From Nan Madol to Karakorum: 7 cities that history forgot

Abandoned historic sites aren't just enticing travel destinations - they also evidence the enormous challenges faced by ancient civilisations. British Museum curator Jago Cooper explores seven inspiring lost cities

Ornate water gardens of the ancient fortress of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka

The idea of discovering a lost city is impossibly romantic: hacking through dense vegetation to reveal the high stone walls of once-magnificent defensive ramparts, and in the mind’s eye roaming the thoroughfares of a formerly bustling city. In reality, though, ‘lost’ is pretty hard to achieve in the modern era – most sites are easily discoverable on Google Maps, and indeed many are not so very inaccessible in person.

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In fact, throughout history great (re)discoveries have nearly always been made by clueless wandering archaeologists who were kindly taken to such sites by local residents – who have always known about them. In a way, it is not so much the place itself but rather the knowledge and widespread understanding of the site that becomes lost – and, for me, this is the attraction in travelling to and working at them. With this in mind, I’ve chosen seven lost cities that have inspired me.


1

Nan Madol

  • Where: Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia
  • What: Canal-laced city on a reef – the ‘Venice of the Pacific’
  • Built by: Saudeleur dynasty, from around the ninth century
  • Why lost: Abandoned in the mid-17th century for unknown reasons

Approaching Nan Madol by canoe affords one of the most awe-inspiring vistas of any of the world’s ‘lost’ cities, yet only a few hundred visitors do so each year.

Built on a series of small, low-lying coral reefs fringing Pohnpei, one of the Federated States of Micronesia, this complex is a remarkable feat of human engineering, its great stone walls rising out of the ocean waters. Consisting of more than 90 artificial islands, it is easy to see why this site has been dubbed the ‘Venice of the Pacific’.

The city emerged around 1,200 years ago and thrived for more than five centuries as a hub of inter-island trade and exchange. The Saudeleur dynasty, which founded the city, became increasingly tyrannical and autocratic over the centuries of its rule, demanding tributes of food staples taro, breadfruit and yams from neighbouring islands.

Ruins of Nan Madol, by clear waters and palm trees
The means by which enormous stones were transported and lifted to build Nan Madol’s edifices remains a mystery. (Image by Michael Runkel / robertharding via Getty Images)

In many ways Nan Madol captures the essence of Pacific culture, in which the vast ocean is seen not as a barrier but as a connected superhighway tying together distant islands and peoples.

As with many places in the Pacific, our understanding of the past here comes from both archaeological excavations and from the rich oral history traditions of the region. These tell of brothers Olisihpa and Olosohpa, who sailed across the seas to found Nan Madol, using magic to levitate the great stones used in its construction and founding a new religion to unify its people.

The true (and doubtless more mundane) method by which such large stones were moved across the water and lifted into place remains unknown, as are the reasons how and why the site was abandoned in the mid-17th century. Rising sea levels are threatening the site, and archaeologists are racing against time to address these most fundamental questions about Nan Madol before it is lost beneath the waves.

2

Tenochtitlán

  • Where: Central Mexico
  • What: Vast island capital
  • Built by: Mexica Aztecs, founded 1325
  • Why lost: Conquered and levelled by the Spanish under Hernán Cortés, 1521

Tenochtitlán was founded by the Mexica, one of seven groups of Aztec peoples to have migrated into the Valley of Mexico by around 1250. The Mexica were the last to arrive and, finding all of the most desirable land already occupied, were forced to settle on a swampy island on the waters of Lake Texcoco.

Remarkably, the Mexica thrived on this inauspicious site, cultivating maize on highly productive raised fields called chinampas built up from the lakebed. The lake’s water level and canal system were controlled by an elaborate system of dams and channels. Through strategic alliances and military prowess, the Mexica transformed themselves from underdogs to rulers and, in 1428, they formed an alliance with two other cities to form the Aztec empire, with the city of Tenochtitlán its undisputed capital. In 1519, on the eve of the Spanish conquest, Tenochtitlán was probably the third-largest city in the world, with an estimated population of about 200,000.

So splendid was the city that when the conquistadors arrived in the area, one of their number described the sight that met them thus:

“And when we saw all those cities and villages built in the water, and other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to Tenochtitlán, we were astounded… Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream… It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before.”

In 1521, Spanish conquistadors launched an attack on Tenochtitlán that spelled the end of the Aztec empire. Once in control of the city, from 13 August, they razed it to the ground and rebuilt it in the image of a Spanish metropolis, with roads instead of canals and churches instead of temple-pyramids. The lake was drained to make way for grazing animals and today all that remains of this once-remarkable capital is buried beneath the sprawl of Mexico City.

3

Mesa Verde Cliff Palace

  • Where: Colorado, south-west USA
  • What: Sophisticated Native American community
  • Built by: Ancestral Puebloan people, from the seventh century AD
  • Why lost: Abandoned after droughts in the late 13th century

The settlements of Mesa Verde – the most substantial of which is today called ‘Cliff Palace’ – are not only visually beautiful, many nestled beneath overhanging cliffs, they are also architecturally unrivalled. Built between the seventh and 13th centuries AD by the Ancestral Puebloan peoples and preserved in pristine condition for centuries, they undermine some common misconceptions of Native North America. These centres housed large, thriving communities with elaborate agricultural traditions based on maize, squash, beans and the domesticated turkey.

Ancestral Puebloan communities still thrive today throughout the region, but when Cliff Palace was rediscovered in the late 1880s it sparked much debate about who created these sites, and why. Mesa Verde – Spanish meaning ‘green table’ – is a large limestone plateau surrounded by dramatic stone canyons and cliffs within which a number of different types of kivas, or house structures, remain.

In fact, the wider settlement covers many square kilometres, but the best-preserved structures were built beneath cliff overhangs. Accessible only from the cliffs, often with extreme difficulty via vertical entrances, they seem to be built to be easily defended from attack. However, recent research suggests that this might just be because those in cliff settings have survived in better condition. More settlements have recently been discovered along the top of the plateau.

Why were the settlements abandoned? Clues come from knowledge of historical climatic conditions across the wider region that is now the south-west of the United States. Elaborate water storage systems and innovative water management technologies developed by the Ancestran Puebloans show how this precious resource was carefully managed and controlled. Much current research is focused on how people coped with droughts and the ways in which various populations changed technologies and adapted to new food sources, as well as moving around the landscape to build new settlements.

Fortunately, the tree posts used to build many of the kivas provide not only very accurate dates for when the trees were cut and used, but also detailed records of the past climate. This has informed a study of the impact of changing climate on the cities. It seems clear now that during the late 13th century a series of droughts, and the social upheaval they created, forced many of the communities of Mesa Verde to abandon these beautiful settlements.

I find it particularly interesting to consider that this area of the American south-west remains extremely vulnerable to droughts and rainfall variation. Today’s inhabitants of Phoenix, Arizona would do well to study the peoples who have lived here for millennia. A visit to Mesa Verde forces one to consider the technological innovations required to cope with droughts and the community responses needed to prevent even the most successful city from becoming uninhabitable.

4

Great Zimbabwe

  • Where: South-central Zimbabwe
  • What: Iron Age capital dominated by monumental enclosure
  • Built by: Possibly the Gokomere culture, from the 11th century AD
  • Why lost: Waning gold trade and perhaps famine or water shortages, c1450

Perhaps no archaeological site in the world has played as important a role in the creation of a national identity as Great Zimbabwe. However, the history of the site – or, more precisely, the history of archaeology here – is complex, and illustrates the ways in which the African past has been manipulated to serve different interests and how for centuries the truth about the city’s origins was lost.

Though the city was spread over 700 hectares and may have housed 18,000 people, its most iconic feature is the Great Enclosure. This monumental stone edifice, with walls up to 10 metres high, is thought to have been a palace. Early European explorers and, later, the colonial government of Rhodesia, could not accept that such constructions had been built by indigenous Africans, instead preferring far-fetched theories involving Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and forcefully suppressing archaeological evidence to the contrary.

Part of the enclosure wall of Great Zimbabwe
Europeans refused to concede that indigenous Africans were capable of constructing the vast stone enclosure of Great Zimbabwe. (Image by Kaku Suzuki/Sebun Photo via Getty Images)

It is now thought that construction of the city began in the 11th century AD and continued until the middle of the last millennium, and that the builders spoke a form of the Shona language common in Zimbabwe today. The city prospered as a trading post for the gold sold to Arab merchants on the Indian Ocean coast; this trade – or, rather, the waning of the trade – may also have contributed to the city’s decline around 1850, as local mines ran dry and power shifted elsewhere.

Great Zimbabwe became a powerful emblem of African achievement, co-opted as a symbol by nationalist groups during the Zimbabwean independence movement. As result, the newly independent country was named after the ancient city – the only archaeological site in the world to be accorded such an honour – and a representation of a soapstone bird carving found at the site appears on the national flag. As more of its story is uncovered, the city reminds us both how easily the truth about the past can be lost, and of the power of history in forging the future.

5

Karakorum

  • Where: Central Mongolia
  • What: Tent capital of the Mongol empire
  • Built by: Genghis Khan, 1220
  • Why lost: Abandoned after the capital was moved by Kublai Khan in 1260, then destroyed by Ming Chinese

Karakorum was founded in 1220 by the great Mongol leader Genghis Khan, and between 1235 and 1260 it was the capital of the Mongol empire. The city was ideally situated: it enjoyed a microclimate that favoured pastoralism and the cultivation of grain and vegetables; it occupied a strategic location on the Silk Road; and it was founded in an area of sacred significance to the peoples of the Steppe.

Walls enclosed Karakorum’s core, but these were primarily for controlling access and would not have held their own against a strong attacking force. The walled centre was tidy and compact, encompassing religious buildings, elite residences and economic activities. Permanent structures were primarily associated only with foreign residents, attesting to religious tolerance and freedom – Mongolian people practised a shamanic religion, but their capital had 12 Buddhist temples, two mosques and a Christian church. A Chinese commercial quarter was a hub for the production of and trade in metal, yarn, ceramics and beadwork.

