100 ancient ruins around the world

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The world is littered with the ancient ruins of man-made cities and settlements that stretch back thousands of years. Represented are 100 ruins that embody some of the outstanding achievements of humanity across various cultures and civilisations.

1 – Por-Bazhyn – The Mysterious Island Fortress in Siberia

Por-Bazhyn, meaning “Clay House” in the Tuvan language are the remains of an adobe monastery or a fortified palace, that was built on a small island in Lake Tere-Khol, located in the Sengelen mountains of southern Siberia, Russia. Radiocarbon dating and dendrochronological studies suggest that Por-Bazhyn was built around AD 777 by the Uighurs, a tribal confederation under the Orkhon Uyghur that ruled from AD 742 to 848.

2 – Rujm el-Hiri – the “Stonehenge of the Levant”

Rujm el-Hiri (meaning “”stone heap of the wild cat”), also called Gilgal Refā’īm (meaning “wheel of spirits”), is an ancient megalithic monument, located in the Israeli-occupied region of the Golan Heights. Archaeologists dating sediment eolian samples, and the study of pottery sherds excavated in situ, suggest it was constructed either during the Early Bronze Age II around 3000 to 2700 BC, or from the Chalcolithic–Early Bronze Age I between 3880– 3540 BC (although there is still no consensus).

3 – The Sunken Town of Pavlopetri

Pavlopetri, also called Paulopetri, is a submerged ancient town, located between the islet of Pavlopetri and the Pounta coast of Laconia, on the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece. Ceramics recovered in situ confirms that Pavlopetri had Mycenaean occupation, but further archaeological evidence suggests that the town was occupied as early as 3500 BC.

4 – The Ancient Egyptian Pyramids

The Ancient Egyptian Pyramids are described as pyramid-shaped monuments, constructed mostly as funerary tombs and ceremonial complexes for the departed pharaohs during the Old Kingdom (2575 BC to 2150 BC) and Middle Kingdom (2050-1550 BC) periods. To date, approximately 118 pyramids of various definitions have been discovered across Egypt (although sources differ with some citing 138), mainly sited on the west bank of the River Nile and grouped into several clusters or pyramid fields.

5 – Herodium – The Palace Fortress of King Herod

The Herodium, also called Har Hordus (meaning “Mount Herodes”), is an archaeological site and ancient palace fortress, located at Ar-Rahniah in the Judaean Desert, on the West Bank of Israel. The Herodium was built on an extended hill at a site Herod supposedly fought against Jews loyal to his enemy Antigonus (the last Hasmonean king), emerging victorious. Contemporary accounts by the Roman Jewish historian Josephus, stated that Herod “built a town on that spot in commemoration of his victory, and enhanced it with wonderful palaces… and he called it Herodium after himself”.

6 – Ġgantija – The Megalithic Temple Complex

Ġgantija is an archaeological site, and ancient Neolithic temple complex located on the Xagħra plateau in the Mediterranean island of Gozo, in the Republic of Malta. Evidence of occupation on the island dates from as early as 5000 BC, during the Għar Dalam phase in the Early Neolithic Period, with a later wave of settlers to the island, who started a temple building phase during the 4th millennium BC.

7 – Siq al-Barid – ‘Little Petra’

Siq al-Barid, also called ‘Little Petra’ is a Nabataean site in the Ma’an Governorate of Jordan that features rock cut tombs, stone-built architecture, and a complex system of hydrological engineering. Siq al-Barid was founded by the Nabataeans (also called Nabateans), a nomadic Bedouin tribe from the Arabian Desert who moved their herds across the desert in search of pastures and water.

8 – The Great Serpent Mound

The Great Serpent Mound is a large mound effigy representing a snake with a curled tail, that was constructed on the site of a classic astrobleme formed from the impact crater of an eroded meteorite that impacted less than 320 million years in the state of Ohio in the United States. Historically, the mound was attributed to the Adena culture (1000 BC – 100 AD), with construction suggested between 381 BC and 44 BC based on Adena Gorgets and points excavated from the mound, but more recent studies from 1996 propose the Fort Ancient Culture (1000 to 1750 AD), with a construction date of AD 1070.

9 – The Roman Villa of Tiberius

The Villa of Tiberius is a ruined Roman villa complex located in the present-day town of Sperlonga, in the province of Latina on the western coast of Italy. The villa hosted elaborate dinner parties, with the focal centrepiece being a large natural cave containing a rectangular and circular pool, embellished with coloured opus sectile flooring, artificial stalactites and encrustations, statues called the Sperlonga sculptures, and a triclinium (a dining space with couches) centred on an island in the caves mouth.

10 – Sarmizegetusa Regia – The Mountain Capital of the Dacians

Sarmizegetusa Regia was the capital and political centre of the Dacians, located in the Orăştie Mountains of the Grădiștea Muncelului Natural Park, in present-day Romania. During the reign of the Thracian King Burebista (82/61 BC to 45/44 BC), the Getae and Dacian tribes were unified into the Dacian Kingdom, with the capital being moved to Sarmizegetusa Regia (possibly from the Geto-Dacian stronghold at Argedava).

11 – Noushabad – The Hidden Underground City

Noushabed, also called Oeei or Ouyim is an ancient subterranean city, built beneath the small town of Nushabad in present-day Iran. The earliest parts of the city were constructed sometime during the Sassanid period between AD 224 to 651 and continued to be excavated during the post-Islamic era, with evidence of occupation lasting until the Qajar dynasty.

12 – Ketl – The Great House

Chetro Ketl is an archaeological site, and the ancient ruins of an Ancestral Puebloan settlement, located in the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico, United States of America. Chetro Ketl was built over an extended period beginning in AD 990, with construction largely completed by AD 1075. The plan of the complex resembles a D-shaped structure covering nearly 3 acres and consists of 400 rooms with several large kiva used by Puebloans for rites and political meetings, often associated with the kachina belief system.

13 – Teōtīhuacān – Birthplace of the Gods

Teōtīhuacān, named by the Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs, and loosely translated as “birthplace of the gods” is an ancient Mesoamerican city located in the Teotihuacan Valley of the Free and Sovereign State of Mexico, in present-day Mexico. The development of Teōtīhuacān can be identified by four distinct consecutive phases, known as Teōtīhuacān I, II, III, and IV, with phase I starting around 200 – 100 BC during the Late Formative era, when the inhabitants coalesced around sacred springs in the basin of the Teōtīhuacān Valley.

14 – Kerma – The Ancient African Kingdom

Kerma, also called Karmah is an archaeological site and the former capital of the ancient Kerma Kingdom, located in the Dongola Reach above the Third Cataract of the River Nile in present-day Sudan. The Kingdom of Kerma was an indigenous Nilotic culture that emerged around the mid-third millennium BC, most likely from the C-Group culture in the southern part of Upper Nubia. At its peak, the kingdom controlled several Cataracts of the Nile, covering territory almost as extensive as that of its Egyptian neighbours.

15 – Göbekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe is an archaeological site and multi-phase tell, believed to be the oldest known Mesolithic temple complex, located in the South-eastern Anatolia Region of Turkey. The main structures identified have been dated to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) from around the 10th millennium BC, with further remains of smaller buildings from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB), dated to the 9th millennium BC.

16 – The Prehistoric Altar of Monte D’Accoddi

Monte d’Accoddi is an ancient prehistoric complex, located on a hill in the Flumenargia territory, in the Sassari area of Sardinia. Studies of the monument have described Monte d’Accoddi as a prehistoric altar, a viewing platform, a step pyramid, or even an ancient architectural ziggurat. The site consists of two primary phases, with the earliest period of construction dating from around 4,000–3,650 BC and is generally associated with the Ozieri (also known as the “culture of St. Michael”) which was a prehistoric pre-Nuragic Hunter-gatherer culture later mixed with husbandry and agriculture.

17 – Rani ki vav – The Inverted Stepwell Temple

Rani ki vav is an ancient stepwell temple located on the banks of the Saraswati River, in the Gujarat state of India. The temple was constructed during the 11th century AD and is attributed to the Chaulukya dynasty (also known as the Chalukyas of Gujarat or the Solanki dynasty) which ruled parts of what is now Gujarat and Rajasthan in north-western India.

