Top 10 World Cities Through History

For each year, name the 10 largest cities in the world of that year.
Source: "Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth: An Historical Census" by Tertius Chandler
As usual, we filled in the loosely-defined Ruhr area.
Quiz by kalbahamut
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Last updated: September 27, 2020
First submittedMay 27, 2014
Times taken48,202
Rating4.39
6:30
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1950 AD
12,463,000
New York
8,860,000
London
7,000,000
Tokyo
5,900,000
Paris
5,406,000
Shanghai
5,100,000
Moscow
5,000,000
Buenos Aires
4,906,000
Chicago
4,900,000
Ruhr Area
4,800,000
Kolkata
 
 
1500 AD
672,000
Beijing
500,000
Vijayanagar
400,000
Cairo
250,000
Hangzhou
250,000
Tabriz
200,000
Constantinople
200,000
Gaur
185,000
Paris
150,000
Guangzhou
147,000
Nanjing
1900 AD
6,480,000
London
4,242,000
New York
3,330,000
Paris
2,707,000
Berlin
1,717,000
Chicago
1,698,000
Vienna
1,497,000
Tokyo
1,439,000
St. Petersburg
1,435,000
Manchester
1,418,000
Philadelphia
 
 
1000 AD
450,000
Cordova
400,000
Kaifeng
300,000
Constantinople
200,000
Angkor
175,000
Kyoto
135,000
Cairo
125,000
Baghdad
125,000
Nishapur
110,000
Al-Hasa
100,000
Patan
1800 AD
1,100,000
Beijing
861,000
London
800,000
Guangzhou
685,000
Edo
570,000
Constantinople
547,000
Paris
430,000
Naples
387,000
Hangzhou
383,000
Osaka
377,000
Kyoto
 
 
100 AD
450,000
Rome
420,000
Luoyang
250,000
Seleucia
250,000
Alexandria
150,000
Antioch
130,000
Anuradhapura
120,000
Peshawar
100,000
Carthage
95,000
Suzhou
90,000
Smyrna
+3
Level 73
May 30, 2014
I figured Damascus was a more important city that it apparently was. Especially very early on.
+2
Level 82
May 31, 2014
Damascus has been continually inhabited for 11,000 years, longer than any other city in the world. It has been an important city in many different empires and independent states throughout history, maybe reaching its height of significance in the 7th and 8th centuries when it was the capital of the Umayyad caliphate. There are probably a few points in history when Damascus would have made a top 10 list, but those points either come long before the year 100 AD (2000-9000 BC) or fall in between some of the other dates listed.
+3
Level 82
May 31, 2014
The most important year on this quiz for the Muslim umma is 1000 AD, which is right around what most see as the golden age of Islam. But by that point the center of the Muslim world had shifted westward, as clear by the dominance of Cordoba in (what was then) Muslim Spain, and the rise of Cairo which was on its way to eclipsing Alexandria. Also very interesting to me was that Al-Hassa makes the top 10 list that year. This city is in Saudi Arabia, I think it's only the 15th or 20th largest city in the country currently. I knew that it was an old oasis town but never would have guessed before making this quiz that it was at one point one of the largest cities in the world.
+3
Level 81
Jun 13, 2014
"An Historical Census" -- is that a typo or really called that? -- should've gotten more of the Japanese cities and perhaps one more Chinese one, but I found this one hard.
+5
Level 82
Jun 13, 2014
Why would it be a typo? You haven't heard people argue about whether "an" or "a" should come before the word "history" before?
+7
Level 81
Jun 17, 2016
Nope, I hadn't heard about that one before. Interesting.
+3
Level 54
Apr 6, 2020
It dates back to how it briefly became slangy to drop the 'h' at the front of a word back in the day. (This is why you'll sometimes hear dodgy gangsters and Cockney folk in mid–20th century media say 'ospital or 'ave instead of hospital and have.) When the languages started adding back h's, much confusion arose over how to pronounce certain words, such as herb and, annoyingly enough, the letter h itself. (The British say 'haytch', the American 'aytch'.) The confusion extends to historical, which everybody agrees has the h in front but still gets an 'an' affixed to it, for whatever reason.
+3
Level 82
Jun 13, 2014
Rome was much bigger than that in 100AD.
+9
Level 82
Jun 13, 2014
According to some estimates. I take it you were there?
+2
Level 82
Jun 13, 2014
In general I think that the author was erring on the side of conservative estimates, as historical reports of population figures are often exaggerated sometimes by orders of magnitude. For another example, when I was just looking up Gaur to answer a commenter below, I found that someone reported 1.2 million people lived there in the 16th century, much more than the 200,000 figure given in the source for this quiz. But since all of this information is coming from the same place I'm just going to trust that the same methodology and criteria was used across the board and not try to do any second-guessing.
+3
Level 82
Apr 15, 2015
Well, the highest estimates speak of 2 million inhabitants during the "golden age" of Rome, i.e. the second century. I guess it must have been somewhere between the two, but I usually consider Rome as the first city in History to reach one million, precisely somewhere around 100 AD...
+2
Level 82
Apr 15, 2015
Most estimates I've seen are north of 450,000. Though I don't think I've ever seen 2 million before. Still, going with a single source solves a lot more problems than it creates, so I'm sticking with Chandler's (perhaps conservative) figures.
+3
Level 47
Jun 13, 2014
What/where is Gaur?
+4
Level 62
Jun 13, 2014
India
+3
Level 82
Jun 13, 2014
Here

I added as extra type-ins the modern name and other aliases for the city, not that it will help many people get it. Fairly obscure.

+3
Level 60
May 8, 2018
Gaur is currently the region in and around Malda in WB, India. It was the capital of the Pala Dynastar
+2
Level 78
Jun 13, 2014
Must have missed Shanghai and Kolkata because of spelling because I know I typed them. I think I spelled Kolkata with two t's. No idea what I did to Shanghai.
+2
Level 82
Jun 13, 2014
Calcutta will be accepted for Kolkata.
+2
Level 78
Oct 26, 2017
This time it was Guangzhou. I typed it, but must have spelled it wrong. I used to be a great speller and would probably have been a member of the spelling police on this site, but spelling is another thing that I'm losing as I get older and I am now much more sympathetic to those who have spelling difficulties.
+2
Level 51
Apr 2, 2020
@ander217 Same here!
+5
Level 67
Jun 13, 2014
Man, always forget Vijayanagar.
+2
Level 76
Jun 14, 2014
That was funny
+2
Level 48
Jun 4, 2017
Thanks world history...
+2
Level 41
Jun 16, 2014
All but New York.... must've thought I already typed it in.
+2
Level 44
Aug 1, 2014
Excellent quiz. just need more time.
+2
Level 82
Aug 1, 2014
seems to be a running theme. I guess I'm a little more strict than some when it comes to putting time limits on my quizzes. In my subjective opinion I find quizzes that have *too much* time to sometimes be boring... after you get through all the answers you know quickly and you've still got 7 minutes left on the clock where you are just taking wild stabs in the dark... but, as usual, you can turn off the timer if you like.
+2
Level 72
Aug 6, 2020
Given an extra 30 seconds, I would have come up with Anuradhapura for sure. :)
+2
Level 65
Mar 11, 2015
I wrote Hangzhou at the last second just for trying haha. However, nice quiz! 25/44.
+2
Level 73
Jun 7, 2015
Nishapur as you mentioned is and was formally pronounced as Neyshabur. please accept this one too.
+2
Level 57
Jul 8, 2015
Cool Quiz!
+3
Level 47
Dec 23, 2015
Forgot about all American cities (Massive Facepalm)
+6
Level 81
Mar 22, 2016
Angkor! What?
+5
Level 82
Mar 22, 2016
Fira leads to Angkor. Angkor leads to Haiti. Haiti leads to San Francisco...
+4
Level 24
Jun 23, 2016
Great quiz but where are Cuzco and Tenochtitlan?
+2
Level 82
Jun 23, 2016
The source I was using estimates their populations as significantly lower than some other sources.
+2
Level 21
Sep 25, 2016
o.O
+2
Level 81
Jun 4, 2017
Only got 20/44, but pleased to have gotten at least 3 in each era, including Carthage. For some reason, Lost Nation, Iowa didn't show up on this one. :-P
+3
Level 85
Jun 4, 2017
Vijayanagar: 2%

Anuradhapura: 1%

Patan: 0%

I don't know why, I just find it weird (or interesting [or both]) how the ones that are harder to spell have a percentage higher than Patan.

