Visiting one of the world's oldest temples is like stepping into the distant past: Humans have been building sacred sites for over 10,000 years. Luckily for history lovers, many of those ancient structures still exist. Most of the world's oldest temples dot the map in and around the Middle East, as this agriculturally rich basin is known as the cradle of the earliest's societies and civilizations. Here's a look at 10 of the world's oldest temples.
1. Göbekli Tepe // Turkey (10,000–9000 BCE)
Göbekli Tepe, the world’s oldest known site of ritual, faith, and pilgrimage, stands atop a hill in southeast Turkey, near the Syrian border in what would have been Ancient Mesopotamia. The UNESCO World Heritage Site consists of a number of stone circles with incredible carvings of animals and priests. German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt began leading excavations at Göbekli Tepe in the mid-1990s. The ruins are so extensive that in a 2008 interview, he suggested it would take at least another 50 years for archaeologists to excavate the whole site.
2. Ħagar Qim & Mnajdra // Malta (3700–3200 BCE)
Until the excavation of Göbekli Tepe, this Megalithic site was thought to contain the oldest temples in the world: Two prehistoric stone temples—Hagar Qim and Mnajdra—located a mere 1640 feet (500 meters) apart, atop a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The large stone slabs that form their doorways, niches, and apses remain in fantastic condition. Both temples give praise to the sun and the changing seasons, with light flooding into Hagar Qim on the equinoxes through an elliptical hole drilled through the stone.
3. Ġgantija // Gozo (3600–3200 BCE)
Ġgantija is another Megalithic temple in the Maltese archipelago. It’s gigantic by name (Ggant meaning “giant” in Maltese) and gigantic by nature: Some of its stones weigh up to 55 tons (50 tonnes) and stand over 16 feet (5 meters) tall. Locals told stories of giants residing here, but archeologists believe the site was used for ritual animal sacrifice due to the amount of animal bones found during excavation. Some amazing limestone and clay figurines were also found at the site, which you can check out in the nearby Interpretation Center.
4. Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum // Malta (3300–3000 BCE)
This breathtaking, cavernous Neolithic temple is not for the claustrophobic or fainthearted. Huge limestone steps lead you down through the narrow passages to one of the world’s finest sets of underground ruins. The site includes a necropolis that archeologists suggest housed the remains of around 7000 people, as well as a place of ceremonial worship. Builders accidentally discovered the ancient temple in 1902—and they tried to cover up what they’d found so they could complete the job. Hypogeum, like its Megalithic counterparts on the island, celebrates the turn of the seasons, with the inner chamber “The Holy of Holies” being orientated to fill up with light from above on the winter solstice.
5. Stonehenge // UK (3000—2000 BCE)
The world’s most famous stone circle has had its fair share of interpretations over the years. It’s been called a coronation ground, a healing center, a place to worship ancestors, and even a Druid temple. Nowadays, archeologists think the stones formed a ceremonial temple aligned with the sun and stars. This famous 5000-year-old structure still amazes visitors. Most people must admire the site from a distance; however, on the summer and winter solstices, pagan visitors can get up close and personal with the stones.
6. Ziggurat of Ur // Iraq (2100 BCE)
The Ancient Mesopotamian king Ur Nammu built the first Ziggurat of Ur (also known as the Great Ziggurat) over 4000 years ago. The colossal pyramid-like structure is thought to be one of a complex of religious buildings in what's now the Dhi Qar Province of modern Iraq. According to the Ancient Greek writer and geographer Herodotus, who visited the site on his travels, the temple once hosted a shrine to the gods on top. This Ziggurat has received a couple notable restorations: one by the Neo Babylonian King Nabonidus in 600 BCE, and another much later by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the 1980s.
7. Temple of Amada // Egypt (1550–1290 BCE)
This tiny structure might not be much to look at from the outside, but as Egypt’s oldest surviving temple, it’s still pretty incredible. The hieroglyphics inside tell an important story. The temple was built by Pharaoh Thutmose III of the 18th Dynasty, who dedicated it to Amun (the patron god of Thebes) and Ra-Horakhty (the gods Ra and Horus merged into one). The painted reliefs in the innermost sanctum show Thutmose III and his son Amenhotep II embraced by the gods. This temple survived a pretty impressive relocation: Between 1964 and 1975, French Egyptologists and architects transported the temple in one piece, moving it about 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) from its original location to prevent it from being damaged by flooding from Lake Nasser. They used hydrologic power to move the structure along a set of railings.
8. Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut // Egypt (1470 BCE)
Hatshepsut was the mortuary temple (a temple built alongside a tomb) for the great female Pharaoh. The impressive structure built was by Thutmose III, who was Hatsheput's son and heir. Polish archaeologists excavated the temple in-depth throughout the 1960s; their work revealed beautiful reliefs, with many paintings still displaying their full original color. The wide colonnades are considered to be the closest Egyptian architecture comes to the Classical Greco-Roman style. Like many of the temples in this list, Hatshepsut’s honors the sun. On the winter solstice, light enters the temple and hits a statue of the god Osiris.
9. Luxor Temple // Egypt (1400 BCE)
This riverside beauty is one of the two great cult temples of Thebes, not dedicated to any one Pharaoh or god, but to the concept of kingship. Many Pharaohs made their mark here, with chapels constructed by Amenhotep III, Alexander the Great, Ramesses II, and Tutankhamen. The vast complex is a mishmash of ancient and more modern structures. There’s even a contemporary mosque perched above the ruins that’s still in use. People walk among a corridor of sphinx statues while approaching the temple, then stand before huge statues of Pharaohs that flank the entrance hall. Like many of Egypt’s temples, Luxor is open to visit at night and is a sumptuous sight lit up under the stars.
10. Temple of Seti I // Egypt (1300 BCE)
Seti I, one of Egypt’s great Pharaohs, was known for restoring his kingdom to its past glory. He won battles, strengthened frontiers, rebuilt temples and wells, and of course, constructed himself a memorial temple. Seti devoted his temple to Osiris, the god of the underworld, hoping to aid his smooth transition to the afterlife. The temple, which was built near the Nile River in the town that was once the religious epicenter of Osiris, has brilliant colorful reliefs that still dazzle over 3000 years later. The site also features a mysterious underground structure called the Osirion. Archaeologists are still unsure about when and why the Osirion was built.