The world’s most continuously inhabited cities are filled with history, beauty, and secrets. The streets of Luxor harken back to the earliest days of Thebes; the Kingdom of Axum is alive again in Ethiopia; Alexandria’s library is gone, but its history remains, and Balkh is brimming with religious influences. What do the world’s oldest cities have to teach? Plenty.
Luxor is a city in upper Egypt that is better known by its Green name of Thebes. Founded in 3,200 BC, nearly half a million people still call Luxor home. Known as the City of 100 Gates, Luxor first became prominent in the 11th Dynasty. It rose to power as a center of great wealth, political accomplishment, and art. But its most substantial contribution to Egyptian history was as the center of worship for the sun god Amon-Ra. It remained the religious capital of the country until after the Greek invasion. Modern Luxor is filled with fantastic museums and temples.
Axum, also known as Aksum, is the center of the great Kingdom of Axum, which ruled Eritrea and Northern Ethiopia. Its access to water made it one of the world’s great naval and trading powers. The Kingdom of Axum had a rich cultural heritage before Christianity, with its own language, Ge’ez. Giant obelisks featured prominently in their architecture, with the oldest potentially dating back to the era of 5,000 BC. Axum adopted Christianity in the 4th century and then became the major center of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Although Axum also had a long relationship with Islam, today, over 80 percent of its inhabitants are Orthodox Christians.
Founded in 332 BC, Alexandria is one of the world’s greatest cities. Founded by Alexander, Alexandria was one of the most outstanding examples of Hellenistic culture. Art and architecture flourished there, and the Lighthouse of Alexandria became one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Lighthouse was long one of the tallest structures in the world and symbolized the city’s prominence as a port. The Alexandrian Library was the most extensive and most impressive in the ancient world; sadly, it remains no more. The Necropolis, a system of ancient tombs with Roman and Hellenic influences, is one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages. Visitors to Alexandria today can revisit priceless artifacts of ancient history. It remains Egypt’s second-largest city.
Balkh, like many other cities, says it is the oldest city that is still continuously inhabited. Balkh is in what is now northern Afghanistan. Balkh is influenced by many of the world’s oldest religions. Its first association was with Zoroastrianism, which is the oldest monotheistic religion in the world. Buddhists revere the city because it was home to two great monks, Trapusa and Bahalika. In the 7th century, the town was home to 100 Buddhist convents and 3,000 monks. In the 9th century, the area was invaded by Arabs and became an Islamic stronghold. The city was later sacked by Mongol king Genghis Khan. Balkh is well known as the ancient capital of Bactra, which was home to the Bactria empire. Now the city has fewer than 8,000 inhabitants. However, the many historical sites make it a worthwhile place to visit for those who can traverse the rough terrain of Afghanistan.