7 of Asia's Oldest Cities

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Asia's Oldest Cities - Aleppo, Syria

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The citadel of Aleppo, Syria, one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities on Earth. Izzet Keribar, Lonely Planet Images

Syria's largest city, Aleppo, is also one of the oldest continuously-occupied cities in the world.  It has certainly been inhabited since at least 4,300 BCE, according to archaeologists.  Evidence suggests that it was originally settled circa 6,000 BCE -  that's 8,000 years ago - but we do not yet know whether it has been occupied ever since.

Aleppo's role as a major trading site and a military power is mentioned in ancient cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia and from Ebla.  It occupies an important strategic position, inland from the "elbow" formed by the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea.  As such, Aleppo was a crossroads between Egypt and the Levant to the south, Anatolia and Europe to the west, and Persia, Iraq, and the rest of Asia to the east.  It was a western terminus of the Silk Road, and lay on even more ancient Middle Eastern trade routes as well.

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Asia's Oldest Cities - Jericho, Palestine

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Illustration of the Biblical story in which Jericho's walls are brought down by trumpets. Culture Club/Getty Images

Jericho, on the West Bank of the Jordan River in Palestine, is blessed with plentiful springs of water.  In an arid land, this makes it a very attractive place for humans to settle - so it's no surprise that people have been living in Jericho for a very long time.

The city was used as a camping place by Neolithic hunter-gatherers, and was settled by agriculturalists as early as 10,000 to 9,000 BCE.  Archaeological evidence shows that it was a walled city by 6,800 BCE.  Speaking of walls...  the Bible tells a story of Joshua leading an Israelite army against Jericho some time around 700 BCE.  In the story of the Battle of Jericho, the Israelites blow trumpets and the walls of Jericho come tumbling down.  However, archaeological evidence provides no support at all for this particular story.  It seems that the walls actually fell much earlier, around 1,600 - 1,500 BCE, and the Israelites had nothing to do with it.

In any case, this was not the only catastrophe for Jericho.  The city lay more or less abandoned between 586 and 538 BCE, while the Jewish people were in their Babylonian Captivity.  Achaemenid Persian king Cyrus the Great sponsored the rebuilding of Jericho near its original site after 538, when the Jews returned to Israel

All of this makes Jericho's claim to be the oldest continuously-inhabited city on Earth a bit sketchy.  Clearly, the city is incredibly ancient - but there do seem to have been some gaps in its timeline!

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Asia's Oldest Cities - Byblos, Lebanon

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The Phoenicians were famed seafarers, so naturally their ancient city of Byblos features a beautiful harbor. Michele Falzone / AWL Images

The Phoenicians or Canaanites were one of the world's great sea-faring peoples, up there with the Vikings or even the Polynesians.  It's not surprising, then, that their contribution to the oldest cities in Asia is a harbor city - the beautiful port of Byblos, Lebanon.

Also known as Jubayl, Byblos was first settled as early as 8,800 BCE.  Legend holds that the ancient Phoenician king Cronus founded the city; according to ancient historians, he was later deified as a Greek god.  Whatever the truth of its founding, Byblos has been inhabited continuously since at least 5,000 BCE.

Interestingly, the Greek world received shipments of Egyptian papyrus for writing through the port of Byblos, so the Greek word for books (biblia) is derived from the city's name.  The English word "Bible" comes from the Greek, so in a sense, the Bible is named for ancient Byblos.

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Asia's Oldest Cities - Balkh, Afghanistan

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Guard tower on the ancient walls of Balkh, once the capital of the Bactrian Empire. Tony Wheeler / Getty Images

Balkh, in northern Afghanistan, is such an ancient place that the invading Arabs in the seventh century called it Umm al-Belaad, or "Mother of Cities."  It was likely founded around 1,500 BCE, and served as the capital of the Bactrian Empire.  In fact, the word "Bactrian" comes from the Greek name for Balkh, which they called "Bactra." 

Tradition tells us that ancient Balkh was the site of Zoroaster's temple, where he preached his new religion, Zoroastrianism.  Through its long history, the city became a major center of Buddhism and Islam as well. 

