10 Lost Cities and Mythical Civilisations of the Ancient World

Paititi-mythical-inca-city (Image: via Qim1/Wikia, cc-sa-3.0)

Over the course of many centuries, countless things are lost. Books, ideas, buried kings – even entire cities. Whole capitals have vanished without a trace, leaving only rumours and contradictory accounts in books. Some of these places may have existed, others definitely did, and others still are legends we somehow dragged out the sand and into fact. Legends like:

Iram of the Pillars (Saudi Arabia)

iram-of-the-pillars (Image: Tarawneh, cc-3.0)

Until recently, legendary Iram was thought to just be just that: a legend. The sole reference to it in the Koran casts it as an Islamic Sodom and Gomorrah – a place so sinful Allah buried it beneath the sands; while references in the 1001 Nights and Bedouin myth are even less credible.

Then, in the early nineties- with the aid of NASA- Sir Ranulph Fiennes and archaeologist Juris Zarins claimed to have found the missing city. By using satellite photography, the group uncovered a network of ancient camel roads converging on an empty patch of Saudi Arabia’s Rub al Khali desert. Excavations seemed to point to an ancient city – one destroyed in some awful cataclysm millennia ago. Hyped on their success, the team alerted the media, who broadcast the news of Iram’s rediscovery far and wide.

Sadly, the theory eventually fizzled out. While the team had found something, the confined nature of the settlement seemed to indicate it was nothing more than a simple stopping post. Once again, Iram vanished into myth.

Ciudad Blanca (Honduras)

cuidad-blanca-honduras (Image: University of Houston via Science Daily)

In a remote, inaccessible stretch of Honduras, the fabled ‘White City of Gold’ has lured explorers since the 1500s with promises of untold riches. The rumours started when Cortez himself made passing reference to it in 1526. Twenty years later, when the Bishop of Honduras wrote about a distant city he had glimpsed where, his guides assured him, “nobles ate from plates of gold” the legend went supernova.

Since then, countless sources have thrown up confused accounts of carved white stones, statues of gold, monkey gods and blood sacrifice. Wealth-crazed lunatics, opportunistic pirates and obsessed amateurs have all tried to find it; with the first hint of success occurring only this summer. Banks of high-tech lasers flown over the Central American nation have unveiled a topographical oddity which just may be the ruins of the legendary city. If confirmed, it would be the biggest archaeological find in years, and re-ignite hope in those searching for the equally-mysterious El Dorado.

Thinis (Egypt)

Osireion-Thinis-Egypt (Image: AntiguoEgipto.org, cc-sa-3.0; place depicted: Abydos)

Thinis is an ancient Egyptian city that may have been the capital before Memphis. Although it features prominently in the Egyptian Book of the Dead and is mentioned by contemporary historian Manethon, we have exactly zero evidence for it. If it existed, it was likely the seat of Menes, the first pharaoh to unite Upper and Lower Egypt into one kingdom, and possibly functioned as a religious centre for the worship of Osiris.

We’re even fairly sure as to where it might be: somewhere near the modern city of Girga. And yet, no-one has found it. Not a shred, a single broken brick. It’s entirely possible that the ruins of this vast city are waiting underneath the sands for someone to find them. But until they do, Thinis remains maddeningly lost.

City of the Caesars (Patagonia)

city-of-the-caesars-patagonia (Image: Heretiq, cc-sa-3.0)

Between a mountain of gold and a mountain of diamonds, the City of the Caesars was said to hide deep within the Andes. Variously attributed to survivors of a Spanish shipwreck, the last remnants of the Incas, 10 foot high giants and ghosts; its streets were allegedly lined with the sort of riches a homesick conquistador would brave certain death for (as many did). Although fervently believed to be real in the sixteenth century, modern thought supposes it to be nothing but a myth – a mirage conjured by the shifting ice. While it remains unlikely we’ll ever find any evidence to the contrary, it’s worth bearing in mind its nickname ‘the wandering city’; so coined because of its reported ability to disappear at will.

Paititi (Peru)

Paititi-mythical-inca-city-andes (Image: Turismo Inkaiko, cc-3.0)

To the East of the wandering city, early conquistadors believed stood the fabled Incan city of Paititi. Like its famous cousins, Paititi was thought to be covered in gold; mainly thanks to reports like that of missionary Andreas Lopez, who described the area in hallucinatory detail. In 1681, another missionary called Lucero added further fuel to the fire by writing of a rumoured city – inaccessible to white men, where the last of the Incas continued their savage reign.

