10 of the best ancient ruins … that you’ve probably never heard of

10 of the best ancient ruins … that you’ve probably never heard of

Koh Ker, Cambodia

Lost to forest and abandoned for over a thousand years, you’ll find
this little-visited site in northern Cambodia. It’s less than two
hours’ ride from its more famous cousin, Angkor Wat, and well worth a
visit to see more than two dozen temples emerging from the jungle. A
highlight is a seven-tiered pyramid, 40 metres high, which is thought
to have been the state temple of Jayavarman IV and is often compared
to Mayan temples. The site was the capital of the whole Khmer empire
from 928-944AD.
– A new road means day trips to Koh Ker are possible from Siem Reap,
but there are also now a few basic guesthouses and an ecolodge for
those who want to stay longer

Choquequirao, Peru

Photograph: Zachary Bennett/Corbis
Little sister to the better-known Machu Picchu, Choquequirao is one of
the most-rewarding travel destinations in the Americas. Only a few
hundred people visit during the dry season (May to October), compared
with thousands each day at Machu Picchu. At 3,000m, the site sits on a
cloud-forest ridge, 61 miles west of Cusco in the remote Vilcabamba
range. The city was built by Topa Yupanqui, son of the man who built
Machu Picchu, Pachacuti, some time in the 15th century. It’s a two-day
trek to Choquequirao from the town of Cachora (though a cable car link
is planned), and exploring it and the outlying sites of Capullyoc,
Hurincancha and Casa de Cascada with a guide will take several days.
– Buses run from Cusco to Ramal, close to Cachora, where guides and
pack mules can easily be hired

Ani, Turkey

The ruined church of Saint Gregory in Ani. Photograph: Alamy
There are some wonderful treasures in the far east of Turkey and one
of them is the site of Ani. Capital of the Armenian Bagratid dynasty
until the 11th century, and situated on key trade routes, it
flourished for over 400 years and at its peak was larger than any
contemporary European city, with a population of over 100,000. It was
destroyed by an earthquake in 1319, and today its ruins are spread
over a wide area, with the remains of spectacular churches, a
Zoroastrian fire temple, palaces and city walls. Take a picnic and
spend a day exploring the site.
– Ani can be reached by taxi or hire car from the town of Kars, 46km
away and served by internal flights from Ankara or Istanbul

Conimbriga, Portugal

Photograph: Getty Images
This is one of the largest Roman settlements in Portugal – roughly
halfway between Lisbon and Porto, near the village of
Condeixa-a-Nova. It was a prosperous town in Roman times and, while
not the largest Roman city in Portugal, it is the best
preserved. Although only a small section of the site has been
excavated, there are baths, luxurious houses, an amphitheatre, a
forum, shops, gardens with working fountains and city walls to
explore, with many wonderful mosaics still in situ. In its centre is
one of the largest houses discovered in the western Roman empire, the
Casa de Cantaber, which is built around ornamental pools in superb
colonnaded gardens and has its own bath complex and heating
system. There is also a good museum, cafe and picnic site. Pick up a
guidebook from the museum and have a few euro coins in your pocket to
make the fountains work.
– Easyjet and Ryanair fly to Porto and Lisbon from about £50 return

Han Yangling, China

Terracotta figures in the Han Yangling museum. Photograph: Alamy
A smaller version of the Xi’an terracotta warriors, this
often-overlooked site is the the tomb of E mperor Jing Di , who died
in 141BC, and his Empress Wang. The site, 20km north of Xi’an, is well
laid-out, with glass panels over the burial pits so you can see
everything in situ, and there is also an excellent museum. The warrior
figures here have individual faces; their arms were made of wood and
they wore clothes. Sadly, both have disintegrated now, though examples
can be seen in the museum. The pits are filled with figurines of
courtiers and animals, and you can see the fossilised remains of
wooden chariots.
– Han Yangling is easily reached by taxi, from Xi’an international
airport (25 minutes)

Pella, Jordan

Photograph: Corbis
Frequently bypassed for the larger sites of Jerash and Umm Qais ,
Pella, in the north Jordan valley, is a multi-period site, occupied
since neolithic times. It has some stunning Roman/Byzantine remains,
and recent excavations have unearthed a Canaanite temple dating from
1700BC and early-bronze-age city walls dating from 3200BC. Take the
time to climb to the top of Tell Husn, the southern mound overlooking
the dig house, and you will be rewarded with a fantastic view across
the excavations and the Jordan valley.
– The site is 45 minutes by road from the city of Irbid (two hours
from Amman). Buses run from Irbid to the present-day village of
Tabaqat Fahl

Vatican Necropolis, Italy

Photograph: AGF/Rex
Beneath the Vatican City lie the ancient streets of Rome and an
ancient burial ground, the Vatican necropolis – originally a cemetery
on the southern slope of Vatican Hill. Saint Peter is said to be
buried here, after he was martyred in the nearby Circus of
Nero. Emperor Constantine I built a basilica above the apostle’s grave
in the fourth century AD, and excavations in the 1940s did find a
number of mausoleums. To walk at ancient street levels through the
necropolis is an exciting experience for those who love to step back
in time.
– Visits must be booked with the Vatican Excavations Office. Tours, in
groups of about 12, last 90 minutes

Takht-e Soleyman, Iran

Photograph: /Getty Images
Takht-e Soleyman, meaning Throne of Solomon, is a breathtaking site
built around a mineral-rich crater lake 30km north of Takab in Iran’s
West Azerbaijan province. The earliest remains date from the Sasanian
period, from 224 to 651AD. Set in a vast, empty landscape 2,000 metres
above sea level, the site includes the remains of a Zoroastrian fire
temple complex and a 13th-century Mongol palace. It is surrounded by
an oval wall with 34 towers and two gates. The lake is 60 metres deep
and so filled with minerals that it contains no life and is
undrinkable. Don’t miss the small museum, housed in an Ilkhanid (a
13th-century building), with fine examples of tile, ceramics and
stucco decoration.
– The site is about two hours by taxi from the city of Zanjan, which
is served by buses and trains from Tehran

Fatehpur Sikri, India

Photograph: /Corbis
This surprisingly intact walled and fortified Mughal city is 40km west
of Agra and the Taj Mahal in Uttar Pradesh. Built by Emperor Akbar in
1571, it was the Mughal capital for 14 years before being abandoned
for lack of water. A stunning royal complex of pavilions and palaces
include a harem, a mosque, private quarters, gardens, ornamental
pools, courtyards and intricate carvings. It is the best-preserved
collection of Mughal architecture in India. Don’t miss the Rumi
Sultana palace, the smallest but most-elegant structure in the
complex, and the secret stone safes in the corner of the Treasury,
which also houses a museum opened just last year.
– The complex is an easy day trip from Agra: take a bus or train to
Fatehpur station, 1km from the site

Pula, Croatia

Photograph: Getty Images
The amphitheatre of Pula is the only Roman amphitheatre to have four
side towers and all three levels preserved. Built between in 27BC and
68AD, it is one of the six largest surviving Roman arenas in the
world, and the best-preserved ancient monument in Croatia. Overlooking
the harbour in the north-east of the town, it seated 20,000
spectators. In summer there are weekly re-enactments of gladiator
fights, and it is also used for plays, concerts and the September
Outlook festival. Look out for the slabs that used to secure the
fabric canopies that sheltered spectators from the sun.
– Ryanair flies to Pula from Stansted from £117 return


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