Ancient history: 5 archaeological hot spots to visit around the world


It is said that ‘the story of our present is told within the treasures of our past’ – and what a tale the following destinations have to tell. Each one is brimming with archaeological wonders that, with the aid of inspiring guides, will allow you to gain insight into lives and cultures as they were centuries and even millennia ago.

Explore the Old City of Jerusalem, a centre of religion and culture for thousands of years. Wander along the lamp-lit waterfront of Varanasi, one of the world’s oldest cities. Admire the Bronze-age artefacts of Knossos, the Incan citadel of Machu Picchu and the Buddhist cave art of the Dambulla temple…

Old City of Jerusalem, Israel

For over 3,000 years, Jerusalem has maintained a significant place in history. The strategic importance of the city, located as it is within the Judean hills, has meant that many great powers and civilisations have ruled it over the centuries, including Israelites, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Christians, Muslims and Turks – all leaving their own mark. The city’s relatively small size of 1 sq km belies the true magnitude of historical sites within its walls. All three of the main Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – hold Jerusalem sacred in some way. The holy sites within include the Western Wall, the remains of the Jewish Temple; the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine where Muhammad is believed to have risen to heaven; and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried.

Split into four quarters – the Jewish Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, the Christian Quarter, and the Muslim Quarter – each part of the city has its own unique atmosphere and history. A walk around the different quarters reveals ancient wonders right alongside the hustle and bustle of modern life, showing the continuation of cultures past and present.

Cultural Triangle, Sri Lanka

The island nation of Sri Lanka has a wealth of cultural and archaeological treasures, with the famed Cultural Triangle the ancient centre of the country. The area comprises three points: the former capitals of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, and the impressive Dambulla caves.

Ancient Sri Lanka’s first capital, and considered the cradle of Sri Lankan Buddhism, Anuradhapura was established around the fifth century BC according to historical records, although archaeologists have unearthed ruins from around 500 years earlier. Central to the town is the sacred Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree, believed to be a part of the tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment in India. Now, the whole town is designated a world heritage site by UNESCO and its many monuments are must-sees.

Dambulla is a picturesque setting to base oneself whilst exploring the sights of the ancient city regions, surrounded by jungle and lush green hills as far as the eye can see. The nearby vast cave complex is home to many impressive Buddhist murals and statues, some of which date back as far as the first century BC. The renowned rock citadel of Sigiriya is also within reach, a climb up to which is one of Sri Lanka’s most popular activities.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu is among the most breathtaking archaeological sites on the planet. Its positioning between two peaks at an altitude of 2,380 metres provides a suitably dramatic backdrop of cloud-forested mountains. The Machu Picchu (Old Peak) mountain gives the citadel its name and is situated to the south of the ruins, whereas Huayna Picchu (Young Peak) looms over the site itself.

Having been constructed for the Incan emperor in the 1400s, the site was abandoned around the time of the Spanish conquest and, although still known locally, remained undiscovered by the conquistadors. Hiram Bingham, the American historian, brought the site to the attention of the outside world in 1911 and people have been fascinated with this glimpse into the past ever since. The citadel complex was built in classic Inca style and its main parts – the Intihuatana ritual stone, the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows – reveal how this civilisation lived long ago. The fascinating ruins, high in the Andes, are the jewel in the crown of Peru’s magnificent ancient, colonial-era and scenic sights.

Crete, Greece

From the Ottomans and Romans to the Minoans and Byzantines, many empires have ruled the island of Crete, and all have left their mark – including mosques, fortresses and monasteries. Crete’s archaeological highlights include the Palace of Knossos, an incomparable monument of ancient Minoan society, and the site of the ancient city-state of Eleutherna.

Knossos has been referred to as Europe’s oldest city and was first settled around 7000 BC, during the Neolithic era. Its palace was constructed some time around 1900 BC and it wasn’t excavated until 1900 AD, when it provided the first clues about this unknown civilisation. Today, the structure can be thoroughly explored, including its throne room, unique Minoan columns, many examples of pottery and colourful frescoes.

Excavations of Eleutherna began in 1985 and this ninth century BC-era site is still offering archaeologists new clues to this day. The city was built by the Dorian civilisation and was inhabited all the way up to the time of the Byzantine empire. Located near the pretty town of Rethymno, this archaeological wonder and its fascinating museum is a must-visit.

Varanasi, India

Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in the world and which Hindus believe was founded by Lord Shiva, is one of the holiest pilgrimage sites in Hinduism. Bathing in the sacred river Ganges that flows alongside the city is a spiritual rite of passage, and many flock to the ghats (waterfront steps) each day, as they have for centuries, to purge their sins in the holy water.

Sarnath, located only 10km away, is equally as important for Buddhists, being one of the four main holy sites to which they set out on pilgrimage. They believe it was here that Buddha gave his first sermon after attaining enlightenment, explaining the Four Noble Truths to his followers. Now, there are many excavated ruins to explore including several stupas and temples, in addition to a comprehensive museum of artefacts.

The area is so significant that there are still reports of new archaeological discoveries. As recently as 2020, a team from the Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi unearthed the remnants of a 4,000-year-old settlement thought to be a craft village, including temples and potteries that were mentioned in ancient historical texts.

Kerry Golds is Managing Director of Cox & Kings. Cox & Kings is an award-winning tour operator with a history of over 260 years, specialising in luxury small group tours to the world’s most captivating destinations.

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Comments (3)

  1. Elaine Plum says:

    Varanasi Is working its way to near the top of my bucket list. It’s been covered in so many travel programmes and a good friend did a huge tour of India in 2019 and Varanasi is the place that she keeps talking about. No doubt it was the highlight of her trip.

  2. Elizabeth Knowling says:

    I used to enjoy reading “Timeless Travels” a really interesting magazine which based its stories on visiting historic sites. There was a real breadth of places reported on from across the world which showed that there are a lot of us interested in visiting these ancient sites. Unfortunately, the last edition was in April 2020. I hope it relaunches soon if we get back to some normality.

  3. Darius says:

    I thought I’d travelled a fair bit and seen much of what the world has to offer but I’ve not been to any of these. Gotta start travelling again.

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