Jen Pinkowski
Jen Pinkowski

15 Ancient Cities You Can Visit

Jen Pinkowski
Jen Pinkowski

Make sure your passport is current, book your flight, and let yourself imagine the lives of the people who called these ancient cities home. These aren’t the “best” cities, or the Top 15—just some mental_floss favorites, in no particular order.

1. Ciudad Perdida // Colombia

Not for the faint of heart, Ciudad Perdida (“Lost City”) is a strenuous, four-day hike through steamy, dense mountain jungle in northern Colombia that requires local guides. (Seriously: don’t attempt this on your own.) In the last stretch, you climb up 1200 stone steps. But once you reach the top: whoa. Thought to date to the early 8th century CE but largely constructed a few centuries later, Teyuna (as the locals call it) consists of 169 terraces, tiled roads, and small circular plazas. Up to 8000 people once lived here.

2. Hampi // India

Image Credit: Mona Dutta

The last capital of the Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar, Hampi is a gorgeously preserved city built by ridiculously wealthy princes in the 14th to 16th centuries CE. Located in the southwest Indian state of Karnataka, the city was attacked by the Deccan Muslim confederacy in 1565, pillaged for the next six months, and then abandoned. Yet some 1600 structures remain, including royal complexes, temples, homes, gateways, pillared halls, and, most strikingly, stone chariots‚ which are actually shrines.

3. Arykanda // Turkey

Built into the mountainside near the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, Arykanda (photo at top of story) is mostly overlooked in the region because there are dozens of stunning ancient cities dotting this coast, including Perge, Side, and Xanthos. Arykanda is special because of its spectacular setting above a river valley. You can’t even see it from the ancient road. The earliest ruins date to the 5th century BCE. The city was constructed in levels into the mountain, so as you climb up, you find new ruins. In the ancient literature, Arykandans were rumored to be drunkards—and archaeologists have found thousands of wine bottles at the site.

4. Shi Cheng // China

In 1959, the Chinese government flooded Shi Cheng (“Lion City”), a 600-year-old city in southeast China, when it dammed the Xin’an River for a hydroelectric power plant. Since then, the city has been deep beneath the surface of Qiandao Lake. The first scuba dives to visit what some call “The Atlantis of the East” took place in 2001. The water preserved the city quite well, and you can still see large building complexes and wide streets with hundreds of stone archways featuring lions, dragons, and phoenixes. Some dive footage is above.

5. Herculaneum // Italy

You know Pompeii. It’s one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. But do you know its neighbor city Herculaneum, which was equally devastated by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE? Most visitors overlook the small seaside town, once a summer retreat for rich Romans. But Herculaneum has a wealth of ruins to see, including columned buildings, Roman baths, wide streets, and villas with stunning mosaics and frescos. 

6. Ollantaytambo // Peru

Ollanta, as it’s known, isn’t quite as famous as Machu Picchu, but it’s still a much-visited expanse of city ruins located in the Sacred Valley of the Incans in southern Peru. It was built in the 13th century by the Incan ruler Pachacuti (“he who shakes the Earth”), who constructed a royal estate, the city, military defenses, and a ceremonial center 9000 feet up in the Andes. Perhaps its most dramatic feature is its steep stone terracing. Want to hike the Incan trail? Start here.

7. Teotihuacan // Mexico

Teotihuacan may be Mexico’s most famous archaeological site—and as an ancestral home to the Olmec, Maya, Aztec, and other cultures, Mexico has no shortage of ancient wonders—but you’ll still be infused with awe by the mighty pyramids here. Located about 50 kilometers northeast of Mexico City, the city dates to the 1st century BCE and continued to expand over the next seven centuries. At its height, the city was home to some 25,000 people. "It was the largest city anywhere in the Western Hemisphere before the 1400s," archaeologist George Cowgill says. "It had thousands of residential compounds and scores of pyramid-temples and was comparable to the largest pyramids of Egypt."   

