There are some remarkable cities dotted around the world but what about the ones that have
been consigned to the past? Today we look at 9 amazing cities that were once bustling
hubs, full of life but are now a mere shell of their former selves, forever lost to history.
Our first lost city is in south-western USA and it was probably abandoned by the 14th
century. White immigrants rediscovered it in the late 1800s. The local Native American’s
obviously knew of its existence but left these sacred ancestral sites uninhabited.
Mesa Verde in Colorado is a large national park and it holds around 4,300 ancient dwellings,
with the largest being Cliff Palace. This giant 150 room structure follows the shallow
curve of an overhanging cliff and, with its sandstone wall, looks like it’s been carved
right out of the rock. And if you’re thinking, wait; that’s not a city, remember this was
built after a long history of nomadic travelling. The people would constantly be on the move,
following the seasons and the various animals that they hunted. So to build something this
big and this permanent was impressive. It would be just like you coming from a tiny
farming village and getting off the train in New York.
Historians call the people Puebloans, from the Spanish “pueblo” meaning town. They
started building permanent structures in around 750 AD, as a way to store food for longer,
probably to get some down time when they were sick of running after buffalo. As settlements
grew, they increased their reliance on farming since they could no longer move with the migrating
animals. Plus, the more they built, the more wood they needed and so the less forest there
was for them to forage and hunt in. So what happened to its inhabitants? Well,
unlike many great Native American peoples, it wasn’t the early settlers who drove them
out of their homes. More likely it was a changing climate and a series of mega-droughts in the
13th century which hindered their farming. No matter how cool your house is, you’re
not going to stay if you can’t eat. We’re heading around the other side of the
world now, to Ancient Mesopotamia, which is considered by many to be the cradle of civilization.
With creations such as writing, metallurgy and farming, they started the long journey
that led to you being able play Angry Birds, on your smartphone, whilst eating a Big Mac.
And Mesopotamia housed one of mankind’s greatest cities; Babylon. At its peak, it
had a population of over 200,000 people, which was around 0.003% of the world’s population,
or to put that in modern terms, it would be over 20 million people. Only Tokyo is bigger
than that right now. The city has a long and violent story and
empires have risen and fallen around it. It appeared in history around 2300 BC, although
who built it and exactly when are a little fuzzy, since 3000 years of bad filing have
meant it’s kind of difficult to find the original planning application. After 2000
BC the rise of the Babylonian empire began and the city became the key holy place of
Mesopotamia and was likely the largest city in the world at that point. It went through
a bit of a slump, but hey, we all do, and then grew again to greatness between 600 – 300
BC. It’s been ruled by such leaders as Nebuchadnezzar,
who created the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and by Alexander the Great. When
Alexander died, the battle to take over his power basically emptied the city. I can only
imagine his wake was full of big egos and an awful lot of wine.
It was also supposedly the home of the mythical Tower of Babel, which was written about in
the book of Genesis. The tower was built to reach all the way up into the heavens and
the architects hoped it would act as a sign that their people would remain and not be
spread out across the world. But then God came down and threw a spanner in the works
by making everyone speak a different language, so they had to wander off to separate corners
of the earth. You could read this all as an allegory, showing that Mesopotamia really
was the birthplace of all civilizations. So where is Babylon now? Its ruins lie in
modern day Iraq. In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein started to rebuild parts of it to demonstrate
the great history of the Arab region. He also decided to add a huge portrait of himself
and Nebuchadnezzar and inscribed “this was built by Saddam Hussein, son of Nebuchadnezzar,
to glorify Iraq”. If you’re going to be a twisted, evil dictator, you may as well
do it with style. Now we travel south, across the Mediterranean
to reach Carthage, a lost city on the tip of Tunisia, at Africa’s point closest to
Italy. The area is now a suburb of the Tunisian capital; Tunis, but it was once the great
power hub of the area, the base of a naval empire.
The city was created by Phoenician colonists in about 814 BC, travelling over from their
home, in what is now known as Lebanon. They were led by their queen, Dido - no, not the
late 90s British pop artist. Queen Dido was worshipped for many years after her death,
this was largely due to her flamboyant end. A rival king was threatening to invade Carthage
if she didn’t consent to marry him. She built a huge pyre, pretending that she was
burning everything that reminded her of her previous, now deceased, husband. But at the
final moment she leapt onto the fire and fell on her own sword. Now that’s what I call
a rejection; it makes someone not showing up to a date seem rather mild in comparison.
“Do you want to go out with me?” “I’d rather fall on my own sword, whilst
simultaneously enveloped in flames.” “Think I’ll take that as a no then.”
Carthage was actually very difficult to attack though, with its massive navy of 220 warships
and an enormous 37 kilometres of wall surrounding it. In fact, it wasn’t until 146 BC that
it first fell. The Romans, who were in a pretty bad mood from dealing with Hannibal (the Carthaginian
military commander, not the cannibal) for 15 years, took the city. They then burnt the
ships and sold some 50,000 Carthaginians into slavery.
The Romans then built it up into one of the largest cities in their empire. The Vandals
took it over for a while but eventually, in 698 AD there was the second great battle of
Carthage. The armies of Umayyad, one of the large Islamic Caliphates, completely destroyed
the city, cutting off its water, tearing down the walls and wrecking the harbour. It really
ruined its retail value.
Our next city was left half-abandoned in the jungle for around 300 years but has now become
one of the world’s largest tourist attractions. Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument
in the world and is the pride of Cambodia, even featuring on their national flag. Constructed
in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, it was originally designed as a Hindu temple
but had become Buddhist by the end of the century. This was mainly due to a change in
the beliefs of the land. The beautiful temples we see now are only
a small part of what used to exist though. Angkor was in fact the largest pre-industrial
city in the world and between 1010 and 1220 it held at least 0.1% of the world’s population
within its 1000 square kilometre sprawl. There are a number of theories as to why this
architectural marvel ended up mostly deserted. There was an uprising against a ruler from
Siam in 1431, since the Siamese had taken control of the city some 80 years earlier.
This probably led a large portion of people to migrate out of the city. But it could also
have been a mixture of floods, earthquakes and the bubonic plague; hopefully not all
at once, that would have been a really bad week.
So Angkor was left to rot in the jungle and some monks stayed on in the temple, which
is most of what remains of the city today. The large moat, that surrounds the holy building,
mostly protected it from the encroaching vegetation and from the bullets and shells of the Cambodian
civil war. Ironically, despite all the conservation work, it’s now under more threat than ever
since all of those tourists marching over the sandstone and using up the ground water
are weakening the buildings day by day. The damage of 500 years of jungle growth is nothing
compared to what a little kid with a football and an ice cream can do.
Okay, let’s come out of the jungle and head to higher ground.
Machu Picchu sits almost two and a half kilometres above sea level and had a brief but mysterious
history. The Incas built it in 1450 but we are still unclear as to its purpose. Since
the site, although very beautiful, has no real strategic benefit in terms of trade or
food or power. Perhaps it was just a king trying to be difficult, you know how kings
are. The most likely reason is that it was some
sort of royal retreat, like the US president’s Camp David, or Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest up
in the mountains of Bavaria. No eagles for the Incas though, they had the large stone
Altar of the Condor where they would perform human sacrifices and the birds would come
and remove the carcasses. The Incas were quite advanced and the construction
of some of Machu Picchu’s temples is so accurate that you can’t even fit a sheet
of paper between the stonework, meaning it holds together without mortar. The stepped
terraces of the city are also a very smart way of adapting the mountain to the needs
of the city. Surprisingly, their civilisation never got around to inventing the wheel, although
perhaps if you’re over 2 kilometres up a hill, the last thing you want is to see your
cart rolling off down into the nearest valley. In just over 100 years, the city was deserted,
possibly due to the devastation caused by smallpox, which the Conquistadors brought
with them from Spain; what a lovely welcome gift.
On to Italy now and into a bay on the west coast that also holds the city of Naples.
Naples has existed in some form for around 3000 years, making it one of the longest continuously
inhabited places on earth. But across the other side of the bay lies Pompeii, and Pompeii
was not quite so lucky. In 79 AD, the entire Roman city was destroyed
and buried under a huge mound of ash and pumice up to six metres deep, killing some 16,000
people, when Mount Vesuvius erupted. A mixture of ash, stones and gases were blown 33 kilometres
into the air and an astonishing 1.5 million tonnes of pumice and molten rock were spat
out of the volcano every second! This ended the 500-year history of Pompeii, having been
built at some point around 700-600 BC. So, I guess some of you are thinking; why
build your city next to a giant volcano? That just seems like trouble. Well, it was actually
a pretty quiet volcano then, since the previous eruption had been a relatively small one almost
200 years before. Still, 16 years before the eruption that destroyed Pompeii, there was
a huge earthquake that took out a lot of the city and led to looting and chaos. This was
less a red flag, more an entire flag factory making 10 metres square banners saying “move
away from the giant fire bucket”.