+2
Level 40
Jun 5, 2017
I put the full "Saint Petersburg" but the quiz wouldn't take it
+3
Level 82
Jun 5, 2017
I think you must have made a typo
+2
Level 40
Jun 5, 2017
New York was not 12 million in 1950
+4
Level 82
Jun 5, 2017
Cool. Maybe you should write a book.
+3
Level 73
Oct 27, 2017
... I get a failing grade, and it's better than more than 80% of people...
+3
Level 83
Jun 17, 2018
21 of 44, just under half, was better than 87.2%. Very tough test.
+4
Level 83
Jun 17, 2018
Very surprised Tenochitlan (Aztec Mexico City) didn't make the list.
+2
Level 70
Jun 27, 2018
Hangchow is accepted but Soochow is not.
+2
Level 82
Jun 27, 2018
pending
+1
Level 62
Nov 4, 2018
Tunis should be accepted for Carthage.
+3
Level 82
Nov 5, 2018
Arguable
+2
Level 68
Nov 25, 2018
Wasn't Carthage utterly destroyed by Rome in 146BC whereupon they spread salt on the soil so that nothing would ever come out of it? I mean I'm guessing they built a new city since the location is strategic within the mediterranean and for trade but did they call it Carthage as well?
+3
Level 82
Nov 26, 2018
The Wiki article on the history of Carthage states that there is no evidence for the salting of the Earth after the 3rd Punic War, and that Carthage became a Roman city following it, though the Romans moved the capital of the new province to nearby Utica. The city has persisted to this day and is now a suburb of Tunis.
+2
Level 45
Mar 8, 2019
I got 24/44 and equaled or beat 96% of the quizzers. This quiz is really not easy!!! Great job, kalbahamut!
+3
Level 36
Apr 24, 2019
Glad to see that Smyrna, Georgia made the list!
+2
Level 82
Apr 24, 2019
Georgia (the country) is not too far away but I assume you mean the US state. Anyway the Smyrna on this quiz is better known today as Izmir, Turkey.
+2
Level 30
Apr 25, 2019
Great quiz Kal. I can't believe the amount of cities that I missed that I knew, but didn't consider. I thought about typing Kyoto, Baghdad, and many others, but for some reason I never did.
+2
Level 57
Jul 25, 2019
Ctesiphon should really be an alternative type-in for Seleucia.
+2
Level 82
Jul 25, 2019
Debatable, as I think in 100 AD the two cities were across a river from one another and hadn't yet merged in to one. But I went ahead and added it as a type-in.
+2
Level 30
Jul 25, 2019
Is it possible that Leningrad could be accepted for St. Petersburg?
+2
Level 82
Jul 25, 2019
ok
+2
Level 46
Aug 29, 2019
As a porteño, I never expected to see Buenos Aires there.
+2
Level 82
Aug 6, 2020
It was a booming place in the 1950s. Plus many of the cities of Europe and Asia had been decimated or destroyed by World War 2 in the preceding decade, while the Americas were mostly untouched.
+2
Level 67
Mar 14, 2020
Tough, less showed up than I thought. Aced the 1800s, didnt do too great before that but reasonably ok/well after.

for the top, missed alot of silly ones, ones I thought I had already typed, or ones I did think of but went, well if A and B is not on it, C propbably isnt either.

5 of the 4 I missed there I could/should have gotten (philadelphia being the one I missed but hadnt thought of)
+2
Level 73
Dec 25, 2020
Incidentally I live in Suzhou! (the ninth-largest city in AD 100)
+2
Level 82
Dec 25, 2020
Cool. Native? or Transplant? I've been to New York, London, Tokyo, Paris, Chicago, Berlin, St Petersburg, Naples, Vienna, Philly, Carthage, Alexandria, Hassa, and Cairo. Only cities on this quiz I've spent a decent amount of time were Istanbul, Moscow, and Rome. I spent over 2 months in Moscow.
+2
Level 56
Feb 1, 2021
I wonder about Merv in the 1000 section. In the 12th century it have over 500 thousand people
+2
Level 82
Feb 1, 2021
yeah not sure. It grew very rapidly in that century, peaked just before the Mongol conquest, and then was totally destroyed and depopulated.
+1
Level 66
Apr 2, 2021
I know I mentioned this on the "Biggest Cities in History" quiz as well, but I'm surprised at how few Indian cities there are. Historically, China has had a comparable population to the Indian subcontinent. Just look at this: India and Bangladesh combined have a waaay larger population than China in 1000 AD and about the same in 1500 AD. On this quiz though, only 1 Indian city barely makes the list for 1000 (I know, Islamic Golden Age, but still seems strange) and just 2 in 1500, the latter of which includes 4 Chinese cities.

TL;DR I would expect more Indian cities here, esp for the earlier years. Do you have any explanation for their absence? For example, has India just been much more rural than China for most of its history? Are there a lot of large cities that just barely missed out? Have population records from India not been as common/reliable? If you have an answer, I'd love to hear!

