The Colosseum and the Great Wall of China are impressive, but they get too much credit! In this list, we dive into some of humanity’s most significant and fascinating architectural creations from bygone eras. Beyond modern-day wonders, these structures are especially impressive because they were constructed by our ancestors in ways we don’t fully yet understand. Bring out your inner explorer and find your next vacation spot in our list of unknown ancient wonders you have to visit.
Meenakshi Amman Temple, Tamil Nadu, India
The Meenakshi Amman temple in the southeastern Indian state of Tamil Nadu is named after Hindu goddess Pavarti’s avatar Meenakshi. With 14 gopurams (gateway towers adorned with religious figures) and over 33,000 sculptures inside the temple, this is easily one of the world’s lesser-known but most amazing architectural wonders.
Leshan Giant Buddha, China
The world’s largest carved stone Buddha is in Leshan, China, at the convergence of three rivers. With fingers alone measuring 11 feet (3.4 m) long, the Leshan Giant Buddha is 232 feet (71 m) high and has 1,021 buns in his hair (used to drain water off the statue). The monk Hai Tong commissioned the statue to calm the rivers’ water spirits thought to be responsible for numerous boat capsizings.
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Iran
One of the best examples of Safavid-Iranian architecture is on the eastern side of Isfahan, Iran’s Naghsh-i Jahan Square. The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in a unique architectural wonder and mosque in that it has no minarets or courtyard. The reason? It was originally built for the women of the shah’s harem to worship whom would reach the prayer hall through a twisted underground hallway. Tiles on the dome change color throughout the day from cream to pink.
Chand Baori, Rajasthan, India
A wonderful example of mathematics in architecture, India’s Chand Boari is a 10th century well built to ensure a more stable water supply in the mostly-desert region of Rajasthan. The world’s deepest well, Chand Boari dips 100 feet (30 m) below the Earth’s surface and uses 13 levels and a total of 3,500 steps to reach the bottom. Local legends rumour Chand Boari was built by ghosts in a single night.
Thrown into international pre-eminence due to ISIS’s recent takeover of the city, Palmyra in Syria is (for the moment) a well-preserved example of the ancient ruins used by multiple former civilisations. (It may have even been mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.) The ancient Palmyrenes were legendary traders, setting up colonies along the Silk Road and running operations across most of the Roman Empire.
Great Mosque of Djenne, Mali
Mali’s Great Mosque in Djenne is truly an architectural wonder. Built in 1907, the building is the largest mud structure in the world and one of the best examples of Sudano-Sahelian architecture. A local festival in April and May sees the locals coat the entire mosque in clay to protect against cracks from the scorching North African summers.
The Hittite Empire which dominated southern and eastern Turkey had its capital at Hattusa in central Turkey. This UNESCO World Heritage Site played host to the Hittites until their decline during the Bronze Age and is known for its two-sphinxes and cuneiform tablets. One tablet is the earliest known example of a peace treaty; a copy thus rests at the United Nations headquarters as an example of international peace.
Wat Rong Khun, Thailand
One of the few large Buddhist temples in Thailand which do not charge for admission is Chaing Rai’s Wat Rong Khun (also known as the White Temple). Local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat has been funding renovations to the complex in the hope it will make him immortal. (Now that’s a real angel investor!) The Wat Rong Khun complex is especially well known for its chalk-white structures and, like Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia, won’t be finished for decades: 2026 for the Sagrada Familia and 2070 for the White Temple.
A major border crossing between predecessors to the modern-day French and Spanish states, Peyrepertuse is an abandoned fortress located half a mile (800 m) high in southwestern France. Its position atop a reputedly impenetrable rocky cliff hasn’t stopped rock climbers from scaling the sheer cliff walls to the delight of tourists.
Derawar Fort, Pakistan
One of the few places in the world where you need the permission of a local leader (the amir) to enter, Pakistan’s Derawar Fort is little known – and that’s a shame! This seriously cool architectural wonder of the Middle East boasts 100 feet (30 m) high walls which look like upside-down clay pots and wrap 5,000 feet (1,500 m) around the fort. Visiting isn’t for the faint-hearted: to get there, you must hire a guide and four-wheel-drive car to take you the four-hour journey from the city of Bahawalpur to the Derawar Fort.
Monte Albán, Mexico
The best example of the Zapotec civilisation who ruled much of southwestern Mexico around two millennia ago is the valley ruins of Monte Albán. Though the Zapotecs declined by around 500 A.D., Monte Albán and its well-preserved facilities provide excellent examples of ornate tombs and ball courts (pictured) for playing sports.
Ziggurat at Ur, Iraq
With a name meaning “house whose foundation creates terror”, don’t be turned off from the Ziggurat at Ur! This ancient Sumerian Ziggurat (a terraced step pyramid) located in southeastern Iraq was built of mud bricks and was a shrine to the moon god Nanna.
Despite its title as Europe’s oldest city, the former city of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete isn’t well-known. The political and ceremonial hub of Minoan society, the site may have been the location of Daedulus’s famous labyrinth, commissioned by King Minos to restrain his son, the Minotaur.
Borobudur, Java, Indonesia
If we asked you to name the largest Buddhist temple in the world, could you? Now you can! Indonesia’s Borobudur is used even today for Buddhist pilgrimages where pilgrims work their way to the top through Buddhism’s three levels of cosmology: Kāmadhātu (the world of desire), Rupadhatu (the world of forms), and Arupadhatu (the world of formlessness). Visitors will find Buddhas at every turn – 504 in total!
