Though some elements have remained unchanged and can be seen in our modern cities today, we are still left with the mysterious question: What once-great civilizations exist just below our modern metropolises? Let’s explore 52 facts about the world’s strangest cities.
The Salt Mines
The Wieliczka Salt Mine is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is about 700 years old, dating back to the Middle Ages. While we may take it for granted today, salt was a precious commodity in the ancient world and was used for preserving food. The mine extends about 327 meters underground and even contains a lake!
There’s also a legend attached to the mine’s history of a Hungarian princess tossing her engagement ring down a separate mine and retrieving it later in the Wieliczka Mine.
A Lot On Our Minds
Staying in Poland, we travel next to the “Chapel of Skulls,” a rather intriguing yet disturbing site. This eerie chapel was built in 1776 by a priest and gravedigger with the bones of over 3,000 people and contained a trapdoor harboring some 21,000 skeletons below.
The chapel’s purpose was to be a memorial for the dead and a reminder to the living about the fragility of human life. While this is an exciting site, you may want to clear your head somewhere else after your visit!
An Underground Wonder
Dubbed an underground city dating back to Roman times, the French city of Naours was built to accommodate refuge from invasion and enemy attack.
With hundreds of rooms, these larger-than-life caves could hold thousands of people and their livestock if needed. The city lay forgotten for hundreds of years but became a tourist site during the First World War.
A Mysterious Neighborhood
Ҫatalhöyuk was founded 9,000 years ago and is considered the first known city in history. Remarkably, this city lasted for 2,000 years (quite an achievement as far as the duration of civilizations usually go). Not much is known about the people who built the ancient Turkish city, but their unique approach to architecture is riveting.
The ruins reveal that the houses were built with no paths connecting or separating them but instead were seated right next to each other. That means, if you wanted to visit your neighbor, you would climb on top of your roof, walk along the other rooftops till you reached the home of your neighbor, and then go down inside using a ladder. Today, the historic site is housed under an enclosed, protective structure and is under on-going excavation.
In the Cappadocia region of Turkey lies the underground city of Derinkuyu. The structure and placement of the city reveal that it was a sort of bunker during times of invasion, and it is thought that the Hittites or the Phrygians constructed it.
However, the city served as more than just a bunker; it had housing, kitchens, schoolrooms, a bathhouse, and even a winery. Each level of the underground city was cleverly designed so that, if one group of the city was attacked, the other levels could be sealed off to prevent further invasion.
Although the Phrygians initially built Derinkuyu, it was expanded by the Cappadocian Greeks, who used the city to evade attacks by invading Mongol and Arab armies.
The citizens of Derinkuyu continued to use the site in times of crisis up until the 1920s when they were sadly expelled as part of the Greek-Turkish population exchange.
Underground City Central
Derinkuyu actually connects to another underground city, Kaymakli, through a five-mile tunnel. But this is only the beginning. In the Nevşehir Province, where both Derinkuyu and Kaymakli lie, there are even more underground cities.
Nevşehir Province houses more than 200 underground cities in this region of Turkey, made possible by the area’s soft volcanic rock. It makes us wonder what happened in these underground places, centuries before.
The Mysterious Monument
Ryukyu Islands, Japan
The Yonaguni Monument, 60 miles off the coast of Taiwan, has been the subject of debate. Some scientists claim the mysterious stone steps and altars formed naturally, and others suggest they could be the remains of an ancient city.
While people may not have ever set foot on Yonaguni, the site has been known to host its share of Pikachus: the Abyssal Ruins, featured in Pokemon Black and Pokemon White, are based on Yonaguni.
The Most A-Maze-Ing Tale
El Fayoum, Egypt
In the Egyptian city of El Fayoum lies a curious archaeological site called Hawara. A now-dilapidated pyramid built by Pharaoh Amenemhat the Third, Hawara has many mysterious elements within its construction.
What is most interesting is the labyrinth, which unwinds beneath the pyramid. Archaeologists have yet to find the ancient maze that lies beneath, but mentions of the Labyrinth of Egypt appear in the writings of Pliny, Herodotus, and Diodorus.
