34 Lost Cities Forgotten by Time
It’s hard to imagine how an entire city can get lost but that’s exactly what has happened to the lost cities on this list. There are actually many reasons why a city has to be abandoned. War, natural disasters, climate change and the loss of important trading partners to name a few. Whatever the cause, these lost cities were forgotten in time until they were rediscovered centuries later.
Located in present-day Tunisia, Carthage was founded by Phoenician colonists and became a major power in the Mediterranean. The resulting rivalry with Syracuse and Rome was accompanied by several wars with respective invasions of each other’s homeland, most notable the invasion of Italy by Hannibal. The city was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC. The Romans went from house to house, capturing, raping and enslaving the people before setting Carthage ablaze. However, the Romans re-founded Carthage, which became one of the Empire’s largest and most important city. It remained an important city until it was destroyed a second time in 698 AD during the Muslim conquest.
Ciudad Perdida (Spanish for “Lost City”) is an ancient city in Sierra Nevada, Colombia, believed to have been founded around 800 AD. The lost city consists of a series of terraces carved into the mountainside, a net of tiled roads and several small circular plazas. Members of local tribes call the city Teyuna and believe it was the heart of a network of villages inhabited by their forebears, the Tairona. It was apparently abandoned during the Spanish conquest.
Troy is a legendary city in what is now northwestern Turkey, made famous in Homer’s epic poem, the Iliad. According to Iliad, this is where the Trojan War took place. The archaeological site of Troy contains several layers of ruins. The layer Troy VIIa was probably the Troy of Homer and has been dated to the mid- to late-13th century BC.
Located on the main island of Orkney, Skara Brae is one of the best preserved Stone Age villages in Europe. It was covered for hundreds of years by a sand dune until a great storm exposed the site in 1850. The stone walls are relatively well preserved because the dwellings were filled by sand almost immediately after the site was abandoned. Because there were no trees on the island, furniture had to be made of stone and thus also survived. Skara Brae was occupied from roughly 3180 BC–2500 BC. After the climate changed, becoming much colder and wetter, the settlement was abandoned by its inhabitants.
Memphis, founded around 3,100 BC, is the legendary city of Menes, the King who united Upper and Lower Egypt. Early on, Memphis was more likely a fortress from which Menes controlled the land and water routes between Upper Egypt and the Delta. By the Third Dynasty, Saqqara had become a sizable city. It fell successively to Nubia, Assyria, Persia, and Macedonia under Alexander the Great. Its importance as a religious centre was undermined by the rise of Christianity and then of Islam. It was abandoned after the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 640 AD. Its ruins include the great temple of Ptah, royal palaces, and a colossal statue of Rameses II. Nearby are the pyramids of Saqqara.
Located in the Supe Valley in Peru, Caral is one of the most ancient lost cities of the Americas. It was as inhabited between roughly 2600 BC and 2000 BC. Accommodating more than 3,000 inhabitants, it is one of the largest cities of the Norte Chico civilization. It has a central public area with six large platform mounds arranged around a huge plaza. All of the lost cities in the Supe valley share similarities with Caral. They had small platforms or stone circles. Caral was probably the focus of this civilization.
Babylon, the capital of Babylonia, an ancient empire of Mesopotamia, was a city on the Euphrates River. The city degenerated into anarchy circa 1180 BC, but flourished once again as a subsidiary state of the Assyrian Empire after the 9th century BC. The brilliant color and luxury of Babylon became legendary from the days of Nebuchadnezzar (604-562 BC), who is credited for building the legendary Hanging Gardens. All that remains of the famed city today is a mound of broken mud-brick buildings and debris in the fertile Mesopotamian plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq.
Located in northwestern Pakistan, Taxila is an ancient city that was annexed by the Persian King Darius the Great in 518 BC. In 326 BC the city was surrendered to Alexander the Great. Ruled by a succession of conquerors, the city became an important Buddhist centre. The apostle Thomas reputedly visited Taxila in the 1st century AD. Taxila’s prosperity in ancient times resulted from its position at the junction of three great trade routes. When they declined, the city sank into insignificance. It was finally destroyed by the Huns in the 5th century.
Sukhothai is one of Thailand’s earliest and most important historical cities. Originally a provincial town within the Angkor-based Khmer empire, Sukhothai gained its independence in the 13th century and became established as the capital of the first united and independent Tai state. The ancient town is reported to have had some 80,000 inhabitants. After 1351, when Ayutthaya was founded as the capital of a powerful rival Tai dynasty, Sukhothai’s influence began to decline, and in 1438 the town was conquered and incorporated into the Ayutthaya kingdom. Sukhothai was abandoned in the late 15th or early 16th century.
Timgad was a Roman colonial town in Algeria founded by the Emperor Trajan around 100 AD. Originally designed for a population of around 15,000, the city quickly outgrew its original specifications and spilled beyond the orthogonal grid in a more loosely-organized fashion. In the 5th Century, the city was sacked by the Vandals and two centuries later by the Berbers. The city disappeared from history, becoming one the lost cities of the Roman Empire, until its excavation in 1881.
Built around 2600 BC in present-day Pakistan, Mohenjo-daro was one of the early urban settlements in the world. It is sometimes referred to as “An Ancient Indus Valley Metropolis”. It has a planned layout based on a grid of streets, which were laid out in perfect patterns. At its height the city probably had around 35,000 residents. The buildings of the city were particularly advanced, with structures constructed of same-sized sun dried bricks of baked mud and burned wood. Mohenjo-daro and the Indus Valley civilization vanished without a trace from history around 1700 BC until discovered in the 1920s.
The Great Zimbabwe, is a complex of stone ruins spread out over a large area in modern-day Zimbabwe, which itself is named after the ruins. The word “Great” distinguishes the site from the many hundred small ruins, known as Zimbabwes, spread across the country. Built by indigenous Bantu people, the construction started in the 11th century and continued for over 300 years. At its peak, estimates are that Great Zimbabwe had as many as 18,000 inhabitants. Causes for the decline and ultimate abandonment of the site have been suggested as due to a decline in trade, political instability and famine and water shortages caused by climatic change.
A large fortified city under the influence of the Parthian Empire and capital of the first Arab Kingdom, Hatra withstood several invasions by the Romans thanks to its high, thick walls reinforced by towers. The city fell to the Iranian Sassanid Empire of Shapur I in 241 AD and was destroyed. The ruins of Hatra in Iraq, especially the temples where Hellenistic and Roman architecture blend with Eastern decorative features, attest to the greatness of its civilization.
The Sanchi site has a building history of more than one thousand year, starting with the stupas of the 3rd century BC and concluding with a series of Buddhist temples and monasteries, now in ruins, that were build in the 10th or 11th centuries. In the 13th century, after the decline of Buddhism in India, Sanchi was abandoned and the jungle quickly moved in. The lost city was rediscovered in 1818 by a British officer.
Hattusa became the capital of the Hittite Empire in the 17th century BC. The city was destroyed, together with the Hittite state itself, around 1200 BC, as part of the Bronze Age collapse. The site was subsequently abandoned. Modern estimates put the population of the city between 40,000 and 50,000 at it’s the peak. The dwelling houses which were built with timber and mud bricks have vanished from the site, leaving only the ruins of the stone built temples and palaces. The lost city was rediscovered in the beginning of the 20th century in central Turkey by a German archeological team. One of the most important discoveries at the site has been clay tablets, consisting of legal codes, procedures and literature of the ancient Near East.
The vast adobe city of Chan Chan in Peru was the largest city in pre-Columbian America. The building material used was adobe brick, and the buildings were finished with mud frequently adorned with patterned relief arabesques. The centre of the city consists of several walled citadels which housed ceremonial rooms, burial chambers and temples. The city was built by the Chimu around 850 AD and lasted until its conquest by the Inca Empire in 1470 AD. It is estimated that around 30,000 people lived in the city of Chan Chan.
Mesa Verde, in southwestern Colorado, is home to the famous cliff dwellings of the ancient Anasazi people. In the 12th century, the Anasazi start building houses in shallow caves and under rock overhangs along the canyon walls. Some of these houses were as large as 150 rooms. By 1300, all of the Anasazi had left the Mesa Verde area, but the ruins remain almost perfectly preserved. The reason for their sudden departure remains unexplained. Theories range from crop failures due to droughts to an intrusion of foreign tribes from the North.
