While lacking in electricity, car, planes, internet, telephones, modern medicine, and the printing press, ancient civilizations nevertheless thrived — teeming with complex art, architecture, religions, and rituals thousands of years ago. Thanks to the tireless work and findings of archaeologists and historians, we can begin to imagine what daily life was like back then. Of all the world’s regions, the Middle East is the seat of the world’s oldest cities, with many fascinating ancient ruins to explore. These five cities are among the oldest on the planet, and the remains left behind will leave you awestruck.
This ancient city in northeastern India on the banks of the Ganges River is not only one of the oldest in the world, but it comes with a treasure trove of insights into ancient Hindu culture. Known as the spiritual capital of India, civilizations have existed here for at least 3,000 years. Legend has it that Lord Shiva founded this city 5,000 years ago, and Varanasi remains an important pilgrimage site for both Buddhists and Hindus who come to cleanse themselves in the Holy Ganges River at sunrise and sunset. It’s a moving experience to see and hear holy rituals performed by the Brahmins and watch as pilgrims purify themselves in the holy water. With the background of ancient temples set aglow by the rising and setting sun, other-worldly is the only way to describe this scene.
Evidence suggests that the historic capital of Europe had bustling civilizations between the 11th and 7th centuries BCE. Home to Plato and Aristotle, Athens is the epicenter of ancient art and philosophy. It’s also said to be the birthplace of democracy, with far-reaching political influences over the rest of Europe. Piraeus Port boosted this city as a power player in trade development. Home to several prominent ancient monuments and UNESCO sites (the Parthenon, Acropolis of Athens, and Daphni Monastery, to name a few), the historical significance of this city cannot be overstated.
There is proof that Aleppo, a city that, sadly, has been ravaged by recent civil war, could be the oldest city on the planet. Signs of civilization have been found dating back 8,000 years. The number of eras this city has seen is apparent in its diverse mix of infrastructure. Ancient monuments like the Citadel of Aleppo, the Great Mosque, and countless other medieval buildings, walls, palaces, hammams, and souks have earned the city a UNESCO World Heritage title. Its location, with the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the Euphrates River to the East, secured it a place in early history as a wealthy and prominent trading port. It’s hard to imagine how extraordinarily prosperous Aleppo was in the 16th and 17th centuries when faced with the present-day war that has wreaked havoc on the country. Despite its recent struggles, this city is easily one-of-a-kind, and hopes are high as efforts have begun to rebuild the city.
With housing dating back to 5000 BCE, Byblos is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The once-humble fishing village grew into a bustling port and became famous for its workers skilled in ship making. The city’s name comes from its most sought-after export, the papyrus tree, which was used to make paper and upon which passages of The Bible were first said to be written! The English word “Bible,” after all, is derived from this city’s name. The origin of our present-day alphabet also stems from this city, as it was partially carved into the stone coffin of King Ahiram around 1200 BCE. It became known as the Phoenician Tablet and was spread throughout the region by local traders. Today, Byblos is composed of a fascinating blend of ancient houses, Bronze Age temples, Persian fortifications, and Byzantine churches. It should come as no surprise that this city has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Archeological digs discovered the remains of civilizations from 9,000 BCE in this area, making Jericho one of the oldest settlements in the Middle East and the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world. Twenty different settlements have been unearthed by archeologists in Jericho, the earliest of which dates back 11,000 years. While Jericho has a hot desert climate, it also has several natural springs in and around the city that have attracted civilizations for thousands of years. Its location in the Jordan Valley, 258 meters below sea level, also makes it the lowest ancient city in the world. The Jericho Tell (aka Settlement Mound) is the site where archeologists found many early remains, including the Mount of Temptation (mentioned in the Bible) and the cliff-side Saint George Monastery – founded in 480 CE.
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