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5 More Lesser Talked About Ancient Marvels

In the first Lesser Talked About Ancient Marvels video we covered some not so well-known historic sites like the Banaue Rice Terraces in the Philippines and the Tikal Mayan ruins in Guatemala. 

Within hours, suggestions from viewers came pouring in with ideas for yet more relatively obscure ancient marvels spread far and wide.

If you took the time to make a recommendation last time around, thanks, and you may find it covered here.   

1. Poverty Point 

Poverty Point by Maximilian Dörrbecker is licensed under CC-BY-SA

It’s often said (tongue in cheek) that ancient American and modern European history cover the same eras. 

But for those who think there was nothing significant going on in North America before the Pilgrims arrived, consider northeast Louisiana’s Poverty Point. 

The grand earthworks of Poverty Point (named after a 17th century plantation near the town of Epps) consist of a series of C-shaped ridges and mounds situated around a central plaza that covers nearly 350 acres (140 ha). 

At its highest point the largest mound stands nearly 75-feet-tall (23 m). 

All told the site stretches for nearly 3 miles (5 km) along Bayou Macon to the east, and it was all constructed around the time Queen Nefertiti ruled Egypt.

In fact, for thousands of years it was the largest earthen structure in the western hemisphere, making it one of the continent’s most enduring and historically significant sites.

You’re probably wondering why it was built. 

Though excavation began in the ‘50s, even contemporary archaeologists aren’t sure.

Over the past seven decades hundreds of thousands of artifacts have been uncovered including tools, pendants and beads, awls and needles made from carved bone, and clay human and animal figurines, but as is often the case, they’ve raised more questions than they’ve answered. 

What’s clear is that at its peak three millennia ago it was likely the center of an extensive trade network that stretched across much of what’s now the American Southeast. 

It’s also an amazing feat of engineering considering that approximately 5 million hours of labor went into construction, nearly 2 million cubic yards of earth were moved by basket, and that many of the site’s stones were quarried nearly 800 miles away.

In other words, we’re talking about an organized and sophisticated culture that did all this by hand long before wheeled carts and domesticated animals came along.

Ironically, evidence suggests that neither crops or livestock were raised on-site, and that the builders and residents were hunter-gatherers who subsisted on everything from fish and venison to berries and root vegetables found in abundance in the area. 

Historians claim that Poverty Point was abandoned around 1100 BC, but unfortunately, its inhabitants failed to leave a single shred of written history behind.  

The site was briefly reoccupied nearly 2,000 years later, but it went largely unnoticed for centuries until being rediscovered by settlers of European descent in the 1800s.  

In 1962 it was designated a National Historic Landmark, and in 2014 was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site – a distinction shared by only two other archaeological sites in America.  

2. Ellora Cave Temples

 Ellora Cave Temples
Ellora Cave Temples by Abhideo21 is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Composed of nearly 100 individual cave temples in western India’s Maharashtra State, Ellora is one of the country’s most majestic historic and religious sites. 

Hewn from porous basaltic hills and cliffs between 200 BC and 1,000 AD, Ellora’s cave temples feature dramatic architectural elements like courtyards, fountains, and statues representing animals, the natural world, and Hindu, Buddhist and Jain deities. 

Though the order in which the temples were built hasn’t been definitively established, it’s believed that there were three main construction phases. 

One of the complex’s most remarkable structures is the Kailasha Temple, (Cave 16) which is named after the mountain in the Himalayas where the Hindu god Shiva is said to reside. 

Construction began in the 8th century during the reign of Krishna I, and by some estimates included the excavation and removal of nearly a quarter of a million tons of rock. 

The multi-leveled Kailasha Temple measures nearly 165 feet (50 meters) long, 110 feet (33 meters) wide, and 100 feet (30 meters) high, and differs from other caves in that it was carved vertically into the rock as opposed to horizontally. . 

It also boasts hallways, doors, and windows, as well as monoliths, sculptures and reliefs featuring epic scenes like the Hindu deity Vishnu transforming into a fierce lion while battling a demon. 

