Illustration by Leanna.

Illustration by Leanna.

When I watch a horror movie about zombies or the end of the world, it’s never the zombies or the actual apocalypse that scares me. It’s the scenes, usually at the very beginning, where someone’s walking around outside, and their city is completely abandoned. The protagonist starts their story by showing us how they live among cars strewn haphazardly in the middle of the street and massive buildings that have just…tipped over. Then the camera pans out and we see that grass is growing down the center of once-busy streets, vines are covering the façade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, doors to houses have been left wide open, and besides the hero, there is absolutely no sign of life. Everyone is gone. Where did they go? WHAT HAPPENED HERE????

There’s no one left who knows.

The opening of Wall-E, 2008.

Almost nothing is as thrillingly creepy as those clearly once inhabited but now COMPLETE EMPTY roads and buildings. Of course, I could never actually visit a place like that…until the apocalypse, of course, but I don’t want to wait that long. Could I? GUESS WHAT. YES I CAN, and so can you. Get ready to get on board with one of my favorite fascinations, ancient lost cities.

You guys, there are, on our planet, entire cities that became completely uninhabited seemingly overnight and have stayed that way ever since. Some of these lost their populations to war, others to social or economic upheaval, and in some places, the people were driven or wiped out by a natural disaster. All of which are, of course, horrible and terrifying things that happened to these people, and god forbid that I or you or anyone we know should have to go through anything like that, ever. But there is no denying that there is something deliciously uncanny about seeing a whole CITY that has been simply tossed aside and forgotten like an old sock! These cities are REAL, and you can dive into online wormholes of nutty theories about what happened in each one.

Here are some of my favorite lost cities. I’m eventually going to visit every last one of them, walking the streets where ancient people ran, shopped, laughed, played…and then VANISHED INTO TIME.

1. Petra

Photo by Berthold Werner, via Wikipedia Commons.

Photo via Wikipedia Commons.

Oh my god, you guys, there is no cooler place than Petra! Just google the images with me here for a second and let us all freak out together. I can’t even look at pictures of Petra without getting a tingly ancient creepy feeling—the city looks like something the dwarves would build in The Lord of the Rings. Unknown to the Western world until 1812, Petra was built around 312 BCE in Jordan. Maybe built is the wrong word. Because the way it was created was that it was CARVED OUT OF ROCK. An entire city! In the middle of a desert! Whoever sculpted this place was ahead of their time in terms of green building technology: Apparently it had its own water system that used dams and cisterns to harness the water from flash floods, turning this city into a self-sufficient little oasis. Until series on earthquakes destroyed Petra’s amazing water system, and the city was abandoned instead of rebuilt. But…who would just leave this place??? I would do almost anything to see Petra with my own eyes.

2. Timgad

This Arch of Tim

Just one of the things the Timgadders left behind.

OK, Timgad freaks me out. Founded around 100 AD and now located in modern-day Algeria, the city was once a hugely important Roman trading site. For centuries, more than 15,000 people lived there, attended shows at its 3,500-seat amphitheater, and worshiped at its massive temple. Then Timgad suffered a series of devastating blows: Sometime in the first half of the fifth century, it was invaded by Vandals, then, not too long after that, it was invaded again, by an army from the nearby Aurès mountains, but this time it was destroyed. The people of Timgad stuck around, though, and rebuilt, until an Arab invasion in the seventh century brought the city down one last time. That seems to have been the last straw—sometime in the eighth centuray, the citizens of Timgad packed up their things and took off for good. And then…THEN THE SAHARA DESERT GOBBLED IT UP AND IT VANISHED COMPLETELY.

Really—desert sand slowly built up and covered the city, then it was like Timgad had never even there! WHAT. That’s like if Chicago were abandoned and then completely swallowed by a dust storm. Holy shit!

When Timgad was rediscovered in 1881, excavators found beautifully preserved ruins of a city laid out on a perfect grid, evidence of ancient Roman city planning at its finest. There’s also graffiti in the city’s forum that reads: To hunt, bathe, play games, and laugh. This is life!

