Of the world’s most impressive ancient buildings still standing today, many are located in Asia. Built using the latest architectural innovations of the time, many of these structures are on an imposing scale, even by today’s standards.
In this article, we explore three ancient sites in Asia and the civilizations who built them.
1. Sigiriya Rock Fortress – Sri Lanka
Rising out of the jungle like a specter, Sigiriya Rock Fortress is an ancient feat of engineering. Touted as the Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World by locals, Sigiriya is one of the most impressive monuments in Sri Lanka. It is also the most commonly visited tourist attraction in the island nation.
Located at the heart of the country between the towns of Habarane and Dambulla, the fortress was built around and on top of a gargantuan natural rock column. Formed by the magma of a long-extinct volcano, this rocky plateau juts 200 meters above the surrounding jungle, creating a striking sight that astonishes visitors for miles.
Lying in ruins today, the fort complex comprises remnants of a once grand palace, as well as gardens, fountains, ponds, and canals. Inhabited since the third century BC, Sigiriya was first home to Buddhist monks and ascetics who lived in caves and shelters carved into the side of the rock. King Kashyapa elected to construct a royal residence there in the fifth century AD.
Although much of the original structure has been lost to time, the rock’s northern side still bears witness to a massive carved stone lion façade—its huge feet still survive. The palace was covered in frescoes, some of which also survive, depicting women believed to have been King Kashyapa’s wives and concubines. Other features at the site include the mirror wall, which was once covered in polished white plaster so that the king could see his reflection. The plaster wore away, however, and the wall now is covered with inscriptions and poetic verses carved by visitors, most dating back to the 8th through tenth centuries.
2. Temples of Angkor – Cambodia
Attracting around 2 million visitors annually, the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor encompasses more than 1,000 temples of various sizes across a 248-square-mile area in Siem Reap Province. The ruins of the ancient city represent one of the most important archaeological sites in the world.
Angkor Wat, the main temple, was constructed under the direction of King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as the state temple. It is celebrated as Cambodia’s heart and soul, features on the country’s flag, and was voted the world’s number 1 tourist site by Lonely Planet.
The largest religious structure in the world, the temple is a sprawling, multi-level building made of sandstone blocks and laterite and consisting of several galleries and terraces. Five lotus bud-shaped towers rise from the top; they symbolize Mount Meru, the sacred five-peak mountain from Buddhist and Hindu lore believed to be the center of the world. Extensive bas-relief decorations depict gods and figures from ancient epics, including the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire for several centuries and may have been home to as many as 750,000 to 1 million people. Archaeologists have also concluded that the city at its peak was the largest in land area in the pre-industrial world—it rivaled modern-day Paris in size. The Khmer Empire dominated Southeast Asia for six centuries and is the precursor state to modern Cambodia.
3. Shwedagon Pagoda – Myanmar
Shwedagon Pagoda is Myanmar’s most important Buddhist pilgrimage site, towering over the country’s largest city, Yangon. Many people visit Myanmar just to see the spectacle of the pagoda’s golden dome rising above the city skyline, gilded in pure gold and crowned by a 76-carat diamond.
Day and night, Shwedagon Pagoda buzzes with the prayers and chants of Buddhist monks and worshippers. The site is also home to four important Buddhist relics, including the eight hairs of Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. According to legend, the Buddha gave the hairs to two merchant brothers from Yangon, telling them to enshrine them on a spot on the hillside where relics of three previous reincarnations of the Buddha were buried.
The precise age of Shwedagon Pagoda is disputed, although some historians believe it may date back to the time of the Buddha himself, making it 2,500 years old. Known as the Golden Pagoda, the pagoda has a mystical atmosphere after dark and is illuminated by spotlights. Each corner of the pagoda is decorated with a Buddhist image, accompanied by a planet and animal sign, in accordance with Eastern astrology. Here, devotees burn candles and offer flowers. Shwedagon Pagoda has four entrances, each guarded by an enormous chinthe, a mythic lion with a golden head and white body. The upper interior walls are decorated with intricate depictions of the Jataka tales, telling stories from Buddha’s previous lives.
At the center of Shwedagon Pagoda is the main stupa, a half-spherical structure containing the enshrined Buddhist relics. Large numbers of devotees travel vast distances to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda each day. They walk around the stupa in a processional ritual and make offerings to the Buddha.