The world is littered with the ancient ruins of man-made cities and settlements that stretch back thousands of years. Represented are 50 ruins that embody some of the outstanding achievements of humanity across various cultures and civilisations.
1 – Masada
Masada are the ruins of an ancient fortress and palace, built in the 1st century BC on a plateau by King Herod, overlooking the dead sea in Israel. After the destruction of the Second Temple during the “Great Revolt”, Masada was the centre of an epic siege occurring around 73 to 74 AD.
2 – Axum/Aksum
Axum/Aksum are the ruins of the capital of the Aksumite Empire, located near the base of the Adwa mountains in Ethiopia. The Empire was founded around 400 BC and grew into a major trading power that lasted until the 10th century AD. The wealth of Aksum is represented in the architectural legacy of the Empire, from the giant Stelae obelisks to the ornate palaces left behind.
3 – Pueblo Bonito
Pueblo Bonito are the ruins of an ancient Puebloan “Great House”, located in modern-day New Mexico, in the United States. The Puebloans or Pueblos, were an ancient Native American culture that developed a series of major construction projects across Utah and parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. Pueblo Bonito is the largest example of a “great house” that was planned and constructed in stages between AD 850 to AD 1150.
4 – Sigiriya
Sigiriya are the ruins of an ancient city, located in the Matale District in the Central Province of Sri Lanka. The Cūḷavaṃsa, a written chronology of the monarchs of Sri Lanka credits King Kashyapa I with the construction at Sigiriya, which developed into a complex urban city centred on the Sīnhāgirim, meaning Lion Rock (a large granite peak that rises 200 metres above the surrounding plain).
5 – Mohenjo-daro
Mohenjo-daro, meaning ‘Mound of the Dead Men’ is an archaeological site and ancient city complex, located west of the Indus River in Larkana District, Sindh, Pakistan. Mohenjo-daro was designed on a grid plan layout, comprising of rectilinear buildings built from fired mortared bricks and sun-dried mud-brick that covered an area of 741 acres.
6 – Meroë
Meroë, also called Medewi is an archaeological region and the ancient capital city of the Nubian Kingdom of Kush, located on the east bank of the River Nile in Sudan. The Nubian Pharaohs created a revived period in Egyptian culture, in both religion, art and architecture, including a new phase of pyramid building not seen since the “Age of the Pyramids” during the Old Kingdom.
7 – Persepolis
Persepolis is the ceremonial capital city of the Achaemenid Empire, also called the First Persian Empire that covered an area of 2.1 million square miles from the Balkans and Eastern Europe proper in the west, to the Indus Valley in the east. The first evidence of occupation dates from around 515 BC, possibly established by Cyrus the Great (who founded the Achaemenid Empire), but the first phase of major construction was during the reign of Darius I.
8 – Mari
Mari is an archaeological site, located near Abu Kamal on the western bank of the Euphrates in Syria. Unlike many cities that grew from an earlier settlement or nucleus of settlements, Mari was purpose-built as a city during the Mesopotamian Early Dynastic period I around 2900 BC by either the Sumerians, the Kish civilisation or the East Semitic speaking people from Terqa in the north.
9 – Hattusa
Hattusa was the capital of the Hittite Empire, centred in modern-day Boğazkale, Turkey. The Hittites were an ancient Anatolian people, who established an empire covering Anatolia, northern Levant, and Upper Mesopotamia. Around the middle of the 17th century BC, King Hattusilis I established Hattusa as his capital on a section of a mountain slope at the southern end of a small fertile plain.
10 – The Maunsell Sea Forts
Although not ancient, the Mansell Sea Forts are certainly worthy of a mention. Located off the English coast in the Thames and Mersey estuaries, the Maunsell Forts are Second World War defensive platforms that were built to defend the UK against enemy aircraft. Named after the civil engineer responsible for their design; Guy Maunsell, construction of the forts begun in 1942 until they were eventually decommissioned in the 1950’s. Maunsell designed two distinct fort concepts for deployment, the singular Naval Forts and the cluster array Army Forts.
11 – Qatna
Qatna, also called Katna is a ruined ancient city, located near the village of al-Mishrifeh in the Homs Governorate of Syria. Qatna was built on a limestone plateau on the shores of the Mishrifeh Lake (that dried up during the end of the Bronze Age). By the Middle Bronze Age I (2000 BC), Qatna had established itself as a Kingdom, bordered by the Yamhad to the north, the Mari to the East and the Canaan to the south. The Kingdom centred on the city of Qatna, which had become a metropolis and trading hub, covering an area of 270 acres.