El Fayoum, Egypt
During the Roman period, it was thought that Hawara was an elite burial ground for the residents of El Fayoum. More than 1,300 years after the labyrinth’s supposed construction, Herodotus insisted the labyrinth contained more than 3,000 rooms (far more spacious than the pyramids of Giza), and six separate courtyards.
This means that the labyrinth would have been more extensive than the temples at Karnak and Luxor combined.
El Fayoum, Egypt
Just as if it were from the pages of a Hollywood script, in 2008, a team of archaeologists was specific; they discovered the actual remains of the legendary labyrinth.
What they found was astonishing: walls, several meters thick, joined together, and forming several closed-off rooms. Despite this remarkable discovery, today, the site is slowly deteriorating from environmental damage and lack of preservation.
A Grand Uncovering
The Grand Canyon is a classic tourist site, attracting thousands of people each year. Most visitors are familiar with the canyon’s beautiful formations and colored strata, but an eerie discovery supposedly was unearthed just below the canyon’s floor.
In 1909, the Arizona Gazette announced that explorer GE Kincaid had found the ruins of an ancient city. Kincaid claimed he found hieroglyphs similar to those found in Egypt as well as multiple, mummified bodies.
Despite Kincaid’s shocking claims, most modern scholars consider it a hoax.
Other than hieroglyphs and mummified bodies, Kincaid had even more detailed claims of finding ancient idols and evidence of an advanced civilization that demonstrated exceptional engineering skills. Even though it was revealed to be a hoax, it would make for a great movie!
A Smithsonian Scandal
Unfortunately for Smithsonian scholars, Kincaid claimed to be working with the prestigious institute. This particular claim was most likely made in hopes of giving his discovery more credibility.
To maintain their legacy of real, historical discoveries, the Smithsonian has adamantly denied any involvement in Kincaid’s wild claims.
It Must Be Magic
Nanwei, Pohnpei Island, Micronesia
Yet another architectural marvel, archaeologists are not sure how the ancient Pohnpeians built Nan Madol. Nan Madol is a massive stone city linked by canals and spread over nearly one hundred tiny islets in Micronesia.
A local legend says that Nan Madol was built by two wizards, who came over the sea in a canoe and built the city with the help of a giant dragon. Though it certainly won’t be a suitable explanation for modern science, it does make for an exciting story.
Any Other Ideas?
Nanwei, Pohnpei Island, Micronesia
What truly baffles archaeologists is that to construct the city of Nan Madol, the Pohnpeians would have to have moved the city’s giant stone blocks at a rate of 2,000 tonnes a year for 400 years.
This means the local inhabitants at the time would have most likely had minimal tools, limited human resources, and no use of pulleys. How is this possible? What a marvelous mystery indeed!
On the exotic, Maltese island of Xagħra lies Ggantija or “the Giantess’s Tower.” It is a massive stone structure, and, like Nan Madol, it was built before metal tools, wheels and pulleys existed in the culture.
A local legend also surrounds Ggantija, and it is said to have been constructed by a mythic beast, a giantess named Sasuna, who moved Ggantija’s massive stone pillars on her head.
Upon excavating Ggantija, there arose a possible, real-world explanation for the quizzical structure. Though the ancient Maltans didn’t possess the wheel, they did have the sphere, which could be a very innovative construction tool.
During the excavation, archaeologists found perfectly finished pebbles—much like modern ball bearings—which may have helped to move the stones of Ggantija. Mystery solved!
In 1963, Gӧbekli Tepe is an ancient temple with decorated pillars that support more than 10 tons! Serious excavation on Gӧbekli Tepe did not begin until 1996, and anthropologists consider this site to change the way we understand ancient civilization.
The site, which was believed to have been built 11,500 years ago and is the oldest known temple globally, has stunned experts with its beautiful artwork and incredible engineering.
Hill of the Navel
Gӧbekli Tepe, which is Turkish for “hill of the navel,” is believed by some researchers to be the site of the Garden of Eden.
Either way, most experts can agree that this region would have been a site of ritual importance for people who would later invent the wheel, writing, or develop agriculture. In fact, some have suggested humans harvested wheat for the very first time at Gӧbekli Tepe.
A Disturbing Discovery
Due to the symbols found carved into Gӧbekli Tepe, researchers are confident that it was indeed an ancient religious site. Carvings of lions, deer, scorpions, and snakes all indicate that there was animal worship, but the real answer may be downright scary.
Human skulls, each marked with ritualistic incisions, have also been found at the site. Because of the carvings of vultures and the bare bones found, it is hypothesized that the ancient inhabitants practiced excarnation: leaving a dead body exposed to the elements and wild animals so that only the bones were left.
No Tools Needed
Gӧbekli Tepe is yet another ancient site that leaves even the most well-studied experts perplexed. How was it constructed so ingeniously? Despite its massive stone walls and pillars—some weighing as much as 50 tons—no stone-cutting tools have ever been found near the site.
How the ancient residents were able to design and construct such a remarkable structure is riveting.
End of the Road
If you were to see photos of the Taklamakan desert, you would probably think it would be found in the Middle East and not the Far East. But this vast, unforgiving desert is located in China’s northwest corner. Its name in the Uyghur language means, “You can go into it, but you can’t come out.” With a floor of sand 1,000 feet deep, and yearly precipitation of just 0.4 inches (mainly from snow), Taklamakan is indeed harsh and unforgiving.
One would never imagine anything could stay alive for long in a place like this, but ruins of a city lie beneath the sands of Taklamakan.
Under a Thousand Feet of Sand
How were these ruins discovered in this massive desert? Beginning in the 19th century, explorers began to find evidence of houses buried beneath after a sandstorm.
By 1914, archaeologists Sven Hedin and Aurel Stein unearthed houses, clothing, tools, and fragments of texts. These findings led them to the assumption that the Taklamakan Desert was the city of Loulan, the capital of the short-lived Loulan (also called Kroraina) Kingdom.
An Ancient Oasis
The Loulan Kingdom was an ancient oasis found along the Silk Road. Loulan faced a series of sieges and political subjugations before the arid climate finally drove the inhabitants out of the region in the 5th century CE.
In its ruins, however, there are remnants of agricultural activity, a possible government building, religious sites, and homes.
An even more startling discovery occurred upon further exploration of the Taklamakan site in the 1980s. Explorers unearthed bodies that had been mummified by the desert air. What was even more shocking is that the mummified remains were not typical, East Asian people. Several of these mummies were revealed to have had blond-red hair and European facial features.
After this discovery, researchers now believe that Loulan was a cultural crossroads and may have played a more pivotal role in the global community than previously thought.
The climate of Taklamakan is treacherous to anyone looking to cross it without proper preparation. Though, in the Uyghur language, its name means “You can go into it, but you can’t come out", Scholars have struggled over the etymology of Taklamakan. They originally thought that the name ultimately came from the Persian “Tark Makan”—“a place to abandon.”
But the Turkish language also has an expression, “Taqlar makan.” Those words mean “Place of Ruins,” an interpretation that lends itself to the idea that the Taklamakan was once home to an ancient oasis. Either way, the ruins found in this fantastic desert show that there was, in fact, life in one of the harshest places on earth.
Racism & Ruins
The city ruins of Great Zimbabwe are located in the town of Masvingo. The ruins give evidence of a once-mighty empire, whose wealth and influence spread as far as China! It would be expected that these marvelous ruins would have been well-guarded. Still, sadly the Rhodesian government, which ruled Zimbabwe in the 20th century, restricted archaeological work on the site.
To make matters worse, the government at that time dismissed the evidence that native Africans ever built the city.
Worth Its Weight in Gold
The city of Great Zimbabwe is thought to have been built by the Gokomere in the 4th century CE and survived into the 16th century. It is the most massive structure built in Africa before the modern era (other than those found in Egypt). There are many artifacts from the site that reveal what life may have been like in this old place.
Among the findings were: tools for working, copper, ivory, and iron, as well as pottery and textiles, and proof of vast herds of cattle. But what is truly stunning is that Zimbabwe’s great wealth was built on gold! Yes, it is believed that more than 20 million ounces of gold may have been mined from the area during the empire’s reign. Now that’s a wealthy empire!
Though Great Zimbabwe could have benefited from the gold mined from their city, other surprising finds were pieces of Chinese pottery, coins from Arabia, and glass beads of unknown origin.
