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The Medina of Marrakesh

The Medina of Marrakesh

Medina of Marrakech, Morocco

July 162013

Since its establishment at the end of the eleventh century, Marrakesh has been a city where culture, economics and politics converged, to create a powerful centre of influence. The city’s long and complex history, beginning with the founding Almoravids, through to the golden age of the Almohad dynasty in the mid-thirteenth century, is visible in the city’s magnificent architecture, and vibrant atmosphere. The city is home to several renowned monuments that reflect the significant cultural influence of the city, as its inhabitants transformed the notion of the urban landscape. Today, many of its monuments and landmarks are renowned worldwide, and the heart of the city, the lively Medina, is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

The architectural jewels of the Medina

The magnificent minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque immediately makes a striking impact upon the skyline of the Medina. While it may not be that high, reaching 77 metres in all, it towers above the palm trees and low lying buildings surrounding it. Built in a traditional Almohad style and topped with four copper globes, it is the largest ancient mosque in the country, decorated with ornate arches and hosts a cool garden within its plaza.

The late nineteeth century Bahia Palace, while relatively young amongst its neighbouring monuments, captures a blend of traditional Islamic architecture and Moroccan mosaic work. Inside the complex a network of walled gardens winds through, with groves of orange, cypress, jasmine and banana trees. Although the Palace is used predominantly by the Moroccan Government, parts of the complex are open to visitors, who can tour its varied craftsmanship.

Marrakech sunset

Marrakech sunset

Though diminished in its extent, Marrakesh’s original reputation as a centre of culture and learning can still be experienced today in the Ben Youssef Maddrassah, the fourteenth century Islamic college that is the largest of its kind in Morocco. No longer active as a resident college, the Madrassah is open today to visitors to explore its vast clusters of cells, that surround the open courtyard, carved in cedar, stucco and marble. Across the square from the mosque lies the Koubba el Badiyin, the oldest construction in the city, taking visitors back to the earliest roots of the Medina’s history.

Explore the craft and cuisine of the souqs

The underground souqs, or markets of the Medina show off the vibrant atmosphere of the area, with stalls selling wares of all kinds, from local crafts, brightly coloured textiles and ornate metal works, as well as street foods, fragrant spice merchants and baked treats, filling the narrow, winding alley ways. Alongside the market sellers are henna artists, musicians, fortune tellers and more, combining to create a charming and exciting ambiance, that reflects the constantly changing and evolving Medina.

Medina of Marrakesh

Medina of Marrakesh

Just a short distance away from the hustle and bustle of the Medina are Marrakesh’s luxurious riad guest houses. Cool and spacious, these large guest houses are the ideal place to stay in Marrakesh, surrounded by the lush countryside. Though they are just minutes away from the buzzing energy of the Medina, they also provide a serene, tranquil getaway, and the perfect place to relax

Author : Stephane Abtan

Stephane Abtan is the owner & director of Dar Ayniwen, a romantic hideout in the Marrakech Palmeraie district. He was born in Morocco and has an ever lasting passion for his native red city.

 

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Leaning Tower Pisa, Italy

Background:

Like the Roman Colosseum, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is one of the seven wonders of the medieval world that is located in Italy. Unlike the Colosseum, however, this wonder is most well known for its unusual stance, and the fact that it has managed to last so many years without toppling over.

Built as a Cathedral tower, within the City of Pisa in 1173 and designed by Bonanno Pisano, the leaning tower was laid upon flawed foundations. The substrate beneath it was too loose to support the weight of the tower and as a result it soon began to lean south west at a 3.99 degree angle.

At the time, this Cathedral was considered a reputable work of art. It has a 7-bell chamber, added in 1372 and exhibits Romanesque architectural style. However, its construction was carried out over 177 years due to the fact that it began to lean. Today this is the main reason that so many people come to see the tower, and although many have suggested it should be corrected, the only restoration has been to discolouration of the walls and a correction in the lean from 5.5 degrees to 3.9

Current State:

Contrary to what you may believe, the leaning tower of Pisa can be visited in person and even entered. There are 294 steps inside which make up the spiral staircase and via these it is possible to reach the top, and see the six open galleries along the way. At the belfry at the top of the tower, the seven bells are still in place.

