15 Mystifying Structures Across the Globe
Humanity has come a long way since the dawn of the Neolithic period. In the millennia to follow, we would learn to cultivate and harvest food, domesticate animals, and eventually build cities. Those cities, temples, and statues have long been buried by the sands of time, while others have lasted for us to marvel at and even mystify us.
Qin Shi Huang Di’s tomb and terra-cotta army
Try to imagine this, you’re a farmer working the land and building a well. You do your job and break ground. You get far when you uncover something unexpected; dusting the soil, you realize it’s a life-size clay soldier. That’s what farmers uncovered outside the city of Xi’an, China in 1974, which in turn became one of the most significant finds in archaeological history.
It’s in that same area where the farmers broke earth that archaeologists discovered (to date) 8,000 clay soldiers that once belonged to one of China’s most controversial emperors, Qin Shi Huang Di—the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty. Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di took the throne at the ripe old age of 13 in 246 B.C.
Diggers find horses standing four abreast
At the time, it was customary for new emperors to begin the construction of their tombs, and Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di created a clay army to accompany him to the afterlife. He used slave labor to get the job done: a ballpark of 700,000 bodies were responsible for digging the trenches and completing the project.
It was in part to boost his wealth and ego, which would later trigger an uprising a decade after his death. However, aside from his ego, Qin Shi Huang Di was responsible for the Qin standardized coins, weights, and measures, which helped contribute to the state’s infrastructure—this was later credited for the building of the first version of the Great Wall.
Easter Island Heads cause headaches
We all know about Easter Island for one reason, the moai, aka the Easter Island Heads. Standing at 13 feet tall and weighing 14 tons, the stone statues have been a head-scratcher since their discovery by European travelers in 1722. To this very day, no one knows exactly why the native people of Easter Island (or Rapa Nui) created the structures in the first place.
It’s also unclear how anyone got to the island in the first place. Said to have been inhabited between A.D. 800 and A.D. 1,200, the island is completely isolated from any other landmasses. It’s 2,300 miles from South America and 1,100 miles from the nearest neighboring island. So, what exactly is the purpose of the moai, with the lack of written history?
The statues may represent native ancestors and chieftains
Despite not knowing the purpose of the stone figures, some scholars believe that the moai were created to honor the ancestors belonging to the Rapa Nui people such as chiefs and other important figures in their community. But alas, without any written or oral history, the stone heads continue to elude us as to their purpose.
What we do know is that the island developed its own unique artistic and architectural culture apart from the surrounding landmasses. It’s also reported that Rapa Nui culture reached its habitual and social peak between the 10th and 16th centuries. Its decline might be connected to drastic changes in the island’s ecosystem, a change caused by over-reaping the island’s natural resources and introducing a destructive and invasive species of rodents.
Machu Picchu: an unexpected discovery
Machu Picchu has been a fan-fave tourist destination that has spurred a large amount of Instagram and Tinder profile pictures for the masses to see. However, despite everyone knowing what and where the lost city is, no one really knows why it’s there. Not for certain, anyway. Well, not without speculation, of course.
The ruins of Machu Picchu were discovered on the morning of July 24, 1911, by Yale University professor and explorer Hiram Bingham, who was on a mission to investigate the rumors surrounding ancient Incan ruins in Peru. However, Bingham didn’t expect to find a city on top of a hidden mountain. When Bingham first laid eyes on the city, he mistook it for a different lost city, Vilcabamba. It wasn’t until the 1960s that archaeologists discovered it was an entirely different site.
The purpose of Machu Picchu remains (partially) a mystery
Though Machu Picchu wasn’t the city Bingham was looking for, it doesn’t stop archaeologists and scholars alike from wondering what the city was built for. Here are the certainties: the first is that Machu Picchu was built around A.D. 1450 and housed a meager 500 to 750 people. It’s believed that this small citadel was a retreat for the wealthy and elite to escape the bustling cities at the base of the mountain.
Scholars also believe diverse people came in and out of the city. For instance, there was evidence of head modeling, a practice done in the coastal areas and highlands of Peru. There were also pottery shards and ceramics made by people from as far as Lake Titicaca.
Göbekli Tepe (pronounced Guh-behk-LEE TEH-peh) is one of the oldest sites in archaeological history and is considered the birthplace of religion. Built in 8,000 B.C., the circular temple was unearthed in 1994 and contains T-shaped pillars depicting animals and human figures, some of which show the performance of a ritualistic dance, leading many to believe that the temple was a place of worship.
The temple’s discovery shakes the very foundation of how we view the birth of civilization. It was believed that agriculture triggered the evolution of building cities, creating art, writing, and religion. However, Göbekli Tepe had everyone stupefied at the discovery, and many still have questions about the temple’s significance.
The temple predates the Great Pyramid of Giza by seven thousand years
What was more shocking than finding a temple that was nearly 12,000 years old was the fact that the builders at the time were able to cut, shape, and transport stones that weighed up to 16 tons, without the assistance of wheels or domesticated animals. It’s assumed that those who worshipped at Göbekli Tepe lived without writing, metal, or pottery, and that they barely came to terms with the concept of a spiritual world.
Scientists theorize that the people inhabiting the area were still hunter-gatherers, or foragers, and that they had yet to domesticate animals. Despite the magnanimous find, archaeologists struggle to understand the temple’s meaning, as well as the people who worshipped there.
King Tut’s tomb
In the beginning of the 20th century, many archaeologists believed that all of the treasures found within the Valley of the Kings had all been discovered by the mid-to-late 1800s. It was due to this strong belief that British archaeologist Howard Carter almost missed the entrance of King Tutankhamun’s tomb.
However, when Carter and his team found a rubble-filled stairway in Egypt, they knew they were about to discover something phenomenal. Pulling away the rubble and stone, they discovered undisturbed seals of a royal tomb, and inside was a treasure that would define the century: the Boy King’s tomb. However, despite what we know about the young king, there is evidence that suggests that King Tut wasn’t exactly perfect.
King Tut was a child born from incest
Tutankhamun obtained the throne at the young age of nine, and ruled for an equal amount of years until his death at age 19, around 1324 B.C. Tutankhamun ruled during Egypt’s New Kingdom era and was known for the lavish and impeccably preserved treasures in his tomb, including wooden chariots and jewels.
However, despite his buried wealth, he was a sickly boy who was disabled and had contracted malaria. His remains show that King Tut had a clubfoot that required him to use a cane. He was a genetic disaster. He had a weak immune system and a bone disorder, which may be thanks to inbreeding between his mother and father, who were siblings.
Bete Giyorgis, Lalibela, Ethiopia
Bete Giyorgis, or the Church of St. George, is one of eleven stone churches that dot the Ethiopian city of Lalibela. Made from a single rock around 900 years ago, the building is 50 feet tall and shaped like a Greek cross. Aside from the building being hugged by a man-made basin, it is perfectly proportioned and attracts a pilgrimage of worshippers, and with them, 80,000 to 100,000 visitors each year.
After 900 years of service, you would think the church no longer held services, but you would be dead wrong. The church continues to be open for weekly services and acts as a place of worship for those in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It even has its own oral history.
Lalibela was the name of a king
According to Atlas Obscura, there is a lore surrounding Ethiopia’s Lalibela. It was said to have been the name of a king who was responsible for erecting the eleven churches. His name was Saint Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, and he was born into the Zagwe Dynasty of Ethiopia (r. ca. A.D. 1181-1221). Before the region was named after him, the town was originally called Roha.
Legend has it that when Lalibela was a newborn, he was surrounded by bees. It was a sign that Lalibela would one day be a ruler of Ethiopia, therefore his name means “the bees recognize his sovereignty.” It took Saint Gebre Mesqel Lalibela 24 years to construct his churches, a feat that was said to be accomplished with the help of angels.
The Great Pyramid of Cholula
When the Spanish conquistadors reached the shores of the New World, they were in search of one thing and one thing only: treasure. They stormed by the thousands, murdering and pillaging every great city they could come into contact with. Then, on October 12th, 1519, they swept through the town now known as Cholula.
Unlike other cities, Cholula was a sacred place rumored to have a temple for every day of the year. When Hernan Cortez and his men plundered every precious object in sight, they also burned down the temples and erected their own. One of those temples, a church, was the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, which sat on what many believed to be a big hill. They were wrong.
The pyramid was under the church
Little did the Spaniards realize, the hill where they built their church was really a hidden pyramid. And not just any hidden pyramid, but the largest pyramid in the world. It stands 1,500 feet wide and 216 feet tall which is compared to nine Olympic-size swimming pools, and yes, the Pyramid of Cholula is even bigger than the Pyramids of Giza.
Built somewhere around 300 B.C., the pyramid was most likely constructed by the Choluteca. The pyramid is said to be the largest monument ever constructed by any civilization to date. If that’s not impressive enough, then know that the pyramid is made up of six layers, one stacked on top of the other. The locals call it Tlachihualtepetl (“man-made mountain”).
Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hijr
Dreaming of Petra but dreading the crowds? Wish there was a Petra 2.0 to add some boost to your Instagram feed? Look no further than Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hijr (Mada’in Saleh). Unlike Petra, Al-Hijr consists of multiple mountain-carved structures that acted as tombs dating between the 1st century B.C. to the 1st century A.D.
