Myth Trivia: World’s oldest city, Niagara Falls and Antarctica

Geography is the topic for this week’s expedition into the wonderful world of trivia.

Ancient Indian city of Varansi as seen from the River Ganges (Photo by Bob Taylor, all rights reserved)

CHARLOTTE, NC, January 13, 2016 – It’s time for some geographical trivia as we begin the new year. Do you know what is the oldest city in the world or why Antarctica is a continent and the Arctic is not? Perhaps most intriguing is the story about the day Niagara Falls stopped falling. That should “wet” your appetite for trivia.

Oops, maybe that should be “whet.”

1 – What is the oldest city in the world?: The great American author Mark Twain once wrote that the Indian city of Varanasi was “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend.” Despite that pronouncement, there is still a wide-ranging debate swirling about that burning question, namely, which city can actually claim the honor of being the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.

Much of the argument centers around the definition of what constitutes a “city.” The question is largely academic, which makes for an interesting discussion but gets us no closer to an answer.

For example, some scholars claim a settlement is not a city until it does away with self-sufficiency and begins commerce. Other, oddly enough, believe the genesis of a city is when it develops plumbing. In addition, there is also a controversy as to whether cities could predate agriculture.

The Dome of the Rock in Old Jerusalem (Taylor)
The Dome of the Rock in Old Jerusalem (Photo by Bob Taylor, all rights reserved)

About the only certain conclusion that can be determined is that the oldest continuously inhabited city is most likely in the Middle East due in large part to the ancient Fertile Crescent.

Damascus, Syria is a popular favorite because it is name-checked in the book of Genesis in the Bible and there is evidence of a settlement there as far back as 9,000 BC.

That said, Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, once rivaled Cairo and Constantinople (today known as Istanbul) as a major metropolis, one that was considerably more important long before Damascus assumed primacy. There is evidence of habitation in Aleppo as far back as 6,000 BC. But excavations in the north have revealed there may have nomads there 5,000 years before that.

Jerusalem and Beirut also occasionally get the nod as oldest city. Indeed, Jericho, currently part of the West Bank, has evidence of at least 20 successive settlements on the site dating back to 9,000 BC. Recall the story about Joshua and the Battle of Jericho where “the walls came tumbling down.” Apparently Jericho had a serious affinity for walls with architectural defensive structures that were approximately 12-feet high and 6-feet thick.

Perhaps more interesting however, is that Jericho was once the private estate of Alexander the Great. It was also a gift to Cleopatra from Mark Anthony. Cleo then leased it to King Herod.

The argument for Jericho loses strength, however, because it was often abandoned, sometimes for centuries at a time.

As you can see the situation is fluid with new discoveries popping up all the time. And given the current world situation, it may be many more decades before a true determination can be made about what locale is really the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city.

As our humorist friend Samuel Clemens might say, “Never the Twain shall meet.”

2 – Why is Antarctica a continent?: This one is simple, but fascinating. The northern Arctic has no land mass beneath it. It is nothing more than frozen sea ice.

Frozen Antarctica sits on top of a vast land mass (Beltram Travel)
Frozen Antarctica sits on top of a vast land mass (Beltram Travel)

Antarctica, on the other hand, though covered with ice like its northern counterpart, is a land mass covered with ice. Hence it qualifies as a continent. In fact, estimates say the Antarctica ice cap contains 70% of the world’s fresh water. For comparison purposes, the five Great Lakes of North America only comprise 21% of the globe’s fresh water.

The only other substantial source of fresh water on this planet is the Amazon River which discharges so much water into the ocean that it remains drinkable nearly 200 miles into the sea from the river’s mouth.

3 – The day Niagara Falls stopped falling: The date was March 30, 1848 when a farmer on the American side of the falls went for a walk and noticed there was nothing more than a trickle of water where Niagara Falls was supposed to be.

By dawn, local residents were in a state of panic. With the muddy river bed exposed thousands of fish died and souvenir seekers went on scavenger hunts to pick up guns, bayonets and tomahawks.

In 1848, Niagara Falls dried up due to a blockage of ice upriver (wikipedia)
In 1848, Niagara Falls dried up due to a blockage of ice upriver (Image via Wikipedia)

Initially, some people speculated this was a sign of Armageddon. People flocked to churches by the thousands seeking forgiveness for their sins.

After several hours, word from Buffalo arrived with the explanation. Powerful southwest gale winds had pushed massive chunks of ice to the extreme northeastern tip of Lake Erie, blocking the lake’s outlet to the Niagara River.

Soon the un-falls were becoming as much of an attraction as the falls themselves. As people crossed the riverbed on foot and horseback, there was considerable danger because it was impossible to predict when the rushing river water would return.

The water did not flow on March 31 either, meaning that the day the water returned was, ironically, April Fool’s Day.

Well I’ll be dammed!

Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.

Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (

Read more of What in the World and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News

Follow Bob on Twitter @MrPeabod


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