Ten Legendary Lost Cities that Have Emerged from the Past
The story of Atlantis is one of the most renowned and enduring tales of a lost city, said to have been swallowed up by the sea and lost forever. Yet, the story of Atlantis is not unique, as other cultures have similar legends of landmasses and cities that have disappeared under the waves, been lost beneath desert sands, or buried beneath centuries of vegetation. Most of these legendary cities have never been found. However, there are now numerous cases of ancient cities, once seen as little more than myths and legends, that have now emerged from the past, raising the question as to how many more lost cities remain buried and waiting to be uncovered.
Atlantis of the Sands is a lost city, tribe, or area spoken of in the Quran, which has come to be known as Iram of the Pillars. In the Quran, Iram was said to be adorned with lofty buildings, and was populated by a group of people known as Ad. As they had turned away from Allah, the prophet Hud was sent to summon them to return to the worship of Allah and to obey Him. The people of Iram reacted with hostility and did not heed the words of Hud. As a result, legend says that the Ad were punished, and a sandstorm was sent against their city for seven nights and days. In the end, Iram vanished beneath the sands as though it had never existed.
In the early 1990s, a team, led by Nicholas Clapp, an amateur archaeologist and filmmaker, announced that they had found the ancient city of Ubar, which was identified as Iram of the Pillars. This was achieved using NASA’s remote sensing satellites, ground penetrating radar, Landsat programme data, and images taken by the Space Shuttle Challenger. These resources allowed the team to identify old camel trade routes and the points at which they converged. One of these converging points was a well-known water hole at Shisr, in Dhofar province, Oman. When an excavation was carried out at the site, a large, octagonal fort with high walls and tall towers was uncovered. The team announced they had found the legendary Iram of the Pillars. While doubt still remains as to whether Ubar and Iram really are one and the same, it has been suggested that at the very least, the story of Iram was inspired by the city of Ubar, and over time became altered to incorporate a message to obey the will of Allah.
The legendary ancient city of Helike was situated in Achaea, on the northwestern part of the Peloponnesian peninsula. During its heyday, it was the leader of the first Achaean League, a confederation that consisted of 12 cities in the surrounding area. Due to this position, Helike was an important economic, cultural and religious centre. The patron god of Helike was Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea and earthquakes. This is unsurprising, given Helike’s position in one of the most active earthquake zones in Europe.
One night during the winter of 373 B.C., the city of Helike was obliterated. Some signs of the city’s impending doom were recorded, including the appearance of ‘immense columns of flames’ and the mass migration of small animals from the coast to the mountains several days prior to the disaster. A major earthquake, followed by a large tsunami from the Gulf of Corinth, wiped the city of Helike from the face of the earth. The rescue party that came in the following morning found no survivors. Over time, the location of Helike was lost.
In the early 19 th century, speculations about the actual site of Helike began to spread. However, it was not until 2001 that the ancient city was finally unearthed in Achaea, Greece. In 2012, the destruction layer was uncovered, which confirmed that the site is indeed Helike.
The city of Heracleion, home of the temple where Cleopatra was inaugurated, plunged into the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Egypt nearly 1,200 years ago. It was one of the most important trade centres in the Mediterranean before it sank more than a millennium ago. For centuries, the city was believed to be a myth, much like the city of Atlantis is viewed today. But in 2001, an underwater archaeologist searching for French warships stumbled across the sunken city.
After removing layers of sand and mud, divers uncovered the extraordinarily well preserved city with many of its treasures still intact including, the main temple of Amun-Gerb, giant statues of pharaohs, hundreds of smaller statues of gods and goddesses, a sphinx, 64 ancient ships, 700 anchors, stone blocks with both Greek and Ancient Egyptian inscriptions, dozens of sarcophagi, gold coins and weights made from bronze and stone. It was one of the most significant underwater discoveries in over a decade.
Ancient Urkesh was once a major hub of the ancient Near Eastern Hurrian civilization, known in mythology as the home of a primordial god. It flourished between 4000 and 1300 BC as a major political and religious center, and an important stop on both the north-south trade route between Anatolia and the cities of Syria and Mesopotamia, and the east-west route that linked the Mediterranean with the Zagros Mountains of western Iran. It was also the capital of a kingdom that controlled the highlands immediately to the north where the supplies of copper were located, which made the city wealthy and rich.
