Cities that have stood the test of time reveal more than just the scars of history; they show the influence — positive and negative — of human civilization. The world's oldest cities boast beautiful architecture and amazing stories, yet remarkably few ancient cities stand today. There is some disagreement about the historical record, so we've added a few cities to the list below because of their cultural significance.
Here are 14 of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world:
Damascus is widely believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, with evidence of habitation dating back at least 11,000 years. Its location and persistence have made the city a nexus for civilizations come and gone. Today its metropolitan area is home to about 2.5 million people, and in 2008 it was named the Arab Capital of Culture.
Jericho, West Bank
A gondola lift travels over Jericho, West Bank. (Photo: Tamarah/Wikimedia Commons)
Fortifications unearthed in Jericho dating back to 6800 B.C. confirm it's the earliest known walled city, and evidence of other habitation in the area dates back about 11,000 years, which means it's a serious contender for the world's oldest city. Incredibly, Jericho has remained inhabited — and dry — throughout history, despite its location well below sea level. This fact also makes the city the lowest permanently inhabited site on Earth. Today 20,000 people call Jericho home.
Aleppo, shown here in 2010, may be the oldest continuous human settlement. (Photo: seyr-ü zafer/Wikimedia Commons)
Evidence of habitation at Aleppo dates back about 8,000 years, but excavations at a site 15 miles north of the city show the area was inhabited about 13,000 years ago. That suggests Aleppo and its surrounding region comprise the oldest continuous human settlement on Earth. The city is first mentioned in cuneiform tablets from roughly 5,000 years ago, which cite its commercial and military proficiency. Due to its location between the Mediterranean Sea and Mesopotamia — and at the end of the Silk Road, which passed through central Asia and Mesopotamia — Aleppo was at the center of the ancient world. It has remained Syria's most populous city in modern times, although that may have changed amid the ongoing Syrian Civil War.
Aleppo has been devastated by warfare since 2012, as fighting between government and rebel forces killed thousands and forced thousands more to flee. The Syrian army announced in late 2016 that it had retaken the city, but the years-long battle — one of the longest sieges in modern history — caused catastrophic destruction to the Old City of Aleppo, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The ancient home of philosophy and the birthplace of Western civilization, Athens boasts a history of habitation that goes back long before the days of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The city has been continuously inhabited for at least 7,000 years. The oldest known human presence in Athens has been dated to between the 11th and 7th millennium B.C. Today it remains a sprawling metropolis, and its Acropolis still stands, overlooking the landscape.
Argos may rival Athens as one of the oldest cities in Europe. (Photo: Karin Helene Pagter Duparc/Wikimedia Commons)
An urban settlement for about the last 7,000 years, Argos is in competition with Athens to be the oldest city in Europe. The city has long been powerful — its commanding position in the fertile plain of Argolis has earned it a powerful position, though it has a history of neutrality. For instance, the city refused to fight or send supplies during the Greco-Persian Wars. Perhaps that's part of the reason the city has withstood the test of time.
Plovdiv in Bulgaria has a rich history that dates back 6,000 years. (Photo: Klearchos Kapoutsis/Flickr)
Plovdiv was originally a Thracian settlement known as Philippopolis to the Greeks, and was a major city for the Romans. It was also ruled by the Ottomans for a time. The beautiful city has a rich history dating back millennia, according to the Telegraph. Evidence of habitation dates back 6,000 years. Today it remains the second largest city in Bulgaria, and an important economic, cultural and educational center.
The modern Egyptian city of Faiyum occupies an area on the Nile River that has hosted human settlements for thousands of years, including the ancient city of Shedet. The people of Shedet revered a live crocodile named Petsuchos as an embodiment of the deity Sobek, inspiring Greeks to call the city "Crocodilopolis." The area supported agrarian communities more than 6,000 years ago, although its population was apparently reduced for centuries by drought, eventually rebounding about 4,000 years ago. Today, Faiyum is home to roughly 350,000 people.
A house stands near an archaeological site in Byblos. (Photo: Darya Jukova/Flickr)
Though there's evidence of settlement as far back as 7,000 years ago, Byblos has been a continuous city for about 5,000 years. According to the ancient writer Philo of Byblos, the city had a reputation in antiquity of being the oldest city in the world. Interestingly, the English word for "Bible" is derived from "Byblos," because it was through Byblos that papyrus was imported to Greece.
Sidon's location on the coast of Lebanon has been key to the city's history. (Photo: eutrophication&hypoxia/Flickr)
Inhabited for at least the last 6,000 years, Sidon was one of the most important Phoenician cities because of its location as a crucial port on the Mediterranean. This locale also led to the city being conquered by a revolving door of the world's great empires, including the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Ottomans. Today about 200,000 people call Sidon home.
Rayy has a wealth of historical monuments, including the Cheshmeh-Ali hill. (Photo: Ensie & Matthias/Flickr)
Located within the Greater Tehran metropolitan area, Rayy (or Rey), Iran, has evidence of habitation dating back 8,000 years, though it has likely been continuously occupied for about 5,000 or 6,000 years. The city retains a wealth of historical monuments, such as the 5,000-year-old Cheshmeh Ali hill and the 3,000-year-old Gebri castle. It was a deeply sacred city to the Zoroastrians.
Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan
The ancient Citadel of Erbil boasts evidence of human settlement dating back 6,000 years. (Photo: Jan Sefti/Flickr)
The Erbil Citadel, also known as Hawler Castle, is an artificial mound and the historical city center of Erbil, located in what's now the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The mound was slowly formed as a result of human occupation starting about 6,000 years ago, eventually rising 100 feet (30 meters) tall as mud-brick structures and other debris crumbled and compacted into the ground below. It's now enshrined as a UNESCO World Heritage site, surrounded by a city of more than 850,000 people.
Jerusalem is one of several cities that arose between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago in the thriving Levant region, but it holds a unique place in history as the nexus of three major religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The city is home to a wealth of spiritual and religious sites — and a long history of strife. It has suffered at least 118 separate conflicts in the past four millennia, historian Eric H. Cline writes in "Jerusalem Besieged," noting it has been "destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked an additional 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times."
Jerusalem's Old City is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but it's on the agency's list of sites in danger, as its historical monuments may face risks from tourism, poor maintenance, urban development and political turmoil. Both Israel and the Palestinian National Authority claim Jerusalem as their capital, a dispute that has been called "one of the most intractable issues in the Israel-Palestine conflict."
A number of ancient cities were first being built around 4,000 years ago in the Mideast and Europe, but Luoyang stands out from that time period as the oldest continuously inhabited city in Asia. Located on China's central plain, Luoyang is the oldest city in the country and one of the Seven Great Ancient Capitals of China. It has been in habitation since Neolithic times, with a continuous habitation for at least 4,000 years. Located at the intersection of the Luo and Yi rivers, the city was considered to be the geographical center of ancient China.
Varanasi is the oldest city in India and is the holiest city in the world for Hindus. (Photo: Ken Wieland/Wikimedia Commons)
According to Hindu legend, Varanasi is more than 5,000 years old and is considered the oldest city in the world, though evidence of habitation only goes back about 3,000 years, according to the BBC. This more modest date indicates Varanasi is among many ancient cities to appear around the first millennium B.C., and it is still the oldest city in India and is considered the holiest city in the world to Hindus. Its location on the banks of the sacred Ganges River also contributes to its prestige as an important site of pilgrimage.
Editor's note: This story was originally published in 2014, and has been updated with more recent information.