8. Xi’an // China

By the time Qin, the first emperor to unite China under a single ruler, died in the 3rd century BCE, Xi’an had been one of China’s most important political and cultural capitals for nearly 1000 years. Buried with Qin was an astonishing wealth of treasure (and, brutally, hundreds of living people) and the Terracotta Warrior Army, at least 7000 of which have been unearthed since 1974, all of them carrying real bronze weapons. Qin’s remains are just outside Xi’an, a bustling modern (and smoggy) city of 8 million where you can walk atop the ancient city wall, which was built just decades after Qin died. Xi’an is also the eastern end of the famed Silk Road.

9. Tiwanaku // Bolivia

Lemurian Grove, Flickr // CC BY-NC2.0

Located near Lake Titicaca nearly 12,000 feet up in the Andes of western Bolivia, Tiwanaku was once the spiritual and political center of an empire that from the 8th to the 11th centuries CE ruled a vast region and spread its technological advances, from irrigation technology to basket design, far and wide. But its roots go back more than 4000 years. While archaeologists know residential areas were once part of Tiwanaku, it’s the ceremonial centers that are mostly above ground, including the Gateway to the Sun, the Gateway to the Moon, and the Kalasasaya temple complex.

10. Aksum // Ethiopia

Aksum was the capital city of an Ethiopian kingdom that was the most powerful state between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia for hundreds of years. Aksum’s ruins date from the 1st to the 13th centuries CE and include giant stelae, royal tombs, villas, and, most famously, monolithic obelisks. (Mussolini stole one in 1937; Italy finally returned it, in three pieces, in 2005. It was restored and erected in 2008.) Located in northern Ethiopia near the Red Sea, the city was well positioned at the place where Africa, the Mid-East, and the Greco-Roman world met, and its kings capitalized on that well. Indiana Jones should've looked in Aksum for the Ark of the Covenant; some Christians believe it is stored in a church here. 

11. Cahokia // United States

It looks like a collection of grassy mounds now, but Cahokia was once the largest pre-Columbian city in North America. Located just north of St. Louis, the city was once the political, religious, and economic capital of the Mississippian culture (800 to 1350) and home to 10,000 to 20,000 people at its peak from the mid 11th to the mid 12th centuries—as large as many European cities of the time. Today you can visit 51 of its 120 mounds, which were once homes, buildings, ceremonial centers, and even an astronomical observatory. The largest is Monks Mound. With four terraces, at 90 feet tall it’s the largest prehistoric earthen structure in the New World.  

12. Thebes // Egypt

The Valley of the Kings. The Valley of the Queens. The Temple of Luxor. Karnak. These are some of the most famous archaeological sites in the world—and they’re all in what was once ancient Thebes, the capital of Egypt during the late Middle Kingdom and throughout most of the New Kingdom (1550 to 1070 BCE). These sites aren’t exactly off the beaten path, but they are undeniably powerful. The sheer scale of these ruins is overwhelming. You’ll never feel as awe-inspiringly small than you will while standing near the monumental statue of a pharaoh whose big toe is twice the size of your head.

13. Persepolis // Iran

If you’re American, you might have a tough time visiting Persepolis, but regardless of today’s political realities, this famed ancient city in southwest Iran is well worth a visit. The capital city of the Persian Empire during the Achaemenid Dynasty (550–330 BCE), Persepolis still features the 2500-year-old ruins of the royal palace, the treasury, and a military compound that miraculously survived Alexander the Great’s invasion, burning, and looting of the city in 330 BCE.

14. Mesa Verde // United States

The cliff-dwelling Ancestral Puebloans lived in this remarkable city in what is today southwest Colorado from the 6th century to the 13th century CE. Mesa Verde (“green table” in Spanish) is just one of 5000 archaeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings dramatically built into the harsh landscape of the region. The most famous ruin is the Cliff Palace. The people who called the region home grew vegetables and hunted game here for centuries—until a drought hit in the late 13th century and the city was abandoned.

15. Mohenjo Daro // Pakistan

The Indus Valley (or Harappa) civilization dates to 5000 years ago—and is one of the most mysterious in the ancient world. Located in southern Pakistan, Mohenjo Daro’s ruins include public baths, a large residential structure meant to house thousands of people, a marketplace, and many homes with inner courtyards, private baths, and drainage systems. Though the Harappan culture thrived for about 1000 years, we know little about its people or its Indus Script, which remains undeciphered to this day. We’re not even sure it’s a language. It’s one of archaeology’s greatest puzzles.

