Even if we’ve never seen them, images of the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and the Lighthouse of Alexandria are likely etched into our minds.
And let’s not forget Angkor Wat and the Great Wall of China.
These timeless marvels are immersed in history, lore, and mystery, and they’re among the world’s most impressive engineering achievements as well.
But today we’ll politely pass them over.
Instead, we’ll focus on a few lesser-known but equally monumental ancient wonders that often get overlooked.
1. Banaue Rice Terraces
Spread over a vast and remote tract of mountainous terrain on the Philippine Island of Luzon, the Banaue Rice Terraces are awe-inspiring marvels popular with adventurous travelers who prefer to distance themselves from the crowds.
They’re located about 200 miles north of Manila in the island’s central region, and were constructed over multiple generations beginning more than two millennia ago.
The indigenous Ifugao people who built them apparently used little more than basic wood and stone tools—a truly impressive fete considering their handiwork is now widely regarded as one of the world’s ancient marvels.
The terraces were built to provide sustenance to the ever-growing population using wet-rice farming methods, for which there was inadequate land in the valley below.
The tallest terraces reach nearly 5,000 feet above sea level, and they’re fed by an extensive irrigation network that carries water from the rainforests even higher up in the mountains.
By some estimates the total surface area of the terraces’ cultivated areas is nearly 4,000 square miles.
To put that into perspective, that’s larger than the American states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.
If lined up, the berms that make up the terraces’ boundaries are said to be more than 12,000 miles long—five times the distance between New York and Los Angeles.
In the mid-‘90s, a number of terraces were designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, though many of them have fallen into disrepair due to development, neglect, and the ravages of time and the elements.
Some, like the ones in Batad are particularly difficult to reach, making them inaccessible to all but the fittest travelers.
2. Göbekli Tepe
Often referred to as ‘The World’s First Temple,’ Göbekli Tepe is a prehistoric religious site in southeastern Turkey.
Though the dates are disputed, some archaeologists claim that Göbekli Tepe’s structures were built as many as 12,000 years ago.
They’re characterized by circular buildings and carved stone slabs set atop an imposing rubble-strewn hill.
Evidence suggests that the site is comprised of more than a dozen individual temples which were once centers of religious ritual and ceremony, but excavations by members of the German Archaeological Institute weren’t officially undertaken until the mid-1990s.
Many of the temples’ largest monolithic structures feature a T-shape, which archaeologists claim is a rudimentary representation of the human form.
Some are adorned with intricate carvings depicting animals like snakes, lions, waterfowl, and wading birds—and the most colossal examples stand nearly 20 feet tall and weigh 60 tons.
Like many ancient engineering projects, the methods used for moving such massive stones and positioning them so precisely has many scholars baffled.
It’s generally agreed that when the temple was purportedly built, societies had only invented the most basic hand tools, and that they led dispersed hunter-gatherer lifestyles.
If those assertions are true, it makes Göbekli Tepe all the grander.
Newgrange—or Ireland’s Stonehenge—is a large Neolithic dome located in County Meath along the island’s northeast coast.
The structure’s base measures nearly 280 feet from side to side, and was constructed around 3,200 BC.
That’s about 5,200 years ago, making it older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids.
Like its more well-known counterpart on the Salisbury Plain, Newgrange was thoughtfully situated to give it unique astronomical properties.
Namely, on the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year—the rising sun’s rays shine through a box on the roof’s center, which results in a flood of direct light that illuminates a central chamber.
The chamber lies at the end of a 60-foot tunnel, and is characterized by a number of stone tombs filled with cremated remains.
As with Stonehenge, it’s generally believed that Newgrange functioned in a number of roles, including that of solar-based calendar, burial location for high-ranking figures, and a site for religious ceremonies.
The site’s builders eventually packed up and moved on to bigger and better things, because when it was discovered in the late 1600s it had already been abandoned for quite some time.
The structure is comprised of approximately 200,000 tons of rock, much of which was originally carved with abstract Megalithic art consisting of geometric shapes and jagged lines.
Sadly, much of it has vanished due to weathering and theft by treasure seekers.
4. Leshan Giant Buddha
When it comes to massive Buddhas in amazing settings, there’s really no beating the one in Leshan City, China.