Persepolis (Capital of Persia in Greek) was the center and ceremonial capital of the mighty Persian Empire. It was a beautiful city, adorned with precious artworks of which unfortunately very little survives today. In 331 BC, Alexander the Great, in the process of conquering the Persian Empire, burnt Persepolis to the ground as a revenge for the burning of the Acropolis of Athens. Persepolis remained the capital of Persia as a province of the great Macedonian Empire but gradually declined in the course of time.
Leptis Magna or Lepcis Magna was a prominent city of the Roman Empire, located in present-day Libya. Its natural harbor facilitated the city’s growth as a major Mediterranean and Saharan trade centre, and it also became a market for agricultural production in the fertile coastland region. The Roman emperor Septimius Severus (193–211), who was born at Leptis, became a great patron of the city. Under his direction an ambitious building program was initiated. Over the following centuries, however, Leptis began to decline because of the increasing difficulties of the Roman Empire. After the Arab conquest of 642, the lost city fell into ruin and was buried by sand for centuries.
Formerly situated on the Amu-Darya River in Uzbekistan, Ürgenç or Urgench was one of the greatest cities on the Silk Road. The 12th and early 13th centuries were the golden age of Ürgenç, as it became the capital of the Central Asian empire of Khwarezm. In 1221, Genghis Khan razed Urgench to the ground. Young women and children were given to the Mongol soldiers as slaves, and the rest of the population was massacred. The city was revived after Genghis’s destruction but the sudden change of Amu-Darya’s course to the north forced the inhabitants to leave the site forever.
Vijaynagar was once one the largest cities in the world with 500,000 inhabitants. The Indian city flourished between the 14th century and 16th century, during the height of the power of the Vijayanagar empire. During this time, the empire was often in conflict with the Muslim kingdoms. In 1565, the empire’s armies suffered a massive and catastrophic defeat and Vijayanagara was taken. The victorious Muslim armies then proceeded to raze, depopulate, and destroy the city and its Hindu temples over a period of several months. Despite the empire continuing to exist thereafter during a slow decline, the original capital was not reoccupied or rebuilt. It has not been occupied since.
Hidden inside the jungles of the Mexican state of Campeche, Calakmul is one of the largest Maya cities ever uncovered. Calakmul was a powerful city that challenged the supremacy of Tikal and engaged in a strategy of surrounding it with its own network of allies. From the second half of the 6th century AD through to the late 7th century Calakmul gained the upper hand although it failed to extinguish Tikal’s power completely and Tikal was able to turn the tables on its great rival in a decisive battle that took place in 695 AD. Eventually both cities succumbed to the spreading Maya collapse.
For centuries Palmyra (“city of palm trees”) was an important and wealthy city located along the caravan routes linking Persia with the Mediterranean ports of Roman Syria. Beginning in 212, Palmyra’s trade diminished as the Sassanids occupied the mouth of the Tigris and the Euphrates. The Roman Emperor Diocletian built a wall and expanded the city in order to try and save it from the Sassanid threat. The city was captured by the Muslim Arabs in 634 but kept intact. The city declined under Ottoman rule, reducing to no more than an oasis village. In the 17th century its location was rediscovered by western travelers.
In the 6th century Ctesiphon was one of the largest city in the world and one of the great cities of ancient Mesopotamia. Because of its importance, Ctesiphon was a major military objective for the Roman Empire and was captured by Rome, and later the Byzantine Empire, five times. The city fell to the Muslims during the Islamic conquest of Persia in 637. After the founding of the Abbasid capital at Baghdad in the 8th century the city went into a rapid decline and soon became a ghost town. Ctesiphon is believed to be the basis for the city of Isbanir in the Thousand and One Nights. Located in Iraq, the only visible remain today is the great arch Taq-i Kisra.
Hvalsey was a farmstead of the Eastern Settlement, the largest of the three Viking settlements in Greenland. They were settled in approximately 985 AD by Norse farmers from Iceland. At its peak the site contained approximately 4,000 inhabitants. Following the demise of the Western Settlement in the mid-fourteenth century, the Eastern Settlement continued for another 60-70 years. In 1408 a wedding was recorded at the Hvalsey Church, but that was the last word to come from Greenland.
