World’s 11 Most Impressive Lost Cities

Updated on October 25, 2019
Kosmo profile image

Archaeology is one of Kelley's great passions. He's read many books on the subject, as well as every issue of "Archaeology" since 1987.

Pyramid of the Niches in El Tajín
Pyramid of the Niches in El Tajín

If there hadn't been women we'd still be squatting in a cave eating raw meat, because we made civilization in order to impress our girlfriends.

— Orson Welles

Lost cities fascinate people!

Civilization sprang from cities. Since civilization is generally considered a good thing, it’s difficult to figure how so many cities were lost over the ages; after all, they cost so much time and money to produce, couldn’t we have kept most, if not all of them?

By the way, all of the lost cities on this list were abandoned and then lost to the outside world for centuries or even thousands of years. In any event, these ghost metropolises are prime examples of humankind’s quest for establishing social order in a changing, dangerous world.

Please keep reading!

Caracol (Belize)

Caana pyramid or temple at Caracol
Caana pyramid or temple at Caracol
Panoramic view atop Caracol
Panoramic view atop Caracol

1. Caracol

Caracol, a Maya city located in what is now Belize, was “rediscovered” by the outside world in 1937 when a local logger discovered the ruins and reported the find to the archaeological commission of British Honduras. This sprawling, jungle-covered site encompasses an area of about 200 square kilometers, much larger than Belize City, the largest metropolitan area in modern Belize. In the early 1950s, extensive excavations began at Caracol, saving much of the site from looters, fortunately. Founded about 1200 BCE (Before the Common Era), Caracol survived as a political entity until about 900 CE (the Common Era), more or less the end of the Maya Classic period. Caracol attained a population of over 100,000 people and became a perennial political rival of nearby Tikal, with which Caracol fought a series of wars from 500 to 700 CE, the dates of which often referring to a star war celestial event, perhaps involving apparitions of the planet Venus. Caracol is considered one of the greatest Maya cities.

Angkor (Cambodia)

Buddhist monks at Angkor
Buddhist monks at Angkor
Bayon at Angkor
Bayon at Angkor

2. Angkor

Angkor, located in Cambodia, is the name of an ancient megalopolis that may have supported more than a million people, making it the largest pre-industrial city in the world. Built by the god-king Suryavarman II, Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire from 800 to 1200 CE. The Angkor site comprises many spectacular monuments and temples, namely Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and the Bayon, all of which inspired by the religious fervor for Hinduism and Buddhism. The main reason Angkor became such a surpassingly great population center is that its builders produced a complicated hydraulic system unrivaled by any city on the planet at the time. But, attacked by invaders from nearby countries such as Siam, Angkor was eventually abandoned in the fifteenth century, though Angkor Wat remained a Buddhist shrine frequented by monks. Collectively, Angkor’s buildings are considered a UNESCO World Heritage site, thus helping preserve it; nevertheless, Angkor is often the target of heavily armed looters!

Vilcabamba (Peru)

Hiram Bingham (right) at Vilcabamba
Hiram Bingham (right) at Vilcabamba
Water works at Vilcabamba
Water works at Vilcabamba

3. Vilcabamba

Founded by Manco Inca Yapanqui in 1539, Vilcabamba is the legendary Lost City of the Incas, a remote stronghold of the Inca Empire that fell to the Spanish invaders of Peru in 1572. Lost until modern times, it was rediscovered by American explorer Hiram Bingham III in 1911. After the fall of the Inca Empire, Manco Inca, having gathered all of the royal Inca he could find, fled to a succession of places, until he finally settled at Vilcabamba, 80 miles west of Cuzco, the Inca capital. Further exploration and archaeological investigations of Vilcabamba began in the 1960s and have continued for decades. Bingham, who also discovered the famous ruins at Machu Picchu, thought it was the last stronghold of the Incas – but he was wrong. Vilcabamba is it!

Ubar (Oman)

Fortress at Shisr
Fortress at Shisr

4. Ubar (Iram of the Pillars)

Sometimes referred to as the Atlantis of the Sands, Ubar, aka Wabar or Iram of the Pillars, was supposedly destroyed by a natural disaster caused by God. Located in what is now the southern Arabian Peninsula, Ubar, lost to the modern world for centuries, was rediscovered in 1992 when explorers, researchers and archaeologists, using modern remote sensing from space, as well as ancient maps and historical texts, assured the public that what they found was the fabled city of Ubar. Mentioned in the Koran, Iram of the Pillars was a key location for the trade of frankincense thousands of years ago. Many scholars and scientists think the ruins of a fort at Shisr in Oman comprise the site of Ubar, as they have been dated to the beginning of the Common Era (2,000 years ago), the approximate time when Ubar flourished during the incense trade. But many detractors think Ubar was located someplace else or never existed at all. The controversy continues to this day!

