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9 Incredible Lost Wonders of the Ancient World

The Umayyad Mosque (Syria)

As recently as two years ago, the Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo was still standing. Then, in June 2012, the brutal Syrian civil war rolled into town. In the year or so of intense fighting that followed, the ancient mosque was effectively flattened. Shells brought down the 11th century minaret. Mortar fire collapsed the courtyard and bullets tore the gilded walls to shreds. By mid-April 2013, over 1,200 years of history had been brutally swept away.

And the Umayyad Mosque was about as historical as it gets. One of the five holiest place in Islam, it was said to contain the head of John the Baptist. The architecture was some of the finest in the Islamic world and the ancient minarets almost unparalleled in their simple grandeur. Now all that remains is a broken ruin: another of Earth’s treasures, lost forever.

The Library at Alexandria (Egypt)

A vast monument to human knowledge, the Library at Alexandria is now known only through ancient accounts. Set within the grounds of the great Alexandrian Musaeum, it was crammed with scrolls upon scrolls filled with all the knowledge of an entire era. Scholars flocked there from across the ancient world to lecture or browse its collections. Some of the finest minds to ever live wandered its corridors; and the complex which housed it was likely as grand as the finest modern University.

Beyond these fragments of details though, the rest of the Library is sadly lost to history. In 48BC Julius Caesar torched the city and accidentally destroyed 40,000 of the libraries most-precious scrolls. In 272 AD it was damaged again in battle, while religious riots may have resulted in its final destruction in the 4th or 5th century. Fast forward to the present and only tantalizing glimpses remain in ancient texts of this once-proud seat of learning.

The First and Second Temples (Jerusalem)

Three thousand years ago, King Solomon crowned his reign by building possibly the grandest temple to have ever existed. Twenty stories tall, sheathed in burning gold and housing the Ark of the Covenant, it shone over the hills of ancient Jerusalem until destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC.

Or did it? Outside of the Bible, there are no known references to Solomon’s Temple and no archaeological evidence for such a building has yet been uncovered. It’s now thought that this great temple likely never existed. The same cannot be said for the Second Temple.

A logistical masterpiece, the Second Temple towered even higher than its predecessor and could hold hundreds of thousands of pilgrims at any given time. Its walls were white marble, furnished with gold. Its entrance doors were made of bronze. Fifty miles of aqueducts connected it to distant water sources, so visitors would be able to undergo ritual immersion. Awe-inspiring as it was, the Temple couldn’t last. Within a century of reaching its final, grand shape it was obliterated by the invading Romans. Today only a small part of its outer Western wall remains: Jerusalem’s famous Wailing Wall.

Bam Citadel (Iran)

For thousands of years, the citadel at Bam was one of the most-incredible sights in a region full of them. Sitting at a crossroads between the old Silk Road and other ancient trading routes, this gigantic clay brick monument looked down on weary merchants as early as the sixth century BC. An enormous, twisting complex, it looked like an architectural collision between Petra and an English castle. Then in 2003, disaster struck.

Just before 5:30am on Friday, December 26, a magnitude 6.6 earthquake devastated the nearby town and shook the citadel to pieces. Before-and-after photos show a proud adobe monument, rising into the sky; and then nothing but shapeless piles of mud strewn over the ground. In seconds, a huge chunk of Iran’s proud and ancient history had been reduced to dust. Currently, reconstruction works are underway; but restoring the citadel to its former glory is now thought impossible.

The Old Summer Palace (China)

The fate of the Old Summer Palace is a continued sore spot on Anglo-Sino relations. A large, European-style mansion built during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor, the palace was surrounded by extensive gardens so painstakingly constructed they inspired awe in all who visited. 50 separate beauty spots overlooking lakes and mountains gave the impression of a Chinese Eden. All told the Palace was less a single building than a tiny city state: a perfect world hidden from the noise and bustle of nearby Beijing.

Then, during the course of the Second Opium War in 1860, the French and British razed the place to the ground. Sparking a fire that raged for three whole days, the troops sacked the Palace, destroyed its fountains and reduced its gardens to ash. Fast forward to the present and very little remains of this one-time wonder of Chinese history.

The Stone Buddhas of Bamiyan  (Afghanistan)

It’s hard to imagine a greater act of cultural vandalism than the one that took place in Bamiyan, Afghanistan in March 2001. For nearly fifteen hundred years prior to that date, two gigantic Buddha statues had watched over the valley from equally-large alcoves. Between 11 and 16 storeys high, these benign behemoths had been carved from the rock face by workers in the Kushan Empire 600 years before Notre Dame was even a twinkle in some architect’s eye. Then, at the dawn of the 21st century, the Taliban brought them crashing down.

After drilling holes in the statues and surrounding cliff face, extremists stuffed dynamite into every nook and cranny of the Buddhas. The resulting explosions reduced the statues to dust. In an instant, one of the great unsung wonders of the ancient world and significant slice of Afghan history disappeared. Today only the alcoves remain: a reminder of Bamiyan culture in the pre-Taliban days.

Tenochtitlán (Mexico)

Deep underneath Mexico City lie the remnants of one of history’s great treasures: Tenochtitlán. A gigantic, canal-based city with a population nearly equal that of modern Venice, the Aztec capital was overseen by enormous pyramids and hosted a market where 60,000 would gather daily to trade precious metals. The crowning glory was a temple dedicated to the gods Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc that stretched nearly 100ft into the sky; a place of murder and grisly human sacrifice. Then in 1521, this strange and impressive place fell victim to Cortez’s campaign of destruction.

Placed under siege and devastated by smallpox, the city was eventually overrun by conquistadors in August. All the inhabitants were massacred and the city was pulled down to make way for the new capital. Everything – the canals, the pyramids, the market and the giant temples – were all dismantled and lost to history. Today the few fragments that survived inhabit the museums of Mexico City, built upon the ruins of the once-proud Aztec Empire.

The Hanging Gardens (Babylon or Nineveh)

Of all the wonders lost to history, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are the only ones we’ve lost so completely we no longer know if they ever existed. Built by King Nebuchadnezzar II to remind his homesick wife of her fertile homeland, the gardens were said to be a breath-taking sight. Huge stone slabs created artificial mountains where trees sprouted from deep soil. A complex machinery of Archimedes Screws drew gallons of water high up into the air from the Euphrates River. It was even reported that living roots created a kind of canopy over some parts of the gardens. Yet, as we’ve mentioned before, no-one knows if the Gardens ever even existed.

According to some scholars, it’s likely that ancient writers confused Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon with the Nineveh of Sennacherib. In the former capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, a number of drawings have been unearthed, showing what appears to be an impressive system for getting water up an artificial mountain. Whether they really were at Nineveh or Babylon, the Gardens are nonetheless now gone forever.

Beijing’s Historic Hutongs (China)

Tiny historic winding streets and narrow courtyards flanked by small one storey houses, the oldest hutongs of Beijing have been around since the days of the Ming Dynasty. Magical, confusing and near-impenetrable to the outsider, these ramshackle little pockets of life are still used as homes even today: fragments of living history. And yet, their days may well be numbered.

In an act of large-scale vandalism less-brutal than the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas (but no less final) Chinese authorities are now demolishing the hutongs to make way for identikit office blocks. Frequently, this is against the will of the owners and occupiers of the hutongs, but Beijing’s city authorities have turned deaf ears to all protests. At the time of writing, a handful of these historic residences remain standing. However, it seems unlikely they will last much longer. With their destruction, China’s authorities will eradicate over 400 years of history, and deprive the world of yet another ancient wonder.

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