18 – Nemrut

Nemrut is a mountain in the Taurus Mountain range that separates the Mediterranean coastal region from the central Anatolian Plateau in southern Turkey. In 62 BC, King Antiochus I Theos of Commagene constructed a tomb-sanctuary on the summit of the mountain, at an elevation of 2,134 metres. During his reign, Antiochus created his own cult to be worshiped after his death in a Greek form fused with Zoroastrianism. In an inscription, he decreed that his tomb would be constructed in a remote place close to the gods, with him being deified and worshipped among their ranks.

19 – Akrotiri

Akrotiri is an archaeological site and a Cycladic Bronze Age town, located on the Greek island of Santorini (Thera) near the present-day village of Akrotiri (for which the prehistoric site is named). The earliest evidence for habitation at Akrotiri suggests a small settlement that relied on agriculture and animal husbandry, which developed into a prosperous trading hub with Minoan influences (evident by inscriptions in Linear A, the writing system of the Minoans and Minoan monkeys in a fresco) during the 3rd millennium BC. The town was destroyed during the Theran eruption, also called the Minoan eruption sometime in the 16th century BC, that devastated the island and communities on nearby islands and the coast of Crete.

20 – Longyou Caves

Longyou Caves is a complex of 24 artificial caves, constructed into the sandstone geology of Fenghuang Hill in the Zhejiang province of China. The five caverns, independent from each other measure between 18-34 metres, reaching heights of up to 20 metres with supporting pillars and distinctive shapes curved with shaking imprints across the cavern walls and ceilings. Few historical records or archaeological evidence has been found to definitively date the caves, but archaeologists have recovered glazed clay pots in the silt soils of the cavern floor, dated to the Western Han Dynasty from 206 BC to AD 23.

21 – Petra

Petra is an archaeological site and ancient city of the Nabataeans, located around the mountain of Jabal Al-Madbah in southern Jordan. Petra, originally named Raqmu was founded by the Nabataeans (also called Nabateans), a nomadic Bedouin tribe from the Arabian Desert who moved their herds across the desert in search of pasture and water. The city grew into the proposed centre or capital of the Nabatean kingdom, and swelled at its apex to a population of between 10,000 and 30,000 inhabitants by the 1st century AD.

22 – The Etruscan Pyramid

The so-called Etruscan Pyramid is a megalithic rock-cut monument, located in the Tacchiolo valley near the city of Viterbo, Italy. The monuments name is owed to its lateral pyramidal shape carved from natural magmatic rock, whilst its construction is probably first attributed to the Rinaldonian Civilisation that preceded the Etruscans.

23 – Cape Matapan & Taenarum – Gateway to Hades

Taenarum, also known as also known as Tainaron or Matapan is an ancient Greek city, located on the Cape Matapan at the end of the Mani Peninsula in Greece, which during antiquity was a mythical gateway to Hades. The inhabitants built several temples at the site, with the most notable being in dedication to Poseidon and Apollo, for which Strabo in the first century AD and Pausanias in the second century AD, describe a cult temple that worshipped Poseidon and fronted a cave-like temple on the headland.

24 – The Mysterious Stone Spheres of Costa Rica

The Diquís Spheres are over 300 stone Petrospheres on the small island of Isla del Caño, and the Diquís Delta in Costa Rica. The spheres were created by the Diquís culture that emerged in the Valley of the Rio Grande de Térraba, where they established complex social, economic, and political systems to govern their society. The Diquís Spheres range in size from just a few centimetres, to over 2 metres in diameter, and are mostly made from gabbro, a phaneritic (coarse-grained) mafic intrusive igneous rock that is similar to basalt.

25 – The Mozu Kofungun Keyhole Burial Mounds

The Mozu Kofungun burial mounds are a cluster of keyhole shaped tomb complexes that were constructed during the Kofun period in present-day Sakai, located in the Osaka Prefecture of Japan. The tradition of constructing Kofun tombs started during the late 3rd century AD, with the most common form being known as a “zenpō-kōen-fun”, which are distinctively shaped like a keyhole, having one trapezoid end and one circular end mound.

26 – Khara-Khoto – The Black City

Khara-Khoto, also called Khar khot (meaning “black city” in Mongolian) is a ruined fortified city near the Juyan Lake Basin in the far west of Inner Mongolia, China. The city was a centre of religious learning, art, and a trading hub that was founded in AD 1032 as a Tangut stronghold of the Tibeto-Burman tribal union, emerging into the empire of Western Xia.

27 – Tongwancheng – Capital of the Xia kingdom

Tongwancheng was the capital of the Xia Kingdom, founded by the Xiongnu people at the southern edge of the Maowusu Sands of the Ordos Desert, in present-day Inner Mongolia. In AD 407, a branch of the Xiongnu established the kingdom of Xia during the Sixteen Kingdoms period. Xia was ruled over by Helian Bobo, a Tiefu Xiongnu who founded his capital in the heart of the Ordos region from AD 413, with the intention to be lord of 10,000 states (“Tong” means “unite,” while “wan” means 10,000).

28 – Vallum Aulium – Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s Wall (Vallum Aulium) was a defensive fortification in Roman Britannia, that ran 73 miles (116km) from Mais at the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea to the banks of the River Tyne at Segedunum at Wallsend in the North Sea. Construction began in AD 122, following the route of the Stanegate road to the south and was completed in just seven years. Local limestone was used in most of the wall’s construction, except for the section to the west of the River Irthing where a raised turf palisade was erected.

29 – Vallum Antonini – The Antonine Wall

The Antonine Wall (Vallum Antonini) was a defensive wall built by the Romans in present-day Scotland, that ran for 39 miles between the Firth of Forth, and the Firth of Clyde (west of Edinburgh along the central belt). Construction began during the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius in AD 142, in Caledonian territories previously held by the Damnonii, Otadini, Novantae, and the Selgovae tribes.

30 – The Giants’ Graves

The Giants’ Graves or Giants’ tombs, refers to the collective of tombs scattered throughout modern-day Sardinia, that feature a type of megalithic gallery grave built by the Nuragic civilisation. One of the largest Giant’s Graves is found at Coddu Vecchiu near Arzachena, consisting of a of a stele, stone megaliths, and a gallery grave that was built around 1800–1600 BC during the early Nuragic period.

31 – Karakorum – The Mongol Capital

Karakorum, also called Kharkhorin is an archaeological site, and former capital of the Mongols, located in the Orkhon Valley in the present-day Övörkhangai Province of Mongolia. Karakorum developed into a city during the reign of Ögedei Khan (the third son of Genghis Khan and second Great Khan of the Mongol Empire), who constructed the Tumen Amgalan Ord palace in AD 1235, as well as several houses of worship for his Buddhist, Muslim, Taoist, and Christian followers, gardens, lakes, and dwellings that were encircled by an earthen wall.

32 – L’Anse aux Meadows – The Viking Settlement in Canada

L’Anse aux Meadows is an archaeological site, and the remains of a Norse settlement in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. A study of the Norse architectural type, artefacts, and carbon dating suggests that the Norse settled at L’Anse aux Meadows around AD 990–1050. Archaeologists suggest that the settlement served as an exploratory base and winter camp, with industrial activity for iron production and woodworking, likely used for ship repair.

33 – Machaerus – The Palace Fortress of King Herod

Machaerus is an archaeological site and a fortified palace, located on the eastern side of the Dead Sea in present-day Jordan. Herod I, also known as Herod the Great constructed the fortress in 30 BC, to be used as a military base to safeguard his territories east of the Jordan. According to the Roman author, Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus), “Machaerus on the south, at one time, next to Jerusalem the most strongly fortified place in Judea.”

34 – Isca Augusta – The Roman Legionary Fortress

Isca Augusta, also called Isca Silurum, and Carleon Roman Fortress is an archaeological site and the remains of a large legionary fortress located in present-day Carleon, Wales. Isca Augusta was founded around AD 74 by the then governor of Britain, Sextus Julius Frontinus, to support the Roman campaigns in subjugating the native tribes of Wales that had resisted Roman rule.

