Sigiriya (Lion Rock) in Sri Lanka has often been called the eighth wonder of the world. Even from a distance it's an incredible sight: a 700ft monolith rising steeply and singularly from the lush green jungle floor, its bare rock sides like a gash in the landscape. The green patches trickling like moss down the centre of the rock are the terraced 'hanging' gardens and fortress city of King Kasyapa, reputedly built in around the fifth century, possibly much older. Most of the fortress is now in ruins, but the elaborate gardens and their fountains are gradually being restored. Sitting at the top of the ruined city, looking down on the lake at sunset, surrounded by hanging gardens with the vast jungle stretching out far below you, the view is timeless and perfect.
The long, steep staircase up to the fortress was originally guarded by a 60ft carved stone lion (hence the name of the place), standing across it. Now only two gigantic stone paws remain, each as wide as a car and taller than a human. On the way up is the Mirror Wall, ten feet high and once entirely coated with a glaze polished so fine and smooth that the whole wall reflected and shone. Most of the glaze has disappeared, leaving a mass of ancient graffiti dating back to the sixth century, left by visitors passing their comments on the paintings of the Sigiriya Damsels, above the wall. These paintings are a series of panels containing elaborately drawn frescoes of hundreds of semi-naked women: the only paintings of their kind in Sri Lanka. Some stories say the women are heavenly nymphs. Some say they're the harem of King Kasyapa, the subject of many legends and reputedly the architect of the fortress.
According to the account in the Culavamsa (an ancient Sinhalese scripture), Kasyapa, an ambitious, bloodthirsty and psychotic prince, acceded to the throne by walling up his father alive. His father, a celebrated engineer of bridges and dams, had started the construction of Sigiriya before his death, but it had proved too difficult. To celebrate his accession Kasyapa spent the next eighteen years (and thousands of workers' lives) finishing what his father had started by building himself an elaborate fortress on the rock, where he lived with his enormous harem of 500 wives. However, Kasyapa's half-brother, who had been exiled, came back to avenge his father with a large army, and Kasyapa was forced to ride out against him with his own troops, all mounted on elephants. Kasyapa took the lead down the mountain. When his elephant's way was blocked by a swamp, he backed up to change direction: unfortunately his troops took this as a signal to retreat, and fled. Deserted and desperate, Kasyapa killed himself. Later theories (notably by a German theorist, Gauribala, in the 1940s) suggest that Kasyapa may in fact have been murdered by one of his wives.
His fortress city probably took much longer than eighteen years to build. It was originally walled and moated, with a complicated set of ramparts dividing the outer and inner cities, cleverly incorporating local hills, rocks and streams into the architecture. An amazing feat of engineering, it's the oldest palace in Sri Lanka. Until fairly recently the site was overgrown and crumbling, but in the last twenty years archaeologists have managed to persuade the Sri Lankan government of the importance of the site (there are prehistoric and Iron Age settlements on the rock, as well as the palace) and they are now investing more money in preserving it.