From high altitude mountain fortresses in vast Middle Eastern deserts to Stonehenge-like burial chambers dotting Ireland’s emerald hills and nearly everywhere in between, the world is chock-full of fascinating ancient sites.
Some aren’t as physically imposing as the Great Wall of China, the colossal pyramids in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, or the lighthouse that once loomed over Alexandria, but despite their relative obscurity, many lesser known sites are just as unique and historically significant as their more famous counterparts.
Let’s take a closer look at a few of them.
Located in Central Java approximately 250 miles (400 km) southeast of Jakarta, Indonesia, the impressive Buddhist monument at Borobudur was built more than 1,200 years ago during the Shailendra Dynasty.
The massive structure rivals individual temples found at more prominent Buddhist ruins like those at Angkor Wat, though unlike them Borobudur isn’t part of a sprawling complex, but is instead largely surrounded by undeveloped forest and mountains.
Construction began in about 780 AD, lasted for more than seven decades, and may have been carried out by as many as 100,000 workers ranging from engineers, surveyors and hydrologists to masons, carpenters and common laborers.
Though the monument has three primary levels, each contains multiple terraces that represent the incremental steps one must take to achieve enlightenment and ultimately nirvana – the transcendent state in which suffering, sense of self and the persistent repercussions of karma are said to disappear, after which the subject is mercifully released from the nearly endless cycle of birth, life and physical death.
In keeping with Buddhist tradition, Borobudur’s design harmonizes with nature as opposed to overpowering it, but ironically it’s sheer magnitude and splendor are testament to man’s ability to shape the environment to his will.
Estimates suggest that construction required as many as 2 million cubic feet (56,000 cubic meters) of porous gray volcanic stone that was quarried nearby, the largest portion of which was used to build the square foundation and base that measure nearly 400 feet (123 m) per side.
The monument’s uppermost level is adorned with a massive central stupa, around which 72 smaller stupas are arranged in a circle.
Stupas are dome shaped burial chambers that often contain historic relics and sometimes even human remains, and their shape is thought to represent the body of the seated Buddha while deep in meditation.
Hence Borobudur’s angular base may embody the tangible earth, while the stupa’s curved surfaces mimic the heavens, thus the higher travelers move up the structure the closer they are to attaining true transcendence – at least symbolically.
To reach the top at nearly 120 feet (34 m), devout pilgrims enter the stairway on the east side and walk clockwise winding their way past each of the monument’s nine levels – all told a distance of nearly 3 miles (5 km).
The lower levels are adorned with hundreds of stone carvings depicting earthly desires, which not surprisingly are the lowest state of consciousness in Buddhist teachings.
In contrast, the middle and upper levels feature increasingly ethereal works representing formlessness and detachment from the urges, trials and torments associated with the physical world.
Though the site was a spiritual center for centuries, after a number of massive volcanic eruptions around 1,000 AD it became ensconced in a thick layer of ash, and was subsequently overgrown with vines and vegetation that made it nearly invisible.
But evidence suggests that by then Borobudur had already fallen into disrepair and may even have been abandoned, likely due to the shift away from Buddhism and toward Islam that occured around the same time.
It wouldn’t be until 1814 that Borobudur was rediscovered by Englishman and then Lieutenant-Governor of the Dutch East Indies Thomas Stamford Raffles, but by that time Borobudur had fallen victim to vandals, looters and treasure seekers who removed countless reliefs and the heads of numerous statues of The Enlightened One.
Later in 1896 while visiting Indonesia, even the King of Thailand got in on the act by requesting that a number of the monument’s most significant statues be removed and shipped to the royal palace in his own country.
Even today many museum collections around the world contain artifacts originally from Borobudur, though efforts to repatriate them have gained traction in recent years.
Between 1907 and 1911 Dutch archaeologists restored much of the site to near original condition, and a second project was completed in the early 1980s.
In 1985 the temple was bombed by a blind muslim cleric named Husein Ali Al Habsyie in retaliation for a massacre committed against Indonesian Muslims the year before.
No deaths resulted, but he was later sentenced to life in prison for the Borobudur bombing and others across the country.
Though the population of Indonesia is now only slightly more than 6% Buddhist, each year Borobudur hosts a full moon ceremony that includes thousand of saffron robe-clad monks making a solemn procession from the monument’s base upward to its central stupa in commemoration of the Buddha’s birth, life, and enlightenment.
Borobudur was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991.
Perched atop a 1,400-foot (430 m) mountain jutting from the Judean Desert adjacent to the Dead Sea, Masada was the location of the Jews’ epic last stand after the Romans sacked Jerusalem in the first century AD.
Due to its harsh climate and lack of water, the desert was largely uninhabited, but the relatively flat, fortified 20-acre mountain top and the caverns and cisterns beneath it had been used off and on for centuries, though most construction work had been commissioned by Herod after being appointed King by the Roman Senate in the third century BC.
Herod’s royal citadel included two opulent palaces, thick masonry walls and an impressive system of aqueducts that directed rain and spring water to cisterns capable of holding more than 200,000 gallons (750,000 liters).
When he died in 4 BC Masada was taken over by the Romans for more than six decades, though in 66 AD it was recaptured after a surprise attack by a militant Jewish sect known as the Zealots who were dead set against Roman rule and occupation.
Four years later in 70 AD after Jerusalem fell and the Second Temple was destroyed, the Romans again sought to retake Masada, this time once and for all.
The defenders refused a number of offers to surrender, and the historic siege by the 15,000-strong legion under the command of Flavius Silva began.
But despite Rome’s military might and experience dealing with unruly subjects, conquering such an impregnable fortress was no easy proposition.
Masada’s towering defenses and sheer cliffs were easily defensible, and long supply lines through the desert meant that getting everything from weapons and water to construction materials and food was slow and laborious.
Nevertheless, the Romans began the arduous process of building a massive earthen ramp from the cliff’s base toward the stronghold that stretched nearly 1,400 feet (420 m) from end to end.
Under cover provided by framed armored roofs that protected soldiers and workers from stones and other objects hurled from above, the Romans eventually reached the precipice and began constructing a large battering ram to hammer away at Masada’s thick walls.
Meanwhile, inside conditions for the Jews were deplorable.
Sickness and fatigue caused by dehydration, malnutrition and exposure left many unable to put up much resistance, though they fought on valiantly for nearly two years before the Romans breached the walls and stormed in.
What they discovered however, was that the Zealots preferred death to capture and enslavement.
When it became evident that they were about to be overrun, the defenders made the decision to kill the members of their own families, presumably with anything they could find including knives, rocks and clubs.
Then those that remained drew lots to determine who would kill who before ultimately taking their own lives.
As the story goes, the battle hardened Roman soldiers were aghast at the grizzly scene inside the walls.
Nearly everyone was dead except for seven survivors – five women and two children who’d hidden in a dark crevice inside a cistern.
Later, Masada was sporadically inhabited for more than twelve centuries, but it never again played such a significant role in regional history, and it wasn’t until the early 1900s that historians and archaeologists began exploring, mapping and conducting minor excavations of the site.
But more thorough work wouldn’t get underway until the mid-1950s, much of which was aided by volunteers from all over the world, many of whom were Jews.
Most accounts of the siege of Masada came from historian Josephus’ work “The Wars of the Jews,” which was found to be accurate down to many of the smallest details.
20th century excavations made a number of fascinating and macabre discoveries including one of the region’s oldest synagogues, and potsherds inscribed with names that were likely used to determine which defenders would kill their comrades before commiting suicide.
Now Masada is a prominent symbol of Israeli sovereignty and national pride.
It’s also one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.
Located in western Ireland’s County Clare, the megalithic Poulnabrone Dolmen, or tomb, dates back more than 6,000 years to approximately 4200 BC, making it one of the region’s oldest structures.
The dolmen is nearly 6 feet (1.9 m) high and 12 feet (3.6 m) long, but while the name Poulnabrone is commonly translated to mean “Hole of the Stones,” other interpretations label it the “Hole of the Sorrows” or “Place of Sorrows.”
Though there’s disagreement as to whether the stones were quarried locally or at a distant location, once on site they were joined together with incredible precision without the benefit of sophisticated tools or mortar to bind them together.
Instead, perched precariously atop five perpendicular blocks composed of two portal stones, two orthostats (upright stones), and one end stone, the horizontal capstone is held in place by little more than gravity.
Though about 200 similar dolmens dot the Irish countryside, Poulnabrone is among the most well-known and studied, largely because its unexpected collapse in the ‘80s gave formerly tentative archaeologists the excuse they’d been looking for to begin full-scale excavations.
Free from worrying about damaging or displacing the ancient stones, they began the painstaking process of removing the strata beneath the dolmen, eventually uncovering the remains of 22 people buried within.
Of them, one was an infant, five were children and 16 were adults, all of the latter of whom apparently died before the ripe old age of 40 – probably the standard life expectancy back then.
Careful examination and analysis revealed that they’d died at different times, and that they weren’t interred within the dolmen immediately after death.
Instead, decomposition of soft tissue had taken place elsewhere, probably a symbolic act meant to return the transient parts of the body to the earth, after which the more permanent bones were placed in their final resting place in the dolmen.
In other words, the dolmen was an “active grave,” or one that saw frequent burials and reburials over time.
But the removal of the remains’ soft tissue wasn’t always a natural process.
Archaeologists also discovered that many skeletons showed signs of burning, though not severe enough to have resulted from cremation.
It’s thought that the removal of soft tissue may have been hastened by fire, probably out of necessity due to an approaching celestial event or ceremony with which the burial needed to coincide.
In addition to human remains, stone axes, beads, arrowheads, potsherds and other personal possessions were found, all of which indicated that the dead were high-ranking members of the community, and probably all related.
But though the dolmen was primarily a tomb it may also have served additional roles such as a marker delineting the group’s territorial boundary.
The tilt of the capstone is also thought to have eased the soul’s transition from this world to the next, or served as an obstacle through which dangerous spirits intent on entering the realm of the living couldn’t cross.
In fact nearly all of Ireland’s dolmens were constructed in the same manner, and many are much larger than Poulnabrone.
But since no written history exists it’s largely conjecture, though similar views of death and the afterlife were common in later Celtic culture, namely that of the Morrigan – a Grim Reaper-like spirit that purportedly materialized at the moment of death and wrestled unwilling souls from newly deceased corpses.
The Morrigan’s were revered but also feared, and at many Celtic sites structures were specifically built as defenses against unwanted predations.
Now with the excavations finished, the capstone has been replaced and the Poulnabrone is back in its original state.