Editor's Note: This post has been updated. 

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John MacDougall, Getty Images
Stolpersteine: One Artist's International Memorial to the Holocaust
John MacDougall, Getty Images
John MacDougall, Getty Images

The most startling memorial to victims of the Holocaust may also be the easiest to miss. Embedded in the sidewalks of more than 20 countries, more than 60,000 Stolpersteine—German for “stumbling stones”—mark the spots where victims last resided before they were forced to leave their homes. The modest, nearly 4-by-4-inch brass blocks, each the size of a single cobblestone, are planted outside the doorways of row houses, bakeries, and coffee houses. Each tells a simple yet chilling story: A person lived here. This is what happened to them.

Here lived Hugo Lippers
Born 1878
Arrested 11/9/1938 — Altstrelitzer prison
Deported 1942 Auschwitz
Murdered

The project is the brainchild of the German artist Gunter Demnig, who first had the idea in the early 1990s as he studied the Nazis' deportation of Sinti and Roma people. His first installations were guerrilla artwork: According to Reuters, Demnig laid his first 41 blocks in Berlin without official approval. The city, however, soon endorsed the idea and granted him permission to install more. Today, Berlin has more than 5000.

Demnig lays a Stolpersteine.
Artist Gunter Demnig lays a Stolpersteine outside a residence in Hamburg, Germany in 2012.
Patrick Lux, Getty Images

The Stolpersteine are unique in their individuality. Too often, the millions of Holocaust victims are spoken of as a nameless mass. And while the powerful memorials and museums in places such as Berlin and Washington, D.C. are an antidote to that, the Stolpersteine are special—they are decentralized, integrated into everyday life. You can walk down a sidewalk, look down, and suddenly find yourself standing where a person's life changed. History becomes unavoidably present.

That's because, unlike gravestones, the stumbling stones mark an important date between a person’s birth and death: the day that person was forced to abandon his or her home. As a result, not every stumbling stone is dedicated to a person who was murdered. Some plaques commemorate people who fled Europe and survived. Others honor people who were deported but managed to escape. The plaques aim to memorialize the moment a person’s life was irrevocably changed—no matter how it ended.

The ordinariness of the surrounding landscape—a buzzing cafe, a quaint bookstore, a tree-lined street—only heightens that effect. As David Crew writes for Not Even Past, “[Demnig] thought the stones would encourage ordinary citizens to realize that Nazi persecution and terror had begun on their very doorsteps."

A man in a shop holding a hammer making a Stolpersteine.
Artisan Michael Friedrichs-Friedlaender hammers inscriptions into the brass plaques at the Stolpersteine manufacturing studio in Berlin.
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

While Demnig installs every single Stolpersteine himself, he does not work alone. His project, which stretches from Germany to Brazil, relies on the research of hundreds of outside volunteers. Their efforts have not only helped Demnig create a striking memorial, but have also helped historians better document the lives of individuals who will never be forgotten.

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Henry Guttmann, Getty Images
14 Facts About Mathew Brady
Henry Guttmann, Getty Images
Henry Guttmann, Getty Images

When you think of the Civil War, the images you think of are most likely the work of Mathew Brady and his associates. One of the most successful early photographers in American history, Brady was responsible for bringing images of the Civil War to a nation split in two—a project that would ultimately be his undoing. Here are some camera-ready facts about Mathew Brady.

1. HIS EARLY LIFE MIGHT BE AN INTENTIONAL MYSTERY.

Most details of Brady’s early life are unknown. He was born in either 1822 or 1823 to Andrew and Julia Brady, who were Irish. On pre-war census records and 1863 draft forms Brady stated that he was born in Ireland, but some historians speculate he changed his birthplace to Johnsburg, New York, after he became famous due to anti-Irish sentiment.

Brady had no children, and though he is believed to have married a woman named Julia Handy in 1851, there is no official record of the marriage.

2. HE TOOK PHOTOGRAPHY CLASSES FROM THE INVENTOR OF MORSE CODE.

When he was 16 or 17, Brady followed artist William Page to New York City after Page had given him some drawing lessons. But that potential career was derailed when he got work as a clerk in the A.T. Stewart department store [PDF] and began manufacturing leather (and sometimes paper) cases for local photographers, including Samuel F.B. Morse, the inventor of Morse Code.

