The ancient world was rich with complex civilisations, sprawling metropolises and diverse cultures. Countless cities built in the ancient era, between roughly 3000 BC to 500 AD, still stand – albeit in varying states of preservation.
From the remains of the ancient city of Babylon to lost Roman metropolises, Mayan centres and grand Egyptian settlements, the ancient cities of the world are as varied as they are numerous.
Here are 15 of the most amazing ancient cities to visit.
Angkor Wat is an enormous 12th-century temple complex in Cambodia and the best preserved of its kind. Incredibly grand and ornately decorated, Angkor Wat’s sand-coloured buildings rise up to form five towers, representing the home of the Hindu deities. Friezes and sculptures are found throughout, depicting both day-to-day life from the time it was built and religious events.
Today, Angkor Wat is one of Cambodia’s most popular tourist sites. There is an incredible amount to see and it’s a good idea to get a licensed tour guide. Angkor Wat has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1992.
Machu Picchu is an extraordinary ancient stone city along the Inca Trail in Peru. Believed to have been constructed by the Inca Yupanqui people sometime during the mid-15th century, the ruins of Machu Picchu sit high atop a granite mountain. Some of the most impressive structures include the semi-circular Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Three Windows, the mausoleum and the upper cemetery.
The main Machu Picchu city is surrounded by other sites forming the Inca Trail and some of which take some serious hiking, but are well worth it. It’s also a good idea to stop at the Museo de Sitio Manuel Chávez Ballón at the base of the mountain.
Ephesus is a treasure trove for enthusiasts of Ancient Roman and Greek history, allowing them to walk through its streets and view its magnificent houses, community buildings, temples and stadiums. Some of the most impressive sites include the Library of Celsus, the ruins of which stand two storeys high, the Temple of Hadrian and the Cave of the Seven Sleepers.
A trip to Ephesus usually takes at least half a day – some tours include other local sites such as Priene and Miletus – but history enthusiasts will probably want to enjoy this site for a whole day. There is also a great Ephesus Museum displaying artefacts found in the old city.
Abu Simbel is an archaeological site in Egypt housing a series of incredible Ancient Egyptian monuments, especially a number of rock temples. The most famous sites at Abu Simbel are the two Temples of Ramesses II. The site was rediscovered in 1813. One of the most startling sights at Abu Simbel is the main hall of the Great Temple.
Incredibly, the temples at Abu Simbel were once located elsewhere, but were moved – with the help of UNESCO – to their current location in order to protect them from flooding. The place they once stood is now under water.
Teotihuacan was a holy Mesoamerican city built in around 400 BC in what is now Mexico and forms one of the country’s oldest archeological sites. Characterised by looming stepped pyramids, indeed one of the most impressive aspects of Teotihuacan is the sheer size of these monuments, including the Pyramid of the Sun, which rises 75 metres high. Incredibly well-preserved, Teotihuacan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Today, Teotihuacan is one of the most popular tourist sites in Mexico and includes numerous museums, including the Museo del Sitio, just south of the Pyramid of the Sun where visitors can see various artefacts from the site. Visitors to Teotihuacan can manoeuvre their way through the city via its original streets, although take note that the site is enormous.
Jerash is one of the world’s best preserved ancient Roman sites. Today, tourists flock to see Jerash’s extensive and impressive ruins, including the Temple of Artemis and the Forum with its large ionic columns. Jerash’s original main street, the Cardo, runs through the centre of the site and, with its visible chariot marks and underground drainage system, is fascinating in its own right.
Other must-see aspects of Jerash include its still-functioning 3,000 seat South Theatre, its 2nd century AD North Theatre and its Nymphaeum fountain. Visitors can also see many of the artefacts found during the excavation of the site at the Jerash Archeological Museum.
Carthage was one of the most powerful cities of the ancient world and spawned the powerful Carthaginian Empire which dominated much of the western Mediterranean. The ruins of this famed city can be found on the outskirts of modern day Tunis.
The best way to begin exploring these ruins is probably by visiting Byrsa Hill and the Carthage Museum. The museum hosts a collection of Carthaginian and Roman artefacts including marble sarcophagi and a model of Punic Carthage. Other key points of interest include the impressive Antonine Baths, the Roman Amphitheater, Roman villas and reconstructed Roman theatre of Carthage.