12 – Merv the Great
Merv, also known by many names such as Alexandria, Antiochia in Margiana and Marv-i-Shahijan or “Merv the Great” was an ancient city located in present Turkmenistan. Several cities have existed during different periods at Merv, with the earliest recorded occupation dating from around 3000 BC. The first city period was founded around 500-600 BC, as part of the Achaemenid (First Persian Empire) expansion by Cyrus the Great.
13 – Guyaju Caves
Guyaju Caves (also called the Yanqing Ancient Cliff House) is a cave complex located on the slopes of Tianhuang Mountain in the Yanging District of China that was discovered in 1984.
The cave system comprises of 350 chambers, in a system of 117 caves that were hewn from the granite rock face of a secluded gorge, covering an area of around 24.7 acres (100,000 square meters). No dateable archaeological evidence has survived, nor any mention in historical literature, so the true origins of who constructed Guyaju remains a mystery.
14 – Ciudad Perdida
Ciudad Perdida, translated in Spanish as the “Lost City”, also known as “Teyuna” and “Buritaca” locally is an archaeological site in the jungles of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia. Archaeological evidence suggests that the city was founded around AD 800 by the Tayrona (also spelt Tairona), a Pre-Columbian culture that first occupied the region at the beginning of the 1st millennium AD and founded around 250 settlements. Ciudad Perdida most likely served as the region’s centre, supporting a population of around 2,500-3,000 inhabitants.
15 – Venta Silurum
Venta Silurum was a Roman town in the province of Britannia, established around AD 75 in the modern village of Caerwent in South East Wales. The town was located on a major Roman highway between Isca Augusta (Caerleon) and Glevum (Gloucester). Venta Silurum became the Romanised capital of the defeatured Silures (a tribal confederation), whose ordo (local council) provided local government and administration for the district.
16 – Timgad
Timgad, also called Thamugas or Thamugadi are the ancient ruins of a Roman city, located near the modern-day town of Timgad in the Aurès Mountains of Algeria. Timgad was founded by Emperor Trajan around AD 100 as “Colonia Marciana Ulpia Traiana Thamugadi” and served as a Roman colony for veterans of Trajan’s army. The colony was intended to function as a bastion in Roman Africa against the Berbers, a mix of ethnic indigenous inhabitants who resided mostly in North and Western Africa.
17 – Tanis
Tanis is an archaeological site and ancient Egyptian city on the Tanitic branch of the Nile River delta near the modern-day town of Ṣān al-Ḥajar al-Qibliyyah. Tanis was built as the capital of the 14th nome of Lower Egypt, with the earliest Tanite buildings dating from the 21st Dynasty, the first Dynasty of the Third Intermediate Period, lasting from 1069 BC to 945 BC. Many of the materials used to construct the city were repurposed masonry and stone from nearby population centres such as the former capital of Pi-Ramesses (Per Ramessu).
18 – Takht-e Soleymān
Takht-e Soleymān are the ruins of an ancient complex, located near the modern-day town of Takab in the West Azerbaijan Province of Iran. The earliest occupation dates from the 5th century BC during the Achaemenid period (also called the First Persian Empire). Takht-e Soleymān’s first phase of construction was during the Sassanian period around the 5th and 6th centuries AD where the site was called Shīz. The Sassanian’s built a fire temple of the Zoroastrian faith called the Athur-Gushnasp (Azargoshnasb) around the sacred Avestan Chechasta Lake.
19 – Cliff Villages of Bandiagara
The cliffs of Bandiagara is a large geological escarpment rising above the surrounding flatlands in Mali that contains various archaeological sites and 289 ancient settlements. The cliffs were first settled by the Toloy, an ancient troglodyte culture between the 3rd and 2nd century BC. In the 11th century AD, the cliffs were settled by the Tellem, a Sub Saharan group that built many of the existing dwellings and structures around the base of the escarpment as well as directly into the cliff-face.
20 – Khami
Khami are the ruins of the former capital of the Kalanga Kingdom of Butua near Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. The Kingdom of Butua emerged after the collapse of Great Zimbabwe in the mid-16th century into a Tolwa state around AD 1640. The Kingdom was ruled by the Tolwa dynasty, who’s prosperity came from trading gold and cattle with Arab and Portuguese traders.
