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The world’s largest Buddhist temple was rediscovered in the early 19th century nearly 500 years after it was abandoned following Java’s conversion to Islam. Pilgrims and tourists can climb Borobudur’s elaborate system of stairways and corridors, scaling the tiers to the monumental stupa at the top. Thousands of hand-carved sculptural reliefs and statues line the way, contributing to its status as Indonesia’s most visited site.
Machu Picchu, Peru
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It’s on everyone’s bucket list and with good reason. Hidden high in Peru’s Andes Mountains, the breathtaking ruins of this 15th-century Incan citadel remained a secret from the world until 1911. Even now, no-one knows why Machu Picchu was built or why it was abandoned less than a century later – the mystery only adds to its pulling power.
Longmen Grottoes, China
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An incredible series of 2000-plus caves, Longmen Grottoes (aka Dragon Gate Grottoes) is home to almost 100,000 statues of Buddha carved directly from the rock face along the Yi River, making it one of the most important and awesome spectacles of Buddhist art. The statues range from 25 millimetres to 17 metres high and the earliest examples date to AD493.
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This ancient amphitheatre in the heart of Rome once attracted crowds of up to 80,000, who flocked to watch gladiatorial contests and public executions. One of Italy’s most iconic sites, the Colosseum has sustained earthquakes and trophy hunters that have left it a partial ruin above ground. However, the network of underground passageways once used to transport animals (and Christians) is intact and ready to explore.
Ellora Caves, India
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A majestic example of Indian rock-cut architecture, the Ellora Caves were created by hand-carving the vertical rock face of the Charanandri hills in Maharashtra. Excavated between the sixth and eighth centuries, Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temples sit side by side, many including spine-tingling sculptures, pillars, shrines, statues and intricate carvings.
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Set high above the Greek capital, this imposing fortress encompasses the remains of several significant buildings constructed under the watchful eye of General Pericles in the 5th century BC. The most famous of them, the Parthenon, remained pristine until 1687, when it was used to store gunpowder during the Morean War and took a direct hit from a cannonball.
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Once a flourishing city near the modern centre of Naples, Pompeii in Italy’s Campania region was buried under pumice and ash following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, about eight kilometres away, in AD79. Visitors, which number 2.5 million a year, can freely explore this mesmerising archaeological site.
Great Wall of China, China
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Built over the course of several dynasties to protect the Chinese Empire from would-be invaders, the Great Wall of China has a head-spinning sense of history that can be experienced among its imposing watchtowers, barracks and signalling stations. At more than 21,000 kilometres long, in a straight line it would reach more than halfway around the world. Although the idea that you can see it from the moon is a myth, it’s still considered to be one of humankind’s greatest architectural achievements.
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In Mexico’s south-east, Palenque is a stunning example of Mayan architecture, complete with extensive hieroglyphics, that dominated seventh-century Mesoamerica. The city was overtaken by the surrounding jungle after its decline around AD800 and archaeologists estimate that at least 90 per cent is yet to be rediscovered.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
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The iconic and mighty hero of the temples near Siem Reap, Angkor Wat was built in the early 12th century and dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Its beauty and romance lie in its sheer expanse and the incredible decorative flourishes: vast reliefs of Apsaras (celestial nymphs), devils, battle scenes and depictions of local history. Despite the crowds, no-one leaves disappointed.
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The temple at Tikal (known locally as Templo del Gran Jaguar) is at the centre of a ruined Mayan city in the rainforests of Guatemala. The pyramid structure with nine stepped levels was built in the early 8th century by King Jasaw Chan K’awiil and also served to cover his tomb, which was only rediscovered in the 1960s.
Fatehpur Sikri, India
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This compelling complex that includes royal palaces, pavilions, courts, harems and a mosque was built during the reign of Emperor Akbar as a new capital for the Mughal Empire. When the water supply dried up shortly after it was completed in 1585, the emperor and his entourage decamped for nearby Agra. Today, you can marvel at the rich and complex combination of Persian and Indian architecture at this World Heritage-listed site.
Pyramids of Giza, Egypt
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Nothing compares to the mind-blowing sight of the pyramids that rise up (and up) from the Egyptian desert sands. Built by hand and completed in 2560BC, the oldest of the three, the Great Pyramid of Giza, is the only intact wonder among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Just 19 kilometres from Cairo, the site attracts history seekers in their millions, although political unrest and ensuing violence has dented figures in recent years.
Up Next: The World’s Most Incredible Canal Cities
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Defined as ‘artificial waterways’, canals play a big part in the history of many of the world’s towns and cities. But which ones are worth exploring? Here are 15 of the best…