Earth's Wild and Ancient Ruins

Nick Nomi

Senior Contributor

These icons of other eras represent entire cultures, faiths and past grandeur. They are the remnants of lost civilisations, entire cities and palaces. Some lost to time and rediscovered, ruined perhaps, but all mesmerising in their beauty and each with their own stories to tell. Whether the ruin of a palace sat atop an ancient volcanic rock, the skeletal remains of 900-year-old abbeys in Yorkshire or entire landscapes marked by thousands of years of culture, these are some of the world’s most spectacular wild and ancient ruins.

The Lion Rock, Sigiriya

The legendary Lion Rock surges 200 metres above the surrounding jungles from the central plains of Sri Lanka. At its foot are two giant clawed paws, remnants of the lion that was once a key feature of the rocky fortress. In antiquity, the initial ascent would lead people first through the monumental lion paws as today and then directly into the mouth of the lion — which sadly no longer exists.

But the ascent is still incredibly impressive. The 1,200 steps lead visitors past ancient frescoes, various inscriptions dating back to the 8th century, and a vast mirror wall — it was once so well polished that the clearly vain king Kasyapa who built the complex in the 5th Century could see his reflection in it. At the top, the views of the surrounding landscapes are phenomenal, with heavenly vistas of the lush emerald-coloured jungle quickly taking attention away from the ancient ruins of the palace complex that sits atop the rock. 

The Lion Rock, Sigiriya

Ayutthaya, Thailand

As a former capital of Siam, Ancient Ayutthaya is thought to have once been the world’s largest city. But today most visit Ayutthaya as a quick day trip from Bangkok, which no doubt conjures images of busloads of tourists packing the streets in time for lunch. Surprisingly though, the fairly large city remains off the radar and still has its quiet days.

All of Ayutthaya’s ancient city ruins are stunning, easily on par with any in Thailand and as fascinating as neighbouring Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, but pay particular attention to the three perfectly kept stupas at Wat Phra Sri Sanphet, the vibrant painted crypt at Wat Ratchaburana and the iconic Buddha head entangled in the roots of a Banyan tree in the grounds of mystical Wat Mahathat. 

Ayutthaya, Thailand

Luxor, Egypt

Millennia of captivating myth; vast temple complexes with lines of tall sphinxes at Karnak and towering colonnades at Luxor; the Valley of the Queens snuggled under giant sand-coloured hills home to the Tomb of Nefertari; and the elaborate tombs of the Valley of the Kings cradled by the west bank of the Nile. Luxor’s ancient treasures are seemingly endless.

Most of Luxor’s (or Thebes if you prefer) ruins are on the west bank of the Nile but the east bank has many of the district’s temples as well as the town. The best way to explore it all is to hire a bike and travel around independently, but a sunset sail on a Felucca offers a much more romantic way to view the valley.

Luxor, Egypt

Fountains Abbey, England

The historic undulating landscape of Yorkshire hides many an antique treasure within its glorious dales, hills and moors and while many are worth the journey, few offer quite as much to see as the 12th Century ruins of Fountains Abbey. As is usual at many of Yorkshire’s ruined abbeys, the grounds are almost entirely open and explorable, with the nave of the Abbey, Chapel of Nine Altars, and the atmospheric vaulted cellarium some of the highlights from inside the ruins.

The abbey itself is set into an idyllic Georgian water garden, carpeted with pretty snowdrop perennials and adorned with neo-classical statues, romantic follies and various manor houses and cottages to stay the night in. Local walks are delightful with paths that take in the surrounding forests with views of nearby Ripon Cathedral, and the wonderful deer park — home to 500 wild Red, Fallow and Sika deer. The abbey looks especially attractive when viewed from along the peaceful banks of the River Skell. 

Fountains Abbey

Bagan, Myanmar

South-East Asia has so many well-preserved ruins, but the most fascinating are in Myanmar's Bagan. Bagan’s 26-square mile archaeological zone sits right in the middle of Burma and is a mystical, magical landscape, bejewelled with wild flora and ancient stupas and pagodas — the remnants of the ancient capital city of the first Burmese empire — all cradled by a curvaceous meander of the Irrawaddy River and framed by the hazy silhouettes of distant mountains.

Finally awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2019, Bagan is one of the most staggering manmade sights on earth. To truly appreciate the scale of it all, head out as the sunset casts its fiery hues over the landscape and watch as the scene transforms into a hazy, burned orange visage of ornate temple tops, idyllic plains and a picturesque scattering of air balloons floating high above.

Bagan, Myanmar

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