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8 Lost Cities Worth Exploring
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May 1, 2019
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Dillon McLaughlin
Dillon McLaughlin is a freelance writer/editor from Wilmington, Delaware. Besides travel, he’s written about history, gaming, movies, TV, beer and whiskey.
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The only modern city we can think of that’s been completely abandoned is Pripyat in the Ukraine, and that was because of a thoroughly modern nuclear disaster. As such, it can be hard to imagine what it’d be like for a city to go from flourishing to completely abandoned in a few short centuries. But it happened all the time in the ancient world, giving us insight into how a city gets abandoned and what it looks like after it does. Here are eight lost cities worth exploring.

Machu Picchu, Peru

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You probably saw our first recommendation coming a mile away, but let’s go for another cliche and make our response, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The site was one of very few that completely escaped wandering Spanish eyes (though that didn’t save it from the general decimation of the Inca people). It was so hidden that it wasn’t even a European who reintroduced Macchu Picchu to the world. It was an American named Hiram Bingham who stumbled upon the city in 1911. It’s an archaeological gold mine, regularly turning up the kind of untainted artifacts most professionals would give a random assortment of body parts to uncover. Current theories about the purpose of the location bounce between a royal estate and religious temple. Regardless of which is correct, seeing it for yourself is a profound experience.

Obviously the place has been mobbed with well-meaning tourists, often to the severe detriment of the site, but the Peruvian government has started limiting the number of people allowed there every day. That does two things for the experience. One, it should help preserve it for future generations. Two, it means your trip there won’t be like fighting the insane crowd around the Mona Lisa.

Angkor, Cambodia

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Here’s another one that’s a fairly standard recommendation, and, just like the previous entry, has good reason to be. Angkor was the capital of the Khmer empire between the 9th and 15th centuries, a time of overwhelming prosperity. The borders of the Khmer empire stretched far beyond modern Cambodian lines, incorporating modern-day Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, all of it ruled from the royal city of Angkor.

Obviously the main attractions here are Angkor Wat, an enormous temple built to hold the remains of Suryavarman II, and Angkor Thom, a temple complex built within the city by Jayavarman VII. The two were built within a century of each other and are by far the most complex ruins in the city, but the rest of the city’s nothing to laugh at, with a network of buildings, roads and canals to rival anything in the modern world.

The main theory for the cause of the abandonment of the metropolis comes from a 1994 scan of the area done by the Endeavor and follow-up research and excavation. It seems deforestation and mismanagement of land ended up damaging Angkor’s network of irrigation canals, severely impairing the area’s ability to support its large population.

Great Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe

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Great Zimbabwe is another in a long line of cities irreparably damaged by greedy treasure hunters. It’s something we all know is objectively wrong, but we can’t seem to shake the habit as a species. As a result, cities like Great Zimbabwe pay the price. Even so, Great Zimbabwe is an impressive city, which is a testament to the original builders. The city could be ransacked by European treasure hunters and still come out looking this good.

The ruins are the largest in sub-Saharan Africa and exemplify the architectural ability of the Africans who lived there. The best example of the skill involved in building the city comes in the form of the Great Enclosure. It contains the ancient equivalent of a skyscraper and is covered in chevron carvings, two things that require intimate knowledge of stone working. What’s more, evidence of far-flung trading connections with India, Persia and China have all been uncovered, suggesting this city had significant international influence.

There aren’t any satisfactory explanations for the decline of the city. Unlike the ransacking, it can’t really be blamed on European conquerors. Great Zimbabwe had already lost most of its notoriety by the time the Portuguese found their way to sub-Saharan Africa in the 16th century.

Chaco, New Mexico

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It’s been said that the ruins in Chaco Canyon are the closest the United States can get to Egypt’s pyramids, which should give you some kind of idea as to the importance of the site. In fact, for the modern Pueblo people, there might even be more. The Pueblo historical tradition doesn’t have written records of any kind. They pass down the stories of their time in Chaco through oral tradition.

And their time in Chaco is well-worth remembering. The structures in the canyon are architecturally unique, with quarrying and construction methods no one else was using at the time. These are also some of the only planned buildings in Pueblo history. Before Chaco, most structures were built or expanded as needed. Construction was also oriented around solar, lunar and cardinal directions, making archaeologists think there was as much, if not more, ceremonial purpose to the site as there was practical.

