As a kid, I was always fascinated by the fact that cities could be lost and rediscovered. The notion that cities once prosperous and bustling with people have since become forgotten urban deserts eaten by the landscape around them is both fascinating and puzzling at the same time. How can you lose something as large as a city?
Quite easily as it happens. So I’ve decided to start a catalogue – a series if you like, on lost cities that have been rediscovered. This is the first.
Palenque is probably one of the most well-studied Mayan settlements, yet only 5% on the city has been uncovered. The medium-sized settlement is located deep in the Mexican state of Chiapas and has some incredibly well-preserved architecture. The records for Palenque go back to 431 when the first king K’uk Balam ruled the territory, however many archaeologists suspect the city is older than that.
The city was sacked in 710 by the realm of Toniná and came under increasing stress. Gradually the population became sparser until the city was totally deserted. The city was abandoned for several centuries and was covered by the surrounding forest when the Conquistadores arrived in Chiapas in the 16th century.
In 1567 Father Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada discovered the ruins and published an account. Since then various explorers and expeditions have been mapping the site.
The Ancient City
Uxmal, located in Yucutan, Mexico was once a large city within the Mayan empire. Unfortunately, not much has been done in terms of excavation, so the data archaeologists go by has been gleaned from the Maya Chronicles, which claim that the city was founded in 500 and had a population of 25,000.
Well into the mid 1500s after the Spanish invasion, the city was largely populated, however no Spanish town was built on the settlement and it was subsequently abandoned.
The first of several detailed accounts carried out by Western explorers was made by Jean Frederic Waldeck in 1838. No major scientific excavations have taken place since then.
2. Monte Albán – Mexico
The Ancient city
Monte Alban is located 9km east of Oaxaca City in southern Mexico. It was one of the earliest cities of Mesoamerica and was founded around 500 B.C. For over one thousand years, the city was an important Zapotec social and economic political centre. At one point between 100-200 B.C. the city had 17,200 inhabitants, making it one of the largest Mesoamerican cities of its time.
The settlement was abandoned between 500 and 900 A.D. as the city lost its political and social importance. It was replaced by several smaller competing settlements until the Spanish conquest.
Although not 100% lost (few locals knew that the lost city had existed), to the outside world it remained uncharted territory until several hundred years after the Spanish arrived. One of the earliest mentions is from Guillermo Dupaix, who investigated the site in the early 19th century. However, large scale scientific digs did not begin until 1931.
1. Machu Picchu – Peru
The Ancient City
Machu picchu is located 2,400 metres above sea level in the Urubamba Valley in Peru. Often referred to as the “Lost City of the Incas”, the city was built at the height of the Inca empire in the mid 1400s and was then forgotten for centuries. Several theories exist as to what the citadel’s purpose was. Many archeologists believe it was the estate of the Incan emperor Pachacuti, others think that it may have been an “llacta”: a settlement built to control the economy of the conquered regions. Some have even speculated that Machu Picchu was a religious citadel.
Only 100 years after it was built, the city was completely deserted, as the Incan empire collapsed under the Spanish conquest. Although only 50 miles from Cuzco, the Inca capital, the Spanish were never able to find it and subsequently destroy it.
In 1911 an American historian and University of Yale lecturer called Hiram Bingham was led to the site by Quechuan locals who knew of its existence. Bingham conducted a scientific survey and then wrote a book called “The Lost City of the Incas,” where he failed to acknowledge the locals’ role in helping him to discover the city.