35 – Tenochtitlan

Tenochtitlan was the capital of the Aztec civilisation, situated on a raised islet in the western side of the shallow Lake Texcoco, which is now the historic part of present-day Mexico City. The Mexica supposedly sacrificed one of the daughters of the Culhuacan rulers, flaying her skin, on the command of their god Xipe Totec. This led to the Culhuacan attacking the Mexica, driving them to the refuge of an infertile island “among the stone-prickly pear cactus fruit”, where they founded their new city in the year “ōme calli” around AD 1325 to 1345.

36 – Aggersborg – The Giant Viking Trelleborg

Aggersborg is the site of a Viking trelleborg (ring fort), that was built near Aggersund on the north side of the Limfjord in Denmark. Aggersborg is Denmark’s largest trelleborg and dates from the Viking age between AD 970-980 (although archaeologists have also discovered that the fort overlaid an earlier Viking-Age rural settlement consisting of sunken huts connected with a couple of large farms), either during Harold Bluetooth’s reign, or that of his successor Sweyn Forkbeard.

37 – The Gila Cliff Dwellings

The Gila Cliff Dwellings is an archaeological site, and ancient settlement constructed by the pueblos Mimbres branch of the Mogollon, located in southwest New Mexico of the United States of America. The Gila Cliff Dwellings refers to two main ruin sites, along with a collection of smaller ruins that was inhabited sometime during the Classic Mimbres Period from AD 1000-1130. Evidence of unconnected occupation can be traced through a 2,000-year sequence, starting with Archaic rock shelters, a Mogollon circular Pit House, and Classic Pueblo periods to the Apache.

38 – Amarna – The City of the “Heretic Pharaoh”

Amarna, also called Akhetaten is an archaeological site and an Ancient Egyptian city, located on the eastern banks of the River Nile, in the present-day Minya governorate of Egypt. Amarna was constructed in 1346 BC to serve as the capital city of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, the 10th ruler of the late Eighteenth Dynasty. Akhenaten (originally named Amenhotep IV) abandoned the traditional polytheistic religions of Egypt, instead introducing the worship of Atenism, which was centred on the cult god Aten and depicted as the disc of the sun.

39 – Camulodunum – The First Capital of Britannia

Camulodunum was a Roman city and the first capital of the Roman province of Britannia, in what is now the present-day city of Colchester in Essex, England. The Romans constructed the first legionary fortress or castrum at Camulodunum, protected by a large palisaded Vallum and Fossa. The fort was garrisoned by the Legio XX Valeria Victrix (identified by a boar on the standard), one of the four initial legions in the Roman invasion. After AD 49, the fortress was decommissioned and converted into a civilian town for discharged legionnaires and named Colonia Victricensis.

40 – The Ancient Pyramid City of Túcume

Túcume is an ancient city that is traditionally considered to be the last great capital of the Lambayeque Kingdom, located in the lower valley La Leche River in the Lambayeque Region of Peru. Construction of Túcume began around AD 1000, with the city growing to become an important regional centre following the abandonment of the pyramid complex at Batán Grande.

41 – Ancient Troy

The ruins of Troy (also called Ilios or Ilion and Ilium) in present-day Hisarlik in Canakkale, Turkey – comprises of a multi-period site now partially buried in an artificial tell illustrating the gradual development of the city in north-western Asia Minor. The development of the city layers is detailed in 9 distinct phases, with the earliest period of occupation dating from the 3rd millennium BC in the Bronze Age.

42 – Jiaohe – The Castle City

Jiaohe, also called Yarkhoto and Yarghul is an ancient ruined city and fortress, located on a land plateau shaped like a willow leaf in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. The city served as the capital of the Anterior Jushi Kingdom from 108 BC to AD 450, and was an important centre of trade on the silk road for facilitating exchanges between the east and west.

43 – The City of Ur

Ur is an ancient city-state of Mesopotamia located in the Dhi Qar Governorate of southern Iraq. The first royal dynasty of Ur was established during the Early Bronze Age, with Ur becoming the capital of southern Mesopotamia around 2500 BC. The city would come under Akkadian influence with the rise of the Akkadian Empire between 2400 and 2200 BC, before coming under Gutian rule with the empire’s collapse during the mid-22nd century BC.

44 – The Oracle of Delphi

Delphi was an ancient sanctuary of the Pythia, located on the south-western slope of Mount Parnassus in central Greece. The Pythia was established as a high priest cult around the 8th century BC (although some sources suggest they may be present in some form as early as 1400 BC), and continued to be consulted for important political and religious decisions until the 4th century AD. The Delphic oracle was at its peak during the late 6th century BC, being consulted on affairs of state, with the fame of the oracle spreading to the far reaches of the Greek-speaking world. The site also became the location of the Pythian Games, one of the four Panhellenic Games and precursors of the Modern Olympics.

45 – Grianan of Aileach – Seat of the Kingdom of Ailech

The Grianan of Aileach, also called Greenan Ely or Greenan Fort, is a stone ringfort located on the summit of Greenan Mountain in County Donegal, Ireland. The fort is believed to have been constructed by the Cenél nEógain, a branch of the Northern Uí Néill dynasties during the 8th or 9th century, serving as the principal seat of the Kings of Ailech which ruled the medieval Irish province of Ailech, otherwise known as the Kingdom of Ailech.

46 – The Limes Arabicus

The Limes Arabicus was a defensive line that formed part of the wider Roman limes system, demarcating the border of the Roman province of Arabia Petraea to the frontier lands of Arabia, known as Arabia Magna and Arabia Felix. During the Severan dynasty (AD 193–235), the frontier was reinforced with castra (forts), mainly centred in the strategic Wadi Sirhan region in the north-western Arabian Peninsula that served as a gateway for trans-Arabian trade. During the 3rd to 4th century AD, a system of castella, watchtowers, and fortresses were constructed at intervals of every 100 kilometres (62 miles).

47 – Avebury Stone Circle

Avebury is the largest megalithic stone circle in the world, consisting of a large henge with an outer circle of stones, and two smaller stone circles situated in the centre of the monument. It is the result of many phases of construction during late prehistory, with the earliest phase dating from the middle of the third millennium BC. The landscape of the Avebury Stone Circle is a World Heritage Site, located in the county of Wiltshire, England.

48 – Cliff Palace

Cliff Palace is a large cliff dwelling complex on the east wall of Cliff Canyon, located in the Mesa Verde National Park in the state of Colorado. Cliff Palace was constructed around AD 1190 beneath a rock escarpment and remained occupied until AD 1300. The complex consists of 150 rooms supporting up to 100 inhabitants, along with 23 kivas that may have functioned as the centre of a large polity.

49 – The Ancient City of Termessos

Termessos was a fortified city, founded by Pamphylian tribes called the Solymi (also called the Solims) near the peak of the Solymos (Güllük Dağı) mountain, in the Taurus mountain range in present-day Turkey. Little is known about the historical context of Termessos, but the earliest encounter with the city comes from text called the Anabis of Alexander by Arrian of Nicomedia, who describes the conquests of Alexander the Great. In the Anabis, Alexander surrounded Termessos in 333 BC, where Alexander likened the city to an “eagle’s nest”, failing to take the city.

50 – The Caves of Valerón

The Caves of Valerón, also known as Valerón’s “Monastery” is an ancient pre-Hispanic rock-cut complex of honeycomb caves on the north-west face of the Mountain of the Galician (“Montaña del Gallego”) in the Spanish island of Grand Canaria.

The caves were constructed by the ancient Canarians using stone and wooden tools, inside a large 20-metre-tall natural arch made from a basaltic arch covering a volcanic tuff (a type of rock made of volcanic ash ejected from a vent during a volcanic eruption that lithified into a solid material).

51 – Masada

Masada are the ruins of an ancient fortress and palace, built in the 1st century BC on a plateau by King Herod, overlooking the dead sea in Israel. After the destruction of the Second Temple during the “Great Revolt”, Masada was the centre of an epic siege occurring around AD 73 to 74.

52 – Axum/Aksum

Axum/Aksum are the ruins of the capital of the Aksumite Empire, located near the base of the Adwa mountains in Ethiopia. The Empire was founded around 400 BC and grew into a major trading power that lasted until the 10th century AD. The wealth of Aksum is represented in the architectural legacy of the Empire, from the giant Stelae obelisks to the ornate palaces left behind.

