Our day-to-day lives can often be pretty monotonous. So it's no wonder that many of us find lost cities to be fascinating examples of mystery, adventure and sometimes fantasy. Whether these places have been made inaccessible by natural disaster, devastated by war or fabricated entirely, lost cities have sparked the imaginations of millions of would-be anthropologists and treasure-seekers around the world.
What exactly is a lost city? Well, the criteria are pretty loose. In some instances, the city was buried or destroyed. Many of the cities we commonly think of as lost weren't technically lost -- they were simply unknown to the Westerners who later "discovered" them and made them famous, according to Steven A. Wernke, assistant professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University [source: Wernke]. Ironically, the lost cities that have left some of the heaviest imprints on popular culture are the ones that may not have even existed. This is probably because we associate them with ideas of fantastic wealth, enlightenment and prosperity.
There are legends and ruins of dozens of lost cities around the world. HowStuffWorks has compiled a list of five historically significant cities whose stories run the gamut from conflict and devastation to prosperity and intrigue.
Pompeii: The Buried City
In practically the blink of an eye, the thriving community of Pompeii, Italy, was reduced to ash-covered ruins, permanently frozen in time. It was a normal day in A.D. 79 for the residents of Pompeii. Suddenly, the tempestuous volcano Mount Vesuvius erupted, showering the city with ashes, cinders and other debris. Many residents were able to evacuate before the volcanic waste landed. However, those 2,000 people who didn't escape in time were trapped under the ashes, which almost instantly formed an airtight seal of sorts over the entire city.
The ruins of Pompeii weren't disturbed until they were discovered in 1748 and archaeologists began the excavation process [source: The History Channel]. Archaeologists never expected the near-perfect preservation of the buildings and objects that had been buried for more than 1,500 years. They were even able to create molds of the people trapped underneath the debris. Though their bodies had long since turned to dust, the air pockets where they were trapped remained intact. Once filled with plaster, the molds rendered a striking likeness of the volcano's victims, trapped in various states of evacuation [source: National Geographic].
El Dorado: The Imaginary City
The pursuit of wealth has long encouraged treasure-seekers to play the lottery, enter sweepstakes and search for pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. However, few legends have elicited as passionate a response as that of El Dorado, the famed (and almost definitely imaginary) city of riches that has eluded explorers for centuries.
The origin of El Dorado, which is Spanish for "The Gilded One," dates back to the 16th or 17th century, when European explorers in South America first heard tales about a fabulously wealthy American Indian chief who was perpetually covered in gold dust [source: National Geographic]. The city -- supposed to be located somewhere in the northern portion of South America -- was said to be chock-full of precious gems and gold. Thousands of explorers have tried in vain to locate this city of riches, and many of them have died in the process from a variety of causes, including disease and starvation.
One of the most famous cases involves Percy Harrison Fawcett, a British explorer who set out in 1925 to find El Dorado, which he named the City of Z. Fawcett and his expedition party entered the jungles of the Amazon, never to be heard from again. Still more explorers have endeavored to find Fawcett's group but have repeatedly turned up dead or empty-handed. Given this track record, even Indiana Jones might encourage El Dorado seekers to buy a scratch-off ticket instead of risking their lives.
Troy: The Legendary City
Few epic tales are studied more than "The Odyssey" or "The Iliad," penned by Homer around 800 B.C. These fictional poems describe the Trojan War. The city of Troy was located in what is now modern-day Turkey, sandwiched between Asia and Europe. Because of its accessibility, Troy was a cultural hotbed and ideal trade locale. Homer's epic poems describe how Helen, the stunning wife of Sparta's King Menelaus, allegedly ran off with a Trojan prince named Paris. This affair reputedly caused the Trojan War and earned Helen's reputation as the face that launched a thousand ships. Menelaus launched a huge offensive on Troy, resulting in the war that may have involved a notorious wooden horse, Achilles and a number of other famous tales.
With a history so rooted in legend, it's no wonder that historians were unsure whether Troy actually existed. It's evident that Troy was abandoned following the Trojan War, from 1100 to 700 B.C. It was then resettled and revitalized before it was captured by the Romans in 85 B.C. Soon after, the civilization fizzled out and was left in ruins until its discovery in 1822. Archaeologists have since identified many layers of cities built on top of each other. The stone walls and fortresses present in the sixth and seventh oldest layers are now believed to be the Troy described in Homer's epics, and the legend of the Trojan War is now widely accepted, although its cause is still uncertain.
