The Bronze Age settlement of Akrotiri, once the largest Minoan city outside Crete, suffered a Pompeii-like end when it was buried in ash following the explosion of the volcanic island of Thera (modern-day Santorini) around 1500 BC. This eruption was one of the most devastating in recorded history and is thought to have inspired Plato’s legend of Atlantis, which told of an island that vanished without a trace. Nevertheless, the ash preserved much of Akrotiri in a near-perfect condition, and today you’ll find three-story houses replete with pottery and furniture as well as a remarkable array of frescoes. Most of these artifacts are now in Athens, though excellent replicas are displayed at the Thíra Foundation in the island’s capital, Firá.
Ancient Kourion, perched on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean, emerged as a significant Mycenaean settlement around 1200 BC. The city remained a flourishing center until the Middle Ages when a massive earthquake destroyed many of its buildings and drove away its inhabitants. Despite this catastrophe, a remarkable array of Hellenistic, Roman, and early-Christian monuments still stand here. There’s a stunning theater, which is still in use, beautiful floor mosaics, a basilica, public baths, and an enormous amphitheater, which boasts fantastic views. Nearby is a shrine to the Hellenistic deity Apollo dating from the 7th century BC.
Timgad was established in AD 100 by the Roman Emperor Trajan, and for six centuries, was one of North Africa’s most prosperous Roman settlements. But in 430, it was sacked by the Vandals – the same group that went on to plunder Rome in 455 – and the town was abandoned and gradually swallowed up by the encroaching Sahara. Now dug out of the sand and restored, Timgad presents the haunting sight of a Roman city miraculously preserved in the middle of nowhere. Companies include:
- A 39-ft (12-m) high Trajan’s Arch.
- A 3,500-seat theater.
- A prominent Christian basilica.
- A fine on-site museum.
Palmyra, also known by its Arabic name of Tadmor, is one of the oldest cities in the Middle East. It is thought to date back to Babylonian times, but most of the surviving buildings date from the 1st to 3rd centuries, when the city was incorporated into the Roman Empire. Palmyra served as an essential meeting point between the Persian Empire to the east and the Greco-Roman world to the west. Its fabled oasis, a symbol of fertility in a barren landscape, has inspired the nickname “the Bride of the Desert” and made Palmyra a popular stop on the caravan route between Persia and the Mediterranean on the old trans-Asian Silk Road. The city’s heyday lasted until 273, when Queen Zenobia, who claimed to be a descendant of Cleopatra and was famed for her beauty, learning, and courage, led a rebellion against the Romans. The city’s fortunes gradually declined following this rebellion until, by the 6th century, it was nothing more than a fortified outpost at the edge of the Roman Empire.
In a beautifully windswept location on the west coast of Orkney lies Skara Brae, Europe’s most complete Neolithic village. The site comprises a group of ten dwellings occupied from 3100 to 2500 BC and remained undiscovered until 1850 when a violent storm tore away the mound of grass and soil that had grown over them. Originally sunk into the ground and covered with turf, the houses remain excellently preserved and even retain some of their original “furniture” – beds, shelves, boxes, and seats made out of stone slabs. In addition, the village had its elaborate drainage system, complete with primitive stone toilets in every dwelling, still being seen today.
Getting There Fly from the Scottish mainland to Kirkwall or catch a ferry to Stromness. The site is only a short trip from either town by car, taxi, or bicycle. When to Go May or September. The weather is likely to be just as good as in the summer, but with far fewer visitors around.