This tower has been incredibly well preserved since it was first built over 800 years ago. This may be because it has been well known as the ‘leaning tower’ and it has become a national treasure for this very reason and a well preserved one. One other contributing factor to its longevity was the fact that there were battles between Pisa and Genoa, Florence and Lucca shortly after its construction. It was therefore left alone for a considerable time which left enough time for the unstable substrate below it to harden and become safe enough so that the tower didn’t topple over when further work was carried out on it.

We can be fairly sure that the Leaning Tower of Pisa that we see today is almost identical to the one that was built in 1173. Apart from, of course, the fact that it now leans at 3.9 degrees rather than 5.5.

How to Get There:

Pisa has its own airport that is very easy to fly to from most European airports and some US ones too.

The tower itself is only two and a half miles from the airport, but it’s likely that you’ll want to check in to your hotel and drop off your luggage first. Luckily for visitors, Pisa is a well populated and quite tourism-led city so it’s very easy to get around. There are lots of taxis, several buses and you can even rent scooters to get around quickly and easily providing you have a UK driving license.

Where to Stay:

For a hotel stay with a view of the tower included within the price, try the Villa Kinzica Hotel. This mid range accommodation has a restaurant and air conditioned rooms, for around $150 per night. Due to the tourist-led nature of this city, most of the hotels have rooms at around this price and few go much lower than $100 per night.

For a luxury stay in Pisa, try the Hotel Relais Dell Orologio, where rooms start at around $200 per night. A stay at this hotel includes a breakfast buffet, marble bathrooms and wooden beam ceilings in many of the rooms.

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Hagia Sophia, Turkey
December 112009

Hagia Sophia, Turkey

Background:

Built as a Roman public building (also known as a ‘basilica’) this huge Cathedral situated in Istanbul, Turkey, now stands as a museum after having also been a mosque during its rich history.

The reason the Hagia Sophia was chosen as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world was because of its quintessential Byzantine architectural style. It embodies the culture and design of the time it was built (532 AD) as well as including Ottoman influences within its décor and structure. It is quite a sight to behold; surrounded by four pointed minarets stretching high into the sky, the building is topped by a magnificent dome with forty windows around its base.

There were two churches that existed on the site of the Hagia Sophia before it was built; each of which considered a wonder of the world in their own right. The first church, built in c.360 BC, was burned to the ground during riots, and the second church was built in c. 415 BC was also burned down in c. 532 BC by the Nika Revolt. The third church built on the site is the one that we know and can visit today; adorned with pendentives, minarets, decorative urns, mosaics and marble doors.

Today the Hagia Sophia is used as a museum, although many are campaigning to restore it back to being a practising church, and a small section of it is used as a mosque for the staff to pray inside during their shifts.

Current State:

The third church that was built on this site is the one that we know today, and it is the main one that was ever to be considered a wonder of the medieval world. It has, over its time, been reconstructed and maintained, but the majority of what we see today is what was built originally in c.532 BC by the Emperor Justinian I.

The Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque in 1453 and much of the restoration occurred then under the order of sultan Mehmet II. It wasn’t until this mosque was then converted into a museum that the carpets were removed to reveal the beautiful patterned marble floors. These are still visible today, along with all the original mosaics and Byzantine religious artwork that this structure was drenched in. The interior of the dome has, in particular, undergone a lot of restoration over the past decade.

The only discrepancy about the Hagia Sophia’s authenticity is due to re-constructive work that was carried out in 1847, 1848 and 1849. Many people are doubtful that the tomb claiming to hold the Doge of Venice, is, in fact, nothing more than a symbol of his death.

How to Get There:

Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport is just a 40 minute drive from the Hagia Sophia itself, so you may choose to stay in a hotel somewhere in between and navigate this part of Turkey’s largest city by taxis or rented cars. The Ataturk International Airport is a busy and large one, so there will be plenty of taxis waiting outside and also tourist operators to help you find your way to your accommodation.

Bear in mind that the Hagia Sophia is closed on Mondays, and opens at 9 from Tuesday to Sunday, closing at 7.30 so you will need to visit between those times.