Troy (Turkey)

Walls at Hisarlik
Walls at Hisarlik
Priam's Treasure
Priam's Treasure

5. Troy (Hisarlik)

The ancient city of Troy, mentioned in Homer’s Iliad as being the location of the fabled Trojan War about 1200 BCE, is located at the modern site of Hisarlik in eastern Anatolia or modern Turkey. Excavations at the site began during the 1870s when Heinrich Schliemann was the first archaeologist to sink a spade there. Schliemann found what came to known as Priam’s Treasure, but the authenticity of this fabulous, gold-laden discovery has been in question ever since. (Did Schliemann salt the dig? Experts think he may have.) Anyway, nine different strata have been found at Hisarlik, the seventh most recent of which dating to about 1200 to 1300 BCE, equating with the timeline of the Trojan War. (The most recent layer at Hisarlik dates to Roman times about 1,500 to 2,000 years ago.) Nevertheless, nobody knows for certain if Hisarlik is the ancient site of Troy, as no signposts with Troy’s name on it have been found thus far!

Pompeii (Italy)

Pompeii with Mt. Vesuvius in the background
Pompeii with Mt. Vesuvius in the background
Frescoes at Pompeii
Frescoes at Pompeii

6. Pompeii

This city was lost for about 1,500 years. When the volcano, Mt. Vesuvius, erupted in 79 CE, the pyroclastic flows killed many of the people and animals in the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Nuceria, as well as many towns in the area. Pompeii itself, a city of some 11,000 inhabitants founded about 700 BCE near what is now the modern city of Naples, Italy, was covered with pyroclasts (tephra), as well as volcanic ash up to 25 feet deep. Eventually much of this volcanic wasteland was converted to cropland and what had once existed underneath disappeared from history. But, in 1599, the ruins of Pompeii were discovered by people digging a water channel, and then recovered again as people found the erotic frescoes an unsettling sight! Then in the 1730s and ‘40s, excavations began in earnest, and for the last 250 years Pompeii has become a popular tourist attraction for millions of people. Nevertheless, Mt. Vesuvius is still an active volcano and could erupt with little notice any day now!

Mohenjo-daro (Pakistan)

Ruins at Mohenjo-daro
Ruins at Mohenjo-daro

7. Mohenjo-daro

Mohenjo-daro, which means mound of the dead men, is an elaborate mud-brick and mortared-brick metropolis located in the province of Sindh, Pakistan. Built by the Indus Valley Civilization around 2500 BCE, this lost city was one of the largest cities in the world and may have housed a peak population of over 40,000 souls. It had advanced civil engineering and water management, including flush toilets and cesspits and public baths; and its many rectilinear buildings were arranged in a grid pattern, impressive even by modern standards. Nevertheless, for some reason, perhaps a loss of water due to the winding ways of the Indus River, the city was abandoned, covered by sand and silt and forgotten about 1900 BCE. Eventually though, in the early 1920s, Mohenjo-daro was heavily excavated and then rebuilt beginning in the 1980s. Unfortunately, Mohenjo-daro suffers from groundwater salinity, the ravages of tourism and improper restoration and could crumble into dust by 2030, or so some experts claim.

Interestingly, during excavations, 44 skeletons were found at Mohenjo-daro. Apparently these people had not been buried or entombed; they were simply left where they had fallen. Curiously, the bones had some fractures as well as heavy levels of radiation. Some theorists suggest that the radiation may have been caused by a nuclear detonation. Such imagination some people have!

Skara Brae (Scotland)

Skara Brae
Skara Brae
Dwelling at Skara Brae
Dwelling at Skara Brae

8. Skara Brae

The oldest lost city on this list, Skara Brae dates to the Neolithic period, some 3,200 years BCE, older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. Located in the Orkney Islands off the cost of Scotland, Skara Brae, because of the use of excellent restoration techniques, looks as good as Pompeii and is often called the Pompeii of Scotland. Rediscovered in 1850, Skara Brae was looted until major excavations began in the 1920s. The lifestyle at Skara Brae was quite advanced for the time: the dwellings had hearths, stone-built furniture, drainage systems and even primitive toilets; the inhabitants also used pottery - grooved ware, to be specific, as well as flint tools. It was occupied for about 600 years and then abandoned, perhaps because the climate grew colder and wetter about 2500 BCE. Interestingly, the people of the site used runic symbols, comprising a kind of proto-writing!

