Think “ancient ruins” and your mind inevitably wanders toward the Colosseum in Rome or the Great Pyramid of Giza, but the world is full of stunning craftsmanship from another time.
Towards the end of Paul Theroux’s 1995 Mediterranean travel book The Pillars of Hercules, he stumbles across the 1,800-year-old Amphitheater of El Jem in Tunisia, where he describes it as more impressive than the Roman Colosseum. This was as much a surprise to me reading it as it must have been for Theroux seeing it, and it got me wondering: How many other ruins are out there, left unheralded by so many travelers?
Here are a few that have perhaps slipped under your radar.
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Amphitheater of El Jem
Soaring above the dusty low rooftops of the small eastern Tunisian town of El Jem, the Amphitheater of El Jem dates back to around A.D. 238 and is one of the best-preserved Roman stone ruins in the world. Almost 100 feet tall and with enough capacity to seat 35,000 spectators, it’s been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979.
In regard to its majesty, Theroux notes that “it was about a thousand years older than any other building in the town and yet was stronger, more handsome and would probably outlast all the rest of them.”
Don’t just follow the tourist route to Petra if you find yourself in Jordan. Fostering human civilization from the Stone Age to medieval Islamic times, the ruins of the ancient city of Pella date back over 6,000 years and offer a stunning window into societies that have long-since vanished.
Situated within the immense Jordan Valley and surrounded by rocky cliffs and rolling hills, Pella’s just a two-hour drive from Amman and sees far less tourist traffic than Petra.
The Ancient Theater of Fourvière
Originally founded as Lugdunum in ancient Roman Gaul over 2,000 years ago, the French city of Lyon is famous these days for its exceptional gastronomy, yet one of its greatest treasures is nestled in the hills overlooking its Old Town. Offering beautiful views over the city’s crooked roofs and lofty spires, the Ancient Theater of Fourvière was constructed in 15 B.C. and seated 10,000 people.
Playing host to the immensely popular Nuits de Fourvière music festival every summer, it’s still entertaining the crowds 2,000 years later.
You may have noticed that as impressive as El Jem and the Roman Colosseum are, they don’t have complete walls all the way around (a forgivable offense, given their age). This isn’t the case at the striking Pula Arena on the Croatian coast. Constructed between 27 B.C. and A.D. 68, it is the only Roman amphitheater with a complete circular wall and one of Croatia’s architectural wonders.
Looking out over the shimmering Adriatic Sea, its picturesque location is almost as pretty as the arena itself.
Buried deep in the remote Cambodian jungle, Koh Ker is a temple complex dating back to Angkorian Empire of the 10th century. While Angkor Wat draws the vast majority of tourists in Cambodia, this ancient capital, though not easy to reach, is worth the journey. Here you’ll find the Mayan-esque Prasat Thom, a 120-foot tall sandstone pyramid whose seven tiers offer sublime views across the forest.
Sadly, only about two dozen monuments can be visited as most of the sanctuaries are hidden in the forest and the whole area is not fully cleared of landmines.
It’s amazing that ruins as well preserved as Volubilis would be in even better condition had it not been for a devastating earthquake in the mid-18th century. Situated in the verdant green hills of Morocco’s Fez-Meknes region, it developed from the 3rd century B.C. as a Berber settlement before rapidly expanding under Roman rule.
Featuring everything from a handsome forum and triumphal arch to houses and a palace, it’s not difficult to picture how the civilizations here must have lived.
By any metric Greenland is a remote part of the world, so it’s pretty remarkable that the Norsemen of the early middle ages made it as far as they did with such primitive resources, let alone set up an actual settlement. Thought to have been settled around the year A.D. 1000, Hvalsey was a farmstead on the ragged windswept west Greenland coast, with its well-preserved stone church built in the early 14th century.
Sadly, the last written record of the Hvalsey settlement was a marriage at the church in 1408–to this day, nobody knows what happened to them.
Unique civilizations existed all over India long before the British East India Company arrived on the shores of Andhra Pradesh in the early 17th century. Showing a remarkable spirit of tolerance that was characteristic of life in ancient India, the Ellora Caves in the state of Maharashtra are a collection of 34 Buddhist, Hinduist, and Jainist temples painstakingly carved out of the mountainside and packed with delicate works of art.
Dating from A.D. 600 to 1000 and covering an area more than two kilometers in size, they bring life to the impressive religious acceptance of ancient Indian society.
Known in Greek and Roman times as Heliopolis (City of the Sun), Baalbek is an ancient temple complex that includes two of the largest and grandest Roman temple ruins–the temples of Bacchus and Jupiter. Situated in eastern Lebanon, the site was first occupied in around 10,000 B.C. with evidence of prehistoric and Neolithic settlements across the area.
But with their huge columns and ornate decorations, the big draw here is the wonderfully preserved temples, dating from around the second or third century.
While not as visually stunning as some of the other ruins on this list, Göbekli Tepe in south-eastern Turkey might be the most remarkable. Only excavated as recently as the 1990s, the carved stones, sculptures, and megaliths are estimated to be around 10-11,000 years old. Pre-dating Stonehenge by 6,000 years, some researchers even claim it was the site of the biblical Garden of Eden.
Perhaps the world’s oldest temple, visitors to the site have sadly declined in recent years due to the nearby Syrian conflict.
La Ciudad Perdida
Believed to have been built some 650 years before Machu Picchu in Peru, Colombia’s breathtaking Lost City is a remarkable feat of engineering high up in the tropical forests of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. Constructed around the year 800 C.E., Ciudad Perdida is a series of over 200 terraces carved into the mountainside, connected by tiled roads and several small circular plazas.
For brave souls wanting to take on the trek to La Ciudad Perdida, you’re looking at a six-day journey of 32 miles and 1,400 steps, eight riverbed crossings, and dense jungle conditions.
Despite resembling a Greek or Roman amphitheater of sorts, it’s thought that the mysterious Moray ruins in Peru’s Cusco region were actually a large-scale agricultural experiment by the Incans. Consisting of terraced rings descending to a depth of almost 500 feet, the temperature at the top can vary from that at the bottom by as much as 59 degrees Fahrenheit, creating a series of micro-climates that matched many of the varied conditions across the Incan empire.