The Wealthiest Cities of All Time
Throughout all of history, empires have risen and fallen, leaving behind records (if we're lucky) of their discoveries, accomplishments and knowledge. As empires rise and fall, so too do their largest, most prominent cities. We might think that today's metropolises are pretty well-off, but history has witnessed cities with immense riches so great we can only try to imagine them. Here are a few of the richest cities that humans have seen through the centuries.
Most of us have heard this name already from textbooks, documentaries or pretty much any brief summaries of history. Located in what we now call Turkey, Constantinople was the center of power for many great leaders and was even the favorite city of the Roman Emperor Constantine.
Located a little south of what we know today as Baghdad, Babylon was the capital of great Babylonia. Originally it was conquered by Assyria, but after it gained its independence, it rose quickly in power and wealth until it became a central city in the region.
When we think of Egypt today, we probably think of Cairo as the cultural center of the country. But that wasn't always the case. In fact, during many of the most important eras of Egypt, and during extreme heights of pharaonic power, Thebes served as the country's cultural and economic hub.
As the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, it stands to reason that Florence would become a fairly wealthy city. Although it wasn't a port city, it still enjoyed an immense economy, mostly thanks to industries such as banking and the trade of textiles.
Of course, as the center of the Roman Empire, Rome was bound to develop immense wealth. While there were huge gaps between the poorest and the richest people in Rome, and the poorest could barely afford to live, the richest were among the wealthiest people the world had ever seen.
Plovdiv is the second-largest city in Bulgaria, outsized only by the capital, Sofia. It is located in south-central Bulgaria, and there’s evidence of the area being inhabited for over 6,000 years. Even in ancient times, the city had advanced sewage and water systems and continues to be the cultural capital of Bulgaria.
Not all power comes from armies and warfare. Athens, the great city of Greece, is perhaps one of the most well-known examples of this. It’s rumored that, at its height, the Parthenon was full of silver coins. The Greeks’ power came not from conquering, but from knowledge.
New York City
We might think of history as something that happened centuries ago, but history is happening all around us and can be as recent as five minutes ago. New York's rocketing rise to riches took place last century, which is pretty recent as far as history goes.
About 4,000 years ago, Mari was the trade capital of Mesopotamia, earning it immense wealth and power in the region. It was located in what we now know as Syria. Although it’s no longer standing, excavations have revealed much about the ancient city.
Perhaps known best for the tragedy that befell its great library, the city of Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great and sat as the capital of Egypt for a time. With several industries within its walls and easy access to ports on the Mediterranean Sea, it rose quickly in power and wealth.
As one of the oldest cities in the world, Delhi (located on the Yamuna River in India) had thousands of years to amass its wealth. The leadership of this central and strategically located city changed hands several times throughout the course of history, but its strength and wealth remained.
The Burnt City
The ancient city of Shahr-i Sokhta ("The Burnt City") in Iran survived burning three times before it finally wasn’t rebuilt after a fire around 1800 B.C. Before that, the city was a center for trade for merchants from all over the world, from Mesopotamia to Central Asia.
Located in modern-day Turkey, this bizarre city was not only immensely rich for its time, but it also offered a strange architectural view. While most people at the time of this city's height (around 7500 B.C.) were nomadic hunter-gatherers, this city was already a bustling town full of trade and commerce.
Still standing today, the city of Hangzhou, China, began its great march through history by starting a trade route that connected with Beijing under the Sui Dynasty. Several other dynasties took control of the city before it eventually became the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty.
Arguably the greatest city of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlan peaked between 1321 and 1500 A.D. and remained immensely powerful until Hernán Cortés arrived and destroyed it. Before he did so, he described the city as wonderfully beautiful and admired the great marketplaces where so much money was made.
The city of Baghdad has managed to remain standing throughout the ages, even though it’s not quite as powerful as it once was. During the Golden Age of Islam (a Middle East rennaissance lasting around 500 years), Baghdad served as a central city for the movement.
All right, so London isn't exactly a surprise. But even though we might think about it as a modern city, it's been around for a long time, and it's been rich for longer than most of us probably realize. The 19th century was a time of massive growth for the city for both population numbers and the huge economic boom.
Located near current-day Zimbabwe, the city of Great Zimbabwe has left many mysteries unexplained. It was certainly an extremely wealthy city and is best known for its buildings that were erected for royalty in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Sitting as the capital of Syria, Damascus is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. It has been ruled over by several empires, from Roman to Ottoman, and has served as an important cultural hub for all of them. It isn’t as wealthy as it once was, but it’s still an important city.
Located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Uruk was at one point considered part of Mesopotamia (which means, literally, "the land between rivers"). In 3500 B.C., it was the largest city in the world. Being so close to the Euphrates allowed the city to harvest large quantities of grain.
Developed by the Illiniwek Native American Confederation, Cahokia had a short-lived time of glory, peaking around 1100 A.D. — but it was indeed glorious. While the culture didn’t have a writing system in place, Cahokia (located near St. Louis, Missouri) had extremely fertile soil, which meant it had a great abundance of crops.
Currently a center mostly for tourism, Amsterdam was, at one point, the wealthiest city in the world. Founded in 1270, the city began to experience an age in which it operated as the world's greatest maritime power. It grew exponentially in wealth thanks to trade and its role as a cultural hub for the world.
This city was the capital of the Inca Empire, even though it was standing before the Incas got there; they conquered it and used it as their own. Cusco was full of art and culture from people of varying backgrounds, and under the Incas, the city developed highways and aqueducts. It was a very modern city.
We've all heard the expression "from here to Timbuktu," but why is the city so famous? It all began in the 12th century when it turned from a seasonal home to a permanent city. The city quickly flourished following a change in trading routes and became rich from trading salt, gold, ivory and, unfortunately, slaves.
While perhaps not as well-known as some of the other cities on this list, Carthage played an immensely important role during the first millennium B.C. It was the capital of the Carthaginian civilization in what is now Tunisia and was considered the trading hub of the Mediterranean region.
Not every city operates above the ground. One city in particular, the ancient capital of Armenia, kept many of its structures underground; archaeologists have found 823 underground structures and are still expecting to find more. Even above the soil, it has hundreds of churches, temples and other buildings.
From the first known civilization in the Americas (the Norte Chico civilization from Supe, Peru) sprang the grand city of Caral. The city seemed to reach for the sky in every possible sense; most of the architecture consisted of huge pyramids, earth and stone platformed mounds, and huge temples.
Settlements in Jericho date back as early as 9000 B.C. The city sits between Mt. Nebo and the Dead Sea and enjoys natural irrigation from the Jordan River. It’s also near the best oasis in the region.
As a city over 3,100 years old, Xi'an, the modern-day capital of Shaanxi Province in China, is bound to have accumulated some wealth over the years. At one point, Xi'an was actually the starting location for the Great Silk Road — the most famous and wealthy trade route in the world.
While most people assume this city is only a legend, there are those who believe that it did actually exist — at least in some form. It’s said to have been located somewhere in Central or South America, usually in what we now know as Colombia.