The world is filled with more ancient sites than one could see in a lifetime, but many of these treasures elude the hordes of tourists, who tend to flock to popular tourist attractions. While monuments like the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat, the Colosseum, and Pyramids of Egypt should undoubtedly be visited at least once, don’t miss out on these equally impressive sites. Here are 10 lesser-known wonders of the ancient world that will fill you with awe.
1. Sigiriya Rock Fortress, Sri Lanka
Sigiriya Rock Fortress, in Sri Lanka, is located in the Central Province and is also known as the ‘Lion’s Rock’. The ancient rock fortress and its surroundings are of immense archaeological significance, with the fortifications having been sculpted out of a massive rock column that rises to a height of 660 feet. The huge city complex and the fort, itself, were built around 1500 years ago, during the reign of King Kashyapa. With the end of his reign the fortress came to serve as a mountain monastery for Buddhist monks, just as it had long before King Kashyapa. The World Heritage Monument is also notable for spectacular frescoes that may have adorned the walls of the structure in the centuries past. Today, only some traces of the frescoes survive.
2. Tower of Hercules, Spain
The Tower of Hercules is located in the city of Corunna, Galacia, the northwestern region of Spain. The remarkable structure is imposing and dominates the magnificent landscape. It may not be Spain’s best-known monument to the world outside, but it is certainly worth a visit. It is the only lighthouse of its kind, as there is no other surviving example from Greco-Roman antiquity that still boasts of structural integrity and continued usage. Built in the first century C.E., the tower stands 180 feet tall and offers spectacular view of Spain’s north Atlantic coast and Corunna harbor.
3. Bagan Ancient City, Burma
Bagan Ancient City should rightfully be one of the top tourist attractions in Southeast Asia, but it is sadly relatively unknown and overlooked. This off course makes it even more attractive to those looking for tourist-worthy sites, minus the tourists. The ancient city was once an important center for the ancient Burmese kingdoms, starting out as the capital for the Kingdom of Pagan in the 9th to 13th centuries. During the golden era of the Pagans, the plains of Bagan housed a huge population and had thousands of temples and pagoda. The remnants of many of these structures dominate the landscape today, presenting a surreal sight of beauty and lost civilizations. Located in Myanmar, Bagan has long been forgotten by international tourists because of the years of neglect and shoddy restoration efforts by the military regime that until recently ruled the country with an iron fist.
4. Leshan Giant Buddha, China
The Leshan Giant Buddha is a colossal monument that testifies to the ingenuity of ancient civilizations. Located in China’s Sichuan Province, the structure is situated at the confluence of three rivers and is carved into the stone cliffs. While the wanton destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, in Afghanistan, may have made them a household name, the Leshan Giant Buddha should be just as famous. The rock-cut sculpture stands at over 232 feet tall and spans a width of 90 feet. Construction of the monument began early in the 8th century and it took almost a hundred years to reach completion.
5. Derinkuyu Underground City, Turkey
Cave sites are always a source of great fascination to most tourists today, probably because of their importance as dwelling sites in prehistoric times, as well as for their use during ancient and medieval times. Derinkuyu, in the Nevşehir Province of Turkey, is therefore one of the most fascinating archeological sites for visitors. It is not just a single cave site or dwelling, but an entire ancient multi-level underground city. The city extends to a depth of around 200 feet and probably sheltered around 20,000 inhabitants, along with their livestock and food stores. This enormous lost city was carved out during the 7th and 8th centuries, but reveals immense planning with numerous above-ground doors, ventilation ducts, cellars, passages, and tunnels.
6. Newgrange, Ireland
Stonehenge is perhaps the United Kingdom’s best-known ancient monument, but Newgrange, in neighboring Ireland, is just as impressive and also dates to roughly the same period. Older than the Egyptian pyramids, and shrouded in mystery, the rounded dome of the structure rises out of the lush green plains of County Meath, as if a part of the natural landscape. Newgrange comprises of a large circular mound, with a retaining wall and engraved curbstones. Without the stone walls the site would simply appear as a perfectly circular mound, but within it there is a stone passageway and interior chambers. Although its true significance is now lost with time, it is most likely that the monument had religious significance, as it is perfectly aligned to allow light to flood the inner chamber on winter solstice.
7. Stone Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe
The continent of Africa is filled with ancient wonders, but most of them are sadly not very well-known to the outside world. Great Zimbabwe is notable because of its ancient history, as well as its modern lineage. The site has given its name to the modern state of Zimbabwe and is also a part of its cultural identity. The huge grouping of stone-walled enclosures and towers that dominate the Zimbabwean plateau constitute Great Zimbabwe. The origins of the ancient kingdom are traced to the early 11th century, with the stonework having been erected by the local Shona people or other indigenous populations like the Bantu. Little is known about the ancient kingdom and why it mysteriously vanished around 600 years ago, but the intricate planning, elaborate masonry, curved walls and steps, and the incorporation of natural rock formations continues to enchant archeologists even today.
8. Chand Baori, India
Chand Baori is relatively unknown to most Indian and international tourists, but it is a spectacular site that one must visit. Located in the majestic state of Rajasthan, India, it is a square step-well that is characteristic of the region. Chand Baori was constructed more than a thousand years ago, sometime between the 9th and 10th centuries. Going down 13 storeys deep and lined with double staircases, the well extends to a depth of around 100 feet, where an emerald green pool of water greets you. The unique architecture of India’s step-wells can be observed here, as it is one of the best preserved examples and is also regarded as being among the deepest and largest of its kind.
9. Nalanda Ruins, India
Famous in antiquity as a fabled center of learning and knowledge, Nalanda was long renowned for its university and library. Unfortunately, this important site that flourished in the fifth to thirteenth centuries eventually suffered a decline and was lost to time; until it was rediscovered in the nineteenth century. The ruins of Nalanda are spread across an area of over 30 acres and will captivate the imagination of visitors. The incredible site has numerous Buddhist monasteries, brick temples, Buddha sculptures, meditation halls, classrooms, and lots more. Nalanda’s ruins have also yielded precious artifacts that include sculptures, coins, seals, and inscriptions.
10. Ruins of Tikal, Guatemala
Tikal is the site of an ancient city, located in the lush green rain forests of Guatemala. It is part of Guatemala's Tikal National Park and is also classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ancient city served as the capital of a powerful Kingdom and is part of the Mayan heritage. The city reached its peak during the 3rd to 10th centuries CE, but traces of monumental architecture at Tikal have been dated as far back as the 4 BCE. These ancient ruins may not be as well-known as the famous Machu Pichu, but they are no less enchanting.
The next time you decide to set out on a quest to explore the wonders of the ancient world, don’t forget to include some of these lesser-known attractions on your itinerary. Our planet is literally littered with remnants of our past and you can be sure to find such hidden treasures in every part of the world.