Where to Stay:

There are almost 100 hotels within just one mile of the Hagia Sophia, so as you can imagine this is an incredibly metropolitan area, with lots of choice for visitors.

Try the Hippodrome Hotel located less than half a mile away from the Hagia Sophia, for a mid range stay (rooms cost approximately $145 dollars per night). Or you could have a luxury stay at the Orient Express Hotel with rooftop pool, for around $190 per night. The best budget hotel in this area of Istanbul is the Ersu Hotel, where rooms will set you back around $85 per night.

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Porcelain Tower, China

Background:

The Porcelain Tower of Nanjing in China is perhaps one of the youngest of all the seven medieval wonders of the world to have existed. It was built on the south banks of the river Yangtze in the early 1400s, under the rule of the Yongle Emperor who also designed it, as a tower of pilgrimage and a place of worship.

This structure is set apart from others because of its exquisite beauty. It was an octagonal pagoda, adorned with approximately 140 lamps hung on it to illuminate the tower at night. The Porcelain Tower of Nanjing was also built with porcelain bricks that reflect sunlight, which made it a bright and beautiful sight to behold on the horizon. These white porcelain bricks were glazed and dyed with red, green, brown and yellow patterns to create the images of animals, people, flowers and certain scenarios.

For its time, it was also one of the tallest man made structures in China, standing at 79 meters high and with a base of 29 meters. It was named ‘Bao’ensi’ which means ‘Temple of Gratitude’ and it was used for religious worship right up to the start of the Taiping Revolution in 1850. Today this medieval wonder is in ruins, but reconstruction at the hands of the Chinese government has started again. This means that it is certainly possible to visit Nanjing and see where the tower once stood, but you cannot walk right up to the wonder’s ruins because construction work in commencing there.

Current State:

Today the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing does not exist, as it was destroyed by both natural and man made events during its history.

In 1801, during an electrical storm, the Porcelain Tower was struck by lightening. This caused considerable damage to the top three floors, knocking them to the ground, but the tower was still very much in use right up until 1850 when the Taiping Revolution caused more trouble. The rebels at this time wanted to stop the citizens from using the tower as a hide away or as a means to attack them from above, so they destroyed the stairs inside. The tower remained standing, but unused until 1856 when these very same rebels destroyed it completely in anger and attack.

For a long time the rubble and ruins remained at the site where it once stood on the bank of the river Yangtze, but now that the Chinese Government have decided to rebuild and reconstruct this medieval wonder of the world, that rubble has been cleared. While the area of Nanjing is beautiful and a great place to visit, anyone who wishes to see the remnants or the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing in any form may wish to wait until it has been fully reconstructed.

How to Get There:

If you live in the US or Europe, then flying to Singapore Changi International airport and then getting a connecting flight to Nanjing Lukou International airport is probably the easiest and most sensible option. Once you’ve made this connecting flight the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing is north of the airport, up the S123 airport expressway to Yuhuatai.

From Yuhuatai (or Qixia if you choose to travel further along the expressways by taxi or rented car) you will need to take either a bus, train or taxi to the wonder itself, which is only around 10 to 15 miles away. Alternatively, you could take a cruise boat up the River Yangtze.

Where to Stay:

The Crowne Plaza Nanjing Hotel & Suites is a mid range four star hotel with rooms starting at around $100 per night. For a mid to budget stay, try the three star Jiang Nan Hotel in Nanjing where rooms are $68 to $70 per night. Or alternatively there is the Grand Metro Hotel in Nanjing with rooms for around $90.

If you’re really looking to push the boat out with your stay in Nanjing then try the Sofitel Galaxy Nanjing, which is one of the closest hotels to the Porcelain Tower. This hotel offers double room prices at around $165 per night.

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Great Wall of China, China
December 112009

Great Wall of China, China

Background:

In c.221 BC, during the Chin Dynasty, China was subject to invasions from the North. At this time it was the Emperor Qin Shi Huang who ruled, and he who commissioned the construction of what was to be known as the Great Wall of China.

Although this original Great Wall of China didn’t survive completely, it was rebuilt in the centuries later and even to this day the wall that was built during the Ming Dynasty still stands. It is 5,500 miles in length, stretching from Lop Nur in Western China, to Shanghaiguan in Eastern China, and incorporates not only stone wall, but also defensive barriers and trenches too.