3. Atlantis

Google debunked this theory, but people still like to wonder whether this satellite shot of a weird pattern in the Atlantic Ocean might actually be ATLANTIS!

Google debunked this theory, but people still like to wonder whether this satellite shot of a weird pattern in the Atlantic Ocean might actually be ATLANTIS!

People say Atlantis is made-up. Other people say Atlantis is at the bottom of the ocean. Still others claim they’ve found Atlantis, and that it’s actually Sicily, Crete, Malta, Sardinia, part of Antarctica, or in the Bermuda Triangle—take your pick. But guess what? No one knows. Plato was the first person to mention a mighty island nation called Atlantis, and people have been arguing ever since whether or not he made it up. Apparently the idea of a lost island and city has really gripped the popular imagination, and why not? Finding the ruins of an entire nation we know nothing about at the bottom of the ocean would be so interesting. P.S. I think it’s real, because as we’ve seen here: WEIRDER THINGS HAVE HAPPENED.

4. Tikal

One of Tikal's temples.

One of Tikal’s temples. Image via Wikipedia Commons.

Tikal used to be the capital city of a Mayan kingdom in what is now Guatemala. It was a majorly big city, like Tokyo or New York, for 700 years (from 200 AD to 900 AD); at its peak it contained some 90,000 people. Tikal had perfectly preserved pyramids, artwork, palaces, and a game arena…all of which were totally, thoroughly, and mysteriously abandoned. Historians think the city was getting too large for its britches and was unable to support the number of people who lived there, so they just moved away, little by little, leaving the whole city empty. But I don’t buy it! You’re telling me that nobody wanted to stay? UNLIKELY. WHAT HAPPENED HERE??? You don’t just leave 700 years of culture in a city because it’s getting a little crowded. Tikal! Why doesn’t anyone know?

5. Pompeii

The theater at Pompeii.

The theater at Pompeii.

Pompeii is the rare lost city that we don’t have to wonder about—we know exactly what happened. But for a long time, it was completely lost. It used to have paved streets and temples, bathhouses and markets. It even had an intricate water system, along with a gymnasium and an outdoor theater. But Pompeii was in a bad location—at the foot of a volcano. When that volcano, Mount Vesuvius, erupted in 79 AD, it covered Pompeii with somewhere between 13 to 20 feet of ash and pumice, which rained down onto the city for hours afterward. The extreme heat from the eruption and resulting ash inhalation killed…well, almost everyone—it’s estimated that around 20,000 people lived in Pompeii, and scientists think nearly every building in the city was affected. Pompeii (which was near modern-day Naples, Italy) is famous because the ash that blanketed the city preserved it as it was back then. It’s now a super-detailed time capsule of a 1st-century Roman city, complete with naughty graffiti written on bathroom walls. There are preserved murals, mosaics, household objects, and…casts of bodies. And there are reminders everywhere of the people who used to live there. As the city was being excavated, there were weird spaces found in the ash layers along with human remains, and experts realized that the spaces were left by decomposed bodies. They injected plaster into the spaces left in the ash, and the result is plaster casts of men, women, and children, even dogs and cats, all over the city in the exact position they died in, which is really sad and also really gruesome. Annnnd now Pompeii is a huge tourist attraction! Cool/Horrible! You can walk through the ancient streets and spend days looking inside ruined buildings and temples. I want to go very badly, because I am a ghoul.

I will leave you to ponder this question: What if we are the people who our ancestors will wonder about 1,000 years from now? We go to school, we work, we have intricate transportation systems and thousands of languages and jokes and plays and music and skyscrapers…and because it’s happened before, the time may come when we have to park our cars, forfeit our house keys, and abandon our hometowns, and baffle and fascinate future generations. ONLY WE WILL KNOW WHAT HAPPENED AS WE VANISH INTO TIIIIIIME… ♦