By Robin Silver
Many of the global capitals that attract tourists are all about modernity, whether it’s ever-taller skyscrapers, technological marvels, or just a 24-hour party vibe. But there are also cities firmly rooted in the 21st century with bustling city centres in their own rights that have ancient wisdom peeking over the surface.
There are wonders of ancient archaeology and technological advances that came long before the internet. Here are my five favourite cities that I feel have stood the test of time.
Luoyang, located in Henan province in central China, is considered by many to be the cradle of Chinese civilisation and offers many unique tourist sites of historical significance.
The Longmen Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located just south of the city. For a 1 km stretch along the limestone cliffs, there are over 2,300 caves, and niches carved out. The grottoes contain intricate stone carvings from the 5th and 6th centuries CE, including almost 110,000 Buddha stone statues and over 60 stupas. The carvings are well-preserved and indeed a sight to behold.
Nearby you will find the world-famous Shaolin Temple. Monks and disciples live there to this day, studying meditation and martial arts. You can visit, but be mindful it is an active place of worship. Sometimes the temple even holds events.
Athens has been continuously inhabited since before 3000 BCE, the longest of any European city and of most world capitals. The streets reflect a contrast between modern sensibilities and ancient architecture.
The Acropolis is the main attraction, standing proudly above the rest of the city. While you can catch a glimpse of it from almost anywhere, taking a walk up the hill is not to be missed. Many of the original sculptures and monuments have been replaced by casts and moved to the Acropolis Museum next door.
At the top of the hill is the Parthenon, built originally to hold one of the seven ancient wonders of the world: a statue of Athena the Virgin, known as Athena Parthenos. While the statue disappeared in 426 CE, you can see a smaller Roman copy (the Athena Varvakeion) at the National Archaeological Museum.
Gaziantep is a city with roots in antiquity and was a significant trading post on the Silk Road. Visit the Coppersmith Bazaar for a peek into a market where traditional coppersmithing is still practised. The traditional handicraft has been passed down through generations of Gaziantep men for over 500 years.
The most popular attraction is the Zeugma Mosaic Museum, the largest mosaic museum in the world. The collection comes from the ancient city of Zeugma, which is itself about 50 km outside of Gaziantep. The mosaics are about 2000 years old, and in impressive condition, with significant work put into their restoration.
All that sightseeing is sure to work up an appetite. Since Gaziantep is one of only eight UNESCO Creative Gastronomy Cities, your meal may be as Instagrammable as the mosaics!
Luxor has been called the “world’s greatest open-air museum,” and with good reason. It was built atop the ruins of the ancient city of Thebes (or Waset), and temple ruins are located all over the city.
The Valley of the Kings, also known as the Valley of the Gates of the Kings, is home to dozens of tombs of Ancient Egyptian royalty, including the most famous—that of King Tutankhamun. The Luxor Temple and Karnak (the largest religious building ever constructed) are two of the most famous temples in the area. They’re connected by a roughly 3 km long avenue flanked with sphinxes. The avenue was built originally by Queen Hatshepsut, and renovations began in 2010.
Varanasi, located by the holy Ganges River, is one of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with its history dating all the way back to the second millennium BCE. A dip in the Ganges is said to wash away all one’s sins. For those less inclined to get into the water themselves, a trip to Varanasi would not be complete without a visit to some of the famous ghats (stairways leading down to the river) to soak in the spiritual atmosphere.
Varanasi also has daily aartis that take place in the evening. An aarti is a spiritual fire ritual and only takes place in three cities in all of India. While Varanasi has many temples to visit, all with their own merits, Viswanath Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, is the most well-known. Standing as one of 12 Jyotirlinga (the holiest Shiva temples), its storied history makes it a must for every Varanasi visitor.
While the culture of each of these cities is vastly different from the next, we can find a taste of the ancient world in all of them. To commune with the ancients in their temples, and to imagine what life may have been like for them, is a welcome break away from pop-up notifications.