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.
Now known as Istanbul, the city has survived through the ages, having been founded in the 7th century B.C. As the center of the Byzantine Empire for over 1,000 years (and briefly the center of Christianity), power and riches flowed through it like water.
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.
It flourished particularly under one ruler who began to expand its influence and conquer other areas, using their wealth to build Babylon’s. The city’s prominence didn’t last long, but during its short-lived peak, it sat at the height of the world in terms of wealth and power.
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.
It was the ruling capital of ancient Egypt, starting 4,500 years ago. As such, trade, industry and culture were concentrated in Thebes, and the city enjoyed power and riches for centuries until the country’s capital moved farther south.
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.
Many important and wealthy families rose out of Florence throughout the ages, and the city itself enjoyed vast amounts of wealth in the years surrounding the Renaissance and for some time after. Florence was an economic and cultural power of the world for centuries.
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.
In addition to being the seat from which emperors conquered other nations, Rome also became the center for art and culture in the Empire. Ancient Romans also developed great (if immoral) sources of entertainment in the Colosseum.
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.
The city grew particularly rich and culturally prominent while under the Roman Empire and was well-known for being a beautiful, artistic city. Agriculture was its original industry, though it’s expanded and moved on from that in recent years.
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.
Athens focused its strength on trading and pursuing knowledge, and it was this combination that led to it being one of the wealthiest cities in history and an extremely prominent city of ancient times. It began to fall when the plague hit and caused chaos to erupt throughout the city.
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.
The first half of the 20th century was a time of huge growth for NYC, and it became a global center for trade, commerce and culture. Ever since the early 1900s, it’s been growing, and it continues to stand as an economic pillar of the world.
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.
During its height, it played a central role in the trade of pottery, timber, stone and agricultural products. With such a wide array of industries, it’s no wonder the city became so powerful and rich.
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 the Roman Empire grew in prominence, Alexandria used that to its advantage, trading with the Empire and growing in power and riches even more. It still stands today, complete with a new library.
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.
Over the centuries, Delhi was destroyed and rebuilt many times. In 1911 it was named the capital of British India. New Delhi carried on the tradition and was named the capital of New India after the country gained independence.
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.
During the Bronze Age, The Burnt City was the biggest and richest city in the region. The exact reasons why the city rose to such prominence remain a mystery for historians, but rich and prominent it most certainly was.
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.
The strangest thing about Çatalhöyük, though, is its architecture. There are no streets; the buildings are designed like a honeycomb, and access is granted only through holes in the rooftops, which may have doubled as plazas and meeting places.
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.
It truly began to rise in riches when silk and weaving became more prominent in the region. But it gained wealth through other industries throughout the centuries too. Today it remains strong and stands as the capital of the Zhejiang Province in China.
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.
With an intricate system of canals and a rich culture sitting at the center of power in a grand empire, Tenochtitlan was considered one of the wealthiest cities in the world before Cortés destroyed it to use its riches for himself.
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.
At its peak, Baghdad was known for its knowledge and wisdom, which encouraged traders from all over the world to come to visit, and they brought their money with them. The city exploded with art, culture and global goods, earning it power and wealth.
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.
It helped, of course, that the city was sitting at the center of the rapidly growing and economically powerful British Empire that stretched across the world. London continues to be a rich city today.
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.
There was also a wall in the city separating the rich from the poor. Great Zimbabwe started as a meager farming community but transformed into a grand center for trade in the region. The reason for its sudden decline (following its height in the 14th century) is unknown, remaining a mystery to this day.
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.
Damascus first began to grow in riches thanks to its merchants. As a swiftly growing center for trade, the city began to accumulate wealth. It’s still home to many industries and is known as the City of Jasmine.
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.
As the harvest improved, so did trade, and the city enjoyed advances in writing, crafts and industry. This led to an increase in prominence and wealth. New buildings stand atop the ancient ruins — people continue to live in the area today.
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.
The food they were able to grow was the key to this society’s power at the time. They were able to trade well and wielded their day’s currency with an ease that raised them to great economic heights.
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.
In addition to general trade (headed by the Dutch East India Company), Amsterdam specialized and was the leader in the diamond trade. The city acted as a global center for finance, which helped it rise in wealth.
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.
Cusco was located fairly centrally in the Inca Empire, making it a natural center for trade and culture. Through the years it amassed grand riches and rose to prominence quickly, serving its people well.
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.
Over the next several hundred years the city continued to grow in wealth and knowledge and became a cultural and economic center for the region, but it began to decline in the early 17th century.
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.
After the Roman invasion, Carthage became the Roman Empire’s major city in its African provinces. It changed hands several times over the next thousand years and still stands today, though no longer as an economic pillar of the 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.
At its peak, Ani had wealth and power similar to those of Constantinople, and its reach stretches back in history to the Bronze Age. Known as “The City of 40 Gates,” Ani was rich and powerful even with much of its architecture underground.
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.
Complex agricultural practices were the foundation of the city’s wealth, but Caral also enjoyed vast arrays of art and culture and was very modern for its time. Several thousand years later, architects are still in awe of the magnificence of this ancient city.
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.
The natural advantages of Jericho allowed its inhabitants to grow a special type of plant, which in turn produced an oil that was highly valued in the ancient world. It was the most expensive oil on the market. Jericho used this to its advantage and enjoyed immense wealth.
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.
It once served as the home for several dynasties’ ruling houses. Today, Xi’an is known for being one of the four great ancient capitals of China, due to how much power and wealth it has held over the years.
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.
It was based on a myth that surrounded an actual city (name unknown), ruled by a king whose people were so rich they had vast troves of gold at their command. The legend grew until Spanish conquistadors believed in a city made entirely out of the precious metal.