Some of the world's greatest cities are no more. Once thriving, hundreds of cities across the world now lie in ruins – ravaged either by war or simply natural progression. These are the world's greatest lost cities.
Gautemala’s crown jewel is Tikal, perhaps the greatest of all the Maya city-states. Its magnificent six temples still dominate the landscape much as they did a thousand years ago, soaring above the rainforest canopy and making one wonder at the ceremonies that once took place here, and the size of the city now swallowed up by the jungle.
Ctesiphon was the capital of the ancient Parthian Empire, and is located on the River Tigris not far from modern Baghdad. Its showstopper is the enormous vaulted hall, dominated by what is still the world’s largest brick-built arch (pictured). The throne room behind it was 30m high and 48m long: truly fit for a king.
Built by the Gokomere people in the eleventh century on a plateau around 150km from modern-day Harare, Great Zimbabwe’s centre was a palace enclosed by a granite wall some five metres high. Once a stone city that formed the hub of a major trade network in gold, ivory and cattle, today the ruins lie scattered over a wide and verdant valley.
The civilization that flourished in the Indus Valley and built Mohenjo-Daro around 2600 BC was a rival of its better-known Greek and Egyptian equivalents – though little is known about its people, who were early masters of town planning and civil engineering. Today its complex of houses, shops, ramparts and streets are under threat from erosion.
At the confluence of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, a fifteenth-century Turkish general ordered a town to be built, filled with palaces, mosques and tombs (including his own). This city of 360 mosques, an outpost of the Islamic world, fell into disrepair shortly after the death of its founder and lay for centuries under vegetation; it has now been partly restored.
The Mesa Verde National Park contains over 600 cliff dwellings once inhabited by the Anasazi people, who lived here from the seventh to fourteenth centuries AD. Built mainly from sandstone, wood and mortar under the overhang of ridges, the most famous – Cliff Palace – housed around 100 people, and was accessed via ladders.
You’ve probably never heard of it, but in 1500 AD Vijayanagar had twice the population of Paris and was the hub of the greatest empire in southern India. Built around a set of holy places including the spectacular Virupaksha Temple (which still stands), today its temple districts and shrines are revered by Hindus and non-Hindus alike.
The magnificent capital of a tenth-century Armenian kingdom, Ani was known as ‘The City of 1001 Churches’. Many of them remain in place today, bewitchingly out of place in the green fields that surround them. It’s hard to imagine that these evocative ruins once formed part of a city-state that rivalled Damascus or Constantinople.
From around 2040 to 1070 BC, Thebes was the capital of Egypt and the city dedicated to Amon, the supreme sun god. Even today its splendour is unrivalled: the Temple of Luxor, Karnak Complex and Temple of Ramesses II remain some of the greatest architectural achievements the world can offer. Oh, and the tomb of Tutankhamun is here too.
A Phoenician trading town that was sacked and rebuilt by the Romans, Carthage grew into a major port, at its height second only to Rome in terms of its size. Later it was captured by the Vandals and then the Arabs, but much of the atmospheric ruins that remain today are Roman in origin, especially the amphitheatre and Antonine Baths (pictured).
A magnificent city founded by Darius I in 518 BC, Persepolis took over a century to build. Entering through the massive Gate of All Nations, you get a sense of why: a huge terrace faces you, and in every part of the complex are intricate carvings of slaves, kings, officials and representatives from across the Persian empire.
Ephesus was a port on the River Cayster that grew into one of the largest Mediterranean cities in the Classical era. The Temple of Artemis – a wonder of the Ancient World – once stood here, and the Library of Celsus (pictured) still stands, a grandiose testament to one senator’s wealth, that later served as his tomb.
A mid-sized Maya city-state, Palenque was at its height in the seventh century under Pacal the Great. Its appeal lies in the quality of its architecture and sculpture, and the fact that 90 percent of the settlement still lies buried under the jungle that crawled back over it after the site was abandoned around 1120 AD.
The city of Pompeii was covered under a wave of ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, with many of its citizens buried alive, complete with their animals and possessions, and perfectly preserved. Nearby Herculaneum was evacuated in time but buried deeper under the ash; here doors and even food remained intact. Together they work as a kind of morbid time capsule.
The capital of the Nabateans and a key trading centre for silk and spices that linked Asia with Arabia and the West, Petra fell into decline under Roman rule in the fourth century AD and wasn’t rediscovered until 1812. Its tombs – especially The Treasury (of Indiana Jones fame) and The Monastery – are spellbinding, all the more so as they were carved into the rock face itself.
One of the world’s greatest sights, the Angkor complex encompasses various capitals of the Khmer Empire that flourished from the ninth to fifteenth centuries AD. It stretches over 400 square kilometres, though the highlight is the incomparable Angkor Wat, a Hindu temple with fir-cone towers, stylised sculptures of human faces and carved reliefs of Hindu myths.
Literally “The Lost City”, Ciudad Perdida is at least six centuries older than Machu Picchu and was the heart of the Tayrona civilization, whose farms and fishing villages lined the shores of the Colombian coast. It was rediscovered by treasure hunters in 1972, and tours started again in 2005. Visit and you’ll have these mysterious terraces and plazas largely to yourself.
Constructed in the mountains of Peru by the Incas around 1450 and abandoned only a century later, Machu Picchu (“Old Peak”) was rediscovered in 1911 by American historian Hiram Bingham, who was actually looking for another lost city called Vilcabamba. It may now be a huge tourist draw, but its setting and mystery have lost none of their drama.
One of the great urban centres of the Maya-Toltec civilization that existed roughly from 900–1400 AD, Chichén Itzá’s pyramids and observatories survive as monuments to a people whose mastery of astronomy defies belief. Each spring and autumn equinox, the shadow of the sun forms a wriggling serpent on the steps of the Temple of Kukulkan.
Xanadu (or Shangdu) was, as any Coleridge fan will tell you, where Kubla Khan decreed a stately pleasure dome, and spent his summers. When Marco Polo visited in 1275, he described “a very fine marble palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds…” Today little remains of this great capital, but your imagination will be working overtime.