The western education system doesn’t pay much attention to African history which is why most people know very little about ancient cities in Africa. The history of the Black Continent is by no means a one-size-fits-all story. Africa is home to a diverse range of cultures and traditions and it has been home to many great and often forgotten empires throughout the years. In this post, we’ll try to capture a glimpse of the great African history and show you some of the oldest cities in Africa that everyone should know about (ascending according to the number of years in which the cities have been continuously inhabited).
Malindi, Kenya- 700 Years Old
Malindi is a historic town that lies in the Malindi Bay of Kenya and the largest urban center in Kilifi County. The area around Malindi was first inhabited by the emerging Swahili Civilization somewhere between the 8th and 9th centuries AD but the city has been continuously inhabited since the 13th century. The first written reference about the city comes from Kurdish geographer and explorer Abu al-Fida who mentioned it as a Swahili settlement.
The city’s most famous monument is the Vasco da Gama Pillar erected in honor of the famous explorer who came to Malindi in 1498 to sign a trade agreement and find a guide for his upcoming trip to India. Today, Malindi is home to close to 120,000 residents, making it the 7th most populated city in Kenya.
Mbanza-Kongo, Angola- 700 Years Old
Mbanza-Kongo, also known as Sao Salvador, is the capital of Angola and one of the oldest cities in Africa. The city was founded somewhere around the arrival of the Portuguese in 1483 and served as the capital of the Kilukeni dynasty for a long time. The Portuguese named the city Sao Salvador which was the official name of the city from 1483 until the decolonization of Angola in 1975.
Today, Mbanza-Kongo is home to some of the most prominent historic landmarks in southwest Africa, including the 16th-century Cathedral of the Holy Saviour of Congo- the oldest church in sub-Saharan Africa, the memorial to King Afonso I’s mother, Jalankuwo, the Manikongo’s judgment tree, and The Royal Museum which houses an impressive collection of artifacts from the old Kingdom. Therefore, it should be no wonder that the entire city of Mbanza-Kongo has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017.
Lalibela, Ethiopia- 800 Years Old
Located in the north-central part of Ethiopia, Lalibela is one of the main tourist hubs of the country. The city famous for its rock-cut monolithic churches was founded between the late 12th and early 13th centuries. You may not know this but Ethiopia was one of the first countries to accept Christianity and Lalibela has historically been one of the most important cities in Africa for Christian pilgrims. There are at least 11 UNESCO-listed churches in Lalibela that were built hundreds of years before European colonizers even set foot in Africa which is why the city of Lalibela is often referred to as the Jerusalem of Africa.
Agadez, Niger- 800 Years Old
Located in the southern part of the Sahara Desert, Agadez is the capital of the Agadez Region and the fifth-largest city in Niger. The city was founded between the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Throughout Medieval times, Agadez grew around trans-Saharan trade, gradually becoming the most important city of the Tuareg people. Between the 15th and 19th centuries, the city was conquered by the Songhai Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the French Colonial Empire.
After the decolonization, Agadez was one of the most important hubs of the Tuareg Rebellion of the 1990s. Today, the city is home to 110,000 people, its surrounding area is home to an important uranium mine, and its city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Moroni, Comoros- 1,000 Years Old
Moroni is the largest city and capital of Comoros, one of the least visited countries in the world, and a small archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean that most people forget is a part of Africa. You’d probably be surprised to hear that the city of Comoros is at least 1,000 years old but there are unconfirmed theories that the city is even older. The first people to inhabit Moroni were likely Arab navigations and Bantu-speaking agriculturalists but ceramic finds from the 8th and 9th centuries illustrate that the city might have been a part of the great Swahili civilization.
Kano City, Nigeria- 1,000 Years Old
Located in the northern part of Nigeria in the homonymous state, Kano is the second-largest city in Nigeria (4 million residents) and a major route of the trans-Saharan trade. Kano has been a trade settlement for at least 1,000 years and a traditional stronghold of the Dabo dynasty who since the 19th century have ruled as emirs over the city-state.
