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7 best ancient wonders to visit on a Mediterranean cruise

Mediterranean cruises allow travellers to visit some truly outstanding sites without ever having to unpack your suitcase (or worry about baggage allowance!).

Mediterranean cruise vacations take in all sorts of jaw-dropping destinations, from beautiful beaches and marvellous markets to romantic ruins and majestic mountains.

The region is absolutely steeped in history with a plethora of ancient wonders to admire – and thanks to Mediterranean cruises visitors are guaranteed to get their culture fix.

Whether you’re strolling among the ruins of Pompeii in Italy or exploring the inner tunnels of Egypt’s famous pyramids, Mediterranean cruise vacations whisk globetrotters back in time to the greatest empires to have ever existed (but, you know, with air conditioning and flushing toilets).

So, as we don our archaeologist’s hat (we’re the spitting image of Indiana Jones, trust us) we’ve rounded up just seven of the stupendous ancient sites you can visit on a cruise to the Mediterranean.

Pantheon - Rome, Italy

Ambassador Cruise Line calls at Civitavecchia on its Mediterranean cruise itineraries, from where passengers can set off exploring Rome for a day.

The Italian capital city is absolutely inundated with ancient wonders but the impressive Pantheon is a real highlight.

The temple was constructed by Agrippa (the powerful deputy of Augustus, the first Roman emperor) between 25 and 27 BC and later radically reconstructed by Hadrian (the Roman emperor, of wall fame).

Boasting the biggest brick dome in the history of architecture, the temple was dedicated to the twelve Roman Gods (Jupiter, Venus and friends) and to the living ruler.

Today it is the most intact ancient Roman building on earth. Eighteenth-century French writer Stendhal said of the building: “The most beautiful relic of ancient Rome, a temple so well preserved that it appears as the Romans must have seen it in their times.”

Top tip: Impress your fellow tourists with your knowledge of Latin; the inscription on the portico “Marcus Agrippa Luci filius consul tertium fecit” translates as: “Built by Marco Agrippa, son of Lucio, consulate for the third time”.

Fun fact: The Pantheon used to have two bell towers on either side of the pronaos (the inner area of the portico) which were derided and dubbed “donkey’s ears.” They were removed in the 19th century. Hope it can still hear okay…

House of the Faun - Pompeii, Italy

Naples is a wonderful place, full of excellent pizza, but while we could opine about the southern Italian city all day, the ancient wonder you can’t miss here is Pompeii – an easy day trip from Naples.

Pompeii is a fantastically preserved ancient Roman city that was destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. Once a popular and thriving resort city, Pompeii was hidden under ash and pumice until it was unearthed in the 1700s, when lavish villas, impressive monuments and even a brothel were discovered.

House of the Faun is just one of the amazing findings – it’s the largest (about 3,000 sqm) and most opulent house found in Pompeii, and dates back to the 2nd century BC.

The house is named after a little bronze statue of a dancing faun in the centre of the villa’s Impluvium which is tiled with pieces of colored stone, glass and marble. The entrance floor is gorgeous too, inlaid with multi-colored yellow, green, red and pink marble triangles.

In the living room is the famous mosaic of the decisive Battle of Gaugamela between Alexander the Great and the Persian king Darius in 331 BC which ended the Persian Empire and altered the course of history.

Alas, the originals of the mosaics and the statue of the Faun are not in situ and are instead exhibited in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. Maybe get a pizza en route.

Greek Theatre - Syracuse, Sicily

The Archaeological Park of Neapolis on the Italian island of sicily houses several impressive Greek and Roman Remains, with the Greek Theatre the most famous monument of the city.

It was built in the fifth century BC and reconstructed in the third century BC under Hieron II, a tyrant of Syracuse and an important figure in the First Punic War under whose reign the city enjoyed great prosperity.

The Greek Theatre of Syracuse is one of the largest of its kinds in the world with a diameter of just under 140m.

The probable setting for the works of Aeschylus and other ancient Greek tragedies, it also served as a place of worship, the scene for vast popular assemblies and the site of public trials. In Roman times, the theatre was also modified for circus and variety exhibitions.

Over the years it fell into disuse and suffered at the hands of robbers as well as during the Spanish occupation in the 1500s when the theatre was quarried for fortifications and defence materials, but it re-found glory in the 18th century when interest in antiquity revived.

Classical theatrical performances take place here between spring and summer, so if you time your trip right you might get to take in a show just as the ancient Greeks would have done on the stone seats (no fighting over armrests needed).

Hagia Sophia - Istanbul, Turkey

Hagia Sophia – meaning “Holy Wisdom” – is Turkey’s most popular tourist attraction. The 1,500-year-old monument is architecturally beautiful and has had many guises over the decades.

It was originally built as the cathedral for the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire in the sixth century and then became a mosque in 1453 with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.

Sultans repeatedly strived over the years to beautify the Hagia Sofia. During the Ottoman period, the interior was decorated with the most elegant examples of Turkish arts such as calligraphy and tile art. Minarets, a library and even a soup kitchen have been added, too.

The Turkish government secularised the Hagia Sofia in 1934 and converted the building into a museum but in 2020, the UNESCO World Heritage site was stripped of its museum status and turned back into a mosque. Talk about an identity crisis!

As for what you can see today during your cruise around the Mediterranean, the central basilica boasts a structurally complex high central dome with a diameter of over 101ft and a height of 160ft while the upper part of the building was originally minimally decorated in gold.

Look out for gold-plated, silver-plated, glass, terracotta and colored stone mosaics as well as the original ceiling mosaics from the sixth century with their floral and geometric motifs. There are 104 columns in total, some of which were repurposed from other ancient cities.

Porch of the Caryatids - Athens, Greece

Piraeus is where Ambassador cruises in the Mediterranean call, from where visitors can explore Athens and the amazing acropolis that overlooks the capital city.

The site is overflowing with ancient wonders but a standout is the Erechtheion, an ancient Greek temple built between 421 and 406 BC, on the south side of which is the Porch of the Caryatids.

Here statues of six draped, sculpted, individual female figures (Caryatids) serve as columns supporting the entablature which rests upon their heads (nope, not a task we fancy taking on).

If you’re wondering about the origins of the Caryatids, it’s said to come from the ancient town of Karyes in the Peloponnese where maidens watched over the sanctuary of Artemis Caryatis (Artemis of the walnut tree) and brought her heavy offerings of fruit and walnuts which they carried on their heads. Nice life for Artemis, less so the maidens.

After two and a half thousand years of enjoying the panoramic views, the six original maidens from the Erechtheion were liberated of their task after suffering at the hands of weather and pollution (and neck pain, we suspect) so what you see today are replicas.

Five were removed to the Acropolis Museum in 1978 and the sixth is actually in the British Museum after Lord Elgin (of marble fame) removed about half of the surviving sculptures from the fallen ruins of the Acropolis between 1801 and 1805.

The Western Wall - Jerusalem, Israel

Calling at Haifa on Mediterranean cruises, Ambassador brings travelers to this famous place of prayer and pilgrimage.

The Western Wall – also known as the Wailing Wall – is situated in the Old City of Jerusalem, and is the most important religious site in the world for the Jewish people.

It was built by King Herod (you know, the one that allegedly killed all those babies on the hunt for Jesus) in 20 BC when he was expanding the Second Temple. The building was destroyed by Romans in 70 AD but the Western Wall survived.

For hundreds of years only a small area of the wall could be seen, but people flocked to pray there nonetheless.

It was only in 1967 that digging exposed two further levels and the area around it was cleared to create the Western Wall Plaza you see today.

The Western Wall is free and is open all day, year-round to everyone. Babies are safe.

Great Pyramid of Giza - Cairo, Egypt

Some Mediterranean cruises stop at Alexandria for Cairo, a city bristling with ancient treasures.

If we have to whittle the wonders down to just one, then we’ve chosen the Great Pyramid of Giza (you might have heard of it…) – it’s the largest of all the pyramids and a defining symbol of Egypt.

The pyramids were built some 4,500 years ago, with Pharaoh Khufu beginning the first Giza pyramid project in around 2550 BC as a huge tomb for himself that would be filled with everything he would need to guide and sustain himself in the afterlife when royals expected to become gods. Naturally.

Now known as the Great Pyramid of Giza, the edifice towers around 481ft tall and was the tallest man-made structure in the world until Lincoln Cathedral in England was completed in 1311. That’s quite some claim to fame!

The pyramid is built of an estimated 2.3 million stone blocks each weighing an average of 2.5 to 15 tons and the skill and technology required to construct it still baffles experts to this day.

In its heyday, the pyramid was covered in white limestone which would have shone brilliantly under the sun making it visible from every direction for miles around but this has long since eroded.

These days you can go inside and explore the pyramid’s many tunnels and see the King’s Chamber – although after many years of pilfering there’s only an empty sarcophagus to see.

What’s inside the rest of the pyramid remains something of a mystery with two voids still undiscovered – although archaeologists hope a new ultra-powerful scan using cosmic rays could soon reveal their identities (hopefully less confusing than the Hagia Sofia). Watch this space!

Published 09.12.22