Determined archaeologists have helped to uncover ancient lost cities and put them on the map again, and here are our top picks
In 1940 an American explorer named Theodore Morde emerged from the depths of the Honduran rainforest with a startling discovery – he claimed to have found the lost “White City”, otherwise more exotically known as the “City of the Monkey God”, a mysterious paradise with immense wealth. He returned to the US with thousands of artefacts – including beautiful ceramic figurines – and vowed to return to excavate it properly. His wishes went unfulfilled, however – he was found hanging in his room in 1954. His death was ruled as suicide, and the location of the lost city died with him.
But that hasn’t stopped people from searching for this rumoured lost city. In 2015, following an aerial survey (with the help of a million-dollar LIDAR scanner), the National Geographic sent a photographer (Dave Yoder) and a writer (Douglas Preston) to join a team of scientists and filmmakers on the quest. Protected by 16 members of the Honduran Special Forces, they ventured into the untamed wilderness of La Mosquitia in the easternmost part of Honduras. The team claimed to have found the ruins of a lost city that belonged to a lost civilisation. Two years later, Douglas Preston wrote and published the bestseller The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story, describing the team’s attempt to locate the ruins and the peril they faced, including the threat from a flesh-eating parasite.
While the National Geographic team didn’t disclose the exact location of this lost city they found, we do know of other lost cities that have been rediscovered – some of which we have been fortunate to visit ourselves – and here are our top picks.
1. Mohenjo-daro, Pakistan
Mohenjo-daro, hauntingly translates to “Mound of the Dead Men”, was the name given to an ancient city built over 4,500 years ago by the Indus people in the modern-day Sindh region, Pakistan. The original name of the city is not known, as nobody has managed to translate the ancient language left behind by this lost civilisation yet.
Mohenjo-daro was discovered in 1919-20 by R.D. Banerji, a specialist from the Archaeological Survey of India. Following the discovery, archaeologists began to understand the Indus people and place them as one of the world’s three earliest civilisations (the other two being Mesopotamia and Egypt).
Evidence also suggests that the Indus people led a peaceful life, with no armed forces and few weapons. The sheer size and sophisticated layout of the city, which included sanitation systems, also point to an advanced society.
2. Ani, Turkey
The ruins at Ani are haunting, so much so that one BBC report called it “an abandoned city of ghosts” that stands in the remote corner of northeast Turkey, near the border with Armenia.
But once upon a time, Ani was the capital of the Bagratid Dynasty that ruled Armenia and Georgia, alive with craftsmen, shepherds, and most importantly, tradespeople, as the city was located on a branch of the Silk Road. The Bagratid Dynasty used its wealth to build a string of churches, chapels and mausoleums across the plateau, earning it the nickname ‘The City of 1,001 Churches’.
But the good days didn’t last. Ani was sacked and besieged by the Byzantines, Seljuk Turks, Georgians, and the Mongols. After a devasting earthquake in 1319, the city never recovered and before long, it was abandoned and largely forgotten.
3. Mesa Verde National Park, USA
The rich legacy left by the ancient Ancestral Pueblo people in Mesa Verde, in present-day Colorado, is simply astonishing.
For more than 700 years, they settled in the alcoves of the canyon walls and tended to their crops of beans and corn nearby. They hunted deer and elk, along with smaller animals like rabbits and squirrels. They cooked, ate, and tossed their trash down the slope in front of their homes – the garbage heaps now provide us with clues to their daily life. Then sometime in the 1200s, something dreadful happened, forcing them to pack up and leave.
Possible causes? Archaeologists believe that severe droughts made it harder for them to grow crops, leading to violence and even cannibalism, and ultimately the abandonment.
You can now visit Mesa Verde National Park and see some of the 600 cliff dwellings. Beware that not all dwellings are accessible, so your best bet is to check out the Visitor and Research Center first – pick up maps or even purchase tickets for a guided tour.
FYI: Ancestral Pueblo people or Pueblo Indians were once referred to as Anasazi, meaning “ancient enemies” in Navajo, the language of another Indian tribe. The term is considered disrespectful and is best avoided, especially when touring the homelands of Pueblo Indians.
4. Hvalsey, Greenland
If you have a weakness for adventure stories, the saga of a Viking strongman named Thorkell Farserk starting a farmstead in windswept Greenland in the year 985 would make for a good beginning.
