Caption: The Library of Celsus, one of the most beautiful structures in the ancient city of Ephesus, Turkey.
From long lazy days on the beach to late lunches and afternoon siestas, the Mediterranean has plenty to tempt travellers. With its principal countries including Italy, Spain and Greece, it conjures up images of fresh bread and olives on the patio, swimming in sparkling blue waters and wandering the streets of characterful local villages.
However, there’s more to the region than sun, sea and good food (although that may already be enough to have you hopping on the next ship). As the birthplace of Western civilisation and home to cities such as Athens and Rome, the Mediterranean has a fascinating history and has witnessed everything from natural disasters to clashes between ancient empires.
If you want to experience this history first-hand, a Mediterranean cruise can take you on a journey through the region’s past. From the haunted streets of Pompeii to Athens’ Acropolis, here are five ancient ruins not to be missed.
Caption: The ancient columns of Athens’ Parthenon temple, one of the Acropolis’ most famous sights. This photo was taken by Imagine Cruising’s Becca Dunn.
Closest port: Athens (Piraeus).
If you visit Athens, you’ll be greeted by a sight that has welcomed travellers for thousands of years – the Acropolis towering over the city. In Greek, the term ‘acropolis’ literally means ‘the highest point in the town’, and the rocky outcrop was first fortified by Mycenaean Kings (the first advanced civilisation of mainland Greece), who built towering walls, temples and palaces there.
Since then, the Acropolis has had a turbulent history. In 480 BC, many of its structures were destroyed by the rampaging Persians. After this assault, the architect and sculptor Phidias created much of what you can see today, including the famous Parthenon temple, which contained a much fabled colossal statue of the goddess Athena.
Today, the Acropolis is the most visited of Athens’ ruins. If you make your way up the hill from the Plaka and Monastiraki, you’ll find the entrance, which was built around 432 BC by a colleague of Phidias. From here you can explore artefacts, including a small temple to Athena, before heading over to the Parthenon and other famous structures. These include two theatres, Herod Atticus and the Theatre of Dionysus, and the Erechtheion temple, the location of the ‘Sacred Tokens’, believed to be the marks made by Poseidon’s trident.
The south porch of the Erechtheion is also famously supported by six female statues known as the Caryatids, who, it’s theorised, stand over the tomb of the legendary King Kekrops. It’s worth bearing in mind that these statues are replicas – five of the originals can be seen at the Acropolis Museum and the sixth at the British Museum.
*There’s free entry to the Acropolis on Sundays from November – March
Caption: The ancient Roman city of Pompeii in the ominous shadow of Mount Vesuvius.
Closest port: Naples
On the morning of 24th August AD 79, Italy’s Mount Vesuvius erupted, catching the population of nearby Roman towns, including Pompeii and Herculaneum, completely unawares. As ash from the mountain rained down, thousands of people headed indoors for shelter, believing that they would be able to weather the disaster and emerge when it had passed.
Sadly, they didn’t know what we know now: that the force of the eruption had caused a pyroclastic collapse (a fast-moving current of hot gas and rock) that, when it hit, would instantly kill anyone in its path.
The terrible disaster buried Pompeii in ash, seemingly wiping the city off the face of the Earth. However, when the site was finally excavated in AD 1748, the world was astonished to discover a near-perfectly preserved ancient Roman city, with even the frescos on the walls of the townhouses surviving.
If you wander the streets of Pompeii, you’ll be transported back in time, to the days before this bustling city met its tragic end. The most haunting aspect of any visit are the body casts of the victims, which were preserved in the ash that shrouded them.
Most tours will also take you to Herculaneum, which is just a half-hour journey away, and equally well preserved.
Caption: These 10th century baths in Palma, Mallorca, are a tantalising glimpse of life in the ancient Arab city of Medina Mayurqa (the Moorish name for the city of Palma).