The construction of the Great Wall of China, also known in China as ‘Wan-Li Qang Qeng’ which literally translates to ten thousand li-long wall (‘li’ is around 5000 kilometres), was an incredible feat. Builders used whatever they could that was in the area, because transporting stone was so difficult. When building on mountains, they used the rock from them, but then when on flat ground they used tightly compacted earth. Valencia commented that all the materials used to build the Great Wall of China were enough to build a wall around the equator, five metres high and one metre thick.

Today the Great Wall of China is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one that is fiercely protected as it is in danger of being lost to the sands of the Badain Jaran desert. However, it is still very much open to tourists; many of whom take up the challenge of trying to walk certain lengths of it.

Current State:

Many sections of the Great Wall of China have become damaged, to the extent that they cannot be traversed by tourists or hikers. In the west, particularly, the wall of is very susceptible to weather erosion because it is mostly constructed from mud. It looks starkly different to how it did in the second century BC, when its entirety was only interrupted by rivers or trenches; both of which were still useful in protecting China against invasion.

Other areas of the wall have been eroded by the sand storms that so very frequently blight the area, and continue to do so. The cube-shaped lookout towers along its length no longer disappear and in certain areas where towns and villages are nearby, there is a great deal of graffiti on the wall. It’s thought that if needed, certain parts of the wall may be used by locals to repair buildings and bridges in their own towns. Some sections have been repaired, such as the tourist centres in Northern Beijing, and it’s hoped that further measures will be taken to protect this UNESCO world heritage site and one of the seven wonders of the medieval world from sand storm erosion in the future.

How to Get There:

It’s best to visit the Great Wall of China in Spring, when the views from the mountain include scenes of lush greenery as well as the great workmanship too.

There are also various airports along the length of the Great Wall, but perhaps the biggest and most easy to fly to is the Beijing Capital International Airport. From there you can catch shuttle buses and minibus services to your accommodation in Beijing and then take a tour operators excursion right the wonder itself. There are many ways to visit it, but most involve taking a bus and then walking.

Where to Stay:

Beijing is a large city, so there are plenty of hotels to choose from which will match your budget.

One of the very best budget hotels in the area is the Double Happiness Courtyard Hotel where rooms are on average around $81 per night. Alternatively you could try the Holiday Inn Central Plaza which, although further outside of the centre of Beijing, has a gym, restaurant and swimming pool.

For a far more luxury stay, try the Regent Beijing where rooms start at around $190 per night. Here there is a business centre, swimming pool, restaurant and gym.

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Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa, Egypt

Background:

Joining the Pharos statue in Alexandria, Egypt as two of the world’s wonders, the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa are underground tunnels which were used as private tombs.

Unlike the Pharos which was built in c.290 BC and then destroyed in the 1300s, the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa were built in the 1st century AD and still exist today. In fact, they were only discovered in the year 1900 when one unfortunate donkey disappeared into an opening where the catacombs lay beneath. Even today they can be explored by the general public, who enter the tombs via a spiral staircase, where bodies were once lowered in by ropes to the chambers below. As well as well organized and beautiful tombs, there is also the Hall of Caraculla, which was essentially a mass grave.

When they were built, the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa were intended for the exact purpose that their name suggests: as a tomb. There are many different types of architecture found here, comprising Egyptian, Roman and Greek culture and style, which was typical of the time and of the traditions relating to tomb design in the 1st century AD. However, their original creation was intended for just one family and indeed there have been three original sarcophagi found within them. However, they were later expanded and built upon so that other people – non family members – could also be buried there, yet no archaeologists know exactly why.

Current State:

Because the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa were covered over for so many centuries, they have been left in much the same state as when they were built. Visitors can still walk down the spiral staircase that leads onto the tombs, and see the well down the middle of these stairs where bodies were carefully lowered to their burial site. Even the designs on the walls when you reach the chamber below is still intact and certainly reminiscent of 1st century AD Egyptian style.

