Having endured vicissitudes and upheavals, many ancient structures have evolved to become fascinating bastions of history and remain living icons that play an important role in the 21st century.
Words: Efi Eqbal Image: Corbis, Getty Images & Inmagine
Deep in the South-eastern mountainous terrain of Fujian lies an amazing Hakka settlement called tulou houses. Tulou, loosely translates as ‘earth buildings’, and are homes built by the Hakka people about 2,000 years ago. Made of ‘rammed earth’ (compacted dirt, bamboo and glutinous rice), they are amazingly sturdy.
The houses are round in shape and from above look like doughnuts. There are over 20,000 tulou homes spread throughout the deep mountains of Fujian. The architectural concept is based on buildings that are ‘closed to the outside but open to the inside’; the design helps keep out the cold and contain heat as and when required.
Till today, the people who dwell here consist mainly of family members of the original builders. The egalitarian ethos of this community mandates that everyone has a similar space. In other words, this is a community of equals. The visual appeal of these round houses is undeniable, and the tulou houses were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. www.amazingfujiantulou.com
Although the exact date as to when this dam was built is unclear, experts agree that based on its structure, it was possibly created in the first or second century, making it the handiwork of the Romans. The Proserpina Dam is what’s known as a ‘gravity dam’, which uses kinetic energy based on gravity to do the required work – basically supplying water to the then city of Emerita Augusta.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the aqueduct leading to the city fell into decay, but the dam’s retaining wall was still in use. In 1912, the Spanish government declared Proserpina Dam a Bien de Interés Cultural, offering the historic site protection under the Spanish heritage register, and in 1993, it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the Archaeological Ensemble of Mérida. Restoration works were conducted and today it continues to supply water to the people of Badajov province in Extremadura. www.romanaqueducts.info
MOSQUE OF UQBA
The Mosque of Uqba is said to have been built by Uqba ibn Nafi, who was on his way to conquer Northern Africa when he stumbled upon a goblet buried in the desert sand. He recognised it as the missing goblet once belonging to Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H) that was lost in Mecca. Upon picking up the goblet, a spring miraculously appeared. Legend has it that the spring water originates from a sacred well in Mecca. Uqba ibn Nafi built the town around this spring and constructed a mosque within the township in 670. Also known as The Great of Kairouan, this mosque sprawls over 900 square metres of Kairouan land, and is reputed to be one of the oldest living places of worship in the Islamic world.
The mosque was once an influential place of learning for Islamic scholars. At its height, it was compared to the University of Paris, but sometime in the 11th century, its reputation waned and the centre of intellectual thought shifted to the University of Ez-Zitouna in Tunis. Nonetheless, the Mosque of Uqba continues to serve the Muslim community as a place of worship today. www.islamiclandmarks.com
BASILICA OF CONSTANTINE
An awe-inspiring monument, the Basilica of Constantine, locally known as the Aula Palatina, was constructed in ancient Rome during the rule of Emperor Constantine the Great in 306 AD. Trier was then the capital of the Western Roman Empire and home to Constantine. The basilica was not used as a place of worship at first, but for the emperor to hold court. However, it was later attacked by invaders in the 12th century, and only in the 17th century was this basilica converted to house the Archbishop of Trier. Later, it also functioned as an army barracks. Today, its function as a place of worship has been reinstated; it is used as a Protestant church by the Evangelical congregation in the Rhineland. www.sacred-destinations.com
TOWER OF HERCULES
Galicia, North-Western Spain
The Farum Brigantium tower is a lighthouse that was built almost 1,900 years ago, and remains a functioning lighthouse near A Coruna in Galicia. Due to its capacity to withstand the powerful ravages of time and tide, this resilient tower has also been dubbed the Tower of Hercules!
The lighthouse is believed to have been initially built or possibly rebuilt by the Romans for tactical use in their quest to conquer and trade, but was neglected in the Middle Ages. It wasn’t until the 15th century that the 55-metre tall Tower of Hercules became a point of great interest when La Coruna turned into an important trading port.
