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Multan, Pakistan
Photograph: ShutterstockMultan, Pakistan

15 of the oldest cities in the world

Pack the snacks and jump in the time machine because we're going on a journey through the oldest cities in the world

John Bills
Written by
John Bills
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Without meaning to state the obvious, Earth is old. Very old. Ancient, you could say. Humans? Okay, not quite as old as the planet, but pretty old nonetheless. The third rock from the sun has been inhabited for a rather long time, and it hasn’t always been about bustling metropolises and urban charmers. It took a long time for humans to settle down, but we sure created some magic once we did. Today, it is difficult to imagine a world without cities.

Many of humanity’s earliest settlements have been lost to the ruthless apathy of time, but there are still plenty of cities worldwide that are as old as the hills. This is a list of the world’s oldest cities, although a cursory glance at the selection will reveal a caveat. For one, we’ve tried to incorporate all continents for the sake of geography. Antarctica is omitted (sorry, Antarctica), but completists will sleep better knowing that Base Orcadas is the oldest settlement there. Also, we’ve tried to keep this to places that are safe to visit. With all that in mind, let’s celebrate the oldest cities in the world.

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15 of the world’s oldest cities

Jericho, West Bank

Whenever the world’s oldest cities are discussed, Jericho is never far from the conversation. Located in the West Bank and not too far from the Jordan River, Jericho has been continuously inhabited for over 11,000 years, has been a significant trading post for much of its existence and is even mentioned in the Old Testament. History continues to be made here; Jericho was the first city given to Palestine after the 1994 Oslo Accords.

History highlight: If you can see where Jesus fasted after being baptized by John the Baptist, go and see it, right? The Mount of Temptation is the place to go, with a cable car whizzing visitors up throughout the day.

Xi'an, China

China has plenty of cities that date way, way back, but few carry as much weight as Xi’an. Formerly known as Chang’an, Xi’an has been inhabited for more than 3,000 years and also served as the capital for 13 dynasties (a total of 73 emperors, if youre counting). They don’t call it the birthplace of Chinese civilisation without good reason.

History highlight: Anything other than the iconic Army of Terracotta Warriors feels wrong. Archaeological discoveries don’t come much more famous.

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Luxor, Egypt

Luxor made headlines in 2021 after archaeologists discovered the complete remains of a Roman city dating back 1,800 years. Luxor is no stranger to significant historical discoveries - this being the site of the Ancient Egyptian capital Thebes, after all -  and don’t rule out more being found in the years to come. Luxor is an archaeologist’s dream, but there is plenty for casual tourists to love.

History highlight: Luxor is often described as the world’s most impressive open-air museum, so put on your walking boots and explore temples, tombs and the rest. 

Cholula, Mexico

Cholula is a dizzying mixture of the old and the new, themselves a Russian doll of sorts inside the very new and the very, very old. Cholula was founded around 500 BC in the form of two villages near water sources in the east, developing into the modern marvel of 150,000 (give or take) people that we know and love today. Cholula is famous for its many churches, along with the busy markets and striking colonial architecture. Oh, and the whole ‘world’s largest pyramid’ thing. Mexico’s two most famous volcanoes, Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl, provide a dramatic backdrop to the whole thing. 

History highlight: The world’s largest pyramid (by volume) was built in four stages that spanned nine centuries (3rd BC to 9th AD), but that shouldn’t be a huge surprise. It is massive, after all. The majestic Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios sits atop the pyramid, as picturesque a church as you will find anywhere in Mexico.

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Argos, Greece

History lovers have been flocking to Greece since people flocked anywhere, so it shouldn’t be a great surprise to find Europe’s oldest city here. Argos takes the prize, a beauty in Peloponnese that was once the most powerful of all Greek cities. You must travel back to 1200 BC for those times, and Argos today is a darling regional centre with plenty to engage all types of visitors. History is king, of course.

History highlight: The ancient Argos Theatre was built partially into rock and was also the site of a market that predates even the showcase centre. Events and performances are still held here today, more than 2,300 years after it was built. 

Multan, Pakistan

Several cities claim to be the oldest in Central and South Asia, with places as varied as Samarkand, Peshawar and Kandahar making valid claims, but the archaeological magic in and around Multan gives it the edge. History goes way, way back here, and Multan’s timeline is a who’s who of empires, from Alexander the Great to the British via the Mongol, Mughal and more. Pakistan’s City of Saints is a beautiful city with plenty of stories to tell.

History highlight: Multan is filled with tombs, but the historic Multan Fort is the highlight. The original fort was built here between 800 and 1000 BC and has been destroyed and rebuilt several times since. It is a seriously grandiose piece of historic architecture. 

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Beijing, China

Beijing tends to find itself near the top of most lists of the world’s oldest cities. One of the biggest cities on the planet (at the time of writing, the population was flirting with 22 million), China’s chaotic capital is also one of the oldest, with more than 3,000 years of history under its belt. What’s more, the sprawling city is surrounded by historical monuments, including a certain Great Wall that you may or may not have heard a thing or two about.

History highlight: Tanzhe Temple is the oldest in Beijing and is widely regarded as the catalyst for the city’s initial development. As the saying goes, first comes Tanzhe, then comes the city…

Djenné, Mali

No, your eyes aren’t fooling you. Djenné might look like something straight out of a movie set, but this ancient city is a very real place, a clay city of stories on the banks of the Bani and Niger rivers. Djenné was first inhabited around 2000 BC, but a tumultuous history has seen people come and go. The same is true of tourists, although the current dearth makes for a serene visit. It isn’t exactly the easiest to get to; Djenné is an eight-hour drive from Bamako, although most visitors approach the ancient city from Mopti in the north.

History highlight: It isn’t the oldest thing in Djenné, but how often do you get to see the largest mud-brick building in the world? The current incarnation of Djenné’s Great Mosque was constructed in 1907, but mosques have been erected on this spot since the 13th century.

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Quito, Ecuador

Widely believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in South America, Ecuador’s capital was actually the first city (along with Krakow) to be given UNESCO World Heritage status on the original list in 1978. That alone tells you how well-preserved Quito’s historic centre is, and a trip to the city is a journey to the Spanish conquests of the mid-16th century. There are older archaeological sites in South America, but no modern city touches Quito on the age scale.

History highlight: It has to be the historic centre, right? Founded on the ruins of an Inca city in the 16th century, Quito’s nerve centre of churches and monasteries is what the crowds flock to see.

Varanasi, India

The holiest city in the world’s oldest religion must be pretty old, right? Believers and cynics have been exploring Varanasi for centuries, and India’s spiritual capital has been a centre of learning and culture for over 3,000 years. Varanasi might be even older (it is said that the city was founded by Shiva), but today, it is a stunning city of temples and tasks.

History highlight: Varanasi is packed with temples, but the imposing Shri Tilbhandeshwar Mahadev Mandir is the oldest. Considering the city's age, it doesn’t seem so old (it was constructed in the 18th century), but it remains a stunning structure.

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