From the Parthenon to the pyramids, nothing conveys man’s imprint on the inexorable sweep of time like ancient ruins. Romantic, mysterious and more or less falling apart, they are the true thrillers of the traveler’s landscape.
But the moody majesty of the Roman Forum or Acropolis is hardly secret. Even the deserted streets of Pompeii and rock-cut temples of Petra, in Jordan, draw big crowds. Tourist invasions can’t dim their appeal, but many ruins that rank among the world’s best are both stunning and blissfully unsung.
Prime example? The Roman colosseum at El Djem, in Tunisia. It’s a bit smaller than its famous cousin, but surprisingly more intact. Then there’s the Valley of Temples in Agrigento, Sicily. Its Greek temples are some of the best-preserved in the world.
There’s a modern attraction to bygone civilizations regardless of where their remnants are found. But when it comes to ruins, the allure of classical antiquity is hard to resist. “The lone standing column, the broken column, has had metaphorical status since the 18th century,” says Claire Lyons, Curator of Antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, Calif. According to this expert, that singular status has to do with nostalgia, resilience and the judgment of history.
It’s an assessment that resonates with archaeologists in the field. “To me, the notion of ruins is a romanticized one stemming from early engagement with the ancient world,” says Jeffrey Becker, Managing Director of the Gabii Project, an excavation currently underway near Rome. “Whether they are grandiose or famous ones or simply the banal, they have a lot to do with our interaction with the past … and retain their power to provoke and intrigue us.”
Lyons says some of the best-known ancient sites are based on the great capital cities. “They’re capsules of history embedded in these locations,” she says, adding that “ruins are excavated to remove the later history — the Roman Forum had at one point become a pasture — and expose one period.” But some ruins stand out regardless of archaeological activity. “In Tunisia, Sicily and other places, there are so many intact, unplundered sites and intact landscapes: southern Sicily was largely off the radar even during the time of the Grand Tour, but there you have some very suggestive, intact sites where you get a real sense of what it was like to be in a sacred space.”
Another place where the sacred meets the structural to dramatic effect is at Delphi in Greece, with its legendary oracle dedicated to Apollo and sweeping mountain vistas. “There is a power there, and people must have perceived it,” says Lyons. “The place is beyond words.”
Like those fabulous restaurants with no signs, other ruins off the beaten track beckon. Becker is partial to the city of Norba, near modern Norma in Italy, with its polygonal masonry walls. “This is a place for me that is evocative not only of the period I study (Republican Italy), but also possesses the power of an amazing landscape and the opportunity to experience the archaeological remains in their setting,” he says.
Then there are expansive ruins like Leptis Magna in Libya and Baalbek in Lebanon. Aspendos and Aphrodisias are spectacular Greco-Roman ruins in Turkey, each somewhat dreamier than the more heavily trafficked Ephesus.
Ultimately, the power of ruins, beyond the history they reveal, is their power to stir the imagination. “Ruins evoke contrast between what is lost and what is retained, and between civilization and nature,” Lyons observes. “There is something quite poetic about them in that sense.”