Discover 20 of the Oldest Ruins in the World

Written by Theresa Pogach
Published: October 19, 2023
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From the towering pyramids of Egypt to the mystical Stonehenge, the world is studded with ancient ruins that offer a fascinating glimpse into our distant past. Despite the passing of time, these ruins hold up against the elements. These remnants of ancient civilizations are not just stones but time machines that transport us to another era. Let’s journey back in time as we explore the top 20 oldest ruins in the world. Each of these sites tells a unique story of human ingenuity, perseverance, and the enduring legacy of the past.

1. Göbekli Tepe, Turkey (circa 9600 BCE)

Gobekli Tepe Neolithic Sanctuary remains

Göbekli Tepe is the oldest temple in the world you can visit today.

©iStock.com/Philipp Berezhnoy

Our journey begins with Göbekli Tepe, a prehistoric sanctuary in southeastern Turkey. It predates Stonehenge by over 6,000 years, and its intricately carved pillars and circles offer a tantalizing glimpse into the minds of our ancient ancestors. These hunter-gatherers built this complex for spiritual or ceremonial purposes, leaving a mystery baffling archaeologists.

2. Stonehenge, England (circa 3000 BCE)

Stonehenge during sunset winter solstice

This odd formation has fascinated people for generations.

©Chuta Kooanantkul/Shutterstock.com

Stonehenge, located in Wiltshire, England, is a world-renowned prehistoric monument that has captivated people’s curiosity for generations. Its history is mysterious, with origins dating back to around 3100 BCE. Over the centuries, it underwent several construction phases, evolving from a circular earthwork enclosure to the iconic stone circle we see today.

At the heart of Stonehenge’s design are its massive standing stones, known as sarsens. The outer stone circle comprises these huge stones, some weighing as much as 25 tons. Inside this circle is a horseshoe arrangement of smaller bluestones surrounded by an earthwork. In the center, an enormous altar stone adds to the monument’s intrigue.

The exact purpose of Stonehenge continues to elude scholars and researchers. Various theories have been proposed, ranging from religious and spiritual significance to its potential use as an astronomical observatory or a burial site. Stonehenge may have served multiple functions throughout history, including marking celestial events like solstices.

One widely discussed theory suggests that Stonehenge had a solid connection to astronomy. Certain features of the monument align with the sunrise and sunset during the solstices, indicating its potential role in tracking the movements of celestial bodies.

Stonehenge is a place of historical significance and a symbol of enduring fascination. It has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is now managed and preserved by English Heritage. The site is also one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United Kingdom, drawing visitors worldwide. Visitors can walk around the stone circle, explore the visitor center, and learn more about its enigmatic past through audio guides and guided tours.

3. Pyramids of Giza, Egypt (circa 2580-2560 BCE)

The Sphinx, Egypt, Sphinx, Pyramid, Pyramid Shape

These ruins are some of the most well-known structures in the world.

©iStock.com/pius99

The Pyramids of Giza, located just outside Cairo, Egypt, are among human civilization’s most iconic and enduring symbols. They are part of a larger complex that includes the Great Pyramid of Khufu (also known as Cheops), the Pyramid of Khafre, and the Pyramid of Menkaure, along with several smaller pyramids, temples, and structures.

The Great Pyramid of Khufu is the largest and most famous of the three, and it was built during the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, around 2580-2560 BCE. This colossal structure, originally standing at approximately 146.6 meters (481 feet) in height, was the tallest artificial building in the world for over 3,800 years. It’s constructed from an estimated 2.3 million blocks of limestone and granite, and the precision with which these stones were cut and arranged continues to baffle engineers and archaeologists.

The purpose of these pyramids was primarily as tombs for the pharaohs. Inside the pyramids, hidden burial chambers housed the mummified remains of the pharaohs, along with treasures and possessions believed to accompany them to the afterlife.

The Pyramids of Giza are awe-inspiring for their size and precision and the mysteries and questions they continue to pose. How they were built with such accuracy, using massive stone blocks, remains a subject of debate and fascination. The pyramids’ alignment with incredible precision towards the cardinal points, their astrological significance, and the advanced engineering techniques involved in their construction make them a marvel of ancient Egyptian ingenuity. Today, they are a testament to ancient Egypt’s power, innovation, and cultural richness, attracting countless visitors and researchers worldwide.

4. Newgrange, Ireland (circa 3200 BCE)

Newgrange

Irish mythology dictates Newgrange as the birthplace of Cuchulainn, the warrior who defended Ulster from the attacks of Queen Maeve.

©Jen Peng/iStock via Getty Images

In the emerald isle of Ireland, you’ll find Newgrange, a Neolithic passage tomb older than the Pyramids. It’s renowned for its intricate megalithic art and its astronomical meaning. On each winter solstice, sunlight penetrates the passage, illuminating the inner chamber in a mesmerizing display of ancient architecture.

5. Mohenjo-Daro, Pakistan (circa 2500 BCE)

Mohenjo-daro was one of the largest settlements of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization, and one of the world's earliest major cities.

Mohenjo-daro was one of the largest settlements of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization and one of the world’s earliest major cities.

©iStock.com/CameraCoy

Travel to the Indus Valley and discover Mohenjo-Daro, one of the world’s earliest major urban centers. The city’s advanced sewage and drainage systems suggest an impressive level of urban planning for its time. The ruins provide crucial insights into a long-lost civilization.

6. Machu Picchu, Peru (circa 1450 CE)

Ancient Incan city Machu Picchu in Peru

The most famous ancient Incan city in Peru.

©Don Mammoser/Shutterstock.com

Machu Picchu, dubbed the “Lost City of the Incas,” is a mesmerizing archaeological site in the Andes Mountains of Peru. Its purpose remains a subject of debate, but it is believed to have been constructed during the reign of the Inca emperor Pachacuti. This construction took place in the mid-15th century. This city, perched at about 2,430 meters (7,970 feet) above sea level, is nestled amidst the emerald forests of the Andes. It offers panoramic views of the surrounding landscapes.

What truly sets Machu Picchu apart is its remarkable Incan architecture. The city’s stone structures are renowned for precision, with precisely cut stone blocks that fit together seamlessly. The site includes notable buildings such as the Temple of the Sun, a magnificent example of Incan architecture. Additionally, you can find the Intihuatana, a ritual stone believed to have astronomical significance. The city’s terraced agricultural fields and sophisticated irrigation system exemplify the Inca’s engineering mastery.

For those seeking adventure and a deeper connection to history, the Inca Trail offers a memorable approach to Machu Picchu. This famous trek takes about four days and weaves through breathtaking natural landscapes and a series of lesser-known Incan ruins, culminating in the awe-inspiring arrival at Machu Picchu.

In recognition of its cultural and historical significance, Machu Picchu was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. It has also garnered global recognition by often being listed as one of the World’s New Seven Wonders.

7. Teotihuacan, Mexico (circa 100 BCE-650 CE)

Stunning view of Teotihuacan Pyramids and Avenue of the Dead, Mexico

The Avenue of the Dead and the Pyramid of the Sun create a breathtaking scene.

©Photogilio/iStock via Getty Images

Teotihuacan, located in the highlands of central Mexico, is an ancient Mesoamerican city that holds a place of great historical and cultural significance. This pre-Columbian city flourished from around 100 BCE to 650 CE and is often called the “City of the Gods.” At its height, it was one of the largest cities in the world, boasting a population of over 100,000 inhabitants.

The city’s most iconic features are the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon, which are prominent structures at the heart of Teotihuacan. The Pyramid of the Sun, in particular, is one of the largest pyramids in the world, and its precise alignment with celestial phenomena has long fascinated scholars. The city’s urban layout is marked by a grid of wide avenues and impressive residential and ceremonial complexes, showcasing advanced urban planning for its time.

Culture

The culture of Teotihuacan is still shrouded in mystery. The city is believed to have been a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society, but the exact identity of its inhabitants remains unclear. Teotihuacan’s influence stretched across Mesoamerica, and its art, architecture, and religious beliefs played a crucial role in shaping the subsequent civilizations in the region, including the Aztec culture.

The civilization of Teotihuacan is also known for its intricate murals, sculptures, and ceramics, which provide insights into their daily lives, spiritual practices, and artistic achievements. The city’s decline around 650 CE, possibly due to political and environmental factors, remains an ongoing subject of study and fascination among researchers and archaeologists. Today, Teotihuacan stands as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a place of reverence for those seeking to explore the remnants of this ancient Mesoamerican metropolis and understand its contributions to the rich tapestry of Mexican history and culture.

Teotihuacan’s Sun and Moon pyramids stand tall in Mexico’s arid landscapes, representing one of the most significant pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cities. Moreover, its mysterious origins and layout continue to intrigue scholars.

8. Hattusa, Turkey (circa 1600 BCE)

The lion gate of The Hattusa that is The capital of the Hittite Civilization, Corum

Many of these stone walls still stand today.

©Nejdet Duzen/Shutterstock.com

Hattusa, situated in modern-day Turkey, was once the mighty capital of the Hittite Empire during the Late Bronze Age, around 1600 BCE. Indeed, it is one of Anatolia’s most important archaeological sites, known for its historical significance and secrets about a powerful ancient civilization.

The city of Hattusa was characterized by massive stone walls, some of which still stand today, and a system of gates that fortified the city against potential invaders. Inside these walls were a royal palace, temples, and numerous dwellings. The Great Temple of the Storm God is particularly notable, and it was dedicated to the chief deity of the Hittite pantheon.

The Hittites, who ruled from Hattusa, were one of the major players in the geopolitical landscape of the time. Consequently, their empire extended across Anatolia and parts of Mesopotamia. Indeed, they played a crucial role in shaping the politics and culture of the ancient Near East. Furthermore, Hattusa was not only the political and administrative center of the empire but also a hub of culture and art.

The city was eventually abandoned, likely due to various factors, including climate change, invasions, and political instability. Its rediscovery in the 19th century led to a wealth of knowledge about the Hittite civilization, revealing a complex and sophisticated society. Today, Hattusa is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a captivating destination for history enthusiasts who wish to walk through the ruins and glimpse into the world of the Hittites.

9. Chichen Itza, Mexico (circa 600 CE)

Kukulkan pyramid in Mexico- best spots to explore Mayan ruins

The Mayan Temple pyramid of Kukulkan is a well-known attraction in Chichen Itza.

©iStock.com/diegograndi

Chichen Itza, a Mayan city, boasts the iconic El Castillo pyramid, known for its astounding astronomical precision. In addition to this, the site also contains a sacred cenote and a ball court, where ancient rituals and games unfolded. Whenever visiting Mayan ruins, its crucial to protect their beauty for future generations.

10. Knossos, Crete (circa 2000 BCE)

The,Fresco,In,The,Palace,Of,Knossos,,Crete,,Greece,(museum

The fresco in the Palace of Knossos, Crete, Greece, remains bright and bold.

©Sergey Lyashenko/Shutterstock.com

Knossos, situated on the island of Crete in Greece, is one of the most significant archaeological sites of the Minoan civilization. Dating back to around 2000 BCE, it is often referred to as the Palace of Knossos and is known for its rich history, grand architecture, and the legendary story of King Minos and the Minotaur.

The palace complex of Knossos is notable for its labyrinthine layout, with a maze of interconnected rooms, corridors, and chambers. The architecture is a testament to the advanced engineering and artistic skill of the Minoans, who were the first advanced civilizations in Europe. Indeed, the palace features intricately decorated frescoes, vibrant murals, and remarkable ventilation systems, indicating the Minoans’ sophistication in urban planning and artistry.

The myth of the Minotaur, a creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull, is closely associated with Knossos. According to legend, King Minos commissioned the construction of a labyrinth at the palace to contain the Minotaur. Although the existence of the Minotaur is purely mythological, the archaeological discovery of Knossos and its labyrinthine layout have helped fuel this enduring tale.

Today, Knossos stands as a testament to the achievements of the Minoan civilization. Visitors can explore the ruins, admire the colorful frescoes, and walk in the footsteps of an ancient culture that thrived on Crete over 3,000 years ago. Markedly, It is a site of great historical and archaeological importance, shedding light on a remarkable civilization that laid the foundations for European culture.

11. Petra, Jordan (circa 312 BCE)

Stunning view from a cave of the Ad Deir - Monastery in the ancient city of Petra, Jordan: Incredible UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Any fan of history would be in awe of these gorgeous ruins.

©tenkl/Shutterstock.com

Tucked away in the deserts of Jordan, the rose-red city of Petra is a breathtaking sight. Carved into the vibrant rock, this ancient Nabatean city features intricate facades like the famous Treasury. Walking through the narrow Siq, you can’t help but feel like you’re stepping into another world.

12. Palenque, Mexico (circa 226 BCE-799 CE)

Palenque temple in Mexico

Finding your way through the jungle is worth it to discover these ruins.

©iStock.com/diegograndi

Deep in the Mexican jungle, the Mayan city of Palenque showcases incredible architecture and artistry. The Temple of Inscriptions, with its secret burial chamber, holds the tomb of the legendary King Pakal. Its hieroglyphics reveal tales of Mayan history.

13. The Parthenon, Greece (completed in 438 BCE)

The Acropolis of Athens, Greece, with the Parthenon Temple on top of the hill during a summer sunset

You’ll find the Parthenon in all its glory amid bustling modern-day Athens.

©Sven Hansche/Shutterstock.com

The Parthenon, an iconic ancient temple, symbolizes classical Greek architecture and a cornerstone of Western civilization. It is located on the Acropolis of Athens, Greece, and its construction dates back to the 5th century BCE. The city dedicated the temple to the goddess Athena, their patron deity, and it served as a grand monument that housed a massive chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Athena.

Doric architecture, which features fluted columns, is prominent around the Parthenon. Its design exhibits balance and proportion, a hallmark of classical Greek aesthetics. Architects and builders consider the temple an unparalleled masterpiece of art and engineering, showcasing their ingenuity.

Over its long history, the Parthenon has faced various challenges, including damage from wars, changes in religious affiliation, and modifications in its usage. In the 19th century, Lord Elgin removed many of the Parthenon’s sculptures, known as the Elgin Marbles, now on display in the British Museum. The removal of these sculptures has been controversial and debated between Greece and the United Kingdom for many years.

14. Ayutthaya, Thailand (circa 1351-1767 CE)

 Tourists on an ride elephant tour of the ancient city in sunrise background

Many tourists put Ayutthaya on their bucket list.

©Engineer studio/Shutterstock.com

The historic city of Ayutthaya was once the capital of Siam (now Thailand ). Its magnificent temples and palaces were a testament to the grandeur of the Siamese kingdom. However, it fell victim to the Burmese invasion and now stands as a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site.

15. Mesa Verde, USA (circa 600-1300 CE)

Cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Parks, Colorado, USA

These cliff dwellings and the story of their inhabitants are a Colorado treasure.

©Sopotnicki/Shutterstock.com

The only ruin on our list in the United States is uniquely American. High in the cliffs of Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park boasts over 600 cliff dwellings built by the Ancestral Puebloans. These ancient abodes offer an intimate look at how this pre-Columbian civilization adapted to their environment. 

16. Great Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe (circa 11th-15th centuries CE)

Great Zimbabwe citadel

The intricate details impress visitors to Great

Zimbabwe

.

©Yury Birukov/Shutterstock.com

In southern Africa, the Great Zimbabwe ruins are a testament to the architectural prowess of a lost civilization. Indeed, the massive stone walls, conical towers, and archaeological discoveries still puzzle researchers today. When they were first discovered, some archaeologists dismissed the possibility that local peoples could have crafted these structures. However, abundant evidence shows these cultures designed and built these impressive ruins. The majesty of Great Zimbabwe is a historic jewel on the continent of Africa. 

17. Sigiriya, Sri Lanka (circa 477-495 CE)

(Selective focus) Spectacular view of the Lion rock surrounded by green rich vegetation. Picture taken from Pidurangala Rock in Sigiriya, Sri Lanka.

You’ll never see anything quite like the

Lion

Rock in Sri Lanka.

©travelwild/Shutterstock.com

Sigiriya, located in the cultural heart of Sri Lanka, is a remarkable archaeological site and historical marvel. The “Lion Rock ” is often called a massive rock fortress that rises dramatically from the surrounding plains. Sigiriya boasts a history dating back to the 5th century. It’s known for its unique combination of natural beauty and ancient human endeavor.

The most distinctive feature of Sigiriya is the ancient palace and fortress complex perched atop the rock. The ascent to this fortress is a captivating journey through lush gardens, terraced gardens, and ingenious hydraulic systems that demonstrate the architectural ingenuity of its creators. The frescoes on the rock face, known as the “Sigiriya Damsels,” are a testament to the artistry of the period.

At the summit of the rock, the remains of the palace reveal the ancient lifestyle and strategic brilliance of Sigiriya’s creators. It’s said that King Kasyapa, who built the palace, chose the location for its defensible position, stunning views, and serene surroundings.

18. Ephesus, Turkey (circa 10th century BCE)

Celsus Library in Ephesus, Turkey

Turkey is home to many spectacular ruins.

©muratart/Shutterstock.com

Ephesus, located in modern-day Turkey, is an ancient city steeped in history and archaeological significance. Furthermore, It was founded in the 10th century BCE and became a prominent center of culture and trade during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Today, Ephesus is one of the most well-preserved archaeological sites in the Mediterranean and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

One of Ephesus’s most iconic structures is the Library of Celsus, a remarkable example of ancient Roman architecture. Remarkably, the library, built in the 2nd century CE, once housed thousands of scrolls and was a center of knowledge. Its intricate façade, complete with statues and reliefs, is a testament to the city’s grandeur.

Additionally, there is the colossal Great Theatre, which could accommodate up to 25,000 spectators. It was a hub for performances and events, showcasing the city’s cultural richness. 

The Terrace Houses, known as the “Houses of the Rich,” provide a glimpse into the daily lives of Ephesus’s elite with their well-preserved mosaics, frescoes, and intricate architectural features.

19. Tikal, Guatemala (circa 4th century BCE)

Tikal in Guatemala, an ancient Mayan city in ruins surrounded by jungle

Blink, and you might miss Tikal among the heavy rainforest shrubbery.

©THP Creative/ via Getty Images

Tikal, located in the heart of the Guatemalan rainforest, is an ancient Mayan city renowned for its grandeur and historical significance. It was once one of the Mayan civilization’s most powerful and influential cities. Today, Tikal is one of Mesoamerica’s most essential and well-preserved archaeological sites.

The history of Tikal stretches back over a thousand years, with its earliest known construction dating to the 4th century BCE. At its peak, during the Classic Period. (circa 200-900 CE), Tikal was a thriving metropolis with a population estimated to have reached 100,000 inhabitants. The city’s influence extended far beyond its borders, with political, cultural, and economic ties to other Mayan cities across the region.

Tikal’s monumental architecture is a testament to the Mayan civilization’s engineering and artistic prowess. Towering pyramids, grand temples, and extensive plazas adorn the city. The Great Jaguar Temple and Temple II are iconic structures that dominate the central square.

Tikal’s decline in the 10th century remains a subject of study and debate among archaeologists and historians. Possible reasons for its abandonment include environmental stress and warfare. Consequently, the rainforest eventually reclaimed the city, and it remained hidden for centuries.

In the mid-19th century, explorers and archaeologists rediscovered Tikal, unveiling its magnificent ruins. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular destination for history enthusiasts and adventure seekers. Visitors can explore the sprawling site, walk along ancient causeways, and marvel at the impressive Mayan architecture. These structures have weathered the test of time. Tikal offers a profound window into the rich and complex history of the Mayan civilization.

20. Leptis Magna, Libya (circa 7th century BCE)

The amphitheater in the roman African colonial city of Leptis Magna in Libya

The ruins in Libya are well preserved.

©Plamen Galabov/Shutterstock.com

Our final destination is Leptis Magna, an ancient Roman city in present-day Libya. This beautifully preserved site boasts well-preserved architecture, including a theater, Roman baths, and triumphal arches. It’s a testament to the grandeur of the Roman Empire in North Africa.

The world is a treasure trove of ancient ruins with unique charm and history. From the earliest human endeavors at Göbekli Tepe to the architectural wonders of the Roman Empire in Leptis Magna, these sites beckon us to uncover their secrets. So, grab your explorer’s hat and embark on a journey to these ancient wonders; you won’t just witness history—you’ll become a part of it.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Jodie Tursunzade/Shutterstock.com


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