The Ultimate Lost and Found: 31 Ancient Forgotten Cities
Whether they were devastated by war, natural disaster, or were victims of their own success, many once-great cities have been lost and never found. While we may never really know the stories of many ancient and lost cities, some have been rediscovered many centuries later — often by accident.
Here, we will take a look at 31 such lost, and forgotten, ancient cities, and discover, as best we can ascertain, just why they were wiped from the map.
1. Helike: an ancient Greek city that sank
Helike could very well be the real Atlantis. According to Greek legend, Helike was destroyed by an enraged and vengeful Poseidon for the Helikonians’ refusal to give their renowned statue of the sea god, or even a copy of it, to Ionian Greek colonists in Asia Minor (modern Turkey).
Based on accounts of ancient sources and on recent archaeology, it is believed that an earthquake in 373 BCE caused the ground beneath the entire city to liquefy. A tsunami then engulfed the sunken city. According to ancient sources, the city disappeared in the space of just an hour or two and there were no survivors.
Helike was rediscovered in the 1980s by two archaeologists who had been searching for it for over a decade. It has since been partially excavated.
2. Skara Brae was uncovered during a storm
Skara Brae is one of Britain's best-preserved Stone Age settlements. Although it might be a stretch to call it a city, it is certainly a very interesting site.
It was lost to the ages under a sand dune; a great storm in 1850 re-exposed the site.
The buildings are relatively well preserved given their age because they were protected for thousands of years under the sand.
Radiocarbon dating seems to indicate that the site was occupied between 3200 BC and 2200 BC. It was abandoned due to a combination of encroaching sand dunes and the inhabitant's own detritus.
3. Krishna's Sacred City of Dvārakā is another famous lost city
Dvārakā is a recently rediscovered Hindu, Jainist, and Buddhist sacred city. It forms one of the so-called Sapta Puri, or seven sacred cities, of Hinduism as was the legendary home of the God Krishna.
According to legend, the city was destroyed during a huge battle between Krishna and King Salva. The city was annihilated by blasts of energy never to be seen again.
Many millennia later, during the 1980s, Indian scientists found the ruins of a city near to where legend described it to be. It is now thought that the city could have been built around 9,000 years ago.
If true this would make it one of the oldest cities on Earth.
4. Caral is the most ancient city in the Americas
Caral, or Caral-Chupacigarro, was once a long-forgotten ancient settlement in the Supe Valley, Peru. It is located 124 miles (200 km) north of Lima.
Declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009, it is one of the most ancient cities in the Americas. It is thought to have been inhabited between 2600 BC and 2000 BC.
With an estimated 3,000 inhabitants at its height, it would have been one of the largest cities of the Caral (or Norte Chico) civilization.
It was rediscovered in 1948 by Paul Kosok and his team.
5. Timgad was once a thriving Roman colony
Timgad, or Colonia Marciana Ulpia Traiana Thamugadi to the Romans, was once a thriving Roman colony in Algeria. It was founded by Emperor Trajan sometime around 100 AD.
The once-lost city is located in the Aures Mountains of the region and was named in honor of Trajan's mother Marcia. The city was abandoned after being sacked by the Vandals in the 5th century and then the Berbers in the 7th century.
It was later buried by the sands of the Sahara until its rediscovery and excavation.
Today, it is noted for being a great example of the Roman grid system town planning. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.
6. Great Zimbabwe was once the center of the Zimbabwean Kingdom
Great Zimbabwe is an abandoned medieval city located in the South Eastern hills of Zimbabwe, near the modern town of Masvingo. The city was the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe during their Late Iron Age.
It was built by the indigenous Bantu people between the 11th and 15th centuries and was occupied for about 300 years. Around 18,000 inhabitants are thought to have lived in the city at its height.
Great Zimbabwe was abandoned after a period of decline due to issues with trade, political instability, and ultimately famine and water shortages.
The first documented and confirmed records of its rediscovery was in 1871.
