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7 ancient wonders that you have never heard of

by Jeremy Niester
From Culture Experiences
September 3, 2009

Sure you've heard of the Great Wall of China, the Coliseum in Rome and the Taj Mahal in India.  These are great examples of iconic, captivating sites that make most travellers' "bucket lists."

They're unforgettable, awe-inspiring spots force you to marvel at the skill, smarts and craftsmanship of ancient people who accomplished impressive feats of engineering without the use of computer projections or modern building materials.  But why do some amazing ruins get overrun with tourists while others are forgotten?  

With my sincerest apologies to Indiana Jones, Lara Croft and your university Anthropology professor; brings you 7 awe-inspiring ancient wonders that you've probably never heard of. 

More great articles from Travel the World with Indiana Jones to topadventure destinations; explore the Best-Kept Secret Travel Sites in Mexico; or Discover Machu Picchu.

7 Awesome ancient wonders you've never heard of

All of these are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and are worthy of a visit yet few receive the kind of attention from mainstream travellers that they deserve - usually a factor of politics, poverty, inaccessibility, war, and geography.

Tiwanaku, Bolivia

TiwanakuThis remarkable site was the spiritual and political centre of the Tiwanaku culture. This pre-Hispanic culture flourished across parts of Bolivia, Peru and northern Chile. Tiwanaku prospered as the capital of an empire for almost 500 years, and its people were a precursor to the better-known Incas who encountered the Spanish Conquistadors during their conquest of the Americas.

Today an impressive array of stone door ways, walls, pillars, and buildings remain. These stand as a testament to the sophistication of this ancient civilization. Unfortunately Bolivia does not draw the same kind of attention from tourists as neighbouring Peru, Chile or Argentina, so Tiwanaku wallows in near obscurity despite its historical significance.

Harar Jugol, Ethiopia:

HararThis fortified historic town in Ethiopia sits on a hilltop about 500 km from the capital Addis Ababa, and not too far from the Somalian boarder. Harar is a thriving newer city, while Jugol is the ancient walled town resplendent with narrow streets and whitewashed rectangular homes.

Founded sometime between the 7th and 11th centuries, the city saw it's heyday as a centre of trade, learning and religion in the Horn of Africa during the 16th century.  Independent until 1875, the town contains some 82 mosques and is considered by some to be the "4th holiest city in Islam."  Being situated in a remote part of a somewhat volatile corner of Africa, Harar Jugol is certainly not on every traveller's radar, but those who do visit the city, will be rewarded.  

Archaeological Ruins of Quirigua, Guatemala:

QuiriguaThese ancient Mayan ruins in the south-east of Guatemala play second fiddle to a number of other Mayan sites in Central America and Mexico. Constructed between 200 AD and 850, the history of Quirigua is linked to nearby Copan in modern-day Honduras.

While not the most impressive of ceremonial site associated with the Mayan Empire, Quirigua does contain the tallest stone monuments ever erected in the New World. Despite its location between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific, Guatemala does not attract nearly as many tourists as nearby Mexico or Costa Rica. This is a shame as Quirigua is certainly worth a visit, and the country has a whole has many surprises to offer visitors.

There are tons of other great surprises to be had in Guatemala. Learn more about Travelling in Time to Tikal's Ancient Mayan Ruins to discover Guatemala's Tikal and Quirigua sites.

Al-Hijr, Saudi Arabia:

Al-HijrAl-Hijr or Mada'in Saleh as it is also known, contains the largest collection of Nabataean ruins after only Petra in Jordan. Not unlike world famous Petra, the site contains masterfully carved facades that jet out from the red rock of the surrounding desert. With 111 monumental tombs, 94 of which are decorated, the site demonstrates the complexity of this ancient kingdom of Arab traders who were eventually conquered and assimilated into the Roman Empire in 106 AD.