Great Wall of India, Rajasthan, India
The Great Wall of China gets all the glory, but it’s not the only great wall in Asia. (It can’t even be seen from space – that’s a myth!) Rajasthan’s Kumbhalgarh, known as the Great Wall of India, is the second longest wall in the world at over 22 miles (36 km). Over 360 temples lie within the walls of this fortress and architectural wonder which has a slightly gruesome history. The wall couldn’t be completed despite multiple attempts until the ruler asked his spiritual consultant who suggested a human sacrifice. A pilgrim volunteered (though not initially, of course) his life and a temple was built where his severed head fell. The wall was completed not long afterwards.
Persepolis, literally “city of the Persians”, stands testament to one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world. Largely built by Darius I and Xerxes the Great, this architectural wonder in Iran is especially famous for the Gate of Nations from which all the empire’s subjects were required to pass. It is guarded by two Lamassus: sculptures of an Assyrian protective deity with the body of a bull, head of a bearded man, and wings.
El Mirador, Guatemala
Stretching over 500,000 acres in Guatemala, El Mirador is less known than Tikal but far more impressive. The largest ppyramidal structure – La Danta – is the largest in the world, even beating out the Egyptian pyramids. An 810,000 acre national park is being established in the region to protect the ancient site (at least a millennium older than Tikal) from looting and deforestation.
The ancient Greek city of Mycenae, southwest of Athens, is widely known for its massive citadel and tholos (beehive-shaped) tombs. Stones used to build the city were so large that later Greeks believed the city was built by cyclopes. (Yes, that’s the plural of cyclops, the one-eyed giants.)
Midas Monument, Turkey
Archealogical remains in the northwestern Turkish city of Yazılıkaya were likely built around 600-700 B.C. The most famous monument at the site is the Monument of Midas, named because it was previously thought to be the resting place of King Midas. Relatively well-preserved (and best-known) is a terra cotta temple with inscriptions in the little-known old language of Phrygian (said to be related to Greek).
Lebanon’s city of Baalbek (known to the Romans as Heliopolis, the “city of the sun”) was one of the largest sanctuaries in the Roman Empire and is quite well preserved, especially the Temple of Bacchus. The ruins play host to an annual festival where ballet, theatre, jazz, and more are performed in the ancient acropolis. Some notable names who have performed include Ella Fitzgerald, Sting, and the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre.
One of the largest urban settlements in the ancient world, Mohenjo-Daro was lost for thousands of years in Pakistan’s Indus River floodplain. It may be old but this city was light-years ahead development-wise, boasting a level of plumbing and sewage which modern-day Western homes didn’t achieve until the 20th century.
Underground Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia
Connected via underground tunnels and built over 800 years ago, the Underground Churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia were all built out of the same block of red volcanic rock. What’s especially unique about these churches is their positioning: the roofs of the churches are at ground level – they’re all underground to make use of natural aquifers.
How did the Incas move these massive stones? That’s just one of the mysteries surrounding Sacsayhuaman, an immense fortress located on the outskirts of the city of Cusco in Peru. While the much more famous Machu Picchu is renowned for its views, Sacsayhuaman is a marvel of engineering, confounding Spanish conquerors who were so amazed by the construction, they thought it must be the work of demons.
The largest of the boulders that make up the three dry stone walls of Sacsayhuaman – all carried from a quarry located over three kilometers away – weighs an estimated 120 tons. But the seemingly superhuman feat of moving these boulders is not the most incredible aspect of the ruins: even thousands of years later, the stones of the walls fit together with such precision, you can’t fit a piece of paper between them. This precision, along with the various stone shapes that fit together like a puzzle, is likely the reason that the structure has survived earthquakes that have devastated the area.
A massive urban complex laid out to celestial, geographic and geodetic alignments, the Teotihuacan archaeological site in the Basin of Mexico contains some of the largest pyramidal structures built in the pre-Columbian Americas. The city was established around 100 BCE and may have had as many as 200,000 inhabitants during its prime in 450 CE. It has been called the first true urban center in the Americas; its remains measure at least two miles across but the city was likely much larger and its influence extended as far away as Guatemala. Very little is known of the Teotihuacan people or what may have caused the city’s decline, which occurred in the 8th or 9th century.
An astronomer-anthropologist named Anthony Aveni discovered that the grid of the city was based on a point of prime astronomical significance. The builders seem to have aligned the east-west axis of the city to the point on the horizon at which the sun sets on August 12th, the anniversary of the beginning of the current Mesoamerican calender cycle.
Strangely, thick sheets of shimmery mica were found within the tiers of the Pyramid of the Sun. Hidden between layers of stone, the mica clearly wasn’t decorative; today it is used as an insulator in electronics but it seems unlikely that these ancient people understood such properties. Furthermore, the particular type of mica used in the complex was reportedly traced to Brazil, nearly 2000 miles away. The Pyramid of the Sun has never been fully excavated.
Petra, the world wonder, is without a doubt Jordan’s most valuable treasure and greatest tourist attraction. It is a vast, unique city, carved into the sheer rock face by the Nabataeans, an industrious Arab people who settled here more than 2000 years ago, turning it into an important junction for the silk, spice and other trade routes that linked China, India and southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome.
The site remained unknown to the western world until 1812, when it was introduced by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. It was described as “a rose-red city half as old as time” in a Newdigate Prize-winning poem by John William Burgon. UNESCO has described it as “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage”. Petra was named amongst the New7Wonders of the World in 2007.