Thursday, May 24, 2012

My Top Five Archeological Sites (so far)

By Edith McClintock

I suppose my first encounter with archeology was searching for Native American arrowheads along Tennessee creek banks when I was young. As I got older, I loved books set on archeological digs or around archeological sites. I’ve never had any desire to work on a dig though. Recognizing that Indiana Jones was pure fiction (some people have a hard time with this, I know), the reality of a dig always seemed tedious and hot—particularly in a desert like Egypt.

I prefer my archeological sites excavated and appropriately recreated, with an informative guidebook or signage, maybe even a knowledgeable guide. Stir in a grandiose temple soaring above the jungle canopy, howler monkey moans drifting over misty mountains; maybe some draping liana vines entangling stone temples. Of course ruins don’t really have to be in a jungle, but a spectacular setting and minimal tourist throngs are nearly as important as the site itself.

It’s all about the history you say? True. But you can find that in a book. If I’m going to travel halfway around the world, it’s nice to have some scenic drama with my history. I admit I recently skipped the ruins of Troy in Turkey—just a field with some rubble I was told (don’t get mad, I didn’t go, it’s just what I heard).

And so, with those caveats, below are my top five archeological sites so far (it was meant to be ten but I ran out of time). And yes, I still have much to see, starting with Machu Picchu, which I have no doubt is well worth Alli’s 42 visits! I’ll try my best to go during low season and miss the swarming crowds. You’ll find this is key to many of my favorites.

1. Tikal (Guatemala)

A bit remote, at least when I visited nearly 15 years ago, the Tikal ruins are among the largest and most beautiful ancient Mayan ruins in the Maya forests of Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico. Archeologists, with the help of indentured student labor, have excavated a number of the temples, the tallest of which is 212 feet tall. But plenty remain unexcavated, which is also interesting as it demonstrates the tremendous feat in transforming a mound of dirt and rubble into a soaring temple, not to mention building it the first time around.

Tikal is first because it meets all of my key criteria mentioned above. Plus, it gets added geeky pop culture points as the rebel base in Star Wars. I visited on a daytrip from Belize, but sunset and sunrise are optimal times, so make sure to fit that in when you visit. And you should.

2. Petra (Jordan)

Petra is an ancient Nabataean city carved from “rock as if by magic grown, eternal, silent, beautiful, alone.”* The history is long, the excavations many. So spectacular it doesn’t need jungle, although I did meet several adorable baby goats, so I figure that counts as wildlife. So massive it takes only a short hike to find oneself alone, possibly lost, wandering over mountains, past Roman columns and Byzantine mosaics, through deep and twisting ravines. It gets pop culture points too, as the site of the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. And don’t forget to visit nearby Little Petra, which also has beautiful tombs, ravines, and mountains, and was completely empty of tourists, save us, when I visited.

*John William Burgon's poem Petra. Lina wrote a blog about Petra last year.

3. Vardzia (Georgia)

For a true off the beaten track site, look no further than the dramatic cave monastery of Vardzia. Dug into the side of Mount Erusheli between 1184 and 1186 as a military base during the golden age of medieval Georgia, it was accessible only through hidden tunnels at the base of the hill. Due to mysterious circumstances, it soon became a religious site where Queen Tamar lived. (Never heard of Queen Tamar? She’s famous in Georgian history as the ruler of their golden age.) 

Vardzia originally had over six thousand apartments in a thirteen-story complex with an irrigation system that watered terraced farmlands. An earthquake destroyed two-thirds of the city in 1283, exposing the caves and collapsing the irrigation system.

Up close or from the distance it’s impressive, surrounded by windswept mountains, a pretty river snaking through the valley, and rock cut staircases straight out of an Escher print. And I bet you can guess what comes next. Yes, on the day I visited we were completely alone—except for a dog and a monk who lived in one of the caves.

4. Luxor Temple (Egypt)

Normally the Luxor Temple might not have made my list. But when I visited Luxor there were less than a hundred tourists in the entire city, and so we walked through the temple practically alone, just an archeologist sorting columns, a few local guides, and an Imam.

My first view was at sunrise from our hotel terrace across the street. The call to prayer echoed through warm, pink air; swaying palms and a sleepy Nile framed a giant obelisk and matching statues of Ramses II guarding the temple entrance. Wandering through the giant colonnades a few hours later, my first thought was, Ah, I understand—no, not the mysteries of Ancient Egypt, but why they’ve endured, why Egypt is a must visit.

5. The Western and Southern Walls, Old Jerusalem

Yes, the walls are dramatically beautiful in sections, partly because of the backdrop of the Dome of the Rock, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and Mount of Olives, but also for the layers of history both visible and symbolic—all of it still very much alive. The mosque entrance was closed to visitors, but we did take a tour of the tunnels under the Western wall and walked through the archeological site along the Southern Wall. Empires, religion, superstition, politics, hate, Armageddon, sexism, propaganda, cats, and kids playing basketball. It’s all there and it’s not history when you visit. And yes, I went off-season—rainy and a little cold, but no lines.

Disagree with me about Troy? What are your favorite archeological sites?

For more, visit my author website and/or personal blog, A Wandering Tale. Even better, order a copy of Monkey Love & Murder on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or the Book Depository (free shipping nearly anywhere in the world).


  1. Edith, this is a wonderful list.
    The cave monastery at Vardzia reminds me of some of the cliff dwellings in the American Southwest. I really enjoyed exploring those...
    Thanks for a really interesting post!

  2. Thanks, Jenny. It's a little similar to the Göreme Open Air Museum in Cappadocia, too. All very nice.

  3. I'm burning with travel jealousy now! I second Jenny that the cliff dwellings in (New Mexico? Arizona? Drawing a blank here...) are a must-see if you're traveling in the States.