(Holidailies Day #12.)
Nineveh came up in a crossword yesterday, and this morning, it was mentioned in an article about the impoverished Iraqi forces dealing with IS, so I started reading about it a bit. I hadn’t really heard the name since some long-ago anthropology and ancient history classes and literally only remembered that it was probably Mesopotamian. Or Assyrian. Or Sumerian. I was never great at keeping those straight.
But I often get a wee jolt from hearing about ancient places that still exist in modern times. Sure, I’ve been to neolithic sites in Scotland and medieval castles in Poland, but there’s something extra amazing about people saying ‘Hey, let’s build a city here’ thousands of years ago and it being permanent.
Except that’s not how it is.
Nineveh was the largest city in the world for about fifty years, in the 7th century BCE. It was a mulitcultural, multilingual settlement that some believe may have actually been home to the Garden of Babylon.
People started settling there around 6000BCE because a) it is on the Tigris, one of the most important rivers in history, b) it was in a nice place for a trade route (see also a)), and c) it was an important centre for worshipping Ishtar, the inspiration for that film that was all the rage in late-night talk show monologues during the 1980s, and also the most important Akkadian goddess.*
An 8000 year history (well, and prehistory) of human settlement sounds pretty sweet, except it’s been in ruins since not long after its heyday of having the largest population in the world. Wars’ll do that. Nineveh was only rediscovered in the 19th century when archaeology became The Thing for European explorers/conquerers/rich folk. It lies across the river from Mosul, one of the most war-stricken bits of Iraq over the last couple of decades.
That burst my bubble of ‘Oh, man, I can’t believe Nineveh is still a city’ joy.
To cheer myself, and rather stupidly postpone going to work by an hour, I started looking into some actually ancient cities that are still inhabited:
Balkh, Afghanistan was founded ca. 1300BCE and was once an important centre for Zoroastrianism. I’m amazed that anything ancient and non-Islamic survived the Taliban (remember the Bamiyan Buddhas?), but there are Greek and Buddhist archaeological sites there that can presumably be visited when the country isn’t being invaded/blown up. The region was once known as Greater Khorasan, the name of which I can’t disconnect from the madey-uppy planet in the lesser Star Wars films, but I couldn’t find non-speculative-geek-in-a-basement confirmation in the limited time I spent throwing this list together.
Cholula, Mexico is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the Americas, founded around 500BCE. It’s temple pyramid dedicated (probably) to Quetzalcoatl is the largest in volume (rather than height or area, I guess?) in Mexico. About 200000 people live there.
In Egypt, we’ve got Faiyum, which was founded in 4000BC. Pleasingly, part of its ancient city was at one time known as Crocodilopolis. Present population of about 350000. The more famous Luxor (the city previously known as Thebes) has the Valley of the Kings, and the perhaps lesser-known Valley of the Queens, and about half a million residents. It was founded in the 4th century BCE.
Luoyang (inhabited since about 2070BCE) is an ancient capital of China and now has a population of more than 6 million people. Xi’an (founded 1100BCE-ish, current population of more than 8 million) is another ancient capital of China (and was capital for a long time, despite being guarded by clay or something). Even more remarkable (maybe) is that the current capital of China, Beijing, was also founded ca. 1100BCE. Three ancient capitals, three booming modern cities. Not bad, China. Not bad at all.
Varanasi, India is the holiest of the sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism and is filled with beautiful temples. People in their millions make pilgrimages there to bathe in the Ganges; this cleansing, holy act is fraught with complication because even after 3000 years, the city doesn’t have an adequate sewage system. Eek.
The Middle East, surprising no one at all, is full of ancient-yet-inhabited cities. The ones with best claim on ‘oldest’ are Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is probably about 8000 years old, Byblos in Lebanon, which is about a thousand years newer than that, and Aleppo, Syria, which was probably founded around 4300BCE.
Damascus’s town motto is practically ‘No, Really, We’re the Oldest Continually Inhabited City in the World!’, but archaelogical evidence suggests it is ‘only’ about 4000 years old. Susa, Iran, Beirut, Lebanon, Jerusalem, Kirkuk, Iraq, and Jericho in the West Bank are just a few of the cities that may be older than it. But we won’t hold it against the Syrians; they have enough to deal with these days without us mocking their flawed archaeology and national legends.
This may shock you, but a lot of cities in Greece are pretty old! Athens beats out Beijing by three millenia in the ‘Oldest World Capital’ stakes, but it might not be the oldest city in the region because Argos was founded in a similar era. And there’s a Bulgarian city called Provadia (previously the ancient city of Solnitsata) that has been inhabited for a similarly long time. (I was also reminded that there’s a Bulgarian city called Plovdiv (the area of which was settled perhaps 6000 years ago), which is very fun to say.)
But my favourite thing that came of this OMG I AM RUNNING SO LATE NOW HOW DID THIS HAPPEN entry is that the oldest continuously inhabited place in the world might be…a village in England. Namely Amesbury (population about 9000), near where Stonehenge is. Because duh, of course they’ve done a lot of archaelogy in the area and have some good, concrete proof. And even if they didn’t, a 5000-year-old calendar/temple/giant’s picnic spot that required 30 million man-hours to complete was probably not conceived as soon as the first Bronze Age people showed up in the neighbourhood having just figured out how to make a shinier dirk.
Have I mentioned I have history degrees? This post probably doesn’t speak well of the institutions which awarded them to me.
* I tried SO HARD to make an Acadian joke here, but I don’t know chiac well enough and internet lists didn’t help. Tabarnak.