16 ancient architectural wonders

There is something magical about ancient architecture that’s stood the test of time. Holding strong through war, famine, disease, and more, these buildings and ruins continue to leave a mark on the world.

Highlights
Paigah Tombs, Owaisi Nagar, Hasnabad, Santosh Nagar, Hyderabad, Telangana 500059
One of Hyderabad’s lesser-known gems: the Paigah Tombs are intricate, ornate, and often deserted. Members of the noble Paigah class are buried here, and a visit is peaceful and haunting — and beautiful. A photographer’s dream.
Al Bairat, Al Qarna, Luxor Governorate, Egypt
Without the crowds busling through, we have access to compose some phenomenal shots and take advantage of the perfect light. Here, at Medinet Habu, Temple of Ramses III, we captured the detailed reliefs and vibrant color remaining on the columns in Peristyle Hall.
Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
Crowds may swarm upon it daily from sunrise onwards, but exposure hasn’t dulled the impact of the largest religious monument in the world. Commissioned by King Suryavarman II in the 12th century as the centerpiece of the mighty Khmer empire, the structure is inspired by Hindu sacred design and is estimated to have taken around 30 years to build. The biggest surprise upon visiting might be learning that the vast complex of spires, moats, frescoes, cloisters, and balustrades was constructed in such speedy fashion. You won’t be alone while witnessing it, but sunrise over the iconic temple remains one of the essential experiences in Southeast Asia. A return in the afternoon when the camera-toting hordes have dispersed is also advisable.
Acropolis District, Athens 105 58, Greece
See our full list of Where to Go in 2015. According to legend, the ancient gods battled it out to become Athens’ patron deity. The showdown came after the Phoenicians founded a city at a giant rock near the Aegean some two and a half million years ago. The gods of Olympus issued a challenge: the deity who could provide the most valuable legacy for mortals would become the city’s namesake. Athena, goddess of wisdom, produced an olive tree, symbol of peace and prosperity. Poseidon, god of the sea, pounded his trident into the ground and out came a saltwater spring (or a horse, depending on the legend you read). The gods decided Athena’s gift would serve the city better with food, oil, and wood. To this day, her legacy is revered throughout Greece. Named after Erechtheus, a mythical king of Athens, the Erechtheion is Ionic architecture at its finest, easily recognizable by the Caryatids, six larger-than-life maidens modeled on women from ancient Karyai who seem to be casually supporting its southern portico. Those holding up the porch now are plaster casts; the originals are preserved in the Acropolis Museum in Athens.
Piazza del Colosseo, 00184 Roma RM, Italy
No matter how many postcards you’ve seen of Rome’s iconic Colosseum, you just don’t get it until you pass beneath its crumbling arches. Built by Emperor Vespasian in 72 C.E., the huge amphitheater held 50,000 spectators and marked its opening with 100 days of brutal spectacles like gladiator combat and animal fights. The Colosseum was in use for four centuries, and now you can tour the ruins. Walk through the Hypogeum, an intricate series of tunnels and elevators originally used to transport animals, slaves, and gladiators, to the performance above, or take a moonlit tour to have one of the world’s most storied structures all to yourself.
Mathura Road Opposite, Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia Dargah, Nizamuddin, Nizamuddin East, New Delhi, Delhi 110013, India
Look familiar? The Taj Mahal continued the tradition of architecture that began largely with Humayan’s Tomb in Delhi. Made from red sandstone (like much of Delhi’s famous landmarks), the tomb was built in 1562. Go inside the tomb for a look at the block carvings of the central chamber which evoke the marble lattice screens seen in Mughal architecture, like the tomb in Fatehpur Sikri in Agra.
Siwa Oasis, Siwa, Matrouh Governorate, Egypt
Siwa is a desert oasis in the heart of Egypt’s Great Sand Sea, just 30km east of the Libyan border. Traditionally constructed of sand, salt and mud, many of the town’s buildings literally melted away in the torrential rains of 1926, leaving behind eerily beautiful ruins amidst this lush enclave in the middle of nowhere. The buildings were reconstructed with more modern day materials, but some of the original town structures remain, and can be explored with the aid of helpful local guides.
Piazza della Rotonda, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
This 1st-century wonder will take your breath away. Not only is it one of the city’s most ancient sites, it’s been in continuous use for centuries. Originally built as a private temple, today it is a Catholic church and the resting place of Italian kings and the artist Raphael. Make the most of a wet day in Rome and watch as the rain falls through the center oculus.
