Nan Madol has earned the awe of many archaeologists because the islands are made almost entirely of basalt walls that are 18 to 25 feet high and about 17 feet thick. Basalt is a stone formed by volcanic lava. The walls are built by alternately stacking the stone logs in a criss-crossed pattern, as we can see below. The city’s interior was covered with coral rubble to form an elevation that high tides cannot reach.
Archaeologists estimate that a whopping 250 million tons of these basalt logs are needed to construct the whole city. But the question archaeologists have yet to answer is, “How in the world were these walls constructed so high, given how heavy the basalt logs were?” In fact, each basalt log can weigh as much as 50 tons.
One local folktale told of giants living on the island, who probably had the physical means to carry the heavy logs and build the walls. Another legend tells the story of two brothers named Olosopha and Olosipha, who used their magic powers to transport the logs from a far-away land by making them fly. Another tale tells of a magician, who, like the two brothers, made the logs fly towards Nan Madol for the city to be constructed. All these local accounts tell of the basalt logs coming from a far-away place because there was no other source of basalt stones near Nan Madol, except in a location on the opposite side of the island.
Another theory was that the builders transported the logs via rafts, but in an experiment, the basalt logs immediately sank because of their weight. Though there were skeletons found in the city that were relatively larger than the average Pohnpeians, how the basalt walls were formed still remains a mystery, since there were no remnants of early machines that could help the builders make the walls.
Another wonderful and unexplained feature of Nan Madol is its underwater tunnels which connect the islands with one another. The tunnels were supposed to be an escape route starting from the center of the city towards the ocean. The tunnels were obviously man-made because of the way they were manipulated to connect the islands, but, of course, the question of how they were made is still left unanswered. To this day, undersea explorers are still trying to discover a complete end-to-end tunnel.
According to the history of the Pohnpeians, Nan Madol was occupied by one ancestral line called the Saudeleurs, or “lord of the immediate area,” who probably wanted to have their own exclusive city apart from the common people. These rulers united the state of Pohnpei under one government system.
The Saudeleurs particularly resided in the central area of Nan Madol. Many commoners also lived in the area, waiting to serve the Saudeleurs if they were needed. Nan Madol doesn’t possess fresh water and food, so their subjects have to get these basic needs from outside the city and bring the food to their rulers. The Saudeleurs were also clever enough to require suspected rivals and rebels to live in the city so that they could monitor whatever plots they might have – remember, keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
Mortuary sites are also found in Nan Madol. Huge, rectangular sites buildings were constructed to store the bodies of the deceased Saudeleurs.
After a time, the Saudeleurs were overthrown by a group of people called Nahnmwarki. But they did not stay in Nan Madol for long because they found it difficult to transport fresh water and food from outside the city. They probably shouldn’t have killed the commoners who could’ve been their subjects. Here, we can see the entrance of one of the mortuary sites, where the Saudeleurs were buried.
Micronesian archeologist Rufino Mauricio is pushing for Nan Madol to be put on the World Heritage list to have the ancient city restored, but a descendant of the Nahnmwarki doesn’t want to hand over the ownership of the city to the state of Pohnpei. Hopefully, the ownership dispute will be settled to give proper funding for the rehabilitation of the city.
The ancient city of Nan Madol may not be the best vacation for you to get a tan, nor to have an outdoors picnic. But with its aura of mystery and prehistory, you might find it the best place to have a sense of wonder for nature, and to experience quiet meditation.