For about 400 years, the descendants of Farserk and his tribe seemed to be living well on a narrow strip of Hvalsey fjord, near present-day Qaqortoq, the main town in southwestern Greenland. The last written account even mentioned a marriage between Sigrid Bjornsdottir and Thorstein Olafsson in September 1408 in Hvalsey Church.
But then the story ended abruptly. The Vikings vanished. The tales of them losing contact with outsiders for centuries were so alluring that they prompted a missionary named Hans Poulsen Egede to set sail for Greenland in 1721. Upon arrival, Egede and his team spent months locating the descendants of the settlers but to no avail. They did, however, find the church where the wedding was held – now ruined – along with remnants of two great halls and some empty houses nearby.
No one really knows what happened to them, but there are many theories of course, anything from the Vikings simply left, to them succumbing to the plague or being killed by the Inuit, yet no concrete evidence has backed up any theory so far.
5. Petra, Jordan
Carved into sandstone hills in the Jordanian desert, the ancient city of Petra remained unknown to the western world until 1812, when a Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt disguised as an Arab sheikh and duped his Bedouin guide into taking him to the location.
Thought to be inhabited since prehistoric times, Petra morphed into an important commercial hub between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea some 2,000 years ago. The city welcomed traders from Arabia, Egypt, Syria-Phoenicia and beyond. According to the Smithsonian, Petra was home to as many as 30,000 people at its peak and the place was “full of temples, theaters, gardens, tombs, villas, Roman baths, and the camel caravans and marketplace bustle befitting the center of an ancient crossroads between east and west”.
The marvels of this once-vibrant city continue to reveal themselves little by little, and one of the most fascinating finds in recent years was the discovery of an ancient pool half a mile away.
6. Troy, Turkey
Blurring the lines between myth and history, the ancient city of Troy was the setting of the Trojan War, during which the Greeks famously concealed themselves within a giant wooden horse to gain access to the city.
Despite no one being sure if the city existed or was just an imaginative fable, a German archaeologist named Heinrich Schliemann was determined to find Troy. In 1870, Schliemann began digging on the mound of Hissarlik, part of Canakkale in present-day Turkey. What he found was not just an ancient city of Troy, but altogether nine Troys, each built on the ruins of the last.
Today, evidence suggests that humans might have been living in Troy (including its former cities and surrounding areas) for 8,000 years, and the city was a “cultural bridge between the Troas region and the Balkans, Anatolia, the Aegean and Black Sea regions through migration, occupation, trade and the transmission of knowledge”, according to UNESCO.
We now know that Troy did exist, but was the epic Trojan Horse story popularised by Homer in his poems The Iliad and The Odyssey real? Sadly, many experts didn’t think so. Nonetheless, you can see the giant horse used in the 2004 Hollywood blockbuster Troy in the city of Canakkale, 31km (19mi) from the archaeological site.
7. Tikal, Guatemala
The Maya Empire was huge, covering the Yucatan Peninsula and stretching into present-day Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. The Mayan people were also clever; they excelled at mathematics (they introduced the concept of zero and used a shell to present it), built pyramid temples from hand-cut limestone blocks, developed a sophisticated calendar system to keep track of time, and created the Mayan hieroglyphic writing, to name but a few.
Among the cities they built, Tikal in Guatemala is undoubtedly the most impressive. Said to be first occupied some 3,000 years ago, Tikal evolved into a major ceremonial centre in the period between 300BCE and 100CE. Evidence also suggests that there were over 10,000 individual structures in Tikal, among them residences, plazas, palaces, and of course, pyramids.
Unfortunately, the Mayan civilisation went into decline and almost vanished by 900CE. Decades of warfare, along with droughts and disease outbreaks were the likely causes.
8. Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt
If you fancy a visit to the lost city of Heracleion, you’ll need to bring your diving suit.
Once thought to be the stuff of legend, this ancient port city was submerged for more than a thousand years, until a keen underwater archaeologist named Franck Goddio, with the help of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, started to map a large area in the western part of Aboukir Bay. They took four painstaking years to survey and locate, and finally in 2000, they made the first discovery.
So far, they have found many treasures – statues of Egyptian gods and goddesses, jewellery and coins, along with many other objects – all preserved in excellent condition as they were buried under layers of sand.
Remarkably, Goddio thought that only a small percentage of this lost city had been discovered, so are you tempted to put on your scuba gear and solve another long-running mystery?
