Animated: The Rise & Fall of the Largest Cities in the World, from 3,000 BC to the 2020s

This is the first era of human his­to­ry when more of us live in cities than not. That’s what we’ve often been told in recent years, at least, though the specifics do depend on what kinds of urban­ized areas  you count as prop­er cities. Still, this would seem to mark an impor­tant inflec­tion point in human his­to­ry, the past five mil­len­nia of which has also been the his­to­ry of great cities ris­ing and falling, in absolute terms but also rel­a­tive to one anoth­er in size, pow­er, and influ­ence. You can see this ani­mat­ed in the video above from car­to­graph­i­cal-his­tor­i­cal Youtu­ber Ollie Bye, pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture for his visu­al­iza­tions of the his­to­ry of Lon­don, of the British Empire, and of the entire world.

Here, Bye charts the largest cities in the world between the year 3000 BC and today, indi­cat­ing their size on the map while also rank­ing them on an ever-chang­ing leader­board below. Out front in the very begin­ning was Uruk, cap­i­tal of the Mesopotami­an cra­dle of civ­i­liza­tion (and a promi­nent loca­tion in the Epic of Gil­gamesh).

A thou­sand years lat­er, it was the Egypt­ian cap­i­tal of Thebes; a thou­sand years after that, it was the lat­er Egypt­ian cap­i­tal of Alexan­dria. From that point on, the shuf­fle at the bot­tom of the screen grows more and more rapid: the title of largest city in the world is lost by Con­stan­tino­ple to Cte­siphon; by Lin’an, briefly, to Cairo, and then to Hangzhou; by Lon­don to New York.

It was in the nine­teen-fifties that Tokyo — a city left in sham­bles by the Sec­ond World War a decade ear­li­er — over­took New York for the top spot. There it has remained ever since, see­ing off such dif­fer­ent chal­lengers in dif­fer­ent eras as Osa­ka, Mex­i­co City, and New Del­hi. When Bye’s ani­ma­tion leaves off, in 2021, that last has a pop­u­la­tion of 31.1 mil­lion against Toky­o’s 37.3 mil­lion. Whether the Japan­ese cap­i­tal has pro­por­tion­ate­ly more pow­er or influ­ence in the world today than Bei­jing, São Paulo, or Los Ange­les is, of course, a sep­a­rate and less objec­tive ques­tion. But no vis­i­tor to Tokyo can deny that it must have achieved some­thing like the pin­na­cle of urban civ­i­liza­tion per se — and has some­how kept the rents rea­son­able to boot.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Time­lapse Ani­ma­tion Lets You See the Rise of Cities Across the Globe, from 3700 BC to 2000 AD

The Growth of Lon­don, from the Romans to the 21st Cen­tu­ry, Visu­al­ized in a Time-Lapse Ani­mat­ed Map

Watch the Rise and Fall of the British Empire in an Ani­mat­ed Time-Lapse Map ( 519 A.D. to 2014 A.D.)

The Entire His­to­ry of the British Isles Ani­mat­ed: 42,000 BCE to Today

The His­to­ry of the World in One Video: Every Year from 200,000 BCE to Today

A Won­der­ful Archive of His­toric Tran­sit Maps: Expres­sive Art Meets Pre­cise Graph­ic Design

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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