The Truth Behind 13 'Lost' Cities
Many an explorer has driven himself mad in the hunt for a lost city. El Dorado. Atlantis. The Lost City of Z. The popular imagination is filled with tales of conquistadors and British and American adventurers on fruitless, fatal quests deep in the jungle, looking for gold or fame or immortality, getting torn up by bugs but finding jack shit.
Still the allure is such that scores of archeologists are at this moment troweling seabeds or on their knees sifting dirt in the desert; unlike Indiana Jones, odds are they will find precisely nothing. In an era of satellite imaging and sonar mapping, most everything that could be found has been found. Lost cities generally stay lost. And here’s a list of 13 cities lost so good they might never have even existed.
Sodom and Gomorrah
Rumored location: Near Dead Sea, Jordan
The legend: A sad story, but it must have been fun before the fire and brimstone. In Abrahamic religions, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah have become a synonym for unrepentant sin. Lots of wild sex (it’s where we get the word “sodomy”), lots of vice -- a blast, basically. The ultimate stag party. Eventually, God was pissed and told Abraham he was going to kill everyone, but his disciple begged not to punish the city’s few faithful. God consented to spare the city if Abraham could round up 10 people -- just 10! -- who were righteous. But it couldn’t be done. Cue the wrath. God did let Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and his wife escape, with orders not to look back. The wife (she isn’t named in the Bible) couldn’t help but peek. So God turned her into a pillar of salt. No one had fun again until we built Las Vegas.
City of the Caesars
Rumored location: Patagonia, Argentina
The legend: An Andean city of gold, silver, and diamonds -- classic. For over 200 years, stories of the enchanted City of Patagonia haunted Spanish colonials. Legend was that people who found it would instantly forget its location. Many dedicated their lives to its pursuit. Some say it was founded by marooned shipwreck survivors. Other say it was the children of the Incas, who fled from the conquistadors way back when. Or, according to other tales, it was built by ghosts or giants.
Rumored location: Off the Southwest coast of England
The legend: A sunken island in Cornish and Breton mythology, Lyonesse was immortalized in Arthurian poetry, medieval tales, and cheesy fantasy novels. It is believed to have been a link between the isles of Scilly and Cornwall, which, in some stories, was drowned as punishment for debauchery, à la Sodom and Gomorrah. Compared to the other “lost cities,” this one might very well be real. Some believe it is a genuine historical memory of a real flood that disappeared the isles of Scilly and Mount’s Bay 4,500 years ago.
Rumored location: Northwest Mexico or Southwest US
The legend: Aztlán is the ancestral home of the Aztec peoples -- a collection of tribes who around a thousand years ago abandoned their home for unknown reasons and migrated to the city of Tenochtitlan, present-day Mexico City. From there they built an empire that, for two centuries, ruled huge swaths of Mesoamerica. Aztlán has since become a symbol of Mexican identity before the arrival of Europeans. No one knows if it was real or mythological.
Rumored location: Lake Guatavita or Lake Parime, Colombia
The legend: El Dorado was a king who, as legend had it, coated himself in gold dust before diving in a lake in the Colombian Andes as part of a ritual. He was that rich. Dude’s name eventually came to mean a physical place -- wherever that king lived -- which become a synonym for lavish, easy wealth, or even the “holy grail” of personal success, whatever that might mean. Colonial expeditions throughout the 16th century were fruitless, as adventurers from the various European powers scoured Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, and Guyana in search of the Golden King and died along the way -- the best known of which was Sir Walter Raleigh. Even though explorers essentially gave up the ghost by the 1800s, the hunt for El Dorado wasn’t entirely a waste of time; huge swathes of South America were mapped, including the mighty Amazon. But yeah, a pretty weak return when you’re expecting a bounty of gold.
The Lost City of Z
Rumored location: Mato Grosso, Brazil
The legend: In 1925, a British explorer and his son disappeared into the jungles of Brazil in search of an ancient lost city described in a mid-18th century, Portuguese document called Manuscript 512. In the years following, as many as 100 people went into the jungle in search of the lost party and themselves vanished. David Grann’s excellent 2009 book, The Lost City of Z, chronicles these doomed explorers, the enduring allure of the city, and the potential discovery in the early aughts of what very well might be the ruins of it, predictably buried in the dirt.
