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If you want to explore some of the oldest cities on Earth, you may just be out of luck.
Jericho in Palestine; Damascus and Aleppo in Syria; Kirkuk in Iraq. All these cities house untold secrets of our collective history, and all are too dangerous to visit these days.
But there are plenty of less well-known destinations you can visit that will scratch your itch for adventure. Here are five obscure ancient cities that you should put on your list.
According to tradition, Byblos was founded by Cronos, the wicked, cannibalistic father of the Olympian gods in Greek mythology. It may also be the root of words such as ‘bibliography’ and ‘Bible’, since the city’s most famous export was once papyrus.
Estimates vary, but Byblos may be more than 10,000 years old — that is, older than pottery. In its history beyond memory, the city has been influenced, through trade and conquest, by many great civilizations: Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Ottomans, the French. And each has left its mark.
Today, Byblos is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a permanent population of around 40,000.
Guests can marvel at temples and tombs from thousands of years before Christ – the Temple of the Obelisks and the L-Shaped Temple in particular. You will also find a Roman theatre, medieval walls, and a castle constructed by Crusaders in the 12th century.
But don’t worry: you won’t have to sacrifice many modern comforts in order to visit. Not far from the cosmopolitan Lebanese capital of Beirut, Byblos boasts a lovely port, cafes, open-air restaurants, and pristine beaches. The city was apparently a favored port-of-call for Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra in the 70s.
For those of us who remember the Cold War, the first thing that comes to mind when we think of Bulgaria is probably “poisoned umbrella tips.” This former Soviet satellite may not make your average bucket list, but its second-largest city is actually one of the most ancient in Europe.
Plovdiv’s history stretches back at least 7,000 years. It was part of a collection of Thracian kingdoms until it was conquered in the 4th century BC by Philip II of Macedonia — Alexander the Great’s father. Thereafter, it was widely known as Philippopolis: ‘Philip’s Town.’
Plovdiv became part of the Roman Empire in 46 AD, but it was destroyed three times in the following centuries — twice by the Goths and once by Attila the Hun. In fact, destruction and conquest comprise much of the history of this lovely city. Over the centuries, it passed back and forth between Bulgarians, Byzantines, Ottomans, and Crusaders like a hot potato.
It’s a wonder any of Plovdiv’s cultural legacy has survived at all, but, miraculously, over 200 archaeological sites remain. These include churches, mosques, baths, and medieval fortifications. But the Roman ruins are of particular interest. Plovdiv has a Roman forum, a basilica, a stadium, and two theatres (still in use today).
If you’re looking for an ancient destination that’s out-of-the-way but still rich in history, you won’t do much better than Plovdiv.
At only 3,100 years old, Cádiz may be one of the younger cities on this list. Nevertheless, it is generally considered to be the oldest settlement in Western Europe that hasn’t been destroyed.
Situated on the Southwestern Atlantic coast of Spain, not far from Gibraltar, Cádiz was founded by our old friends from Byblos, the Phoenicians. In the 3rd century BC, it was conquered by Carthage, the North African empire that served as an early nemesis for the Romans. In fact, the famous Carthaginian general Hannibal made sacrifices to the gods at Cádiz before hopping on his elephant and launching his doomed invasion of Italy.
Unfortunately, much of Cádiz’s early architecture was destroyed in the fall of Rome; precious little remains today. However, the city’s true golden age came when Columbus happened upon the Americas. The infamous explorer launched several of his subsequent voyages from Cádiz, and the city became a center of Spanish naval power. (In fact, it remains a key naval port to this day.)
Cádiz boasts an excellent archaeological museum, and an old Roman theatre. But its most distinctive features are the colourful laneways and plazas of the old town, and the Renaissance-era fortifications that were erected after the British sacked the city in 1596. Several forts attest to the Spanish determination not to allow such a thing to happen again!
You will also find several exquisite churches, particularly Cádiz Cathedral, whose towers grant visitors a panoramic view of the city below.
Varanasi is a city of a million people in the Northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Set against a bend in the Ganges River, it’s a holy city for Hindus and Jains.
According to legend, the city was founded 5,000 years ago by the Hindu god Shiva. During a battle, Shiva was able to remove one of the heads of Brahma, another Hindu deity. But when Shiva came to Varanasi, the head slipped from his hands and vanished into the ground, thus consecrating it.
Archaeological evidence suggests the area was first settled around 3,000 years ago.
Some Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi guarantees a state of nirvana, so it is common for the faithful to plan pilgrimages here when they’re terminally ill. That lends the city an air of morbidity. However, you will also find plenty of healthy Hindu worshippers making their observances in the river, while ancient temples loom overhead.
A trip to the banks of the Ganges, holy to Hindus, will not disappoint — especially at dawn. You may just find you have a spiritual experience yourself. Just make sure you visit between October and March: summers here are extremely hot.
How the mighty have fallen.
Founded around 1,400 BC, Thebes was almost as important as Troy in Greek mythology. It was one of the most powerful cities in ancient Greece, the seat of the Boeotian confederacy of states that rivalled the supremacy of Athens. In fact, the Thebans’ hatred of the Athenians was so great that they actually sided with Xerxes’ Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BC. (They were punished badly by their countrymen once Xerxes was defeated.)
Unlike Athens, a metropolis of more than 3,000,000 people today, Thebes has largely been forgotten. It still exists, but as a modest market town with fewer than 30,000 residents.
Its proximity to more famous tourist destinations has left it relatively unpopular with tourists. But if you want to explore the legacy of ancient Greece without having to fight the crowds, you might just find a trip to the Archaeological Museum of Thebes, or a stroll through the town’s scattered ruins, worthwhile.
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