Ten Must-See Ancient Places
There are literally thousands of spectacular ancient places scattered across our planet and it is, of course, impossible to see all of them. So here we highlight ten unique and magnificent sites which are well-worth a visit, or at least further reading. We have purposely chosen not to feature the most well-known ancient sites, such as the Great Pyramids of Egypt, Stonehenge, Machu Picchu and others, as we prefer to draw attention to some amazing places that receive comparatively little attention, but which are no less important.
The Ancient Rock City of Sigiriya – Sri Lanka
Sigiriya is an ancient city, depicted in the featured image, which is built atop a giant megalithic rock that towers 200 metres above the surrounding landscape. It is located in a remote location in the Matale District of the Central Province, Sri Lanka, and has mystified visitors to the site throughout its long and colourful history. There is clear evidence that the many rock shelters and caves in the vicinity were occupied by Buddhist monks and ascetics from as early as the 3rd century BC. However, Sigiriya is most famous for the period beginning in the 5th century when it was transformed into a palace, fortress and pleasure garden by King Kashyapa (Kassapa). Designated a cultural World Heritage Site in 1982, Sigiriya continues to be a site of research, study and speculation as experts try to unveil the mystery and enigma shrouding this historical site.
The Hypogeum Hal Saflieni – Malta
The Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni in Malta is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which is believed to be the oldest prehistoric underground temple in the world. The subterranean structure is shrouded in mystery, from the discovery of elongated skulls to stories of paranormal phenomena, and unique acoustic properties found within the underground chambers. Hal Saflieni Hypogeum is a cultural property of exceptional prehistoric value, dating back approximately 5,000 years and the only known example of a subterranean structure of the Bronze Age. The 'labyrinth', as it is often called, consists of a series of elliptical chambers and alveoli of varying importance across three levels, to which access is gained by different corridors. The principal rooms distinguish themselves by their domed vaulting and by the elaborate structure of false bays inspired by the doorways and windows of contemporary terrestrial constructions.
The Incredible Senegambian Stone Circles – Senegal and Gambia
Throughout human history, mankind has been passionate about building impressive monuments. Very often, this is achieved by building something that is the largest, highest, longest, most expensive, etc. in the world. Nevertheless, some less imposing monuments, rarely given the same attention, are also of great architectural and technological achievement. Take the Senegambian Stone Circles, for instance. On average, the stones forming these circles are 2m in height and weigh up to 7 tons each. Although these are not massive structures like those of Stonehenge in England or the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the incredible feature of the Senegambian Stone Circles is that there are more than 1000 of them spread over an area that is 100 km wide and 350 km in length. Now, this is a truly remarkable achievement.
Ain Dara is a small village in the northwest of Aleppo, Syria, which boasts a remarkable structure – the Ain Dara Temple, located just west of the village. The temple was discovered in 1955, when a colossal basalt lion was found, quite accidentally in fact, which led to extensive excavations of the site. The Ain Dara Temple is an Iron Age Syro-Hittite temple lined with basalt blocks engraved with lions, sphinxes, and mythical creatures. One of the most interesting features of the Ain Dara Temple is the giant footprints carved into the stone floor of the temple. Some scholars have suggested they are animal prints, while others have suggested they depict the footsteps of the gods. The most common view is that they are an iconic representation of the resident deity, carved to show the presence of the deity as he/she entered the temple and approached the throne in the inner sanctum.
The Magnificent Ellora Caves – India
Ellora is situated not far from Aurangabad, in the Indian state of Maharashtra. This site is home to 34 monasteries and temples, extending over a distance of more than 2km. These structures were dug into the wall of a high basalt cliff with incredible craftmanship. Not only is the Ellora complex a unique artistic creation and a technological exploit but, with its sanctuaries devoted to Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, it illustrates the spirit of tolerance that was characteristic of ancient India. It is unclear when the caves were built, and estimates range from between 200 B.C. and 1000 A.D. The oldest caves can be found on the southern side of the cliff and are of Buddhist origin. It has been claimed that they were built between the 5th and 7th century A.D., during which there was a flourishing of the Buddhist Mahayana sects in the region.
