History’s Forgotten Masterpieces: 5 Overlooked Wonders of the Ancient World

History’s Forgotten Masterpieces: 5 Overlooked Wonders of the Ancient World

Patrick Lynch - April 8, 2017

Those with a love of history are probably aware of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. From the Great Pyramid of Giza to the Colossus of Rhodes, those great structures are a source of astonishment as we try to understand how the ancients had the ability to create them. The thing is, there are dozens of incredible buildings and complexes that haven’t garnered the same kind of coverage. These ancient wonders are no less spectacular than their better-known counterparts, and in this piece, I examine 5 of the best.

History’s Forgotten Masterpieces: 5 Overlooked Wonders of the Ancient World
The Lost Labyrinth. Ancient Origins

1 – The Lost Labyrinth of Egypt

Anyone with even the slightest interest in history has heard of the Egyptian pyramids that were used to store the bodies of Pharaohs. Relatively few people are aware of the remarkable Labyrinth of Egypt that was apparently built by Amenemhat III in the 19th century BC. Ancient sources claimed there were 12 palaces over two levels with at least 3,000 chambers in this vast underground complex. The sprawling masterpiece received the ‘Labyrinth’ name from Greek writers, and it was supposedly the tomb of 12 kings and a number of sacred crocodiles.

The problem is: there is practically no visible trace of the Labyrinth remaining, and we rely on the accounts of ancient historians for more information on this extraordinary structure. It was located around 90 kilometers south of modern day Cairo and contained a huge number of secret tombs, shrines, and chambers. According to Herodotus: “the Labyrinth surpasses even the pyramids.”

Several other ancient historians such as Strabo, Pliny the Elder, and Diodorus wrote about this ancient marvel, and a couple of them claim to have seen the structure first hand. Herodotus was the first to write about the Labyrinth in the 5th Century BC, and he witnessed the complex for himself. He only saw the upper levels but was astonished at its grandeur and said it was hard to believe it was the work of men. Unfortunately, he was unable to provide a first-hand report on the underground levels because the Egyptians refused to let him enter.

We don’t know the exact reasons behind the destruction of the Labyrinth, but it’s likely that the structure was broken up and used for other projects while thieves also plundered the complex. A German scholar and polymath named Athanasius Kircher created the first pictorial reconstructions in the 17th century which he based on the writings of Herodotus. Kircher drew 12 courts surrounding a maze.

Professor Flinders Petrie claimed to have located the site of the Labyrinth in 1888. He said it was almost 1,000 feet long and 800 feet wide. To put these measurements in context; you could fit the temples of Luxor and Karnak in the structure! It is perhaps odd that more wasn’t made of the Labyrinth during the Egyptology frenzy of the early 20th century, but then again, hardly any traces remain. Compare that to the tomb of Tutankhamen and other remarkable discoveries where there was plenty of archaeological evidence lying around.

The Labyrinth remained under the radar until 2008, when a team of researchers from Egypt and Belgium investigated the location of the complex. Thanks to the use of advanced technology that studied the sand, the team determined that there had been an underground temple near the Pyramid of Amenemhat III. Bizarrely, the Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities suppressed the findings.

Eventually, the leaders of the expedition created a website to share their findings with the world. At the time of writing, there are no plans to excavate the area which is a shame because the Labyrinth could hold answers to burning questions about Ancient Egypt.

History’s Forgotten Masterpieces: 5 Overlooked Wonders of the Ancient World

2 – The Great Ziggurat of Ur

This Neo-Sumerian ziggurat was built in the ancient city of Ur in the modern day Iraqi province of Dhi Qar. King Ur-Nammu oversaw the creation of the ziggurat in the 21st Century BC during the Third Dynasty of Ur. When it was completed, the enormous step pyramid was 98 feet high, 148 feet wide and 201 feet long. It was part of the city’s temple complex and used as the shrine of Nanna, the moon god. The king died during the construction of the step pyramid, and it was completed during the reign of Shulgi. The new king declared himself a god to win the allegiance of nearby cities, and he reigned for approximately 48 years.

Since the Mesopotamian gods were often linked to the eastern mountains, the structure might have been a representation of their homes. As a result, the city’s inhabitants believed their ziggurat was where Nanna chose to live. Indeed, the ancient Mesopotamians believed their gods had the same needs as humans which is why there was a bedchamber built on top of the ziggurat. There was a kitchen where food was prepared for Nanna and chambers for human servants.

