8 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 eight ancient structures found within modern cities.

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Roman Theater in 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. Not only is the Roman Theater part of the modern city in a physical sense, its part of 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 and once featured eight gates, only six of which remain today. Much of the wall has been restored, or entirely rebuilt, after damage inflicted to it 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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Located in Lima's ritzy San Isidro district, an ancient adobe pyramid, or huaca, called Huallamarca stands 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 and today a small museum there 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

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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 put their mark on it in defense 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 stands the remnants of Templo Mayer, a temple complex built by the Mexica people in the 14th century in honor of Tlaloc, the god of agriculture, and Huitzilopochtli, the god of war. The temple, believed to have been 90 feet tall, had been lost to time and forgotten by most people, when, in the early 20th century, a portion of the temple’s southwest corner was discovered. Over the ensuing decades, more and more of Templo Mayer was discovered by archaeologists, necessitating the demolishment of many colonial-era buildings on the site. Today, the protected area has a designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and many of the artifacts discovered from the temple are housed in a public museum right by the archaeological site.

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Arènes de Lutèce

People walk about Arènes de Lutèce in Paris, France

Guilhem Vellut / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

In the shadow of nearby Notre Dame sits the remnants of an ancient Roman theater, Arènes de Lutèce. Constructed in the first century CE in what was then the city of Lutetia, the theater was built to hold a staggering 15,000 people. As often happens to old monuments, the landmark was forgotten as Roman influenced waned and the city of Paris was built in its place. It was only in the late 19th century that the theater remains were rediscovered and restored by intellectual leaders of the time, author Victor Hugo among them.

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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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Over eight miles in length, the Xi'an City Wall winds through the urban district of Xi'an in China. Originally constructed of mud, the defensive wall was built by the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, in 1370. Hundreds of years later, in 1568, the wall was fortified with brick, and, again, it was strengthened to its modern, more-robust appearance in 1781. The magnificently maintained Xi'an City Wall is 39 feet tall, and just as wide at the top, and features a moat, drawbridges, and watchtowers.

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Roman Burial Ground in Barcelona

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.