With travel tours bringing the remnants of ancient cultures to life, archaeology is no longer just the preserve of historians, says Ben Lerwill
The ruins and remains of past civilizations have always held an attraction for travelers and adventurers. It’s said that Alexander the Great was bowled over when he set eyes on the Great Pyramids of Giza — by which time they were already 2,000 years old. And today, with easy access to historical attractions across the globe, the idea of seeing world-renowned sites up close is as straightforward as it is seductive.
There’s no shortage of blockbuster monuments to choose from. From Machu Picchu and Stonehenge to the Roman Colosseum and Angkor Wat, the travel industry is rife with images of iconic ancient constructions. It means archaeological tourism — which may not sound dynamic — is actually something proven to hold appeal for nearly all kinds of travelers, young or old, budget or big-spending. Who doesn’t want their photo taken on the Great Wall of China?
For most tourists, visiting these kinds of attractions forms one component of a wider cultural vacation. In some cases, such as with the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, it’s even something that can be bolted onto a beach break. For those clients with an interest in archaeology, however, there are dedicated, serious options, which tend to attract a specific type of traveler.
“A growing number of our guests have no or little prior engagement with archaeology, but are eager to change that,” says Dr Michael Metcalfe of specialist tour operator Peter Sommer Travel. “Our typical client is of middle age or older, in an advanced professional occupation or retired, often quite highly educated and usually well read. Most of our clients travel as couples. The vast majority are strongly interested not just in topics such as history, archaeology, art or culture, but also in gastronomy and wine.”
The nature of the attractions themselves means they tend to have a timeless appeal, although the current prominence and promotion of ‘bucket-list’ travel means interest in the key must-see attractions is showing a general rise. Two glaring examples — both of which can be attributed to huge increases in industry marketing and public awareness — are Machu Picchu, which has seen visitor numbers increase from around 200,000 a year in 1994 to nearly 1.2 million in 2013, and Angkor Wat, which last year reported a 20% year-on-year boost to more than two million visitors.
NORTH & CENTRAL AMERICA
We suggest: Chichen Itza
Why: When a global poll was launched to compile the ‘New7Wonders’ — a modern take on the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World — it offered voters a shortlist of 200 monuments and attractions. Chichen Itza’s presence on the eventual roll-call of winners says much about the magnificence of Mexico’s most famous pre-Columbian city. Located on the Yucatan Peninsula, the site is easily accessible from the resorts of Cancun, and awe-inspiring enough to impress travelers more commonly concerned with cocktails than culture. The city was for centuries a hugely important center for the Maya civilization, and the ruins on show today include temples, arcades, observatories and ‘step pyramids’, the best known of which is the mighty, millennium-old El Castillo. Various day trips operate from Cancun, ranging from small-group specialist excursions to larger outings incorporating buffet lunches and folk dancing — many tours also stop en route at one of the region’s cenotes (large, natural well-pools), where snorkeling or swimming are permitted. The November though to March period is popular, thanks to its dry and pleasant climate.
Where else: The superbly preserved cliff dwellings of Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park were inhabited for hundreds of years by the Anasazi people.
We suggest: Mainland Greece
Why: The Acropolis looms both literally and figuratively over Greek cultural tourism, but while there’s no denying the immense importance of the Parthenon and its fellow age-old Athens icons, mainland Greece holds all sorts of other archaeological treats. Sitting a three-hour drive from the capital, for example, Delphi was once considered the center of the world and its pillared ruins still enjoy a momentous setting in the foothills of Mount Parnassus. Further north there’s an even greater spectacle in the form of the monasteries of Meteora, around 500 years old and perched on rock pinnacles, while the nearby Dodona sits in a mountain-ringed valley and showcases the ruins of the ancient Oracle of Zeus. And back down in the Athens area, a short trip to the Peloponnese will bring you to the citadel of Mycenae and the ancient Theater of Epidaurus. For any serious archaeology buffs Greece holds true world-class appeal, and the country’s enviable climate makes it a sunnily attractive option from April to September.
Where else: Italy lays on ruins with the same ease it serves up chilled pinot grigio, but it’s the great lost city of Pompeii that surely takes top billing.
We suggest: Machu Picchu
Why: There are certain sights in world travel which, while full of history, can prove slightly anticlimactic when seen in person. Machu Picchu isn’t one of them. The mountain-top Inca citadel, rediscovered by Hawaiian-born academic Hiram Bingham in 1911, is utterly spectacular, and not just thanks to its Andean setting. The remains themselves include a whole swathe of shrines and temples perched above precisely carved ritual stones and steep-sided agricultural terraces. And while the city dates back only to the 15th century, the limited records that exist from the period mean Machu Picchu remains an enigma — it’s said the Incas, for all their wisdom, lacked three essentials: the wheel, the arch and, crucially, the written word. Many travelers still hike to the site, most famously along the four-day Inca Trail, but it’s very straightforward to visit by bus from the nearby tourist town of Machu Picchu Pueblo (formerly known as Aguas Calientes). The best time to come is between April and October, and you’ll find fewer crowds at the start and end of each day.
Where else: In Colombia, the UNESCO-listed National Archaeological Park of Tierradentro comprises some breathtaking underground tombs, constructed from AD600 to 900.
We suggest: Tunisia
Why: Its formative role in the Arab Spring brought Tunisia to the world’s attention, and the compact North African nation has also become a notable vacation spot, with Europeans in particular attracted to its coastal resorts. Away from its modern-day magnetism, however, its long history means it also has some extraordinary ruins — the Phoenicians, Romans and Ottomans all once occupied the region. Highlights include the remains of the city of Carthage, from where Hannibal made his reputation as one of history’s greatest commanders, and the remarkable Colosseum of El Jem, a UNESCO-listed wonder drawing a fraction of the visitor numbers of its Italian equivalent. In its glory days it held 30,000. Elsewhere in the country, the atmospheric holy city of Kairouan is home to the Aghlabid Basins, a (now unused) water distribution system dating back 1,200 years. The beauty of Tunisia’s size is that its various highlights can be combined without much difficulty, and the Mediterranean climate makes spring and fall the most attractive times for cultural tourism.
Where else: Egypt’s Nile Valley is one of the planet’s great archaeological focal points, with a mind-boggling array of temples, pyramids and other ruins.
We suggest: Angkor temples
Why: Spread over a colossal tract of Cambodian jungle, the ruins of the Angkor temple complex represent what remains of the world’s largest preindustrial metropolis. The city was the hub of the powerful Khmer Empire from the ninth to the 15th century, and its importance as a cultural, social and religious center was huge. Today its highlights range from the showpiece splendor of Angkor Wat, whose lotus-bud towers have become one of the iconic images of travel in Southeast Asia, to the root-covered remains of Ta Prohm, used as a location in the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movie. The Angkor complex has become a mass-tourism magnet, but this means it can be enjoyed in different ways (and ideally over several days). Take a private guided excursion, join a cycling tour or enjoy a Champagne breakfast overlooking the ruins. November-March is peak season, while June-October has lush scenery and fewer crowds.
Where else: The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, was buried along with around 8,000 life-size terracotta warriors near the city of Xi’an. Much of this breathtaking Terracotta Army is on display.
PUBLISHED IN THE FALL 2014 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork