Some of the world's greatest cities are no more. Once thriving, hundreds of cities across the world now lie in ruins – ravaged either by war or simply a natural progression. These are the world's greatest lost cities.
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Guatemala's crown jewel is Tikal, located in Tikal National Park. This lost city is perhaps the greatest of all the Mayan city-states. Its magnificent six temples still dominate the landscape much as they did a thousand years ago. One can witness these ancient structures soaring above the rainforest canopy. While there one is likely to wonder at the ceremonies that once took place here, and the size of the city now swallowed up by the jungle.
Ctesiphon was the capital of the ancient Persian Empire and is located on the River Tigris not far from modern Baghdad. Its showstopper is the enormous vaulted hall, dominated by what is still the world’s largest brick-built arch (pictured). The throne room behind it was 30m high and 48m long: truly fit for a king.
This lost city was built by the Gokomere people in the eleventh century on a plateau around 150km from modern-day Harare. Great Zimbabwe’s centre was a palace enclosed by a granite wall some five metres high. Once a stone city that formed the hub of a major trade network in gold, ivory and cattle, today the ruins lie scattered over a wide and verdant valley.
The Indus valley civilisation that built Mohenjo-Daro around 2600 BC was a rival of its better-known Greek and Egyptian equivalents. Though little is known about its people, this was once home to early masters of town planning and civil engineering. Today its complex of houses, shops, ramparts and streets are under threat from erosion.
At the confluence of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, a fifteenth-century Turkish general ordered a town to be built. He designed a city filled with palaces, mosques and tombs (including his own). This ancient town of an impressive 360 mosques, an outpost of the Islamic world, fell into disrepair shortly after the death of its founder. It has laid for centuries under vegetation and has now been partly restored.
The Mesa Verde National Park is an early urban settlement once inhabited by the Anasazi people, who lived here from the seventh to fourteenth centuries AD. It contains over 600 cliff dwellings built mainly from sandstone, wood and mortar under the overhang of ridges. The most famous of this lost city – Cliff Palace – housed around 100 people, and was accessed via ladders.
To stay in the park itself, you will want to book a stay at the Far View Motor Lodge.
You’ve probably never heard of it, but in 1500 AD Vijayanagar had twice the population of Paris and was the hub of the greatest empire in southern India. This legendary city was built around a set of holy places including the spectacular Virupaksha Temple (which still stands). Today its temple districts and shrines are revered by Hindus and non-Hindus alike.
The magnificent capital of a tenth-century Armenian kingdom, Ani, was known as ‘The City of 1001 Churches’. Many of them remain in place today, bewitchingly out of place in the green fields that surround them. It’s hard to imagine that these evocative ruins, largely forgotten, once formed part of a city-state that rivalled Damascus or Constantinople.
From around 2040 to 1070 BC, Thebes was the capital of Egypt and the city dedicated to Amon, the supreme sun god. Even today its splendour is unrivalled. The Temple of Luxor, Karnak Complex and Temple of Ramesses II remain some of the greatest architectural achievements the world can offer. Not to mention that the tomb of Tutankhamun is here as well.
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Carthage was a Phoenician trading town that was sacked and rebuilt by the Roman Empire. This grew into a major port, the capital city of the Carthaginian civilisation. At its height, this lost city was second only to Rome in terms of its size.
Later it was captured by the Vandals. Much of the atmospheric ruins that remain today are Roman in origin, especially the amphitheatre and Antonine Baths (pictured).
A magnificent city founded by Darius I in 518 BC, Persepolis took over a century to build. One of the great lost cities of the world, this ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire is situated 60 km northeast of the city of Shiraz in Fars Province, Iran. Entering through the massive Gate of All Nations, and one is bound to feel in awe.
A huge terrace faces you, and in every part of the complex are intricate carvings of slaves, kings, officials and representatives from across the Persian empire.
Ephesus, located southwest of present-day Selçuk, Turkey, was a port on the River Cayster. It over time grew into one of the largest Mediterranean cities in the Classical era. The Temple of Artemis – a wonder of the Ancient World – once stood here, and its striking fragments still remain.
Visitors can also find here the Library of Celsus — a grandiose testament to one senator’s wealth, that later served as his tomb.
A mid-sized Mayan city-state, Palenque was at its height in the seventh century under Pacal the Great. Its appeal lies in the quality of its architecture and sculpture. 90 per cent of the settlement still lies buried under the jungle that crawled back over the site after it was abandoned around 1120 AD.
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The city of Pompeii was covered under a wave of ash after the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Many of its citizens were buried alive, complete with their animals and possessions, and perfectly preserved. Nearby Herculaneum was evacuated in time but buried deeper under the ash; here doors and even food remain intact. Together they work as a kind of morbid time capsule.
Once you are in Italy, we recommend seeing the many ruins this continent has to offer. Check out our guide to the lost abandoned cities of Europe
The capital of the Nabateans, Petra fell into decline under Roman rule in the fourth century AD and wasn't rediscovered until 1812. In its prime, this ancient city played a key part in the silk and spice trade routes that linked Asia with Arabia and the western world.
Its tombs – especially The Treasury (of Indiana Jones fame) and The Monastery – are spellbinding, all the more so as they were carved into the rock face itself.
One of the world’s greatest sights, the Angkor complex encompasses various capitals of the Khmer Empire that flourished from the ninth to fifteenth centuries AD. This massive ancient city stretches over 400 square kilometres.
The highlight is the incomparable Angkor Wat, a Hindu temple with fir-cone towers, stylised sculptures of human faces and carved reliefs of Hindu myths.
Literally “The Lost City”, Ciudad Perdida is at least six centuries older than Machu Picchu and was the heart of the Tayrona civilisation, whose farms and fishing villages lined the shores of the Colombian coast.
It was rediscovered by treasure hunters in 1972, and tours started again in 2005. Visit and you’ll have these mysterious terraces and plazas largely to yourself.
Looking for inspiration for your next trip? Don't miss our guide to the most exotic places to travel in the world.
Machu Picchu was constructed in the mountains of Peru by the Inca empire around 1450 and abandoned only a century later. Machu Picchu (“Old Peak”) was rediscovered in 1911 by American historian Hiram Bingham, who was actually looking for another lost city called Vilcabamba. It may now be a huge tourist draw, but its setting and mystery have lost none of their drama.
Machu Picchu is one of the world's most visited tourist sites, and for good reason. Find accommodations to fit your budget in the Mach Picchu area.
Chichén Itzá is one of the great urban centres of the Maya-Toltec civilisation that existed roughly from 900–1400 AD. Its pyramids and observatories survive as monuments to a people whose mastery of astronomy defies belief.
Each spring and autumn equinox, the shadow of the sun forms a wriggling serpent on the steps of the Temple of Kukulkan.
Xanadu (or Shangdu) was, as any Coleridge fan will tell you, where Kubla Khan decreed a stately pleasure dome and spent his summers. When Marco Polo visited in 1275, he described “a very fine marble palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds…”
Today little remains of this great capital, but your imagination will be working overtime.
Jump ahead in history, and visit one of the abandoned ruins of our times. See our gallery of the world's best abandoned places.
It's difficult to stop at 20 lost cities, as there are countless more we could have mentioned here. To many, seeing ancient sites in person can be a humbling but unforgettable experience. If you're ready to make the trip of your dreams happen, check out our Rough Guides. With our guidebooks, you can learn more about the best time to go, the best places to visit, and the best things to do in the countries you plan to travel to.
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