The Great Serpent Mound of Ohio – United States of America
The Great Serpent Mound is a 1,300-foot long and 3-foot high prehistoric effigy mound located on a plateau of a crater along Ohio Brush Creek in Adams County, Ohio, and is the largest surviving prehistoric effigy mound in the world. Resembling an uncoiling serpent, the mound is steeped in mystery and controversy. Despite over a century of research, there is no conclusive evidence about what it represents, when it was built, and what its true purpose was, though various astronomical alignments suggest it may have functioned as a type of calendar. The Serpent Mound conforms to the curve of the land on which it rests, with its head approaching a cliff above a stream. It winds back and forth for more than eight hundred feet and has seven distinct coils, ending in a triple-coiled tail. The serpent head has an open mouth extending around the east end of a 120-foot-long hollow oval feature, which is generally viewed as an egg, although other interpretations suggest it is the sun, the body of a frog, or merely the remnant of a platform. To the west of the effigy, is a triangular mound measuring approximately 32 feet at its base and long axis. The Serpent Mound is believed to have been laid out all at once, with a layer of clay and ash, and reinforced with stones.
The region of Cappadocia in central Turkey is home to one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world – deep valleys and soaring rock formations dotted with homes, chapels, tombs, temples and entire subterranean cities harmoniously carved into the natural landforms. Cities, empires and religions have risen and fallen around these unique underground havens, yet they remain occupied to this day. Through the ages, the Hittites, Persians, Alexander the Great, Rome, The Byzantine Empire, Ottoman Empire, and Turkey have all governed this spectacular region of Central Anatolia. One hundred square miles with more than 200 underground villages and tunnel towns complete with hidden passages, secret rooms and ancient temples and a remarkably storied history of each new civilisation building on the work of the last, make Cappadocia one of the world's most striking and largest cave-dwelling regions of the world.
The Architectural Marvel of Madain Saleh – Saudi Arabia
The archaeological site of Mada’in Saleh, previously known as Hegra, is the most famous ancient site in Saudi Arabia. It is also the first archaeological site of Saudi Arabia to be included in the World Heritage List. It is surprising how little known this site is, considering UNESCO describes it as “an outstanding example of architectural accomplishment and hydraulic expertise”. Mada’in Saleh was one of the southern outposts of the mysterious Nabataean people, the same people that built the magnificent city of Petra in Jordan, their ancient capital. Built between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD, Mada’in Saleh is an architectural marvel and a testimony to the skill and craftsmanship of the Nabataean who, 2,000 years ago, carved more than 131 tombs into solid rock, complete with decoration, inscriptions, and water wells.
Chavín de Huántar is an archaeological site located in the Ancash region of Peru, 250 km north of the country’s capital, Lima. It is located at over 3000 m above the sea level and is sandwiched between the desert coast to its west and the tropical Amazonian lowlands to its east. While carbon dating suggests that the site was occupied at least since 3000 B.C., it was around 1500 B.C. that Chavín developed into a sacred site. Chavín became a ceremonial and pilgrimage centre for the religious world of the Andes. Thus, the religious system practiced at Chavín was disseminated over a wide territory of the Andes, as far as the north, central and south coasts, as well as the northern highlands and high jungle of Peru. As a result, Chavín saw a convergence of peoples from different areas, tribes and languages. The religious significance of Chavín are represented in the two temples built at the site. One of the most interesting aspects of this site is the subterranean chambers with their magnificent carvings and sculptures representing animals and mythical creatures.
Rosslyn Chapel (officially known as the Collegiate Chapel of St. Matthew) was a Roman Catholic chapel (it now belongs to the Scottish Episcopal Church) in Roslin, Midlothian, Scotland. Founded in the 15th century by William Sinclair, 1st Earl of the Caithness of the Scoto-Norman Sinclair family, the chapel took about 40 years to complete, perhaps due to the plethora of ornate stone carvings that can be seen adorning the walls throughout the chapel. The exquisite carvings are among the best in the whole of Europe, and portray scenes not found in any other 15th century chapel. The carvings are intriguing as they do not display typical Christian symbology. Rather, many of the ornate designs appear to have their origins in quite different ideologies, some of them quite obviously Pagan. For instance, there are more than 110 carvings of ‘Green Men’ in and around the chapel. Green Men are carvings of human faces with greenery all around them, often with branches or vines that sprout from the nose, mouth, or other parts of the face. According to one interpretation, the ‘Green Man’ is an ancient Celtic vegetation god, peering out from within the carved foliage.