For many it became an obsession; leading to expeditions like that of penniless madman Pedro Bohorques, who converted and commanded 10,000 natives before abandoning his private empire when no gold materialised. Today the city is regarded as nothing but a tale, a groundless dream kept alive by hopeful Spaniards wishing for fortune.

Helike (Greece)

helike-greece (Image: via Jolle, public domain)

The story of Helike was once thought be a tragic legend. In the winter of 373 BC it vanished, destroyed in the course of a single night. Despite ancient texts referring to it both before the catastrophe and as a tourist-swamped ruin after, no-one had ever found any evidence for its historic reality.

Then in 1988, two scholars decided the classical references to it sinking beneath the ocean, Atlantis style, had been mistranslated. Instead, they theorised Helike had slipped into an inland lagoon. Thanks to a process known as ground liquefaction, it was possible a major earthquake had caused the whole city to sink into mud – where a tsunami caused by the aftershock then drowned any surviving inhabitants. It correlated with ancient accounts Eratosthenes and Pausanias gave of crossing above the ruins in boats, looking down at the half-buried statues and broken housing; and, in 2001, turned out to be correct. Helike is now known to be historical fact – as is the tale of its terrifying destruction.

The Hanging Gardens (Ancient Babylon)

hanging-gardens-of-babylon (Image: Rex, public domain)

Although not a city, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon have flummoxed archaeologists for centuries. Of the original Seven Wonders of the World, they are the only one we’ve never found concrete evidence for.

Supposedly, King Nebuchadnezzar II built them for his homesick wife, who was missing the mountains of her homeland. By utilising giant stone slabs to stop erosion, coupled with advanced irrigation techniques, the King was said to have created a vast network of terraced gardens, deep in the heart of the burning desert. That ancient writers thought they existed is beyond doubt – what’s missing is any concrete reference to them, raising the odd possibility that all these writers were simply quoting other writers who’d never seen them either.

Currently, the jury’s out as to whether the Hanging Gardens are a historical fact, or a poetic creation. The only certainty is that, if they did exist, they were likely much smaller than claimed.

Z (Brazil)

lost-city-of-z-brazil (Images: LeonardoG, cc-sa-3.0 (left); (right), Daniel Candido, public domain)

The myth of an ancient metropolis lurking deep within the Amazon has floated around for centuries. Unlike most of the conquistador’s goals, however, ‘Z’ was never wanted for its gold. Early documentation by a Portuguese explorer in 1753 focused almost exclusively on its advanced state; drawing a romantic picture of a civilisation more profoundly European than many dared dream of. The inhabitants were said to be engineers; the city itself linked by a vast, complex network of roads and bridges. So beautiful was the myth that it sucked in hundreds of explorers, most famous of these being British adventurer Percy Fawcett, who vanished after remarking that his failure would mean there was “not much hope for others.”

Finally, in 2010, satellite imagery revealed evidence of an advanced, pre-Columbian civilisation deep in the wilderness. Although it may not be ‘Z’ itself, there no longer seems any doubt that this legend, at least, had its basis in fact.

The Cities of the Plain (Ancient Canaan)

cities-of-the-plain-sodom-and-gomorrah (Image: John Martin, public domain)

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is one of the most famous in the world. The idea of a pair of cities so sinful, so decadent that God was forced to wipe them out in a rain of fire has captured imaginations for millennia. Fundamentalists use their obliteration to argue against the spread of vices, writers draw parallels with their immoral inhabitants and those of modern mega cities – but no evidence has yet surfaced that either of them (or the three other ‘cities of the plain’) ever existed. However, a decade or so ago a new theory suggested a possible historic basis for the story – one both sad and terrifying.

sodom-and-gomorrah (Image: Lucas van Leyden, public domain)

By using an ancient astronomical tablet that refers to an object moving through the sky, two engineers calculated that a low-angle asteroid could have caused a known landslide in the Alps. According to the theory, the superheated plume from the impact then swept across the Mediterranean, re-entering above ancient Canaan at 4.30am on the June 29, 3123 BC. Although it would have lasted only seconds, its heat would have been enough to set wood, fabrics, hair and skin alight – turning any city it crossed into an inferno. With no knowledge of meteors or natural disasters, the only conclusion for survivors would have been that God himself destroyed the cities in a fit of wrath. As I say, there’s no hard evidence to back this up – but it remains horrifyingly plausible.

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