This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)
The world is home to a plethora of fascinating ancient ruins, from crumbling cities to temples that have withstood the test of time. Many of these ancient societies were incredibly innovative and forward thinking. Just take a look at their meticulous city planning and incredible feats of engineering; some of which we are yet to fully understand. Many of the methods used to create these ancient cities, temples, and monuments remain rather mysterious, as building them in this day and age would still be considered an impressive feat. Some of the most captivating ancient ruins are full of thousand-year-old mysteries that will boggle even the most curious of minds.
From its perch above the city of Athens, the Acropolis topped by the Parthenon can be seen from any corner of the city. First built and inhabited by Pericles in the 5th-century, the Acropolis was eventually transformed into a city of temples. These ancient structures were crafted out of bronze and Pentelic marble, and some were even gold plated. Restorations are still ongoing so don’t be surprised to find scaffolding still in place. Many of the original artefacts were relocated to the Acropolis Museum so this is worth a visit while you’re here. As the Parthenon stands in the beating sun, its best visited early in the morning or late at night. This is also when it is least crowded.
- Machu Picchu
A huge tick off the travel bucket list, Machu Picchu is one of the most famous cities of the ancient Incan Empire. This historical fortress lies hidden in the mountains of Peru. So well hidden in fact that it was never found by Spanish invaders when they arrived in the 1500s. They were only found in 1911 by an explorer called Bingham and even this was by accident. He was actually tracing another city known as Vilcabamba. A wonder of advanced engineering, it’s estimated that 60% of the construction was built underground, mainly for fortification and drainage. Today, these walled ruins can only be reached by foot or by train. Don’t miss the secret Machu Picchu Museum for an insider’s look into the Lost City of the Incas.
Derived from the Sanskrit word ‘nagara’, Angkor means ‘city’. Once the capital of the Khmer Empire between the 9th and 15th centuries, it was a thriving ancient metropolis. Today, Angkor is most famous for its Hindu Angkor Wat Temple that claims the title as the largest religious shrine on Earth. It’s famously visited at sunrise when the lighting over the temples is simply magical. But the Angkor Archaeological Park actually includes many more fascinating landmarks aside from Angkor Wat. Over 1,000 temples lie scattered throughout the forest, rice fields and farmlands. Highlights include the jungle-clad and mysterious Beng Mealea Temple with its early library and well-preserved carvings and the 12th-century Bayon Temple that marks the historical center of the ancient city of Angkor Thom.
- Moai Statues
With the tallest weighing in over 80 tonnes, the Moai Statues on Easter Island in Polynesia are iconic. In fact, you’ll probably recognize them from a picture even if you hadn’t heard of them. These 800-plus statues, most of which face away from the sea, were carved from volcanic ash by the Rapa Nui people somewhere between 400 and 1500 AD. Likely created using rudimentary basalt stone picks, each of these enormous monolithic statues would have taken close to a year to complete. There are many theories as to why they were built, including as a way to honor important clan ancestors and because of a believe it would improve the soil.
Crafted out of an impressive two million blocks of volcanic stone, Borobudur in Indonesia is the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Dating back to the 9th-century, it eventually fell into ruin until it was discovered again in the 1800s. Since then, it has been restored to its former glory and is particularly popular at sunrise. The Borobudur monument consists of six square platforms topped by three circular platforms. A pathway of enlightenment leads from the base of the pyramid up through the three levels of Buddhist cosmology, the world of forms, and the world of formlessness. It’s decorated with over 2,000 reliefs and 500 Buddha statues, each one outlining a Buddhist teaching.
The Karnak Temple complex in Luxor, Egypt, is impressive due to its sheer size. Covering an area that’s larger than most ancient cities, it’s dotted with temples, sanctuaries, obelisks, and shrines. It took over 2,000 years to build and each Egyptian pharaoh left their own architectural mark. Walk through the Avenue of Sphinxes and discover the Great Hypostyle Hall. This enormous room filled with towering pylons and solid sandstone columns is one of the most famous and photographed attractions of Ancient Egypt. While you’re here, stop to admire the Sacred Lake and the nearby granite scarab. It’s said that if you encircle it seven times, you will have good luck in love.
The ancient city of Bagan is a captivating temple town in Myanmar. Once the capital of a powerful kingdom during the 11th and 13th centuries, it had over 10,000 temples, monasteries, shrines, pagodas, and stupas in its zenith. In the years since, these sacred sites have fallen into ruin as a result of Mongol invasions, neglect and natural disasters. Just 2,000 temple ruins remain and are scattered over the horizon. While you can explore the Bagan Archaeological Zone on foot, the sheer volume of temples is best appreciated from the air. A hot air balloon ride over Bagan is a worthy addition to the bucket list!
- Chichen Itza
One of the most famous archaeological sites on Earth, Chichen Itza was once a thriving pre-Hispanic city on the Yucatan Peninsula. Built by the Mayans in 600 AD, it was abandoned in 1221 when Mayapan became the new capital. Highlights include the Temple of Kukulkan, a giant stone pyramid with four stairways representing a compass and 365 steps for each day of the year. It is best visited during the spring or fall equinox when the sun creates a light show on the stairs of the pyramid. Other must-see sites include the Temple of the Warriors, the Maya Ball Court, the Wall of Skulls, and the Sacred Cenote that was once a site of human sacrifice. As Chichen Itza is always crowded, it’s best in the early morning or just before closing.
- Terracotta Army
The Terracotta Warriors, also known as the Terracotta Army, are an impressive collection of thousands of life-sized soldiers and horses. Located in Xi’an, China, near the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi, there are around 600 underground pits dating back to the 3rd-century BC. They were discovered by accident in the 1970s when locals were digging for a well point. While many remain unexcavated, three of these pits are open to the public and are enclosed within the Museum of the Terracotta Army. Apart from their sheer volume, what’s interesting about these clay soldiers is that every single face is unique. They were hand-carved with individual features and took around 40 years of craftsmanship in total.
- Ellora Caves
The Ellora Caves are made up of a series of caves, monasteries, chapels and temples carved into the side of a basalt cliff. Out of 100 caves, only 34 are open to the public. Located in Maharashtra, India, Ellora dates back to 600 AD and took Buddhist, Hindu and Jain monks over five centuries to craft. The highlight of the Ellora Caves is the Kailasa Temple. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, it is the largest monolithic sculpture in the world. Other worthy sights include the large preaching Buddha in the Carpenter’s Cave, so-called because of the rock’s resemblance to polished wood. Don’t miss the two enormous statues of Indra in the Chota Kailasha Cave.