Treasures of the Ancient World
From the heights of Machu Picchu to the remains of Pompeii, these are some of the world’s most extraordinary sites
By Emily Coleman
(Scroll down to see a slide show.)Revered for their grandeur and survival through the ages, many of the structures and monuments left by ancient civilizations are recognizable from our history lessons. Yet, to truly appreciate the scale of these achievements, one must see them in person. In a book, the past can be inaccessible and impersonal. An up-close visit crystallizes it into vivid reality.
The ancient sites listed below inspire in us a sense of awe and amazement, and they remind us of the vast capabilities of mankind. They are among the most wondrous of human accomplishments.
To learn more about escorted vacations that visit these places, call the tour department of Vacations To Go at (800) 680-2858. You can also click the links provided below or visit the Web site www.TourVacationsTo Go.com and click "Find a Tour" to do a custom search.
The Great Pyramid of Khufu, Egypt
Of the original seven wonders of the ancient world, only one remains intact today. More than 4,500 years have passed since the Great Pyramid of Khufu was first constructed, yet it continues to leave visitors in awe.
Also known as Cheops' pyramid, it is impressive not only for its age, but also for its magnitude. The base of the structure is equivalent to seven New York City blocks, and today, it stands at an imposing 449 feet tall. (It was once taller by roughly 30 feet, but time has taken some toll.)
The Great Pyramid is located in Giza, on the west bank of the Nile. It's part of a trio of pyramids, all worth investigating; the enigmatic Sphinx is nearby. Many Nile River cruise tours include a stop at the pyramids of Giza.
For a list of tours and river cruises that visit the Great Pyramid of Khufu, click here.
Chichen Itza, Mexico
Located between Cancun and Merida, the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza draw crowds of sightseers to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Visitors can wander amid numerous sites that occupy a space measuring more than two square miles.
The El Castillo pyramid, an icon of Mayan history, hints at the Mayans' abilities in astronomy and science. The number of steps, plus the top platform, add up to 365, equaling the number of days in a solar year. The 18 terraces on each side of the pyramid are said to correspond to the 18 months of the Mayan calendar. During spring and fall equinoxes, hundreds gather to watch a snakelike shadow move down the pyramid. Elsewhere at the site, visitors can roam through the Great Ball Court, where the Mayans once competed at sports, or see El Caracol, thought to have been an observatory.
The specific practices and rituals that took place at Chichen Itza remain a mystery, but the structures today are still available for scrutiny. It's best to visit during the off-season, as the heat of the summer months can be sweltering.
To see a list of tours that include a visit to Chichen Itza, click here.
Machu Picchu, Peru
Rediscovered within the last century, the ruins of the Incan city of Machu Picchu are tucked high in the Andes Mountains of Peru. The remote locale was abandoned and undisturbed for four centuries, so its temples, staircases, aqueducts and other buildings have remained remarkably intact. Many of them are carved directly from the bedrock, giving the appearance of a city that's emerged from nature.
An air of serene mysticism pervades the mountaintop ruins. Many of the enduring structures are thought to have once had ceremonial or sacred purposes, and today, some visitors come here seeking a spiritual connection. Fixed between two Andean peaks, the natural beauty of the setting can be appreciated now much as it was centuries ago.
Click here to see a list of tours that visit Machu Picchu.
Situated on the Salisbury Plain of southeastern England, Stonehenge has attracted visitors for centuries. In the more than 5,000 years that have passed since the first phases of the monument were erected, knowledge of its original purpose and importance has faded. And while historians, archaeologists and laymen alike have entertained theories about the origin of Stonehenge, the truth remains unknown.
Most agree that Stonehenge was likely religious or ceremonial in nature, and even a picture of the imposing stone structure holds a certain mystique. Some believe that it was used to predict significant celestial events such as solar or lunar eclipses. Others wonder if it was the site of human sacrifices.
Whatever the purpose, and whoever the creators, Stonehenge was not built on a whim. Some of the large stones came from rock roughly 20 miles away, but the five-ton bluestones were brought from southeastern Wales -- 240 miles away. Complex engineering and collaboration would be necessary for such an impressive feat, all taking place in a time before modern machines and paved roads.
To view a list of tours that visit Stonehenge, click here.
The Roman Forum and Colosseum, Italy
The Roman Forum is a concentrated dose of history that contains structures and monuments spanning hundreds of years. The first settlements of Rome are thought to be located here, as are some of the forums and temples of later emperors. The forum evolved and expanded over centuries as Rome grew and new leaders wanted to leave their mark on the city.
Located at the center of Rome, just as it was in antiquity, the forum today is surrounded by hotels, cafes and restaurants. These modern buildings neighbor marble columns, triumphal arches and remnants of temples that can only hint at the grandeur they once held.
Continuing along the Via dei Fori Imperiali, one finds the Roman Colosseum, a massive entertainment venue completed in A.D. 80. Long ago, cheers from the hordes, as many as 60,000 people, roared throughout the vast interior as spectators watched gladiators fiercely battle animals, and each other.
Click here for a list of tours that take in the Roman Forum and Colosseum in Rome.