The colossal structures were created by the Nabataean people, an ancient civilization who inhabited lands between Syria and Arabia from the Euphrates River to the Red Sea. Al-Hijr is one of the largest conserved sites of the little-known civilization. The area contains 111 monumental tombs, 94 of which are decorated and are surrounded by water wells.
Al-Hijr holds more than one tomb
Although Petra remains to be the Nabataeans’ capital (which, by the way, is a measly six hours away), Al-Hijr (once known as Hegra) was the Nabataeans’ second city. The inscriptions inside the tomb gives archaeologists a clue as to how long the city thrived, which was between 1 B.C. and 74 C.E. As stated before, not a lot is known about these ancient peoples.
What we do know is that they were much like nomads who primarily raised sheep, goats, and camels. The largest tomb in Al-Hijr is the Qasr al Bint, or in translation, “Palace of the Daughter or Maiden.” If any one of you decides to make a stop at the rose-colored structures, be sure to tag us in your Instagram post (a little love for history doesn’t hurt).
The mysticism of Stonehenge
Oh, come on! You all knew we were going to talk about one of history’s most magical stone structures. How can we not talk about Stonehenge? A structure filled with mysticism and awe, locals and tourists alike flock to the ancient site for various reasons. According to National Geographic, the folklore behind Stonehenge stems back to the time of King Arthur.
The stones were created by the wizard Merlin and assembled by giants. Of course, there are multiple theories as to why the structure was built. Some archaeologists and folklorists believe it was a place of healing or a scientific observatory that measured the sun. The real answer may (or may not) surprise you.
The site might have served as a memorial
The site was created sometime 5,000 years ago as a circular ditch made up of a pattern of wooden posts. This was later replaced somewhere around 2,600 B.C. by 80 dolerite bluestones from Wales, and was consistently rearranged until large sarsen stones were added several hundred years later.
However, it wasn’t until recently, in 2010, that some scholars began to believe Stonehenge may be a ceremonial site to honor the dead. The idea is supported by the discovery of a second Stonehenge-type site called “Bluestonehenge.” Archaeologists believe that site could further prove the two Stonehenges might have been used for memorial purposes.
Mexico’s Olmec Heads
The Olmec civilization is the oldest Mesoamerican civilization to date. Predating the Mayan and Aztec civilizations, the Olmecs are known for creating the first Mesoamerican cities, such as San Lorenzo and La Venta. They thrived along Mexico’s coast between approximately 1,200 and 400 B.C. The Olmecs were also known for their skills in agriculture and, additionally, their art.
The Olmec heads were one of their staple creations. Seventeen of the Olmec heads have been unearthed and are described as head sculptures with indigenous male faces wearing helmets. The heads are huge, the tallest one being 10 feet tall and weighing a whopping 40 tons. How did such ancient peoples accomplish such a feat?
Why were the Olmec heads made?
The construction of the Olmec heads was a laborious task. The stones were carved out of basalt boulders and blocks which could be located about 50 miles away. Archaeologists believe that raw manpower was used to create and move the stones using sleds and possibly river rafts. Evidence of their work can still be seen in the mountains near San Lorenzo.
Archaeologists also believe that the Olmecs used stone tools to carve into the stone, which is an incredible skill without metal tools or hammers. Now, whose faces are depicted on the stone? Excavators believe that they reflect athletes or rulers. What’s more astonishing is that there are traces of plaster and pigments that suggest that the heads were once painted.
The “lost city” of Petra
Yes, of course we were going to mention the “lost city” of Petra in this article. This is, after all, one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. We know the city from movies, news, and social media platforms, but seldom do people know what the city was built for, and who built it in the first place.
Excuse us while we crack our fingers, as we’re about to give a fat (but not-so-fat) history lesson on Petra. The first lesson? Like the aforementioned Al-Hijr, Petra was created by the Nabataean empire between 400 B.C. and A.D. 106, where it became the empire’s capital and trading town.
The city still holds untold treasures
Before the Roman Empire conquered Jordan, Petra was initially controlled by the ancient peoples, who were experts in water agriculture (i.e., water capture, storage, and irrigation systems). What’s more remarkable is that archaeologists have only begun to scratch the surface of the ancient city. Only 15 percent of the city has been successfully excavated, however, the remaining 85 percent remains underground and untouched.
One of the most exciting finds was the discovery of Greek scrolls from the Byzantine era in 1993. This excites future archaeologists, who have a deep desire to understand the Middle East’s ancient past and the people who once dwelled within it.
