Did you dream of exploring the world when you were younger? Have movies like Indiana Jones and The Mummy left you with a taste for antiquity and adventure? Well, lace up your boots and dust off your khakis – this is our list of the best archaeological sites in the world.
Mỹ Sơn, Vietnam
Mỹ Sơn is located just an hour west of Hội An in a mountainous, river-bound region of Central Vietnam. Nestled within a two-kilometre-wide valley, these abandoned Hindu temples were once the site of religious ceremonies, as well as a burial place for national heroes and royal members of Champa dynasties. The construction of Mỹ Sơn started in the 4th century, with new constructions and renovations continuing up until it was conquered by the Viet in the 14th century. Today, Mỹ Sơn is partially overgrown with lush vegetation and still immensely beautiful, despite the fact that most of its structures were destroyed by US bombs during the Vietnam War. Visit the temples of Mỹ Sơn to explore one of the longest-used archaeological sites in Indochina.
The Great Pyramid, Egypt
The incredible pyramids in Egypt have fascinated archaeologists, laymen and scholars for centuries. Built in 2560 B.C., the Great Pyramid of Giza represents one of the most impressive feats of human engineering in the world –– it is somehow both the oldest and the most intact of the Seven Ancient Wonders. Despite its fame, nothing can compare to seeing this monument for yourself. Standing almost 140 metres tall, the Great Pyramid was the world’s tallest man-made structure for over 3,800 years.
The Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia
The small town of Lalibela is situated at the base of Mount Abuna Yosef in northern Ethiopia. Lalibela is considered a sacred place and is also a site of pilgrimage for members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Once you arrive in Lalibela, the reason for this will become obvious. An ordinary stroll through the village may lead to places where the earth simply gives way to huge excavations and, sitting squarely in the middle, great churches which were literally carved out of the earth. The complex in Lalibela consists of eleven rock-hewn churches which were built sometime in the 12th and 13th century to represent a new Jerusalem. A system of narrow trenches and tunnels allows you to explore the churches by first descending into the earth before rising, quite deliberately, into the bright light of day.
Machu Picchu, Peru
The ancient village of Machu Picchu is renowned for its quality architecture, innovative engineering, and excellent condition. Clinging to a mountain ridge almost 2.5 kilometres above sea level, the complex of Machu Picchu encompasses homes, plazas, temples, palaces and more than 700 terraces –– all of which were built without the aid of steel, iron or wheels. The town is roughly divided into an upper and lower section, with a large plaza separating the residential and agricultural areas. Spanning over 80,000 acres and boasting an extensive system of roads, trails and irrigation canals, Machu Picchu is testament to the incredible accomplishments of the Inca Empire.
Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania
Situated on an island off the south coast of Tanzania, Kilwa Kisiwani was once the biggest and most powerful trading post on the east coast of Africa. From as early as the 8th century, Kilwa Kisiwani bore witness to a Swahili civilisation reaching the height of its power. Today, mere ruins offer an insight into how Kila Kisiwani would have looked in its prosperity. Walk through the arches, domes and vaults of the Great Mosque, sit on the edge of an octagonal bathing pool in Husuni Kubwa (the sultan’s palace), and explore the public squares, houses and burial grounds scattered throughout the island. Although much of the city remains unexcavated, you can still visit marketplaces where gold, pearls and spices were traded for perfume, pottery and porcelain.
As a major port located less than three hours south of Rome, the ancient city of Pompeii bustled with bars, restaurants, brothels, public baths and homes. However, Pompeii was famously destroyed in 79 A.D. when it was buried in four metres of volcanic ash from nearby Mount Vesuvius. Fortunately, this layer of ash and pumice allowed the city to remain protected from air and moisture for over 1,500 years, leaving today’s visitors with an incredibly detailed picture of everyday life during the first century. Visit the oldest surviving amphitheatre in the world, enter a residential villa and admire the murals which still decorate the walls, and come face to face with sobering plaster casts of the villagers’ final moments.
La Bastida, Spain
Sprawling across four hectares of hillside in the south-east of Spain, La Bastida was possibly the most powerful city in Europe during the Bronze Age. The site is surrounded by an extensive outer wall measuring 300m long and encompassing defense towers, arches, secondary walls and other fortifications. Estimated to be around 4,200 years old, La Bastida shows evidence of advanced metallurgy, urbanism and, interestingly, substantial economic and political inequalities. In fact, experts have even described the site as that of a “violent and classist” ruling society. Although its three-metre-wide, seven-metre-high walls have been withered by over 4,000 years of age and weather, La Bastida remains one of the most important archaeological sites of prehistoric Europe.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Angkor Wat is a magnificent complex of temples located in Cambodia’s northwest. Built in the 12th century to honour Vishnu, the Hindu god, Angkor Wat is to this day the largest religious monument in the world. The entire complex is surrounded by a 190-metre-wide moat, and its sandstone was quarried some 40 kilometres away and floated down waterways on handmade rafts. As the capital of the Khmer empire, the city of Angkor once boasted a population of roughly one million people. The fall of the empire meant that its temples were surrendered to the jungle for centuries, but with restoration efforts commencing in the 1960s, Angkor Wat now attracts millions of visitors every year.
Just three hours south of the Dead Sea, Petra is the former capital city of the Nabataean empire. This incredible city was hand-carved into the pink, red and white sandstone cliffs that are native to the southwest deserts of Jordan. From 400 B.C. until its decline around 600 A.D., Petra acted as a major trading centre between Rome, Greece, Egypt, Syria, China, India, and southern parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Enter Petra by following the Siq, a narrow path which snakes its way between two 80-metre-tall cliffs to arrive at the almost melodramatic facade of Al-Khazneh (the Treasury). If you think that’s impressive, just consider that only 15 percent of the city has been excavated so far –– the remainder lies underground, untouched. What’s more, you can choose to explore Petra’s streets on foot, donkey, or camel.
Terracotta Army, China
In 1974, four seven-metre-deep pits were discovered about 1.5km from the tomb of China’s first emperor: the first is 230 metres long and houses over 6,000 lifelike warriors; the second contains a military guard made up of cavalry, infantry and war chariots; the third contains several high-ranking officers and a war chariot; and the final pit is empty, thought to be unfinished at the time of its burial. The life-sized replicas were built for, and buried near, Emperor Qin Shi Huang for protection in the afterlife. Some say that the emperor killed everyone who had helped build the army, with some estimating that as many as 700,000 people were killed to keep its location a secret. However, now that the underground army is no longer hidden, you too can stand face-to-face with this army of silent warriors.
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