Carthage: The War-torn City
Similar to Troy, the city of Carthage was situated in a highly coveted spot in the Mediterranean near modern-day Tunisia. Carthage was founded by the Phoenicians (probably around 800 B.C.) as a trading post in North Africa, directly across from the toe of bootlike Italy. Though its prime location brought the city great prosperity, it also caused 150 years of war -- mainly with Rome -- that eventually led to Carthage's demise. The First Punic War (260-241 B.C.) showcased Rome's superior naval tactics and resulted in Carthage's resounding defeat. During the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.), Carthage battled Rome for rights to Spain and was once again soundly defeated. Rome even managed to outsmart Carthage's legendary military tactician, Hannibal.
Following this devastating loss, Carthage existed as a shell of its former glory until 151 B.C., when Romans noticed the city enjoying a renaissance of sorts. The idea of Carthage prospering made the Romans nervous, so they jumped on the chance to declare war after Carthage violated the terms of a peace accord. This war lasted only a few years and resulted in the total destruction of Carthage and all of its buildings as well as the deaths of thousands of Carthaginians. The city was eventually resettled, but it never fully recovered as a powerhouse. Today, Carthage is a wealthy suburb of Tunisia.
Atlantis: The Utopian City
According to the Greek philosopher Plato, Atlantis was a bustling society, filled with wealth, architectural marvels and a thriving culture. While Plato's colorful descriptions of Atlantis are widely believed to be fictional, some historians think the city existed, although their guesses as to when and where vary widely. Plato noted that the island of Atlantis disappeared 9,000 years prior to when he wrote about it, but some scholars think this number was transcribed or translated incorrectly because 900 seems more plausible. Some archaeologists have theorized that Atlantis was located in the Greek Islands and was sunk by a volcanic eruption. Still others hypothesize its location to be underwater near the Caribbean, Ireland, South America or even Antarctica [source: National Geographic].
Whether or not Atlantis actually existed, the idea of this utopian city has enthralled many to such an extent that numerous books, movies and documentaries have glamorized it and sought to solve the mystery of its disappearance. As recently as February 2009, an aeronautical engineer made headlines worldwide when he claimed to have found Atlantis using the Google Ocean tool, which allows users to comb through thousands of photos of ocean landscapes. To date, the jury is still out on the matter of whether the underwater city off the northwest coast of Africa is actually Atlantis. [source: Telegraph].
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Lots More Information
- All About Turkey.http://www.allaboutturkey.com/troy.htm
- "Atlantis." The History Channel Web site. http://www.history.com/encyclopedia.do?articleId=201755
- "Carthage." The History Channel Web site. http://www.history.com/encyclopedia.do?articleId=204823
- "Carthage: A Lost Empire." Channel4.com. http://www.channel4.com/history/microsites/C/carthage/index.html
- Drye, Willie. "El Dorado Legend Snared Sir Walter Raleigh." National Geographic.http://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/ancient/el-dorado.html
- "El Dorado." The History Channel Web site. http://www.history.com/encyclopedia.do?articleId=208339
- "Explorer's Deadly Obsession With Lost City." National Public Radio.http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=101097737
- Grann, David. "Finding the Lost City: Does the Amazon Jungle Conceal a Vanished Empire?" The Boston Globe. Feb. 22, 2009 (March 30, 2009).http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/02/22/finding_the_lost_city/
- "Is It Real? Atlantis." National Geographic Channel.http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/series/is-it-real/2699/Overview
- Lemonick, Michael D. "Troy's Lost Treasure." Time.com. April 22, 1996 (March 30, 2009).http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,984435,00.html
- Lovgren, Stefan. "Is Troy True? The Evidence Behind Movie Myth." National Geographic News. May 14, 2004 (March 30, 2009).http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/05/0514_040514_troy.html
- Moore, Matthew. "Google Ocean: Has Atlantis Been Found Off Africa?" Telegraph. Feb. 20, 2009 (March 30, 2009).http://www.telegraph.co.uk/scienceandtechnology/technology/google/4731313/Google-Ocean-Has-Atlantis-been-found-off-Africa.html
- Owens, James. "Ancient Roman Life Preserved at Pompeii." National Geographic.http://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/ancient/pompeii.html
- "Pompeii." The History Channel Web site. http://www.history.com/encyclopedia.do?articleId=219587
- "Pompeii Victim." Mysteries of the Ancient World. National Geographic.http://www.nationalgeographic.com/guides/history/ancient/enlarge/pompeii-victim.html
- "Troy." The History Channel Web site. http://www.history.com/encyclopedia.do?articleId=224533
- Wernke, Steven A., Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Vanderbilt University. Personal interview conducted by Alia Hoyt. March 25, 2009.