Prospects 2022.

Projections are based on a “medium fertility scenario”, which assumes countries will converge at a birth rate of 1.85 children per woman, by 2045-2050.

China’s Projected Population Decline

China’s population boom has officially come to an end, with the country reporting two consecutive years of decreases (down 850,000 in 2022, and 2.1 million in 2023).

Year🇨🇳 China🇺🇸 U.S.🇮🇩 Indonesia
1970812M199M114M
1980975M222M146M
19901,144M246M181M
20001,260M281M213M
20101,344M310M242M
20201,424M335M271M
2030E1,417M351M291M
2040E1,380M366M308M
2050E1,317M375M317M
2060E1,211M381M319M
2070E1,091M387M318M
2075E1,035M389M316M

Note: Figures are rounded.

The country’s population in 2050 is forecasted to be 1.32 billion, which is roughly the same as it was in 2007. The UN believes this demographic downtrend will accelerate as we enter the second half of the century.

What does this mean for the Chinese economy? Many worry that a smaller workforce, coupled with an aging population, will increase healthcare expenditures and hamper economic growth.

India’s Population Boom Continues

Meanwhile, the UN believes that India’s population will peak somewhere in the mid 2060s, just shy of the 1.7 billion mark.

India’s population will not age as quickly as its neighbor. Those over the age of 65 will represent less than one-fifth of the population until 2060, and their share of India’s total number of people and will not approach 30% until 2100.

Year🇮🇳 India🇵🇰 Pakistan🇳🇬 Nigeria
1970551M58M55M
1980689M79M72M
1990861M114M94M
20001,050M152M121M
20101,232M192M159M
20201,390M225M206M
2030E1,509M272M260M
2040E1,608M320M318M
2050E1,668M366M375M
2060E1,695M406M427M
2070E1,691M439M472M
2075E1,678M452M491M

Note: Figures are rounded.

Finally, whether these predictions come true or not will depend on how quickly birth rates fall as the country develops. For example, India’s fertility rate fell from 6.2 in 1950, to 2.0 in 2021 (births per woman).

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