8 Ancient Cities to Visit Today

Sanilurfa
Sanilurfa

Urfa, Turkey

Once known as Sanilurfa, this city in eastern Turkey is steeped in history. From a patio restaurant, gaze upon the Citadel, a complex that makes mincemeat out of European historical centres. From one vantage point, you can see a 13-century mosque, a 6th-century church, a 2nd-century ruin, a 1st-century castle wall, and the cave where Abraham, founder of all three monotheistic religions, is said to be born. It’s still possible to enter the cave, where you can reverently drink from the fountain that inspired his legendary longevity. Thousands of years of history, crammed into the city’s natural amphitheater.

Xian
Xian

Xi’an, China

For millennia, Xi’an was the seat of China’s powerful ruling dynasties. Today, the bustling city of over 8 million people is a launch pad for tourists to see the Terracotta Warriors, but the city has its plenty to see. A 13km long fortress wall dating back to the 14th century rings the old city. Hire a bike or take a stroll to the various exhibits along the way, brought to life by historical re-enactors. It is a world away from the chaos and traffic of Beijing and Shanghai.

Dwarka
Dwarka

Dwarka, India

Located in the state of Gujarat, Dwarka is one of the seven most ancient cities in India. It is one of the holiest places in Hinduism, as it all that remains of the dwelling place of Lord Krishna. The city is home to famous shrines and temples, including the 5-storied, 16th-century Jagatmandir temple. Most sites can be visited in a day, including Bet Dwarka, where Krishna was said to live.

Rome
Rome

Rome, Italy

There was a time when all roads led to Rome. The mighty Roman Empire, stretching across Europe, Asia and North Africa, was the centre of power, art, fashion, science and commerce. Modern Rome still courts such a description, albeit for the smaller nation of Italy. On the other hand, there’s ancient history wherever you look. Besides the Coliseum, there’s the Trevi Fountain (throw a coin over your shoulder for luck), Piazza Navona, and of course, the Vatican. It’s not hard to imagine togas, centurions, and chariots, although in the heat of high-season summer, you’ll be just as happy to imagine an ice cream and air conditioning!

Jerusalem
Jerusalem

Jerusalem, Israel

It’s hard to believe that modern Jerusalem is the Jerusalem mentioned in the Bible, a holy place for Jews, Muslims, and Christians. So much history has passed through the city it can be intoxicating (sometimes literally, as in the case of the Messiah Complex). Old Town Jerusalem, circled by ancient walls and thick gates, is a labyrinth of narrow alleys, markets, sounds and smells. Jews gather at the Western Wall and Tomb of King David, Muslims at the Dome of the Rock, Christians at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or the Byzantium Church on the hill where Jesus was said to have been crucified. Whether you’re religious or not, it’s a powerful display of emotions, in a city that has captured our imaginations for millennia.

Rhodes
Rhodes

Rhodes, Greece

A Greek island in the Aegean Sea, Rhodes has been inhabited since 4000BC, but its major claim to fame is when the Romans developed the city into a leading centre of art and science over 2000 years ago. To celebrate a victory over the Cypriots, they also constructed the tallest statue of its time, the Colossus of Rhodes, which stood over 30m tall and was one of the Ancient Seven Wonders of the World. It stood for less than 60 years before an earthquake destroyed it, but you can still visit Rhodes today (population 80,000), and stroll amongst the Citadel, one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe. Visit old medieval castles, and take in stunning island views.

Kandy
Kandy

Kandy, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s second largest city was the seat of kings for around four centuries, up until the early 19th century, when the last ruling dynasty recognized the British as conquerors. It is particularly scenic, located on plateau between hills of tea plantations and tropical jungle, and a vital Buddhist centre. Every August, it holds the country’s most celebrated festival, Perahera, where hundreds of thousands of people gather to watch parades and make pilgrimages to the beautiful Temple of the Tooth, which contains a tooth of Buddha. With its historical and religious significance, Kandy is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Stone Town
Stone Town

Stone Town, Zanzibar

Although the capital of Zanzibar, a small island off the coast of Tanzania, was only settled 1000 years ago, walking the streets of Stone Town gives the distinct impression that its history stretches back further. With Moorish, Indian, and African influences, narrow alleys snake between blackened stone houses, leading to bustling street markets. Facing the ocean is the grand House of Wonders, built by the Sultanate of Oman, which ruled Zanzibar for centuries as the centre of its spice and slave trade. Watch dhows sail at sunset, visit a spice farm, or taste the delights at the open-air markets.

The World’s Most Extreme Places

hot

The World’s Hottest Place

Here’s a contentious category, with various contenders vying for the top hot spot. Historically, the victor was El Aziza in Libya, where the ground temperature was recorded in 1922 at a whopping 58°C. Furnace Creek in California’s Death Valley clocked in at an impressive 56°C, but it was not until satellites could measure thermal temperatures that the true victor could scorch their way to the top. Researchers at the University of Montana analysed infrared satellite data and the results were surprising. According to five years worth of data, the hottest place on Earth is Iran’s Lut Desert, where the land skin temperature was measured at 70.7°C. At that heat, you can fry an egg on your hand!

cold

The World’s Coldest Place

On November 23, 2010, Alberta recorded temperatures that made it the second coldest place that day on the planet. What’s remarkable about this fact is that it included populated cities like Edmonton and Calgary, where the wind chill cranked the chill to around -41°C. Pollockville, 250km east of Calgary, had to deal with -49°C. But that’s toasty compared to how cold it can get in Antarctica, which reigns supreme for recording the coldest temperatures on Earth. Scientists in Vostok, near the magnetic south pole, recorded land temperatures at a brrrr-isk -89.2°C, measured during the dark winter months of June and July. The coldest permanently inhabited town is said to be Oymyakon in Russia’s northern Sakha Republic, which clocked in at a frisky−71.2 °C.