The lighthouse underwent reconstruction to fortify its external foundations in the 18th century – at which point, it was noted that the foundations of this tower were as sturdy as steel! This neoclassical building was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009 due to its historical impact and importance to trade in Spain. www.tourspain.org
An example of one place of worship changing hands, yet retaining its beauty is the famed Hagia Sophia, which means ‘holy wisdom’. This domed building was originally built in the sixth century as a Christian place of worship in Constantinople (Istanbul’s name back then). In 1453, it was converted into a mosque, and now the government of Turkey has transformed it into a museum. To understand the magnificence of this building, one needs to delve into the two religions juxtaposed on top of each other. The Byzantine culture is reflected in the shape of the building itself, which resembles a mosque with its domed main building in the centre, surrounded by four minarets in each corner. The entrance all the way to the altar, as well as the ceremonial objects decorated with gold, silver and precious stones reflect a design very much in keeping with both Christian and Muslim places of worship. It was documented that even the doors were covered with precious metals, but all these were lost to looters. Hanging from the walls are two huge leather medallions, each about 7.5 metres in diameters, inscribed with the word ‘Allah’ and the names of prominent figures in Islam – a reminder that the Ottoman era passed through here, making it once a place of worship for Muslims, as well. Despite the differences, there is an essence of togetherness that is reflected in the architecture of the Hagia Sophia. www.hagiasophia.com
Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, India
The majestic Brihadeeswarar Temple is a monument that inspires superlatives. The temple entrance is bound by a large wall with a dry moat, and the walls are covered with bas relief carvings depicting the Girija Kalyana scene, which is Lord Shiva’s marriage to Parvati, based on the texts of Skanda Purana – the largest Mahapurana (a genre of 18 religious Hindu texts).
It was built in 1010 by Emperor Raja Raja Chola I of the Chola Empire, and inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of an award to the Great Living Chola Temples of Southern India in 1987. The construct of this temple alone is sure to awe any visitor considering the time it was built – when machinery wasn’t readily at hand.
Standing 16 storeys high with intricate Dravidian carvings of almost perfect symmetry, this living temple continues to attract devotees and tourists alike. Also known as the Big Temple of Tanjore (the old name of Thanjavur), the temple complex covers an area of 22 hectares. The kalasha (round structure on top of the central tower) weighs over 80 tonnes and is made of granite quarried some 60kms away. Till now, historians aren’t able to figure out exactly how the piece of rock was brought from such a distance or how it was hoisted up. A statue of Nandi (sacred bull) measuring 16 feet long and 13 feet high carved from a single granite piece sits at the entrance of the temple. www.brihadeeswarartemple.com
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Chennai, India from various destinations. www.airasia.com
Locally known as Pons Fabricius, this stone bridge was built in 62 BC and is the oldest in Rome. It connects Campus Martius to Tiber Island over the Tiber River and continues to serve the thousands who cross the Tiber River.
The architecture of the bridge is simple in its ingenuity; it stands on two very well-known hermai, stone pillars that mark boundaries with a carving of a god’s or goddess’ face. Passers-by touch these carvings for good luck, symbolising a transition in a spot where the past meets the future.
The bridge has also been known as Ponte Quattro Capi or ‘The Four Heads bridge’. Theories that have emerged to explain this moniker point to the two statues of the four-headed Roman god, Janus, as well as a legend that tells of how Pope Sixtus V ordered the execution of the four very unprofessional architects charged with the restoration of the bridge, and commissioned their busts to be placed on the parapets. www.romasegreta. it/tevere/ponte-fabricio.html
While no expert, archaeologist, geologist or historian has been able to determine why these 50-tonne stones were dragged from South Wales some 5,000 years ago and placed at this specific site, educated calculations about how it came to be, abound. One concludes that it would have taken about 600 people to move each stone an inch at a time, possibly between 2500 BC and 2000 BC.
This collection of artistically-arranged and stacked stones form a ring of rocks topped by lintels, with more rocks in an inner horseshoe design and a ditch in the outer circle. This has prompted experts to make yet another educated guess – that Stonehenge served dual purposes: Astronomical and religious.