21 – Pella
Pella is an archaeological site and the historical capital of the ancient kingdom of Macedon. Pella was founded next to the modern-day town of Pella, near the Macedonian Gulf in northern Greece. Most scholars believe that Pella was built as the capital for Archelaus I, who was King of Macedon from 413 to 399 BC, although some attribute Pella to Amyntas III, who ruled Macedon from 392 to 370 BC. Pella is famed as the birthplace and ruling seat of Philip II and his son, Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great who succeeded Philip II to the throne at the age of 20.
22 – Skellig Michael
Skellig Michael are the ruins of a monastic settlement located on a twin pinnacle crag, off the coast of County Kerry in Ireland. It is speculated that a monastery was founded on Skellig Michael during the 6th century AD, due to the remoteness and the abundance of rock for construction. The earliest definitive record mentions the monks on Skellig during the 8th century AD in a transcript about the death of ‘Suibhni of Scelig’.
23 – The Great Pyramid of Cholula
The Great Pyramid of Cholula is a temple complex believed to be dedicated to the god Quetzalcoatl in the San Andrés Cholula, Puebla municipality of Mexico. The Cholula pyramid is the largest by volume in the Americas, in addition to being the largest known pyramid by volume in the world, measuring at its base 450 by 450 metres (in comparison to the Great Pyramid of Egypt measuring 230 by 230 metres or the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán that measures 220 by 230 metres).
24 – Salona
Salona (full name – Martia Iulia Valeria Salona Felix) are the ruins of the ancient capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia, located in the modern-day town of Solin in Croatia. The earliest occupation of Salona dates from the 7th century BC, where an Illyrian settlement was established near the banks of the River Jadro on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. After the Romans conquered the region and established the province of Illyria, followed by Dalmatia, Salona was elevated to the status of the provincial capital after siding with Gaius Julius Caesar in the civil war against Pompeius and Marcus Licinius Crassus of the first Triumvirate.
25 – Nan Madol
Nan Madol are the ruins of the former capital of the Saudeleur Dynasty, located on Temwen Island off the shores of the island of Pohnpei, in the modern-day Federated States of Micronesia. The city was constructed sometime between AD 1200 – 1500 with a distinctive megalithic architecture that used pieces of a columnar basalt quarried from a volcanic plug on the opposite side of Pohnpei.
26 – Ostia Antica
Ostia Antica is an archaeological site and harbour of ancient Rome, near the modern-day Lido di Ostia in the X Municipio of the commune of Rome. Ostia Antica was founded on the mouth of the Tiber River and was attributed by the Romans to the fourth King of Rome, Ancus Marcius who reigned during the 7th century BC. The earliest archaeological evidence dates from the 4th century BC, with a Roman castrum being constructed in the 3rd century BC to protect the coastline of Rome that later developed into one of Rome’s first colonia.
27 – Aquae Sulis
Aquae Sulis, meaning “the waters of Sulis” was a Roman town in the province of Britannia, located in the modern-day city of Bath in England. The site was first occupied by the Iron Age Dobunni, who worshipped the Goddess Sulis at a sacred hot spring. After the Roman conquest across Britannia in AD43, a formal temple complex was constructed at Aquae Sulis around AD60 and was adapted to the worship of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare, and the sponsor of arts, trade, and strategy.
28 – Kuélap
Kuélap is a large pre-Columbian walled city, fortress (debated) or temple complex built by the Chachapoyas, also called the “Warriors of the Clouds”, a culture of the Andes living in the cloud forests of the southern part of the Department of Amazonas of present-day Peru. Kuélap is located on a limestone ridge 3000 metres above sea level in the mountains overlooking the Utcubamba Valley. The site was established in the 6th century AD, with the main period of construction occurring between 900 and 1100 AD.
29 – Serjilla
Serjilla is an abandoned settlement, part of a group of 40 similar sites known as the “Dead Cities” that are organised into 8 archaeological parks in northwest Syria. The Dead Cities formed a centre of agriculture for the region, supplying wheat, grapes, olives and wine for Antioch and Apamea from the Roman classical period when the Byzantine Empire was near its peak.
30 – The Ellora Caves
The Ellora Caves is a large rock-cut monastery temple complex located in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, India. The complex has over 100 caves, features a multi-faith collection of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain sculptures and monuments that date from AD 600 to 1000. These consist of 12 Buddhist (caves 1–12), 17 Hindu (caves 13–29) and 5 Jain (caves 30–34) caves as well as monasteries dedicated to each religion.
