Throughout the years, ancient ruins have remained popular sites for historic photographers – and for a good reason! Their architecture is often quite distinct and unique, allowing you to take truly striking images. The surroundings of these ancient structures will also often bring something of interest into your photographs – may it be wild jungle growing over Mayan pyramids or sand dunes surrounding Egyptian temples.
For this list we have included magnificent sites from across the world, ranging from pre-Incan cities in South America to Roman ruins in Britain. So take your camera and tripod and explore 10 of the most incredible ancient ruins for historic photography. If you’re lucky, one of your images could even win our Historic Photographer of the Year Award!
The Colosseum is a site like no other. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, nothing represents the sheer power and magnificence of the Roman Empire like this stunning piece of ancient architecture. It was built in the 1st century AD by the Emperor Vespasian as a place for the people of Rome to enjoy. Originally named the Flavian Amphitheatre after Vespasian’s family name, the man who brought the Roman Empire back from the brink would not live to see its completion.
Since the fall of the Empire, the Colosseum has suffered from various destructive forces, including extensive pillaging of its stone and marble as well as natural disasters such as earthquakes. In fact, its materials contributed to many famous Roman buildings such as St Peter’s Cathedral and the Palazzo Venezia.
Chan Chan is an impressive site in Peru and the world’s largest adobe city as well as the largest pre-Colombian city in the Americas. As the capital of the ancient Chimu civilisation, the city was developed in around 1300 AD and would have reached its peak in the 15th century, after which the Chimu were overtaken by the Incas and the city was abandoned.
Whilst the site is a mere shadow of what it would have been in its heyday, it’s still undeniably impressive. The Palacio Nik-An is the only area (at the moment) which is partially restored and open to the public – visit the others at your own risk. Muggings have been known to take place.
Yaxha in Guatemala’s Petén region is an ancient Maya site containing several incredible pyramids as well as other structures such as ball courts and also carved stelae. It’s believed that there are over 500 structures at Yaxha, and that at its peak, the city would have spanned over 92 square miles and had a population of over 40,000 people. As such, it is the third largest Maya city to be uncovered behind Tikal and El Mirador.
Yaxha is remote, but all the more magical for it, and it’s definitely worth the effort it takes to get here. Some even find they prefer it to the nearby Tikal.
When it was completed, Diocletian’s Palace was an impressive fortified structure with residential and garrisoned wings separated by a road. The Palace was lavish, with several apartments, three temples and the Peristil, which was a ceremonial court. It also housed Diocletian’s mausoleum, an octagonal structure where the emperor was later buried.
Walking around Split today, it is difficult to know where Diocletian’s Palace ends and the city begins. The two are intricately combined. Some of the more obvious and impressive original ruins include the fortification gates, particularly the Silver Gate, the Temple of Jupiter, the underground passageways and the Peristil. It caters well for the tourist trade with several walking tours of the historical sites.
One of the best known ancient sites in the world, Pompeii was an ancient Roman city founded in the 6th to 7th century BC and famously destroyed by the eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.
There’s no denying the world’s enduring fascination with Pompeii – to say it’s like stepping back in time is something of a cliche, but in the case of Pompeii, it’s hard to describe the experience in any other way. There’s a sense that you’re intruding on a different world – houses, temples, shops, cafes and even a brothel are all visible today, in amazingly good condition. Some of the frescoes found are phenomenal.
Characterised by sturdy stone slab structures insulated and protected by the clay and household waste which holds them together, Skara Brae is a stunning example of the high quality of Neolithic workmanship and is a phenomenal example of a Neolithic village.
Skara Brae was inhabited between 3,200 and 2,500 BC, although it was only discovered again in 1850 AD after a storm battered the Bay of Skaill on which it sits and unearthed the village. Subsequent excavation uncovered a series of organised houses, each containing what can only be described as “fitted furniture” including a dresser, a central hearth, box beds and a tank which is believed to have be used to house fishing bait.
Situated roughly two miles south of Hadrian’s Wall in the heart of the Northumberland countryside, Vindolanda is home to some of the most remarkable archaeology from Roman Britain. Its history spans several centuries; it is a must see site for anyone wanting to know more about the ancient history of Britain.
Over the past 50 years, annual excavations at this site have revealed incredible amounts of new information. Information that has not only shone more light on the site’s history, but also on the minutiae of everyday life for those people who lived on this north western frontier of the Roman Empire almost 2,000 years ago.
The Karnak Temple or rather the complex of temples of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt, is one of the most impressive of Ancient Egyptian sites and once formed part of the city of Thebes. Together with the Luxor Temple and the Valley of the Kings, the Karnak Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Vast and full of fascinating sites, Karnak Temple is Egypt’s second-most visited site (following the Giza pyramids) and today constitutes Karnak Open Air Museum. Most people take a couple of hours at the Karnak Temple, but this is only really enough to scratch the surface of this ancient complex, seeing only the Precinct of Amun-Re.
Knossos or ‘ko-no-so’ was an important ancient site found on the outskirts of the modern city of Heraklion on Crete. It is believed that Knossos was first established a place of settlement in Neolithic times in around 7,000 BC and then continuously inhabited until the Ancient Roman period. The site also features as one of our top ten tourist attractions of Greece.
Today, the most famous of these is the Knossos Palace, also known as the Labyrinth for its incredible maze of passageways and rooms. A guided tour takes around an hour and a half. Other important buildings at Knossos include the 14th century BC Royal Villa with its pillar crypt, the Little Palace, believed to date back to the 17th century BC, the ornately decorated House of Frescos and the Villa of Dionysos, a 2nd century BC house from the Roman period. The drainage system at Knossos is also fascinating in its own right, indicating an incredible level of sophistication.
Similar in design and architecture to the far better known Machu Picchu, Choquequirao is almost devoid of tourists due to its isolated position, which makes it far more atmospheric and worth the effort it takes to get there.
The site lies in the Vilcabamba mountains, on a truncated hill top – it’s about 3,000m above sea level, so expect to feel light-headed on your way up. It’s spread over 700m, and rises 65m within the site itself. The site has multiple terraces and plazas, and takes time to explore fully.
The grand ceremonial centre was the heart of the city, reserved for the elites – access was through a single doorway which was tightly controlled. As with other sites, it was centred around the solstices. Stone channels would have carried ceremonial water to other places across the site.