2 Beautiful Ancient Cities You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

The world is an interesting place. And it would be highly ignorant to believe that the only important world is the one in which we live in today. Those with a profound interest in the ancient civilisations and cities of populations who lived many years ago will find a keen interest in these little mentioned ancient ruins around the globe:

Palmyra

In the dusty and hot Syrian Desert to the north east of Damascus, you will find the magnificent ancient ruins of Palmyra. What was once a thriving city with one of the most important cultural centres in the ancient world, is now a pile of fallen columns, arches, and tombs that bear little resemblance to the art and architecture that once existed here.

Palmyra by Bernard Gagnon 3 (Wikimedia)

Palmyra by Bernard Gagnon 3

The origins of Palmyra are unclear. Some say that the city dates back to the times of King Solomon and scholars have thought that the name derives from the palm trees in the area.  Whatever its humble beginnings, this ancient ruin is truly a sight to behold.

Palmyra was one of the richest cities in the Near East. First mentioned in the archives of Mari in the 2nd millennium BC, Palmyra was an established caravan oasis when it came under Roman control in the mid-first century AD as part of the Roman province of Syria. Palmyra grew gradually in importance and prosperity as a city on the trade route that links Persia, India, and China with the Roman Empire.

Temple of Baal Shamin in Palmyra by Bernard Gagnon (Wikimedia)

Temple of Baal Shamin in Palmyra by Bernard Gagnon

The main feature of the ancient city is the temple of Ba’al, which was once used to worship the main god in the city. The temple is the most important religious building of the first century AD in the Middle East. Other sights include the well-preserved theatre with its nine rows of seats, the temple of Nabu (of which little but the podium remains), and the 16th century castle of Qala’at Ibn Maan, which stands sentry above the city on a nearby hilltop.

Palmyra Tower Tombs by Bernard Gagnon (Wikimedia)

Palmyra Tower Tombs by Bernard Gagnon

Outside the ancient walls, a 1km long necropolis known as the “Valley of the Tombs,” consists of a series of large colourful structures. These structures, upon closer inspection, are in fact tombs which had interior walls built or cut away to form burial compartments. Once the body was placed inside, limestone slabs with sculptures of human busts were placed over the openings to seal the tombs.  These sculptures were thought to represent the personality or soul of the deceased.

The city of Palmyra was eventually destroyed by an earthquake in 1089 that left the Roman monuments in ruins. Since then, the city has been taken over by various civilisations in the region until it became little more than a place of refuge for Bedouin families and their flocks. In the 19th century, Palmyra became a focal point of interest among archaeologists who found several interesting items hidden beneath the city. In May 2005, a highly-detailed stone statue of the winged goddess of victory was unearthed, while more recently, the remnants of a 1,200 year old church (believed to be the largest ever discovered in Syria) was exhumed and added to the list as the fourth church discovered in Palmyra.

Today, visitors can view this ancient site which has been declared a national monument. Visitors are advised to visit in the cool early morning or in the early evening when the sunset can be admired from Qala’at Ibn Maan castle.

Bagan, Myanmur

Bagan, previously called Pagan, is an ancient city located in the Mandalay Region of Myanmar. Between the 11th and 13th centuries, Bagan was the capital as well as the political, economic, and cultural centre of the Pagan Empire. Over the course of 250 years, over 10,000 religious monuments (around 1,000 stupas, 10,000 small temples, and 3,000 monasteries) were constructed in an area of 104km².

Bagan by Corto Maltese (Wikimedia)

Bagan by Corto Maltese

The prosperous city grew in size and splendour and became a centre for religious and secular studies which drew monks and students from as far as India, Ceylon, and the Khmer Empire. The empire grew steadily until its sudden collapse in 1287. While the exact reason is unclear, many believe it to have been caused by recurring invasions by Mongol armies. Whatever the reasoning, the once prosperous city of Bagan, home to between 50,000 – 200,000 people was abandoned and reduced to a small (believed to be haunted) town which unfortunately never regained its stature.

Located in an active earthquake zone, Bagan suffered from many earthquakes over the years with over 400 quakes recorded between 1904 and 1975. The last major quake occurred in July 1975 and spoiled many temples with irreparable damage. Today, only 2,229 temples and pagodas remain. Many of these damaged buildings underwent restoration in the 1990s by the military government who attempted to make Bagan an international tourist attraction. However, their restoration efforts which included the use of modern materials and the lack of attention to the original architecture (even going as far as to install a golf course, paved highways, and 61m watch tower) drew widespread disapproval from art historians and preservationists.

Bagan Temple by Dario Severi (Wikimedia)

Bagan Temple by Dario Severi

Today, the city remains a major tourist attraction and people still visit the city to worship at the temples. The city can be explored by car, horse cart, or bicycle. From the top of the taller temples you can admire the views of the lands and architecture which reaches as far as the eye can see.

What little-known ancient cities have you heard of?

About the author:Lauren Morling is a writer for TravelGroundShe loves learning about new places to explore and staring longingly at beautiful places from behind her computer screen. On weekends, you will find her writing, listening to music, or out and about in Cape Town. 

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