Whether the victims of war, famine, natural disasters or other causes, all civilizations eventually fall into decline, leaving behind skeletons of great but lost cities and hints at what life was
like back then.
We’ve all heard of Babylon, Machu Picchu, and Pompeii at some point in our lives, but there are many more lost cities to explore.
iTHINK presents five slightly lesser-known lost cities around the world and what we know about their inhabitants from what has been left behind.
Hvalsey – or ‘Whale Island’ in Old Norse – is a fjord on which Vikings settled after arriving in Greenland in 985 CE.
Documents and letters dating from the 1400s demonstrate that these Viking settlers continued to live on Hvalsey for over 400 years. Records of a witch-burning and letters describing a wedding are evidence of a society existing there for generations.
Now all that remains of the settlement are the ruins of a couple of halls and houses, and the granite walls of the church where the aforementioned couple were wed.
After the early 1400s, the Vikings seem to have slowly disappeared from Greenland, a fact which has baffled historians for years.
Until recently, the leading theory behind this disappearance was that a volcanic eruption affected the earth’s climate and significantly reduced the temperature in Greenland. The Vikings’ failure to adapt to the new environment is what was believed to have all but wiped them out.
However, new discoveries and information suggest that, while the changing climate was one factor affecting the Vikings’ ability to stay in Greenland, the globalization of the ivory trade and the mortality rates from the Black Death made trade with Europe increasingly difficult.
Without a strong trading relationship with Europe, the Vikings could not continue living in Greenland. Thus, the Viking population there all but disappeared, leaving behind only ruins.
Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
Located in the Central Province in Sri Lanka, Sigiriya is said to have been the capital of King Kashyapa’s domain in the fifth century.
A magnificent fortress built atop a rock’s summit (which is nearly 200 metres high), Sigiriya features a gateway flanked by two enormous lion’s paws carved out of stone. A lion’s head used to exist above the gate, but this has long since collapsed.
The use of lions for architectural inspiration is likely due to the association of lions with royalty in Sri Lankan history. According to a fifth-century epic poem entitled ‘Mahavamsa,’ the Sinhalese people are descendants of Prince Vijaya: the grandson of a lion. In fact, the word ‘Sinhala’ means ‘of lions’.
The Sigiriya citadel is considered to be one of the best-preserved demonstrations of ancient urban planning and is a UNESCO world heritage site.
The site features the remnants of the upper palace – where the king would reside – as well as a lower terrace where the lion-themed gateway leads to a wall of frescoes, and landscaped gardens that are among the oldest in the world.
An intricate demonstration of ancient architecture, Sigiriya demonstrates the creativity and innovation of an ancient Sri Lankan civilization.
Derinkuyu Underground City, Turkey
Consisting of a multi-levelled underground city in the Derinkuyu district of Turkey, this lost city was capable of housing approximately 20,000 inhabitants.
With 18 levels stretching deep underground, this city’s construction likely began in the 7th or 8th century BCE to protect citizens from invasion and war. As time progressed, populations increasingly expanded and used the underground city for protection.
For example, during the Arab-Byzantine wars that took place between 780 and 1180 BCE, it was used as a safe-haven for those hiding from the Muslim Arabs.
The Derinkuyu underground city is a feat of architectural genius, containing a multitude of well-placed airways and waterways that allowed people to live for months without needing to surface.
Storage rooms, living quarters, schools, stables, and even churches ensured that life could continue almost normally beneath the earth. Smaller rooms acted as tombs to bury the dead while larger areas were used for community gatherings.
Large stone wheels that could only be moved from the inside blocked the entrances to keep the city safe from invaders.
But some did go mad when faced with months of claustrophobia and lack of sunlight, which is entirely understandable so deep underground.
Now, eight levels of tunnels and rooms of the Derinkuyu underground city are open to tourists, or at least those of us brave enough to dive into its depths with only coloured arrows to guide us.
Palenque was of the most powerful cities in the Mayan empire during the early third century and survived all the way to about 900 CE before it fell into decline. Referred to as ‘Lakamah’ (meaning ‘big water’) in Mayan, Palenque was renamed after a nearby Spanish town: Santo Domingo Palenque.
The city is a prime example of Mesoamerican architecture and features magnificent Mayan temples and ruins surrounded by jungle foliage and howler monkeys. The Palenque Palace and several temples still stand tall despite their age.
Palenque is also home to a plethora of hieroglyphic writings and images that detail alliances, trades, and wars throughout hundreds of years of Mayan history.
One image, in particular, was largely the reason behind the belief of December 2012 being the end of the world. Among the settlement’s rich Mayan history, the tomb of Pakal the Great was discovered.
The lid of his coffin depicted him supposedly floating, which began the conspiracy theory of the Mayan Calendar being intergalactic in origin.
Once a thriving centre for trade among Mayan cities, and home to many powerful Mayan kings, Palenque is now an incredibly popular tourist site where the magnificence of architecture and nature mingle.
Often likened to the lost city of Atlantis, Helike was an ancient Greek polis that suffered a very similar fate.
Founded during the Bronze Age, Helike was once central to the culture, economy, and religion in Greece. Its location near the Corinthian Gulf meant that the citizens of Helike worshipped Poseidon as their patron god.
Legend says that it was an enraged Poseidon that caused the destruction of Helike by sending a tsunami towards the city in the year 373 BCE.
However, given Helike’s proximity to the sea and its location in one of the most active earthquake zones in Europe, the disaster has since been attributed to natural causes.
But the tsunami did not completely eradicate all traces of Helike. Several writings dated after the city’s destruction mention sightings of statues of Poseidon as well as the submerged walls of ruined buildings.
Though the existence of Helike had been well documented, its location remained a mystery until the 20th century. Even then, archaeologists uncovered artefacts from ancient Roman civilization and the Early Bronze Age before finally finding evidence of Helike in 2001.
While looking at pictures of ruins on the internet or perusing speculative drawings in books are both great ways to discover the history of ancient civilizations, there’s nothing quite like visiting the sites of great cities and settlements.
Exploring the abandoned remains of civilizations that lasted centuries is a truly humbling experience and serves as a poignant reminder of the ephemeral nature of humanity and the roots of our existence.
We hope you’ve found your next historical holiday and enjoy using what little remains in the present to piece together what life must have been like in the past.
Hi! My name is Nethmi and I’m an English and Creative Writing student at the University of Birmingham. I write about Literature and Women’s Health here at iThink. When I’m not writing or curled up with a good novel and a cup of tea, I spend my time binge-watching cartoons and trying to keep my succulents and cacti alive.
Image respects to - Touropia, Historic Mysteries, Ancient Origins