Despite the city’s status as sometime imperial capital, archaeologists have discovered little evidence of occupation by Mongolian people, suggesting that a huge proportion of the city’s dwellings left no trace. Mongolian people lived in trellis tents called gers (the Mongolian word for yurts), which would have been erected outside the city walls. When the Khan’s court arrived, this modest conglomeration swelled to a sprawling tent metropolis, transforming the surrounding grassy plain into a maze of unplanned streets –thus the city could expand and contract as needed.

However, Karakorum’s era of prominence was short-lived. Just 40 years after its foundation, the capital of the Mongol empire was moved by Kublai Khan first to Shangdu (Xanadu) and then to Khanbaliq (now Beijing), and much of this ‘tent city’ would have dispersed. In 1388, the core of Karakorum was completely destroyed by Ming Chinese troops. Today, only a solitary stone tortoise remains as a relic of this once-thriving urban centre.

6

Sigiriya

  • Where: Central Sri Lanka
  • What: Elegant city dominated by a rock-top palace
  • Built by: King Kashyapa, in the late fifth century AD
  • Why lost: Abandoned by Kashyapa’s brother after he succeeded the throne in AD 495

Venturing between a pair of giant stone lion paws to climb a near-vertical rock face up to the hilltop citadel of Sigiriya is an unforgettable experience. This is a site that visually embodies the essence of a lost city. A carefully planned, stone-built settlement was created here over 1,500 years ago and is exceptionally well preserved today, its evocative wall paintings still protected by the sheer stone cliffs.

The site is dominated by a palace complex set atop a stone plateau that looms some 200 metres from the plains below. Surrounding this rock outcrop is an elegantly laid-out city, with moats and canals providing both defensive and architecturally elaborate features. In common with many ancient sites in northern Sri Lanka, Sigiriya’s water-management systems are incredibly elaborate and demonstrate the ingenious ways in which reservoir tanks, canals and stone chambers were used to control this precious resource – crucial, given the highly variable rainfall in the region.

Such intelligent utilisation of water allowed the development of beautiful gardens with different environmental conditions at each level of the city. These represent some of the earliest and best-preserved landscaped gardens in the world.

Sigiriya was largely built by King Kashyapa after he usurped his father, Dhatusena, around AD 477. The city enjoyed a relatively brief heyday. Less than 20 years later, Kashyapa died after defeat at the hands of his brother, and the site was abandoned as a capital.

7

Palmyra

  • Where: Central Syria
  • What: Wealthy caravan city on important trade routes
  • Built by: Major construction during Roman rule from the first century AD
  • Why lost: Razed by Roman troops under Aurelian in AD 273

Almost all ruined or ‘lost’ cities are vulnerable. Climate change, extreme weather events, erosion, mass tourism, absence of financial resources and urban sprawl are just some of the threats facing these sites, despite great efforts to protect them. However, few are the targets of wilful human destruction. Yet the extraordinary city of Palmyra has for several years been at the centre of a battleground – both real and cultural. We have witnessed the methodical and purposeful annihilation of one of the jewels of the ancient world, and we have been powerless to act – or so it feels.

The ancient city of Palmyra sits in a desert oasis in south-central Syria, where it became an important pit stop for trade caravans plying the Silk Road. First documented nearly 4,000 years ago, Palmyra came under Roman control in the mid-first century AD. At its height, during the first three centuries AD, Palmyra harboured a number of different faiths, ethnic groups and cultural influences, including Amorite, Aramean and Arab, as well as Greco-Roman.

Syrian tank near ancient city of Palmyra
A Syrian army tank guards the damaged site of the ancient city of Palmyra in March 2017. Digital technology has been used to document the entire site in a bid to preserve a record of its archaeological treasures. (Image by LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images)

Diversity nurtured the city’s commercial success and, as its importance and wealth grew, so its magnificent architectural treasures emerged, drawing from this melting pot of origins: the Temples of Bel and Baalshamin, the Roman Theatre and the Great Colonnade, to name just a few. Political instability in the third century led to repercussions from Rome and in AD 273 the troops of Emperor Aurelian sacked and destroyed the city, rendering it an insignificant outpost.

The social plurality and tolerance that enabled Palmyra to rise from the sands has been a root cause of its return to rubble at the hands of fundamentalist forces that strive for uniformity of faith and culture. It is easy to despair of preventing the destruction of more cultural treasures in the face of the determined iconoclasm of groups such as the so-called Islamic State. But we are not powerless. The tech industry, for example, is rising to the challenge of protecting and preserving what we can of sites under threat, using satellites, drones and 3D image-capture. During a window of opportunity in 2016 between the first and second occupations of Palmyra by the militants, every inch of the ancient city was captured digitally and it will soon be possible to explore it in virtual reality. With this data in our possession, the lessons of tolerance and diversity that Palmyra epitomised will be protected and championed across the world as the antithesis of the absolutist doctrine that seeks to erase it.

Jago Cooper is curator of the Americas at the British Museum, and presenter of BBC TV series including Lost Kingdoms of South America

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This article was taken from issue 4 of BBC World Histories magazine, first published in June 2017