Buried beneath ash and earth, overgrown, destroyed by the fury of nature, conquered and reborn… Some of the world’s most spectacular cities were lost to us for centuries — some known only in the history books and stories that endured for generations. Explorers, archaeologists and even Mother Nature herself have been working to uncover these hidden gems, sometimes preserved by the very forces that destroyed them.
While many ancient cities only exist in legend, there are still some places we can recapture lost civilizations. Here are some top spots you may want to add to your travel to-do list:
Pompeii and Herculaneum, Italy
Modern day disaster movies have nothing on Mt. Vesuvius, the infamous volcano destroyed the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum during its 79 C.E. eruption. While looters and some survivors likely visited the towns, they were never rebuilt and remained for centuries hidden beneath lava, ash and debris. Since excavations began in the 18th century, they have become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Italy.
Today, more of Pompeii is open to the public, but what has been revealed of Herculaneum is even better preserved. One of the most notable features in both towns is the artwork — not just sculpture and wall paintings, but fine examples of mosaics as well. Experts advise allowing at least a day to explore, and brush up on your history before you go.
Natural disasters aren’t the only way nature can decimate cities. If you want to see “Britain’s Atlantis”, you may need some scuba gear. Over the centuries, the sea gradually claimed this medieval city thanks to storms and erosion. Built on sandy terrain, its churches, fort, public buildings and homes have disappeared beneath the waves of the North Sea.
Today, visitors can still stop by the small village to see the city’s remaining traces — the ruins of a 13th century Franciscan friary perched on the cliff’s edge and Leper Hospital chapel which remains in the present churchyard. The Dunwich Museum is keeper of the area’s history, but we may learn more about the city in the years ahead as explorers continue to use high-tech underwater cameras to hunt for artifacts in the sand and silt on the sea floor.
For more information, visit the Dunwich Museum website.
Skara Brae, Scotland
Sometimes nature’s power works in our favour — like the massive storm that struck the Bay of Skaill in the Orkney Isles and revealed the first remains of Skara Brae among the dunes. Excavation — and more storms — revealed a close-knit cluster of buildings once home to farmers from 3200 to 2500 B.C.E.
How did it survive to be one of Europe’s best-preserved Neolithic villages? When the community was built, the stone walled houses were buried in sand and clay up to their rooflines — likely to shield them from the elements. Today, visitors can tour the settlement, get a closer look at ancient like in a reconstructed dwelling and see artifacts at the visitor’s centre.
Decades of sanctions and war have made this ancient city “lost” once again — to foreign visitors, that is. Images of suffering and destruction might make us forget that this troubled country is rich with culture and history. While you’ve likely heard of the Hanging Gardens — one of the original Seven Wonders of the World — Babylon has many claims to fame. Settled around 2500 B.C.E., it was once centre of the Mesopotamian world and a capital city under Hammurabi. It has been conquered many times throughout the centuries, and Saddam Hussein even put his own stamp on the city in his attempts at rebuilding.
While Iraq likely isn’t on your to-do list, there is one tour company that ventures into the area, Babel Tours. In the future, locals hope to invest money in restoring Babylon and supporting tourism — but it could take decades before it’s safe for travellers to return.
Ever wanted to travel like Indiana Jones? The rose-red caverns of Petra caught audience’s attention in the The Last Crusade. Once the capital of the Nabataeans and an important stop along ancient trade routes, the city was lost to the western world sometime after the 14th century. Legend has it that Petra remained hidden to visitors until 1812 when Swiss adventurer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt tricked his way into the heavily guarded city.
What makes the city unique is that it wasn’t built — its facades were carved into the colourful sandstone. The city isn’t so much visited as experienced, starting with the kilometre long gorge known as the Siq that opens up to a view of the Treasury. Various trails hit the highlights — like the Street of Facades and Ad Deir (The Monastery) — as well as some stunning views. Visitors can even venture out at night for a candle-lit tour.
Consider it another example of lost and found… and lost again. Dating back to 600 B.C.E., this World Heritage Site was conquered and rebuilt at least three times by various invaders, including Alexander the Great. Through its tenure, it served as a hub for three ancient trade routes, and became a major centre for learning and trade. Unfortunately, the city suffered when the routes fell out of use. The Huns eventually destroyed the city in the 5th century C.E.
Today, the city still shows its Persian, Greek and Asian roots in its vast network of ruins — and its three areas each cover a distinct time period. Some of the highlights include the monasteries and temples, including some fine examples of early religious art.
For more information, visit the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation website.
With the remains of the former capitals of the Khmer Empire dating back to the 9th to 15th centuries, it’s no surprise experts and travellers alike consider Angkor to be one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. The area is home to dozens of notable sites, including Angkor Thom or “Great City” — the last of the Khmer cities. The ancient city features the Bayon, the state temple known for its many peaks, and the Terrace of Elephants.
The temple complex of Angkor Wat, the largest and best preserved in the area, was once Hindu then Buddhist. Today, it’s one of Cambodia’s most popular tourist hotspots and a prime example of architecture and culture. There are many ways to tour the area — including by elephant.
Roman history in Africa? If you know your geography and history, you know the idea isn’t so far-fetched. Trade through the Mediterranean Sea had to pass between Tunisia’s coast and Sicily, and Carthage’s location made it the ideal spot to flourish. Founded by the Phoenicians as early as the 9th century B.C.E., it soon grew into a large and powerful city only to be destroyed and rebuilt by its fierce rival, Rome, in 146 B.C.E.
Now a wealthy suburb outside of Tunis, modern-day Carthage still retains its ancient mark — like the acropolis of Byrsa, the Antonine Baths and the ancient theatre. Carthage has a long and remarkable history — worth a read before you go!
For more information, see CometoTunisa.com.
Ever dreamed of discovering the ruins of a lost city in the jungle? That dream became a reality for explorers in the 18th to 19th centuries. From about 500 B.C.E. to 700 B.C.E., this Mayan city was at its peak with artistically crafted spaces and buildings. However, by the late 900s the city was conquered and abandoned — and ultimately reclaimed by the jungle.
Currently, only about 10 per cent of the city has been uncovered and restored — including the pyramid temple of Pacal Votan and El Palacio (the palace with its own astrological observatory). The rest? Still lost in the jungle, say experts. If you plan to visit, make sure to prepare for the climate and expect some challenging terrain — but the surrounding scenery will be worth it.
For more information, see VisitMexico.com.
Machu Picchu, Peru
In the middle of a tropical forest in the Andes lies the “Lost City of the Incas”, originally built in 1400s but abandoned a century later when the Spanish conquered nearby Cuzco. Legend has it the Spaniards never found the city — it remained a mystery to all but a handful of locals until 1911 when a guide led archaeologist Hiram Bingham to its ruins. Experts still aren’t sure what the Incas used the site for, but some theories posit it was a grand estate or sacred site, and the Temple of the Sun is one of its most notable buildings.
While the view is spectacular, the city itself is no less impressive with its masterful stonework buildings, walls and terraces that seem a part of the landscape itself. Unfortunately, this city could be lost to us again in the future. Restoration is ongoing, but preservation is a growing concern as half a million tourists now flock to this popular site each year and mud slides have threatened the area.
ON THE WEB
Can’t visit yourself? Many of these sites are protected and well studied — meaning you can find a lot of information and pictures. Watch for books on the sites, or go online to find virtual tours and image galleries.
Additional sources: About.com, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, SacredSites.com, Smithsonian.com, UNESCO World Heritage Convention, Wikipedia.
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