Other site notables include the Vishvakarma Cave (Cave 10), adorned with both Hindu and Buddhist carvings like frolicking dwarfs, and the Jain Temple (Cave 32) which features more subdued and stylized representations of idyllic lotus flowers and serene natural scenes.

But despite its decoration, Cave 32 is most well-known for its stupa – or dome-shaped structure used for mediation and storing relics – that contains multiple prayer cells and a 15-foot Buddha resting in contemplative pose. 

It’s also known as Carpenter’s Cave, because many of the carved structures resemble wooden beams. 

Of the Ellora complex’s more than 100 caves, only about a third are open to the public. 

In 1983 Ellora was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and each year it attracts throngs of religious pilgrims, lovers of ancient cultures and adventurous tourists.  

3. Stone Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe

Stone Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe
Stone Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe by Janice Bell is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Though Africa has more than its fair share of ancient wonders, many like the Stone Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe aren’t so well-known.  

The name ‘Zimbabwe’ is an anglicized version of an African term for ‘stone houses’, which aptly describes the impressive granite ruins consisting of multiple walls, towers, monuments and buildings spread over nearly 2,000 acres (810 ha) in the southeast portion of the country. 

Relatively little is known about the historical events that led to the site’s construction nearly 1,000 years ago, and though it’s commonly held that the structure took its name from the modern day Zimbabwe, it’s actually the other way around. 

The massive complex’s structures set amidst the Zimbabwean Plateau trace their roots back to the early 11th century when construction was started by either the Shona or Bantu people. 

The ruins are grouped into three distinct areas: the Hill Complex, the Valley Complex, and the Great Enclosure.

Some theorize that each area was built by a different king, while others suggest that they were continuously inhabited and added onto.

There does seem to be agreement however, that the Hill Complex was a temple, the Valley Complex the residential area, and the Great Enclosure the realm of the king. 

The Hill Complex, or Acropolis, rests precariously on a steep hill that rises nearly 270 feet (80 meters), and construction began about 900 AD.

At some places, the Hill Complex’s walls are up to 20 feet (6 meters) thick and nearly 40 feet (12 meters) high.  

The Great Enclosure that lies at the site’s south end is the largest ancient structure of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa, and like its counterparts was created using a method called dry stonewalling (without mortar), which requires high levels of precision cutting and fitting.

The outer wall has a circumference of more than 800 feet (250 meters), and at some points towers nearly 40 feet (12 meters) over the ground below. 

There’s also an inner wall and a narrow passage between the two that leads to a conical 30-foot tower, that may have been a grain storage silo, a lookout and defensive position, or, according to some cock-eyed historians, a giant phallic symbol.

Either way, construction lasted for nearly 3 centuries, and at its peak the complex may have been home to as many as 20,000 residents. 

Although it’s not clear exactly who began construction and why, archaeologists agree that based on the intricate planning, elaborate masonry, and impressive engineering, the people who built it were remarkably advanced.

They also believe that the city’s economy was based on cattle, farming, and trading gold with other civilizations up and down Africa’s Indian Ocean coast between the 11th to the 15th centuries.

When it was visited by European explorers in the 1800s, they were apparently so enamored with its splendor that they thought they’d found the famed city of Ophir, the purported location of King Solomon’s mines. 

For more than a century the site was incorrectly attributed to more well-known ancient civilizations like the Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans, and it wasn’t until the early 20th century that a renowned English archaeologist concluded that the ruins were of African origin exclusively.  

But sadly, the residents of Zimbabwe’s Stone Kingdom up and vanished about 600 years ago. 

Though they’ve fallen into disrepair, many structures still stand today, and the site is now also recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

4. Sigiriya Rock Fortress

Sigiriya Rock Fortress
Sigiriya Rock Fortress by Binuka poojan is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Though it’s often referred to by one of its many aliases including the Lion Rock, the Palace in the Clouds, and the Eighth Wonder of the World by locals, whatever you choose to call it, there’s no denying that the Sigiriya Rock Fortress is an impressive ancient citadel.

Built about 1,500 years ago during the reign of King Kashyapa I, it sits perched atop an imposing rock plateau that towers 650 feet (200 meters) above a thick tangle of Sri Lankan jungle. 

