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Literally the Best Thing Ever: Lost Cities

My five favorite ghost towns on earth.

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… ♦


  • Christie April 2nd, 2014 4:49 PM

    aw man this is such a cool article, I want to visit these places!

  • workingtowardfierce April 2nd, 2014 5:21 PM

    Looks like I’ll be needing to add some things to my bucket list…

  • elen April 2nd, 2014 5:30 PM

    HISTORY, man. Excuse me while I go and get lost in google images looking at all these amazing places!!

  • ElianaaVictoriaa April 2nd, 2014 5:43 PM

    There’s also the Salton Sea, located about 2 hours outside of L.A., that has been abandoned since the mid 70′s: http://lostamerica.com/photo-items/the-salton-sea/

  • herdinthehalls April 2nd, 2014 5:57 PM

    I think it’s intriguing and frightening how bustling cities can just stop. That places where families shared memories and people learned and had conflict can no longer exist. What will people wonder about current civilization? I know I want to live somewhere populous.


  • susi April 2nd, 2014 7:12 PM

    If you like the spooky cities above, you’ll LOVE the newly discovered underwater Egyptian city of Heracleion! Barnacle-covered statues! Fish swimming through stone arches! Be still my heaaaaart

    • Tangerine April 2nd, 2014 10:12 PM

      That one is SO COOL. What’s extra exciting is that a few statues still have their noses, which is super rare for Egyptian statues.

  • prange April 2nd, 2014 8:25 PM

    this is INSANE

  • Mattie April 2nd, 2014 8:28 PM

    I’m totally obsessed with this. I want to take a course on this someday.

  • Suzie Q April 2nd, 2014 10:14 PM

    pink floyd at pompeii anyone?? i never knew the story of the place thats really cool

  • Tangerine April 2nd, 2014 10:16 PM

    My favorite ancient abandoned cities are those left by the Anasazi in the American SW. Beautiful adobe castles tucked under cliffs, and their abandonment is a complete mystery. No one claims them as ancestors, and no one knows where they went.

  • Clementine Rose April 2nd, 2014 10:20 PM

    Now I reeeeeally want to visit Petra. That is amazing, honestly — that they carved this city into some rock. Sounds like something in a fantasy story alright :)

  • alienbabe April 2nd, 2014 11:05 PM

    This is so relevant. I’m going to Italy in 2 days for spring break and Pompeii is one of the places I’ll be going. I’m so excited! Maybe I could submit pictures or something.

  • FlaG April 3rd, 2014 12:05 AM

    Visiting Petra in Jordan is definitely on my list of things to see. Such a beautifully preserved masterpiece!

    I’ve been to Pompeii in the middle of an Italian summer. I advise strongly against that as the heat makes you feel like you’re reliving the volcanic eruption all over again -_- But definitely do visit!

    My favourite alternative tour guide Atlas Obscura did an article featuring a few other lost cities, if anyone else is interested in seeing more – http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/essential-guide-lost-cities

    Great article!


  • Aoife April 3rd, 2014 12:24 AM

    I’ve been to Pompeii, it’s rad. The creepiest/saddest things are definitely the body casts on display – people frozen forever in last moments of panic.

  • luanda jabur April 4th, 2014 6:52 AM

    Krista! You forgot Macchu Picchu in Peru!!!! So cool, incas lived there!

  • pizzaface April 4th, 2014 4:10 PM

    loved this article, total imagination inspiration

  • lexilikes April 4th, 2014 4:47 PM

    I love the idea of lost and abandoned cities and places. You can go and see pieces of lives as if no one had left. Atlantis has always fascinated me and I want to visit Pompeii some day.


  • Berries April 5th, 2014 6:58 AM

    I have this thing for deserted houses. I have the strong urge to invade them… all of them. But I can’t because of the police and all, so I don’t do it.

    But I want to.

    It”s because of all these cool horror stories I read as a kid and many of them took place in deserted homes/factories/swimming pools and aaah I would love to visit all these places!

  • Lillypod April 6th, 2014 6:06 PM

    i’ve been to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, an ancient city bigger than NYC but completely abandoned…i also wandered around an abandoned french village that was completely for sale.

  • hooskanoonan April 10th, 2014 11:44 PM

    Ohmygosh when I was in the fourth grade my class went to visit this traveling Pompeii exhibit. It is like five times more macabre and depressing than you could imagine. Looking back, I dunno whose big idea it was to take ten year olds to view hundreds of cast-bodies writhing in anguish as they grasp for their loved ones, but it was seriously messed up.