All of these suggest that Great Zimbabwe was part of a highly developed international trade network and that the residents most likely regularly interacted with foreigners from around the world.
Something to Write Home About
As if from the pages of an adventure novel, letters from Portuguese traders help expose what may have happened to the once-mighty empire. João de Barros, writing in 1538, describes a visit to Great Zimbabwe, remarking that the area was an ancient, formerly successful one, built on unmined gold.
But Barros’ words were not entirely trustworthy as he said that the city had belonged to the Queen of Sheba, that the massive stone houses were “the work of the devil” and that the gold mines belonged to King Solomon.
A Battle for Accreditation
Researchers and explorers sadly succumbed to the politics of the time as they tried to develop an explanation of Great Zimbabwe’s origins. Nearly everyone, Egyptians, the Phoenicians, Arabic people, and even the biblical King Solomon, was accredited with the construction of Great Zimbabwe instead of the actual natives.
It wasn’t until 1929, after findings by Gertrude Caton-Thompson, which argued that Zimbabweans built the site, that they were finally accredited. Though it is an example of how narrow and destructive colonialism can be, today, Great Zimbabwe is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and points to the remarkable inhabitants who were a part of this ancient city.
Heracleion has been called an Egyptian Atlantis because it was an ancient port said to have collapsed into the sea. The port was entangled in ancient Greek legends and the chronicler, Herodotus, claimed that Helen of Troy visited the city before the Trojan War.
The city of Heracleion was thought to be just another myth until 1933 when a British air force pilot spotted the undersea ruins near Abu Qir.
Only the Beginning
Though the ruins of Heracleion were first spotted in the 1930s, it wasn’t until 1999 that archaeologists could excavate the city in greater depth. To date, they’ve visited less than 5% of the Heracleion site, but the findings have been fascinating.
In addition to coins and tools, there were statues of Egyptian gods, and several statues of an Egyptian pharaoh no one seems to recognize. Who knows what other incredible artifacts lie within the new 95% of the site!
How Did It Happen?
Heracleion has been called an Egyptian Atlantis because it was an ancient port said to have collapsed into the sea.
The port was entangled in ancient Greek legends and the chronicler, Herodotus, claimed that Helen of Troy visited the city before the Trojan War. The city of Heracleion was thought to be just another myth until 1933 when a British air force pilot spotted the undersea ruins near Abu Qir.
Visited By Hercules
According to Herodotus, Heracleion was so named because it was the first Egyptian city visited by Hercules (or Heracles), and a temple was built there later to honor his visit.
These legends point to the hypothesis of writers who insist that the Greeks visited Africa in ancient times to study the culture perhaps.
The Mexican Metropolis
Teotihuacan is a 32-square-mile city near modern-day Mexico City that predates the Aztec period more than a millennium.
It is thought that, at one point, Teotihuacan had a population of over 125,000 people, which would’ve made it one of the largest cities in the world. The city itself covered 8 miles, and most likely, 80-90% of the population in this area lived in Teotihuacan. Now that’s a city!
How did this city house one hundred thousand citizens? Teotihuacan depended on a “modern” solution for their housing, and it appears that apartment complexes ringed the city.
Archaeologists have found tall, multi-dwelling buildings that are believed to have been home to several families. Teotihuacan is yet another magnificent example of ancient engineering.
Ahead of Their Time
With all of its wondrous engineering and architecture, the most stunning site found in Teotihuacan is the Pyramid of the Sun. The Pyramid of the Sun (the third largest pyramid in the world) and, together with the Temple of the Moon and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, forms a row of buildings that aligns precisely with Orion’s Belt.
Eerily enough, when observed from above, there is a similarity between Teotihuacan and something no one would have ever expected the ancient world to conceive of: a circuit board. The placement of the Pyramid of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon resemble large microchips and together form the high-tech shape.
Place of the Reeds
The name Teotihuacan comes from the Aztecs; it means “the Birthplace of the Gods.” Many legends come from this city, and it seems to carry a special significance for the Aztecs.
However, the Mayans were not nearly as impressed by this city and have named it the “Place of the Reeds.” To this day, no one knows who the original settlers of Teotihuacan were, making it one of the most fascinating and perplexing ancient sites existing in the modern world.