31 – Great Zimbabwe
The Kingdom of Zimbabwe was a medieval kingdom of 150 tributaries that existed from AD 1220-1450 in modern-day Zimbabwe. The Kingdom was centred on the capital, Great Zimbabwe, located near Lake Mutirikwe and the town of Masvingo. The capital was constructed in the 11th century during the late Iron Age and continued to be expanded up until the 15th century. Spanning an area of 1780 acres at the Kingdoms height, Great Zimbabwe would have housed up to 18,000 inhabitants.
32 – Derinkuyu
Derinkuyu is an underground hive city in the Derinkuyu district, Turkey, one of 36 proposed underground city complexes found throughout the region of Cappadocia. According to the Turkish Department of Culture, the soft volcanic rock was first excavated by the Phrygians (an Indo-European culture from the 8th–7th century BC) who constructed primitive dwellings, whilst other sources have attributed early construction to the Persians or Hittites. By the Byzantine period, the city contained a labyrinth of tunnels and chambers, covering an area of 445 km2 (172 sq miles) that could house a population of up to 20,000 inhabitants.
33 – Ani
On the eastern borders of Turkey in the province of Kars lies the ruined Armenian city of Ani. Renowned as a cultural and commercial centre on the Silk Road, Ani grew to become a bustling metropolis of over 100,000 inhabitants at its height. Ani was first mentioned in Armenian chronicles in the 5th century that described a fortress settlement of the nobles of the Kamsarakan dynasty.
34 – Rutupiae
Rutupiae (Richborough Castle) are the ruins of a Roman Saxon Shore Fort located in Richborough, Kent in the United Kingdom. Although a matter of scholarly debate, historians generally agree that Rutupiae was the landing site for the Claudian invasion of what would become the Roman province of Britannia in AD 43. Because of its position near the mouth of the Stour, Rutupiae became a major British port under the Romans and the starting point for the road now known as Watling Street.
35 – Choquequirao
Choquequirao, meaning “Cradle of Gold” in Quechua is an archaeological site in the Vilcabamba mountain range, overlooking the Apurimac River in Southern Peru. Choquequirao was built by the Inca sometime in the 15th – 16th century and covers an area of over 4447 acres at an elevation of 3050 metres.
36 – Maijishan Grottoes
The Maijishan Grottoes is an elaborate range of rock-cut ceremonial chambers, containing over 7200 Buddhist sculptures and 100 square metres of murals in Tianshui, northwest China. They were first constructed in the Later Qin era (a state of Qiang ethnicity of the Sixteen Kingdoms) around AD 384–417.
37 – Hadrian’s Wall
Hadrian’s Wall (Vallum Aulium) was a defensive fortification in Roman Britannia that ran 73 miles (116km) from Mais at the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea to the banks of the River Tyne at Segedunum at Wallsend in the North Sea. Construction began in AD 122, following the route of the Stanegate road to the south and was completed in just seven years. 16 Stone Forts were constructed every five Roman miles (a Roman mile is a thousand paces) and in-between were 80 milecastles, numerous turrets, 6 supply forts and an earthwork known as the Vallum that was erected south of the wall.
38 – El Tajín
El Tajín is a ruined ancient city of the Classic era of Mesoamerica, located in the highlands of the municipality of Papantla in Mexico. El Tajín, named after the Totonac rain god and meaning “of thunder or lightning bolt” was first occupied around 5600 BC by nomadic hunters and gatherers that evolved into sedentary farmers. The first city builders are contested by archaeologists, with some theories suggesting the Totonacs and the Xapaneca, or possibly the Huastec around AD 100.
39 – Tintagel
Tintagel are the ruins of a medieval fortification located on a headland next to the modern-day village of Tintagel in Cornwall, England. Tintagel developed into a prosperous stronghold and centre of trade, which archaeologists propose was an elite settlement inhabited by a powerful local warlord or even Dumnonian royalty. In 1138, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain gave rise to the mythical figure of King Arthur, which Geoffrey associates Tintagel as the site where Uther Pendragon, King of Britain seduced Queen Igerna (wife of Duke Gorlois of Cornwall).
40 – Salamis
Salamis is an archaeological site and an ancient city-state, located at the mouth of the River Pedieos in Cyprus. According to mythology, the city was founded by Teucer, the son of King Telamon of Salamis Island. The city prospered as a centre of Greek culture and art, adopting the Greek alphabet in Cyprus in place of the older Cypriot syllabary.
41 – Ma’rib
Ma’rib is the ancient ruins of the former capital of the kingdom of Saba in modern-day Ma’rib in Yemen. The city flourished as a centre of trade on the caravan routes, that linked the Mediterranean with the Arabian Peninsula and held a trade monopoly on the movement of frankincense and myrrh in the region. Some biblical scholars suggest that Ma’rib was the centre of the Kingdom of Sheba, although ruins in many other countries, including Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia and Iran have all been credited with the same distinction.
