Imagine if you were able to get on a plane and jet around to some of the world’s oldest attractions. If you proceeded in the right order it would be like travelling through time. Here’s what the itinerary would look like for such a price-is-no-object tour of the world’s most ancient sites.
Why not start in the ice age? 19,000 years ago in what is now the Dordogne region of southwest France a prehistoric people painted polychromatic images of bisons, horses and mammoths on the walls of a cave. While the famous caves at Lascaux have been closed to the public, the cave at Font de Gaume is still open to visitors. The cave, near the town of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil, has over 200 paintings and the surrounding region is rich in prehistoric history. Entry to the cave costs 6.50 € (about $9.50 USD). Be warned. The site only admits 180 visitors a day and there is only one tour a day in English.
Fast forward some 14,000 years and find yourself marveling up at the mighty pyramid of Cheops, the oldest of the seven wonders of the world, constructed around the year 2,500 BC. Located near the modern city of Cairo, the pyramid, also known as the Great Pyramid of Giza, receives something on the order of 100,000 visitors a year. Although the surrounding area is now a sprawling chaos of development, visitors can still appreciate the solemn majesty of this mighty tomb and its smaller neighbors at sunrise or by exploring its interior. Entry costs 100 Egyptian Pounds (about $17 USD).
It’s hard to believe that around the same time the ancient Egyptians were painstakingly stacking over 2 million blocks, an unknown culture was arranging a circle of monoliths on the Salisbury Plain. Stonehenge, near Salisbury, England, is an ancient burial site comprised of massive bluestones erected and rearranged over the course of 800 years. Long a source of great mystery, the monument, like the pyramids, boggles the mind for the incredible effort necessary to transport and erect the stones used to build it, stones not found anywhere nearby. A ticket costs 7 £ (about $12 USD).
Skip forward 800 years and arrive at the Palace of Minos on the island of Crete. Also known as Knossos, this sprawling Bronze Age palace with its maze-like structure is thought to be the source of the Greek legend of the labyrinth in which Daedalus imprisoned the Minotaur. Consisting of 1,300 rooms over 6 acres, outfitted with aqueducts, a sewage system, hundreds of store rooms, handsome red Minoan columns, colorful frescoes, and a sumptuous throne room with the original alabaster throne intact, the palace, built between 1700BC and 1400BC, is a bargain at 6 € (about $8.50 USD).
About 500 years passed from the time of the Minoans until a humble shepherd named David was anointed king of Judea. The City of David, the original urban core of Jerusalem, is as twisted and complex as the religious and political intricacies surrounding it. The City of David, today the village of Silwan in disputed East Jerusalem, consists of a palace excavation that may or may not be the walls of David’s palace; archeologists are unconvinced. Nevertheless, the site can be visited. Whether it ought to be is another matter. Viewed by the Palestinians as yet another historically justified encroachment on their territory, the ancient city and its environs are to be toured with this in mind. Admission is 60 NIS (about $17.50 USD).
Leapfrog ahead another 500 years and travel 3000 miles to the east and you arrive at Sarnath, India where the enlightened Buddha first taught his followers. Buddha founded the Sangha there, a community of enlightened ones, in what was originally a deer park, about 528BC. From there the followers of Buddha spread out to carry his message to the world. Today the ruins of ancient Sarnath consist of the Dhamek Stupa, a mound like structure containing Buddhist relics marking the spot where Buddha first taught, the Mulagandhakuti vihara where Buddha spent his first rainy season, and the Chaukhandi Stupa where Buddha first met his disciples. It has remained a significant site in Buddhism and a place of pilgrimage. A full day guided tour costs around $44 USD.
At almost the same time Buddha was revealing his enlightenment, the Persian king Darius I was building the city of Persepolis outside of modern day Shiraz in Iran. The site, once the capital of the mighty Persian Empire, is today a 33 acre historic site with many impressive ruins including remnants of the Hundred Column Hall, the Apadana Palace and The Gate of All Nations. Although much has been lost or carried off, enough remains to give a real sense of the grandeur of the place at its height in 500BC. Many fascinating bas reliefs, sculptures and towering columns still exist. Hotel arranged tours or a round trip taxi ride from Shiraz with a guide costs about IR 250,000 ($24 USD).
Around the time Persepolis began to fade, thousands of miles away the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty of China had no intention of fading away. Although he was only 13 years old at the time, he focused intently on the building of his mausoleum and on the many items he would carry with him into the afterlife, among them an army that would never perish, an army of soldiers, horses and chariots made of terra cotta. The Terra Cotta Army consists of an estimated 8,000 life-sized soldiers and 650 horses, each one unique. Buried together with their emperor around 210 BC, they were rediscovered in 1974 and excavation is ongoing. Admission to the site is CNY110 (about $17 USD).
Even as the first emperor was being laid in his tomb in China, a burgeoning market at the foot of the Palatine Hill in Rome was refashioning itself into the center of a vast empire that would last 1,000 years. The Roman Forum reached its apex about 29 BC. Here was the center of all judicial and political life in Rome, the senate house, the law courts, the temples and monuments, the site of military triumphs, impassioned oratory and assassinations. On more than one occasion the direction of the western history was changed by what happened in The Forum. Enough of it still stands to provide a taste of the glory that was Rome. A guided walking tour costs 30 € (about $43 USD).
While Rome was transitioning from republic to dictatorship, a fledgling religious sect was winning converts in Asia Minor. A preacher by the name of Paul stood up in Ephesus in what is modern day Turkey about 55AD and spoke out against the pagans in the Great Theatre of Ephesus which still stands today. Many other significant ruins from Ephesus’s heyday remain, including the Library of Celsus, which housed 12,000 scrolls, the Gates of Augustus, and the Temple of Hadrian. Ephesus is particularly noted for its associations with early Christianity. Nearby is the house of the Virgin Mary and the Tomb of St. John the Apostle. A half day tour of Ephesus costs about $50 USD.
Our final stop at Ephesus brings us 17,000 years forward from the ice age into the Christian era and concludes our price-is-no-object tour of the ancient world. Although such a sweeping tour exists only in our imaginations, any portion of it can be had for a reasonable price for anyone who is fascinated by the famous sites of ancient history.
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