+2
Level 82
Apr 3, 2021
I don't know. My largely speculative best answer is that civilization on the Indian subcontinent lagged behind behind that of the civilization that arose both to the West around Mesopotamia and to the East in China. There's no consensus as to whether or not civilization along the Indus River valley was an offshoot of Western (read: Levantine, Egyptian, Persian, Greek) civilization, or it arose independently, but in either case we know they got their start thousands of years later. Organizing humans into large cities requires a certain level of technological and bureaucratic sophistication, and, while of course any analysis that attempts to paint so many peoples across such a long period in such broad strokes is problematic, and I'm not saying that Indian civilization is generally lacking in history or sophistication... it's just a fact that they were always behind the Western and Eastern cores.
+1
Level 82
Apr 3, 2021
Still, Vijayanagar's 2nd place finish in 1500 is pretty impressive, don't you think? ...considering most Westerners have never even heard of the place.
+1
Level 82
Apr 3, 2021
If you divide these cities into the categories of:

1. Western Civilization (Mesopotamia/the Near & Middle East/Europe/North Africa)

2. Eastern Civilization (China, Japan, IndoChina)

3. Indus Valley civilizations (India, Bangladesh, Pakistan)

4. The New World (the Americas)

Then... (1) (2) (3) (4)

100 AD 7 - 2 - 1 - 0

1000 AD 6 - 3 - 1 - 0

1500 AD 4 - 4 - 2 - 0

1800 AD 4 - 6 - 0 - 0

1900 AD 6 - 1 - 0 - 3

1950 AD 4 - 2 - 1 - 3

+2
Level 82
Apr 3, 2021
...and... this matches up very well with my own understanding of the advance of civilization that past two millennia. In 100 AD the Roman Empire and thus Western Civ was completely dominant. By 1000 AD the East was starting to make gains as Western Civilization had slowed down and been flirting with collapse. By 1500 after the fall of the Byzantines East and West were essentially in a dead heat, and by 1800 China had taken the lead for once. Throughout all this time India lagged behind both East and West, though they were making gains for a while. Then first the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment and then the Industrial Revolution started in Europe, and the West shot back into the lead, even on its way to being totally eclipsed by the USA in the latter half of the twentieth century.

For a more in depth analysis of these trends I'd recommend the book Why the West Rules... For Now by Ian Morris. Good read. Lots of charts and figures.

+2
Level 66
Apr 3, 2021
Wow, very in-depth answer! More than I was asking for :)

As far as I know, the Indus River Valley Civilization was independent, but I've also learned that it collapsed suddenly and inexplicably, and India had no major civilizations for hundreds of years, which may have set them back.

I'm also not sure, but it's possible that these time points just don't happen to capture India at the height of advancement. For example, the "Biggest Cities in History" quiz has Patna as the largest city in the world, and the dates line up with the Maurya Empire, which was very sophisticated... but that was between 300 and 195 BC, so not on this quiz. Also, jumping from 100 to 1000 AD leaves out a lot of history, including the Gupta Empire, which was arguably as advanced as China/the West (perhaps more so, since Rome was collapsing at this point).

And you're right that Vijayanagar is pretty impressive. Thanks for the in-depth answer!

+2
Level 66
Apr 3, 2021
Oh, and one final factor that may play a role: centralization. India has, for most of its history, been a patchwork of kingdoms, compared to China or the Caliphate or even post-Renaissance Europe (which was divided into different polities but still pretty interconnected in terms of technologies/ideas). Centralization is pretty conducive to city-building--it improves transportation between places and often results in skilled labor from all over the empire being drawn to one place. Not that the smaller kingdoms didn't have accomplishments of their own--just look at the Chola Dynasty, or, as you mentioned, Vijayanagar. It's just that they probably won't build cities as large.

There are probably other factors as well, but I think all of these points are pretty good guesses for why there are comparatively few Indian cities. And, of course, many of the largest cities today are in South Asia, so there's that.

+2
Level 82
Apr 3, 2021
There is some evidence that civilization in Pakistan/India was "seeded" by the West ... some nomadic groups from Persia or Central Asia who had knowledge of technologies developed first in the Fertile Crescent such as agriculture, pottery, and animal husbandry, may have taken that knowledge with them eastward before settling down there and spawning their own civilization.

Or... the people indigenous to the Indus River valley may have developed these technologies themselves. It's hard to say as the evidence for any early prehistoric civilization is usually pretty sparse.

+1
Level 50
May 19, 2021
Shouldn't Tenochtilan be there in the 1500s (most estimates have it over 200 k). I know you are referencing a book, but I'm curious if Tenochtitlan finished 11th or if the author vastly disagrees with the consensus
+1
Level 34
May 25, 2021
maybe too many of em got sacrificed to stop the world getting eaten, small price to pay to make sure we dont get attacked by a giant snake in space.