In 1220 CE, Genghis Khan and the Mongols wiped Balkh off of the map, slaughtering its inhabitants and destroying every defensible building within its walls.  Other people returned to the site, and rebuilt the city, so that by the time Marco Polo passed through some 40 years later, he called the it a "noble city and great."  In 1370, Timur (Tamerlane) had himself crowned emperor in Balkh.

If you look at a Google maps satellite image of Balkh, you can clearly see the circular walls of the destroyed ancient city, including its guard-towers, and then the current city of Balkh directly to the south.

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Asia's Oldest Cities - Varanasi, India

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The sacred city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, Lord Shiva's blessed city on the Ganges River. Sean Caffrey via Getty Images

Mark Twain remarked in 1897 that "Benares (Varanasi) is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together."

Varanasi, which is also known as Benares, is a major city in Uttar Pradesh, India, situated on the banks of the holy Ganges River.  According to the Rigveda, Varanasi was called "Kashi" in ancient times.  The earliest known settlements in the area date back perhaps as long as the 12th century BCE, according to the archaeological evidence.  Varanasi seems to have been continuously occupied since at least 1,800 BCE.

Today, Varanasi is considered the holy city of India.  It is not far from the place where Siddhartha Gautama taught his first disciples, at the birthplace of Buddhism in Sarnath.  Many of the Hindu faithful believe that Varanasi is the Lord Shiva's favorite city.  As a result, it is also considered a holy place for followers of Jainism. 

In 1194, Varanasi was conquered by the Muslim ruler Qutb-ud-din Aibak, who persecuted Hindus and ordered the demolition of approximately 1,000 temples around the city.  This maltreatment continued under the Delhi Sultanates, which saw all the remaining ancient temples destroyed in 1496.  However, the Mughal ruler Akbar the Great, although also a Muslim, funded the reconstruction of temples for Shiva and Vishnu, and revived the ancient city's fortunes.  Road construction at this time also produced what became known as the Grand Trunk Road, linking Kolkata to Peshawar via Varanasi.

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Asia's Oldest Cities - Xi'an, China

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The old city of Xi'an, formerly the capital Chang'an, is surrounded by stout walls topped with ornate guard-towers. Keren Su / ChinaSpan

Xi'an, China is one of the "Four Great Ancient Capitals of China," along with Luoyang, Nanjing, and Beijing.  Xi'an is in north central China, and was once the eastern end of the Silk Road. 

The city was first established as "Fenghao" by the Zhou Dynasty, c. 1100 BCE. It served as the capital for a number of other great dynasties, including the Qin, Han, Sui, and Tang.  In Han times (206 BCE - 220 CE), its name was changed to Chang'an, which means "Perpetual Peace."  The current name, Xi'an, came about during the early Ming period (1368 - 1644).

Xi'an is strongly associated with the first Qin emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi (r. 246-210 BCE), who united northern China as the First Emperor.  His burial mound, which contains thousands of life-like terracotta warriors, is a major tourist attraction today in this ancient city.

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Asia's Oldest Cities - Samarkand, Uzbekistan

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Medieval mausoleums echo the distant mountains' shapes, Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Frans Sellies via Getty Images

The name Samarkand comes from the Sogdian language, and means "Stone Fortress" or "City of Stone."  Today, Samarkand is the third-largest city in Uzbekistan - and likely the oldest. 

History does not record exactly when Samarkand was founded.  Archaeologists have found evidence that humans were present in the area as long ago as 40,000 years before the present.  Uzbek archaeologists argue for a founding date of about 700 BCE, based on canals from that period that would have supplied enough water to support a major city.  In any case, around the sixth century BCE, Samarkand was the capital city of the Sogdian civilization.

Down through the centuries, Samarkand was ruled by the Persians, the Greeks, the Kushan Empire, the Gokturks, and others.  It was always a rich and tempting target, because of its position almost exactly at the center of the Silk Road.  In 1220, Genghis Khan conquered the city, but unlike Balkh, Samarkand opened its gates to the Mongols and thus the citizens were spared.  Timur (r. 1370 - 1405) built his Timurid Empire from Samarkand, his capital; the city and its artists flourished under his rule. 

Uzbek warriors seized Samarkand around 1500.  The Russians then conquered the city in 1868; it would remain under Russian and Soviet sway until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed.