From Atlantis to Angkor: The Intriguing Secrets of Abandoned Metropolises
Stories of hidden ruins have long charmed explorers from all over, but behind those tales may lie something even more intriguing – and adverse.
The late afternoon sun cast elongated shadows over the countless stone faces sculpted into Bayon Temple as I ventured deeper into the 12th-century sanctuary situated in the heart of Cambodia’s vast Angkor site. The mesmerizing portraits emerged from towers and walls, each featuring plump lips shaped into a mysterious smile.
On my first day at Angkor, I had limited knowledge of the city’s past. However, as I meandered from one temple to another, my imagination took over. I envisioned crowds of devotees carrying vibrant offerings, the sound of chisels as artisans crafted the magnificent masterpieces around me, and majestic kings parading through wide avenues adorned with statues.
Aude de Tocqueville, in her 2014 book Atlas of Lost Cities: A Travel Guide to Abandoned and Forsaken Destinations, wrote, “For the very reason that somewhere no longer exists, it can be transformed into the ideal city, the city of one’s dreams.” She added, “The lost city is thus poetry, dream world and a setting for our passions and meanderings.”
Indeed, lost and forsaken places have a powerful allure on the imagination. They entice avid travelers and inspire a sense of adventure that has fueled grand expeditions and legendary tales.
We see our own lives mirrored in the stones and imagine our personal dramas unfolding against the romantic, crumbling backdrops. Even when disaster looms over many lost cities, time has a way of softening its impact.
Annalee Newitz, author of Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age, said, “For probably thousands of years, people have been telling adventure stories about dramatic lands beyond our borders – stories about ancient civilizations.” Their book spans continents and millennia, showcasing four ancient sites as examples of urban life: Cambodia’s Angkor; the Native American metropolis of Cahokia; Roman Pompeii; and Neolithic Çatalhöyük in present-day Turkey.
While stories about lost cities make for captivating travel narratives, Newitz argues that these tales frequently overshadow the true stories behind humanity’s most awe-inspiring places.
This was the case at Angkor, where I spent sun-soaked afternoons amid the ruins. Newitz explains that the city was still inhabited when French explorer Henri Mouhot arrived in 1860. In fact, it had never been entirely abandoned. Yet Mouhot could not fathom that the Cambodian ancestors could have achieved such grandeur.
“At first view, one is filled with profound admiration, and cannot but ask what has become of this powerful race, so civilized, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works?” Mouhot wrote about the expansive jungle site. He speculated that Angkor was built by ancient Greeks or Egyptians. In France, Newitz explains, his visit was celebrated as a “discovery.”
“Lost city stories became so popular in the modern era – starting in the 19th Century or the 18th Century – because they were really good ways of disguising colonialism,” Newitz said. “It allows you to justify all kinds of colonial incursions. To say ‘this is not a civilization that’s doing well on its own. And the evidence we see from this is that they’ve fallen away from some great, mysterious lost past.'”
A Past Obsession
Finding lost cities and civilizations was an obsession for some European explorers and colonizers. Their fervor was fueled, in part, by the search for history’s most famous lost city: the island nation of Atlantis, which first appeared in Plato’s writing. His fictional Atlantis thrived before moral decline brought divine punishment. The philosopher’s contemporaries would have recognized the story as an allegory, said ancient historian Greg Woolf, author of The Life and Death of Ancient Cities: A Natural History.
“Telling a myth to illustrate some greater truth was widely understood,” Woolf said. “I don’t think that anyone seriously believed [Atlantis] existed, but it was a convenient myth.” However, when Plato’s writings about Atlantis were distributed in modern translations, they found a more gullible audience.
“People were reading this at exactly the same time as people are founding colonies in the New World,” explained classicist Edith Hall in a recent interview with BBC’s History Extra Podcast. Misunderstanding Plato’s work, many took the allegorical tale literally, Hall said. “It blew their minds. Everyone said it has to be in America.”
When European settlers encountered Native civilizations, Newitz writes, they searched for connections to a mysterious past, often conveniently disregarding the very real contemporary peoples.
This occurred in Cahokia, an ancient metropolis located near the present-day US city of St. Louis. Towering earthen mounds there rival the Egyptian pyramids in height, and at Cahokia’s peak in 1050 AD, the city was larger than Paris. European newcomers struggled to comprehend its magnitude.
“Travelers and adventurers would tell themselves all kinds of crazy stories, like it must have been ancient Egyptians who came here to build these,” Newitz said. This myth served to justify seizing Native lands widely described as “empty,” they explained. Meanwhile, as in Angkor, the descendants of Cahokia’s builders were dismissed as incapable of such projects.
Tales of lost cities can also conceal other truths, Newitz writes, such as the ways ancient people reinvented themselves when they left a place behind. Disaster and collapse are often portrayed as the end of the story, but in Pompeii and Çatalhöyük, Newitz discovers glimmers of new beginnings amid social turmoil.
After superheated volcanic gas transformed Pompeii into a graveyard in 79 AD, the traumatized Pompeiians immediately began rebuilding new lives in nearby Naples and Cumae. Citing the work of classicist Steven Tuck, Newitz relates that many refugees known to historians had names that marked them as liberti, or freed slaves. While Roman naming conventions were often conservative, keeping the same names generation after generation, Tuck observed an interesting pattern among Pompeiian refugee families. Shedding their old, liberti names, some chose to call their children after the new places they’d arrived in, such as the bustling harbor town of Puteoli. There, some newly arrived families named their sons Puteolanus.
It’s like moving to London from a refugee camp and calling your child “The Londoner,” Tuck explained via email. “The relocation gave them this opportunity, and they took it.”
In the declining cities themselves, Newitz presents relatable people filled with agency, not ancients at the mercy of history. That’s what they see in the remains of Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic settlement that flourished 9,000 years ago on the Konya Plain in central Turkey.
Homes there are pressed together like cells in a honeycomb, they wrote in their book, with paths veering over rooftops and entryways descending through ceilings. On warm evenings, residents would gather on their roofs, cooking and crafting together. But despite the creative energy of city life, it was a trade-off. Over time, staying in Çatalhöyük became more challenging: the climate worsened, and social tensions escalated.
While many stories about lost cities seem vague and mythical, Newitz envisions the abandonment of places like Çatalhöyük as the result of a well-reasoned process. Over time, the people of Çatalhöyük simply chose to return to more rural areas, a process familiar to any city-dweller today who has wistfully scrolled through real estate listings imagining country life.
“We’re going to go look for a better place and try it again, try a new experiment, try to build differently, try to live differently,” Newitz said, evoking conversations that may have taken place around Neolithic hearths. Families departed one by one, until finally, Çatalhöyük was empty.
But when inhabitants left, each took what mattered most to them. Art, ideas, and material culture spread across the Konya Plain as families made new lives away from the dense settlement.
While Cahokia and many other cities may be abandoned, in an important sense, they’re not lost to us at all. “We still have all these cultural memories of where we’ve been,” Newitz said. “It’s continuity all the way down.”
Ultimately, the stories of lost cities provide us with invaluable insights into human resilience and adaptability. By examining the past through the lens of these ancient urban centers, we can better understand the complexities of societies and the various factors that led to their decline or transformation. This knowledge can inform our perspective on modern cities and help us better navigate the challenges that lie ahead.