25 Lost Cities Forgotten by Time

It might be difficult to imagine how an entire city can become lost in time, leaving nothing more than ruins in its wake. Whether due to war, natural disaster, climate change or other reasons, cities have risen and fallen throughout history.

The world is full of lost cities and we’re not talking the stuff of myths and legends like Atlantis or El Dorado. Once thriving, hundreds of cities across the world now lie in ruins – ravaged either by war or simply natural progression. Whatever the cause, these lost cities were forgotten in time until they were rediscovered centuries later.

In the following article, we will take a look at some of the most remarkable lost cities.

1. Petra, Jordan

Petra, Jordan
© Aleksandra H Kossowska / Shutterstock

Petra was the ancient capital of the Nabataean kingdom who turned it into an important junction for the silk and spice routes that linked China, India and southern Arabia with Egypt, Greece and Rome. After several earthquakes crippled the vital water management system the city was almost completely abandoned in the 6th century. After the Crusades, Petra was forgotten in the Western world until the lost city was rediscovered by the Swiss traveler Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812. With a history that stretches back to nearly 700 BCE, today Petra is one of the Middle East’s most treasured tourist attractions and has been described by UNESCO as “one of the most precious properties of man’s cultural heritage”.

2. Pompeii, Italy

The ruins of Pompeii, as it looks today, with Mount Vesuvius in the near distance behind
The ruins of Pompeii, as it looks today, with Mount Vesuvius in the near distance behind (© dbvirago / Adobe stock)

On August 24, 79 AD, the volcano Vesuvius erupted, covering the nearby town Pompeii with ash and soil, and subsequently preserving the city in its state from that fateful day. Everything from jars and tables to paintings and people were frozen in time. Pompeii, along with Herculaneum, were abandoned and eventually their names and locations were forgotten. Rediscovered in 1599, excavations of the site have provided a fascinating insight into the Roman civilization, captured at the very moment of death. Humans and animals were found frozen in time and their panicked figures can still be seen by visitors today. The ancient site was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997.

Read More: Pompeii Ruins Show That the Romans Invented Recycling

3. Vijayanagar, India

The Virupaksha or the Pampapathi temple is the main center of pilgrimage at Hampi.
The Virupaksha temple at Hampi

You’ve probably never heard of it, but Vijayanagar was once the largest cities in the world with 500,000 inhabitants. The Indian city flourished between the 14th century and 16th century, during the height of the power of the Vijayanagar empire. In 1565, the empire’s armies suffered a massive and catastrophic defeat and Vijayanagara was taken. The victorious Muslim armies then proceeded to raze, depopulate, and destroy the city. Despite the empire continuing to exist thereafter during a slow decline, the original capital was not reoccupied or rebuilt. The abandoned city is now dotted with hundreds of individual ruins, home to countless architectural wonders. A part of Vijayanagara ruins known as Hampi have been designated as a UNESCO world heritage site. 

4. Thebes, Egypt

Entrance to the Luxor Temple in Egypt
Entrance to the Luxor Temple in Egypt (© Francisco Grande / 500PX)

Formerly one of the most important cities of the Ancient Egyptian culture, the ruins of Thebes now lie in the modern city of Luxor, but they have become one of the country’s most important and iconic touristic sites. Founded in 3,200 BC, Thebes served as the capital of the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom. During its height in around 2,000 BC, it had a population of some 40,000, making it one of the most populous cities in the world at the time. 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.

5. Angkor, Cambodia

Aerial view of Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Aerial view of Angkor Wat, Cambodia (Photo: Shutterstock)

Angkor was a vast temple city in Cambodia featuring the magnificent remains of several capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century AD. These include the famous Angkor Wat temple, the world’s largest single religious monument, and the Bayon temple (at Angkor Thom) with its multitude of massive stone faces. During its long history Angkor went through many changes in religion converting between Hinduism to Buddhism several times. The end of the Angkorian period is generally set as 1431, the year Angkor was sacked and looted by Ayutthaya invaders, though the civilization already had been in decline. Nearly all of Angkor was abandoned, except for Angkor Wat, which remained a Buddhist shrine.

6. Ani, Turkey

City of Ani
City of Ani (Image by Wikipedia)

Situated along a major east-west caravan route, Ani first rose to prominence in the 5th century AD and had become a flourishing town and the capital of Armenia in the 10th century. The many churches built there during this period included some of the finest examples of medieval architecture and earned its nickname as the “City of 1001 Churches”. At its height, Ani had a population of 100,000 to 200,000 people. It remained the chief city of Armenia until Mongol raids in the 13th century, a devastating earthquake in 1319, and shifting trade routes sent it into an irreversible decline. Eventually the city was abandoned and largely forgotten for centuries. The ruins are now located in Turkey.

7. Machu Picchu, Peru

Ruins of Machu Pichu
Ruins of Machu Pichu (© Matt Lynch / 500px)

Originally inhabited in the 15th and 16th century, archaeologists believe that the mountain estate was built for the Incan emperor, Pachacuti. However, it was abandoned because of the Spanish Conquest who conquered the last Inca stronghold in 1572. Situated 2430 m above the Sacred Valley of ‘Los Andes’ ruins of Machu Pichu were rediscovered in 1911 by American historian Hiram Bingham. Today it’s a UNESCO world heritage site, and one of the greatest examples of Incan architecture in the world.

8. Persepolis, Iran

The Apadana (audience hall) of Darius I at Persepolis, Iran.
The Apadana (audience hall) of Darius I at Persepolis, Iran. (© BornaMir/iStock.com)

A magnificent city founded by Darius I in 518 BC, Persepolis was the center and ceremonial capital of the mighty Persian Empire. It was a beautiful city, adorned with precious artworks of which unfortunately very little survives today. In 331 BC, Alexander the Great, in the process of conquering the Persian Empire, burnt Persepolis to the ground as a revenge for the burning of the Acropolis of Athens. Persepolis remained the capital of Persia as a province of the great Macedonian Empire but gradually declined in the course of time. After centuries in the sand, the delicate carvings, inscriptions and palaces of Persepolis were excavated in the 20th century.

9. Mohenjo-daro, Pakistan

Excavated ruins of Mohenjo-daro, Sindh province, Pakistan
Excavated ruins of Mohenjo-daro, Sindh province, Pakistan (© Saqib Qayyum / CC BY-SA)

The civilization that flourished in the Indus Valley and built Mohenjo-Daro around 3000 BC was a rival of its better-known Sumer and Egyptian equivalents. Built around 2600 BC in present-day Pakistan, Mohenjo-daro was one of the early urban settlements in the world. It is sometimes referred to as “An Ancient Indus Valley Metropolis”. It has a planned layout based on a grid of streets, which were laid out in perfect patterns. At its height the city probably had around 35,000 residents. The buildings of the city were particularly advanced, with structures constructed of same-sized sun dried bricks of baked mud and burned wood. Mohenjo-daro and the Indus Valley civilization vanished without a trace from history around 1800 BC until discovered in the 1920s. It was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980.

10. Troy, Turkey

Archaeological Site of Troy (Turkey)
Archaeological Site of Troy in Turkey (© Ministry of Culture and Tourism)

Once thought to be purely imaginary, a prop in Homer’s epic poem ‘The Iliad,’ excavations in Turkey in 1871 eventually proved that the city indeed existed. According to Iliad, this is where the Trojan War took place during which the Greeks famously concealed themselves within a giant wooden horse to gain access to the city. The archaeological site of Troy contains several layers of ruins, each built on top of the next and dating back some 5,000 years.

11. Palmyra, Syria

Roman Theater of Palmyra in the Syrian Desert
Roman Theater of Palmyra in the Syrian Desert

For centuries Palmyra (“city of palm trees”) was an important and wealthy city located along the caravan routes linking Persia with the Mediterranean ports of Roman Syria. Beginning in 212, Palmyra’s trade diminished as the Sassanian occupied the mouth of the Tigris and the Euphrates. The Roman Emperor Diocletian built a wall and expanded the city in order to try and save it from the Sassanian threat. 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 by European travelers in the 17th Century.

12. Uruk, Iraq

Uruk in 2008
Ruins of Uruk (© SAC Andy Holmes / OGL v1.0)

One of the most important cities in ancient Mesopotamia, considered to be the first major city in the world, was Uruk. Uruk played a leading role in the urbanization of the Sumer civilization in the 4th millennium BC. The legendary King Gilgamesh built the walls of the city, which covered an area of 2.32 square miles and had a population of almost 80,000. Starting in 2000 BC, when there were struggles between Babylonia and Elam, the city slowly lost importance. But it was not abandoned, and it was inhabited throughout the later Seleucid and Parthian periods. The last inhabitants left the city after the Muslim conquest of Persia. It lay buried until the archaeologist William Loftus led excavations on the site in the years 1850 to 1854 for the British Museum.

13. Carthage, Tunisia

Ruins of Carthage
Ruins of Carthage (© Konstantin Aksenov / 123RF)

Located in present-day Tunisia, Carthage was founded by Phoenician colonists and became a major power in the Mediterranean. The resulting rivalry with Syracuse and Rome was accompanied by several wars with respective invasions of each other’s homeland, most notable the invasion of Italy by Hannibal. The city was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC. The Romans went from house to house, capturing, raping and enslaving the people before setting Carthage ablaze. However, the Romans re-founded Carthage, which became one of the Empire’s largest and most important city. It remained an important city until it was destroyed a second time in 698 AD during the Muslim conquest.

14. Timgad, Algeria

Trajan's Arch within the ruins of Timgad.
Trajan’s Arch within the ruins of Timgad.

Timgad, 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. Originally designed for a population of around 15,000, the city quickly outgrew its original specifications and spilled beyond the orthogonal grid in a more loosely-organized fashion. In the 5th Century, the city was sacked by the Vandals and two centuries later by the Berbers. The city disappeared from history, becoming one the lost cities of the Roman Empire, until its excavation in 1881. 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.

15. Ephesus, Turkey

Great theatre, Ephesus
Great theatre, Ephesus (© General Directorate for Cultural Heritage and Museums)

Ephesus was a port on the River Cayster that grew into one of the largest Mediterranean cities in the Classical era. It was once the site of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis, destroyed by a Goth invasion. It was rebuilt during the Byzantine era, but was completely abandoned by the 15th century, when the Ottomans ruled the land we now know as Turkey. Widely-spread ruins of Ephesus include some of the finest Greek and Roman architecture, with ornamental gateways, fountains, temples and amphi-theatres.

16. Babylon, Iraq

Saddam Husein’s old palace is overlooking the crumbling ruins of Babylon.
Saddam Husein’s old palace is overlooking the crumbling ruins of Babylon.

Babylon, the capital of Babylonia, an ancient empire of Mesopotamia, was a city on the Euphrates River. The city degenerated into anarchy circa 1180 BC, but flourished once again as a subsidiary state of the Assyrian Empire after the 9th century BC. The brilliant color and luxury of Babylon became legendary from the days of Nebuchadnezzar (604-562 BC), who is credited for building the legendary Hanging Gardens. All that remains of the famed city today is a mound of broken mud-brick buildings and debris in the fertile Mesopotamian plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq. The site was controversially re-built under Saddam Hussein. Large chunks of the city’s Ishtar Gate can be seen at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

17. Taxila, Pakistan

The Dharmarajika Stupa, Taxila
View of the Dharmarajika, an ancient stupa at Taxila (© Sasha Isachenko / CC BY-SA)

Located in northwestern Pakistan, Taxila is an ancient city that was annexed by the Persian King Darius the Great in 518 BC. In 326 BC the city was surrendered to Alexander the Great. Ruled by a succession of conquerors, the city became an important Buddhist centre. 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. By some accounts, Taxila was home to one of the earliest (or the earliest) universities in the world.

18. Palenque, Mexico

Palenque ruins, Mexico.
Palenque ruins, Mexico (© Martin-Manuel Beaulne)

Palenque in Mexico is much smaller than some of the other lost cities of the Mayan, but it contains some of the finest architecture and sculptures the Maya ever produced. Most structures in Palenque date from about 600 AD to 800 AD. The city declined during the 8th century. An agricultural population continued to live here for a few generations, then the lost city was abandoned and was slowly grown over by the forest. It was ‘rediscovered’ by Europeans in the late 1700’s. Just 10% of the settlement is thought to have been uncovered so far; the rest remains hidden in the dense jungle that surrounds this glorious World Heritage Site.