This city is also one of the seven Medieval Hausa Kingdoms, and even today, the city is primarily inhabited by the Hausa People. Kano was Islamized around the 11th century and today, it’s the largest city in Nigeria to have a majority-Muslim population. Some of the main landmarks of Kano include the gate to the Old City, Kurmi Market known across the region for its crafts, the grandiose Emir’s Palace, the Great Mosque of Kano (one of the oldest ones in Africa), and the Gidan Makama Museum.
Benin City, Nigeria- 1,000 Years Old
Benin City was the heart of the often forgotten Benin Empire that covered the territory of today’s southern Nigeria. The city was founded by the Edo People, an Edoid ethnic group that speaks the Edo language and descends from Igodomigodo (the original name of the Benin Empire). The kingdom was unconquered until the 19th century when it fell to the British after the Punitive Expedition in 1892.
Prior to that, Benin developed strong ties and trade relations with Portugal which allowed the city to emerge as one of the most developed Medieval cities in Africa. According to the journal of a Portuguese captain who visited Benin in 1691, “the city was larger than Lisbon (one of the richest and oldest cities in Europe), all the streets run straight and as far as the eye can see, and the houses are very large and richly decorated with fine columns”. Today, Benin is still one of the most developed cities in Nigeria and home to more than 1.1 million people, making it the fourth largest city in Nigeria.
Pate City, Kenya- 1,200 Years Old
Located on the homonymous island, Pate is one of the oldest cities in Africa and the second-oldest city in Kenya. Historically, Pate was an important trading hub on the coast of the Indian Ocean. Many historical sources claim that Pate was an Arabic or Persian colony but this is actually not true. The city was founded by the Swahili people and was frequently visited by Arab, Persian, and even Indian traders.
The glory days of Pate were between the 13th and 19th centuries when the city was the seat of the Pate sultanate. Today, this once great city is a small and peaceful island town that’s home to a few hundred people.
Mombasa, Kenya- 1,200 Years Old
Located along the coast of the Indian Ocean, Mombasa has historically been one of the most important regional trading hubs and one of the most important ancient cities in Africa. There are many legends related to the city’s creation that go back to ancient times but officially, the city has been continuously inhabited since around 900 AD when the Mwana Mkisi (Swahili) dynasty founded the city. Throughout the years, Mombasa thrived as one of the most important trading hubs that connected India, Persia, and the Arabic Peninsula to the Swahili people.
Today, Mombasa is one of the oldest cities in Africa to be continuously inhabited and home to 3.5 million people, making it the second-largest city in Kenya behind the capital Nairobi.
Timbuktu, Mali- 1,400 Years Old
Lying on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, Timbuktu is one of the most fascinating ancient cities in Africa. Its location in the heart of the trans-Saharan caravan route allowed Timbuktu to become an important ancient trading post. For years, Timbuktu has served as a crossroad of not only trade and exotic goods but also- cultures. The town started off as a seasonal settlement between the 7th and 8th centuries but by the 12th century, the town became a permanent settlement and with the shift in trading routes after the visit by Mansa Musa, Timbuktu became one of the most important trading hubs in the region.
Timbuktu was briefly conquered by Tuareg tribes before becoming a part of the expanding Songhai Empire. A couple of centuries later, the city became a part of Morocco but the city experienced its golden age between 1650 and 1893 (when the French colonization occurred). During this time, Timbuktu hosted a lot of Islamic scholars and opened one of the first Islamic Universities in the region which turned the city into one of the largest scholarly centers in Africa.
Unfortunately, today Timbuktu is home to only 50,000 people and the city is impoverished and suffers from desertification.
Kismayo, Somalia- 1,700 Years Old
Kismayo is a port city in the Lower Juba Province of Somalia and the commercial capital of the autonomous Jubaland region. The city was likely inhabited during ancient times as a part of the Somalian city-states but it didn’t emerge as a city until the early Middle Ages. Initially, Kismayo was a small fishing town for centuries until its territory was conquered by the Ajuran Sultanate which chose to utilize the plantations of the Lower Jaba Province and turn the town into a trading hub.