While Ur flourished under Shulgi, it fell apart once he died as his successors were unable to prevent the empire from falling apart. Soon, the city was sacked by Elamites. Nabonidus, the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, restored the top two terraces in the 6th century BC. It is unlikely that his restoration looked anything like the original since he had little information to go on. During the 4th Century BC, the Euphrates River changed its course, and the city of Ur was abandoned due to lack of irrigation.

The remains of the ziggurat of Ur lay undiscovered until 1850. John George Taylor began the first excavations soon afterward, and his work ensured the site was identified as Ur. Further excavations began after World War I, and in 1920, Sir Leonard Woolley was appointed by the British Museum and the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania and tasked with undertaking an extensive exploration of the site.

The excavation lasted until 1934, and the team found that the ziggurat consisted of three layers of solid mud brick with further burnt bricks set in bitumen. The baked bricks probably weighed as much as 33 pounds apiece and up to 720,000 bricks were required for the lower portion of the structure alone. In the 1980s, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein restored the lower section’s huge façade including the three massive staircases that led to the gate.

During the Iraqi War, Hussein made sure his MiG fighter jets were stored beside the ziggurat because he believed the enemy would not dare destroy the structure. He was mistaken as coalition bombardment damaged parts of the structure. Unfortunately, no further excavations are planned in the near future as the site of the ziggurat is considered too dangerous. Hopefully, the situation will change one day, and we can finally learn more about this incredible step pyramid.

History’s Forgotten Masterpieces: 5 Overlooked Wonders of the Ancient World
Pera Tours International

3 – Derinkuyu Underground City

On the surface at least, there appears to be nothing special about the district of Derinkuyu in Turkey’s Nevsehir Province. However, beneath the town lies one of the most remarkable structures of all time. An underground city, possibly built in the 7th and 8th centuries AD, lies up to 280 feet below the surface. At its peak, the city was home to approximately 20,000 people and also contained food stores and livestock. The level of planning that went into the city is incredible as it features above-ground doors, passages, tunnels, cellars and ventilation ducts!

The city remained undiscovered until a Turkish man found it completely by chance in 1963. He was making some improvements to his home when he made one of the most fascinating discoveries of the 20th century. The man knocked down a wall in his basement and found a secret room. Further investigation revealed an underground tunnel which led to a hidden ancient city.

According to National Geographic, the city consists of 11 levels with an area of over 4 square miles. As well as including chambers such as living quarters, tombs, shops, temples and livestock pens, it has approximately 15,000 air shafts. Also, there are passages that connect it to local underground networks along with underground water systems, a security system, and wineries! The security measures were intriguing and ingenious. They included rolling stone doors capable of sealing the city from the outside, and each level could be sealed off from another level using this system.

There are various theories as to who built the city under Derinkuyu and why. Archaeologists find it difficult to put a precise date on the structure since it is carved out of stone. Also, there are no records of the city’s construction. Some historians believe the Phrygian people created it in 800 BC while others believe the Hittites built it in the 14th century BC. Recently, there has been a suggestion that it was built by the Byzantines during the 8th and 9th centuries AD as a means of providing protection during the empire’s wars with the Arabs. Certainly, the security doors suggest the city was built to keep the inhabitants safe from invaders.

It is unlikely that the underground complex was designed for long-term living, but it was capable of sustaining a large population for a reasonable length of time. It’s likely that various groups of people lived there and construction was ongoing as each population added their own chambers and improvements.

The complex was used in the 20th century by the Cappadocian Greeks as a means of escaping the wrath of the Ottomans. In 1923, Christians in the region were expelled, and the tunnels were abandoned. They were rediscovered in 1963 and made open to the public six years later. Unfortunately, less than half of the complex is currently open to tourists, but there is a host of travel companies that offer private tours to this wonder of the ancient world.

History’s Forgotten Masterpieces: 5 Overlooked Wonders of the Ancient World
Overhead view of the rock fortress. Pearl Ceylon

4 – Sigiriya Complex

This remarkable structure is located in Sri Lanka’s Central Province and is also known as the Lion’s Rock. The name ‘Sigiriya’ refers to a historical and archaeologically significant area of genuine beauty capped off by the incredible fortress that is almost 660 feet high. In the modern era, it is a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site having received the designation in 1982.

The surrounding area was inhabited for thousands of years before King Kashyapa decided to create a fortress in 477 AD. He did so as protection because he murdered the previous king, Dhutusena. As the illegitimate son of Dhutusena, he had no official claim to the throne. However, he plotted with the leader of the nation’s army to overthrow the monarch, and he also drove the rightful heir, Dhutusena’s son Moggallana, out of the kingdom.

