The Colosseum and the Great Wall of China are impressive, but they get too much credit! In this list, we dive (literally, in the case of #12) 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 architectural 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 colour 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.
On the far outskirts of Cusco, Peru, lies Sacsayhuaman: the ruins of a massive Incan fortress. Less photogenic and well-known than Machu Picchu, Sacsayhuaman is a feat of human engineering. Thousands of years later, not even a sheet of paper can fit between the walls’ stones, the largest weighing 120 tons – that’s about 160 adult cows for just one stone!
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.
Colossus of Rhodes, Greece
One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Colossus of Rhodes was one of the tallest man-made structures in the ancient world (and the only item on our list not standing today). Two-thirds the size of the Statue of Liberty (but built 2,000 years earlier – that’s pretty awesome), this architectural wonder of the Greek sun god Helios was built somewhere on the island of Rhodes in 280 B.C.
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.
Stari Most, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Originally built in 1566 by Ottoman-Turkish architect Mimar Hajrudin, the Stari Most (“Old Bridge”) is one of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s most prized landmarks among locals. Destroyed during the Bosnian War in the 1990’s, the bridge was rebuilt and officially reopened in 2004. (The “old” bridge became a new bridge but kept its old charm.) Locals continue the long-time tradition of proving their bravery by diving 79 feet (24 m) from the bridge into the frigid Neretva River below.
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.