After the fall of the Ajuran Sultanate, Kismayo fell under the Sultanate of the Geledi before being colonized by Great Britain and subsequently, Italy. In more recent times, Kismayo saw some of the bloodiest battles of the Somalian Civil War. The city was controlled by militant groups between 2006 and 2012 when it was re-captured by the Somalian National Army.
Axum, Ethiopia- 2,000 Years Old
As the historic capital of the Aksumite Empire, Axum is one of the most glorious ancient cities in Africa. The city was a major naval and trading point in Northern Ethiopia since before the early Christian era. The Aksumite Empire was one of the first ones to accept Christianity as its official religion in 354 CE and up until the Muslim conquests of North Africa, the empire was a dominant power in the region.
After the 7th century, the empire slowly started declining after losing the Red Sea trade routes to the Arabs and Persians. The empire fell apart after the 10th century and the city saw many conquerors coming and going during this time, it lost a significant part of its population. Today, Axum is home to 67,000 people and the ruins of the ancient city are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Zanzibar, Tanzania- 2,000 Years Old
Zanzibar City is one of the oldest cities in Africa, a popular tourist destination, and the capital of the autonomous Zanzibar region of Tanzania. The city consists of two main ports (Stone Town and Ng’ambo) separated by a creek that’s today marked by a large street named Creek Road. Stone Town is the old, historical part of Zanzibar that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 while Nb’ambo is the new, modern part of the city that developed after the Zanzibar Revolution.
Unlike most other ancient cities in Africa mentioned on this list, Zanzibar is not diminishing today, on the contrary- it’s expanding. As for the city’s history, it’s assumed that it started some 20,000 years ago when the island was inhabited by Bantus from mainland Africa but these were primitive settlements. Zanzibar was founded as a city somewhere around the 1st century AD.
A Greco-Roman text dating back to the 1st century AD (the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea) mentions the island of Menuthias which very likely is referring to Unguja, which is a suburb of Zanzibar. The city was relatively independent throughout most of its history and unlike many surrounding regions, it didn’t fall under Arab influence until the 15th century. Between the 15th and 19th centuries, Zanzibar became one of the most important trading centers and one of Africa’s main hubs for slave trading.
In 1890, it became a British protectorate and when Tanzania got its independence from Britain in 1961, Zanzibar became a part of it. However, a few years later, the Zanzibar revolution happened which resulted in Zanzibar gaining the status of an autonomous region with its own capital- Zanzibar City.
Mogadishu, Somalia- 2,200 Years Old
Located in the coastal Banadir region on the Indian Ocean, Mogadishu is the capital city and the largest city of Somalia. The city has a long and rich history that dates back to ancient times when the city was inhabited by traditional groups of hunter-gatherers. Mogadishu existed as a city in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD when it was known as Sarapion. After the fall of Sarapion, the city was ruled by the Persians and Arabs until the emergence of the Mogadishu Sultanate in the 9th century.
The Sultanate of Mogadishu was disestablished in the 13th century when it was conquered by the Ajuran Sultanate. Throughout the years, Mogadishu was also a part of the Hiraab Imamate and Geledi Sultanate before becoming a part of Italian Somaliland. When Somalia became an independent country in 1961, the famous historic port city of Mogadishu was declared its capital.
Zeila, Somalia- 2,300 Years Old
Zeila is a historical port town in Somaliland that has been continuously inhabited since the 8th century AD but it’s very likely that the city is much older than this even though this is yet to be confirmed. Medieval Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela identified Zeila associated the city of Zeila with the Biblical location of Havilah while many modern scholars identify Zeila with the settlement of Avalites mentioned 1st-century travelogue “the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea”.
During ancient times, Zeila was part of the Somali city-states that actively traded with Phoenicians, Ptolemaic Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, and Parthian Persians. During the Muslim invasions, the city fell under the Ifat & Adal Sultanates, and during the colonial era, the city was under British rule. Today, Zeila is administered as part of the official Awdal region of Somaliland.
Djenne, Mali- 2,300 Years Old
Once a great trans-Saharan trading hub and one of the most fascinating ancient cities in Africa, today, Djenne is an agricultural town with continuously-diminishing importance. The city’s medieval history is closely tied to the one of Timbuktu but archaeological evidence has shown that Djenne has been inhabited since 200 BC, making it one of the oldest cities in Africa.