Al-Hijr is located in one of the most conservative countries in the world, where tourists are expected to follow strict Islamic laws and monitor their dress, actions and behaviour. Saudi Arabia may be a long way away from lifting the veil that cloaks this amazing site from the rest of the world, but if you are willing to experience life in "the kingdom" many great treasures like Al-Hijr and the beautiful city of Jeddah await your journey.

Ancient City of Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka:

PolonnaruwaPolonnaruwa was the second capital of Sri Lanka after the destruction of Anuradhapura in 993. It comprises stunning Brahmanic monuments that date from the 9th to 11th centuries. The beautiful stone reclining Buddha is one of 3 on site carved into solid rock. As monkeys wander about the grounds, travellers no doubt feel privileged to visit such a holy and significant piece of Sri Lanka. While the government recently declared victory over the rebel Tamil Tigers after 25 years of fighting, the threat of violence is not considered over. Partly because of this, Sri Lanka is still not on many mainstream travellers radars although tourism numbers are on the rise.

Ancient City of Pingyao, China:

PingyaoWhile not as ancient as many of the other sites discussed here, Pingyao is certainly no less impressive. Much like fairy-tale Cesky Krumlov does for medieval Europe, this large, well-preserved walled city transports visitors back in time to the China of old.

The Ming and Qing dynasty architecture is both consistent and beautiful as it jumps to life as if straight from the world of Disney's Mulan. Certainly Pingyao should be included on more foreign visitors' itineraries. It is best accessed from Xi'an in Shaanxi, but being situated some 715 km from Beijing makes this pearl  difficult to find in the sea that is mainland China.

Nemrut Dağ, Turkey:

Nemrut DagSituated at the summit of a 7,000 ft high mountain in the Southeast of Turkey, this impressive tomb dating from the 1st century BC is flanked by huge statues of King Antiochus, animals, and various Greek, Persian and Armenian gods. The 30 ft tall decapitated statue's heads are now scattered across the site, but this simply adds to the mystique and surreality of the place today. Bas reliefs found on site are considered to be the oldest depictions of two people shaking hands in known history. While certainly a major attraction for visitors in this region of Turkey, Mount Nemrut is still not a name that can be considered famous the world over.

It's not a popularity contest. . .is it?

Visitors have to want to visit a destination first and foremost, but they also have to be able to visit it. Usually this means that sites or attractions require a sufficient infrastructure in place to provide food, shelter, entertainment and of course access for outside visitors.

MateraMuch of the mystique of Machu Picchu in Peru lies in its mist-shrouded beauty and remote inaccessibility. Sure those thoughtless Incas failed to give a second thought to how they'd inconvenience modern tourists when they choose to plop Machu Picchu high on a cliff surrounded by humongous mountains. But this contributes to the mystique and allure of the place. Luckily (or unluckily some might argue) for the people of Cusco, train tracks and a road to the famous archeological wonder were constructed, and tourism has flourished all over the Inca heartland region high in the Andes mountains. While geographical location is important, it is a factor that can be overcome with modern tourism planning that is primarily driven by visitor demand and the chance to make big money.

Sometimes factors like internal violence, tough regulations on outside visitors or physical inaccessibility limits a travellers ability to visit great archeological sites like many of those listed above. In other cases attractions may simply be passed over for close- by alternatives. While the town of Matera in southern Italy is very impressive, it does not make every traveller's itinerary, especially when time is limited. These are the attractions I feel really sorry for. They have so much to offer; they're interesting, quirky, good-looking, but still they sit home alone on a Friday night. These are the sites that through no fault of their own have lost the popularity contest that is modern tourism (and you thought high school was rough).

Looking to book a trip to one of these destinations? Check out the Trip Builder where you can request a quote from over 104,000 travel agents who are waiting to offer you the best prices on your trip.

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Jeremy Niester icon

Jeremy Niester

Toronto travel writer Jeremy Niester is forever resigned to roam the Earth in search of the inspiring, hilarious, and delicious slices of life that make us all universally similar, but excitingly different.

Located: Toronto Canada
Likes: Culture, History, Trekking, Food & Drink

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