19. Sanchi, India

Great Stupa, Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh

One of the famous historical places in India, Sanchi is known for its Ashoka pillar and Greco-Buddhist style of stupas that depict various scenes from the Jataka tales and stories of Buddha’s life. With a building history of more than 1000 years, Sanchi site started with stupas from the third Century BC and went on with construction of Buddhist monasteries and temples till the eleventh century. In the 13th century, after the decline of Buddhism in India, Sanchi was abandoned and the jungle quickly moved in. The lost city was rediscovered in 1818 by a British officer.

20. Ctesiphon, Iraq

Ctesiphon city arc gate, Iraq
Taq Kasra or Ctesiphon palace ruin (© Nick Maroulis / Flickr)

Built around 500CE, the city of Ctesiphon was the imperial capital of the ancient Parthian Empire, and was, at that time, one of the largest cities in the world. Because of its importance, Ctesiphon was a major military objective for the Roman Empire and was captured by Rome, and later the Byzantine Empire, five times. The city fell to the Muslims during the Islamic conquest of Persia in 637. After the founding of the Abbasid capital at Baghdad in the 8th century the city went into a rapid decline and soon became a ghost town. Today the only structure still standing is the magnificent Tāq Kasrā, sometimes known as the Archway of Ctesiphon – the largest unreinforced brick arch in the world.

21. Tikal, Guatemala

Mayan Pyramids of Tikal – Guatemala
IMAGE: Alamy

Between ca. 200 to 900 AD, Tikal was the largest Mayan city with an estimated population between 100,000 and 200,000 inhabitants. As Tikal reached peak population, the area around the city suffered deforestation and erosion followed by a rapid decline in population levels. Tikal lost the majority of its population during the period from 830 to 950 and central authority seems to have collapsed rapidly. 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.

22. Lothal, India

Archeological Remains at the Lower Town of Lothal
Archeological Remains at the Lower Town of Lothal; Image by Wikipedia

Lothal, which means ‘The City of Dead’, was an ancient city dating back to the 5000-year-old Harappan civilization. Discovered in 1954 and excavated between 1955 and 1960 by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Lothal had excellent architecture and town planning. The entire city had a scientific drainage system, well laid-out, paved roads and a bath for every house, some of which were double storied and built on mud platforms. The most architecturally sophisticated part of Lothal was its dockyard, which provided berthing facilities for the ships. Lothal was an active business center and had business links with Mesopotamia, Egypt and Persia. Beads made in the city were quite famous and there is evidence of a bead factory in Lothal. 

23. Vaishali, India

Ānanda Stupa, with an Asokan pillar at Kolhua, Vaishali
Ānanda Stupa, with an Asokan pillar at Kolhua, Vaishali (© Casper1774 Studio / Shutterstock)

Vaishali was an ancient prosperous metropolis, which was probably the first republic of the world. In 6th Century B.C. it was the capital of powerful Republic of Lichhavis. It is also the birth place of the 24th Jain Tirthankara, Lord Mahavira. This place is closely associated with Buddhism. Lord Buddha visited Vaishali several times and spent some of the varshavas (rainy season resort) and announced here his impending death. According to tradition, the city in early times was surrounded by 3 walls with gates and watch towers.

24. Great Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe

The Great Zimbabwe Ruins near Masvingo in Zimbabwe, Southern Africa
The Great Zimbabwe Ruins near Masvingo in Zimbabwe (PHOTO:evenfh/Shutterstock)

Great Zimbabwe is an abandoned medieval city located in the South Eastern hills of Zimbabwe near the town of Masvingo. The city was the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe. It took over 300 years for the city to be constructed after building commenced in the 11th century. At its peak, estimates are that Great Zimbabwe had as many as 18,000 inhabitants. The walls surrounding the city were 36 feet tall and covered 820 feet of distance. Causes for the decline and ultimate abandonment of the site have been suggested as due to a decline in trade, political instability and famine and water shortages caused by climatic change. 

25. Mesa Verde, USA

Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde National Park.
Ruins of Mesa Verde, Colorado (© Stefano Faraoni / 500px)

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. By 1300, all of the Anasazi had left the Mesa Verde area, but the ruins remain almost perfectly preserved. The reason for their sudden departure remains unexplained. Theories range from crop failures due to droughts to an intrusion of foreign tribes from the North.

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