When we want to go back and look at the past, we have two ways of doing it. One is history itself, which is the study of old written documents. Secondly, there’s archaeology, which is the study of past human activity by looking at old artifacts, or any other remnants of past civilizations. But while history is oftentimes written by the victor (literally), archaeology can paint a more accurate picture of what actually happened.
Archaeology also has the habit of springing some great surprises on us in the form of long-lost, forgotten cities. These discoveries then usher in a new wave of information that broadens, or even turns history as we know it, on its head. Here are 10 such lost cities that have only been discovered in recent years.
10. Qalatga Darband – c. 2,300 years old (Iraq)
Back in the 1960s, the United States was taking regular photographs of the Middle East and other areas with their spy satellites. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, many of those photos were released to the public. When looking them over, researchers came across the outlines of a possible city or fortress located in northeastern Iraq. And even though various conflicts have kept them from taking a closer look, archaeologists took to the skies by using drones to survey the area. They were looking for so-called crop marks which are indicative of buried structures. If there are any walls underground, crops, like wheat or barley, won’t grow as well over them as they would on regular soil. This was also the first time this technique was used in the historic Mesopotamian region. In more recent years, however, researchers also managed to work at the site.
Anyway, the city they discovered is believed to have been founded around the time when Alexander the Great went on his campaign against the Persians sometime in the 330s BC. Qalatga Darband, which in Kurdish loosely translates to “castle of the mountain pass,” could have been a wine trading fortress, connecting present-day Iraq and Iran. Even though the excavations are still in the early stages and are expected to last until 2020, archaeologists have already found many artifacts among the ruins. They’ve already unearthed parts of a large stone wall, as well as some stone presses that were used to make wine or oil. The site also has a Greco-Roman architecture, with several broken statues – one of a naked man, probably Adonis, and another one of Persephone. Other objects, and even a coin were discovered there – but these came from a later period, sometime from around 50 BC. It’s still too early to tell with any accuracy how large or important this city once was, but scientists believe that it may have been built and then expanded upon for several centuries before it was abandoned.
9. The City of the Jaguar – c. 1000 AD (Honduras)
In 2015, a National Geographic expedition returned from deep within the Honduran jungles with some exhilarating news. They’d discovered a long-lost city, belonging to a mysterious culture, previously unknown to history. The archaeological site is so remote and so pristine that virtually every object and artifact was untouched since the city was abandoned. Christopher Fisher, a Mesoamerican archaeologist on the team from Colorado State University, said that such a perfectly intact discovery is “incredibly rare.” As a result, they kept its exact location a secret. The area in which the so-called City of the Jaguar is situated is called by scientists the Ciudad Blanca (White City) preserve. But you won’t find this place on any map. This name was in reference to Theodore Morde, an eccentric American explorer who, in 1940, told the New York Times that he discovered the legendary White City, or sometimes known as City of the Monkey God. Sadly, he committed suicide before he could reveal its exact location, and he brought little to no actual evidence to substantiate his claims to begin with.
Nevertheless, its name was chosen based on a werejaguar (like a werewolf) stone head that was simply lying on the ground, probably depicting a shaman in a transformed, spirit state. In total, 52 artifacts were simply peeking from the ground, with many others being buried underground. The archeologists also surveyed the site, mapping plazas, monuments, and earthen pyramids. Everything was documented, but left unexcavated. The city and the civilization that built it are believed to have thrived sometime after 1000 AD. In 2012, scientists used airborne laser technology to peer through the dense canopy and scour for any signs of human activity in the area. This is what led the team to go there three years later. Archaeologists are skeptical that any further research will be conducted on the City of the Jaguar in the foreseeable future. Because of its remote location, and surrounded by drug trafficker-infested jungles, the Honduran government will most likely not invest any more funds if it will not be able to bring in tourists to the area.
8. Probably Ancient Egypt’s First Capital City Ever – c. 5000 BC
Even though archaeologists haven’t given it a name yet, the ancient settlement they discovered in Upper Egypt in 2016 may possibly be the first ever capital city belonging to the ancient Egyptians. Located only some 400 yards away from King Seti I’s tomb within the Valley of the Kings, and across the Nile River from the famed ancient metropolis of Luxor, this long forgotten city is thought to have once been home to some high-ranking individuals, as well as many tomb builders who were engaged in building many of the imposing monuments in the nearby sacred site of Abydos. The excavations at the site have brought to light, among other structures and artifacts, 15 large tombs, complete with skeletal remains. These tombs are said to be even bigger than the royal graves belonging to the members of the first royal dynasty, found in Abydos.
“About a mile behind where this material is said to be, we have the necropolis with royal tombs going from before history [sic] to the period where we start getting royal names, [and] we start getting identifiable kings,” Professor Chris Eyre, an Egyptologist based at the University of Liverpool, said in an interview. “…This appears to be the town, the capital at the very beginning of Egyptian history,” he continued.