7. Hattusa was the capital of the once all-powerful Hittite Empire
The Hittite capital of Hattusa near modern Boğazkale, Turkey, was lost to ravages of time for millennia. The city was sacked and the Hittite Empire collapsed during the so-called Bronze-Age collapse around 1200 BC.
This catastrophic event is, by some, thought to have begun with an invasion of the so-called "Sea Peoples" that also attacked and raided cities of the ancient Egyptians at around the same time. But it is likely that the city was finally destroyed by the neighboring Kashka, a bitter enemy of several centuries' standing.
The city was subsequently abandoned and forgotten. It is thought to have once housed around 45,000 people during its height.
Hattusa was rediscovered in the 20th century by German archeologists. The team found a literal treasure trove of clay tablets with writings ranging from legal codes to literature.
8. Taxila was captured by Darius and later surrendered to Alexander the Great
Taxila, aka Takshashila, is a rediscovered ancient city in northern Pakistan. The ruins are situated near modern Taxila in the Punjab region of Pakistan roughly 35 km (22 miles) NW of Rawalpindi.
The ancient city was captured by the Persian king, Darius the Great in 518 BC and later surrendered to Alexander the Great. It would go through a period of rule by various other conquerors before becoming an important Buddhist site.
It is thought to have been founded around 1000 BC; it would become an important city in the region owing to its position on East-West trade routes.
It would later undergo a period of decline until it was finally destroyed by the Huns in the 5th century AD. The city was rediscovered by Alexander Cunningham in the mid-19th century.
9. Sigiriya sits on a giant rock outcrop
Sigiriya was a 5th century AD city founded in Sri Lanka on top of a rock outcrop 656 feet (200 meters) tall. It was built by King Kasyapa and could only be accessed through the mouth of huge brick and plaster lion entrance.
According to Sri Lankan legend, Kasyapa (ruled 477 – 495 CE) chose the site for his new capital and promptly built his palace on the rocky outcrop. The sides of which were then decorated with colorful frescoes.
Sigiriya was not occupied for long as it was abandoned after the king's death. It was a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century and is today a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The site was rediscovered by archaeologists in 1831.
10. Gordium: King Midas' great capital
Gordium, or Górdion (pronounced Gor-di-yon) in Turkish, was the capital city of the ancient Phrygian Empire. Located in Asia Minor, it is roughly 47 miles (75 km) SW of Ankara.
The city lies on what was once the ancient road between Lydia and Assyria that crossed the Sangarius River. Gordium's most famous ruler was the quasi-legendary King Midas.
Gordium was sacked by the Cimmerians and subsequently abandoned in around 800 BCE but was rebuilt by the Persians.
Alexander the Great is said to have visited the city and solved the puzzle of the Gordian Knot, which said that whoever could loosen the knot would rule Asia — Alexander is said to have solved this problem by simply cutting the knot.
The forgotten city was rediscovered and excavated in 1900 by Gustav and Alfred Korte, and later by the Pennsylvanian Museum, between 1950 and 1973.
11. Leptis Magna was buried by the sands of time
Leptis Magna was the birthplace of Emperor Septimius Severus and once a great Roman city, located in what is now Libya. It was originally founded as a Berber and Punic settlement, but was greatly expanded by Emperor Severus during his reign.
The famed Legio III Augusta was stationed in the city until its dissolution in 238 AD. The city would then undergo a period of decline as the Roman Empire fell to the Vandals in 439 AD.
It was later reunited with the Eastern Empire, but was constantly plagued by Berber raids and finally fell to a Muslim invasion in 647 AD.
Once abandoned, the city was consumed by the Libyan sands until its rediscovery in the 19th century.
12. Mohenjo-Daro was lost for almost two millennia
Mohenjo-Daro, roughly meaning 'Mound of the Dead Men', is one of the worlds oldest urban settlements. It was founded and built around 2600-2500 BC, in present-day Pakistan.
Studies have shown that it was abandoned sometime in the 19th century BC, as the civilization declined.