What became of the people of Teotihuacan? It seems impossible to know, but the findings show that the city was an important political and industrial center in Mesoamerica. The architectural style had a significant cultural impact on both the Mayan and Aztec cultures.
Even more mysterious, there is no evidence foreign armies ever attacked the city. The city’s collapse seems to have come from the inside with suggestions of possible anarchy similar to the Russian Revolution, though experts can only speculate.
It has been discovered that Teotihuacan faced several years of famine and population decline as juvenile skeletons show signs of severe malnutrition. Curiously, archaeologists have noticed that Teotihuacan’s most damaged buildings tend to be large, single-family dwellings and palaces. This backs the hypothesis that those lower in the class system may have revolted against the ruling class.
But another possibility of what caused the city to become a ghost town is that there were foreign invaders. Still, inhabitants simply fled before there could be any destruction to their homes.
What Is It?
The Saqsaywaman citadel, located in Cusco, Peru, has left researchers baffled as to what exactly it was used for. When the Spanish conquered the Incas after the battle of Cajamarca, one of the Spanish conquerors, Pedro Pizarro, was shocked by the structure’s layout.
Pizarro was unsure how human hands could have built such an intricate design and described it in detail, listing many storage rooms, some with military equipment.
A Forsaken Fortress
Saqsaywaman is thought to have been a type of fortress because of its elevated location and high walls. It was also believed that the structure was critical to keeping the city safe.
There were also large plazas found here, which are thought to have been used for ceremonial rituals that many citizens could have attended.
Destroyed and Repurposed
Once invaded and taken by the Spanish, they decided to use Saqsaywaman as a material source to build their own Spanish Cusco.
Sadly, they tore down Saqsaywaman and began developing their buildings, and today all that is left are a few large stones that they were unable to remove.
A Tricky Temple
Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
Yet another mystery of engineering, the structure of Angkor Wat, was initially designed as a Hindu temple in the earlier half of the 12th century.
It is thought that the temple was built to align with the stars, but archaeologists don’t know how the builders were able to lift the millions of sandstone bricks that each weighed 3 tonnes!
Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
Though it was initially created to be a Hindu temple, in the latter half of the 12th century, Angkor Wat became a Buddhist Temple. It is the largest religious monument on the planet and was once the capital of the Khmer empire.
Angkor, in the Khmer language, means “capital city” and Wat means “temple.” The Khmer empire was later ousted from the temple when a rival tribe attacked the region and took the monument.
A Cambodian Icon
Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
Angkor Wat was an essential building for Buddhism until the 1800s. In recent times, the site endured some damage from natural disasters and neglect, but the current government is working to restore the temple.
Today, Angkor Wat is a popular tourist site and is a symbol of Cambodia, even appearing on the country’s national flag.
Harboring Ancient History
Mohenjo-Daro is a collection of ruins located in Sindh, Pakistan. Also called the “mound of the dead,” it was discovered that this site contains the remains of the Indus Valley Civilization, who lived during the Bronze Age.
But who were the original residents of this place? This question has yet to be answered by anthropologists.
A Clever & Curious Design
Mohenjo-Daro has many unusual elements within its design, including a citadel for religious and ceremonial purposes and a water supply system.
It is hypothesized that the original inhabitants relied entirely on rain for their water supply and retained water in reserve tanks from the Indus River in case of emergencies. The city is 3 miles wide and has also remained well-preserved from the barriers built into the city’s structure.
Pieces of the Past
Other than the larger, more apparent findings, some of the smaller discoveries found in Mohenjo-Daro include copper and stone tools, gold and jasper jewelry, and some very unusual art pieces.
There is a sculpture of a naked woman called the “dancing girl” as well as a soapstone sculpture of a prestigious-looking man. These works of art have left researchers with a handful of questions as to who the ancient inhabitants of Mohenjo-Daro were.
A Sad Ending
So what happened to the people of Mohenjo-Daro? One loose theory is that the people of this ironically well-preserved city were destroyed by invaders, possibly from modern-day Iran.
Another suggestion is that environmental factors (such as a monsoon that dried up their water supply) ultimately destroyed the people of Mohenjo-Daro. Today archaeologists continue to look for answers as to what happened to this ancient people group.