7. Among the Oldest Settlements in Europe – c. 5000 BC (Romania)
Another unnamed settlement was discovered by archaeologists in recent years, this time in northeastern Romania. Located in what is now a cornfield, and close to a river bordering the country of Moldova, this prehistoric settlement covered an area of roughly 25 hectares. It’s complete with houses, barns, storage silos, and other structures, as well as an earthen wall that once had a wooden palisade. Archeologists have been working on the site for several years now, and recently came across the largest building yet to be discovered there. It covers an area of roughly 10,000 square feet and is believed to be either a temple or the house of a tribal leader.
The people who built this prehistoric settlement were part of the Cucuteni-Trypillian Culture. This culture used to inhabit parts of central and northeastern Romania, Moldova, and southern Ukraine. They flourished for nearly 3,000 years, between roughly 5500 and 2750 BC, being one of the most advanced civilizations in Europe at the time. They formed a loose confederacy of culturally-similar settlements, some of which capable of housing 15,000 people or more. The Cucuteni-Trypillian people were largely agrarian, but also excelled at pottery, blacksmithing, jewelry, and cloth making. They are also among the candidates believed to have invented the wheel. This culture eventually faded away into obscurity around the third millennium BC, most likely pushed out of the region by climatic changes.
6. Mahendraparvata – 802 AD (Cambodia)
For over 600 years, from the 9th to the 15th centuries AD, the Indochina Peninsula was dominated by the Khmer Empire. At its peak, it covered lands that are now Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and South Vietnam. Their capital city was centered on and around Angkor Wat, which is the largest religious monument in the world ever discovered, covering an area of 160 hectares, or roughly 400 acres. But the world records surrounding this region don’t stop here. In 2012, archaeologists made use of LiDAR laser technology to map the surrounding forest floor over an area of 123 square miles, some 25 miles away from Angkor Wat on the mountain of Phnom Kulen. To their amazement, they discovered an intricate network of grand boulevards, dams, ponds, irrigation canals, agricultural plots, low-density residential areas, and countless temples. They all seemed to cluster around a huge structure surrounded by earthen mounds – most likely a 9th century fortress.
The water management system here at Mahendraparvata, as it’s called, was previously thought by present-day scientists to be too advanced for the period. Water was diverted to parts of the city that lacked any steady flow, and various buildings scattered all across the huge city controlled its supply in times of drought. “They employed a complex series of diversions, dikes and dams. Those dams are huge, and they required huge manpower,” said Jean-Baptiste Chevance, one of the lead archaeologists. At the start of the Khmer Empire, he went on, “They were already showing an engineering capacity that translated into wealth and stability and political power.”
In 2015, the team extended their aerial laser survey to an extra 734 square miles. Damian Evans, the other lead archaeologist, had this to say about the newer discovery: “We have entire cities discovered beneath the forest that no one knew were there – at Preah Khan of Kompong Svay and, it turns out, we uncovered only a part of Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen [in the 2012 survey] … this time we got the whole deal and it’s big, the size of Phnom Penh big.” Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s present-day capital, and home to over 1.5 million people. Mahendraparvata is believed to have been the largest and most advanced city of the pre-industrialized world.
5. Vlochós – c. 500 BC (Greece)
Located about 350 miles north of Athens, and perched on a 705-foot-tall hill surrounded on all sides by a flat plane, lay the ruins of Vlochós, an ancient Greek settlement believed to have been founded sometime around 500 BC. The ruins of Vlochós have been known by historians for over 200 years, so in a sense, it can’t actually be considered ‘lost’. Archeologists always believed it to be some sort of backwater village with no real significance or historical value. The vestiges above ground showed that it once had a gate, several towers, and a stone wall. But what actually was lost here is what now lies beneath ground. Researchers at the Vlochos Archaeological Project conducted their first fieldwork there in September 2016.
By using non-invasive technologies, such as ground-penetrating radar systems, they were able to discover evidence of a once thriving city with a large town square, and an extensive street network, encompassing an area of about 40 hectares (and that’s only within the city walls themselves). They’ve also come across pottery shards and several coins that helped date the city. The archeologists believe that Vlochós reached its peak during the fourth and third centuries BC before it was abandoned. What made those people leave the city is still unknown, but some speculate it had something to do with the Roman conquest of the region. Future fieldworks will offer a more detailed perspective on the actual size of the city and about what happened in the region more than 2,300 years ago.
“Very little is known about ancient cities in the region, and many researchers have previously believed that western Thessaly was somewhat of a backwater during Antiquity,” said the expedition’s leader. “Our project therefore fills an important gap in the knowledge about the area and shows that a lot remains to be discovered in the Greek soil.”
4. Rhapta – c. 50 BC (The Zanzibar Archipelago, Tanzania)
The ancient Greek scholar Ptolemy makes mention of Rhapta, an ancient port-city somewhere on the coast in East Africa. This metropolis was an ancient trading hub, selling tortoise shells, ivory, rhino horns, slaves, and gold, while buying metal tools and weapons. Rhapta was the capital city for an African culture known to Arab sailors up until the 10th century as Azania. The port-city of Rhapta was well connected with Indian Ocean Trade, but also had frequent visitors from as far away as ancient Rome via Egypt and the Red Sea. Based on Ptolemy’s descriptions, historians and archeologists have been trying to find the location of this almost semi-mythical African city for decades, but to no avail.
