Ancient sites open your mind to just how old "old" can be and how sophisticated our ancient ancestors were in devising their artistic, engineering and construction methods. You'll never equate "ancient" with "primitive" again.
You don't need us to call your attention to the Coliseum in Rome or the pyramids in Egypt. So, like archaeologists, we're digging deep for a list of lesser-known ancient ruins. We're abiding by the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of "ancient" as history up to the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD. That means you won't find New World sites on this list. (We'll follow up with that list soon.) Our definition of "ruins" includes some sites that are mere shadows of their glory days and others that have been protected or preserved since, virtually, the beginning of civilization.
We recognize that some of these destinations are not recommended for tourists at the present time. But current geopolitical issues do not diminish their historical importance, and we'd be remiss if we overlooked them.
Temple and Tomb of Confucius, Qufu, China
Qufu, in Shandong Province in northeast China, is called the "hometown" of Confucius, which seems too casual a handle for a place so old and so significant. It was an important city long before Confucius made it famous. He was born there in 551 BC. When he died in 479 BC, he was buried beside the Si River, and it was shortly after that a temple was built in his honor.
Today, the cemetery surrounding the Tomb of Confucius contains the remains of more than 100,000 members of the Kong family, all of whom are his descendants. The temple, remodeled numerous times, is a pilgrimage site; the adjacent Kong Family Mansion complex contains relics and manuscripts.
The words "ancient history" probably don't bring Bulgaria to mind, but perhaps they should. It's loaded with archaeological sites, especially from the Thracians, whose society entered its most influential period around 1000 BC.
By some estimates, Thracian burial mounds in Bulgaria number in the tens of thousands, and many contain artifacts and treasures. Right now, the most famous of these is the Alexandrovo Tomb in the municipality of Haskovo. The 4th century BC tomb was opened by archaeologists in 2000 to reveal colorful wall murals depicting battle scenes, hunts and other activities. Making the site accessible to visitors was impractical, so a full-scale replica was recreated for a museum instead that also houses golden ornaments and other treasures recovered from the site.
Diocletian's Palace, Split, Croatia
A career military man from an ordinary family, Diocletian was born in nearby Salona (now Solin) around 244 AD and rose to become emperor of Rome around 285 AD.
He ruled for 20 years. Then, when he was about 60 and with his health failing, he abdicated and retired to Split near the Adriatic Sea, grew vegetables and relaxed until his death in 311 AD. The Roman palace was the greatest of its time, and the Peristyle courtyard where the emperor greeted the citizenry is now the site of a daily changing of the guard ceremony featuring mock Roman soldiers. Later medieval portions of the palace include St. Duje Cathedral, built over the Mausoleum of Diocletian -- ironic since Diocletian was known for his persecution of Christians.
Kourion and Paphos, Cyprus
Like many archaeological sites in Cyprus, Kourion adapts its ancient heart to modern usage. Its 3,500-seat amphitheater, which has existed in some form since the 2nd century AD, is still a venue for musical and theatrical performances, including an annual Shakespeare Festival in July. Though an earthquake in 364 AD leveled the city, its mosaics survived. They're outstanding, particularly the 3rd century AD scene of gladiators Margarites and Hellenikos locked in mortal combat.
Its proximity to the cruise port of Limassol makes Kourion a popular shore excursion. Farther up the coast, the archaeological sites at Paphos include another collection of excellent Roman mosaics and Hellenistic ruins.
At this ancient site near modern-day Luxor, Middle Kingdom (around 2050 to 1640 BC) and New Kingdom (1550 to 1070 BC) pharaohs built temples to their gods, tributes to themselves while they were alive and tombs to proclaim their glory after they'd died. The temple complex at Karnak, monumental in size and scope, developed over generations as rulers added to, remodeled or demolished what had been built before. (Thutmose III waged quite a campaign to obliterate the name and image of his stepmother/aunt Hatshepsut.)
Evening visits include a sound and light show. A long promenade flanked by sphinxes connects the temple complex at Karnak to the equally awe-inspiring temple at Luxor. Across the Nile are the royal tombs -- including the tomb of Tutankhamen -- in the Valley of the Kings.
Roman sites in Arles and Nimes, France
In the 1st century BC, when Arles was called Arelate, its residents wisely sided with Julius Caesar in a battle against Pompey. When he prevailed, Caesar rewarded them by making Arles into the "Little Rome of the Gauls." In its time, the city's Roman amphitheater sat 20,000 spectators.
Today, it's a venue for mock gladiator contests in summertime. Les Thermes de Constantin, built in the 4th century AD, are Roman baths warmed by a remarkable hot air flow system.
Nimes, less than 20 miles away, also benefited from Caesar's victory. Its Roman sites include a beautifully preserved amphitheater. About 30 minutes from Nimes is the Pont du Gard aqueduct, a masterpiece of precision engineering that fed the city with 2 million liters of fresh water every day. Its construction is so ambitious it's hard to believe it dates back to the 1st century AD.
In Mycenae, German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann unearthed the golden "Mask of Agamemnon" from a tomb in 1876. Or, at least, he claims he did. Schliemann was an enthusiastic digger but an unreliable chronicler of his finds. While the mask may or may not have come from Mycenae, it almost certainly had nothing to do with Agamemnon, the mythological 14th-century BC king.
The Mycenaean empire, however, was real and extremely influential in the ancient world. The site is in ruins, but the Lion Gate of the former palace from around 1300 BC still stands and the remains of the beehive-shaped tholos tombs reserved for royalty are still being studied and excavated.