El Castillo, aka the Pyramid of Kukulcan, Chichén Itzá, Mexico
Chichén Itzá’s Pyramid of Kukulcan is by far one of the proudest monuments belonging to the ancient Mayans and the people of modern Mexico. The pyramid is located about 120 miles from the white sandy beaches of Cancun and resides on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The name of the city where the pyramid is located means “at the mouth of the well of the Itzá.”
Who are the Itzá? The Itzá are an ethnic group of the Mayan people. The pyramid itself is an architectural wonder once dedicated to the feathered serpent god, Quetzalcoatl. Not only is it a colossal work of art created by ancient Mesoamerican peoples, but it also carried astrological significance as well.
The temple had 365 steps representing the days of the year
The temple wasn’t just a beautifully crafted piece of architecture, but it also had astronomical significance. For instance, the pyramid has 365 steps, with each side containing 91 steps, and the platform being the 365th step, the number of days we have in a year. If Mayan astronomical skills don’t surprise you, then this will: their pyramid forms into the shape of a serpent. How?
On the spring and autumn equinox, a shadow falls over the temple in a serpent’s shape. As the sun sets, the shadow of the serpent slithers down to the base of the pyramid. Cool, huh? The Mayans didn’t mess around with their STEM classes and were also able to calculate eclipses.
Cappadocia, Göreme National Park, Turkey
What are those chimney-looking structures sticking out of the ground? This would be the Rock Sites of Cappadocia, a place of mystery and unique history. These cavern-like structures are created with one part nature, and another by man. The chimney-like towers are the result of erosion, creating steep slopes and peaks that would eventually be the homes of ancient and modern people.
The Cappadocia region was inhabited as early as the Hittite era, between 1800 to 1200 B.C. Unfortunately for the people living within the region and its cities, Cappadocia was amidst a controversial conflict between two empires, not just once in history, but twice.
People hid from the conflicts of war
The first conflict was between the Greeks and Persians, the second the Byzantine Greeks, who dipped their hands in a fair share of warfare. It’s because of multiple wars that the people living in the Cappadocia region needed to seek refuge. Caught between two empires, it was hard not to get in the middle of what would be a waking bloodbath, so ancient residents found themselves tunneling within the rocks.
Inside were up to eight stories of apartments and storage rooms. The tunnels were much like an underground bunker and had air vents that connected to the surface. As time passed, the tunnels were used off and on for a means to seek shelter. By the fourth century, Christians used the tunnels to flee from Rome in the early days of Christianity.
Prambanan Temple, Indonesia
There’s something about temples that sparks your love for antiquity and rekindles a bit of that wanderlust. The Prambanan Temple is nothing to sneeze at, with its tall spires and venerated presence. This is a structure that leaves you in awe and gives you sincere appreciation for those who had the tenacity to build it.
The temple was originally built in the 10th century A.D. and is one of the largest temple compounds dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva, who is the god of destruction and rebirth. The temple is one of four temples that encompass the Prambanan Temple Compounds, which in itself contains 240 temples.
The Prambanan Temple is one of 240 temples
The Prambanan Temple was more for worship than it was for residential use. The structure was built on a four-square place by surrounding walls and four gates. The other temples that reside along the Prambanan Temple compound were built during the peak of Sailendra’s dynasty in the 8th century A.D., and were meant to house the three gods of the Hindu triumvirate.
The other two gods, Brahma and Vishnu, were responsible for the creation and the preservation of the universe. Each respective temple contains the Ramayana, or “Rama’s Journey.” The Ramayana is a short epic poem describing the royal birth of the god Rama, a Hindu deity of chivalry and virtue.
The ancient wonders of Puma Punku
We can hear all you ancient alien fanatics out there, yes, our final structural highlight is none other than the ruins of Puma Punku. Can we really call them ruins, though? The “ruins” are left in eerily good condition, leaving many to wonder if the ruins were an engineering achievement created by man or something else.
The structures were constructed with laser-like precision and the carving on the faces of the ruins lacks any trace of stone or metal tools. How did Puma Punku come to be? Puma Punku is located in the ancient city of Tiahuanaco, Bolivia, a place that was long-abandoned when the Incans discovered it between A.D. 1300 and A.D. 1570.
The birthplace of all creation (?)
According to archaeology.org, Puma Punku was built by the Tiwanaku culture between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1000. It was then later restored and used by the Inca. When the Inca took over the city, they believed it was a sacred place that was the birth of civilization. As they examined the structures, the Inca believed it was a sacred place for ritualistic activities.
The Inca later transformed the space into what some experts say is a “memory theatre.” It was further believed that the images depicted the first couple to be born of “all ethnic groups,” and helped to form the foundation of Inca governance.