The Angkor region of Cambodia served as the center of power for the Khmer Empire from 800 AD well into the 1400s. The region was abandoned after a slow decline that ended with an invasion by a Thai army in 1431, leaving the massive city and its thousands of Buddhist temples to be reclaimed by the jungle. The city lay relatively untouched until the 1800s, when a group of French archeologists began to study and restore it. Angkor and its surroundings– which rival Los Angeles in size– have since been recognized as the biggest pre-industrial city in the world, and its famed temple of Angkor Wat is commonly considered to be the largest religious monument in existence.
At this point it is fairly easy to write Atlantis off as nothing more than a myth, but this legendary city has been a source of speculation ever since the philosopher Plato first wrote about it in 360 B.C. Described by Plato as an advanced civilization and formidable naval power, Atlantis is said to have conquered much of Europe before sinking into the sea as the result of some kind of environmental disaster. While Plato’s story is seen by most as a work of fiction, his description of a massive civilization years ahead of its time technologically has captured the imaginations of countless writers and would-be adventurers, and there have been numerous expeditions launched in search of the city. Perhaps the most infamous occurred at the beginning of WWII, when the Nazis supposedly organized a journey to Tibet with the hope of finding remnants of Atlantaen culture.
Once the capital of the Mayan civilisation and the seat of rulers such as Stormy Sky and Great Jaguar Paw, Tikal was mysteriously abandoned in about AD 900 and for more than a thousand years was swallowed up by dense vegetation.
Guatemalan locals knew about the city, once containing 4,000 buildings and 90,000 inhabitants, but European explorers only discovered it in the 19th century.
4. Machu Picchu
Of all the lost cities that have been found and studied, perhaps none is more mysterious than Machu Picchu. Isolated near the Urubamba Valley in Peru, the city was never found and plundered by conquistadors, and it was not until historian Hiram Bingham visited it in 1911 that it became known outside of the region. The city is divided into districts, and features over 140 different structures bordered by polished stone walls. It is said to have been built in the 1400s by the Incas and abandoned less than 100 years later, most likely when its population was wiped out by smallpox brought over from Europe. There has been much speculation as to what Machu Picchu was used for, as well as why the Incas chose such to build it in such a strange location. Some have said it was a holy temple of sorts, while others have maintained that it was used as a prison, but recent research suggests that it was probably a personal estate of the Inca emperor Pachacuti, and its location was chosen because nearby mountains figured prominently in Inca astrological mythology.
Founded in 3,100 B.C., Memphis was the capital of ancient Egypt, and served as the civilization’s administrative center for hundreds of years before being abandoned with the rise of Thebes and Alexandria. At its height, Memphis is estimated to have had a population of more than 30,000, which would have made it the biggest city of antiquity. Over the years, the location of Memphis became lost, and it was a subject of much debate among archeologists before it was rediscovered by a Napoleonic expedition in the late 1700s, and it was then that the city’s sphinx, statues and temples were first seriously studied. Unfortunately, stones from the ruins had been appropriated to build nearby settlements, and many important parts of the site remain lost to historians.
Arguably the most beautiful of all the cities on this list, Petra is located in Jordan near the Dead Sea and is believed to have once been the center of the Nabataean caravan trade. Its most striking feature is its exquisite stone architecture, which is carved out of the rocks of the surrounding mountains. This helped make Petra a naturally fortified city when it was established as a capital in 100 B.C., and evidence suggests that it featured many other technological advancements like dams and cisterns, which helped the inhabitants channel the region’s flash floods and store water for use in times of drought. After hundreds of years of prosperity, the city went into decline after the Romans conquered the region, and in A.D. 363 an earthquake destroyed several of its buildings and crippled its infrastructure. Petra was eventually abandoned, and it stood for years in the desert as something of a curiosity before being revealed to the world at large in 1812 by a Swiss explorer.
This Bronze Age city was inhabited by the Minoan civilization until it was engulfed by a volcano eruption around 1500 BC. Found on the Greek island of Santorini, houses, staircases and some excellent wall-paintings and ceramics have been uncovered, well preserved under the ashes. The eruption could have been large enough for part of the island to sink under the lava into the sea, and may have inspired the legend of Atlantis.
Nebuchadnezzar built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, once one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, to dazzle the gods and as a testament to his own greatness. Herodotus chronicled its magnificence, despite probably never having seen it, but now, not so much as a hanging basket can be found. The mud-brick walls of the city were discovered in the 19th century, however, along with ruins of the northern palace. The site was controversially re-built under Saddam Hussein. Large chunks of the city’s Ishtar Gate can be seen at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
Made famous in the epic poems of Homer, Troy was a once-legendary city located in modern day Turkey. Best known for being the site of the Trojan War, ancient Troy was a strongly fortified city that stood on a hill near the river Scamander. Its coastal location allowed it to be a naval power, and nearby plains provided excellent land for farming. Troy was long considered by many to be the stuff of myth until it was first excavated in the 1870s by Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered that there were actually numerous cities on the site, which over the years had been built on top of one another. Although it was once a towering seat of power, the modern-day Troy excavation site is said to be relatively unimpressive, the result of years of digging and frequent looting by tourists.
Hidden amid the cloud forests of northern Peru, this fortress has only recently been opened up and teams of archeologists are still unearthing human bones while tourists explore the site today. The walled city pre-dates the Incas and the Peruvian tourist board is hoping it will become something of a Machu Picchu for the north. The Chachapoyas people held this forest stronghold which features homes, temples and tombs surrounded by a 70ft stone wall.