Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 20 January 2019

The world's best ruins

Take a detour from Machu Picchu ... we pick 10 of the most intriguing archaeological sites unspoilt by surging crowds.
Palmyra, Syria. AFP
Palmyra, Syria. AFP

Millions of people every year visit ruins around the world. Yet the popularity of assorted crumbling structures of rock and stone is complex and even beguiling. Some seek to marvel at the beauty and ingenuity of bygone eras. Others are keen to learn about civilisations whose grandeur and splendour has long since faded. An underlying but important motive is to come face to face with the frailty of human endeavour, as when Charlton Heston's character sees the remains of the Statue of Liberty jutting out of the sand at the end of the 1968 film Planet of the Apes. Ruins remind us that success, no matter how great, is fleeting.

Such stark revelations are difficult to achieve with big groups of tourists jostling to take photographs. These ruins promise to inspire awe and puncture hubris, but are less likely to be overwhelmed by tour buses than more famous sites.

1 Inca ruins at Espiritu Pampa, Peru

Everyone talks about Machu Picchu, the dramatic "Old Peak" that towers above the Urubamba River, but the neighbouring jungle-engulfed city of Espiritu Pampa is a worthy peer. The rivalry between these ruins has been going on for almost a century. In 1911, Hiram Bingham, an American archaeologist, set out on a quest for Vilcabamba, the "lost city of the Incas". Over the next few years he discovered Machu Picchu and Espiritu Pampa and became convinced the former was Vilcabamba. It was not until 1964 that another American archaeologist, Gene Savoy, established it was much more likely to be Espiritu Pampa. A three-day hike from Machu Picchu, Espiritu Pampa covers a larger area and lacks the crowds who swarm around the more famous site.

The nearest city is Cuzco, about an hour's flight from Lima. One of the best ways to visit is on a guided hiking tour. SAS Travel Peru (www.sastravelperu.com; 00 51 84 249 194), based in Cuzco, provides tailor-made trips to Espiritu Pampa.

2 Ggantija temples, Gozo, Malta

Gozo is the second largest island in the Maltese archipelago. It is a greener, more undulating land than its neighbour and has a striking mix of colours: white-domed churches, azure blue sea and red phone boxes left over from British rule. It is also home to the Ggantija temples, the oldest man-made constructions in the world which are still standing. Built about 3,600BC, these megalithic structures consist of huge upright blocks of stone arranged in circles or next to each other with another stone placed on top. They are remarkable feats of engineering, erected with mathematical precision and used as temples, venues for sacrifices and perhaps even places from which to observe the solar system.

There is a regular ferry service from Malta to Gozo. The site is open every day from 9am to 4.30pm. Tickets cost US$6.90 (Dh25). Heritage Malta (www.heritagemalta.org; 00 356 21 553 194), the national agency for museums, cultural heritage and conservation, offers information on its website.

3 Detroit, United States

Like many things in this accelerated age, it seems even the process of reaching a zenith and plummeting into decline has been speeded up. It has taken just a century for Detroit to go from being the driving force behind US global success to becoming a near-abandoned shell of a city. From the Ford Model T plant to the Packard Plant in Milwaukee Junction, the brick, concrete and steel carcasses of former industrial powerhouses litter the cityscape. But it is not simply derelict factories that make up this dilapidation. Pretty much everyone who could leave this once-teeming metropolis has gone. This eerie hush combined with the resplendence of the once-lavish hotels, with their grand chandeliers and elaborate frescoes, only heightens the sense of bathos. Parts of the US, apparently the world's only superpower, are already in ruins.

The Ruins of Detroit, a book of photographs by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, provides an excellent introduction to a tour of the city.

4 Madain Saleh, Saudi Arabia

Known as Hegra to the Roman writer Pliny and Al-Hijr in the Quran, the multitude of names for this site in north-western Saudi Arabia is entirely apt for a city that was the nexus for trade routes to the Red Sea, the Arabian Peninsula and the Far East. Built between the first century BC and the first century AD, this cosmopolitan city was home to the Nabataean civilisation and is second only to Petra in size and splendour. With 111 necropolises hewn from the sandstone rock and an oasis with about 130 wells, these ruins are a great way to take in the blend of Assyrian, Egyptian, Phoenician, Hellenistic architectural influences without the hassle of the crowds of the more famous sibling city in Jordan.

You can fly into Al Wajh and drive about 220km to Al-Ula, the nearest town, which is about 23km from the site. The Mada'in Saleh Hotel (www.mshotel.com.sa; 00 966 4884 2888) can arrange transport as well as permits, which can take up to a week.

5 Vijayanagar, India

The capital city of the eponymous empire from the 14th to 17th centuries, the ruins of this remarkable city on the banks of the Tungabhadra River cover a vast, undulating area. Founded in 1336 by five sons of Sangama, the city became an epicentre for Hinduism and the Sanskrit language. For centuries it provided a buffer and a refuge from the Muslim sultanates to the north until 1565 when the empire's armies were defeated and the city was ransacked.