Morse, who had learned the early photographic method of creating Daguerreotypes from Parisian inventor Louis Daguerre in 1839, brought the method back to the United States and opened a studio in 1840. Brady was one of his early students.

3. HE SET UP SHOP IN NEW YORK AND BECAME THE GO-TO PHOTOGRAPHER.

Brady eventually took what he learned from Morse and opened a daguerreotype portrait studio at the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street in New York in 1844, earning the nickname “Brady of Broadway.” His renown grew due to a mix of his knack for enticing celebrities to sit for his camera—James Knox Polk and a young Henry James (with his father, Henry James Sr.) both sat for him—as well as a flair for the dramatic: In 1856, he placed an ad in the New York Daily Tribune urging readers to sit for a portrait that warned, “You cannot tell how soon it may be too late.”

His rapidly-expanding operation forced him to open a branch of his studio at 625 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., in 1849, and then move his New York studio uptown to 785 Broadway in 1860.

4. HE ACHIEVED WORLDWIDE FAME.

In 1850, Brady published The Gallery of Illustrious Americans, a collection of lithographs based on his daguerreotypes of a dozen famous Americans (he had intended to do 24, but due to costs, that never happened). The volume, and a feature profile [PDF] in the inaugural 1851 issue of the Photographic Art-Journal that described Brady as the “fountain-head” of a new artistic movement, made him a celebrity even outside of America. “We are not aware that any man has devoted himself to [the Daguerreotype art] with so much earnestness, or expended upon its development so much time and expense," the profile opined. "He has merited the eminence he has acquired; for, from the time he first began to devote himself to it, he has adhered to his early purpose with the firmest resolution, and the most unyielding tenacity.” Later that year, at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, Brady was awarded one of three gold medals for his daguerreotypes.

5. HE PHOTOGRAPHED EVERY PRESIDENT FROM JOHN QUINCY ADAMS TO WILLIAM MCKINLEY ... WITH ONE EXCEPTION.

The one that got away was William Henry Harrison—he died only a month after his inauguration in 1841.

6. ONE OF HIS PORTRAITS INTRODUCED HONEST ABE TO THE COUNTRY.

When Abraham Lincoln campaigned for president in 1860, he was dismissed as an odd-looking country bumpkin. But Brady’s stately portrait of the candidate, snapped after he addressed a Republican audience at Cooper Union in New York, effectively solidified Lincoln as a legitimate candidate in the minds of the American populace. (After he was elected, Lincoln supposedly told a friend, “Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me president.”) It was one of the first times such widespread campaign photography was used to support a presidential candidate.

7. HIS STUDIO’S WORK ENDED UP ON TWO VERSIONS OF THE $5 BILL.

A researcher holding one of America's most priceless negatives, the glass plate made by famous civil war photographer Mathew Brady of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 just before he was assassinated.
Three Lions, Getty Images

On February 9, 1864, Lincoln sat for a portrait session with Anthony Berger, the manager of Brady’s Washington studio. The session yielded both images of Lincoln that would go on the modern iterations of the $5 bill.

The first, from a three-quarter length portrait featuring Lincoln seated and facing right, was used on the bill design from 1914 to 2000. When U.S. currency was redesigned that year, government officials chose another image Berger took at Brady’s studio of Lincoln. This time, the president is seen facing left with his head turned more to the left.

According to Lincoln historian Lloyd Ostendorf, when the president was sitting for portraits, “Whenever Lincoln posed, a dark melancholy settled over his features. He put on what Mrs. Lincoln called his ‘photographer’s face.’ There is no camera study which shows him laughing, for such an attitude, unfortunately, was impossible when long exposures were required.”

8. OTHER PEOPLE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR SOME OF HIS BEST-KNOWN WORK.

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Brady decided to use his many employees and his own money to attempt to make a complete photographic record of the conflict, dispatching 20 photographers to capture images in different war zones. Alexander Gardner and Timothy H. O’Sullivan were both in the field for Brady. Both of them eventually quit because Brady didn’t give individual credit.

Brady likely did take photos himself on battlefields like Bull Run and Gettysburg (although not necessarily during the actual battle). The photographer later boasted, “I had men in all parts of the army, like a rich newspaper.”

9. HE HAD BAD EYESIGHT.

Brady's eyes had plagued him since childhood—in his youth, he was reportedly nearly blind, and he wore thick, blue-tinted glasses as an adult. Brady's real reason for relying less and less on his own expertise might have been because of his failing eyesight, which had started to deteriorate in the 1850s.

10. HE HELPED REVOLUTIONIZE COMBAT PHOTOGRAPHY.

War photographer Mathew Brady's buggy was converted into a mobile darkroom and travelling studio, or, Whatizzit Wagon, during the American Civil War.
Mathew B Brady, Getty Images

The group of Brady photographers that scoured the American north and south to capture images of the Civil War traveled in what became known as “Whatizzit Wagons,” which were horse-drawn wagons filled with chemicals and mobile darkrooms so they could get close to battles and develop photographs as quickly as possible.

Brady’s 1862 New York gallery exhibit, "The Dead of Antietam,” featured then-unseen photographs of some of the 23,000 victims of the war’s bloodiest day, which shocked American society. “Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war," a New York Times reviewer wrote. "If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”

11. HE USED A FREEBIE TO CONVINCE GENERALS TO LET HIM PHOTOGRAPH THE WAR.

Brady and his associates couldn't just wander out onto the battlefield with cameras—the photographer needed to obtain permission. So he set up a portrait session with Winfield Scott, the Union general in charge of the Army. The story goes that as he photographed the general—who was posed shirtless as a Roman warrior—Brady laid out his plan to send his fleet of photographers to tell the visual story of the war unlike any previous attempts in history. Then the photographer gifted the general some ducks. Scott was finally convinced, and he approved Brady’s plan in a letter to General Irvin McDowell. (Scott's Roman warrior portrait is, unfortunately, now lost.)

12. HE WAS BLAMED FOR UNION BATTLE LOSSES.

Brady’s first foray into documenting the Civil War was the First Battle of Bull Run. Though he had approved of Brady's plan, General McDowell did not appreciate the photographers' presence during the battle.

Brady himself was supposedly near the front lines when the fighting began, and quickly became separated from his companions. During the battle, he was forced to take shelter in nearby woods, and slept there overnight on a bag of oats. He eventually met back up with the Army and made his way to Washington, where rumors swelled that his equipment caused a panic that was responsible for the Union’s defeat at the battle. “Some pretend, indeed, that it was the mysterious and formidable-looking instrument that produced the panic!” one observer noted. “The runaways, it is said, mistook it for the great steam gun discharging 500 balls a minute, and took to their heels when they got within its focus!”

13. HE DIDN’T JUST PHOTOGRAPH THE UNION SIDE.

Before, after, and occasionally during the Civil War, Brady and Co. also photographed members of the Confederate side, such as Jefferson Davis, P. G. T. Beauregard, Stonewall Jackson, Albert Pike, James Longstreet, James Henry Hammond, and Robert E. Lee after he returned to Richmond following his surrender at Appomattox Court House. “It was supposed that after his defeat it would be preposterous to ask him to sit,” Brady said later. “I thought that to be the time for the historical picture.”

14. HIS CIVIL WAR PHOTOS ALSO MADE HIM POOR.

Union troops with a field gun during the American Civil War.
Mathew Brady, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“My wife and my most conservative friends had looked unfavorably upon this departure from commercial business to pictorial war correspondence,” Brady told an interviewer in 1891. Their instincts were right.

Brady invested nearly $100,000 of his own money in the Civil War project in hopes that the government would buy his photo record of the war after it was all said and done. But once the Union prevailed, a public reeling from years of grueling conflict showed no interest in Brady's grim photos.

After the financial panic of 1873 he declared bankruptcy, and he lost his New York studio. The War Department eventually bought over 6000 negatives from Brady’s collection—which are now housed in the National Archives—for only $2840 total.

Despite being responsible for some of the most iconic images of the era, Brady never regained his financial footing, and he died alone in New York Presbyterian Hospital in 1896 after being hit by a streetcar.

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