Situated along a major east-west caravan route, Ani first rose to prominence in the 5th century AD and had become a flourishing town and the capital of Armenia in the 10th century. The many churches built there during this period included some of the finest examples of medieval architecture and earned its nickname as the “City of 1001 Churches”. At its height, Ani had a population of 100,000 to 200,000 people. It remained the chief city of Armenia until Mongol raids in the 13th century, a devastating earthquake in 1319, and shifting trade routes sent it into an irreversible decline. Eventually the city was abandoned and largely forgotten for centuries. The ruins are now located in Turkey.
Palenque in Mexico is much smaller than some of the other lost cities of the Mayan, but it contains some of the finest architecture and sculptures the Maya ever produced. Most structures in Palenque date from about 600 AD to 800 AD. The city declined during the 8th century. An agricultural population continued to live here for a few generations, then the lost city was abandoned and was slowly grown over by the forest.
Located near the south-eastern shore of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, Tiwanaku is one of the most important precursors to the Inca Empire. During the time period between 300 BC and 300 AD Tiwanaku is thought to have been a moral and cosmological center to which many people made pilgrimages. The community grew to urban proportions between the 7th and 9th centuries, becoming an important regional power in the southern Andes. At its maximum extent, the city had between 15,000–30,000 inhabitants although recent satellite imaging suggest a much larger population. Around 1000 AD, after a dramatic shift in climate, Tiwanaku disappeared as food production, the empire’s source of power and authority, dried up.
On August 24, 79 AD, the volcano Vesuvius erupted, covering the nearby town Pompeii with ash and soil, and subsequently preserving the city in its state from that fateful day. Everything from jars and tables to paintings and people were frozen in time. Pompeii, along with Herculaneum, were abandoned and eventually their names and locations were forgotten. They were rediscovered as the results of excavations in the 18th century. The lost cities have provided an extraordinarily detailed insight into the life of people living two thousand years ago.
In the 2nd century BC a new civilization arose in the valley of Mexico. This civilization built the flourishing metropolis of Teotihuacán and it’s huge step pyramids. A decline in population in the 6th century AD has been correlated to lengthy droughts related to the climate changes. Seven centuries after the demise of the Teotihuacán empire the pyramids of the lost city were honored and utilized by the Aztecs and became a place of pilgrimage.
Petra, the fabled “rose red city, half as old as time”, was the ancient capital of the Nabataean kingdom. A vast, unique city, carved into the side of the Wadi Musa Canyon in southern Jordan centuries ago by the Nabataeans, who turned it into an important junction for the silk and spice routes that linked China, India and southern Arabia with Egypt, Greece and Rome. After several earthquakes crippled the vital water management system the city was almost completely abandoned in the 6th century. After the Crusades, Petra was forgotten in the Western world until the lost city was rediscovered by the Swiss traveler Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812.
Between ca. 200 to 900 AD, Tikal was the largest Mayan city with an estimated population between 100,000 and 200,000 inhabitants. As Tikal reached peak population, the area around the city suffered deforestation and erosion followed by a rapid decline in population levels. Tikal lost the majority of its population during the period from 830 to 950 and central authority seems to have collapsed rapidly. After 950, Tikal was all but deserted, although a small population may have survived in huts among the ruins. Even these people abandoned the city in the 10th or 11th centuries and the Guatemalan rainforest claimed the ruins for the next thousand years.
Angkor is a vast temple city in Cambodia featuring the magnificent remains of several capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century AD. These include the famous Angkor Wat temple, the world’s largest single religious monument, and the Bayon temple (at Angkor Thom) with its multitude of massive stone faces. During its long history Angkor went through many changes in religion converting between Hinduism to Buddhism several times. The end of the Angkorian period is generally set as 1431, the year Angkor was sacked and looted by Ayutthaya invaders, though the civilization already had been in decline. Nearly all of Angkor was abandoned, except for Angkor Wat, which remained a Buddhist shrine.
One of the most famous lost cities in the world, Machu Picchu was rediscovered in 1911 by Hawaiian historian Hiram after it lay hidden for centuries above the Urubamba Valley. The “Lost City of the Incas” is invisible from below and completely self-contained, surrounded by agricultural terraces and watered by natural springs. Although known locally in Peru, it was largely unknown to the outside world before being rediscovered in 1911. [