On this first level lies a banquet hall where the living would feast and remember the recently deceased. Also here is the gruesome Hall of Caraculla mass burial chamber where both people and animals were buried followed their death at the hands of Emperor Caracula. On a lower level, down another set of spiral stairs however, is a chamber adorned with sculptures and statues. Here there are the three sarcophagi and around the edge of this chamber there are 91 separate wall sarcophagi; each of which would fit three mummified corpses.

Considering they are many hundreds of years old, the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa are in incredibly good condition, and they are a great testament to the architectural style of the time.

How to Get There:

For anyone who wishes to visit these eerie, yet fascinating and awe inspiring catacombs, travel is easy. Alexandria has its very own airport (known as either Nhouza airport or Alexandria Internation airport) so you can fly directly to the area.

From the airport you can take a taxi to your hotel and then a minibus to the catacombs themselves, or alternatively one of the many double decker buses that operate in the city. Public transport is certainly recommended, as this is a tourist area where buses and trams are prevalent, and also shield you from the hot sun that you shouldn’t walk in for too long. The extensive tram network is, in fact, the oldest in Africa.

Where to Stay:

Because Alexandria is a main city in Egypt and one with a busy port, there is no shortage of budget, mid range and luxury hotels.

If you’re on a tight budget then try the Radisson Blu Hotel a little further out of the centre of the city, where rooms start at just $141 per night, or perhaps the Sheraton Hotel Montazah at $120 per night. For a great mid-range hotel, try the Sofitel Cecil Alexandria where rates are usually around $226 per night and finally, for a luxury stay take a look at the Four Seasons Hotel where the average room price is $530 per night.

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Colosseum, Italy
December 112009

Colosseum, Italy

Background:

The Colosseum in Rome, Italy, is one of the most iconic tourist draws in Europe. Upon stepping inside this millennia old amphitheatre, visitors get a good feel for the medieval life of the time when it was used to entertain, even though what stands there today is just a skeleton of its former glory.

Built thousands of years ago in c.80 AD, the Roman Colosseum amphitheatre was used mainly for Gladiatorial events where trained Gladiators would fight against each other to their deaths, watched over by the thousands of people that could fit inside the venue. Theatrical performances were also put on there for Royalty, as were animal hunts and fighting, not forgetting executions of criminals. Archaeologists and historians have estimated that the human death count within the Colosseum reached 500,000 and the animal death count double that.

The Roman Colosseum was built following the Jewish War, almost as a political peace offering from the war’s victor Emperor Vespasien. It was built on the site where the Vespasien’s predecessor, Nero, built his extravagant and overly-expensive personal palace, and was meant to restore the land to the citizens of Rome. With all this in mind, it’s easy to understand just why the Colosseum is so well protected and still well loved after all these years; it is the perfect portrait of the flamboyance and extravagance of the time, which was counteracted by the mass death and love of brutality that was prevalent then too.

Current State:

The Colosseum in Rome is considerably damaged in comparison to how it stood in c.80 AD. This is due to a number of reasons, some human and some natural.

In the 16th century AD, when the Colosseum was used as a Christian site, many religious figures and even citizens believed that the sand that covered the floors was sacred as it was tainted with the blood of the martyrs who had died there. This soon led to quarrying of the site, with architects taking parts of the actual building to reinforce or build their own churches elsewhere.

There were also earthquakes and both natural and man made fires which gutted the Colosseum, which have resulted in the structure that we see today. It’s still very much possible to go inside, as the floor has been partially reconstructed, even though there are chambers below that level. Visitors can also still walk around parts of the walls and balconies, as there is a museum dedicated to Eros in one of the outer walls. Considering this structure is well over 1900 years old and has survived tectonic activity, fires, wars and constantly repetitive use, it has been incredibly well preserved.

How to Get There:

Rome has its very own airport, and it’s a big one, so traveling to the city is very easy. Simply catch a flight there and then choose your mode of transport.

This is a metropolitan city that’s busy at all times of the year, so think carefully about whether you want to be transporting yourself via scooters or cars. There are plenty of buses that operate in Rome, and trains too so you could even find accommodation outside of the noisy hustle and bustle, but travel in each day to see the sights.

Visit tourist operators in the centre of Rome for information on limousine tours and even walking tours around the whole city that incorporate a look around the Colosseum.

Where to Stay:

Rome is full of restaurants, cafés, entertainment and accommodation, so finding a hotel to match your budget should be easy.

