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Ancient Temples of the World
Ancient Temples of the World

Divine inspiration has had an influence on some of humanity's greatest, most beautiful monuments. These towering temples serve as places of worship, ritual and quiet contemplation – and their magnificence still stands as a testament to the power of belief.

The Temple of Heaven, Beijing

This huge temple complex in central Beijing began construction in the early 15th century. Today it is considered a Taoist structure, but the circular central hall – built entirely from wood, without a single nail – was originally built simply as a place for people to come together and pray for a good harvest.

Nearly everything about the Temple of Heaven's design tells us something about the cosmology of ancient China. The main hall's location was chosen by the Ming Emperor's feng shui masters as the meeting-point of heaven and Earth, while the arrangement of its pillars represent time: four seasons and 12 months in a year, and two sets of 12 hours in each day. The nine stone rings of the Circular Altar symbolise the nine layers of heaven.

The Echo Wall, which surrounds the Imperial Vault, also has a fascinating feature: due to its unique acoustics, two people standing a large distance away can speak in whispers as if they were standing next to one another.

Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok

Bangkok is home to over 400 temples, but Wat Phra Kaew – the Temple of the Emerald Buddha – is perhaps the holiest of them all. The Emerald Buddha itself, a jade figurine, is a cornerstone of Thailand's religious history. According to legend, it was found, fully formed, in a tree struck by lightning.

The temple complex, located in Bangkok's historic centre, is unusual in having no sleeping quarters for its monks – instead, nearly every building, more than 100 in total, has a religious or cultural significance. Influences from India can be seen on the murals encircling the complex, which tell a Thai version of the Hindu epic Ramayana.

Take the opportunity to the 12 salas (pavilions) built around the edges of the temple, which serve as mini-museums housing historic artefacts from nearby Cambodia and Java.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

While it is a relatively recent building, constructed between 1996 and 2007, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is surely Abu Dhabi's most stunning mosque. Its design philosophy is to "unite the world", using materials and workers from all over the globe – including Greek and Italian white marble, which gives the structure its distinctive, almost jewel-like sheen.

The mosque features 82 domes in marble and gypsum, seven enormous gold-plated chandeliers, and is surrounded by peaceful pools that are lit up each night in accordance with the phases of the moon. However, its most astounding feature is the Persian carpet in its main prayer hall; covering an area of more than five square kilometres, it took two years for over a thousand carpet-knotters to make.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is also the resting-place of its namesake, Sheikh Zayed, one of the principal founding fathers of the United Arab Emirates, who died while the mosque was still under construction.

Borobudur, Indonesia

The origins of the world's largest Buddhist temple, believed to have been constructed more than 1,200 years ago, remain mysterious to this day. After spending at least a couple of centuries buried under a layer of volcanic ash and jungle, it was rediscovered by British explorers in 1814. It is still unclear who built it, or why such an incredible feat of architecture was abandoned and forgotten.

Its unusual pyramid-like design consists of six square platforms and three circular ones – seen from above, they form the shape of a mandala, an Indian pattern representing the universe. Borobudur's interior is filled with hundreds of Buddha statues, while its upper platforms feature numerous bell-shaped stupas, many of them containing more Buddhas.

Set in a lush, green valley and overlooked by four volcanoes, the surrounding countryside of Borobudur is almost as beautiful as the building itself, and it is easy to see why Indonesia's ancient Buddhists chose this location as a place to meditate upon the mysteries of creation.

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