Stand under a starlit sky at Chichen-Itza in Mexico. Watch the day break through the neolithic stones of Stonehenge in England. Or see the pure white marble of the Taj Mahal flicker fiery red in the setting sun. In such moments, it is difficult not to feel the pull of history and ancient culture.
For hundreds, in some cases, thousands of years, others have stood at the same spots and been touched by the same emotions. The connection to a country's cultural heritage holds a powerful attraction for many tourists and travelers.
At The Active Times, we have sought to identify the 10 countries with the richest cultural and historical offerings to the visitor. We have considered the presence of man-made monuments and other architectural works of importance, groups of buildings that have unique social or historical significance and, more broadly, sites, including archaeological sites of historical or anthropological consequence. We also added to the mix more intangible traditions such as folk art and religious observance. And we sought places that held universal values, as well as specific local ones.
For measures of importance, we drew on the expertise of two international recognized authorities that advise the U.N.'s World Heritage Committee, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property and the International Council on Monuments. Throughout we have been strongly guided by the numerical count of each country's World Heritage Sites. That is a reasonable proxy for the breadth and depth of ancient cultures, at least among those societies that have left a physical record through their buildings, and artifacts and writings.
The accompanying slideshow counts down the 10 countries that top our rankings. For each country, we have highlighted one of the many great antiquities they contain.
The modern nations whose lands were home to the world's great civilizations dominate our ranking. At the top is China, for so many centuries before the imperial West established its preeminence in the mid-18th century, the most advanced country in the world under the Ming and Qing Dynasties. China's more than 70 World Heritage sites range from the Forbidden Palace in Beijing to the millennia-old Honghe Hanai rice terraces of southern Yunnan and Zhoukoudian, last resting place of Peking Man and a reminder that human societies have flourished in Asia since Paleolithic times or earlier.
Spain is second in our ranking. The south of the country to this day bears the heritage of the Islamic empire brought by the invading Moors in the 8th century and the Christian forces that drove the Moors back into North Africa in the 16th century. No better example exists that the medieval Islamic mosque that was converted into a Roman Catholic cathedral in the Andalusian city of Cordoba.
Third is Italy, whose capital Rome was first the center of the Roman state, then of the Roman Empire and finally of the Christian world, before Europe plunged into its Dark Ages with the collapse of Rome's continental power.
Fourth is France, the land of Gothic cathedrals such as Chartres and Notre Dame in Paris, but also of Roman cities like Carcassonne, royal palaces such as Versailles, and Bronze Age Alpine stilt houses that date back to the dawn of modern societies.
Fifth is Mexico, on whose Yucatán peninsular the great astronomically-driven societies of the Mayan and Toltec civilizations flourished for half a millennium before mysteriously vanishing just before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.
Germany, Japan, India, the United Kingdom and Iran round out our top ten. See our slideshow for an example of the rich history and culture each offers the traveler. While some of these sites are among the most visited destinations in the world -- and for good reason -- others will take you off the beaten path. Or really get ahead of the pack by seeing some of the Cultural Gems You Need To Visit Before They Get Famous.
-The Editors, The Active Times
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