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Largest Cities Through History
More of this Feature
Top Cities of 100
Top Cities of 1000
Top Cities of 1500
Top Cities of 1800
Top Cities of 1900
Top Cities of 1950

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by Matt T. Rosenberg

Tertius Chandler's compilation of the population of cities throughout history, Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth: An Historical Census is an amazing work providing the population of cities throughout time. Chandler utilized a plethora of historical sources to locate approximate populations for the world's largest cities since 3100 BCE.

As there were few censuses prior to the end of the eighteenth century, Chandler used a variety of methods to determine the size of the world's largest cities: he used traveler's estimates, data on the number of households within cities, the number of wagons of food that arrived at the cities, the size of the military (commonly 1/6 of the size of a city during peace and 1/5 of the size of the city during times of crises), the area of the city walls along with typical densities, church records, the amount of food distributed to citizens, city comparisons (i.e. London is larger than Paris but smaller than Moscow), and even the loss of life in a disaster!

Therefore, in many cases, Chandler's numbers can only be considered rough approximations of the urban population. His figures include the city and surrounding suburban or urbanized area.

What follows is a list of the largest city at each point in history since 3100 BCE (before common era = before Christ or B.C.). It lacks population data for many cities but does provide a list of the largest cities throughout time. By looking at the first and second lines of the table, we see that Memphis remained the largest city in the world from at least 3100 BCE to 2240 BCE when Akkad claimed the title.

This feature also includes lists of the ten largest cites in the world at interesting points throughout history - the years 100, 1000, 1500, 1800, 1900, and 1950.

If you're interested in the history of urban growth, Chandler's text is an essential one. I highly recommend taking a look at a local library, it's filled with hundreds of lists - by year, by country, by continent, and much more.

City Year
Became #1
Population Information
Memphis, Egypt 3100 BCE Well over 30,000
Akkad, Babylonia (Iraq) 2240
Lagash, Babylonia (Iraq) 2075
Ur, Babylonia (Iraq) 2030 65,000
Thebes, Egypt 1980
Babylon, Babylonia (Iraq) 1770
Avaris, Egypt 1670
Memphis, Egypt 1557
Thebes, Egypt 1400
Nineveh, Assyria (Iraq) 668
Babylon, Babylonia (Iraq) 612 First above 200,000
Alexandria 320
Pataliputra (Patna), India 300
Changan (Xi'an), China 195 400,000
Rome 25 450,000 (100 CE)
Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey 340 CE 400,000 (500)
Ctesiphon, Iraq 570
Changan (Xi'an), China 637 400,000 (622); 600,000 (800)
Baghdad, Iraq 775 First over 1 million; 700,000 (800)
Cordova, Spain 935
Kaifeng, China 1013 400,000 (1000); 442,000 (1100)
Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey 1127
Merv (Mary), Turkmenistan 1145 200,000 (1150)
Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey 1153
Fez (Fes), Morocco 1170
Hangzhou, China 1180 255,000 (1200); 320,000 (1250)
Cairo, Egypt 1315
Hangzhou, China 1348 432,000 (1350)
Nanking, China 1358 487,000 (1400)
Beijing, China 1425 600,000 (1450); 672,000 (1500)
Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey 1650 700,000 (1650 & 1700)
Beijing, China 1710 900,000 (1750); 1.1 million (1800)
London, United Kingdom 1825 First over 5 million; 1.35 million (1825); 2.32 million (1850); 4.241 million (1875); 6.480 million (1900)
New York 1925 First over 10 million; 7.774 million (1925), 12.463 million (1950)
Tokyo 1965 First over 20 million; 23 million (1975)

See the lists of the top ten cities throughout history:

Top 10 Cities of the Year 100 | Top 10 Cities of the Year 1000 | Top 10 Cities of the Year 1500 | Top 10 Cities of the Year 1800 | Top 10 Cities of the Year 1900 | Top 10 Cities of the Year 1950

Source: Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth: An Historical Census by Tertius Chandler. 1987, St. David's University Press.

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