53 – Pueblo Bonito

Pueblo Bonito are the ruins of an ancient Puebloan “Great House”, located in modern-day New Mexico, in the United States. The Puebloans or Pueblos, were an ancient Native American culture that developed a series of major construction projects across Utah and parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. Pueblo Bonito is the largest example of a “great house” that was planned and constructed in stages between AD 850 to AD 1150.

54 – Sigiriya

Sigiriya are the ruins of an ancient city, located in the Matale District in the Central Province of Sri Lanka. The Cūḷavaṃsa, a written chronology of the monarchs of Sri Lanka credits King Kashyapa I with the construction at Sigiriya, which developed into a complex urban city centred on the Sīnhāgirim, meaning Lion Rock (a large granite peak that rises 200 metres above the surrounding plain).

55 – Mohenjo-daro

Mohenjo-daro, meaning ‘Mound of the Dead Men’ is an archaeological site and ancient city complex, located west of the Indus River in Larkana District, Sindh, Pakistan. Mohenjo-daro was designed on a grid plan layout, comprising of rectilinear buildings built from fired mortared bricks and sun-dried mud-brick that covered an area of 741 acres.

56 – Meroë

Meroë, also called Medewi is an archaeological region and the ancient capital city of the Nubian Kingdom of Kush, located on the east bank of the River Nile in Sudan. The Nubian Pharaohs created a revived period in Egyptian culture, in both religion, art and architecture, including a new phase of pyramid building not seen since the “Age of the Pyramids” during the Old Kingdom.

57 – Persepolis

Persepolis is the ceremonial capital city of the Achaemenid Empire, also called the First Persian Empire that covered an area of 2.1 million square miles from the Balkans and Eastern Europe proper in the west, to the Indus Valley in the east. The first evidence of occupation dates from around 515 BC, possibly established by Cyrus the Great (who founded the Achaemenid Empire), but the first phase of major construction was during the reign of Darius I.

58 – Mari

Mari is an archaeological site, located near Abu Kamal on the western bank of the Euphrates in Syria. Unlike many cities that grew from an earlier settlement or nucleus of settlements, Mari was purpose-built as a city during the Mesopotamian Early Dynastic period I around 2900 BC by either the Sumerians, the Kish civilisation or the East Semitic speaking people from Terqa in the north.

59 – Hattusa

Hattusa was the capital of the Hittite Empire, centred in modern-day Boğazkale, Turkey. The Hittites were an ancient Anatolian people, who established an empire covering Anatolia, northern Levant, and Upper Mesopotamia. Around the middle of the 17th century BC, King Hattusilis I established Hattusa as his capital on a section of a mountain slope at the southern end of a small fertile plain.

60 – The Maunsell Sea Forts

Although not ancient, the Mansell Sea Forts are certainly worthy of a mention. Located off the English coast in the Thames and Mersey estuaries, the Maunsell Forts are Second World War defensive platforms that were built to defend the UK against enemy aircraft. Named after the civil engineer responsible for their design; Guy Maunsell, construction of the forts begun in 1942 until they were eventually decommissioned in the 1950’s. Maunsell designed two distinct fort concepts for deployment, the singular Naval Forts and the cluster array Army Forts.

61 – Qatna

Qatna, also called Katna is a ruined ancient city, located near the village of al-Mishrifeh in the Homs Governorate of Syria. Qatna was built on a limestone plateau on the shores of the Mishrifeh Lake (that dried up during the end of the Bronze Age). By the Middle Bronze Age I (2000 BC), Qatna had established itself as a Kingdom, bordered by the Yamhad to the north, the Mari to the East and the Canaan to the south. The Kingdom centred on the city of Qatna, which had become a metropolis and trading hub, covering an area of 270 acres.

62 – Merv the Great

Merv, also known by many names such as Alexandria, Antiochia in Margiana and Marv-i-Shahijan or “Merv the Great” was an ancient city located in present Turkmenistan. Several cities have existed during different periods at Merv, with the earliest recorded occupation dating from around 3000 BC. The first city period was founded around 500-600 BC, as part of the Achaemenid (First Persian Empire) expansion by Cyrus the Great.

63 – Guyaju Caves

Guyaju Caves (also called the Yanqing Ancient Cliff House) is a cave complex located on the slopes of Tianhuang Mountain in the Yanging District of China that was discovered in 1984.

The cave system comprises of 350 chambers, in a system of 117 caves that were hewn from the granite rock face of a secluded gorge, covering an area of around 24.7 acres (100,000 square meters). No dateable archaeological evidence has survived, nor any mention in historical literature, so the true origins of who constructed Guyaju remains a mystery.

64 – Ciudad Perdida

Ciudad Perdida, translated in Spanish as the “Lost City”, also known as “Teyuna” and “Buritaca” locally is an archaeological site in the jungles of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia. Archaeological evidence suggests that the city was founded around AD 800 by the Tayrona (also spelt Tairona), a Pre-Columbian culture that first occupied the region at the beginning of the 1st millennium AD and founded around 250 settlements. Ciudad Perdida most likely served as the region’s centre, supporting a population of around 2,500-3,000 inhabitants.

65 – Venta Silurum

Venta Silurum was a Roman town in the province of Britannia, established around AD 75 in the modern village of Caerwent in South East Wales. The town was located on a major Roman highway between Isca Augusta (Caerleon) and Glevum (Gloucester). Venta Silurum became the Romanised capital of the defeatured Silures (a tribal confederation), whose ordo (local council) provided local government and administration for the district.

66 – Timgad

Timgad, also called Thamugas or Thamugadi are the ancient ruins of a Roman city, located near the modern-day town of Timgad in the Aurès Mountains of Algeria. Timgad was founded by Emperor Trajan around AD 100 as “Colonia Marciana Ulpia Traiana Thamugadi” and served as a Roman colony for veterans of Trajan’s army. The colony was intended to function as a bastion in Roman Africa against the Berbers, a mix of ethnic indigenous inhabitants who resided mostly in North and Western Africa.

67 – Tanis

Tanis is an archaeological site and ancient Egyptian city on the Tanitic branch of the Nile River delta near the modern-day town of Ṣān al-Ḥajar al-Qibliyyah. Tanis was built as the capital of the 14th nome of Lower Egypt, with the earliest Tanite buildings dating from the 21st Dynasty, the first Dynasty of the Third Intermediate Period, lasting from 1069 BC to 945 BC. Many of the materials used to construct the city were repurposed masonry and stone from nearby population centres such as the former capital of Pi-Ramesses (Per Ramessu).

68 – Takht-e Soleymān

Takht-e Soleymān are the ruins of an ancient complex, located near the modern-day town of Takab in the West Azerbaijan Province of Iran. The earliest occupation dates from the 5th century BC during the Achaemenid period (also called the First Persian Empire). Takht-e Soleymān’s first phase of construction was during the Sassanian period around the 5th and 6th centuries AD where the site was called Shīz. The Sassanian’s built a fire temple of the Zoroastrian faith called the Athur-Gushnasp (Azargoshnasb) around the sacred Avestan Chechasta Lake.

69 – Cliff Villages of Bandiagara

The cliffs of Bandiagara is a large geological escarpment rising above the surrounding flatlands in Mali that contains various archaeological sites and 289 ancient settlements. The cliffs were first settled by the Toloy, an ancient troglodyte culture between the 3rd and 2nd century BC. In the 11th century AD, the cliffs were settled by the Tellem, a Sub Saharan group that built many of the existing dwellings and structures around the base of the escarpment as well as directly into the cliff-face.

70 – Khami

Khami are the ruins of the former capital of the Kalanga Kingdom of Butua near Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. The Kingdom of Butua emerged after the collapse of Great Zimbabwe in the mid-16th century into a Tolwa state around AD 1640. The Kingdom was ruled by the Tolwa dynasty, who’s prosperity came from trading gold and cattle with Arab and Portuguese traders.

