Whether it be the colossal mausoleums and elaborate graves of the great and the good or eerie cemeteries and labyrinthine catacombs holding unidentified remains…however morbid it may seem, a visit to these places of the dead can be fascinating, providing a valuable insight into different cultures and civilisations throughout history. Eleanor Lawrence picks her top nine across the globe, from the unusual and spine-chilling to the grand and extravagant.
Top 9 tombs... around the world
Mausoleums, pyramids, cemeteries…Cox & Kings’ Eleanor Lawrence picks her top nine from across the globe.
Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina
This unusual cemetery is something akin to a miniature city for the dead. Stroll along the ‘streets’, admiring each statue and vault, all different in design – baroque, neo-gothic, art deco. Aside from the ornate architecture, it’s also worth visiting for the many illustrious names buried here, from former presidents and politicians – most famously Eva (Evita) Perón, Argentina’s idolised first lady – to scientists, poets, actors, military officers and more. Each has a story to tell, so it’s worth going with a guide who can look out the most interesting mausoleums and tell you about the person (or family) buried there.
Recoleta Cemetery features on all our groups to Argentina, which can be viewed here.
Catacombs of San Francisco Monastery, Lima, Peru
Similar to Kyevo-Pecherska Lavra, the pretty yellow buildings of this monastery hide creepy catacombs beneath them, but this time it’s decorative displays of bones rather than mummified monks. Thousands of bodies lie beneath the church, with many of the skulls and bones separated and stacked into neat patterns. Another jaw-dropping sight is the library. Stocked with ancient religious texts, this is a bibliophile’s dream come true. Some of the texts were brought by the first Spanish priests that arrived here. The first Spanish dictionary also resides here, as does a bible printed in 1571-1572.
Mausoleum of Cyrus the Great, Pasargadae, Iran
The sight of this mausoleum, set on its own out on the Morghab plain against a backdrop of mountains, is moving in itself. When you then consider the length of time that this simple, limestone structure has stood here, surviving through 25 centuries, it becomes even more poignant.
It’s believed to be the tomb of Cyrus the Great, first king of the Achaemenid Empire and founder of its beautiful capital, Pasargadae, which lies in ruins nearby. Cyrus was and still is regarded in Iran as a remarkable ruler who made great advances in human rights and politics. In recent years, Iranians have tried to establish a ‘Cyrus Day’ on 29th October, an unofficial annual gathering at the mausoleum to commemorate the day he is believed to have conquered Babylon and first established his empire.
Okunoin Cemetery, Koyasan, Japan
The one thing this place isn’t is spooky. On the contrary, many find it a thought-provoking and peaceful place to wander. The largest graveyard in Japan, there are over 200,000 tombstones here, laid out along mossy paths beneath towering pine trees. Important monks, feudal lords and prominent historical figures have made this their final resting place alongside ordinary citizens. Even companies have set up memorials here; more unusual examples include a giant cup in commemoration of former employees of a coffee company and a monument to the insect victims of a pesticide business.
So what makes this place so special? Kobu Daishi, the highly revered monk who founded the town of Koyasan in 816AD as a centre for his teachings on Shingon Buddhism, is buried in a temple here, although it is believed that he continues to live in a meditative state, praying for the souls of those in the cemetery. Whether you’re of a religious bent or not, there is something truly spiritual about this place.
A visit to Okunoin Cemetery is included on our 12-day Japan Self-Guided Adventure.
Nubian Pyramids, Sudan
When you think of pyramids, you tend to think of Egypt. Not many cast their eyes further south along the Nile into Sudan. Here you can find pyramids that, although not in such a good state of repair or on such a scale as the pyramids at Giza, are nonetheless remarkable and more atmospheric for their remote location, the lack of crowds and almost zero commercialisation.
These pyramids were the tombs of the kings and queens of the Kushite Kingdom, an ancient civilisation that, at its height, ruled the Nile valley right the way to the delta. The pyramids are located at several sites but the most extensive examples are the necropolis at Meroë and those at Napata. Treasure hunters wantonly plundered almost all of the tombs, carelessly damaging the ancient yet advanced structures. Some have since been reconstructed while others have been left as they are, although maintained to prevent further damage.
The various sites of the Nubian pyramids are visited on our 11-day group tour Treasures of Ancient Nubia.
Peter and Paul Fortress, St Petersburg, Russia
If you want to see a stately, imperial tomb then look no further than the cathedral in the Peter and Paul fortress in St Petersburg where you’ll find not just one but 41 – all the tsars and tsarinas of Russia from Peter the Great onwards.
Immaculately maintained, the white marble sarcophagi all have the same decoration of a gilded bronze cross and double headed eagles. There are just two that differ, those of Alexander II and his wife which are made of semi-precious grey-green and pink stone. Even the remains of the last Romanovs, Emperor Nicholas II and his family, notoriously executed in Yekaterinburg during the Russian Revolution, were moved here in 1998, reunited with the rest of their dynasty.
Shah-i-Zinda, Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The Shah-i-Zinda necropolis has to contain some of the most beautiful mausoleums in the world. This avenue of grand tombs has been added to over several centuries but started around the central shrine, the supposed grave of Kusam ibn Abbas, a cousin of Mohammed and preacher who brought Islam to the region in the seventh century.
Marvel at the delicate majolica and terracotta work. Some of the oldest tombs are decorated in rich patterns of the most exquisite blue, Timurid-era tilework, dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries.
The Shah-i-Zinda is visited on both of our group tours to Uzbekistan, which can be viewed here.
Panteón de San Miguel Cemetery, Oaxaca, Mexico
This enormous graveyard in Oaxaca is fascinating to wander not only for its many illustrious occupants but also for its pastiche of styles, from grand, neoclassical tombs with pilasters, pediments and columns to simple, modernist graves.
To see it in all its glory, make a respectful visit on the Day of the Dead when families come here to present offerings of flowers and food to the departed. Candles light up the night, incense and the sound of music waft through the air and paper streamers add colour, making this more of a cheerful celebration of life than a solemn salutation to death.
Our 14-day group tour Highlights of Mexico features festival departure dates so you can witness local traditions on the Day of the Dead.
Mausoleum of Che Guevara, Santa Clara, Cuba
The adored Cuban revolutionary didn’t actually come to rest in his mausoleum until 10 years after it was originally built for him. Killed in Bolivia in 1967, his remains were finally discovered in an unmarked mass grave, identified by the fact that his hands had been removed for fingerprints to prove that he was dead. His corpse and those of 26 other guerrillas were brought back here in 1997.
The mausoleum encompasses a museum on Che Guevara’s life and a bronze statue overlooking a grand parade ground set on a hill above Santa Clara. Whatever your opinion on this sometimes controversial idol of the revolution, it’s hard not to be moved by this shrine to Cuba’s hero.
The Mausoleum of Che Guevara is visited on our 12-day Splendours of Cuba group tour.