Lost cities: The world's greatest ancient settlements

Follow in the footsteps of some of the world's greatest explorers and discover ancient settlements and lost cities. From Delphi in Greece to the Terracotta Warriors and the iconic Petra — they're the stuff of travel legend.

By Ben Lerwill
Published 7 Aug 2014, 11:00 BST, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 12:07 BST

Ancient Greece: Gods, grandeur & lasting legends

"You have to be quiet, and go into yourself," says Thomas, my Greek taxi driver, accelerating hard through an amber traffic light. "That's how to appreciate the ruins. Sometimes I stand there, and for a minute it's like I'm in ancient times. I can see the colours and hear the crowds."

During our drive into town, Thomas has also eulogised the Greek alphabet ("like a prayer to Apollo") and shared his theory on how the country survived the economic crisis ("It was the light — the sun never abandoned us."). As airport transfers go, it's more thought-provoking than most. But then Greece is a one-off destination. I'm here to visit two of its key classical sites, beginning in the city that gave the world democracy. Modern-day Athens remains a singular sight, with the temple-topped crag of the Acropolis rising high above the souvlaki (grilled fast food) shops and market stalls of the streets below.

It's almost 2,500 years since the celebrated statesman Pericles rebuilt the city after a series of wars with Persia and ushered in its so-called Golden Age. At a time when much of Europe was still scratching around in hovels, he commissioned the lofty temples and neatly proportioned buildings that still capture the imagination today.

The Parthenon is, of course, the best known of these, and when I climb the Acropolis to see it up close it's a reminder of just how familiar its much-imitated columns have become. Its evolution from Greek temple into scaffold-clad tourist magnet has been eventful — it's also seen service as a Byzantine church, Frankish cathedral, Turkish mosque and gunpowder store — but its earliest incarnation is the most evocative.

No less stirring is the view it grants of the city, radiating out to accommodate more than three million people. I look down on the ruins of the ancient Agora, the former heart of Athens, where Socrates, Plato and Aristotle held forth. The crumbled walls once formed libraries, shrines and fountain houses.

I head next into the foothills of Mount Parnassus, three hours north of Athens, to visit the archaeological site of Delphi. For a long time it was considered the centre of the world. "In legend, Zeus released two eagles from different ends of the earth to meet at its midpoint," says my guide, Georgia. "They came together in the skies right here."

The setting is a rousing one — huge limestone bluffs loom overhead, spring wildflowers nod, and the vast valley floor is blanketed in olive groves. It's suitably momentous, given the site's past. For over 1,000 years, leaders, dignitaries and warriors came to this remote spot to present offerings and ask questions of the Delphi oracle, a local woman who, it was believed, acted as the gods' mouthpiece.

"It was usually a woman over 50," explains Georgia, as we pick our way through the remains covering the hillside. "When one died, another local woman was always appointed. She sat on a golden tripod above a gap in the rocks that emitted vapours, and this gave her divine power. But scientists today think the gases were probably methane, ethane and ethylene. So really, she was high. And like all astrologers, her prophecies were always very ambiguous."

If the spiritual validity of the oracle is easy to mock, there's no doubting the former splendour of the site itself. Thousands of votive bronze statues once lined the route up to the main temple, whose pillars were topped with sculpted figures.

When Georgia leaves, I climb to the top of the site where, beyond clusters of pines, an ancient, 180 metre-long athletics arena sits under a cliff face. I'm alone. The arena was levelled in the fifth century BC and is still banked by stone seating. Delphi hosted the Panhellenic Games here every four years, when thousands thronged the stadium. I remember Thomas's advice and, above the warm breeze, I try to hear the crowd.

More info

Suits: Travellers in search of a short-haul, world-class cultural break.
Details: discovergreece.com
How to do it: Travel Republic has a four-night break to Greece in mid-September from £431 per person, based on return flights with Aegean Airlines and two nights at the Herodion Hotel in Athens. Travel to, and accommodation in, Delphi is extra (it currently offers the Iniohos hotel in Delphi from £15 a night). travelrepublic.co.uk
Alternative: At the western end of the Peleponnese, Olympia hosted the original Olympic Games every four years and still hangs heavy with atmosphere.

Terracotta Warriors, Xian, China: Astounding numbers of long-lost subterranean statues

The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, lived around 2,200 years ago. It's fair to call him a controversial figure — he once had more than 450 scholars put to death — but he could never be acacused of lacking in grand gestures, particulaarly where his own burial site was involved. When he died in 210BC he was, by his own orders, buried with life-size models of more than 8,000 warriors. Their purpose was to protect the emperor in the afterlife, but when a group of Chinese farmers came across them by chance in the 1970s, the Terracotta Army quickly became one of the greatest archaeological finds in memory.

Many of these warriors, who were also interred with some 650 terracotta horses and dozens of chariots, are on display as a large-scale visitor attraction close to the city of Xian in China's Shaanxi Province. The whole thing is made all the more remarkable by the fact every warrior is slightly different.

More info

Suits: Anyone interested in China's lavish early imperial era.
Details: tourismchina.org
How to do it: Wendy Wu Tours has a 10-day China Experience, taking in Shanghai, Beijing and Xian, giving the chance to see the Terracotta Warriors and the Great Wall. From £1,690, including flights.
Alternative: China's iconic Great Wall— another of the modest Qin Shi Huang's pet projects.

Petra, Jordan: Slender gorges, supersized tombs & rock-carved drama

For several hundred years, Petra was hidden among the desert chasms and sandstone canyons of southwest Jordan. Since its rediscovery in 1812 by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, its cliff-hewn facades, royal tombs and hill-perched holy places have made it one of travel's most iconic sights. It flourished for half a millennium after being founded in 400BC as the trading capital of the Nabataeans, but its fame was nothing compared to today.

Petra is somewhere so steeped in drama it's become familiar to us all. Sunrise or sunset, canyon floor or clifftop, it knows how to enthral. But, like so many of the planet's great archaeological gems, its overall scale still comes as a surprise. The enormous carved exterior of the Treasury might be the quintessential Petra image, but it's one of over 800 registered sites to discover. And for most visitors, there's the best part of a mile's walk along a narrow, pinkly lit gorge just to reach the city itself. It's safe to say it's worth the effort.

More info

Suits: Everyone from Indiana Jones wannabes to escorted tour groups.
Details: uk.visitjordan.com
How to do it: Martin Randall Travel has an eight-night Essential Jrdan package with a guest lecturer, including three nights at Petra. From £3,180, including flights.
Alternative: The desert castle of Qasr Amra in eastern Jordan dates back to the eighth century and is astonishingly well preserved. Murals still decorate some of the walls.

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Read more in the September 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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