71 – Pella

Pella is an archaeological site and the historical capital of the ancient kingdom of Macedon. Pella was founded next to the modern-day town of Pella, near the Macedonian Gulf in northern Greece. Most scholars believe that Pella was built as the capital for Archelaus I, who was King of Macedon from 413 to 399 BC, although some attribute Pella to Amyntas III, who ruled Macedon from 392 to 370 BC. Pella is famed as the birthplace and ruling seat of Philip II and his son, Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great who succeeded Philip II to the throne at the age of 20.

72 – Skellig Michael

Skellig Michael are the ruins of a monastic settlement located on a twin pinnacle crag, off the coast of County Kerry in Ireland. It is speculated that a monastery was founded on Skellig Michael during the 6th century AD, due to the remoteness and the abundance of rock for construction. The earliest definitive record mentions the monks on Skellig during the 8th century AD in a transcript about the death of ‘Suibhni of Scelig’.

73 – The Great Pyramid of Cholula

The Great Pyramid of Cholula is a temple complex believed to be dedicated to the god Quetzalcoatl in the San Andrés Cholula, Puebla municipality of Mexico. The Cholula pyramid is the largest by volume in the Americas, in addition to being the largest known pyramid by volume in the world, measuring at its base 450 by 450 metres (in comparison to the Great Pyramid of Egypt measuring 230 by 230 metres or the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán that measures 220 by 230 metres).

74 – Salona

Salona (full name – Martia Iulia Valeria Salona Felix) are the ruins of the ancient capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia, located in the modern-day town of Solin in Croatia. The earliest occupation of Salona dates from the 7th century BC, where an Illyrian settlement was established near the banks of the River Jadro on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. After the Romans conquered the region and established the province of Illyria, followed by Dalmatia, Salona was elevated to the status of the provincial capital after siding with Gaius Julius Caesar in the civil war against Pompeius and Marcus Licinius Crassus of the first Triumvirate.

75 – Nan Madol

Nan Madol are the ruins of the former capital of the Saudeleur Dynasty, located on Temwen Island off the shores of the island of Pohnpei, in the modern-day Federated States of Micronesia. The city was constructed sometime between AD 1200 – 1500 with a distinctive megalithic architecture that used pieces of a columnar basalt quarried from a volcanic plug on the opposite side of Pohnpei.

76 – Ostia Antica

Ostia Antica is an archaeological site and harbour of ancient Rome, near the modern-day Lido di Ostia in the X Municipio of the commune of Rome. Ostia Antica was founded on the mouth of the Tiber River and was attributed by the Romans to the fourth King of Rome, Ancus Marcius who reigned during the 7th century BC. The earliest archaeological evidence dates from the 4th century BC, with a Roman castrum being constructed in the 3rd century BC to protect the coastline of Rome that later developed into one of Rome’s first colonia.

77 – Aquae Sulis

Aquae Sulis, meaning “the waters of Sulis” was a Roman town in the province of Britannia, located in the modern-day city of Bath in England. The site was first occupied by the Iron Age Dobunni, who worshipped the Goddess Sulis at a sacred hot spring. After the Roman conquest across Britannia in AD 43, a formal temple complex was constructed at Aquae Sulis around AD 60 and was adapted to the worship of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare, and the sponsor of arts, trade, and strategy.

78 – Kuélap

Kuélap is a large pre-Columbian walled city, fortress (debated) or temple complex built by the Chachapoyas, also called the “Warriors of the Clouds”, a culture of the Andes living in the cloud forests of the southern part of the Department of Amazonas of present-day Peru. Kuélap is located on a limestone ridge 3000 metres above sea level in the mountains overlooking the Utcubamba Valley. The site was established in the 6th century AD, with the main period of construction occurring between AD 900 and 1100.

79 – Serjilla

Serjilla is an abandoned settlement, part of a group of 40 similar sites known as the “Dead Cities” that are organised into 8 archaeological parks in northwest Syria. The Dead Cities formed a centre of agriculture for the region, supplying wheat, grapes, olives and wine for Antioch and Apamea from the Roman classical period when the Byzantine Empire was near its peak.

80 – The Ellora Caves

The Ellora Caves is a large rock-cut monastery temple complex located in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, India. The complex has over 100 caves, features a multi-faith collection of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain sculptures and monuments that date from AD 600 to 1000. These consist of 12 Buddhist (caves 1–12), 17 Hindu (caves 13–29) and 5 Jain (caves 30–34) caves as well as monasteries dedicated to each religion.

81 – Great Zimbabwe

The Kingdom of Zimbabwe was a medieval kingdom of 150 tributaries that existed from AD 1220-1450 in modern-day Zimbabwe. The Kingdom was centred on the capital, Great Zimbabwe, located near Lake Mutirikwe and the town of Masvingo. The capital was constructed in the 11th century during the late Iron Age and continued to be expanded up until the 15th century. Spanning an area of 1780 acres at the Kingdoms height, Great Zimbabwe would have housed up to 18,000 inhabitants.

82 – Derinkuyu

Derinkuyu is an underground hive city in the Derinkuyu district, Turkey, one of 36 proposed underground city complexes found throughout the region of Cappadocia. According to the Turkish Department of Culture, the soft volcanic rock was first excavated by the Phrygians (an Indo-European culture from the 8th–7th century BC) who constructed primitive dwellings, whilst other sources have attributed early construction to the Persians or Hittites. By the Byzantine period, the city contained a labyrinth of tunnels and chambers, covering an area of 445 km2 (172 sq miles) that could house a population of up to 20,000 inhabitants.

83 – Ani

On the eastern borders of Turkey in the province of Kars lies the ruined Armenian city of Ani. Renowned as a cultural and commercial centre on the Silk Road, Ani grew to become a bustling metropolis of over 100,000 inhabitants at its height. Ani was first mentioned in Armenian chronicles in the 5th century that described a fortress settlement of the nobles of the Kamsarakan dynasty.

84 – Rutupiae

Rutupiae (Richborough Castle) are the ruins of a Roman Saxon Shore Fort located in Richborough, Kent in the United Kingdom. Although a matter of scholarly debate, historians generally agree that Rutupiae was the landing site for the Claudian invasion of what would become the Roman province of Britannia in AD 43. Because of its position near the mouth of the Stour, Rutupiae became a major British port under the Romans and the starting point for the road now known as Watling Street.

85 – Choquequirao

Choquequirao, meaning “Cradle of Gold” in Quechua is an archaeological site in the Vilcabamba mountain range, overlooking the Apurimac River in Southern Peru. Choquequirao was built by the Inca sometime in the 15th – 16th century and covers an area of over 4447 acres at an elevation of 3050 metres.

86 – Maijishan Grottoes

The Maijishan Grottoes is an elaborate range of rock-cut ceremonial chambers, containing over 7200 Buddhist sculptures and 100 square metres of murals in Tianshui, northwest China. They were first constructed in the Later Qin era (a state of Qiang ethnicity of the Sixteen Kingdoms) around AD 384–417.

87 – Ancient Miletus

Miletus is an ancient Greek city, located in western Anatolia, near the mouth of the Maeander River in the Aydın Province of present-day Turkey. The earliest evidence of occupation dates from the Neolithic period, where small settlements first inhabited the region from around 3500-3000 BC. By the Bronze Age, a centralised city had emerged that was influenced through maritime trade with the Minoan civilisation (as indicated by Minoan pottery discovered in situ).

88 – El Tajín

El Tajín is a ruined ancient city of the Classic era of Mesoamerica, located in the highlands of the municipality of Papantla in Mexico. El Tajín, named after the Totonac rain god and meaning “of thunder or lightning bolt” was first occupied around 5600 BC by nomadic hunters and gatherers that evolved into sedentary farmers. The first city builders are contested by archaeologists, with some theories suggesting the Totonacs and the Xapaneca, or possibly the Huastec around AD 100.

89 – Tintagel

Tintagel are the ruins of a medieval fortification located on a headland next to the modern-day village of Tintagel in Cornwall, England. Tintagel developed into a prosperous stronghold and centre of trade, which archaeologists propose was an elite settlement inhabited by a powerful local warlord or even Dumnonian royalty. In 1138, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain gave rise to the mythical figure of King Arthur, which Geoffrey associates Tintagel as the site where Uther Pendragon, King of Britain seduced Queen Igerna (wife of Duke Gorlois of Cornwall).