Formed from the magma of an extinct volcano, the ancient rock fortress was designed to resemble a huge lion, but though parts of the beast’s feet remain today, the rest is long gone thanks to the ravages of time and the elements.  

According to Sri Lankan lore, Sigiriya Rock was chosen as the perfect place for a new capital by King Kashyapa in the 5th century BC because of its defensibility and central location. 

As a fortress it was only accessible by a relatively narrow staircase etched into the sheer rock that passed through a guarded gate about halfway up the ascent.

But at its height the complex also included an opulent palace, courtyards, and spectacular frescoes of nude females who may have been priestesses performing ceremonial rituals, the king’s wives, concubines, or all three.

It was also renowned for its vast terraced gardens that were continuously fed by a system of locks, canals, fountains and pumps that were nothing short of engineering marvels by the standards of the day. 

Another of Sigiriya’s most notable features was its Mirrored Wall.

Though it’s now stained orange and in disrepair, in its day the wall was crafted from meticulously polished white masonry that was apparently so mirror-like that the king could see his own reflection in it

The Mirror Wall once stretched for hundreds of feet from the royal palace to the aforementioned staircase, but later when the site was uninhabited it became a popular place for visitors to carve their names and witty quotes much like they do at historic attractions today, though some of the Sigiriya graffiti dates back to the 8th century. 

But due to the immense cost of supplying, defending and maintaining the fortress, it was abandoned shortly after the king’s death in 495 AD, and it sat empty for centuries until becoming a Buddhist monastery more than 1,000 years later. 

Thanks to its majestic location, archaeological significance and all-around splendor, it’s one of the country’s most visited attractions, and you guessed it, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

5. Derinkuyu Underground City, Turkey

Derinkuyu Underground City, Turkey
Derinkuyu Underground City, Turkey by Nevit Dilmen is lisenced under CC-BY-SA

Underground dwellings tend to conjure images of dark corridors, darker intrigue, and other morbid curiosities that many modern folks find particularly ominous and strangely alluring. 

Located In the Nevşehir Province of Turkey, the Derinkuyu Underground City isn’t just a smattering of caves carved out by religious recluses and eccentric mystics, but a true subterranean city that’s as deep as deep as 200 feet (85 meters) in some places.

And when it was built between the 7th and 8th centuries, it may have been home to nearly 20,000 residents – and as a side note, it was one of the few times (and places) in history when you could actually call a neighbor, family member or coworker a “troglodyte” without having them take offense. 

Whereas many underground cities were excavated haphazardly, Derinkuyu’s design reveals that it was the result of careful planning, meticulous construction, and remarkably organized labor and logistical systems, especially considering that the city’s residents lived below ground with their families, livestock and everything they needed in their daily lives.

It’s apparent that the caves were excavated in response to widespread war and social upheaval that often included marauding bands of soldiers and mercenaries hell-bent on raping and plundering. 

Though it’s unlikely that the city was ever intended as a permanent dwelling during times of peace, some residents did live there permanently, while others resided nearby and only used the city as a place of last retreat. 

Construction and upkeep were likely full time endeavors, as were supplying residents with food and water, and hauling out human and animal waste and other refuse. 

The underground city had more than 500 individual doors through which residents could enter and exit, many of which were located in homes and courtyards on the surface where they were masterfully concealed from enemies. 

Deep within the city lay a labyrinth of tunnels, passageways, storerooms, churches, wineries, and stables, and a particularly impressive missionary school on the second floor that even featured a vaulted ceiling.

Derinkuyu also contains approximately 15,000 ventilation ducts that provided a constant flow of fresh air to the subterranean city, as well as water wells from the surface that could be sealed from within during times of siege to prevent invaders from poisoning the water supply.   

Other defensive measures included removable rope bridges, carefully balanced stone doors the size of mill stones, and passages that could be sealed with solid rock plugs many feet thick. 

Of the nearly three dozen underground cities around Cappadocia, Derinkuyu is the deepest, and was used during times of strife as late as the 1920s.

It has been open to visitors since the mid-’60s, but more than half of it is off limits to the public.

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