Timeline of the World’s Largest City

With Niall Ferguson’s recent book discussing the possible end of the West’s exceptionalism, I thought putting this into a historical perspective would be useful. And I decided to do that using the single value of the world’s most populous city over time.

It turns out that this Largest City has changed quite a bit over time, changing locations over thirty times, with a few repeat performers, such as Constantinople and Beijing. It has also been in a number of different regions. So I decided to make a timeline of the world’s largest city, colored by continent over time, with the Middle East colored separately (note that Africa’s brief appearance on the timeline is only visible on the full-size version). A small version with some cities highlighted is below, and a much larger version that is about ten feet tall is downloadable here:

While, the ebb and flow of civilization is more than just a single city, this provides good perspective on the long sweep of history. Any ideas on how to visualize this better?

(thanks to Paul Kedrosky for a pointer to Niall Ferguson’s new book, which inspired me to perform this little visualization)

2 Responses to “Timeline of the World’s Largest City”

  1. Tom March 14, 2011 at 12:49 pm Permalink

    I think timelines work best horizontally, where time increases left to right.

    The interesting missing element here is the size of the city. How many times has the world’s largest changed because the then-largest shrank?


  2. Samuel Arbesman March 14, 2011 at 1:45 pm Permalink

    @Tom these are both good points! My concern with horizontal for the expanded version is that it’s hard to scroll horizontally for such a long time. But adding a size component is important. Maybe that could be the width of the timeline. Thanks!