Stunningly well-preserved and imposingly beautiful, Chichen Itza is one of Mexico’s most impressive historical sites. A UNESCO World Heritage site based in the forests of the Yucatan Peninsula, Chichen Itza is actually made up of two cities built by two peoples, the Mayas and the Toltecs.
The site is made up of several surviving buildings including the Warriors’ Temple, El Castillo and a circular observatory known as El Caracol. Accounts vary as to the date of the first settlement at Chichen Itza, placing it between the 6th and 9th century AD when the Mayas built the original city.
One of the best known ancient sites in the world, Pompeii was an ancient Roman city founded in the 6th to 7th century BC. Famously, it was destroyed by the eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The people of Pompeii were completely unprepared for this disaster and its impact, which covered Pompeii in 6-7 metres of ash.
Today, Pompeii is one of the world’s most famous archeological sites. It is a ghost town filled with the bodies of its tragic citizens, many of whom died from asphyxiation and who were preserved by the ash and cinders which buried them.
Mesa Verde National Park or ‘green table’ national park is a breathtaking Native American site dotted with over 4,000 archaeological treasures, including 600 exceptionally well preserved cliff dwellings dating back to 600 AD. Mesa Verde National Park was once the home of the Pueblos, a Native American people who lived there for over 700 years before migrating to New Mexico and Arizona.
Some of the sites, such as the Cliff Palace and Balcony House with its over 150 rooms can only be viewed as part of a ranger tour, for which you can buy tickets at Far View Visitor Centre before attending the sites. It’s also well worth viewing the large collection of artefacts on display.
Herculaneum was a port town established by the ancient Romans in what is now modern Ercolano, Italy. At its peak, Herculaneum would have had around 4,000 citizens and served as a holiday town for wealthy Campanians and Romans.
Like nearby Pompeii, Herculaneum was engulfed by the lava and mud which spewed from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD and, as a result, much of the town was preserved throughout the centuries. Herculaneum arguably withstood the natural disaster better than Pompeii with many of its upper floors still being intact. This, combined with the fact that Herculaneum is less crowded and easier to walk through, makes it a great site to visit.
Apamea (Afamia) is an ancient site in Syria boasting Roman colonnades and a range of other ruins. Said to have been one of the largest Seleucid cities and built in around the 4th century BC, Apamea flourished and thrived as a commercial hub. Indeed, at its peak under the Romans it had a population of some 117,000 people.
Today, most of the remains at Apamea are from the Roman period, but there are also some fascinating structures from its time under the Seleucids, many of which have been restored.
Taxila, also known as the Ancient Gandhāran city of Takshashila, is an ancient site in the Punjab Province of Pakistan, dating back as far as the 6th century BC. It witnessed the evolution of numerous civilizations, including the Persians, Greeks and Hindus.
Taxila is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a great place to discover the roots of Buddhism, the art of Gandhara and the ancient culture of the subcontinent. If you’re only planning a day’s visit, the Taxlia Museum is probably the best place to get an overview and to see some of the relics as well as the artwork.
Taos Pueblo is a Native American settlement in New Mexico’s Rio Grande, USA. The Pueblo community in Taos Pueblo is known to date back to the 14th century, although some archeologists think it was established as far back as the 1st century AD. The Pueblo tribe is one of the most secretive and enigmatic of the Native American communities, meaning that little is known about their culture, however around 150 Pueblos still live in Taos Pueblo.
Incredibly well preserved, Taos Pueblo’s buildings form a beautiful, oft-photographed site. In 1987, Taos Pueblos was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list due to its authentic architecture and original layout. Visits can be somewhat restrictive, particularly as regards Taos Pueblo’s beautiful church, but tours are available offering an insight into the Pueblo culture.
Leptis Magna (Lepcis Magna) is an incredibly well preserved archaeological site in Tripoli, Libya. Originally founded by the Phoenicians as the port of Lpgy in the 1st millennium BC, Leptis Magna later became part of the Carthaginian Empire and was then incorporated into the Roman Empire in 46 BC.
Among the many ruins at Leptis Magna are the marketplace, Severan Basilica, the Forum, the Amphitheatre and the Severan Arch. These structures remain visible today, despite the many invasions that befell Leptis Magna from the 4th century onwards. Leptis Magna is a UNESCO World Heritage site.