Today, the ruins are far from abandoned: at its centre stands the village of Hampi whose inhabitants worship in the temples. As well as ornate carvings and sculptures, Vittala temple is famous for its granite pillars that make musical notes when struck (although guards prevent you from trying it for yourself in an attempt to preserve these structures).

Hospet, about 13km from Hampi, is the nearest town. There are trains and buses from Bangalore, Mumbai (once a week) and Vasco da Gama in Goa, as well as a range of hotels in the town.

6 Termessos, Turkey

This ancient fortified city lies in the western Taurus Mountains and stands at nearly 1,050m above sea level. The site is within the Güllük Dagi-Termessos National Park, home to rare animals such as fallow deer and golden eagles, steep canyons, dramatic rock formations and an unusual mix of Mediterranean plants and vegetation.

Over the centuries the position has proven all but impregnable. Alexander the Great failed to conquer the city in 333BC, and in 71BC it became an ally of Rome. It is a steep 20-minute climb up a rugged path to the lower walls of the city. Further up the hillside is the well-preserved amphitheatre with a spectacular view of the mountains in the background. Even higher up lie sarcophagi, dating from the fifth to the fourth century BC, that have been ransacked by robbers and tossed about by earthquakes.

The site is about 35km or an hour's drive north-west of Antalya, a pleasant coastal town with fine Roman and Ottoman architecture and good hotels. Entrance is free.

7 Palmyra, Syria

Alluded to in tablets dating to the 19th century BC, this city had its heyday in the third century AD, when Queen Zenobia famously defeated a Roman army. She was eventually vanquished by the Romans and the city never reached such heights again. The desert climate has helped to preserve these ruins in the centuries since its peak. With its streets lined with towering colonnades eight metres high, this site, 210km north east of Damascus, is atmospheric and impressive. A handful of touts laze around on sun-warmed stones. A few signs point out major ruins, but the rest lie unsigned and seemingly untouched. Visit at dawn or dusk to see spectacular rose and blue hues reflected in the stone.

Palmyra is 220km from Damascus. The drive takes about three hours and there are regular buses from Damascus and Homs. Entrance to most of the site is free but the Temple of Bel costs $3.22 (Dh12).

8 Leptis Magna, Libya

Founded by the Phoenicians in the seventh century BC and later occupied by the Carthaginians, the site's location and natural harbour helped to establish it as a hub for trade around the Mediterranean and across the Sahara. In 111BC, the city became an ally of Rome and in the second century AD, the emperor Septimius Severus, a native of Leptis, encouraged a building spree. As a result, Leptis bears all the hallmarks of the Roman city: an amphitheatre and forum, colonnaded streets and baths, a basilica and temples. Many of these features are well preserved, thanks to the city being covered by the desert sands from its abandonment in the seventh century until the beginning of the 20th century. The site started become popular after UN sanctions on Libya ended in 2003.

Leptis Magna is about an hour and a half's drive from Tripoli with a return journey in a taxi costing about US$64.75 (Dh238). Entrance to the site costs $6.48 (Dh24) with a camera.

9 Ubar, Oman

After putting in appearances in The Thousand and One Nights and the Quran, this city on the fringes of the Empty Quarter vanished for centuries to reappear as the legendary "Atlantis of the sands". Piquing the interest of TE Lawrence, Wilfred Thesiger and Bertram Thomas, but ultimately eluding them, this lost city was discovered only in 1992, thanks to an expedition organised by a documentary filmmaker called Nicholas Clapp and the help of satellite imaging from Nasa. The city owed its prosperity to the trade in frankincense and its proximity to the Qara Mountains, an important source of this fragrant resin. Much of the site has yet to be excavated; the desert sands are winning the battle for visibility at the moment.

You can visit Ubar on a day tour from Salalah for about $472 (Dh1,734) for four people booked through City Discovery (www.city-discovery.com; 00 44 20 7193 8320). It is about two hours into the desert by four-wheel drive. Entrance to the site is free.

10 Angkor, Cambodia

The heart of the Khmer dynasty from the ninth to the 13th century, this magnificent city presided over an empire encompassing Cambodia, Vietnam, parts of China and Thailand towards the Bay of Bengal. Much of the metropolis was conceived and built according to Hindu mythology and cosmology. Angkor Wat is the apotheosis of these guiding principles, but it also draws the crowds. Fortunately there are scores of other easily accessible temples that hardly see a soul from one day to the next. Preah Khan, at the north end of the site and once home to 100,000 inhabitants, attracts few visitors and is entwined with jungle roots making it very atmospheric. Pre Rup, south of the East Baray reservoir, is an exquisitely proportioned "temple mountain" made from laterite and brick, and is well clear of the main tour bus routes.

Siem Reap is a good base to explore Angkor Wat from. There are direct flights to and from airports in the region. Entrance to the site costs $20 (Dh73) for one day, $40 (Dh147) for three days and $60 (Dh220) for seven days.


Updated: February 25, 2011 04:00 AM