Once upon a time, the cities that lie ruined and abandoned in today's world were the very heartbeats of their nations and geographical domains. But empires fall, and their tangible remains gather dust for centuries and even millennia until someone comes along to brush off the cobwebs.
These days, UNESCO puts its stamp on hundreds of natural and historical wonders, and the places where lost cities are found can go on to receive conservation support and thousands of tourists. So, where exactly are these misplaced metropolises of the past, and what brought them to their knees?
Machu Picchu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the most well-known examples of a lost city. And if you're wondering, human sacrifices were indeed carried out here.
The Incas constructed this dramatically terraced citadel in the Peruvian Andes during the 15th century. It managed to go unnoticed by foreigners until 1911, when an American historian, Hiram Bingham, stumbled across it with the help of locals. The mountainous Sacred Valley served as the perfect backdrop for a royal estate, but within a hundred years, the Incas submitted to plagues and the Spanish Conquest.
Mohenjo-Daro (Mound of the Dead Men) is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, built around the same time as the first Great Pyramid of Giza. Consider the idea that it existed 4000 years before Machu Picchu was even a thought in an Incan emperor's mind.
A civil engineering feat, this Indus Valley metropolis was home to about 35,000 people. It was abandoned about 700 years after its conception, possibly due to war or climate change. And it remained lost until the 1920s when R.D. Banerji discovered it.
Home to the Ancient Pueblos, the Cliff Palace is in Mesa Verde, Colorado. This large cave complex found in 1888 comprised 600 dwellings. It was deserted at the turn of the 14th century, and several factors may be to blame. Drought could have stymied corn and bean crop farming, and tensions with other tribes may have played a part too.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ancient Greek city Ephesus is a glorious testament to the past. One of the largest Mediterranean cities of the classical age, it turned hands many times and became part of the Roman Republic in 129 BCE. A series of unfortunate circumstances, including a Goth invasion, a changing harbor, and an earthquake, paved the way for ultimate ruin. Today, you can see parts of the Library of Celsus dating back to 110 CE.
Around approximately the 12th century, the Angkor Wat temple city reached its zenith under the Khmer Empire. Here's a not-so-fun fact. The city's economy revolved around bonded labor and indebtedness to lenders.
The city declined in the 15th century because of years of droughts and heavy monsoon rains that damaged infrastructure. The West came to know of this Buddhist pilgrimage site in the 19th century.
Built by the Maya in 600 CE in today's Yucatán, Chichén Itzá was an urban center of great regional import for centuries. The site's pyramids and observatories provide evidence of an advanced society with a deep understanding of architecture and astronomy. Still, human sacrifices to the rain god Chaac were not uncommon at nearby cenotes.
What led to the downfall of Chichén Itzá? Depleted soil, failed quests for treasure, raids, conflict, and the arrival of good ol' Chris Columbus may all be the culprits.
The people who lived in Petra, the Nabateans, knew it as Raqmu. These Arab nomads turned the long-inhabited city into a thriving center for trade. The iconic Al Khazneh temple was built circa 1 CE, and at the time, the city had an estimated 20,000 residents. Not long after, the Romans took over Petra and changing trade routes rendered it obsolete.
During the medieval period, the ancestors of modern Shona people likely erected the structures at Greater Zimbabwe over about three centuries. The capital of the kingdom, the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that housed at least 10,000 people at its height. It's believed that it entered a state of decline in the 15th century because of dwindling gold reserves, political instability, and drought.
Founded by Darius I in the 6th century BCE, Persepolis is replete with ornate carvings representing the roles and people of the Achaemenid empire. We promise you're going to want to see this painstaking attention to detail in person one day.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city was looted by Alexander the Great's forces around 330 BCE. And it was burned as a possible act of revenge for the burning of Athens. Heady stuff for both history buffs and casual visitors to encounter in Marvdasht.
Pompeii is a UNESCO World Heritage Site made famous by one of the most extraordinary tragedies in history. In 79 CE, the city's inhabitants were going about their business as per usual when Mount Vesuvius erupted. It buried them in ash or killed them via pyroclastic flows, heat shock, or suffocation.
The material emitted from the mountain formed casts of contorted or fleeing bodies, freezing them in time. Upon seeing the ruins, the Roman emperor Titus relocated thousands of survivors to other regions.