When we think of buildings that have survived to the modern day, we think of structures such as the Colosseum, the Leaning Tower of Piza, and the pyramids. But what about structures that are still in use—their original use—to this day?
While most ancient structures have gained a second life as tourist attractions, the humble bridge has often maintained its original use throughout the ages. Due to being built to last, there are many bridges out there that were built hundreds of years before our time and still see daily use. While old bridges often get destroyed in disasters, blown up in wars, or burned down in tragic accidents, the bridges in this list have survived the ages relatively unchanged.
The Romans built many things that stood the test of time. With their rigid and effective building techniques, a few important constructions built during the Roman era still stand to this day. If you’re in the mood to inspect their handiwork for yourself, simply take a trip to Rome and visit the Pons Fabricius bridge.
The bridge was built by Lucius Fabricius in 62 BC, possibly to replace a wooden bridge that had burned down. You can tell Lucius commanded its construction because he had it written on the bridge in four different spots.
After a flood in 23 BC, two consuls known as Marcus Lollius and Quintus Aemilius Lepidus added adjustments in 21 BC in order to help preserve the bridge, although it’s not stated what the improvements were exactly. It might have been the addition of the small arch on the bridge which serves the purpose of relieving pressure during high waters. That alone probably helped the bridge survive as long as it has.
Built in 1345, the Ponte Vecchio can be found in Florence, Italy. It was built to replace a wooden bridge that didn’t stand up too well against floods, and it still remains in its original glory.
The interesting part of Ponte Vecchio (which translates into “Old Bridge”) is that it was built to contain an arcade of shops which is being used even today. The bridge used to be haunted by fishmongers and butchers in the 1400s, whose crafts caused the bridge to contain a foul odor. Given that Florence was becoming the hub of the Renaissance at the time, Grand Duke Ferdinand I had the merchants removed and the sale of fish and meat products on the bridge banned. He ordained that the only people who could sell on the bridge were goldsmiths and silversmiths, which helped develop Florence’s imagery to wealthy foreign visitors.
This bridge wouldn’t have made it to the modern day if it wasn’t for an act of respect performed during wartime. In World War II, as the German soldiers fled Florence, they blew up every bridge they crossed to stall enemy forces. Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge spared—they chose instead to destroy the access to the bridge, rather than the bridge itself.
An Italian bridge was constructed in 1591 to replace a wooden one that had collapsed. It was designed by one Antonio da Ponte, who had some stiff competition to design the bridge, with rivals being Michelangelo and Palladio. Unfortunately, once it was built, it didn’t go down so well with the locals. It received both praise and scorn from critics, who slammed its design for being “top-heavy and ungraceful,” the same attention the Eiffel Tower drew after it was built.
Despite the criticism, the bridge has remained very much intact since it was built. Given it had to have a 7-meter (24 ft) arch to allow galleys below as well as enough strength to hold up the row of shops that spans its center, it had to be structurally sound. It’s so sound, in fact, that cannons were fired from it during riots in 1797.
Built in 1667 on the foundations of an older bridge, this bridge’s construction was ordered by the late Shah Abbas II. Being a bridge, its main purpose was to allow people to cross the Zayandeh River, but it also has other uses. It acts as a dam and has sluice gates, yet its most interesting use is the social aspect.
While we’re unfamiliar with a bridge being the place to be used for social hangouts, that didn’t stop Shah Abbas II from trying. Along the bridge—and still visible to this day— is an impressive array of paintings and tile work. A pavilion was constructed in the middle so that Shah Abbas II and his courtiers could look over the scenery. These days, the pavilion is a teahouse and art gallery. If that’s not enough, within the pavilion was a stone seat which the Shah Abbas used to look over the river. The seat is still around but very much a remnant of its former glory.
Also known as the “Bridge of Sighs” (not the one in Venice), Shaharah Bridge can be found in Yemen. Built in the 17th century, Shaharah Bridge is a path that spans a 200-meter-deep (650 ft) canyon in order to connect two mountains, Jabal al Emir and Jabal al Faish. It was a lot of trouble for the inhabitants of both mountains to visit one another, as it meant climbing down one mountain and scaling another. The bridge was made to better connect the villages on both mountains to save time and effort.
It wasn’t just a hot spot for transportation. Given that it was the only entrance to the town of Shaharah, it had to be fortified to help fend off Turkish invaders. It is said that the locals know how to destroy the bridge at a moment’s notice, isolating the villagers from danger.
These days, Shaharah Bridge is a major tourist attraction, and it still receives its intended use by the locals as a functioning bridge.