The city would be forgotten for almost 2 millennia, before being rediscovered in the 1920s. It was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980.
13. Vinland: where the Vikings supposedly settled in North America
Vinland, Winland, or Vineland was the name given to an area of North America apparently settled by Norse Vikings in around 1000 AD. Once thought to be a myth, a Viking settlement was actually found in L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland in the 1960's.
Before this discovery, the story was widely dismissed as pure fantasy. Interestingly, the story also told of how the adventurers fought the locals, who they called Skraelingar.
These people, it was said, dressed in white clothes and lived in caves and holes. When they attacked, they carried long poles and let out terrifying battle cries. There is no evidence for this story, but it does appear that the Viking settlement at L'Anse Aux Meadows was used as a Viking encampment for a short time, perhaps as a base for further exploration or to gather supplies.
14. Heracleion was found accidentally by divers
Heracleion, also known as Thonis to the Egyptians, was an ancient city located near the mouth of the Nile. It is roughly 20 miles (32 km) North-East of Alexandria.
According to Greek legend, this was the city where Heracles took his first steps into Africa. It was said to be the place where Paris hid Helen before the onset of the Trojan War.
Apart from appearing in legend, the city was nowhere to be found, and for good reason. Just over 2000 years ago, it was likely hit by an earthquake and/or tsunami and was drowned.
It was rediscovered by divers in the early 2000s by a complete accident.
15. Neapolis was decimated by a tsunami 1,700 years ago
The ancient city of Neapolis was lost for almost 1,700 years after it was devastated by a tsunami. At the time of the tsunami, it was a thriving Roman town, but it was lost for centuries until it was found in 2020, North East of Tunisia.
Amidst the usual detritus from an ancient city, the team found evidence of large tanks used to make garum. This was a popular fish sauce of the period consumed by Greeks and Romans in vast quantities.
Little else is known of the town's history, except that it was captured by the Romans during the Third Punic Wars.
16. Herculaneum: Pompeii's lesser-known cousin
Herculaneum was an affluent Roman Town that was destroyed at the same time as Pompeii in 79 AD. Its ruins were buried by pyroclastic flows preserving the buildings (and its inhabitants) until it was rediscovered in the 1700's.
Proper excavations didn't occur until the 20th century.
It is renowned for being one of the very few sites that preserve the original splendor of an ancient Roman city. Large amounts of the original construction timbers have also survived to the present day.
Current research indicates that Herculaneum was primarily occupied by the very wealthy amongst Roman society.
17. Palenque was eaten by the jungle
Palenque, aka Lakamha or "Big Water", was a Mayan city-state in Southern Mexico. Evidence suggests that it was a flourishing place in the 7th century AD.
Archaeological studies indicate that the site had been occupied between around 226 BC to about 800 AD. After this time, it went through a period of decline and the site was eventually absorbed by the jungle.
It was rediscovered by Europeans in the late 1700's and has since become one of the most studied Mayan sites.
18. Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in North America
The Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park is the largest cliff settlement in North America. It was once the home of the ancient Palaeo-Indian Anasazi peoples, otherwise known as the Ancestral Puebloans.
Studies indicate that the site was occupied from 1190 AD to about 1260 AD. It appears that the site was abandoned around 1300 AD.
Debates rage as to why the occupants left the settlement, but climatic change seems to be the leading culprit. The Cliff Palace was rediscovered in 1888 by Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason whilst they searched for stray cattle.
19. Hvalsey was a Viking settlement on Greenland
Hvalsey, aka 'Whale Island', is a long-lost Viking settlement located near Qaqortoq, Greenland. It is, to date, the largest and best-preserved example of Norse ruins in what is known as the Eastern Settlement.
It was settled around 1000 AD by Norse farmers who were thought to have arrived from Iceland. The site was probably home to about 4,000 people during its height.
The Western Settlement would be abandoned in the 14th century, with Eastern Settlement lasting a little longer before also being abandoned.
Records exist of a wedding being held in the settlement's church in 1408. This was the last record of any habitation of the area.