90 – Salamis

Salamis is an archaeological site and an ancient city-state, located at the mouth of the River Pedieos in Cyprus. According to mythology, the city was founded by Teucer, the son of King Telamon of Salamis Island. The city prospered as a centre of Greek culture and art, adopting the Greek alphabet in Cyprus in place of the older Cypriot syllabary.

91 – Ma’rib

Ma’rib is the ancient ruins of the former capital of the kingdom of Saba in modern-day Ma’rib in Yemen. The city flourished as a centre of trade on the caravan routes, that linked the Mediterranean with the Arabian Peninsula and held a trade monopoly on the movement of frankincense and myrrh in the region. Some biblical scholars suggest that Ma’rib was the centre of the Kingdom of Sheba, although ruins in many other countries, including Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia and Iran have all been credited with the same distinction.

92 – Chan Chan

Chan Chan is an archaeological site and ancient capital of the Chimú Kingdom, located at the mouth of the Moche valley in an arid section of the coastal desert of northern Peru. The Chimú culture emerged around AD 850-900, having succeeded the Moche culture and controlled an area of 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) of coastline from Piura in the north to Paramonga in the south. The Kingdom was centred on Chan Chan, a large adobe city that covered an area of 4942 acres, making the site one of the largest pre-Columbian cities in South America.

93 – Volubilis

Volubilis is an ancient Berber city that many archaeologists believe was the capital of the Kingdom of Mauretania. By the 3rd century BC, the Carthaginians had established a proto settlement and constructed a temple dedicated to the Punic god Baal. The inhabitants were seminomadic pastoralists with Berber ancestry who were a culture with the ethnicity of several nations, mostly indigenous to North Africa and some northern parts of West Africa.

94 – Thera

Thera is an archaeological site and ancient city located on the Greek island of Santorini, also called Thera. The city was founded by Dorian colonists sometime during the 9th century BC. According to mythology – Theras (a descendant of the Phoenician ruler Cadmus and son of the king of Thebes, Autesion) established the city, naming the island and his new settlement, Thera.

95 – Koi Krylgan Kala

Koi Krylgan Kala, also called Qoy Qırılg’an qala locally is an archaeological site in the Ellikqal’a District of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, within Uzbekistan. Koi Krylgan Kala was constructed around 400 BC to serve as a large ceremonial centre and complex during the Chorasmian, Afrighids dynasty that ruled over a large oasis region called Khwarezm. At its centre, is a monumental building laid out on a circular plan with eternal fortified walls and 9 towers that encompass a circle 87 metres in diameter.

96 – Skara Brae

Skara Brae is a Neolithic settlement on the Bay of Skaill in Orkney Scotland that dates from 3180 to 2500 BC. The inhabitants of Skara Brae used flagstones, layered into the ground, and filled the spaces with earth and middens (domestic rubbish) to construct their homes. Given the number of homes, it is estimated that around 50 people inhabited Skara Brae and are known as the Grooved ware people (based on the pottery style).

97 – Carthage

Carthage was the capital of the Carthaginian Empire, located on the eastern side of Lake Tunis in Tunisia. The city was founded as a colony by the Phoenicians, an ancient Semitic-speaking thalassocratic civilisation that originated in the Levant region of the eastern Mediterranean. Although the foundation date is disputed, Timaeus of Taormina, a Greek historian places Carthage’s founding in 814 BC, a date that is generally accepted by historians. With the emergence of the Roman Republic, a sustained rivalry ensured for the dominion of the western Mediterranean.

98 – Hardknott Roman Fort

Hardknott Roman Fort, also known as Mediobogdum in the Ravenna Cosmography is a Roman Fort constructed at the Hardknott Pass in the Lake District, Cumbria, England to guard against raids by the Scots and Brigantes. The fort is built on a rocky spur at an altitude of 800 feet and is one of the highest forts constructed in the Roman province of Britannia (the highest being Epiacum/Whitley Castle). Hardknott Fort dates from around the 2nd century AD, during the reign of Hadrian and was garrisoned by the Fourth Cohort of Dalmatians from the Balkans and infantry soldiers from Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

99 – Montezuma Castle

Montezuma Castle is a limestone cliff dwelling constructed between AD 1100 and 1350 by the Sinagua. First mentioned by European-Americans in the 1860’s, the monument was mistakenly named for the Aztec Emperor “Montezuma” and although not a castle in the traditional sense, it served as a multi-story complex that could offer defence from attacking enemy tribes. The castle is situated 27metres up a limestone cliff and housed between 30-50 people in 25 rooms. The overall complex is split over five levels and covers an area of almost 370 m2.

100 – Gümüşler

Gümüşler Monastery is an ancient Byzantine monastery carved out of rock in the modern-day town of Gümüşler in Turkey. Gümüşler was called Tracias during the Byzantine period and was a centre for religious learning, constructed sometime between the 8th-12th century AD. The monastery was built by carving the structure from a single tuff rock mass formation and consists of a square-shaped courtyard 15 metres deep, and with a church comprising of four freestanding closed aisles based on the Greek cross plan.

Header Image Credit : Emrahuygun – CC BY-SA 4.0

Opinion: Saraswati isn’t a mystery

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The river had abundant flow but due to tectonic and seismic upheavals, it fragmented and became waterless

By | Published: 10th Jul 2021 12:39 am 12:43 am

Early civilisations like Mohenjo-Daro and Lothal flourished on the banks of river Saraswati. In recent years, scientists have come out with comprehensive studies on geomorphological, sedimentological, geochronological, hydrological and remote sensing aspects of the River Saraswati. A majority of scientists are of the opinion that it was a large river that had abundant discharge and brought a voluminous quantity of sediments.

Moreover, a growing number of scientists and archaeologists believe that the Ghaggar does represent the Saraswati River of yore. The Ghaggar of Haryana is known as Hakra, in Cholistan, and the Nara, in Sindh (both in eastern Pakistan). The great width of the channel, coupled with fluvial (fine particles of rock fragments in a stream of water) thickness of as much as 30-50 m implies that it once carried voluminous discharge of water. That mighty river is now reduced to the Ghaggar-Hakra-Nara river, in which only floodwater flows.

The drainage of the two rivers that once constituted the two branches of the legendary Saraswati encompassed three radically different physiographic-geological provinces. One of the branches, Sutlej (earlier called Shatadru), arose in southern Tibet beyond the Himalaya, the Tons (earlier called Tamasa) emerges in the ever-snowy Himadri or Great Himalayan domain, and the third Chautang (Drishadwati) drained the southern foothill belt of the western Indo-Gangetic plains. In its middle reaches, the river traversed a large swathe of alluvial plain and then passed through the dreary landscape of sand dunes of the Thar Desert before ending in the Rann of Kutch — a delta of Hakra and once a part of the realm of the Arabian Sea.

Scientists have observed that the vast expanse of land traversed by the Saraswati and its tributaries more than once experienced tectonic convulsions and were also severely shaken by earthquakes of large magnitude, resulting in ground displacement. Some parts of it rose while others sank. This indeed happened to the Saraswati and its branches that followed a path riddled with active faults.

The tectonic upheaval, entailing fissuring, sinking and uplifting of the land through which the eastern branch of the Saraswati (Tamasa) flowed, brought a dramatic change in the drainage. As the tectonically resurgent the Aravalli Orogenic belt slowly rose up, the Saraswati and its tributaries shifted progressively westward. With the displaced block impeding its flow, the Tamasa found crushed and the weakened rock of fault zone cut and formed a new channel.

Triveni at Prayag

Flowing southwestward, the Tamasa joined the Drishadwati River, flowing to the upland of Haryana. The Drishadwati thus became a major river. Sometime later, land in the foothills to the east of Paonta Sahib Fault (Yamuna Tear) sank. This sinking forced the then south-westward flowing river to deflect southward towards the then Yamuna, which was a tributary of Chambal – a tributary of the Ganga. The Tamasa now joined the Yamuna, which became its carrier and delivered the Tamasa to the Ganga at Prayag — a confluence of Ganga and Yamuna. The Saraswati joined through its channel of the Yamuna, and it became Triveni.