The ancient city of Djenne was inhabited throughout the ancient era and it reached its golden ages between the 4th and 8th centuries AD. From the 8th until the 11th century, the city was declining and was likely even briefly abandoned. During the 14th century, the town’s favorable geolocation (close to Timbuktu) turned it into a regional trading hub during the heyday of the Mali Empire. Similar to Timbuktu, Djenne was conquered by the Moroccans and the Songhai Empire before being colonized by France.
After Mali was proclaimed as an independent Republic, the city of Djenne submitted a nomination to UNESCO for World Heritage status, and the nomination was finally approved in 1988. Today, the town of Djenné is a part of UNESCO’s World Heritage together with the surrounding archaeological sites of Kaniana, Djenné-Djéno, Tonomba, and Hambarketolo.
Are you interested in learning more about the complex history of Africa? Also check out our post about the strangest international borders in Africa and our list of the world’s most bizzare cultural festivals.
Berbera, Somaliland- 2,400 Years Old
Berbera is the capital of the Sahil region in the autonomous region of Somaliland and one of the main seaports in the Indian Ocean. The city has been around since antiquity and was founded around 400 BC by Somali tribes and their first city-states. Due to its geolocation, Berbera was always one of Somalia’s most important trading hubs and from ancient times, the city had trade connections with Phoenicia, Ancient Greece, Ptolemic Egypt, Parthian Persia, and the Roman Empire.
After the Arab conquests, the city was completely Arabized and its appearance changed drastically. During the Middle Ages, the city was mostly under the control of different Muslim kingdoms until the late 19th century when it became a British protectorate. In more recent times, due to the Somali Civil War, the amount of trade done via the city of Berbera has decreased dramatically but the city still remains one of the most important ports in the region and Somalia’s second-largest city.
Alexandria, Egypt- 2,400 Years Old
Home to the world’s oldest lighthouse (Pharos Lighthouse) and the iconic Great Library of Alexandria, the city founded by and named after Alexander the Great is one of the oldest cities in Africa. Alexandria was founded in 331 BC after the Macedonian conquest of Egypt and the city developed so rapidly that it replaced Memphis as the capital of Egypt. Many people forget that Alexandria was the capital of Egypt for almost 1,000 years (332 BC – 641 AD).
The city briefly lost its significance and slightly changed its appearance after the Arab conquests but around the 18th century, it became one of the largest shipping centers in the world. Today, Alexandria is one of the most modern cities in Egypt and one of the most beautiful cities in the Mediterranean.
Mendefera, Eritrea- 2,500 Years Old
Even though a regional capital of the Southern Region or Zoba Debub in Eritrea, Mendefera is one of the most forgotten ancient cities in Africa. The city was founded between the 5th and 4th centuries BC by the D’mt kingdom and throughout the years it became one of the most important cities for the Aksumite civilization. Even after the fall of the Aksumite civilization in a period of massive migrations in the region, the city always remained continuously inhabited.
Throughout the years, Mendefera was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, the Aussa Sultanate, and was later colonized by the Italians and the British. Today, despite being one of the oldest cities in Africa, Mendefera is nowhere near as significant as it once was. The city is a regional trading hub and home to 63,000 people, making it the fourth-largest city in Eritrea.
Benghazi (Euesperides), Libya- 2,500 Years Old
Comfortably situated alongside the Gulf of Sidra in the Mediterranean, Benghazi is the second-largest city in Libya and the largest in the eastern coastal region of Cyrenaica. The city was founded as a Greek colony around 500 BC and it was named Euesperides. The city was conquered by the Ptolemaic Kingdom and was renamed to Berenice. The city of Berenice saw its first golden age during the Roman Empire when it became the center of Cyrenaica.
During the Byzantine era, the once-great city started fading away and during the Arab conquests, it was reduced to a small town but it’s likely that it got its current name somewhere around this period. At the beginning of the 20th century, Benghazi was conquered by the Italians under whose rule the city flourished. The city was heavily damaged in WWII and after the war, it became the capital city of the newly founded kingdom of Libya. After Gadafi’s 1969 Libyan coup d’état, the city lost its capital status to Tripoli.