The site was rediscovered in 1721 by a Danish missionary.
20. Tiwanaku was once a cultural center in Bolivia
Tiwanaku was a pre-Columbian settlement that can be found in Western Bolivia. Its original name has been lost to the ages, as its inhabitants did not have a written language.
Tiwanaku is thought to have been inhabited by peoples who probably spoke the Puquina language. It is thought that the site was inhabited from as early as 1500 BC.
The city reached its height between 300 BC and 300 AD when it appears to have been a cultural center. Around 1000 AD, the city fell into decline and was abandoned, as climatic changes forced the inhabitants to leave.
It was first recorded by Europeans in 1549, by Spanish conquistador Pedro Leon, whilst he was searching for the Inca capital.
21. Akrotiri might also be the inspiration for the legend of Atlantis
Akrotiri was a Minoan Bronze Age settlement on the island of Santorini. It was abandoned and buried during a volcanic eruption around 1620 BC. Volcanic ash and other deposits engulfed the ancient city, preserving many of its buildings and fine frescoes. Not to mention a plethora of artworks and other objects.
Since its rediscovery in the mid-1800's it has been postulated that this might be the inspiration for the legend of Atlantis. The site was finally excavated in 1967.
22. Sukhothai was the capital of the short-lived Tai Empire
Sukhothai was once the capital city of the Sukhothai Empire. The name roughly translates to "dawn of happiness" and the empire emerged in the 13th century AD following a revolt against the Khmer Empire.
Sukhothai became the first united and independent Tai state. The site is about 265 miles (427 km) north of Bangkok and stood as the empire's capital for 140 years. At its height, it is thought to have had around 80,000 occupants. Its power and influence began to wane when Ayutthaya, a rival Tai dynasty, was formed.
Sukhothai was subsequently captured in 1438 and became an obscure town in the Ayutthaya kingdom. It was subsequently abandoned in the 16th century.
It was later rediscovered by the world and has since been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991.
23. Chan Chan was the largest pre-Columbian city
Chan Chan was the largest of the pre-Columbian era cities in South America. It is now an active archaeological site roughly 3 miles (5 km) west of Trujillo, Peru.
The city used to be the capital of the Chimor Empire from 900 to 1470 AD. Chimor was eventually defeated and absorbed into the larger, more aggressive Incan Empire as a vassal state.
Chan Chan fell into decline when Spanish invaders built the nearby city of Trujillo. It would later be continuously looted by Spaniards until the city was completely abandoned and forgotten.
Archaeological excavations began in 1969 and continue to this day.
24. Ürgenç was sacked by Genghis Khan
Ürgenç, or Urgench, is an ancient and abandoned former capital of the Khwarezm Empire, once a part of the larger Achaemenid Empire. It was occupied right up to the 1700s until it was finally abandoned.
It has remained practically untouched ever since.
The city's golden age was between the 12th and 13th centuries. It was sacked by Genghis Khan in 1221 and the population was enslaved or massacred.
Urgench was partially rebuilt and reoccupied for a time before the new settlement of Kunya-Urgench was built.
25. Calakmul had an intense rivalry with Tikal
Calakmul, or Kalakmul, was a Mayan city now located in the Mexican state of Campeche. It was lost to the ages deep within the jungles of the Peten Basin until its rediscovery in 1931.
It used to be one of the most powerful ancient cities within the Mayan lowlands.
Throughout most of its history, the city had an intense rivalry with the neighboring Tikal city to the south. This rivalry spilled over into war, with Calakmul losing a decisive battle in 695 AD.
Both cities would ultimately fall into obscurity and were abandoned with the collapse of the Mayan civilization.
26. Palmyra was once a very wealthy merchant city
Palmyra or "City of Palm Trees" used to be an influential and wealthy city located in present-day Syria. Some archaeological finds suggest it may have Neolithic origins, but it was first mentioned in the 2nd century BC.
It was eventually conquered by various external powers, including the Romans in the 1st century AD.