The Winter Westerlies — the strongest wind in the winter blowing from west to east — continued to provide precipitation and piled up snows in the mountainous catchment of the two branches of the Saraswati. The meltwater sustained the flow of the Saraswati river in the Harappan period. The Harappans left their abode when the river lost all its water due to the capture of its eastern branch by the Yamuna and of its western branch by the Vipasa (Beas) river, depriving the Saraswati of its water discharge.

Mystery Solved

Now with the aid of remote sensing through orbiting satellites, the mystery of the river is almost solved. The Rajasthan government, since the 90s, is working to retrace the ancient network of the channels. The Rajasthan Ground Water Department (RGWD) is assisted by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC) and National Physical Laboratory, Ahmedabad.

The RGWD is investigating the site of channels while CGWB is carrying out drilling activities for water and soil samples by carbon dating. The team is of the opinion that the Saraswati entered Rajasthan in Ganganagar district and tail ends in Bikaner and Jaisalmer districts near the Rann of Kutch. Studies reveal that there are big paleochannels, 60-70 m underground, and water was moving slowly towards the sea. The presence of alluvial sediment points to the existence of freshwater flow source along palaeochannels, which are present in all the 10 districts of western Rajasthan and pertain to the Saraswati river.

In Mythology

Mythologically, the Saraswati was a highly venerated river in the times it watered the vast expanse of the land known as Saptasindhav — the land of seven rivers — Saraswati, Sutlej (Satadru), Beas (Vipasa), Chenab (Asikani), Ravi (Parushni), Jhelum (Vitasta) and Sindhu (lndus) — (Rigveda 8.24.27). The Rigveda describes Saraswati as ‘naditama’, the best of all rivers (R 2.41.16), surpassing all other rivers in splendour and benevolence — ‘mahimana mahinar’ (R 6.61.13).

It was a mighty river — ‘maho arnah’ (R 1.3.12) — abounding in water that was pure in the source of mountains to the sea — ‘shuchiryati giribhya a’ — samudrat (R 7.95.2). It was the most impetuous of all rivers — ‘apasam apastama’ (R 6.61 13) — that descended with roar ‘charati roruvat’ down the slope, its fierce current gurgling (R 6.61.7) through its canyon course and was the mother of rivers (Sindhumata).

In Skand Puran, the Saraswati is shown as originating in the snowy Himalayas and flowing down to the foothills. On its way down to the plains, the river cut through mountain ranges, after watering the Kurukshetra region, turned westward and flowed through forests such as Sitavan ‘Aditivan’ and ‘Dvaitvan’.

Further downstream, the Pandavas during their exile and later Balram, Krishna’s brother, noticed that at a place, Vinashan, the river disappeared under the mass of sands (Mahabharata Van Parv 25.1). Balram had started his journey from the place where the river met the sea ‘samudrum pashchimum gatva sarswatyabdhisangamam’ (Mahabharata Shalya Parv 35.77). This makes it clear that as per Rigveda, the Saraswati originated in the Himalayas and as per Mahabharata, it degenerated into middle reaches and went under a pile of sands in the lower reaches. In the sand desert, the Saraswati became subterranean, an underground (‘antahsalila’) river.

The Rigveda, Purans and the Mahabharata transmit across a time span of about 3,000 years remarkably accurate descriptions of the great river. Evidence shows that the river was not a mystery. It had abundant discharge and was the most venerated. But subsequently, due to tectonic and seismic upheaval, it fragmented and became waterless.

(The author is a retired IFS officer)

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Mallikas of yesteryear

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The queens of yesteryear were crowned long before the current pop-cultural references to ‘qweens’. These were vibrant and prominent personalities who were honoured with the title of ‘queen’ (or mallika) for reaching the pinnacle as a performing artist, and included personalities such as Begum Akhtar from India (known as Mallika-e-Ghazal; Queen of Ghazal) and Noor Jehan from Pakistan (known as Mallika-e-Tarannum; Queen of Melody). While these two are still more widely known, there has been little effort in documenting the social lives and histories of many other female performers, including those that belonged to traditional performance communities in music and dance.

Although there have been some attempts to archive the legacy of courtesan performers in India, these efforts have been almost negligible in Pakistan. This is partly a result of limited state patronage for the performing arts and has to do with negative social perceptions associated with female performers from this tradition, a remnant of the country’s colonial past. Moreover, the creation of an Islamic Republic demanded very specific ideas of ‘honour’ and ‘Muslim womanhood’, whereby many of these stories may have either been deliberately erased or forgotten, perhaps even by the women performers themselves. This could especially be the case for those that got married, perhaps in an effort to reintegrate back into a patriarchal society as ‘honourable’ women. However, no version of Pakistani music history can be complete without remembering the contributions of these remarkable women, many of whom were custodians of the musical heritage of the country.

Courtesans of Mughal India

Female performers have existed throughout the history of the Subcontinent, tracing back to the dancing girl of Mohenjo-Daro, thousands of years before the creation of Pakistan itself. These include the courtesans of Mughal India, which broadly refer to singers, dancers, and musicians associated with the court. The term tawaif rose to prominence during the 18th and 19th centuries of the Mughal rule and became synonymous with all courtesans. However, it is important to note that the current understanding of the term tawaif does not encompass the different categories and roles of female performers that existed in earlier times. For instance, alongside the categories of tawaifs included bais, lolee, patur, gunikers, kancanis etc. Further, there were the domnis and dhadhinis, which was in fact a distinct category of female singers. According to Mekhala Sengupta’s paper, ‘Courtesan culture in India: The transition from the Devdasi to the Tawaif or Boijee’, courtesans were “front-runners of the first professional female entertainers” proficient in singing, dancing, poetry and social etiquette under the patronage of the royal courts and kings that ruled over the Subcontinent.

The creation of an Islamic Republic demanded very specific ideas of ‘honour’ and ‘Muslim womanhood’, whereby many of these stories may have either been deliberately erased or forgotten.

While some were employed at the courts, many others were like modern-day businesswomen who ran their salons, known as kothas or havelis, where younger men from royal families were often sent for training in the art of conversation and literary discourse, as well the appreciation of music, arts and culture. The courtesans would be invited to the royal households to sing and dance at weddings and other popular occasions, and would perform for both men and women in specific segregated spaces, as per the norm. They belonged to musician households from both Muslim and Hindu faiths and were accepted by both. They sang and contributed to compositions through their repertoire of language, poetry and lived experiences, thus giving a new life to semi-classical genres such as the thumri, kajri, dadra, hori, chaiti, ghazal etc, which are some of the distinct art forms they are known for. In fact, well-known poets often depended on courtesans to sing their poetry because that was one way of memorialising their work, giving them both credibility and visibility.

Impact of colonial rule and Partition

Eventually, it was the arrival of colonial rule which led to the demise of this cultural institution. The British soon realised the considerable social influence and power many of the courtesans had over the royal elite and thus began a targeted campaign against all-female performers. Towards the end of the 19th century, the “Anti-Nautch” movement (derived from the Urdu/Hindi word nach meaning dance) took root, classifying all courtesans as prostitutes, a legacy that survives in popular culture even today. This coincided with a rise of Christian missionaries who were successful in spreading Victorian notions of morality whereby the local Indians including their manners, customs and traditions were deemed both immoral and less civilised.

The British soon realised the considerable social influence and power many of the courtesans had over the royal elite and thus began a targeted campaign against all-female performers.

After the 1947 Partition of the Subcontinent, both newly created nation states of India and Pakistan were forced to create new versions of their cultural identity – those that were separate and distinct from each other. This most significantly affected the status and conditions of female performers, including courtesans, as their stories continued to get buried under both nationalist and colonial ideas of cultural production. For instance, in India, attempts were made to sanitise the Hindu culture from Muslim female performers – one example was the renaming of bais to devis. Many were disallowed from singing for All India Radio unless they provided marriage certificates – perhaps a reason why so many artists were unrecorded.

In Pakistan, the once renowned cultural district called Heera Mandi in Lahore rapidly declined into an infamous red-light area known today for poverty and prostitution. Similarly, the term mujra has become pejorative, changing from much of its original craft and meaning across both countries. Originally referred to as a highly skilled traditional dance form combining kathak with semi-classical music during the late Mughal period, it is now popularly known as an erotic/vulgar dance form in its current form.

