We are often fascinated by medieval cities – how they grew, evolved and the legacies they left behind. These were important centres of politics, business and religion, which often connected peoples from around the medieval world.
Here is our list of the ten most important cities in the medieval world – we looked for those that had enduring significance throughout the Middle Ages. Today, some of these places remain leading global centres, while others are mostly known for the countless tourists they attract.
Constantinople – if any city embodied the medieval world, it was Constantinople. Created to be the eastern capital of the Roman Empire, it would continue on as Rome’s legacy and became the heart of the Byzantine Empire. For about a thousand years, Constantinople would serve as a major player in international affairs and at times was home to as many as a million people. The Byzantine Empire would see its power grow and fall over the centuries, and Constantinople itself faced several major sieges. In 1453, the city and the empire would be conquered by the Ottomans, but this now began a new era as Constantinople became the capital of the rising Ottoman Empire.
Venice – it was a city that came about as the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century. Refugees came to this place, relatively safe in this area of islands and marshy lagoons, and started to build a new community. Venice would grow through trade, its access to the Mediterranean Sea allowing it to connect to the wider world. The Republic of Venice would go from city-state to its own empire, creating colonies in the Western Mediterranean. Its wealth and power were underpinned by a fleet of as many as 3100 ships. Venice would be the greatest maritime power of the medieval world.
Baghdad – this was a city built in the Middle Ages to serve as the capital of a new empire – the Abbasid Caliphate. Construction began in 762, and within a few years it was already the home to half a million people. During its heyday, between the eighth and tenth centuries, over a million people lived here, and the city served as the cultural and political epicentre of the Middle East. In the later Middle Ages, Baghdad would decline, and find itself sacked in 1258 and 1401.
Kaifeng – several cities in China could make this list, and the choice of Kaifeng is based on its long history of being a commercial and political capital during the Middle Ages. It was at its height of power during the Song Dynasty, and from the years 1013 to 1227 it was likely the largest city in the world.
Cairo – another city built in the Middle Ages to become the capital of a state, Cairo was founded in the year 969. The Fatimid Dynasty created Cairo to rival Baghdad as the most powerful city in the Islamic world, but its growth came about from the trade it connected between Africa, Europe and Asia. Indeed, Cairo would be a place where religious differences did not stop the flourishing of business and commerce. For the rest of the Middle Ages, Cairo and Egypt would be among the wealthiest places in the medieval world.
Florence – Today, Florence is synonymous with art and the Renaissance, and this legacy comes from its rise during the later Middle Ages. Underpinned by the wool trade and banking, this Italian city reached a population of about 125,000 before it was struck by the Black Death pandemic in the mid-fourteenth century.
Hangzhou – the thirteenth-century traveller Marco Polo called Hangzhou “without doubt the finest and most splendid city in the world,” and devoted several pages of The Travels to describing this city. He marvelled and described seeing 12,000 bridges, 3,000 public baths, and how all of its streets were paved with stone or bricks. During the time Marco Polo visited, Hangzhou was likely the largest city in the world, with estimates reaching two million residents. It was a huge centre of trade, connecting China by sea to the Middle East, Africa and other parts of Asia.
Paris – this was the most important city in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Paris was not only the home for the French kings, but it also served as a religious, commercial and educational centre for France. An official survey done in 1328 revealed that Paris was the home to 61,098 households, and scholars estimate that this gave it a population of between 220,000 and 270,000.
Angkor – This vast city, with an area size of at least 1,000 square kilometres, flourished between the ninth and fifteenth centuries. The capital of the Khmer Empire in present-day Cambodia, at its peak Angkor was home to as many as 900,000 people. Its elaborate infrastructure network and temples make it a much-visited and studied example of the urban world in the Middle Ages.
Jerusalem – in terms of population, this city is certainly the smallest to make this list – in the twelfth century it was home to perhaps 30,000 people, and by the sixteenth century as little as 5000. It makes this list for the religious importance it held among Jewish, Christian and Muslim people during the medieval period, which often led to inter-religious conflict. Western Europeans launched the First Crusade at the end of the eleventh century in order to take Jerusalem, and it would continue to be fought over during the following centuries.
What other cities came close to making this list? Cities such as Rome and Chang’an were definitely important, but can be considered to be ancient cities that were in decline for much of the Middle Ages. Cities like Córdoba, Marrakesh and Merv would for a time rise to great heights, but only for relatively brief periods. Meanwhile, London and Beijing would be cities that were more regionally important in the medieval period, but would become far more powerful in the succeeding centuries.