The 10 Most Fascinating Forgotten Cities & Why They Fell

By: Rhiannon Ball
Inca citadel in the Andes Mountains and the river valley below. Getty Images / Oleksandra 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 leaving abandoned churches and monuments in its wake. 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

Ancient walls and vineyard near the Garden of the Fugitives in Pompeii with Mt. Vesuvius in the background.
Getty Images / Jeremy Villasis. Philippines

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

Celsus Library in Ephesus, Turkey

This ancient Greek and Roman city rest 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 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

Ruins of Antonine Baths complex in Carthage
Getty Images / Richard I'Anson

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 the 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

Inca citadel in the Andes Mountains and the river valley below.
Getty Images / Oleksandra Korobova

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 the Spanish military ever reached the citadel, which has caused speculation that smallpox may have ultimately wiped out inhabitants.


Kourion, Cyprus

The temple of Apollo, the most important building in the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi.
Getty Images / Copyright © 2015 Kelly Cheng

Perhaps most visited for its impressive Greco – Roman Theatre, the city of Kourion is believed to have been constructed during the 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 bathhouse; 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

The Monastery or Ad Deir at beautiful sunset in Petra ruin and ancient city, Jordan, Arab, Middle east of Asia
Getty Images / Copyright@Punnawit Suwattananun

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 main stupa from the third century BC and a great carved Eastern "torana" gateway added in the first century BC. Sanchi, India
Getty Images / ©Anders Blomqvist

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 the Sanchi hilltop. With the decline of Buddhism in the 13th century, Sanchi was abandoned and the jungle quickly took over until this lost city was rediscovered in 1818.

Teotihuacan, Mexico

The Pyramid of the Moon is the second largest pyramid in Teotihuacan, Mexico after the Pyramid of the Sun. It is located in the western part of Teotihuacan and mimics the contours of the mountain Cerro Gordo, just north of the site. Some have called it Tenan, which in Nahuatl, means "mother or protective stone." The Pyramid of the Moon covers a structure older than the Pyramid of the Sun which existed prior to 200 AD.The Pyramid's construction between 200 and 450 AD completed the bilateral symmetry of the temple complex. A slope in front of the staircase gives access to the Avenue of the Dead, a platform atop the pyramid was used to conduct ceremonies in honor of the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan, the goddess of water, fertility, the earth, and even creation itself. This platform and the sculpture found at the pyramid's bottom are thus dedicated to The Great Goddess.Opposite the Great Goddess's altar is the Plaza of the Moon. The Plaza contains a central altar and an original construction with internal divisions, consisting of four rectangular and diagonal bodies that formed what is known as the "Teotihuacan Cross."
Getty Images / @ 2013 Anuska Sampedro

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 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

Iran, Fars Province, Persepolis, World Heritage of the UNESCO, pillars of the Apadane palace
Getty Images / Tuul and Bruno Morandi

A view of the immense terrace of Persepolis, Iran is nothing less than a regal. This was the site where the king of kings ordered the 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

Sunset at the Unesco World heritage Site. Before the Syrian conflict started in 2011, more than 150,000 tourists visited the city of Palmyra every year.
Getty Images / Nick Brundle - Photography

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.