Little was known about Urkesh and the mysterious Hurrian civilization, as the ancient city had remained buried beneath desert sands for thousands of years, lost to the pages of history. However, in the 1980s, archaeologists discovered Tell Mozan, a towering mound that hid the remains of an ancient palace, temple, and plaza. A decade later, and researchers made the exciting realization that Tell Mozan was the lost city of Urkesh.
The excavations revealed most of what is known today about the early culture of the Hurrian people. The uncovered remains of this fabled ancient city revealed an open plaza, a monumental flight of stairs and a deep underground shaft – the 'Passage to the Netherworld’ which was related to religious rituals. A large royal palace yielded written evidence that was able to identify the ancient city.
During the sixth century, a legendary kingdom known as Cantre’r Gwaelod (meaning ‘The Lowland Hundred’) was said to have been ruled over by a king by the name of Gwyddno Garanhir. Up to around the 17th century, Cantre’r Gwaelod was known as Maes Gwyddno (meaning ‘Gwyddno’s Land’), so named after this Welsh ruler. An earlier version of the legend associated with Maes Gwyddno asserts that the land was submerged under water when Mererid, a priestess of a fairy well, allowed the water to overflow, sinking the kingdom forever.
Several decades ago, the emergence of prehistoric forests during stormy weather in Cardigan Bay, in the west of Wales, led to the suggestion that it may be the location of the legendary Cantre’r Gwaelod. Indeed, investigations revealed a wattle walkway with associated posts, fossilized human and animal footprints, as well as some human tools. The location of the ancient kingdom is now believed to lie between Ramsey Island and Bardsey Island in Cardigan Bay, and to extend about 32 kilometers west of the current shoreline into the bay.
Two years ago, an aerial search of the dense jungle of Honduras fuelled by local legends of a lost ancient city, revealed miles of seemingly man-made features. Announcements quickly spread that archaeologists had found La Ciudad Blanca (“The White City”), otherwise known as the Lost City of the Monkey God. But all they had to go on were vague scans of the jungle below. However, earlier this year, a ground expedition concluded its investigation and dramatically revealed that the aerial images did indeed show traces of a lost civilization. Archaeologists have now discovered extensive plazas, earthworks, mounds, an earthen pyramid, and dozens of finely carved artifacts belonging to a mysterious culture that is virtually unknown.
La Ciudad Blanca is a legendary city that was said to be located in the virgin rainforest of Mosquitia in eastern Honduras. Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés reported hearing "trustworthy" information about the ancient ruins, but never located them. In 1927, pilot Charles Lindbergh reported seeing monuments constructed from white stone while flying over eastern Honduras. By the 1930s, there were rumors of a place in Honduras called the "City of the Monkey God", which was equated with Ciudad Blanca, and in 1939 adventurer Theodore Morde claimed to have found it and brought thousands of artifacts back to the United States to prove it. According to Morde, the indigenous people said a giant statue of a monkey god was buried there. He never revealed the precise location of his find as he feared the site would be looted and died before returning to the site for a proper excavation.
In 1952, explorer Tibor Sekelj searched for The White City on an expedition financed by the Ministry of Culture of Honduras, but returned empty handed. Investigations picked up pace in the 1990s following reports of the legend in popular media and in 2012 the first significant discovery was made. Investigations have now revealed an extensive complex that had lain untouched since the city was abandoned centuries, perhaps even millennia, ago.
The temple of the ancient city of Musasir was an important Araratian temple dedicated to Haldi, the supreme god of the kingdom of Urartu, an Iron Age kingdom centered on Lake Van in the Armenian Highlands, which extended out across what is now Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Armenia. The temple was built in the holy city of Ararat in 825 BC, but after Musasir fell to the Assyrians in the 8th century BC, the ancient temple became lost to the pages of history.
The temple of Musasir dates back to a time when the Urartians, Assyrians, and Scythians were all at odds, trying to gain control over the area that is now known as northern Iraq. Ancient inscriptions referred to Musasir as a "holy city founded in bedrock" and "the city of the raven", while the name Musasir itself means “exit of the serpent”. A depiction of the temple appears in an Assyrian bas-relief which adorned the palace of King Sargon II at Khorsapat, to commemorate his victory over "the seven kings of Ararat" in 714 BC.
Over the years, numerous studies and excavations were launched to try to locate the ancient temple of Musasir. All of them were unsuccessful until an expedition in July, 2014, when an exciting announcement was made – the long-lost temple of Musasir had finally been found. Located in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, the findings included life-sized human sculptures and column bases from a temple dedicated to the god Haldi, all dating back to the period in which the temple of Musasir was built.
In 2014, Australian archaeologists using cutting edge remote-sensing technology made a remarkable discovery in Cambodia – a 1,200-year-old lost city that predates the Angkor Wat temple complex.
Damian Evans, director of the University of Sydney's archaeological research center in Cambodia, and a small team working in the Siem Reap region, were given approval to use Lidar laser technology in the remote jungles of Cambodia, the first time the airborne technology has been used for archaeological research in tropical Asia. The discovery came when the Lidar data emerged on a computer screen. "With this instrument – bang – all of a sudden we saw an immediate picture of an entire city that no one knew existed, which is just remarkable," said Evans.
The finding occurred after years of archaeological ground research to reveal Mahendraparvata, a lost city where people lived on a mountain called Phnom Kulen, 350 years before the building of the famous Angkor Wat temple complex in north-western Cambodia. It was part of the Hindu-Buddhist Khmer Empire that ruled much of Southeast Asia from about 800 to 1400 AD.
Using the lidar data, the team of archaeologists discovered the ruins of five previously unrecorded temples, a huge statue of Buddha, evidence of ancient canals and roads and hundreds of mysterious mounds spread across the city, possibly tombs where the dead were buried. They also found a cave with historically significant carvings that was used by holy hermits who were common during the Angkor period. The research and excavation into the remarkable discovery of Mahendraparvata is still in its infancy and it is unknown what more the archaeologists will find there.
It is widely taught in the field of ancient history that Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and India, gave rise to the first civilizations of mankind. However, few are aware that at the same time, and in some cases before some of these societies emerged, another great civilization had sprouted - the Norte Chico civilization of Supe, Peru – the first known civilization of the Americas. Their capital was the Sacred City of Caral – a 5,000-year-old metropolis complete with complex agricultural practices, rich culture, and monumental architecture, including six large pyramidal structures, stone and earthen platform mounds, temples, amphitheatre, sunken circular plazas, and residential areas.
The ancient city of Caral had lain buried beneath the sand for thousands of years until the Supe Valley, which lies 200 miles north of Lima on the Peruvian Pacific coast, was surveyed in 1905 by the German archaeologist Max Uhle, who revealed the first archaeological discoveries in the area. It was not until several decades later that full-scale excavations took place, revealing the tip of a very large iceberg. In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered that the hills originally identified as natural formations were actually stepped pyramids, and by the 1990s the full extent of the great city of Caral had emerged. Excavations revealed six large pyramids (platform mounds) arranged around a huge plaza. The public architecture has stairs, rooms, courtyards, an amphitheatre, and three sunken plazas. Accommodation seems to have consisted of large rooms atop the pyramids for the elite, ground-level complexes for craftsmen, and small outlying dwellings for workers. In total, it is estimated that Caral was home to a population of about 3,000 people. Researchers believe the model of the city was used by many civilizations that came after the Norte Chico.
In 2014, archaeologists made an amazing discovery in the jungles of Mexico –two ancient Maya cities that had been lost over time, including ruined pyramid temples, palace remains, a monster mouth gateway, a ball court, altars, and other stone monuments. One of the cities had been found decades ago but all attempts to relocate the ruins, which are named Lagunita, had failed. The other city was previously unknown and was a brand new discovery, shedding new light on the ancient Maya civilization.
One of the most impressive features of the Maya city is the enormous monster-mouth entranceway, which represents a Maya earth deity of fertility. Beyond the entranceway, archaeologists came across a large temple pyramid measuring 65 feet (20 metres) in height, as well as the ruins of a palace complex arranged around four large plazas. Nearby, they found numerous stone sculptures and several altars, all engraved with well-preserved reliefs and inscriptions.
Even more stunning than the rediscovery of Lagunita, was the fact that the research team also stumbled across another set of ancient ruins nearby, which were previously unknown, including a pyramid temple, altar, and large acropolis surrounded by three temples. The researchers named the city Tamchen (‘deep well’), after finding more than thirty chultans, deep underground chambers used for collecting rainwater.
Featured image: A compilation of lost cities that have since been found.