Also known as Severan Bridge, this was built in Turkey during the second century by four Kommagenean cities. Its intent was to honor the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, his wife Julia, and their two sons, Caracalla and Geta. While very old, it also holds the title for the second longest arched bridge built by The Romans.
On each side, there are two columns that were built to represent the members of the emperor’s family—Severus and Julia on one side and Caracalla and Geta on the other. If you go to look at them for yourself, you’ll notice the column that represents Geta is currently missing. This is because Caracalla assassinated Geta due to an ongoing rivalry, with reports saying that Geta was in his mother’s arms at the time. Caracalla went so far as to have Geta’s friends and allies put to death. For a final blow to Geta’s legacy, Caracalla ordained that any mention of Geta’s name should be erased from history, and the column representing Geta was destroyed.
Also known as Zhaozhou Bridge, Anji Bridge is the oldest bridge in China, built in AD 605. You can tell it was designed to last, as its name translates to “Safe Crossing Bridge.” It was engineered to be one of the best in the world. At the time, it was the most technically advanced bridge due to having the largest arc. Long after its construction, the bridge was winning awards; it was praised as the 12th milestone of international civil engineering by the American Society of Civil Engineers and awarded a bronze monument.
Given that it’s still solid enough to cross, it’s obvious that the Anji Bridge, while very ambitious, didn’t cut any corners in its design. In fact, the bridge has stood up to even more than the test of time. It has managed to survive 10 floods, eight wars, and countless earthquakes, while only requiring repair work nine times in its documented lifespan.
Ordered to be constructed by Emperor Hadrian in AD 136, Ponte Sant’Angelo (Bridge of the Holy Angel) is one of the most famous bridges in Rome . . . and one of the most beautiful. It was a slightly self-indulgent act of Hadrian, as the goal of the bridge was to connect the whole of Rome to his own mausoleum, the Castel Sant’Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel). They’re both labeled under the suffix “of the Holy Angel” due to the statue of the archangel Michael on the top of the mausoleum itself. The angel was said to have appeared in 590 BC on top of the same building and miraculously ended the plague in Rome.
One of the more beautiful additions to the bridge happened long after Hadrian was around to see it for himself. In 1668, sculptor Lorenzo Bernini enhanced the bridge by designing 10 angels to adorn its length, two of which he made himself. Each angel holds a symbol that represents the crucifixion of Jesus, such as a crown of thorns or a whip. Even after all these years, both the bridge and the angels still stand, making it a great sightseeing spot.
Found in Exmoor, the Tarr Steps is what’s known as a clapper bridge—a bridge made entirely out of rocks resting atop one another. Given its construction, it’s hard to tell when it was built, although guesses range from 3000 BC to medieval times. The earliest documented description of Tarr Steps was in Tudor times, which means it dates at least to the 1500s.
Tarr Steps has a local legend that states that it was built by the Devil himself, who swore to kill anyone that dared to cross it. When the villagers sent across a cat to test the theory, the cat was vaporized. Then they sent across a vicar (who was probably worried about receiving the same fate as the cat) to meet with the Devil at the halfway point of the bridge. After he and the Devil had an argument, the Devil struck a deal: Anyone could use the bridge, but if the Devil wanted to use the area for sunbathing, the ban would resume. If you want to walk the Tarr Steps yourself, make sure there aren’t any sunbathing demons before you try.
Unfortunately, the Tarr Steps is a slight exception to the trend of bridges that have stayed mostly intact throughout the ages. Given that a pile of rocks doesn’t have the best of foundations, segments have been bowled over by floods through the course of history. For this reason, all the stones have been numbered so they can be recovered and placed back where they belong to keep the authenticity intact. Even though it’s been put back together several times, it’s still technically the same bridge.
The Arkadiko Bridge in Greece is the oldest surviving arch bridge still in use. It’s believed to have been built during the Greek Bronze Age, around 1300–1200 BC, meaning it has gone through a lot to make it to today.
It acted as part of a military road system between the cities Tiryns and Epidauros back in Mycenaean times. It has a wider berth than a normal footbridge, with a road width of around 2.5 meters (8 ft). Historians believe that this additional width was designed so that the bridge could handle chariots. What makes it even more impressive is that it’s made purely from limestone boulders, using no binding agent between the stones to keep the bridge intact. That means the bridge has lasted over three millennia from Mycenaean masonry skills alone and has survived it all.
S.E. Batt is a freelance writer and author. He enjoys a good keyboard, cats, and tea, even though the three of them never blend well together. You can follow his antics over at @Simon_Batt or his fiction website at www.sebatt.com.