Kashyapa relocated the capital to Sigiriya from Anuradhapura and quickly began work on the fortress. Sigiriya was an obvious choice for the new capital because it gave the king a strategic advantage should any of his enemies attack. Due to its elevated position several hundred meters above sea level, Sigiriya offered a 360-degree view of the surrounding area. The king ordered the creation of a new city, and over the next few years, his architects created a stunning complex.

The structure gets its ‘Lion’s Fortress’ name because of the giant lion that greets visitors as they reach the halfway mark on the journey to the top. It was designed as a gateway to warn enemies and welcome friendly visitors. The Sigiriya complex included five gates and was 1 kilometer long and 3 kilometers wide. There were beautiful gardens within the area and to provide extra security; the king ordered a moat complete with ramparts to be built around the complex.

Kashyapa didn’t get to enjoy his new fortress for very long because Moggallana returned from Southern India with an army and defeated his enemy in 495 AD. Apparently, Kashyapa’s elephant panicked at the sight of invaders and turned aside instead of charging. The king’s troops mistakenly believed it was a signal to retreat, so they fled the battlefield. According to one story, the king committed suicide rather than surrender to his enemies. Moggallana moved the kingdom’s capital back to Anuradhapura.

As a result, the magnificent Sigiriya complex was abandoned, but a Buddhist monastery later occupied the grounds and remained there until the 14th century. During the 17th century, Sigiriya became part of the Kingdom of Kandy, but it was only discovered by Western explorers in 1831 when Major Jonathan Forbes of the British Army found it while riding his horse across the province.

After a low-key archaeological dig in the 1890s, Sigiriya was subject to more intense scrutiny in the early 20th century, but a major excavation did not take place until 1982. At this point, the Sri Lankan government funded the Cultural Triangle Project which focused on the city. Unfortunately, the lion’s head fell off centuries ago, but even today, the Sigiriya complex is one of the most splendid wonders of the ancient world.

History’s Forgotten Masterpieces: 5 Overlooked Wonders of the Ancient World
Best Price VN

5 – The Ancient City of Bagan

Located in Myanmar (or Burma), the city of Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan from the 9th to the 13th century. Those who have traveled to the city believe it is on a par with the far more famous Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia. However, due to the relative isolation of Myanmar, it isn’t well known. During the height of the Pagan Empire between the 11th and 13th centuries, approximately 10,000 pagodas and temples were built. There were also grand palaces, monasteries, and other buildings but since they were made of wood, they are long since destroyed.

The history of Bagan begins in the 9th century, but the remarkable program of building didn’t occur until the reign of King Anawrahta who founded the Empire in 1044. He converted to Theravada Buddhism and created a number of amazing temples including the Shwezigon Pagoda and soon, the city became a draw for Buddhist monks who traveled hundreds of miles to visit Bagan.

Over the next 250 years, around 14,000 religious monuments were built in Pagan including 3,000 monasteries and 10,000 temples over a total area of 104 square kilometers. The city grew and became one of the most prosperous in the region. It became a center for religious and secular studies and also encouraged study in medicine, law, alchemy, astrology and grammar. It attracted monks from as far away as India, the Khmer Empire, and Sri Lanka.

The Pagan Empire lasted until 1287 when it collapsed due to the Mongol invasions which began in 1277. According to modern historians, the Mongols probably didn’t reach the city of Bagan, and even if they did, the damage was minimal. This is borne out of the fact that 2,200 structures survive today. Given the Mongol reputation for pillaging, slaughter, and destruction, there would be little left of Bagan if they had reached it. However, the threat of invasion probably caused inhabitants to flee, and while the city once had a population of up to 200,000, it became nothing more than a small town. Bagan lost its status as the capital of Burma in 1297 when the Myinsaing Kingdom took control and was abandoned soon after.

We should be grateful that the city avoided plunder and devastation because what remains is one of the most incredible ancient cities in the world. Even though many of the temples and pagodas are over 800 years old, they are in excellent condition. Apparently, inhabitants in the surrounding area believed the city was haunted which is why it was avoided for up to four centuries after its abandonment. As a result, new developments were not created which means the space between the temples remained untouched.

If you ever visit Myanmar, you simply must take some time to visit Bagan. Hire a bicycle and explore as much of the area as possible. As well as viewing the temples from the outside, go inside and look at the remnants of murals on the walls and ceilings. Although it is something of a tourist destination, it remains a relatively unspoiled reminder of what life was like centuries ago.