9. Xanadu, Inner Mongolia, China
They call it Shangdu in Chinese, meaning the ‘Upper Capital’, for it was here that the emperors of the Yuan Dynasty would spend the pleasant months when the grassland steppes of Inner Mongolia bask in the summer sunshine. It was also here that Marco Polo visited, sometime between 1275 and 1292 when he was serving at Kublai Khan’s court. The sights of Xanadu or Shangdu must have impressed this worldly Venetian, for he wrote of a fine marble palace with gilded halls and chambers, surrounded by meadows and pasturelands.
The location of Xanadu (backed by mountains to the north and looked towards a river in the south) and its layout (with an inner walled city encircled by an outer city) were chosen and built according to the feng shui principles. But the luck of feng shui ran out eventually. Xanadu was sacked and burnt in 1358 during an uprising and soon after that, the Yuan Dynasty fell and was replaced by the Ming Dynasty. The city was finally abandoned in 1430. Today, nature has reclaimed the landscape and the once idyllic city exists only in text.
10. Pompeii, Italy
On 24 August 79CE, Mount Vesuvius erupted, catching the residents of Pompeii off-guard as the fiery magma blasted into the air and rained ash and debris down on them. Many didn’t stand a chance – those who couldn’t escape in time were soon buried with the city, under layers of pumice stones and ash thought to be 6-7m (19-23ft) deep.
For over a thousand years, Pompeii was left undisturbed until 1592, when a Roman architect named Domenico Fontana came across the location while excavating a canal, according to the book The Complete Pompeii by Joanne Berry. Following that, except for a few small diggings, no serious work was carried out until 1860 when the Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli was put in charge and became director of the excavations.
Today, you can visit the Pompeii Archaeological Park, along with the Garden of the Fugitives, to get fascinating insights into the Roman civilisation, captured at the very moment of death.
11. Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Once the capital city of the Khmer Empire, Angkor Wat enjoyed its best years in the 12th century when its rulers started to build intricate temples and palaces to reinforce its significance. The city grew substantially too – aerial surveys conducted have shown that it could be as big as Berlin.
But by the 13th century, the Khmer Empire went into decline – historians believe that this was caused by unsustainable expansions, compounded by the rapid rise of the Thai Kingdom which had migrated from present-day Yunnan (China) and started to attack and occupy the Khmer territories.
Despite Angkor losing its political importance, it remained a pilgrimage site until the 1800s. Sadly after that, it fell into disrepair, allowing tree roots to grow and curl around the structures. It was rediscovered by French explorer Henri Mouhot in 1860.
12. Machu Picchu, Peru
Standing on a mountain crest at 2,430m (7,972ft) above sea level, Machu Picchu commands great views over the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Said to be built as a ‘royal estate’ in the 1450s, Machu Picchu was occupied for around 80 years before it was abandoned, following the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in 1532.
Although it was never a ‘lost’ city to the locals, Machu Picchu was unknown to the outside world until 1911, when American lecturer Hiram Bingham was guided to Machu Picchu while searching for Vilcabamba, the legendary Lost City of the Inca in Peru. Bingham then mistakenly thought that Machu Picchu and Vilcabamba were the same city – this theory was only proven wrong in 1964 by Peruvian explorer Antonio Santander Caselli.
In recent times, Machu Picchu has struggled with over-tourism and to lessen the impact, visitors must now purchase an entrance ticket in advance, either from a tour company or the Ministerio de Cultura (Ministry of Culture) site by following this link.
If you like to visit Machu Picchu from your sofa, take a virtual trip offered by the Machu Picchu Museum.
13. Napata and Meroë, Sudan
We all have heard or seen the pyramids in Egypt, but not everyone is aware of ancient Kushite Kingdoms and their Nubian pyramids in present-day Sudan.
There were altogether three Kushite kingdoms, the first flourished and centred in Kerma (2500-1500BCE), the second one in Napata (1000-300BCE), and the third one in Meroë (300BCE-300CE). It was in Napata that the Kush built their first pyramids, and later, they built even more extensive ones in Meroë. All of them were used as tombs for various kings and queens.
The Kushite Kingdoms fell in 300CE when it was invaded and annexed to Egypt. Soon after that, the cities that they built were abandoned and largely forgotten.
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This article was updated in February 2021.