10 Oldest Countries in the World

A digital map of Mesopotamia, between the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf
Mesopotamia is known as the "cradle of civilization," but it's still not the oldest on this list. Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images/Dorling Kindersley

How do you determine the oldest countries in the world?

We know how old the Earth is: about 4.54 billion years. But how do you measure the age of a country? Borders and governments change all the time. Sometimes a nation with a rich history is fairly young, like Russia, which formed in 1991 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

For the purposes of this list, we looked at places with a documented history of government or large organized civilizations within areas similar to the boundaries of present-day countries. It's unlikely historians will ever agree on a single "oldest country," but each of the nations on this list is a strong contender.

Here are the top 10 oldest countries in the world.

10. San Marino

This tiny nation on the Italian peninsula holds the Guinness World Record for the oldest existing republic in the world. With a total area of just 24 square miles (62.2 square kilometers), San Marino is one of the smallest countries in the world but has managed to hang onto its independence for centuries. (Vatican City is the smallest country in the world, at just 121 acres or 49 hectares.)

According to tradition, San Marino was founded on September 3, 301 C.E., by St. Marinus. Although historians dispute that founding date, it's true that San Marino has functioned as a self-governing republic since at least the 13th century CE.

The historic city center around Monte Titano is a UNESCO World Heritage site. According to UNESCO, San Marino is the "only surviving Italian city-state, representing an important stage in the development of democratic models in Europe and worldwide."

When Napoleon invaded Italy in his quest to build a world empire, he respected the small country's self-sovereignty, and when Italy unified in 1861, San Marino remained independent through formalized treaties.

9. Japan

Like San Marino, Japan has a semi-mythical founding date. The legendary Emperor Jimmu, a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, is believed to have founded Japan's imperial dynasty in 660 B.C.E,. making Japan the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world.

Historians place the nation's founding somewhat later, around the mid-4th century C.E., when the archipelago's states merged into one.

According to Britannica, "The questions of how the unification of Japan was first achieved and of how the Yamato court, with the tennō ('emperor of heaven') at its centre, came into being in central Honshu have inspired many hypotheses, none of which has so far proved entirely convincing."

While Japan's unification remains murky, historians do agree that Japan has been occupied by humans since Paleolithic times. The archipelago's first inhabitants immigrated from the Korean peninsula via land connections over what is now the Korea Strait.

8. Mexico

Present-day Mexico's history can be traced back to 1200 B.C.E. with the founding of the Olmec civilization. The Olmecs lived along the Gulf of Mexico and southern Mexico and are famous for the huge basalt heads believed to represent Olmec rulers.

The Olmecs likely established the first form of writing in the Americas and participated in extensive trade networks. Their influence can be seen in the Mayan and Aztec cultures that later dominated the area.

7. Greece

The first government in present-day Greece actually predates ancient Greece. Beginning around 1600 B.C.E., the Mycenaean Civilization consisted of multiple kingdoms, including Thebes and Athens, which are some of the oldest continuously habited cities in the world.

"Control is everywhere present in the evidence: walls, roads, inventories, and orders for production," historian Dr. Carol G. Thomas writes in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. "The strong presence of military activity in painted or sculptured representations, as well as in actual weapons and armor, describes the character of Mycenaean control."

The Mycenaean Civilization thrived in Greece until the mid-12th century B.C.E., when Greece experienced its Dark Age. However, the cultural legacy of the Mycenaeans lived on.

As Dr. Thomas describes it, "the Dark Age was not a wall of separation but a bridge of transition that reshaped an inheritance in accord with the difficult circumstances inherent in the Greek environment."

Today, the Mycenaean ruins of Mycenae and Tiryns are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

6. China

Government in China dates back to at least 1600 B.C.E. with the founding of the Shang dynasty, the first nonlegendary Chinese dynasty. (It's possible that evidence will later emerge to support the existence of the earlier Xia dynasty.)

The Shang dynasty controlled the northeast portion of present-day China, extending as far north as Hebei Province and as far west as Henan Province. During Shang rule (circa 1600-1046 B.C.E.), the Chinese created a 12-month, 360-day calendar and began developing the writing system used today.

The archeological site Yin Xu was the capital city of the Shang dynasty in 1300 B.C.E. and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

5. Iraq

Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) is often called "the cradle of civilization." That has to make Iraq pretty old. But how old?

One estimate is 2334 B.C.E., the beginning of Sargon's rule. Sargon united the region's city-states under the Akkadian empire and established the first Semitic dynasty. Sargon ruled from the capital city Akkad (or Agade), believed to be somewhere on the Euphrates River but as of yet undiscovered.

4. Armenia

Armenian historian Movses Khorenatsi's "History of the Armenians" covers the period from creation until 428 C.E. Khorenatsi's account places the founding of Armenia at 2492 B.C.E., but until recently, there was no evidence to back up this early date.

A 2016 study published in the journal Nature found genetic evidence of Armenian origins dating between 3000 and 2000 B.C.E. "We note that these mixture dates also coincide with the legendary establishment of Armenia in 2492 B.C.E.," the study's authors wrote.

“This DNA study confirms in general outline much of what we know about Armenian history,” historian Hovann Simonian told the New York Times.

Genetic mixing decreased suddenly around 1200 B.C.E., "a time when Bronze Age civilizations in the Eastern Mediterranean world suddenly collapsed," the authors wrote. The study also showed a change in genetic makeup around 500 years ago, when the Ottoman-Persian wars split Armenia in two.

If Khorenatsi's account is true, Armenia could be one of the oldest countries in the world.

3. India

In 2023, the United Nations named present-day India the most populous country in the world. It's also one of the world's oldest countries.

The Indus Valley civilization, which thrived on the Indian subcontinent from 2500 B.C.E. until it was replaced by the Vedic civilization around 1500 B.C.E., was the most extensive of the world's three major early civilizations. (The others were Mesopotamia and Egypt.)

The Indus civilization stretched as far west as Sutkagan Dor near the Arabian Sea (in present-day Pakistan) and as far east as Alamgirpur, near India's current capital city of New Delhi.

Despite India's long history, by some measures, the country is only a few decades old. For almost a century from 1858 to 1947, India and Pakistan were part of the British empire. August 15, 1947, is celebrated as Independence Day — when India once again became a self-governing country.

2. Iran

The ancient kingdom of Elam was founded in present-day Iran around 2600 B.C.E. Its capital city was Susa, now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Archeological evidence shows urban life in Susa from the fifth millennium B.C.E. to the 13th century C.E. At its height under Shilkhak-In-Shushinak, Elam extended west to the Tigris River (modern-day Iraq) and south to Persepolis.

Little is known of Elamite culture and religion due to the lack of materials and the fact that the Elamite language has not yet been deciphered.

By another measure, the country is very young. The Islamic Republic of Iran was established in 1979.

1. Egypt

Egypt is the oldest country in the world if we accept its founding as 3150 B.C.E. That's the estimated beginning of the reign of Narmer, the first king of the first dynasty of Egypt, and the end of the period considered predynastic or ancient Egypt.

The Narmer Palette (circa 3200-3000 B.C.E.) suggests Narmer unified Upper and Lower Egypt — on one side, Narmer is depicted wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt; on the other, he wears the Red Crown of Lower Egypt.

Whether or not Narmer actually unified Egypt, the Palette dates to "precisely the period in which Egypt first became a unified, powerful, wealthy, and literate state," historian Robert J. Wenke wrote in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt.

Original article: 10 Oldest Countries in the World

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