42 – Chan Chan
Chan Chan is an archaeological site and ancient capital of the Chimú Kingdom, located at the mouth of the Moche valley in an arid section of the coastal desert of northern Peru. The Chimú culture emerged around AD 850-900, having succeeded the Moche culture and controlled an area of 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) of coastline from Piura in the north to Paramonga in the south. The Kingdom was centred on Chan Chan, a large adobe city that covered an area of 4942 acres, making the site one of the largest pre-Columbian cities in South America.
43 – Volubilis
Volubilis is an ancient Berber city that many archaeologists believe was the capital of the Kingdom of Mauretania. By the 3rd century BC, the Carthaginians had established a proto settlement and constructed a temple dedicated to the Punic god Baal. The inhabitants were seminomadic pastoralists with Berber ancestry who were a culture with the ethnicity of several nations, mostly indigenous to North Africa and some northern parts of West Africa.
44 – Thera
Thera is an archaeological site and ancient city located on the Greek island of Santorini, also called Thera. The city was founded by Dorian colonists sometime during the 9th century BC. According to mythology – Theras (a descendant of the Phoenician ruler Cadmus and son of the king of Thebes, Autesion) established the city, naming the island and his new settlement, Thera.
45 – Koi Krylgan Kala
Koi Krylgan Kala, also called Qoy Qırılg’an qala locally is an archaeological site in the Ellikqal’a District of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, within Uzbekistan. Koi Krylgan Kala was constructed around 400 BC to serve as a large ceremonial centre and complex during the Chorasmian, Afrighids dynasty that ruled over a large oasis region called Khwarezm. At its centre, is a monumental building laid out on a circular plan with eternal fortified walls and 9 towers that encompass a circle 87 metres in diameter.
46 – Skara Brae
Skara Brae is a Neolithic settlement on the Bay of Skaill in Orkney Scotland that dates from 3180 to 2500 BC. The inhabitants of Skara Brae used flagstones, layered into the ground, and filled the spaces with earth and middens (domestic rubbish) to construct their homes. Given the number of homes, it is estimated that around 50 people inhabited Skara Brae and are known as the Grooved ware people (based on the pottery style).
47 – Carthage
Carthage was the capital of the Carthaginian Empire, located on the eastern side of Lake Tunis in Tunisia. The city was founded as a colony by the Phoenicians, an ancient Semitic-speaking thalassocratic civilisation that originated in the Levant region of the eastern Mediterranean. Although the foundation date is disputed, Timaeus of Taormina, a Greek historian places Carthage’s founding in 814 BC, a date that is generally accepted by historians. With the emergence of the Roman Republic, a sustained rivalry ensured for the dominion of the western Mediterranean.
48 – Hardknott Roman Fort
Hardknott Roman Fort, also known as Mediobogdum in the Ravenna Cosmography is a Roman Fort constructed at the Hardknott Pass in the Lake District, Cumbria, England to guard against raids by the Scots and Brigantes. The fort is built on a rocky spur at an altitude of 800 feet and is one of the highest forts constructed in the Roman province of Britannia (the highest being Epiacum/Whitley Castle). Hardknott Fort dates from around the 2nd century AD, during the reign of Hadrian and was garrisoned by the Fourth Cohort of Dalmatians from the Balkans and infantry soldiers from Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
49 – Montezuma Castle
Montezuma Castle is a limestone cliff dwelling constructed between AD 1100 and 1350 by the Sinagua. First mentioned by European-Americans in the 1860’s, the monument was mistakenly named for the Aztec Emperor “Montezuma” and although not a castle in the traditional sense, it served as a multi-story complex that could offer defence from attacking enemy tribes. The castle is situated 27metres up a limestone cliff and housed between 30-50 people in 25 rooms. The overall complex is split over five levels and covers an area of almost 370 m2.
50 – Gümüşler
Gümüşler Monastery is an ancient Byzantine monastery carved out of rock in the modern-day town of Gümüşler in Turkey. Gümüşler was called Tracias during the Byzantine period and was a centre for religious learning, constructed sometime between the 8th-12th century AD. The monastery was built by carving the structure from a single tuff rock mass formation and consists of a square-shaped courtyard 15 metres deep, and with a church comprising of four freestanding closed aisles based on the Greek cross plan.
Header Image Credit : Y.Shishido