What are the tallest buildings in world history? We take modern skyscrapers for granted, but our ancestors likely would have been amazed by any structure above 100 feet. This “race for the sky” has been slow and long, with amazing technological innovations at every turn. We’ve created a short retrospective of the tallest buildings, freestanding structures, and guyed structures. It unfolds a rich architectural story that you can study the history of! Tallest buildings range from the modern skyscraper to the impressive ziggurats of the ancient world and aren’t tied to one specific place or culture. Without further ado, here is the history of the tallest buildings in the world!
What Is the Tallest Building in the World?
The Burj Khalifa, at 2,717 feet (828 meters), is currently the tallest building in the world. It is also the tallest structure in the world of any kind, including self-supporting towers and guyed steel masts. It was topped out in 2009 and formally opened in 2010. Where is the world’s tallest building? It’s in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
The Burj Kahlifa dwarfs the Empire State Building by 1,467 feet, and if you look at a comparison of the Burj Khalifa vs the Eiffel Tower, it’s obvious how far we’ve come within 120 years! But what were the tallest buildings before modern times? This “race for the sky” has taken a long time. Let’s take a short look at the history of the world’s tallest buildings.
World’s Tallest Building Timeline
Here is a list showing the timeline of tallest buildings in the world, which notes each building, its height, and the years that structure was the tallest:
- Tower of Jericho, modern-day Jericho, Palestine (28 feet, 8.5 meters): 8000 – ~4000 B.C.E.
- Anu Ziggurat, modern-day Al-Warka, Iraq (40 feet, 13 meters): 4000 – 2648 B.C.E.
- Step Pyramid of Djoser, modern-day Saqqara, Egypt (205 feet, 62.6 meters): 2648 – 2610 B.C.E.
- Meidum Pyramid, modern-day Meidum, Egypt (307 feet, 93.5 meters): 2610 – 2605 B.C.E.
- Bent Pyramid, modern-day Dahshur, Egypt (332 feet, 101.1 meters – 2605 – 2600 B.C.E.
- Red Pyramid of Dahshur, modern-day Dahshur, Egypt (344 feet, 105 meters): 2600 – 2570 B.C.E.
- Great Pyramid of Giza, modern-day Giza, Egypt (481 feet, 146.6 meters): 2570 B.C.E. – 1221 C.E.
- Old St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, England (489 feet, 149 meters): 1221 – 1311 C.E.
- Lincoln Cathedral, Lincoln, England (524 feet, 159.7 meters): 1311 – 1548
- Mary’s Church, Stralsund, Germany (495 feet, 151 meters): 1549 – 1569
- Cathedral of Saint Peter of Beauvais, Beauvais, France (502 feet, 153 meters): 1569 – 1573
- Mary’s Church, Stralsund, Germany (495 feet, 151 meters):1573 – 1647
- Strasbourg Cathedral, Strasbourg, France (469 feet, 142 meters): 1647 – 1874
- Church of Saint Nicholas, Amsterdam, Netherlands (482 feet, 147 meters): 1874 – 1876
- Rouen Cathedral, Rouen, France (495 feet, 151 meters): 1876 – 1880
- Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany (516.3 feet, 157.4 meters): 1880 – 1884
- Washington Monument, Washington D.C., United States (555 feet, 169 meters): 1884 – 1889
- Eiffel Tower, Paris, France (984 feet, 300 meters): 1889 – 1930
- Chrysler Building, New York City, United States (1,046 feet, 318.9 meters): 1930 – 1931
- Empire State Building, New York City, United States (1,250 feet, 381 meters): 1931 – 1971
- *World Trade Center, New York City, United States (1,368 feet, 417 meters): 1971 – 1973
- *Sears Tower, Chicago, United States (1,450 feet, 442 meters): 1973 – 1998
- *Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (1,483 feet, 451.9 meters): 1998 – 2004
- *Taipei 101, Taipei, Taiwan(1,671 feet, 509.2 meters): 2004 – 2010
- Burj Khalifa, Dubai, United Arab Emirates (2,717 feet, 828 meters): 2009 – Today
*Note: This list of tallest buildings in the world includes freestanding structures — both buildings that are meant to house people and structures like the Washington Monument that are not meant to be occupied. It does not include supported or guyed masts. If you look at our infographic, which has a list of tallest structures in the world, you’ll see that radio and TV towers were actually the tallest man-made things during this time, until the Burj Khalifa was built.
Let’s look at some fascinating details from our world’s highest tower list!
What Was the First Tallest Building in the World?
About 10,000 years ago, a structure 28 feet (or 8.5 meters) high was the highest building on Earth: the Tower of Jericho. (It’s amazing how far we’ve come, isn’t it?) This is the most likely candidate as the world’s first “skyscraper.” This archaeological find is a mystery today; we don’t know of its purpose or full design. It features a steep internal staircase within its thick walls.
Which Historical Building Was the Tallest in the World for the Longest Period of Time?
For 3,791 years, the Great Pyramid of Giza was the world’s tallest building. A timeline like ours can really show how long that is compared to the others! For a reference, the fall of Rome was less than 2,000 years ago. Think about how long ago that was, and then think about how the Great Pyramid remained the tallest building for 1,791 years more!
Note that the Great Pyramid refers to the Pyramid of Khufu, which is at the end of the complex. This pyramid has lost almost 10 meters of height due to erosion since it was built, and the Pyramid of Khafre in the middle sits on higher ground, making it seem the tallest to modern eyes. Nevertheless, Khufu’s pyramid was the tallest freestanding structure throughout most of written history.
What Was the Tallest Human-Made Structure in the World Until 1800?
That was the Strasbourg Cathedral. For most of the Middle Ages, cathedrals battled to be the tallest buildings in the world. History shows us that these cathedrals often didn’t last as long as the pyramids, since many experienced fires and collapsed spires shortly after their long, arduous construction. The Strasbourg Cathedral, however, kept its title as tallest for more than 200 years.
What Was the First Man-Made Structure Over 1,000 Feet?
This absolutely incredible feat of engineering was the Chrysler Building, but sadly, it only remained the tallest for one year. In 1931, the Empire State Building surpassed it. This “race for the sky” was an intensely competitive endeavor!
If you make a world’s tallest buildings comparison, you can see that the tallest tower of the world till now completely dwarfs others on the list. The tallest buildings often stayed within or around 500 feet tall until modern times. We’ve shot up toward the sky, but how long will our structures last? Will we build something as sturdy as the Great Pyramid?