The seated red Buddha in Sichuan Province was carved from sedimentary rock cliffs, and from his kingly perch the ‘Enlightened One’ peers casually onto the turbulent confluence of three powerful rivers below.
Towering nearly 240 feet tall and measuring 90 between the shoulders, it’s the world’s largest carved Buddha.
According to historians, the project began during the Tang Dynasty in the 8th century and continued on and off for nearly a century before completion.
The Buddha’s riverside location was selected largely because it was thought that its powerful and calming presence would result in fewer ships sinking along the notoriously dangerous stretch of water.
The project was overseen by a devout Chinese monk who purportedly plucked his own eyes out in a show of pious disapproval when funding became scarce.
Apparently it was all for naught, because the money did temporarily dry up, and construction halted when the Buddha consisted of only a head and shoulders.
Thankfully the monk’s industrious followers finished the project years after his death, thanks to financial help from a faithful local official.
5. Monasteries of Meteora
In Greek, meteora means “suspended in air,” and for the majestic cluster of high-altitude monasteries found there, it’s an apt name.
The Monasteries of Meteora are located about 5 hours north of Athens, and were built as high as 1,200 feet above the valley floor on jagged rock monoliths that made them among the region’s most isolated religious sites.
The precarious locations were chosen because they offered nearly absolute isolation—a condition early Christian clergy found helpful in their never ending quest to attain closeness to God.
Though the monasteries’ first residents were Orthodox monk-hermits who lived onsite in the 9th and 10th centuries, long before that pious believers dwelt in the area’s sandstone caves to escape the temptations and distractions so prevalent in the towns below.
They led harsh lives subject to fierce weather, lack of socialization, and a heavy reliance on locals who provided them with much-needed food, water, clothes, and fuel for warmth and cooking.
The complex’s vastness makes it Greece’s largest archaeological site by area.
Many of the monasteries are still functioning, and some of them have regular seasonal visiting hours.
Located just a few hours northeast of Beirut, the Baalbek Temple Complex is one of Lebanon’s most enchanting and historically significant sites.
The valley in which Baalbek resides has been continuously inhabited for more than 10,000 years, and like most of the aforementioned ancient marvels, it’s largely shrouded in lore and mystery.
It’s also home to the largest known construction stones in the world, some of which are nearly 60 feet long and weigh 1,000 tons.
Though the largely toppled Roman temples are now Baalbek’s most noteworthy attractions, at other times in its history the site was occupied by Greeks, Ottomans, Mongols and Phoenicians.
During the height of its Roman occupation, the expansive complex featured temples dedicated to Venus, Bacchus and Jupiter, and by some estimations the structures took more than two centuries to build.
It wasn’t until Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the 4th century AD that its significance began to decline.
Due to earthquakes, erosion, and plunder, the temples have deteriorated drastically over the years, but in many respects they still rival those found at more well-known ancient Roman and Greek sites.
Of the remaining examples, the Temple of Bacchus is the most well-preserved.
Other attractions include Arab fortifications, a mosque, and ruins of private Roman homes adorned with original mosaics.
7. Mayan Ruins of Tikal
When it was rediscovered by European explorers in the mid-1800s, the sprawling Mayan city of Tikal in northeast Guatemala was largely obscured by jungle trees and vines.
By that time it had probably been abandoned for more than 1,000 years, and though excavations began shortly thereafter, the site wouldn’t become a noteworthy attraction until it became a national park in the 1960s.
Featuring nearly 2,000 structures like terraced pyramids, tombs, and temples, the city’s central portion was generally reserved for worship, ritual sacrifice, and other special events.
Most of the site’s structures were built around 400 BC, the largest and tallest of which is the massive tiered pyramid that stands nearly 150 feet tall.
Many feature detailed accounts of significant historical events and stylized carvings of popular deity figures like the sun and moon, which were etched into temple stone by skilled artisans.
The site reached its height around the 9th century, after which Mayan fortunes began to wane all over Mexico and Central America.
Though it’s not as well-known as other Mayan ruins in the region, archaeologists suspect that Tikal was at least as powerful and influential as other sites like Chichen Itza and Teotihuacan.
It’s likely that Tikal’s decline was hastened by a number of factors including a burgeoning population, lack of food, internal power struggles, and continual conflict with other prominent civilizations.
During its heyday, there could have been nearly 100,000 residents in the city and surrounding areas.