Machu Picchu (Peru)

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu
Inti Watana at Machu Picchu
Inti Watana at Machu Picchu

9. Machu Picchu

Perhaps the most beautiful lost city in the Americas – if not the world – is Machu Picchu. Constructed as a self-contained astrological and ceremonial site by the Inca emperor Pachacuti around 1450, Machu Picchu somehow escaped conquest by the invading conquistadores in the 1530s, even though they had heard of its existence. The site’s inaccessibility in the high Andes Mountains was almost certainly the reason it stayed hidden for centuries. Nevertheless, once the Spanish overpowered the Inca nation, this “city in the clouds,” as it is sometimes called, was abandoned, until re-discovered by Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham in 1911. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Machu Picchu is the so-called “Hitching Post of the Sun” or Inti Watana, used as an alignment point at the equinoxes. Shamanic legend says that any sensitive person who places his or her head upon this stone will enter the realm of the spirit world. These days, Machu Picchu is accessible by train ride and there’s a hotel at the site. Perhaps one day there’ll be a roller coaster there too!

El Mirador (Guatemala)

La Danta at El Mirador
La Danta at El Mirador
Frieze at El Mirado
Frieze at El Mirado

10. El Mirador

The Maya seem to lead the world in lost cities. Found throughout Mesoamerica, these stone-built metropolises dazzle the eye – once they’ve been cleared of jungle, that is. Located in Guatemala, El Mirador flourished during the Preclassic period (600 BCE to 300 CE), and its peak population may have been 250,000 people. Also, it covered an area the size of downtown Los Angeles. The builders of El Mirador used countless amounts of wood and limestone to build the place, and when this material grew scarce, the city was abandoned - the same reason most, if not all of the Maya cities were eventually left to the jungle. El Mirador’s pyramids, temples and dwellings are particularly impressive; in fact, the largest pyramid, the La Danta, is 236 feet high and may be the largest pyramid – by volume – in the entire world! Unfortunately, trafficking in Maya artifacts is a lucrative business – one piece of pottery can sell for $100,000.

Insert a warning here: Since the site of El Mirador is so large and remote, the looters, illegal loggers and narcotraffickers rule there – and if you get in their way, you could be in for a rough day!

Please leave a comment!

Mahendraparvata (Cambodia)

11. Mahendraparvata

Undiscovered until 2012, Mahendraparvata was located using LIDAR, a remote sensing technology that can scan terrain, from the air or on the ground, using laser light, which produces 3-D images of large targeted areas (even underground structures can be represented). This lost city was built by Jayavarman II of the Khmer Empire around 800 C.E. Located in northwestern Cambodia and about 25 miles north of Angkor Wat, the major religious complex of the Khmer Empire, Mahendraparvata includes more than 30 temples as well as an expansive grid of roads, buildings and water management structures. Mahendraparvata translates as the “Mountain of the Great Indra,” (Indra is a Hindu God.) Notably, archaeologists need to watch out for landmines while exploring the site.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Kelley Marks


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      • profile image

        Kosmo Kelley 

        2 years ago

        Yes, Peggy Woods, I certainly hope they don't build a roller coaster at Machu Picchu or any other great archaeological site.

      • Peggy W profile image

        Peggy Woods 

        2 years ago from Houston, Texas

        Such interesting places! There was an exhibit in our Houston Fine Arts Museum many years ago showcasing many artifacts recovered from Pompeii. All of these places would be interesting so see in person but the ones topping my list would be Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat. Let us hope that there will never be a roller coaster installed in any of those historic places!

      • Angel Guzman profile image

        Angel Guzman 

        2 years ago from Joliet, Illinois

        Wow so cool!

      • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

        Kelley Marks 

        3 years ago from California

        Thanks for the comment, Cynthia Turner. We could learn a lot from lost cities. Later!

      • Cyndi10 profile image

        Cynthia B Turner 

        3 years ago from Georgia

        This was a really great collection of cities. It's unfortunate that looters have very little respect for the intangible value of the artifacts found a those cities. Like Heidi, I think it would be fascinating to visit most of them. It's amazing what humans built long before there were modern tools. Looking at those ancient cities cause you to wonder what our civilization will look like a 1000 years from now!

        Take care. Cyndi

      • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

        Kelley Marks 

        3 years ago from California

        Thanks for the comment, Heidi Thorne. This is the first time I put video capsules in one of my archaeology stories. I'm very glad I did. Later!

      • heidithorne profile image

        Heidi Thorne 

        3 years ago from Chicago Area

        I would love to see every one of these amazing sites in person one day! Thanks for the virtual tour!

      • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

        Kelley Marks 

        3 years ago from California

        Thanks for the comment, JP Carlos! I really enjoy writing about all things ancient, particularly excavations at lost cities such as the ones on this list. We can learn so much. Later!

      • jpcmc profile image

        JP Carlos 

        3 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

        Along with these lost cities are the lost knowledge and culture. Just imagine what we could have learned from them. All we have are rubble and some artifacts. But still, these are valuable sources of information. Let's hope that our civilization does not have the same ending as they have. Thanks for the informative and eye-opening hub about human civilizations.


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