An ancient city that manages to stay inhabited—and important—over thousands of years is a surprisingly rare occurrence. Empires topple, harbors silt up, rivers change course, land subsides and before you know it a place that once seemed like the center of the world is nearly forgotten. Among the capitals of present-day nations, only 15 or so cities can convincingly claim more than three millennia of nearly continuous inhabitation. Here are six of the most fascinating examples.
The earliest evidence of human habitation on Athens’ famed Acropolis dates to between 7000 and 5000 B.C. By the mid-second-century B.C. Athens was an important outpost of the Mycenaean civilization, and remained a leading trading center for centuries due to its central position in the Greek world. In the fifth century B.C., when the city already had thousands of years of history under its belt, the so-called Athenian Golden Age began, endowing the world with lasting contributions to democracy (Pericles), drama (Sophocles and Euripides), history (Herodotus and Thucydides), medicine (Hippocrates) and philosophy (Socrates, Plato and Aristotle).
Once styled the “Paris of the Middle East,” Lebanon’s cosmopolitan capital is actually about 3,000 years older than Paris itself (which was founded around 250 B.C.). The first historic reference to the city is found in letters sent by a local king to Egypt’s pharaoh around 1400 B.C. Since then, the harbor city has been ruled in turn by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans and French troops before becoming capital of an independent Lebanon in 1943.
Texts from the second century B.C. mention cities in the region called “Rushalimum” and “Urusalim,” but the earliest detailed descriptions of the settlement and its people are found in the Hebrew Bible. Jerusalem became the Israelites’ capital after King David conquered it around 1000 B.C. (The first Temple was built there by David’s son Solomon.) Over the centuries the city was frequently conquered and occasionally razed (as it was by the Romans in A.D. 70), but always rebuilt. Since 1948 Jerusalem’s Old City has played a key role in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with members of both sides claiming that the historical record supports their right to rule it.
Located at an ancient trading crossroads on the central Anatolian plateau, Ankara was the site of a Hittite settlement some 4,000 years ago. A millennia later (as Ancyra) it became an important city in the Phrygian empire (which gave the world the legends of both King Midas and the Gordian Knot) when it was conquered by Alexander the Great in 334 B.C. After spells under the sway of various Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Persian and Turkish empires, the city was conquered in 1356, by the Ottoman Turks. Ankara was named the capital of modern Turkey in 1923 by the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), who had used Ankara as a center for his resistance against the Ottoman sultan.
Currently the picturesque capital of Portugal, Lisbon first grew to prominence around 1200 B.C. as a base for Phoenician trading ships. When the Romans conquered present-day Spain and Portugal in the second century B.C., they built up the city, which they called Olisipo, with temples, baths and theaters. Lisbon was conquered by Muslim invaders in A.D. 711 but recaptured by Christian forces in the 12th century. True to its seafaring roots, Lisbon was a central port during the Age of Exploration, and was built up and adorned with wealth extracted from Portugal’s far-flung empire in Brazil, Africa, India and Southeast Asia.
Today the Syrian capital is often touted as the world’s oldest inhabited city (with radio carbon dating suggesting some occupation as early as 8000 to 10000 B.C), but several other cities, including Jericho in the West Bank and Byblos in Lebanon, could challenge for that title. Founded with the name Palmyra in the third millennium B.C., Damascus’ location at the crossroads of Asia and Africa made it an important, and highly coveted, trading outpost. After centuries under Aramaean, Assyrian, Israelite and Babylonian rule, Damascus was conquered by Rome in the first century B.C. and later became an important military outpost in the Byzantine Empire. After falling to Muslim invaders in the 7th century, Damascus became the capital of the Umayyad caliphate, the first true Islamic state, and its development and urban planning success influenced the growth of later Arab cities. By the Middle Ages, the city was a thriving metropolis, attracting artists and artisans in droves. In 1867, Mark Twain wrote of his visit there, “To Damascus, years are only moments, decades are only flitting trifles of time.”