The 10 Most Fascinating Forgotten Cities & Why They Fell

The ancient city of Machu Picchu, Peru.
Oleksandra Korobova / Korobova

There are many cities around the world that were once vibrant, with people going about their daily lives just like we do, in many ways. However, natural disasters, war, disease, and genocide have been the cause of many once-populated cities turning to ruin. A lost city is defined as “a settlement that fell into terminal decline and became extensively or completely uninhabited, with the consequence that the site’s former significance was no longer known to the wider world.” Left abandoned to rot and fall apart, cities all over the world have been unearthed by archeologists, sometimes thousands of years later. Today, tourists can visit some of these places to see the relics and learn the culture and history of the life and demise of these civilizations. So if you’re feeling adventurous, why not get lost in one of these 10 ancient forgotten cities?

Pompeii, Italy

The city of Pompeii is most closely tied to stories of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Today, you can wander the site of the ancient Roman town-city, located near Naples. Remains from Pompeii, Herculaneum, and many nearby villages, which were once buried under approximately 20 feet of volcanic ash and pumice (the reason for its demise), have since been unearthed, and Pompeii is touted as a popular tourist destination, drawing about 2.6 million visitors per year, along with nearby Vesuvius National Park.

Ephesus, Turkey

This ancient Greek and Roman city, rests languidly on the coast of Turkey’s Izmir Province. During the Roman occupation in 1st century B.C., Ephesus was populated by more than 250,000 inhabitants, making it one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean. It’s believed that it was abandoned for two reasons. Changing leadership multiple times in a short period, as well as a demise in its places of worship (which attracted tourists) put the city on the decline. Additionally, silt built up in the harbor, preventing ships from reaching the city and destroying trade opportunities, which rendered the city undesirable. Today, tourists stroll the marble and mosaic sidewalks to see and touch history in abundance—including the Temple of Hadrian, the Great Theater and Church of the Virgin Mary, the city’s trading center, and stare in wonderment at the last remaining column from the Temple of Artemis.

Carthage, Tunisia

Founded by the seafaring Phoenicians in 760 B.C., Carthage, located in what is now known as Tunisia, offers tourists an opportunity for massive cultural discovery in the western Mediterranean. The city was destroyed by the Romans in second century B.C., when, at the time, it was populated by an estimated half a million residents. However, relics from the Roman occupation still remain, as well as archeological excavations and mosaics derived from Punic, Byzantine, and Vandal occupations.

Machu Picchu, Peru

This 15th-century Incan site is located 7,970 feet above sea level in the Cusco Region of Peru. Constructed in the classical Inca style, with dry-stone and polished walls, the three primary structures of what’s referred to as the Sacred District of the site consist of the Intihuatana (Hitching post of the Sun), the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows. Perhaps of all of Machu Picchu’s treasures, the Intihuatana stone is the most marvelous. These ritual stones point directly at the sun during the winter solstice. The Inca believed the stone held the sun in its place along its annual path in the sky while archeologists believe it functions as an astronomic clock or calendar. The civilization is believed to have been abandoned 100 years after it was built, after the Spanish brought disease and military campaigns to the Incan empire. However, there is no evidence that Spanish military ever reached the citadel, which has caused speculation that smallpox may have ultimately wiped out inhabitants.

Kourion, Cyprus

Perhaps most visited for its impressive Greco – Roman Theatre, the city of Kourion is believed to have been constructed during 2nd century B.C. Today, visitors can visit the fully restored theater and even catch a modern day musical and theatrical performance. Other site treasures include the House of Eustolios, once a Roman villa and bath house; and the Early Christian Basilica, both built in 5th century A.D., as well as the House of Achilles; the House of the Gladiators; and the Nymphaeum, devoted to the water nymphs, all elegant Roman structures with stately mosaic floors. Earthquakes hit the island in 332, 342, 360 and 364/5, causing significant damage and requiring remodeling of the city. During the seventh century, Arab raiders ransacked Kourion though it’s unknown if they caused the looting and burning that there is evidence of. Ultimately it’s not known exactly why this forgotten city was abandoned.

Petra, Jordan

Not for the physically unfit, the rose colored city of Petra, flagged by massive red mountains and its vast mausoleums has to be seen to be believed. Carved from the sheer red rock by the Arabian Nabataeans, who called this city home for more than 2000 years ago, Petra linked the silk and spice trades of China, India, and southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome. Upon entering the city via the Siq, a narrow gorge that stretches 1 kilometer in length, you’ll pass by 80-meter high cliffs on either side, which draws you immediately to the dazzling rocks that form what was once the city’s Al-Khazneh (or Treasury). Keep wandering along the colonnaded streets (as long as you’re wearing sturdy shoes) to the Roman-style theater with seating for 3,000 people, and the site’s many obelisks, temples, and sacrificial altars or take the 800 rock steps to the Ad-Deir Monastery.

Sanchi, India

Sanchi lays 68-kilometers north of Bhopal, India, in the country’s Madhya Pradesh state. The hilltop here is celebrated as home to more than 50 magnificently well preserved Buddhist monuments, or “stupas,” symbolic burial mounds and hearken from somewhere between the 3rd Century BCE and the 12th Century AD. Visitors can view the miraculous beauty of these examples of Buddhist art from Sanchi hilltop. With the decline of Buddhisim in the 13th century, Sanchi was abandoned and the jungle quickly took over until this lost city was rediscovered in 1818.

Teotihuacan, Mexico

Teotihuacan, believed to be the place where the gods originated, is located just 50-kilometers north-east of Mexico City. Built gradually between the first and 7th centuries A.D., Teotihuacan is celebrated as Mesoamerica’s most powerful cultural and artistic. Tourists flock to explore the immense Avenue of the Dead, a unique group of sacred monuments to pay tribute to the site’s Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon as well as the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. Teotihuacan’s origins, history, and culture remain a mystery for the most part, but History.com states that it “was settled as early as 400 B.C. and became the most powerful and influential city in the region by 400 A.D. By the time the Aztecs found the city in the 1400s…the city had been abandoned for centuries.” It is unknown why the civilization of Teotihuacan collapsed.

Persepolis, Iran

A view of the immense terrace of Persepholis, Iran is nothing less than a regal. This was the site where king of kings ordered construction of the massive palace complex, which became the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire in 515 BCE. Brimming with Mesopotamian influence, the Persepolis of today sits 70-kilometers northeast of Shiraz, in Iran’s Fars Province. The civilization is believed to have been destroyed on purpose by Alexander the Great and his men, who made the rash decision because of the 480 BCE invasion of the Persian wars, but were also noted (in every single account) to be under the influence of alcohol when they burned it down.

Palmyra, Syria

A gleaming gem in the vast Syrian desert, Palmyra still holds the secrets of a great city that was one of the most important cultural, artistic, and Graeco-Roman-Persian architectural centers of the ancient world. Built between the 1st and 2nd century, Palmyra was a major trading post on the Silk Road and a wealthy caravan oasis with its grand colonnaded street, the great temple of Ba’al with its carved sculptural archway, and Valley of the Tombs (which are large-scale funerary monuments scattered around the city walls) all echo of the influence of multiple civilizations.

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