As strange as it may feel to imagine one’s home country ceasing to exist, it’s actually quite difficult for a country to survive in the world. The economy must be managed, industry and the environment must both be helped to prosper, infrastructure must be built and maintained, political alliances must be kept healthy … and a single war or armed conflict can devastate every one of those elements.
Despite these challenges, some of the world’s nearly 200 nations have stood the test of time. Although national boundaries, ruling governments, and capital cities have changed, these nations have survived throughout the years, making them the world’s oldest countries.
Where do countries come from?
The first step in determining the oldest countries in the world is defining exactly what qualifies as a country. Early city-states such as Ur, Uruk, Athens, Rome, and Chichen Itza were incredibly powerful and influential in their time, but they were not countries as we would consider them today. Similarly, the sprawling empires that often conquered and connected these city-states, such as the Roman Empire in Europe and the Han Dynasty in Asia, would not be considered countries. However, countries can be born from the shattered remains of a collapsed empire.
Although few empires exist in the modern era, new countries are still emerging. This typically happens when a territory secedes from an existing country, such as when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) broke into 25 smaller territories (15 of which became countries) from 1988-92 and ceased to exist.
The challenge of determining national birthdays
Establishing a country’s age is not always a simple task. Particularly with older countries, it can be difficult to pinpoint the moment in history when the country officially began. Egypt is an excellent example. Did the country begin in 1922, when the U.K. recognized it as an independent country? Or did it begin in 969, when the Fatimid Caliphate conquered the area and founded the capital city of Cairo? Perhaps it was in 3100 BCE, when the first pharaoh united upper and lower Egypt, creating the First Dynasty? One could easily make a case for any of these dates, as well as several others.
Similarly, the country we know as China is the birthplace of one of Earth’s oldest civilizations, with early evidence of writing that dates back to 7000 BCE and written records of large-scale governments as early as 2070 BCE. However, China’s early history is a series of dynasties in which one warlord or kingdom would conquer the region, then be conquered by another in turn, with the region often fracturing into smaller kingdoms in between. As such, the ruling government and geographical borders of China were in a state of constant flux for thousands of years. Because of this, many historians would say that the country we call China was not born until 1911-1912, when the last feudal dynasty was replaced by a modern republic—in fact, some would move the date clear up to 1949, when the Chinese Civil War ended and China became the communist “Democratic Republic of China,” which we know today.
Other countries with very early evidence of modern habitation include Greece, which has been inhabited by advanced civilization for some 4000 years and whose city of Athens was the first in the world known to have adopted the democratic system, and India, whose first civilization began approximately 10,000 years ago.
Even younger countries can present a confusing case. For example, the United States‘ official birthday is July 4, 1776, the day the 13 original colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. But it could arguably have been when the first native Americans migrated from Asia thousands of years earlier; when Colombus landed in 1492; when the first pilgrims arrived in 1620; or September 3, 1783, when the American Revolutionary War officially ended and Great Britain formally recognized U.S. independence.
Because of complex scenarios such as these, any list of oldest countries changes significantly depending upon how one defines the birth of a country. For instance, if we consider the beginning of a country to be the date with the earliest known evidence of organized government, the list looks like this:
Top 10 Oldest Countries in the World (by date of earliest known organized government)
- Iran – 3200 BCE
- Egypt – 3100 BCE
- Vietnam – 2879 BCE
- Armenia – 2492 BCE
- Korea – 2333 BCE
- China – 2070 BCE
- India – 2000 BCE
- Georgia – 1300 BCE
- Israel – 1300 BCE
- Sudan – 1070 BCE
- Afghanistan – 678 BCE
For comparison, the following list sorts each country by the date that country is believed to have become a sovereign state:
Top 10 Oldest Countries in the World (by date of self-sovereignty)
- Japan – 660 BCE
- China – 221 BCE
- San Marino – 301 CE
- France – 843
- Austria – 976
- Denmark – 10th century
- Hungary – 1001
- Portugal – 1143
- Mongolia – 1206
- Thailand – 1238
Several of the world’s oldest cities have been continuously inhabited for thousands of years. Damascus, Syria, is believed to be as old as 10,000 BCE. Other demonstrably ancient cities include Jericho, West Bank (9000 BCE); Plovdiv, Bulgaria (7000 BCE); and Susa, Iran (7000 BCE).
Finally, for those interested in the more recent end of the timeline, the following are the newest countries in the world as of 2021:
Top 10 Youngest Countries in the World (2021):
- South Sudan – 2011-07-09
- Kosovo (still awaiting full recognition) – 2008-02-17
- Serbia – 2006-07-05
- Montenegro – 2006-06-03
- East Timor – 2002-05-20
- Palau – 1994-10-01
- Eritrea – 1993-05-20
- Slovakia – 1993-01-01 (tie)
- Czech Republic – 1993-01-01 (tie)
- Bosnia and Herzegovina – 1992-03-03*
It is worth noting that positions 11-30 on the list of newest countries in the world are dominated by the 15 former members of the Soviet Union that became sovereign in 1991, including Uzbekistan, Estonia, Kazakhstan, and the Russian Federation.