Excavation of the city began in 1738 when workmen discovered it whilst digging the foundations
for a summer palace. It’s a huge tourist attraction with much of the art and buildings
restored. Vesuvius hasn’t erupted since 1944. But with 30 separate eruptions since
79 AD, this vivacious volcano shows no signs of stopping and poses an enormous threat to
the 3 million people who now live within 20 miles of its crater.
For our next city we travel to the deserts of Jordan.
Petra was a city carved into the walls of looming sandstone, which form a natural fortress
around it. It lay on the key caravan route through to Gaza and the Red Sea so it was
the centre of Nabataen trade. The Nabateans were described as “one of the most gifted
people of the ancient world” and it’s hard to argue with. The Petra we see now,
of stunning tombs cut with beautiful detail, and ingenious waterways that made an arid
land thrive, was probably built around the 1st century. At the same time in ancient Britain,
we were pretty pleased that the romans had invaded so we didn’t have to live in a circle
of mud and sticks anymore. The tombs and temples are often much smaller
inside than their grand entrances would suggest but, despite this, experts believe that we
have only uncovered around 15% of what is there. There are many secrets yet to be found.
Some Bedouin tribes believe there is treasure in the rocks and you can see the bullet holes
where they have tried to shoot it out. The Romans came along in 106 AD and the city
began to empty as its importance as a trade route decreased and by 700 AD it was consigned
to history. If you don’t want to make the long journey
to see the ancient city, you’ll be glad to know it’s on Google street view so you
can enjoy some of its wonders without even having to get dressed.
Our final two cities have more of an air of mystery around them since we have no definite
proof that they actually existed, nor do we know exactly where they could have been.
Our first legend is the magical city of gold; El Dorado
In the earlier versions of the story, El Dorado was a man and may have been the king of the
native Muisca people, a tribe from near modern day Bogota in Columbia. When a new king was
appointed, he would be covered in gold dust and then dipped into the waters of Lake Guatavita
while his onlookers also threw in gold jewellery. From the mid 16th century and for hundreds
of years after, many attempts to find the city were made but nothing was ever found.
A lot of the myth was fuelled by the fact that the conquistadors saw many of the local
people wearing gold, without seeming to understand its value, so they assumed there must be some
huge stash of it somewhere. One failed attempt resulted in the discovery of a great river
and when a tribe of warrior women chased the explorers off, their similarity to a Greek
myth was noted and the river was named; the Amazon.
The English explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh led two great expeditions to Venezuela, aiming
to find El Dorado and to establish an English colony in South America and disrupt the Spanish
trade with the native people. On the second journey he was on strict orders not to get
into any battles with the Spanish due to the delicate politics back home. Raleigh stayed
on the island of Trinidad but his son was killed in an inevitable fight with the Spanish.
When Raleigh returned home, he was beheaded for disobeying orders. I’m not sure what
they really expected though, fighting the Spanish was pretty much a national pastime
around that time. Since the city El Dorado proved impossible
to find, many resorted to searching Lake Guatavita. There were many attempts but surely the best
was when a London company drained the whole lake in 1898 and were annoyed to find that
the remaining mud baked as hard as concrete in the jungle sun, making it almost unpassable.
They uncovered a pathetic £500 worth of gold for their efforts. They probably made more
money in free drinks when they told the story in the pub back home.
And finally, the most famous lost city of them all; Atlantis.
The legend of an island lost to the sea has kept going for thousands of years but no evidence
has ever been found and there is a general consensus amongst historians that it has no
real basis in truth. Its origin is largely down to the Greek philosopher Plato who discussed
an imaginary island as part of his work The Republic which he used to explore the idea
of a perfect state. In the story, Ancient Athenians are the only
people able to defend against Atlantean attack and the island itself loses favour with the
gods who decided to submerge it into the Atlantic Ocean. Probably a bit harsh but then Greek
gods aren’t exactly famous for their calm demeanour and balanced decision making, they
were far too engrossed with drinking, incest and making animals with lots of heads.
Plato’s story stuck though and there have been hundreds of proposed sites for this lost
city; everywhere from the Mediterranean to the Antarctica and even the Bermuda Triangle.
The people of Atlantis were rumoured to be a technologically advanced super race with
submarines and aircraft. But if they were so smart, why didn’t they do something when
they noticed the sea levels were rising around them. Or maybe they did and we just haven’t
found them yet.