Rumored location: Lake Svetloyar, central Russia
The legend: Atlantis, basically, but in Russia. A gorgeous city founded by the Grand Prince of Vladimir, Georgy II, in the 13th century. A tribe of marauding Mongols -- the Golden Horde -- eventually discovered it, and got ready to do some pillaging, as you do. The city wasn’t even fortified because the citizens were so pious they thought God would be their bodyguard. Soon those citizens started praying. They prayed so good water started spewing out of the earth. The Mongols sat and watched as the flood swallowed the entire city, and the last thing to submerge was a cross atop the cathedral’s golden dome. Even today, people say that if you listen closely you can hear the church bells chiming.
Rumored location: Middle East, possibly the Et-Tell archeological site in West Bank, Palestine
The legend: According to the Book of Joshua, the Israelites -- with God’s backing -- razed this city, killing 12,000 women and children, and, eventually, the entire Canaanite people. Ai had been a royal city, a holy sanctuary founded by Abraham. Since at least the mid-19th century, scholars have believed that the Palestinian archeological site Et-Tell is, in fact, the lost city of Ai. Its name is actually the Arabic word for “ruin.” But if this is true, it messes up the Biblical chronology, suggesting the city was abandoned long before the Israelites came on the scene, which might describe it’s peculiar name.
Rumored location: Douarnenez Bay, France
The legend: Another city swallowed by the sea for having too much fun. It was most beautiful in all of Europe, built by Gradlon, King of Cornouaille, off the coast of Brittany. He either deliberately built it below sea level (because his daughter loved the water so much) or took the throne after the sea had began to rise (nobody knows), but either way, only a massive gate could keep the water at bay. And the sole key to the gate was worn on a necklace around the king’s neck.
Now said daughter, Dahut, was known for being a pagan party animal. One night, she had a few too many and, seduced by a charming fellow who happened to be the devil, snatched the key from her sleeping father’s neck and opened the gate. Just about everyone died in the flood. The king somehow managed to get on his horse and swept up his beloved daughter to escape before realizing, hey wait, SHE was the problem -- and he pushed her in the water. Eventually, Gradlon gave up his pagan ways and converted to Christianity.
The Seven Cities of Gold
Rumored location: Sonoran Desert, Arizona
The legend: Four shipwrecked survivors of the doomed, 16th-century Narváez expedition were eventually found by their people, the Spanish, in what is now Mexico. They had heard stories from natives of a land of immense wealth hundreds of miles north, in what is now Arizona. This is what it took to make anyone want to hang out in Arizona. The legend might be anchored in old Portuguese tales of seven cities of riches built by Catholic missionaries 800 years prior.
Rumored location: Amazon basin
The legend: Another South American city of gold and jewels hidden in the rainforest. Called Paititi by the natives, the city was allegedly founded by Inkarri, the reincarnation of the final Inca, Atahualpa, who had been tortured and dismembered by the Conquistadors. It is the final refuge of the Inca. Disregarding the supernatural stuff, Paititi might have been a real place, actually: Archeological digs are currently underway on a number of promising sites in the Peruvian Amazon, which are believed to have been Incan outposts. These locations align with a recently discovered text, written by a Jesuit missionary in the 17th-century and housed in the Vatican archives that described in great detail the city and its tremendous wealth.
Rumored location: Inner Asia; in your mind?
The legend: Probably the only “lost city” whose value isn’t money. Shambhala’s wealth is of a spiritual kind. Ancient Hindu and Buddhist texts describe Shambhala as the birthplace of Vishnu’s final incarnation, who, after the world goes to shit, will lead an army to build a new Golden age. It might be the basis for the mythical Shangri-La. The legend has proved popular among hippies and Buddhists in the West since the 20th century, embodying an idea of a pure land of peace and spiritual harmony.
Rumored location: The Atlantic or Mediterranean
The legend: The king of Lost Cities. Most scholars agree Atlantis came from Plato’s imagination. In his writings, he described a maritime rival to Athens who royally fucked up by antagonizing “the perfect state.” Eventually, the gods sank the entire island-nation. It seems obvious now this is just a piece of fiction -- Plato was describing a city that disappeared 900 years before he was born, located “beyond the pillars of Hercules” -- but people in the Renaissance, with little to go on but old tales, assumed the island was a historical place. And they searched and speculated, using methods both scientific and psychic. Some are still searching. It seems silly, but hey, Troy was thought to be fiction, too -- and then we found it.
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Joseph Neighbor is a Florida-born, New York-based writer rumored to have mastered the art of alligator whispering.