For accommodation on a lower budget, try the three star Relais Rome Sweet Home Fore Imperiali hotel right in the very centre of the city. Rooms at this hotel start at $100. For a mid range stay, try Hotel Viminale, where rooms start at around $120 during the peak summer season. Luxury stays in Rome, on the other hand, are well suited to five star ‘The Inn at the Roman Forum’, where rooms start at $250 per night.

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Stonehenge, England
December 112009

Stonehenge, England

Background:

Few of the wonders of the world, whether natural, industrial, modern, ancient or medieval still remain a mystery to us today, yet Stonehenge is just that. Nobody can be sure of why it was built and what official purpose it served, but it holds a great deal of historical fact and emotional significance for a great number of people across the world.

Located in the county of Wiltshire, England, Stonehenge is essentially a circle of stones; some supporting others. The earthworks (mounds of earth, artificially created) that surround the stones have been confirmed to have been constructed in c.3100 BC, yet within the earthworks and ditch the actual Stonehenge stones may have been constructed in c.3000 BC or later, between c.2400 and c.2200 BC. Many archaeologists believe they were intended for religious use, and even to this day Pagans and those who worship the sun visit Stonehenge at the summer solstice (the longest day of the year) to celebrate. Others believe that Stonehenge was created as a way to view the stars at night, and others believe that it symbolises a place for the dead, as there are several burial mounds in the area too.

Over the years it has been suggested that Stonehenge could not have been constructed using normal, neolithic human methods to move such large and heavy stones and therefore supernatural forces must have been at work. However, several archaeologists have since proven that there are various techniques that could be used all those thousands of years ago.

Current State:

Stonehenge is still very much standing strong today, although it looks very different to how it did five thousand years ago when construction began.

At first farmers began deforestation in the area, clearing trees and woodland. There was a monument erected some 2300 feet from the Stonehenge site in c.3500 BC, but the very first Stonehenge stone structures didn’t appear until around c.2600 BC when it’s estimated 80 stones were laid, possible in two rings. Before this, timber was used to fill holes which stood just inside the ditch and bank that were constructed in c.3100 BC and filled with animals bones and flints. Later, between c.2600 and 2400 BC there were around 30 large sarsen stones brought to the site and erected in a 110ft diameter circle, with stones resting on top of them in the same fashion we see today. Between c.2400 BC and 2280 BC the stones were rearranged in various ways, including in a horseshoe shape. These rearrangements finally ended in approximately C.1600 BC, in the arrangement we see today.

It is possible to visit the Stonehenge site today, although the only times that visitors are permitted to actually touch the stones are the spring and autumn equinoxes, and the summer and winter solstices.

How to Get There:

The nearest commercial airport to Stonehenge is at Bristol, although flights are far more regular and readily available when you fly to Heathrow airport in London.

From here it takes around an hour and a half to drive and there is a motorway (the A34) running right past the Stonehenge site, so by car is the perfect way to travel. You can either rent a car from London Heathrow, or take a train halfway to Basingstoke and then rent a car from there, from one the agencies such as Thrifty car hire. From here it takes around 40 minutes to get to Stonehenge along the A34.

Where to Stay:

Although you may choose to as it is a larger, more metropolitan area, you do not have to stay in a hotel in Basingstoke. The Best Western Red Lion hotel is within walking distance of Salisbury bus station, and provides three star accommodation for between $268 and $308. Another luxury hotel is the Old Mill Hotel and Restaurant; a 15th century historical building in Harnham.

For a cheaper stay, try the number 2 Park Lane Bed & Breakfast is great quality accommodation in Salisbury, with rooms ranging from $98 to $131 per night.

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  • The Medina of Marrakesh

    The Medina of Marrakesh

    Medival World

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  • Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy

    Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy

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  • Hagia Sophia, Turkey

    Hagia Sophia, Turkey

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  • Porcelain Tower of Nanjing, China

    Porcelain Tower of Nanjing, China

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  • Great Wall of China, China

    Great Wall of China, China

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  • Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa, Egypt

    Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa, Egypt

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  • Colosseum, Italy

    Colosseum, Italy

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  • Stonehenge, England

    Stonehenge, England

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