9 Ancient Structures in Modern Cities

The ancient Xi'an City Wall stands before the city's modern skyline.
The ancient Xi'an City Wall stands before the city's modern skyline.

Mariusz Kluzniak / Getty Images

Sometimes, amid the steel and glass of modern skyscrapers and the blaring of trendy nightclub beats, ruins of the ancient past offer quiet reminders of what’s gone before. Not more than a half-mile from the iconic Notre Dame cathedral stands another iconic landmark from a time before Paris even existed. In the bustling heart of Mexico City, a centuries-old temple was long forgotten and built on top of, only to be rediscovered in the 20th century. While cities and the people who live there change over time, some things remain the same. 

Here are nine ancient structures found within modern cities.

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Roman Theater of Amman

The Roman Theater in Amman, Jordan surrounded by modern streets and buildings

Bernard Gagnon / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Impeccably preserved among the modern edifices of the Jordanian capital, Amman, stands the 6,000-seat Roman Theater. Constructed in the middle of the second century CE, the theater was built in honor of the Roman emperor of the time, Antoninus Pius. The incredibly steep amphitheater contains such great acoustics that even audience members in the top rows can clearly hear the actors on stage. The Roman Theater is part of not only the modern city in a physical sense but the city’s cultural life, as well. Each year, the ancient theater is home to popular concerts, plays, and even a book fair.

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Seoul City Wall

Seoul City Wall overlooking the modern cityscape of Seoul

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Surrounding the skyscrapers and modernity of South Korea’s capital is an ancient wall once built to defend it. Known in Korean as Hanyangdoseong, the Seoul City Wall was originally constructed in 1396 at the beginning of the Joseon dynasty. The centuries-old structure, made of wood, stone, and earth, stretches nearly 12 miles along nearby mountain ranges. It once featured eight gates, only six of which remain today. Much of the wall has been restored, or entirely rebuilt, after it was damaged during Japanese rule during the early 20th century.

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Huaca Huallamarca

Huaca Huallamarca in Lima, Peru with modern high-rise buildings in the background

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An ancient adobe pyramid called Huallamarca stands in the ritzy San Isidro district of Lima, Peru as a reminder of the distant past. Built by the Huancan people before the rise of the Incan Empire, the pyramid was likely used for funerary rituals. Huallamarca was forgotten during the Spanish colonial period, but the site was excavated beginning in the 1950s. Today, a small museum houses pyramid artifacts such as dolls, pottery, and even mummified remains that were found on the site.

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Roman London Wall

A portion of the Roman London Wall in front of skyscrapers

3BR32 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Built by the Romans around 200 CE, the Roman London Wall has, in part, dictated the design and growth of the city of London throughout its history. The wall went through a number of restorations after Roman influence faded in the area. The Anglo-Saxons rebuilt portions of the wall following attacks from the Vikings, and, later, medieval overseers constructed additional towers and gates while moving the city beyond its bounds. Today, the Roman London Wall stands in fragments and even has a modern thoroughfare, called London Wall, named after it.

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Templo Mayor

The ruins of Templo Mayer in Mexico City

Thelmadatter / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In the heart of Mexico City’s historic district lies the remnants of Templo Mayor. The temple complex was built by the Mexica people in the 14th century in honor of Tlaloc, the god of agriculture, and Huitzilopochtli, the god of war. Templo Mayor was eventually lost to time when a portion of the southwest corner was discovered in the early 20th century. Over the ensuing decades, more and more of the temple was discovered by archaeologists, necessitating the demolishment of many colonial-era buildings on the site. Today, the protected area is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and features artifacts from the temple within a public museum.

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Arènes de Lutèce

People walk about Arènes de Lutèce in Paris, France

Guilhem Vellut / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Just blocks away from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris sits the remnants of the ancient Roman theater known as Arènes de Lutèce. The 15,000-seat theater was constructed in the first century CE in what was then the city of Lutetia. Over the centuries, the landmark was forgotten as Roman influenced waned and the city of Paris was built in its place. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that the theater was rediscovered and restored by intellectual leaders of the time.

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Xi'an City Wall

People walk along the top of Xi'an City Wall on a smoggy day

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The Xi'an City Wall winds over eight miles through the urban district of Xi'an in China. Originally constructed of mud, the defensive wall was built in 1370 by the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang. In 1568 the wall was fortified with brick, and in 1781 it was strengthened to its modern, robust appearance. The magnificently maintained Xi'an City Wall, which features a moat, drawbridges, and watchtowers, is 39 feet tall and 39 feet wide.

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Via Sepulcral Romana

Barcelona's Roman Burial Ground on a sunny day

Kippelboy / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Lining a path through Barcelona’s busy Plaça de la Vila de Gràcia are the tombs of those once forgotten. The Roman Burial Ground, or Via Sepulcral Romana, was built in the first century CE in what was then outside of the city limits. A law of the time prohibited any burials within the city walls, so the graves were placed along a road leading out of town. The ancient tombs had been hidden for centuries until efforts were made to rebuild the plaza in the 1950s following the Spanish Civil War. Today, the tombs rest between flower beds along a lively path through the plaza.

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Dajing Ge Pavilion

The main entrance to the Dajing Ge Pavilion in Shanghai, China

Anj001 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Little remains of the Old City of Shanghai, which was built between the 11th and 16th centuries. Unfortunately, most of the Old City Wall was demolished at the beginning of the 20th century to make way for modernization projects. Only one small section of the wall is preserved in a 19th century structure known as the Dajing Ge Pavilion. Now a museum, the pavilion was once one of 30 similar structures situated along the wall and today is dwarfed by surrounding skyscrapers.