rain

The World’s Wettest Place

There are half a dozen contenders in this category, with different research methodologies determined to soak up the glory. When I visited Kauai, Hawaii’s Garden Island, I was told by proud locals and guides that Mount Wai-‘ale-‘ale is the wettest spot on Earth, with rain falling between 335 and 360 days a year, drowning in up to 13,000mm each year. The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes this achievement, but the US National Climatic Data Center gives the title to Colombia’s Lloro, which receives over 12,000mm a year. Cherrapunji in north-eastern India is another contender, even more remarkable since its annual rainfall (almost 11,000mm) falls mostly in the monsoon months between June and August. Back in Colombia, a freak rainy season in 1974 deposited 26,303mm of rain on the town of Tutunendo. It puts living in rainy Vancouver, where the average annual rainfall is just 1588mm, in perspective.

wind

The World’s Windiest Place

For 75 years, Mount Washington in New Hampshire held the record for the highest wind speeds ever recorded, 231 miles per hour at the top of its peak. It was a freak event, much like the cyclone in Barrow Island, Australia that blew right past the record, clocking in at 253 miles per hour. The most consistent windiest place on the planet is Commonwealth Bay in Antarctica. As for the windiest cities, forget Chicago. Citizens in Wellington New Zealand, Reykjavik Iceland and Cape Town, South Africa would do well to invest in extra strength umbrellas.

dry

The World’s Driest Place

The Atacama Desert stretches across northern Chile into parts of Bolivia and Peru, and is known as the driest place on the planet. Average rainfall is as little as 1mm a year, with some weather stations having never recorded any rain at all. The town of Arica, a launchpad for tourism excursions into the Atacama, did not record any rain for over 15 years! Crossing the Atacama in a 4×4 is one of my highlights of visiting South America, witnessing its otherworldly landscapes and rock structures. Scientists have compared the Atacama to conditions of Mars, which is why NASA test-drove their Mars Rovers here. Oddly enough, the driest continent is Antarctica, which receives less than 2mm rain a year, even though it is primarily made up of compacted snow and ice.

deep

The World’s Deepest Place

James Cameron, director of Avatar and Titanic, broke the world record to become the first human to visit the deepest spot on the earth – the desolate, alien and lunar landscape that sits almost 11km deep at the bottom of the ocean known as the Mariana Trench. Located in the Western Pacific, the 2550km long trench forms the boundary of two tectonic plates. While pressure at the bottom is over 1000 times that found at sea level, researchers have still found life in the form of fish, shrimp and other organisms. Decaying animal skeletons, shells and other organisms give the seabed a yellow colour. Cameron filmed his descent in 3D for a documentary, and collected samples for scientists to shed more light on the darkest of ocean deeps.

high

The World’s Highest Place

The world’s highest mountain is Mount Everest, towering at 8848m above sea level. If you dared to climb atop its dangerous peak, as thousands of climbers do every year, you would not however be the closest to the moon. The planet’s shape is an oblate spheroid, much like the shape of a balloon if you were to sit on it. The result is that mountains close to the equator stick out further than mountains closer to the poles, not in terms of height above sea level, but in terms of its closeness to the stars and distance from the earth’s centre. Cleverer people than I have done the calculations, and determined that the 6310m high Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador lies on the bulge, and as such is about 2.4 km closer to space than Everest!

deadsea

The Deepest Place Below Sea Level

On dry land, you can’t get any lower than visiting the Dead Sea, the salty lake that shares its banks with Israel and Jordan. To get there, you’ll drive along the world’s lowest road, and float in its famously buoyant waters 423 metres below sea level. 67 kilometres long and 18 kilometres wide, this lifeless sea is 8.6 times saltier than the ocean, which is why you can comfortably sit back and read a newspaper during a dip. The health benefits of the mineral waters and thick mud of the Dead Sea have been prized since Biblical days, making it one of the world’s first health resorts. A drop in groundwater and flow of water from the Jordan River has resulted in significant shrinking of the Dead Sea, causing much concern for both the tourism and cosmetic industries that support it.

danger

The World’s Most Dangerous Country

Forbes Magazine went through data looking at crime rates, risk of terrorism and kidnappings, police protection, corruption and political stability to determine the world’s most dangerous countries. Receiving the bronze medal on the podium is Somalia, which has not had a real government for 15 years, where militants run wild and piracy is rampant. The silver medal goes to Iraq, a hotbed of fundamentalism and instability, its citizens living under the constant threat of bombings and deeply corrupt government officials. Winning the gold medal, which will probably make its way to a Swiss bank account faster than I can type this sentence, is Afghanistan. Tribal warfare and corruption is rife, especially on the Pakistan border, where it is estimated that every citizen owns an automatic weapon. And of course, let’s not forget Syria. Hopefully all will one day be in a position to safely add to the Global Bucket List.

young

The Youngest Place on Earth

Iceland, the real land of Fire and Ice (Game of Thrones notwithstanding) boasts the youngest place on the planet with its southern-most point, Surtsey Island. This 1.4 km2 island dramatically emerged from the sea during a volcanic eruption in 1963. The volcano stopped erupting almost four years later, with the intense flow of lava resulting in a new island in the Atlantic. Since then, erosion has whittled away some of the land, but its hard igneous core has remained firm. The island was declared a nature reserve in 1965, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, for its scientific value. Scientists are studying how plant, bird and marine life are evolving on the island, with human impact carefully monitored and kept to a minimum.