Even as social and public spaces were often confined to men, women performers continued to challenge traditional boundaries of the public versus private sphere, even in the days of strict segregation.

The shift from the court patronage system to modern systems of governance also meant a radically different socio-political environment for these artists. Many courtesan performers began to re-establish their profession in the newly formed film industries across Lahore, Bombay, and Calcutta. Since many of them were already skilled in singing, acting and dancing, they became best suited for roles on screen. Unfortunately, even then, the portrayal of the courtesan tradition in mainstream cinema and popular culture, including in films, continued to reinforce stereotypes of the unmarried, unhappy and immodest female with little or no agency. During former president Zia-ul-Haq’s military dictatorship, many public restrictions were further imposed on women, particularly for those in the media. For instance, women on Pakistan television had to cover their heads and could only appear in commercials to advertise domestic products such as sewing machines and detergents. These specific views on public morality continued to marginalise the female performing communities.

Pakistan’s earliest music queens

One of the earliest and most renowned classically-trained voices includes the legendary Mukhtar Begum. Mukhtar Begum was born in Amritsar in 1901 and trained in Hindustani vocal music since the age of seven, first by Mian Meherbaan Khan, who was the teacher of Ustad Aashiq Ali Khan of the Patiala gharana (school). As a vocalist, her skill and training led her to perform in some of the last of the princely states, as did her contemporaries such as Rasoolan Bai, Jaddan Bai, Jehanara Kajjan and Gauhar Jaan. Legend has it that when Mukhtar Begum sang at the court of Hyderabad, the nawab was so moved by her singing that he wanted to crown her. In fact, in one of her last interviews with Lutfullah Khan, she narrates that the nawab’s uncle complained because she was seated alongside the princesses of Hyderabad. The nawab had responded by stating that if he is considered to be the ruler of his region, then she is similarly a true heiress of her art. There would also be occasions when the nawab himself would accompany her on the tabla. She also played a prominent role in the early-stage theatre in Calcutta, and it is during that time she met her husband, the famous Urdu playwright and poet Agha Hashar Kashmiri (known as the Shakespeare of Urdu literature) who scripted many of her plays. She was known for her work in films like Matwali Meera (1947), Majnu (1935) and Indrasabha (1932). Her husband passed away in 1935, and she decided to settle in Lahore, Pakistan, after Partition.

When Mallika Phukraj was asked about her biggest joy, she graciously responded that it was to be able to do something of social value for which one is remembered in history.

Indeed, the most lasting contribution of Mukhtar Begum was the role she played in inspiring and training many younger Pakistani women actors and singers that followed in her footsteps. This list includes renowned singers like her younger sister, Farida Khanum, known for her exquisite expression and rendering of the ghazal. She also greatly encouraged the legendary Noor Jehan and her sisters to continue singing by recommending them to various film producers of the industry. In fact, she was the one to give Noor Jehan her stage name (from Allah Wasai) and it was the former’s style of performing in a sari that inspired Noor Jehan to adopt the same. She is also known to have trained Naseem Begum, who was considered to be Noor Jehan’s singing rival in playback singing in the 1960s and was also responsible for the upbringing of the Pakistani film star Rani.

Mukhtar Begum singing a thumri in Raag Bhairvi called “Ja mein to se naahin boloon”

Bestowed with the title of queen as part of her first name by a spiritual guide is the legendary Mallika Phukraj, who was also recently documented in Fawzia Afzal Khan’s Siren Song, a 2020 book on Pakistan’s women singers. Born in 1912 in Hamirpur, she belonged to a family of hereditary musicians and was employed in the courts of Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir since the age of nine. She was trained by Ustad Ali Bukhsh Qusuri, the father of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, and had strong command of the genres of thumri, ghazal, bhajan, Pahari geet and Dogri folk songs. She migrated to Lahore after Partition and started performing publicly with Radio Pakistan. In 1977, when All India Radio, for which she sang until Partition, celebrated its golden jubilee, she was invited to India and awarded with the Legend of Voice award. In a rare, recorded interview, when Mallika Phukraj was asked about her biggest joy, she graciously responded that it was to be able to do something of social value for which one is remembered in history. Her famous rendition of Hafeez Jallandhari’s ‘Abhi to main jawaan hoon’; (But I am still young) is a testament to her timeless quality. Her daughter, Tahera Syed, too, is another acclaimed singer in Pakistan.

Mallika Phukraj singing a Faiz Ahmed Faiz ghazal for a pre-recorded studio performance.

Though very little is known about her, one forgotten name that silently floats in the internet archives is Zeenat Begum. Born as Shamim Akhtar, Zeenat Begum received recognition for her debut acting and playback singing for Lahore’s first golden-jubilee film Mangti, produced in 1942. The film’s composer was Pandit Gobind Ram and Zeenat Begum had sung all the songs from the film. Pandit Gobind, recognised for popularising folk music in films, was also known for introducing the first female qawwali in Punjabi film, sung by both Zeenat Begum and Rehmat Bai. Zeenat Begum sang for other notable films, including Panchhi (1944), Shalimar (1946), Shehar se Door (1946) and Daasi (1944). The iconic Indian playback singer Mohammad Rafi made his debut with Zeenat Begum with ‘Sohniye Nee, Heeriye Nee’ for the Punjabi film Gul Baloch (1944). Unfortunately, not much is known or recorded of her life except that she moved back to Lahore from Bombay after Partition, where she continued singing for the film industry and Radio Pakistan, albeit for a short time.

Recording of an Urdu naat by Zeenat Begum and the legendary Shamshad Begum.

Many women actors of the Pakistani film industry came from female performance communities, including the yesteryear superstar Shamim Ara. Born as Putli Bai, her mother was a popular dancer in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, and had trained her daughter in acting and dancing. Shamim Ara has also been credited as the first female director of the Pakistani film industry for Jeeo aur Jeeno Do (1976).

At the same time, not all women performers were actively associated with cinema. For instance, there are the likes of classically trained forgotten voices like the late Kajjan Begum, who was hailed for her recital of nohas, soz and wedding songs and also happens to be the mother of the famous Pakistani singer, Mahnaz. Kajjan Begum (not to be confused with courtesan Jehanara Kajjan, a popular singer and actor of the earliest talkie films of Indian cinema) hailed from Lucknow, and her real name was Imam Baandi. Not many details are known about her life except that she came from a family of musicians. Her mother, Husain Baandi, was a well-known classically trained singer of the time and her father was also considered a reputable singer and soz khwan. (a reciter of an elegiac poem that commemorates the martyrdom of the Holy Prophet’s family in the Battle of Karbala). Kajjan Begum or her family may not have been directly associated with the courts but what is important to note is that many women like herself were accomplished and respected public performers, despite not always conforming to the stricter rules of gender segregation.

A rare recording of Kajjan Begum singing a ghazal by Iqbal Safi Puri, a respected poet from UP, India.

An evolving tradition

While there are countless histories of female performance in need of further documentation and research, the fact that much of the courtesan tradition catered to the male gaze perhaps raises some complex questions for many women today. There is no doubt that women have operated from conditions of institutionalised patriarchy throughout history, and the world of entertainment in itself is no exception. However, the ideals of piety, shame and honour associated with women and their bodies have never been fixed categories in themselves and have continued to evolve, often used by the state and society to suit its objectives. To reduce them to mere objects of male desire is to invalidate their power and agency, further pushing them to the margins of history.

Legend has it that when Mukhtar Begum sang at the court of Hyderabad, the nawab was so moved by her singing that he wanted to crown her.

Even as social and public spaces were often confined to men, women performers continued to challenge traditional boundaries of the public versus private sphere, even in the days of strict segregation. Perhaps what is most interesting (and ironic) is that it was this performance in public that elevated their status and craft, giving them recognition for their artistic excellence rather than anything else. In fact, their training in classical music and dance traditions was itself considered a matter of immense cultural prestige, respect, and social value. Most importantly, it was this skill and passion for the art itself that not only subverted existing social boundaries and spaces of gender interaction but continued to inspire the following generations of women performers, paving the way for many Pakistani music queens of today.