The fading of the importance of Chaco seems to be more peaceful and natural than other fading cities. As culture evolved and people changed, Chaco lost its central role. Today, Native American descendants of Chacoan people still revere the site and see it as a crucial step in the evolution of their people, but it’s more a historical and spiritual stepping stone than active site.

Mesa Verde, Colorado

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Mesa Verde might be more accurately considered a lost country instead of a lost city, considering it’s meant to protect the home of the Ancestral Pueblo, the people who lived in the areas between the 7th and 14th centuries. Mesa Verde National Park incorporates more than 5,000 archaeological sites, all connected by roughly 40 miles of roads.

The Ancestral Pueblo are the people who built the famous cliff dwellings in the alcoves under the region’s mesa rock formations. They’re an iconic part of the American Southwest and an example of the unique cultures that existed on the continent before European settlement. Knowledge of the people who lived in the cliff dwellings is scarce, since, again, Pueblo historical tradition is completely oral. What’s clear is the people living there were skilled masons and farmers, and able to pull together a comfortable existence in a place that would seem fairly hostile otherwise.

The cliff dwellings were surprisingly short lived, only occupied for about a hundred years. Current theory suggests drought and crop failure were the main reasons for leaving the city, though there’s always the possibility that they just got bored and left.

Troy, Turkey

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No one knows whether the Trojan War actually happened, but that doesn’t mean visiting the city of Troy is any less cool. The earliest settlement on the site dates to more than 5,000 years ago, around 3,000 B.C. and the site was occupied by villages and cities of varying sizes all the way up to the 13th century.

What’s most interesting to us about Troy is that it’s been a destination city for almost as long as it was a regular one. What we mean is, ancient Trojans were well aware of the special status they occupied in legend and they’d constantly play it up. They’d try to draw in as many pilgrims and tourists as possible, mostly by emphasizing their unique status as the setting for Homer’s Illiad. Xerxes and Alexander the Great both paid homage to the city during their conquests, Alexander even going so far as to bestow privileged, tribute-exempt status to the city.

Modern visitors will find ruins instead of the ancient equivalent of a tourist trap, which, who knows, maybe that’s just another step in the ancient legend that is Troy.

Palenque, Mexico

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There’s a bit of a stereotype for jungle-covered ancient cities in pop culture and it’s cities like Palenque (it’s Mayan name is Lakamah, though it’s not used much) that remind you why. At a simple first glance, the city is a powerful sight, with the jungle lurking at the edges of a sprawling ancient metropolis.

The city is almost literally a huge history book, covered in hieroglyphs that reveal far more about Mayan history than any other single location or source. The city’s golden age was between the 3rd and 8th centuries, though it wasn’t fully abandoned until the very beginning of the 10th. At its height, it was an important political center. So much so that Mayan Emperor Pakal the Great chose the city as his burial place. In 1952, his tomb was rediscovered, complete with intricately carved lid and ornate jade burial mask.

The main theory for Palenque’s desertion revolves around continuous war. Neighboring city-state Tonina was its main adversary and constant conflict with them seems to have diminished Palenque’s importance and power.

Xanadu, Mongolia

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The fact that the Mongols have a lost city is remarkable enough, since the people are better known for their mounted murder sprees than their urban planning. But there Xanadu stands, an impressive attempt to blend Mongolian and Han Chinese cultures into a single city. By all accounts, the city was reasonably successful too. At the very least, it was responsible for the spreading of Tibetan Buddhism, a claim that probably shouldn’t be preceded by the phrase, “at the very least.”

This was the city Kubla Khan used as the capital city of the Yuan dynasty, a dynasty that ruled China for a century, and was designed by Kubla’s Chinese advisor, Liu Bingzhdong, according to the principles of feng shui, back when feng shui was a genuine cultural practice and not something people said when they rearranged the furniture in their apartments.

Not much is still standing of the city, but our suggested visit would look at the city more from the angle of cultural significance than immediate physical reaction. When you’re there, you’re standing in the ruins of the capital city of the largest contiguous land empire in history, as well as one of the most distinct cultures this world’s ever seen. That should be enough to take your breath away.