10 Ancient Cities That Were Mysteriously Abandoned

Palenque (Image: Carlos Adampol; ancient cities abandoned for mysterious reasons)

Civilizations rise and fall in the blink of a cosmic eye. Over the centuries archaeologists and antiquarians have spent countless hours, even decades, painstakingly poring over their hidden secrets in search of clues which could offer a tantalising glimpse into the lives of those who had lived there. Their findings often reveal once-rich, thriving communities brought to their knees through disease, famine or war. Others, however, maintain their mystery, lost civilisations and settlements unknown to history, or previously thought to have existed only in myth.

Whatever the stories of their decline may be, such places were abandoned for reasons which, even with the advent of modern scientific techniques, remain a mystery. This article examines 10 settlements of the ancient world which mysteriously vanished, taking their secrets with them and baffling archaeologists to this day.



Catalhoyuk-2 (Image: Szwedzki; Stipich Béla; Roweromaniak)

Catalhoyuk is one of the most ancient settlements ever found. After a few false starts, it’s in the process of being excavated – but that excavation is a painstaking task that won’t be completed quickly. In the meantime, archaeologists are fascinated by the sheer wealth of information that Catalhoyuk is yielding. To call it a mere lost settlement is a little misleading. Catalhoyuk is actually a vast, complex city that was once home to about 10,000 people at any given time and sprawled across 24 acres.

Currently, it’s one of the earliest Neolithic civilizations ever found, and it’s the first that shows a definite departure from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agrarian society. It’s estimated that the society was active for around 1,400 years, and came to an end 7,500 years ago. (For some perspective, that’s about 5,000 years before the Egyptians were just starting to think about building the pyramids.)

Archaeologists working on the dig have uncovered some fascinating finds. Oddly, the society didn’t seem to have much in the way of familial ties. Houses didn’t have doors like we typically expect to see. Instead, they were built into the ground and accessed by ladders through the roof. What’s more, each of the city’s 10,000 homes were found to have 30 or so bodies buried beneath them, which has allowed experts to determine that family ties weren’t really a big deal. Only a handful of bodies were shown to have been related by blood. Instead of biological ties, it’s thought the ancient lost civilisation placed more emphasis on an organisational system based on tools and trade.

But what happened to Catalhoyuk – after thriving for centuries – remains a mystery. The team currently excavating the ruins of the ancient city suspects that its end may have coincided with a cold snap around the same time, though it hasn’t been confirmed whether Anatolia was vastly impacted by the climate change. It’s also been surmised that Catalhoyuk’s reliance on agriculture may, for one reason or another, have brought about its downfall. Yet the reasons for the city’s mysterious abandonment remain elusive.



petra-3 (Image: Bernard GagnonBerthold Werner; cc-sa-3.0)

Anyone who’s seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is, of course, familiar with the ancient city of Petra. In the movie, it stands in for the final resting place of the Holy Grail; the truth of the city is far more fascinating than the movie gives it credit for. The beautiful carved stone that you see in the Lost Crusade is only the front entrance, and there’s an entire city to go along with it.

Visitors and one-time residents pass through a mile-long, 10-foot-wide tunnel beyond the famous sandstone front in order to reach the heart of Petra. Once one of the grandest, most prosperous cities in the ancient world, Petra was built and occupied about 2,000 years ago, its citizens contemporaries with a flourishing Greeks and Romans. Its architects managed to direct water from the surrounding desert oasis and what valuable rainfall there was into the city; it’s estimated that every day, the water systems of Petra carried about 12 million gallons of water into the city for its 20,000 residents.

petra (Image: Bernard Gagnon, cc-sa-3.0)

There are also vast, many-columned courtyards, open-air theatres, and tombs carved from the solid rock. Its convenient location placed the ancient city at the crossroads of trade routes, bringing a wealth of goods to Petra, along with caravans and traders who were allowed to stop there for a price.

Petra’s inhabitants, a group called the Nabateans, defended their city against Alexander the Great and were sacked by the military captains that came after him. They spoke a form of Arabic, left behind almost no written records, were incorporated into the Roman Empire during the period of Pax Romana, and witnessed the rise of Christianity. Then, the Nabateans left.

It’s thought that their exodus from their magnificent ancient city had something to do with ever-changing trade routes and dwindling commerce, but nothing’s ever been shown for sure. There’s a distinct lack of personal artefacts in Petra, suggesting that whatever reason people had for leaving the city, it was one that allowed them to take their time, collect their belongings, and leave in a rather orderly fashion. As a result, the precise reasons for Petra’s abandonment remain mysterious.


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About the author: Debra Kelly




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