Then, in 2013, due to some turbulent waters, Mafia Island (no connection) – part of the Zanzibar Archipelago, off the coast of Tanzania – was subjected to some unusually low tides. Several miles away from shore, a series of strange and uncommonly rectangle-shaped rock formations were peeking just above the water line. Professional diver Alan Sutton was in a helicopter at the time, looking down at the ruins below. Unfortunately, however, it proved incredibly difficult to relocate those unusual formations once they resubmerged – despite his many attempts to do so. Nevertheless, Sutton did manage to find them three years later, in March 2016. The underwater ruins show clear signs of a once large harbor city, complete with paved roads, stone walls, and plazas. The many artifacts found there are currently in the process of being analyzed and dated, but lead archeologist Felix A. Chami, a professor at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, says that the early signs indicate that this submerged city may be the lost city of Rhapta.
3. Genghis Khan’s Long-Lost Fortress – 1212 AD (Mongolia)
Back in 2001, a team of Japanese and Mongolian archeologists came across an old abandoned fortress in southwestern Mongolia, located some 550 miles away from Ulan Bator, the country’s capital. They began scouring the area after they noticed that some of the surrounding geographical features were reminiscent of what a medieval Chinese traveler mentioned in one of his journals. The 650 by 650 foot fortress they ended up discovering there was surrounded by an earthen wall, and the team excavated numerous Chinese pottery shards, wood chips, and animal remains.
In 2014, these findings were carbon dated, revealing that the wood chips and ceramics were from the 13th century, while many of the animal remains were from the 14th. Based on other historical accounts, the team concluded that this fortress was commissioned by one of Genghis Khan’s closest aids in 1212 AD, and acted as an important military base during his expansion over Central Asia. “We hope the discovery will be useful in ascertaining the history of the Mongolian Plateau between the 13th and 14th centuries,” said Koichi Matsuda, professor emeritus of Mongol Empire history at Osaka International University in Japan, and the expedition’s team leader.
This discovery came about more by accident than anything else, as the archeologists were actually looking for Genghis Khan’s final resting place. Legend has it that he was buried without any markings whatsoever, and all the people who were part of the funeral, as well as those who were encountered along the way, were murdered or committed suicide so as to keep the site a secret. The actual location is yet to be found.
2. Dwarka – c. 7500 BC (India)
As part of a survey conducted by the National Institute of Ocean Technology to look for the levels of pollution in the water in and around the Gulf of Cambay, off the western coast of India, oceanographers came across an incredible discovery. By using sidescan sonar, which sends a beam of sound to the bottom, they were able to see huge geometrical structures some 120 feet beneath the waves. Because of strong side currents and rip tides, it was incredibly hard for scuba divers to go down there and collect samples in safety. Some did make it, though, and brought back numerous artifacts like statues, construction materials, pieces of wood, beads, sections of walls, and even some human remains. Carbon dating has identified some of these objects to be a whopping 9,500 years old.
If this timeframe is proven to be true, and this submerged Indian city is, in fact, this old, then the people who built it predate even the Indus Valley Civilization that inhabited the region from roughly 5000 to 530 BC, when the Persians invaded. “Cities on this scale are not known in the archaeological record until roughly 4,500 years ago when the first big cities begin to appear in Mesopotamia. Nothing else on the scale of the underwater cities of Cambay is known. The first cities of the historical period are as far away from these cities as we are today from the pyramids of Egypt,” said film-maker Graham Hancock. Archaeologist Justin Morris is not so quick to make any new theories. He says that the artifacts need to be very thoroughly investigated, and the C14 carbon dating process has its own error margins. Nevertheless, the area is believed to have been flooded some 9,000 to 10,000 years ago, after the ice caps melted, following the last ice age.
1. The Nevsehir Underground City – c. 3000 BC (Turkey)
The Cappadocia region in central Turkey is a well-known tourist destination. Among the many geological, historic, and cultural features the region has, none stand out more than the so-called ‘fairy chimneys’, in which people have been carving their houses for centuries. During medieval times, raiders would, on occasion, find their way to this place, in which case the locals would take refuge in the many underground safe havens they dug for themselves in the volcanic rock. To date, more than 250 such places have been discovered. In 2013, another such safe haven was discovered under the medieval hilltop fortress of Nevsehir. But unlike all the others, this one is by far the largest. Even though it still hasn’t been completely explored, it is estimated that it could have housed more than 20,000 people.
The multilevel underground caverns had everything from living spaces, kitchens, wineries, chapels, staircases, oil presses, and barns. If a threat was headed their way, people would take their belongings and animals inside, seal the entrance with a large circular stone door, and wait for that threat to pass. Like other similar retreats in the region, this was fitted with ventilation shafts, as well as water channels that passed through. A rough estimate points to the fact that it has nearly five million square feet, and the entire network of corridors and staircases may go as deep as 371 feet. Even by these preliminary estimates, it makes it one of the largest underground settlements in the world.