Tourists clamor to see Petra in Jordan, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Machu Picchu in Peru — onetime megacities that now capture our imagination and fuel legends. But they’re not the only mythic spots. Here are some of the most mysterious abandoned locales in the world.
El Dorado/The Lost City of Z: Brazil
If you didn’t catch the 2017 film “The Lost City of Z,” you’re not alone: The movie grossed just over $8 million at the US box office. But the Muisca tribal city of El Dorado itself — which is said to contain mountains of gold — is the stuff of legend. Explorers have been seeking the mythical land since at least the 1500s. After first searching in Honduras and Colombia, archeologists hit pay dirt in 2010 when satellite imagery located promising remnants deep in an impenetrable jungle in the Mato Grosso state of Brazil. According to the Guardian:
“The discovery was in line with a document in the National Library of Rio De Janeiro called Manuscript 512, written by a Portuguese explorer in 1753, who claimed to have found a walled city deep in the Mato Grosso region of the Amazon rainforest, reminiscent of ancient Greece.” Excavation has yet to commence, but the lure of the megalopolis’ untold treasures has caused several deaths. The area is also full of once cannibalistic tribes who are thought to have been responsible for the 1925 disappearance of explorer Sir Percy Fawcett and his entire team.
Hashima Island: Japan
This tiny, 16-acre island off Nagasaki was once one of the most densely populated in the world. According to National Geographic, during the first half of the 20th century, more than 5,000 people lived and worked on the island — which was developed by the Mitsubishi Corporation as a means to tap into an undersea coal mine that lies beneath it. Hashima was bustling with life until 1974, when petroleum surpassed coal as the world’s preferred energy source and Mitsubishi announced the mine’s closure.
Within months, all residents had left and the island was permanently closed. The Pacific ghost town was used as a background in the 2012 James Bond film “Skyfall.”
Founded in 3800 B.C., Ur was once the most powerful and populous city in the Sumerian empire. Biblical scholars know the city as home to Abraham — who left it for Canaan — but today, many people have no idea it even existed. All that is left of the great city that was once home to 80,000 is rubble and the remains of a huge Ziggurat.
Great Zimbabwe: Zimbabwe
While Europe was muddling along in the Middle Ages, far south in Africa was a huge, wealthy and modern kingdom adept in metal-working and architecture. Great Zimbabwe was home to up to 20,000 people and extended as far as Mozambique.
The ruins, located near today’s city of Masvingo, displayed “an architecture that is unparalleled elsewhere in Africa or beyond,” according to archeologist Peter Garlake.
The Tellem Cities: Mali
High up in the Bandiagara Escarpment in Mali, West Africa, lies a host of abandoned cities that resemble the Anasazi cliff dwellings of New Mexico. Formerly home to the Tellem pygmies, these once-bustling cities were built in the 11th century but mysteriously abandoned in the 16th.
Chan Chan: Peru
Six hundred years ago, Chan Chan in Northern Peru was the largest metropolis in the Americas. Built in adobe with intricate designs, it was, according to the Smithsonian, “the capital of the Chimú civilization, which lasted from A.D. 850 to around 1470” and was the “first true engineering society in the New World.”
It fell to ruin after the Chimu were conquered by the Inca in the 15th century. Today, the haunting remains are under a different kind of attack: Due to climate change and heavy rainfall, the mud ruins are disintegrating.
This grand ghost town lies smack in the middle of the Namib desert, southwest of the country’s current capital, Windhoek. Built in the early 20th century after diamonds were found nearby, Kolmanskop eventually produced more than 10% of the world’s diamonds. Houses, hospitals and schools were built and all was fine until the 1930s, when easier-to-mine diamonds were discovered to the south — leading to a mineral rush. The town fell into decline and was deserted by 1956.
In the 13th century, Trellech was the second largest town in Wales, according to Mental Floss, and was “comprised of about 400 buildings before being destroyed, most likely due to a combination of attacks, fire and disease.” The discovery of the town was announced in 2017.
At the fulcrum of trade routes between Greece, Asia and Kashmir, this once great city in the Gandhara region is, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, “known from references in Indian and Greco-Roman literary sources and from the accounts of two Chinese Buddhist pilgrims, Faxian and Xuanzang.”
Founded in 1000 B.C., it was abandoned by the 5th century A.D. Now a UNESCO site and located just north of modern-day Islamabad, Taxila is full of Buddhist stupa structures and in a state of decay.
An Indian viceroy wrote of these ruins in 1881, “the spectacle of walls, towers, ramparts and domes, stretching in bewildering confusion to the horizon, reminds us that we are in the [center] of bygone greatness.” Once one of the largest cities in the world, the Silk Road metropolis of Merv was destroyed by Genghis Khan’s son in 1221, during a battle in which more than 700,000 people died.
Miraculously, the place was not completely razed to the ground and the ruins that once stupefied the viceroy can still be viewed today.
The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident decimated the town of Pripyat, which lay in the path of the blast and, thanks to winds, took the brunt of it. Once home to 50,000 people, it now lies abandoned.
L’Anse aux Meadows: Newfoundland, Canada
This recently discovered Viking settlement suggests that Scandinavian sea raiders discovered North America hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus. Dating from the 11th century, L’Anse aux Meadows contains artifacts that show metal workers, shipbuilders and woodworkers lived in the historic town.
This story originally appeared in the New York Post.