5 cities with the richest ancient history

Ancient cities are scattered across the world and evoke the fascination of tourists and historians. Some, like Cairo, contain ancient monuments and architecture spread across otherwise modern cities. Others, like Tikal, have been hidden for some time and have been dug up, excavated, or otherwise discovered for modern audiences to explore.

Some ancient cities were built during our more modern era, although many were erected between 3000 BCE and 500 Common Era (CE) on the Gregorian calendar. Several are home to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Sites.

All of the towns on this list fit the bill of Cultural Significance and Outstanding Universal Value and are popular tourist haunts for the curious at heart, whether for archival purposes or simply to satisfy curiosity!

Ellora, India

The Kailasa Temple, Cave 16 in Ellora, India

Carved into the mountains of Maharashtra in India are more than a hundred stone caves, thirty-four of which can be viewed by the public.

Historians date the cave artwork to around 600 to 1000 CE, and the art and architecture contain a mix of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain temples and monasteries. These different religions had caves close to each other indicating harmony between cultures. Every religion is represented in carvings, statues and temples of deities and gods, although many daily activities are also depicted. Besides spiritual and labor pilgrimages, historians also believe that the Ellora Caves represented an important commercial center where trade regularly took place.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

A skyline of the ancient city of Angkor Wat, Cambodia, at sunset
A skyline of the ancient city of Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Built as a religious “mega-city” in the 12th century by the Khmer Empire, Angkor Wat in Cambodia covers around 500 acres within the Angkor Archaeological Park.

The temples and towers are covered in scenes of life from the 9th to 12th century and although the encroaching jungle kept tourists at bay during the first part of the 20th century, when UNESCO declared Angkor Wat a World Heritage Site in 1992, Cambodia was able to benefit from the increase in tourism to the site.

Roma, Italy

The Colosseum in Rome, Italy
The Colosseum in Rome, Italy

The metropolitan city of Rome is densely populated with almost four and a half million inhabitants and is the capital of Italy, making it a perhaps surprising addition to our list. What was originally a small trading town, founded in 783 BCE, has grown into an empire with sites focused on globalization. Whether the empire stretched too far militarily and fiscally until Roman culture and theology were simply subsumed by Christianity is a matter of debate among historians.

What is undeniable however, is the enduring cultural significance of the ancient architecture of the city of Rome, mixed as it is among the new and cosmopolitan.

The Colosseum is perhaps Rome’s most recognizable historical landmark and was built around 2,000 years ago, where gladiators fought to the death for the pleasure of emperors. The Roman Forum was a marketplace and meeting center where the daily affairs of Roman life took place and remains a popular tourist and archaeological site to this day. For adventurers more inclined towards the macabre, the Roman catacombs contain ancient cemeteries below the city in Christian and Jewish sections as well as pagan Roman burials.

Beijing, China

Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China
Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China

Beijing is another example of the blending of the modern with the ancient. Like Rome, Beijing holds the status of the capital of the People’s Republic of China and is home to a huge population of twenty-one million.

Despite its modern amenities, Beijing was established in 1045 BCE and is home to seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites including the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace.

The first sections of the Great Wall of China were built in the 7th century BCE, and the most recent and recognizable were built during the Ming Dynasty (1386-1644). It is considered one of the seven wonders of the world.

Other World Heritage Sites in Beijing are Zhoukoudian Site Museum, Ming Dynasty Tombs, Chengde Hill Station, Peking Man, Imperial Tombs of Ming and Qing Dynasties, Mukden Palace and Chengde.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu, an ancient stone city, with blue sky and clouds above
Machu Picchu, an ancient stone city, with clouds above

8,000 feet in the Andes sits an Inca citadel completely hidden from the outside world until 1911. Machu Picchu is believed to have been built around 1450 CE but was abandoned in 1572 to protect it from Spanish invaders.

The Incas appear not to have used written language, much of what we now know about Machu Picchu was gleaned by archaeologists and historians based on artifacts they found there. Despite everything that we do not understand about this ancient city, Machu Picchu remains a point of fascination for both tourists and historians.

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