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Stunning Ruins Around the World

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    Fantastic Finds From the Past Never Lose Their Power to Fascinate

    En español | Writer Marilyn Johnson says archaeologists succumb to “the seductive lure of human rubble,” but isn’t that the appeal for us regular folks, too? Here’s your chance to decide for yourself: See if these 10 “piles from the past” don’t hold you rapt, whether you visit them in person or through this screen.

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    Machu Picchu, Peru

    Nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, this “spectacular jewel of a city, carved out of a mountain and brushed by clouds” can be reached only by a harrowing but scenic ascent, says Johnson in Lives in Ruins. Some 200 ceremonial, astronomical and agricultural buildings — with more still to be uncovered — dot the 15th-century site, which is divided into terraced farming and residential areas, with a swath of green space between. Precisely what role Machu Picchuplayed in Inca society is uncertain. But as Johnson reminds us, “You don’t have to know a thing [about the Incas] to have your breath taken away.”

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    Borobudur, Indonesia

    Is it possible to work out your legs while learning the steps to enlightenment? It is at the world’s largest Buddhist temple, built in central Java during the 8th and 9th centuries. To get a feel for Borobudur’s size, first walk around the pyramidal base (you’ll pass 504 statues of the Buddha along the way). Then begin your ascent, pausing to examine the ornate friezes rich in Buddhist imagery. At the summit — Nirvana, if you will — more Buddha figures meditate in bliss. Two smaller temples complete the compound, which is laid out in the shape of a lotus — the sacred flower of the faith.

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    Tulum, Mexico

    This remnant of Mayan civilization on the Yucatan Peninsula — a thriving trading post from 1200 to 1450 — overlooks a white-sand beach and the turquoise Caribbean beyond. Three main structures beckon visitors: El Castillo, the Temple of the Frescoes and the Temple of the Descending God (whose upside-down figure can be spotted around Tulum). Yucatan is famous for its cenotes, or natural sinkholes, which the Mayans viewed as portals to the underworld. No such peril for travelers today: Those who dive or hike the caves will encounter only pristine waters and exhilarating formations.

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    Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia

    Angkor Wat and its soaring cone-shaped turrets tend to hog all the attention, but don’t overlook this 154-square-mile complex, which anchored the Khmer Empire from the 800s to the 1400s. Soak up the eerie, mystical vibe that permeates the abandoned temple of Ta Prohm, where snaking fingers of fig, banyan and kapok-tree roots seem intent on reducing the works of man to broken stones. Equally exquisite are the lavishly detailed entry gates to Angkor Thom, the kingdom’s final capital.

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    Abu Simbel, Egypt

    When construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1968 threatened to flood Abu Simbel’s two rock temples — built under Ramses II in the 13th century B.C. — UNESCO led a worldwide effort to relocate them. Both temples — the larger one dedicated to Ramses and fronted by four colossal statues, the smaller one devoted to his favored wife, Nefertari — were cut into 20- to 30-ton blocks and painstakingly reassembled on an artificial hill 200 feet above Lake Nasser. It was crucial to preserve the larger temple’s original orientation: Twice each year, the rising sun shines the length of the interior to illuminate four gods seated at the end.

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    Petra, Jordan

    Neither earthquakes nor tourism has dimmed the beauty of this prehistoric trading center, half shaped out of soaring sandstone cliffs and half carved into them. First occupied by the Nabataeans in the 4th century B.C., Petra later hosted Romans and even Crusaders. After entering the city through the Siq — a gorge hemmed in by towering bluffs — you come face to face with the Treasury, one of hundreds of tombs blanketed by intricate etchings. Obelisks, temples and a 3,000-seat amphitheater also invite exploration, topped by an 800-step climb to the monastery for a sweeping view of the Araba Valley.

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    Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

    It’s 1888, and two cowboys stand on the edge of a Colorado canyon, awestruck by the “magnificent city” perched beneath an overhang on the opposite side. Today’s visitors clamber up ladders on ranger-led tours of Cliff Palace, which contains a labyrinth of rooms and belowground chambers. They can also inspect a few of the more than 500 Ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings that have been preserved here; all were built around 800 years ago by seemingly superhuman effort. Tumbling rocks have made the famous Spruce Tree House temporarily inaccessible, but numerous short hikes let you reach other sites, overlooks and petroglyphs.

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    Cappadocia, Turkey

    Hoodoos — tall, conical spires formed by volcanic activity — speckle the pink-tinged peaks and valleys of this wonderland in central Turkey, which you can drift over in a hot-air balloon. Back on terra firma, scramble through one of these hollowed-out stacks (nicknamed “fairy chimneys”), then walk in the footsteps of early Christians who escaped persecution only by excavating — and occupying —multilayered underground cities here. A maze of narrow passageways reveals the things they left behind, including chapels still graced by Byzantine frescoes. (You can even spend the night in a cave.)

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    Longmen Grottoes, China

    This staggering collection of carvings devoted to Buddhism constitutes an “outstanding manifestation of human artistic creativity,” in the words of UNESCO. More than 2,300 caves and niches sculpted out of limestone crags shelter nearly 110,000 stone statues and more than 60 stupas (markers holding sacred relics). Despite dating from 316 to 907, these religious treasures are miraculously well preserved. The Royal Cave Temple — closed to the public in 1953 to protect its artifacts, then pillaged during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s — reopened in March 2016.

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    Pompeii and Herculaneum, Italy

    A fiery stew of ash, lava and mud killed at least 2,000 citizens of these two towns when nearby Mount Vesuvius blew its top in 79 AD. Both locales offer peeks into perfectly preserved villas, shops and bathhouses, allowing modern visitors to walk these ancient streets and absorb the rhythms of daily life from two millennia ago. Herculaneum, smaller and less visited, features a grim yet riveting tableau: 300 fabricated skeletons, frozen at the moment they perished. (The volcanic ash mummified hundreds of bodies, right down to their very clothing and facial expressions.)

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