The Palmyrenes were renowned and successful merchants who established colonies all along the silk road. After a brief rebellion, the city was leveled by Emperor Aurelian and partially rebuilt by Diocletian.
It was later captured by Muslim Arab invaders in 634 AD and declined under Ottoman Rule to the point of virtual abandonment. The historic city was later rediscovered as an archaeological site by European travelers in the 17th century.
27. Calakmul's great rival Tikal
Tikal was one of the largest Mayan cities between 200 and 900 AD, with a population of around 100,000 - 200,000 inhabitants. It is thought to have been called Yax Mutal and can be found in the rainforests of Guatemala.
It was once the capital of a state that would become one of the most powerful kingdoms in Mayan civilization. Some finds suggest the city was occupied as early as the 4th century BC, but it reached its full power during Europe's middle ages.
The city became a victim of its own success when its demand for timber led to deforestation, erosion, and subsequent famine. Between 830 AD and 950 AD, its population plummeted and Tikal was eventually deserted.
Tikal was reclaimed by the Guatemalan rainforest until the ruins were uncovered by European gum snappers in the mid-1800s.
28. Çatalhöyük is almost 10,000 years old
Çatalhöyük, meaning "Fork Mound", was once a large Neolithic settlement in southern Anatolia, Turkey. Archaeological evidence suggests the site existed between about 7500 BC to 5700 BC.
This makes the site one of the world's earliest urban settlements. This is impressive enough, but the inhabitants also had a very different culture from what we are used to today.
The city's buildings commonly shared walls and more resembled a honeycomb than what we would normally think of as a city. Individual units were accessed from the roof, and family members were buried under each home's floor.
For reasons not yet known, the site was abandoned before the Bronze Age. After that, the 'city' was forgotten and buried until its rediscovery in the 1950's.
29. Cahokia: Mississippi's mound city
The Cahokia Mounds are all that remains of a pre-Columbian Native American city in Southern Illinois. The area was occupied between 600 and 1400 AD and the complex would have covered an area of 6.1 sq miles (16 sq km) at its height.
Cahokia included about 120 manmade earthen mounds that vary widely in size and shape. It was, without doubt, the largest and most influential urban settlement in the Mississippi at the time.
Cahokia began to decline in the 1200s and was eventually abandoned in around 1300. Environmental factors are thought to have been the driving force for Cahokia's fall.
30. Derinkuyu underground city was used until 1923
Derinkuyu is an ancient multi-leveled underground city beneath the present-day Dernikuyu City in Turkey. The entire complex extends to a depth of around 197 feet (60 meters) and is thought to have housed around 20,000 people at its height.
It would have been a fully functional city with livestock and food stores and is the largest underground excavation in Turkey. It is one of several similar complexes across Cappadocia with some being connected together by miles of tunnels.
Derinkuyu was carved by hand into the relatively soft, sandy, volcanic rock of the region. The 'city' thrived throughout the Byzantine era and was used as protection by Christians from assailing Muslim Arabs during the Arab-Byzantine wars.
This strategy proved successful and they were used again during the Mongolian incursions of the 14th Century. When the Ottomans seized the area, the city was used on and off by locals fleeing from Ottoman reign right up to 1923.
After this time, the complex was largely forgotten until its rediscovery in 1963.
31. The lost city of La Ciudad Perdida
According to legend, around 1,300 years ago, a people called the Tairona were commanded by their gods to found the city of Ciudad Perdida along a mountaintop in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
They would occupy the area for almost a millennia before the Spanish arrived in Columbia. Although the two civilizations never met face to face, the Tairona were wiped out by the diseases carried by the conquistadors.
Abandoned for hundreds of years, the settlement was found by a group of bandits in the 1970s, who plundered any valuables and sold them on the black market. Forgotten for almost 500 years, the city is now once again back on the map.
And that, you lovely people, is the end of the tour. We do hope you enjoyed your trip through time.
Verena Mohaupt, logistics coordinator of MOSAiC, Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, talks about the perilous journey.