What Tourism Was Like In The Ancient World

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Vote up the most fascinating stories of ancient-world tourism.

Today, monuments in the ancient world, from the Pyramids of Giza to the Roman Pantheon to Cambodia's Angkor Wat, are some of the world's most popular tourism destinations. Historical landmarks like these allow visitors to imagine what life would have been like thousands of years before their time, which is a major part of their appeal.

But this is not a modern phenomenon. Ancient peoples flocked to tourist destinations for the same reasons people do today: to be enlightened, entertained, and energized.

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  • Romans Fled The City In Summer Heat To Visit Seaside Towns
    Photo: Tommaso Ruiz / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
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    Romans Fled The City In Summer Heat To Visit Seaside Towns

    Some tourist destinations are appealing for their history and grandeur, but others draw crowds for the same reasons they do today: to give people relief from uncomfortable weather. In ancient Rome, wealthy Romans spent springs on coastal beaches, and summers in the mountains.

    The most popular beachside region to own property in was the Gulf of Naples, from Cumae to the Sorrento peninsula. The ancient Roman city of Pompeii was a Roman resort town until it was buried in volcanic ash due to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. 

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    The ‘Talking’ Colossi Of Memnon Are Still Covered With Graffiti From Ancient Tourists

    In the first century BCE, many monuments in Egypt had already existed for more than a thousand years. The Colossi of Memnon are a pair of quartzite statues, each more than 60 feet high, meant to represent Pharaoh Amenhotep III (1388-1350 BCE) seated on a throne. 

    The statues were an early tourist destination. Ancient observers like Strabo and Pausanius report that one of the statues made a mysterious humming sound. Today, this sound is believed to be either the result of morning evaporation, or the work of local priests who saw a tourism opportunity. 

    Tourists often carved graffiti into the statues, believing this brought them luck. Archaeologists have identified 108 separate instances of graffiti in Greek and Latin.  

    Greek tourists named the statues after their country's heroic King Memnon, who fought at Troy, likely because they were more familiar with him than Amenhotep. 

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    Ancient Fans Of Homer Visited Troy

    The ancient city of Troy was home to the Trojans, the nemeses of the Mycenaean Greeks in Homer's epic The Iliad. Historians believe the Trojan War actually did take place, hundreds of years before Homer's birth. Troy is located in northwest Turkey, 19 miles from the modern-day port city of Çanakkale. 

    Troy became a tourist destination for visitors from across the ancient world. Because the Romans believed their civilization was derived from the Trojans, the city was especially popular during the Roman Empire. With the arrival of Christianity, as well as several earthquakes, the site was eventually abandoned and forgotten until modern times. 

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    Romans Likely Visited Stonehenge, But For What Purpose Is Unknown

    Archaeologists estimate that the stone portions of the Neolithic monument Stonehenge were built around 2500 BCE, which predates the founding of Rome by almost 2,000 years. Historians have debated whether ancient Romans knew of Stonehenge; little surviving written evidence suggests they were aware of its existence, but Roman artifacts have been uncovered in the area, indicating inhabitants of Roman Britain visited it for some reason.

    One passage that some historians say describes Stonehenge comes from the first century BCE, written by the Roman-era Greek historian Diodorus Siculus. When describing an island believed to be England, Diodorus wrote: 

    And there is also on the island both a magnificent sacred precinct of Apollo and a notable temple which is adorned with many votive offerings and is spherical in shape. Furthermore, a city is there which is sacred to this god, and the majority of its inhabitants are players on the cithara; and these continually play on this instrument in the temple and sing hymns of praise to the god, glorifying his deeds.

    If this is Stonehenge, it's likely Romans visited or at least knew of it. 

  • Kings And Emperors Often Visited The Tomb Of Alexander
    Photo: Sebastien Bourdon / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
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    Kings And Emperors Often Visited The Tomb Of Alexander

    Even during his lifetime, Alexander the Great was a legendary figure for his military conquests, thanks partly to his own cult of personality. When he passed, his final resting place in Alexandria, the city he built and named for himself, instantly became a must-visit spot for subsequent rulers and military leaders. 

    The Roman Emperor Augustus (then still called Octavian) visited the tomb around 30 BCE. According to Roman historian Cassius Dio, who wrote about the events centuries later, Octavian asked for the tomb to be opened so he could observe the mummified remains. Not satisfied with merely looking, Octavian ran his hands over Alexander's face and inadvertently knocked off the former leader's nose. 

  • Pausanias Wrote A Second-Century ‘Lonely Planet’ Guide To Greece
    Photo: Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
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    Pausanias Wrote A Second-Century ‘Lonely Planet’ Guide To Greece

    One reason archaeologists and historians can theorize about ancient peoples' vacationing habits is because of secondary sources like Pausanias, a Greek traveler and author active in the second century CE. His Description of Greece served as a literal guidebook for travelers to the region.

    Description consists of 10 books, each covering a different region of Greece. For ancient Romans of the second century, who were rediscovering earlier Greek culture as a source of knowledge and wisdom (like the Hellenophile Emperor Hadrian), Pausanias and his guides to Greece's temples, statues, and monuments were just as helpful as Lonely Planet guides are today.