Carretera Merida-Campeche Km. 78, 97890 Uxmal, Yuc., Mexico
Overshadowed by its larger and more well-known cousins, Palenque and Chichén-Itzá, Uxmal (“Oosh-mahl”) is the ruins of an ancient Maya city located near present-day Campeche. In its heyday, Uxmal was one of the largest cities of the Yucatan peninsula with a population of about 25,000 Maya. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Ancient Maya architecture in this part of Mexico is referred to as Puuc architecture, and Uxmal is a prime example of this style. Though there are some Puuc structures in Chichén-Itzá, Uxmal is unique in all of Mexico. Puuc design is most notable for buildings with a plain lower façade and a richly decorated upper façade. Carvings most commonly found include serpents and latticework. Uxmal is dedicated to the Maya rain god, Chaac, and you can see his image everywhere. On the day we were here, it was blisteringly hot and humid; I could’ve used some rain! When I first laid eyes on the four buildings that make up the complex known as the Nunnery Quadrangle, I thought they were the most elegant Maya ruins I had ever seen. The clean lines of the buildings give them a modernity that is surprising considering Uxmal was built more than 1,000 years ago! The carvings on the upper facades are just spectacular and give the entire structure a very delicate feel. Uxmal is located close to Chichén-Itzá, so if you go to Chichén, consider going a bit further to visit Uxmal. You won’t regret it!
Dharmapuri, Forest Colony, Tajganj, Agra, Uttar Pradesh 282001, India
The Taj Mahal is referred to as “the jewel of Muslim art in India,” by UNESCO in its listing on the World Heritage Site registry. The Mughal ruler Shah Jahan had the truly magnificent white marble mausoleum built in 1632–1648, in memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. For its construction, artisans from all over the empire, Central Asia, Iran, were summoned and the final result of their stonework, calligraphy, carvings, gardening, woodwork, and soaring domes remains one of the universally admired masterpieces of world heritage. Allot ample time to tour the site—besides the mausoleum, there is a mosque, a guest house, cloisters, courtyards, gates, and vast gardens. In addition to being stunningly beautiful from afar, the iconic site is evocatively romantic and up-close, the intricate details in its architecture, ornamentation, and history, are revealed.
Calle Real de la Alhambra, s/n, 18009 Granada, Spain
A visit to Granada, Spain isn’t complete without a stop at the Alhambra. The Moorish architecture, robust gardens, and stunning views of Granada combine to make a truly memorable experience. Start your day with a tour of the Generalife Gardens. Take it slow to fully enjoy the blooming flowers and stunning water features at every turn. Make sure to pre-book your tickets to the Alhambra or you may miss out on a visit to the breathtaking Nasrid Palace portion. Tickets are easily purchased through the official Ticketmaster site, where you are able to schedule a morning or afternoon time slot. If you are unable to secure a ticket to The Nasrid Palace you can still purchase a pass to the Generalife Gardens and Alcazaba Fortress, and it’s well worth the time and money.
Machu Picchu, 08680, Peru
This month marks the hundred-year-anniversary of the “re-discovery” of this Inca citadel by Hiram Bingham. Machu Picchu deserves its clichés--'place of a lifetime,’ ‘bucket-list destination’...'mystical’...'amazing’... Sometimes, it’s okay to simply stick with others’ adjectives; the thesaurus isn’t always a good thing. You’re not necessarily an ‘unoriginal tourist’ just because you agree with scores of published accounts that describe a site the same way. The distinctive trapezoidal windows of Inca construction almost always frame compelling views--the magic of stone. You’re in the heart of the Andes; for a moment, stop seeking words. Drink in the view.
Wadi Musa, Jordan
Petra flourished more than 2,000 years ago, trading with Rome as an equal before being abandoned after a series of earthquakes in the 4th and 6th centuries C.E. It wasn’t until the 19th century, when European explorers “rediscovered” it, that the ancient city returned to the public consciousness. Now, visitors can walk down the narrow canyon of the siq to the city entrance—as dramatic an approach as any to a tourist attraction on the planet. The canyon opens up onto the carved facade of the Treasury, Petra’s most iconic site. From there, you can explore the cliffside tombs with their colorful bands of sandstone, the Street of Facades, and the amphitheater hewn from living rock. The ancient center lies some distance off, along with the splendid old Monastery, which sits at the top of a steep but rewarding climb. Consider buying a three-day ticket and visiting at different times of day to enjoy the changing light—early in the morning is best for the Treasury, while late afternoon is better for the Royal Tombs.
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