The mystery behind Stonehenge keeps it popular with tourists and it continues to be a place of religious significance for Neopagan and New Age believers, especially today’s Neo-druids. www.stonehenge.co.uk
Also known as the Palace of Winds, the Hawa Mahal is said to have been built to reflect the crown of Lord Krishna, as the central entrance depicts. This is presumably due to the fact that it was erected by a true devotee of Lord Krishna, the Kachhwaha Rajput ruler, Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh in 1799.
This reddish-pink sandstone building was originally constructed to cloister the royal ladies of Rajput from the prying eyes of the public. Through its intricate lattice work, the ladies, who were not allowed in public, could watch pedestrians in the vicinity, and keep abreast of daily happenings without being seen themselves.
The building exemplifies Mughal architecture, and is like a beehive castle with little windows all around it. One has to admire its ingenious design; anywhere you stand in this building, you’ll feel cool air passing through – a thrill that reflects its moniker, Palace of the Winds. Climb to the top the highest point of this five-storey palace and you may have to contend with strong gusts on an extremely windy day.
This elaborate structure is now a museum, attracting thousands of tourists from all over the world yearly. www.rajasthantourism.gov.in
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Angkor Wat was built in the early 12th century and is considered the largest religious monument in the world that is still in use today. The temple was first built to honour the Hindu god, Vishnu (and not Shiva, as was the practice of previous kings), with a mausoleum built within its sprawling wings for King Suryavarman. In the late 13th century, the spiritual focus of Angkor Wat shifted towards the practice of Theravada Buddhism, which it embraces till today.
This temple exemplifies the high classical style of Khmer architecture, with its 65-metre tall tower in the centre of the complex, surrounded by four smaller towers and a series of enclosures – an earthly recreation of Mount Meru, the abode of the Hindu gods.
Today, it still hosts important religious functions based on a synchronistic theology of both Hinduism and Buddhism. Its deep history and importance in human theological evolution has made it not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but also the seventh Wonder of the World! www.tourismcambodia.com
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Siem Reap from Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. www.airasia.com
BUILT TO LAST
Some super structures have been built to endure, and though their functions may have changed over the years, they remain remarkable manmade masterpieces.
SANTA SABINA CHURCH (ROME, ITALY)
This functioning Catholic church stands unchanged, just as it did when it was first built in 422 AD.
THE PANTHEON (ROME, ITALY)
Erected as a temple by the Roman emperor Hadrian in 117 AD, it has been in continuous use throughout history and is one of Rome’s best-preserved ancient buildings. It is now a museum and a Roman Catholic church.
THEATRE OF MARCELLUS (ROME, ITALY)
Built in 13 BC, it was once Rome’s largest open-air theatre. Throughout its history, it has undergone several modifications and today, the superbly-preserved upper portion is leased out as apartments.
CARAVAN BRIDGE (OVER THE RIVER MELES IN IZMIR, TURKEY)
Over 2,860 years old, this bridge qualifies as the oldest functioning bridge in the world.
NANCHAN TEMPLE (SHANXI PROVINCE, CHINA)
Built in 782 AD, this Buddhist temple near the town of Doucun on the mountain of Wutaishan houses the famous Great Buddha Hall and is China’s oldest preserved timber building in existence.
ACOMA PUEBLO OR THE ‘SKY CITY’ (ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO, USA)
Believed to have been in existence for more than 2,000 years, Acoma Pueblo remains home to hundreds of Native Americans of the Acoma tribe.
EIFFEL TOWER (PARIS, FRANCE)
Built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, Eiffel Tower is now an icon of all things Parisian and romantic. It attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists annually and has been used as a background for many Hollywood and Bollywood productions.
BIG BEN (WESTMINSTER, LONDON, ENGLAND)
Built in 1888, the Big Ben clock tower (now called the Elizabeth Tower) is an iconic structure that’s part of the Palace of Westminster. While the tower has been slowly tilting over the last few decades, possibly due to ground conditions, the clock still keeps perfect time.
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