In more recent times, Benghazi was one of the main points of the Libyan Civil War and throughout most of the war, the city was controlled by the rebels. After the end of the war in 2020, things are slowly going back to normal and Benghazi is becoming one of the main regional trading hubs once again.
Ife, Nigeria – 2,500 Years Old
Renowned across the continent for its clay ceramics, copper-alloy, and bronze ornaments, Ife is an Ancient African city in the Osun State of southwestern Nigeria. The city was founded by the Yoruba people around 500 BC and for years, it was the holiest city of the kingdom and a place that was believed to be the birthplace of mankind according to the Yoruba religion. This religious claim isn’t confirmed by modern historians and archaeologists but officially, Ife has been inhabited for at least 2,500 years, making it one of the oldest cities in Africa.
The city flourished around the 2nd century AD and it saw a few centuries-long decline before becoming the capital of the great Ife Empire. The Empire fell apart in the 16th century and ever since, Ife has been stagnating/declining but it never lost its religious significance among the Yoruba people. Today, Ife is home to roughly 500,000 people, making it the 16th largest city in Nigeria.
Constantine (Cirta), Algeria- 2,600 Years Old
Constantine is the capital of the homonymous province in northeastern Algeria, the largest city in the eastern part of the country, and one of the most important trading hubs in the region. The city was founded by the Phoenicians who named the city Sewa (meaning royal city). When the Numidian king Syphax conquered Sewa, he changed the name of the city to Cirta and turned it into the capital of his kingdom. Eventually, Cirta fell to the Romans and for years, it served as a base for the Jugurthine Wars.
Cirta was practically destroyed during the civil war of the 4th century but the city was quickly rebuilt and renamed after emperor Constantine the Great, who had defeated Maxentius (the previous emperor). Constantine was later conquered by the Arabs and later, colonized by the French but the city never lost its historic significance. Today, Constantine is home to more than 500,000 people and is the fifth-largest city in Algeria.
Aswan (Swenett)- Egypt- 2,600 Years Old
Also known throughout history as Swenett and Syene, Aswan is one of the most fascinating ancient cities in Africa. The city was founded by the ancient Egyptians and named after the Egyptian goddess of fertility. Throughout the years, the city saw many conquerors come and go which can also be seen from the impressively long list of archaeological findings.
Among other things, archaeologists have discovered in Aswan include the head of the bust of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, a sandstone sphinx, 35 mummified remains, painted funerary masks, vases of bitumen used in mummification, remains of Roman forts, artifacts from the Ptolemaic period, and remains of early Coptic churches. Today, Aswan is not the historic crossroad it once was but it’s still a sizeable city and home to more than 250,000 people.
Tripoli (Oyat), Libya- 2,700 Years Old
Located in the northwest of Libya on the edge of the desert projecting into the Mediterranean Sea, Tripoli is the capital city of Libya. It was founded around the 7th century BC as a Phoenician colony under the name Oyat. A few centuries later the city passed into the hands of the Greek rulers of Cyrenaica and by the 1st century BC, it was a part of the Roman Empire and remained a part of Byzantium until 643 when it was conquered by the Arabs.
After the 15th century, the city was conquered by the Spanish and Ottoman empires, as well as Italy.
During the 19th century, the city was one of the main pirate hubs in the world which made it one of the focal points of the brief war Barbary Wars fought between the United States and Sweden on one side and the North African states collectively referred to as the Barbary States. The city has been the capital of Libya since 1969 after Colonel Muammar Gaddafi came to power.
Tangier (Tingi), Morocco- 2,900 Years Old
Situated along the Maghreb coast west of the Strait of Gibraltar where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean Sea, Tangier is one of the most famous ancient cities in Africa. Tangier started off as a Phoenician Colony somewhere around the 10th century BC. Its ideal geolocation helped the city to excel as one of the most frequented trading hubs in North Africa. The city was eventually conquered by the Romans but it received special municipal privileges. After the fall of Rome, Tangier remained a part of the Byzantine Empire until the Arab conquests and it later served as a logistic base for further Muslim conquests into Spain.
After the Middle Ages due to Tangier’s location, European powers kept competing for it and the city changed hands several times between Portugal, Britain, and Spain. Due to the city’s special status throughout the years, Tangier had the option to choose whether to join Morocco after becoming an independent country in the 1950s or to continue on its own. Tangier chose to join Morocco in 1956 and today, it’s one of the country’s main tourist hubs and most significant historical cities.
Carthage, Tunisia- 2,900 Years Old
Technically, modern-day Carthage is just a posh suburb in Tunis (the capital of Tunisia), but this suburb still carries the memories of what was once the world’s greatest city. Ancient Carthage was founded by the Phoenicians around 2,900 years ago. The city’s access to the sea and its central location on the North African coast quickly turned it into a regional trading hub, then a kingdom, and eventually an empire that gave the Romans a run for their money.
After the loss of the Punic War, Carthage was absorbed by Rome, it was a part of the Byzantine Empire, and later it was conquered by the Arabs and never really reached its old glory. After the Middle Ages, Carthage became a part of the Ottoman Empire and in the late 19th century it became a French protectorate. Today, what remains of Carthage is only a suburb in the city of Tunisia but the entire area and all of its impressive archaeological sites have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Cairo- 3,000 Years Old
The capital of Egypt has been a strategic gateway to the Nile delta for centuries- a fact that has made Cairo desired by some of the world’s greatest empires throughout the years. Cairo is a city with rich history and certainly one of the most important ancient cities in Africa. The city hides a wealth of history and important monuments, including pharaonic tombs and temples, hieroglyphs, golden treasures of kings, pyramids, and much more. Cairo did not become the capital of Egypt until 970 AD but it existed many years before that.
Its proximity to the Nile attracted the first settlers more than 3,000 years ago. Cairo spent most of the ancient times and early Middle Ages in the shadow of Memphis and Alexandria but after becoming the capital in 970, Cairo has been the most important city in Egypt. Today, Cairo is a sprawling metropolis that’s home to more than 20 million people which makes it the largest city in Africa, the Arabic World, and the Middle East, as well as the 6th most populated city on Earth.
Faiyum, Egypt- 4,800 Years Old
Archaeological evidence point out that the area surrounding the city of Faiyum has been inhabited at least since the Epipalaeolithic era, making Faiyum one of the oldest cities in Africa. The first settlement appeared in the fifth millennium (not century) BC but the first written sources of the city date back to the Old Kingdom (2686–2181 BC). The ancient Egyptians used to refer to the city as Shedet and the city was famous for being the most significant center of the cult of the crocodile god Sobek.
A few millennia later, the city became a part of the Ptolemaic Kingdom and was renamed to Arsinoë. With the arrival of Christianity, Arsinoë became the seat of a bishopric and the capital of its province. Throughout the years, the city was conquered by the Romans, Arabs, and Ottomans, and today, it’s home to 3.8 million people, making it the fourth most populated city in Egypt.
Luxor (Thebes), Egypt- 5,200 Years Old
Last but not least, we round up the list of the most famous ancient cities in Africa with Luxor which was also known throughout history as Thebes. The ancient city of Thebes dates back to 3,200 BC and is the oldest city in Africa. Thebes was founded around the same time as Memphis (which isn’t on this list because it doesn’t exist anymore) but in the first 1,000 years of its existence, it was overshadowed by Memphis and Herakleopolis Magna.
However, Thebes was the fastest growing city between 3,000 and 2,000 BC and it became the capital of the Egyptian Kingdom in 2,135 BC. The city eventually fell first to the Macedonians, and later to the Romans, Arabs, and Ottomans but throughout the years it remained the religious capital of Egypt as the city of the god Amun-Ra. Today, Luxor is home to 1.3 million people and is the fifth-largest city in Egypt.
Did you like this list of ancient cities in Africa? Did you ever have the chance to visit some of the oldest cities in Africa? Which one was your favorite and which one would you like to visit next? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.
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