Pompeii is a moment frozen in time. There are numerous places in Italy where visitors can admire the artwork, architecture and culture of the ancient Romans, but these sites pale in comparison to the extensive remains of this seaside town near Naples. The split-peaked Mount Vesuvius looms in the background, a beautiful yet bittersweet reminder of the volcanic eruption that destroyed and yet helped preserve Pompeii -- with a 20-foot layer of ash and pumice.
Walking the stone streets is an eerie experience, and with very little imagination one can easily picture a bustling town filled with people, sounds and activity. There are wonderfully preserved frescoes, mosaics and buildings here.
Pompeii captures the human side of history where the lone marble columns and broken walls of other archaeological sites fail. It gives a complete picture of daily Roman life nearly two millennia after the town came to an unexpected end.
Click here to see a list of tours that visit Pompeii.
The Great Wall, China
The Great Wall spreads across some 4,000 miles of China from east to west. (Compare this to the approximate distance between the two coasts of the United States -- only 3,000 miles.) At one time, this wall served as a defensive barrier against invaders, but now it attracts many visitors from around the world.
The wall's construction is thought to have occurred in several phases. The initial fortification was made of rubble and dirt and composed of individual sections. China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, connected and extended these sections in 221 B.C., and subsequent rulers and dynasties added to the structure.
Much of what remains of the wall today was built by the Ming dynasty of 1368 to 1644. Other parts are slowly disappearing, falling into disarray due to erosion. But don't take this as a cue to grab a personal memento of the wall -- stricter preservation laws make this more than just a crime against history.
For a list of tours that visit the Great Wall, click here.
Terra-Cotta Warriors of Xi'an, China
Most people would consider themselves lucky to find some spare change while digging around in their backyard. In 1974, farmers in the small town of Xi'an, China, uncovered much more while building a well. The farmers, suddenly accidental archaeologists, uncovered a life-size pottery figure. Later, when a larger swath of the area had been excavated, more than 7,000 terra-cotta warriors were unearthed.
Arranged as if marching into battle, the warriors had been buried in the tomb of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. He died in 210 B.C., but the thousands of warriors no doubt took many years to construct. They vary in small details, such as expression and hairstyle, and are also distinguished by military rank. Excavation of the site continues more than 30 years after the initial discovery.
Click here for a list of tours that visit Xi'an and the terra-cotta warriors.
Nestled deep in the jungle of northwestern Cambodia, the ruins of Angkor are entrenched in their surroundings. Encroaching vegetation took over the temples and other buildings of this complex, which was built in the early 12th century by Suryavaram II and later abandoned. However, a surge in visitors to Angkor has encouraged conservation of the site, and efforts to manage tourism there are being increased.
The complex is extensive, with an area of nearly 150 square miles -- larger than Philadelphia -- and showcases ornate stone architecture. The well-preserved Angkor Wat with its beehive towers is the best known of the structures; it's pictured on Cambodia's flag. Once a center for Hindu worship, Angkor Wat later became a site for Buddhist devotion.
Visitors will encounter steamy weather at Angkor at any time of year, but those who want to avoid the rainy season should visit between November and May.
To see a list of trips that visit Angkor, click here.
To enter Petra, visitors must first venture through the siq, a narrow gorge leading up to the city. Fans of the movie "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" might recognize both the siq and Petra as the dramatic setting for the end of the film. Petra is carved directly into the cliffs and often called the rose-red city, named for the color of the sandstone. More than 800 structures were formed from the solid rock, including the treasury, royal tombs and an 8,000-seat amphitheater.
Petra was once the capital city of the Nabataeans, Arabs who thrived in this part of Jordan from the late fourth century B.C. to the early second century. Escorted tours that travel to Jordan will typically spend a full day or more at the legendary site.
For a list of tours that visit Petra, click here.
The Acropolis, Greece
Visitors who make their way up the winding path to the Acropolis of Athens will be greatly rewarded for their efforts. At this high point of the city lies an extensive complex of classical Greek architecture, where important civic buildings and temples were constructed, starting in the fifth century B.C.
Among them is the Parthenon, one of the world's most recognizable temples, and when viewed in person it does not disappoint. The undeniable allure of its sturdy marble columns and imposing air is reason enough to make the climb. And from this vantage point, visitors have a spectacular view of the city below. The modern and the classical remain side by side, as thousands of years of history mix in this urban center.
Click here to see a list of tours that take in the Acropolis.
Ephesus was the site of one of the seven original ancient wonders, the Temple of Artemis. While that structure no longer exists, many other parts of the city remain to impress modern-day visitors. The Greeks built the massive amphitheater, which the Romans later expanded to hold 25,000 people. Visitors can meander down a marble street and admire the Greek and Roman architecture of temples and civic buildings. A favorite photo stop is the facade of the Library of Celsus, with its elaborate, two-tiered colonnade and niches that hold statues representing wisdom, knowledge, intelligence and virtue.
On Turkey's west coast, Ephesus was once a thriving commercial center with a complicated history. Several nations held sovereignty over the region, but eventually it was absorbed by the Roman Empire. Later, it became a city of biblical fame and the place where the origins of Christianity were fostered.
To see a list of tours that visit Ephesus, click here.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in March/April 2008. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 680-2858 for current rates and details.