The Arab Baths
Closest port: Palma
The popular holiday resort of Palma, on the Spanish island of Mallorca, has a hidden Islamic past. Following the conquest of Andalusia by the Moors in AD 711, Spain was under Muslim rule for around 781 years – and for those who look for it, subtle reminders of this legacy can be found throughout Palma, from its Moorish gardens to the Arab Quarter.
Some of the most fascinating relics of the city’s history are the 10th century AD Arabic Baths, which can be found in the Medieval Quarter. The baths were likely part of a nobleman’s house and are reached via a walled garden – a little oasis in the middle of the frenetic city – which leads you into a domed space, supported by 12 columns.
It was here that people would gather to wash and discuss the issues of the day, before cooling off in the garden after a hot bath. It’s worth noting that each supporting column is different – a fact that has led to the belief that they were likely salvaged from the ruins of Roman buildings.
Caption: The sprawling ruins of the Roman Forum, once the political and social centre of the Roman Empire.
The Roman Forum and Palatine Hill
Closest port: Civitavecchia
One of the most popular things to see in Rome, the Forum is a sprawling area of complex ruins, located along the Via dei Fori Imperiali, in between the Colosseum and Piazza Venezia. However, travel back a few thousand years, and this was the social and political centre of the Roman Empire and jam-packed with temples, squares and public buildings.
The oldest ruins here date back to fifth century BC and the first Kings of Rome. Following the defeat of Anthony and Cleopatra in AD 410, Emperor Augustus set about building a capital worthy of the Roman Empire. He’s responsible for many of the buildings in the Roman Forum, including the Temples of Saturn, Concord, Castor and Pollux, Divine Julius, the Basilicas of Julia and Aemilia, the Curia and Rostra. Indeed, he modestly boasted that he had, “found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble.”
As with nearly all centres of Empires, the Roman Forum underwent numerous attacks. Notably, in AD 1410, Rome was sacked by Alaric the Visigoth, and you can still see green stains on the floor of the Basilica Aemilia, where bronze coins melted in the fires.
If you have time during your excursion to Rome, you can also take the very short walk to Palatine Hill (the ticket for the Roman Forum also includes Palatine Hill and the Colosseum). It was here, legend has it, that Romulus founded the city after he’d killed his twin Remus, and where many of the Roman emperors lived in unabashed luxury.
Caption: Built in the first century AD, Ephesus’ Grand Theatre is one of the city’s most impressive monuments. It hosted theatrical plays, musical performances and political and religious events.
Closest port: Kusadasi, Turkey
It’s hard not to be blown away by Ephesus – a city that was ruled by the Greek, Persian, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Located on Turkey’s Western coast, the ruins are one of the most complete classical metropolises on the planet, offering an incredible insight into this ancient world.
Thanks to its changing allegiances and position on the coast, which resulted in a constant influx of traders and sailors, Ephesus was a melting pot of Mediterranean culture. Its crowning glory was the temple to the goddess Artemis, which is one of the ‘seven wonders’ of the ancient world and said to have been four times larger than Athens’ Parthenon. Legend has it that Herostratus, a madman, set fire to the temple on the same night that Alexander the Great was born, in order to make his name immortal.
Wander the ancient streets, which, according to the New Testament, the Apostle Paul once trod, and visit the remains of the Temple of Artemis, as well as the three-tiered theatre that once seated 25,000 cheering spectators. Just outside the city, you can also see the Church of Saint John, which was built in the fourth century AD, reputedly over its namesake’s tomb.
These are, of course, not the only ancient ruins to see in the Mediterranean. From wandering Corfu’s Venetian fortresses to exploring Greece’s Olympia, the site of the ancient Olympic Games, a cruise of the region is the perfect choice for history fans.
Here at Imagine Cruising, we’re experts in luxury and tailor-made cruises. Interested in visiting one of the above ruins? Browse our range of Mediterranean cruises and see where they could take you.
Image of Pompeii by Carlo Mirante
Image of the Arab Baths by bortescristian