The odyssey of the lost cities


Hidden in the depths of the sea, buried under hillsides, swallowed up by the jungle or consumed by the wrath of the heavens – lost cities have fascinated people ever since Plato told the story of Atlantis:

“Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others. But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all the warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea.”

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The carved faces of the Bayon temple in Angkor National Park. Cambodia is the closest you can get today to a real life Indiana Jones movie. There, the temples of Angkor seem built into the fabric of the forest itself, bats flap their leathery wings in the vaults and incense drifts down the empty colonnades.Few cities can match Troy for the stories told about it, but Knossos does. Home of the Minotaur and the impossible labyrinth of Daedalus, it has been a place of mystery for thousands of years.

Many have gone in search of lost cities, believing in tall tales and ancient legends. Con-men, archaeologists, showmen and adventurers have travelled over the mountains of Afghanistan, through the jungles of Cambodia, across the deserts of Jordan, and into the strangest parts of the world. But as many have discovered, finding a lost city can be the easy part – what happens next is when things get interesting.

Here are seven of the world’s lost cities:

TROY - Canakkale, Turkey

Troy, city of heroes, was the setting of Homer’s epic Iliad. The story of the Trojan War – of the wrath of Achilles, of love and revenge and men who would make war on the gods for pride – is a foundation stone of Western literature. But Troy itself remained a mystery – until one man went in search of it.

Heinrich Schliemann was not your typical archaeologist, even by the swashbuckling standards of the 19th century. A trader and wheeler-dealer, in 1868 he went searching for the ancient world. The site he settled on, the Turkish village of Hisarlik, was suggested by British archaeologist Frank Calvert.

Schliemann began excavations in 1871. He worked on a brutal scale, throwing huge trenches across the hillside and tunnelling down through layer after layer of finds in search of Homeric Troy. Gold and precious ornaments were piling up. He named them “Priam’s Treasure” after the legendary king of Troy, and dressed his wife in them.

There was one problem: Troy II, Schliemann’s city of Homer, was an early bronze age city, from around 1 000 years before any historical Trojan War. It is now thought that another layer of the city, Troy VII, is closest to the “Homeric” Troy.

Schliemann blasted straight through it in his search of the wrong lost city, though enough remains for visitors to glimpse the pride of this once stunning place.

KNOSSOS - Heraklion, Crete

Few cities can match Troy for the stories told about it, but Knossos does. Home of the Minotaur and the impossible labyrinth of Daedalus, it has been a place of mystery for thousands of years.

Legend was not enough for Arthur Evans, a British archaeologist and friend of Schliemann. In 1900, he travelled to Crete in search of King Minos and his palace. In the north of the island, close to the present-day city of Heraklion, his hopes were rewarded. Over 25 years, he uncovered layer after layer of finds, including the ruins of a rich palace. The site had first been inhabited around 7 000BC.

The ruins of Knossos attract more than a million visitors a year to gape at the columns of the palace and rich blues of the frescoes. There is one small problem: the palace and frescoes are not the work of Daedalus, but of Evans and his team of 20th-century craftsmen.

Hardly anything of the paintings is original. Evelyn Waugh, visiting in 1930, remarked: “It is impossible to disregard the suspicion that their painters have tempered their zeal for accurate reconstruction with a somewhat inappropriate predilection for covers of Vogue.”

PETRA - Slope of Mount Hor, Jordan

The “rose-red city, half as old as time”, with its rock-cut temples – glowing and impossible, in the middle of the desert – was unknown in the West until 1812. It was rediscovered, more by accident than design, by the Swiss adventurer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt.

Burckhardt’s greatest ambition was to discover the source of the River Niger, but circumstances conspired against him. He heard of another traveller who had vanished into the East, in search of Petra. He decided to follow him. He learnt Arabic, disguised himself as a Muslim, called himself Sheikh Ibrahim Ibn Abdallah, and set off.

He crisscrossed the Middle East, asking for news of his city, until he heard of a path leading into the mountains, not far from the tomb reputed to belong to Aaron, brother of Moses. Under cover of sacrificing a goat to Aaron, he made his approach, and Petra opened up before him. His jaw dropped and he scribbled down notes as fast as he could. So eager was he that his local guide became suspicious. Burckhardt collected himself, and resumed his pilgrim’s guise. The act had to be maintained. The goat had to die.

In Europe, the news was met with delight. But in the Middle East, Burckhardt’s “discovery” had been known of for hundreds of years: Sultan Baibars of Egypt had visited Petra in the 13th century, 500 years before Burckhardt.

GEDI - Near Mombasa, Kenya

Not all lost cities are as well preserved as Petra. The ruins of Gedi rest near the coast of Kenya, surrounded by tropical forest that is almost impenetrable.

A grand palace, a sumptuous mosque and streets and houses can be glimpsed among the trees – the remains of what was once an astonishing city. Chinese coins and Ming pottery, Venetian glass, trade goods from India and from Spain have been found within the ruins.

Gedi was a flourishing commercial centre from around the 14th to the 17th century. But almost nothing is known of the inhabitants’ lives. The city was abandoned twice: why, no one knows for sure.

ANGKOR - Angkor National Park, Cambodia

Cambodia is the closest you can get today to a real life Indiana Jones movie. There, the temples of Angkor seem built into the fabric of the forest itself, bats flap their leathery wings in the vaults and incense drifts down the empty colonnades.

The god-kings of Angkor were at the height of their powers from the 9th to the 15th century. They built the largest pre-industrial city in the world: larger than Rome, Alexandria, London or Paris. Wealth was poured into ever more spectacular temples, replete with intricate carvings and statues.

In the 15th century, for reasons which still puzzle scholars, the gigantic complex was abandoned.

Since the 19th century, a slow process of restoration has been taking place. While tourists flock to Angkor today, much of the site remains to be discovered, and the trees loom on all sides, ready to swallow the city up again.


In 329BC, Alexander the Great founded a city on what was, for him, the edge of the known world. Alexandria on the Caucasus was established in modern-day Afghanistan, and Alexander settled it with 3 000 veterans of his campaigns. Alexander never returned. A few years later, he was dead in Babylon. His control of Afghanistan had always been fleeting at best.

After his death his empire fragmented, and Alexandria on the Caucasus was swiftly forgotten by his successors. Ancient accounts of this part of the world paint a picture of a wondrous, magical land: where a city founded by the god of wine himself lay nearby, there were men with no heads, and naked philosophers imparted wisdom. It was a fitting place for a lost city.

Alexandria of the Caucasus was rediscovered by perhaps the unlikeliest character of all explorers. Charles Masson was a deserter from the British army and a virtuoso con artist. He wandered 19th century Afghanistan in a succession of disguises: a faquir, a Frenchman, a spy, a Hajji, an American, a healer. (No portrait of him survives.)

Obsessed with Alexander the Great, Masson searched Afghanistan for years for the cities he had founded. In July 1833, he discovered Alexandria on the Caucasus on the plains north of Kabul. Masson recovered thousands of coins and artefacts from the site. Many are in the British Museum.

But little today remains of this, the most elusive city of all. For Alexandria on the Caucasus is now almost entirely buried beneath Bagram airbase. Its streets and temples lie below the tarmac and concrete, waiting for their moment of rediscovery. –

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