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If you are considering a history degree, there’s a good chance you enjoy visiting historical sites and seeing the glories of the past for yourself. The world is full of marvels, but in many places history courses at school and university tend to focus on a few nations and time periods, like Ancient Greece and Rome, the Russian Empire, America and Britain. So you may not have heard of some of the amazing ruins and buildings on this list that are well worth a visit for a globe-trotting historian or archaeologist. Don’t forget your fedora, but you should probably leave the whip at home.
While India is well known for its Mughal masterpieces like the Taj Mahal in North India, the historical wonders of the south are less well known. Situated in the modern state of Karnataka on the Deccan Plateau, the expansive ruins of Vijayanagara are a UNESCO world heritage site. The city, founded in the 14th century, was at the heart of a powerful Hindu empire, and flourished until its sacking by an alliance of Islamic states in 1565.
The city was described by a visiting Portuguese as being “as large as Rome and very beautiful,” and “the best-provided city in the world.” Its city centre sprawls across an area of 40 square kilometres, encompassing innumerable temples, bazaars, and even the stables for the royal elephants. Other impressive sights include a giant ‘stone chariot’ and a giant statue of Narasimha, an aspect of Vishnu. This huge archaeological site, asides from containing some of the finest examples of medieval South Indian architecture, is set amongst a dramatic landscape of hills and towering granite boulders, providing some of India’s most unique views.
Near the city of Yogyakarta is the world’s largest Buddhist temple, Borobudur. Built by the powerful Javanese Shailendra dynasty in the 9th century, this immense structure is decorated with 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues. The structure was built at a time of considerable cultural influence from India, and its architecture reflects this, although its incorporation of many indigenous elements makes it uniquely Indonesian.
23 miles south-west of Agra, sight of the Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri was founded in 1569 and built to serve as the new capital of Mughal Emperor Akbar. One of the finest surviving examples of the Mughal architectural style, Fatehpur Sikri predates the Taj Mahal by more than half a century. It was the capital for just 14 years and was abandoned shortly after its completion when the small lake which supplied its water was exhausted.
In the centre of Isfahan, central Iran, this large city square is ringed by some of the finest examples of Islamic architecture in the world. Built during the Safavid era when the city became Shah Abbas’s new capital, the square includes the Bazaar of Isfahan, parts of which are over a thousand years old, the Shah’s palace, and two spectacular mosques. Unlike in Ottoman, Mughal and Western architecture, the domes of Isfahan’s mosques and palaces are covered with vivid turquoise tiles on the outside. The Safavid era is considered a Golden Age of Iranian art and architecture, built by one of the most powerful empires from Iran’s long and distinguished history.
This ancient city was the capital of the Pagan Kingdom from the 9th to the 13th centuries. During this time, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed on the plains surrounding the city, with over 2000 still surviving today. Despite centuries of earthquakes and unsympathetic additions and renovations, the site is vast and is still home to countless original examples of medieval Burmese architecture. Hot air ballooning is amongst the most popular ways of experiencing Bagan.
This ruin in northern Guatemala was once the capital of one of the ancient Mayan’s most powerful kingdoms. It’s one of the largest Mayan archaeological sites in the world. While parts of the site date back as far as 400BC, most of the city as it stands today was built between 200 and 900AD. Thanks to its abundance of tombs and inscriptions, Tikal is one of the best understood Mayan sites. It’s believed that the city’s final downfall was due to overpopulation and crop failure resulting from drought or environmental degradation.
This town in northern Ethiopia is famous for its UNESCO World Heritage listed ‘Rock-Hewn Churches’. An important centre of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, the town’s churches were carved from the rock in the 12th and 13th centuries. These include the cross-shaped Church of Saint George. It is believed that the Ethiopian monarchs built the site to symbolically recreate Jerusalem. Ethiopia was the second country in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion in 333AD, after Armenia, and has a long and rich tradition.
The tallest pre-modern statue in the world, Leshan’s 71 metre tall Giant Buddha is carved out of a cliff face and dates back to the Tang Dynasty. Constructed between 713 and 803AD, this statue in Sichuan province was started by a Chinese monk who hoped the Buddha would make the waters of the river at its feet safer for shipping. The statue was originally sheltered by a thirteen storey wooden structure to protect it from the elements, but it was destroyed by the Mongols sometime in the 14th century. It is still the world’s largest stone Buddha statue.
Considered one of the best preserved Roman cities in the Middle East, Jerash lies 30 miles north of the Jordanian capital Amman. Originally founded by Alexander the Great or one of his generals, the city was later conquered by the Romans in 63BC. It flourished for several centuries, and was still a major population centre even after the Roman period until a major earthquake destroyed much of the city in AD749. Today it’s visited by around 200,000 tourists each year.
In the Tuscan hills, about an hour’s drive from the world-famous Italian city of Florence, is the small town of San Gimignano, one of the best preserved medieval towns in Italy. It’s unique in its retention of fourteen ‘tower houses’, built by feuding families – though there were originally as many as 72! These were built in other Italian cities too, but have been lost through the centuries due to wars, natural disasters and urban renewal. This gives the town a unique skyline. Gamers might know the town from the 2009 games Assassin’s Creed II.
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