Ruins of Civilization: 5 Lost Cities

forum area of pompeii, one of the worlds famous lost cities, with Mount Vesuvius in the backgroundThe Roman historical sites we visited in both Rome and Pompei got me thinking about just how many ruins I’ve seen in my travels. Many times I’ve sought them out. There’s something fascinating about walking through the remnants of a society and contemplating how and why the place was abandoned.

Here are five of the most interesting ruins I’ve visited, from oldest to most recent based on the end of habitation.

1. Pompei, Italy (600 BC – 79 AD)

In its day, Pompei was a thriving port town with a population of about 20,000. Many of us remember learning in school about its sudden and tragic end caused by the unexpected eruption of Mount Vesuvius. It’s one of those subjects that sticks in your mind forever.

We started our visit in the grid of central streets filled with what would have been restaurants, shops and fast food places. The latter were especially plentiful to provide quick meals for both travellers and locals who didn’t have space to cook in their small homes. Our Pompeii guide explained that the most common fast food was a stew of fish innards that the locals apparently loved. Hmmmm.cast of a man who died in Pompeii

Over at the forum ringed with temples, the biggest structure was dedicated to Jupiter. It was so eerie to see Mount Vesuvius looming in the background.

In rooms that were once part of a fish and produce market, we saw three plaster casts of residents who perished in the eruption. The casts were made by injecting plaster into the hollow spaces below the surface of the ash that formed as the victims’ bodies decayed. There was a man, a small child and a dog, each frozen in position as they tried to take cover. They were suffocated almost instantly by ash and toxic gases. This was the most emotional part of the site, giving a sense of how quickly and tragically the disaster overtook its victims.

What happened?

The 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius. At the time the city was established, locals had no idea the mountain next door was actually a simmering volcano. There was some earthquake activity in the weeks leading up to the eruption, but nobody knew what was to come.

Visiting Vesuvius

After our Pompei visit, we climbed to the top of Vesuvius, which is still active. At the base of the volcano, we boarded a huge specialized Mercedes all-terrain bus/jeep. It was a bouncy 20 minute ride up switchbacks along slopes covered with coniferous shrubs bearing bright yellow flowers.

At the end-of-the road parking area, we got out for the 20 minute hike up the dark gravel-ash slopes to the top. Along the way, and of course at the top, were dramatic views all around the valley, across the Bay of Naples and down into the crater.

A park interpreter explained that the mountainside we were standing on was much higher before the eruption. The force of the explosions associated with the eruption blew the cliff face away. Lava plugged up most of the volcano’s vents, so the next eruption will be even more explosive. The interpreter pointed out billow of stream coming from a spot in far wall of the crater, which was a bit foreboding. Geophysicists are monitoring seismic activity carefully and claim they’ll be able to give 15 days’ notice of any future eruptions. Let’s hope that’s true.

view inside the crater of Mount Vesuvius and a view of the Bay of Naples from the top of the volcano

Inside the crater, and views of the Bay of Naples from the top of Mt. Vesuvius

Getting to Pompei

We visited both Pompei and Vesuvius on a day trip from Sorrento, organized through our hotel. You can do the same from Naples, or travel to the sites independently via the Circumvesuviana railway. The stop for Pompei Scavi is about halfway between Naples and Sorrento.

The Circumvesuviana was an experience of its own. The line is run by an independent company separate from the national rail operator Trenitalia. The cars are old, rickety and non air-conditioned. It’s a sticky, sweaty ride in summer.

There was no luggage space, so we had to crowd our suitcases around us in a train packed with a mix of tourists and local commuters. It was a true milk run, stopping every few minutes over the hour-long journey from Naples to Sorrento. Some stops seemed practically deserted, with only a small platform and graffiti-littered signs.

Views along the way included ramshackle homes built close to the tracks, tropical-feeling countryside with more and more palm trees as we continued south and Mount Vesuvius in the distance. We were also entertained by a group of busker musicians who performed in the space adjoining 2 cars while the train lurched and swayed.

2. Petra, Jordan (6th century BC – 663 AD)

Many people travel to Jordan specifically to see the ruins of this gorgeous red-rock city chiseled into desert canyons. When I visited Petra last year, I too fell under the spell. Its dramatic canyon setting, carved tombs, cave temples and stunning views are like nothing else I’ve ever seen.

Petra tombs and treasury from above

What happened?

The city was founded by the ancient Nabatean people around the same time as Pompei, but it survived for several hundred years longer. Eventually it too was devastated by natural disasters; in this case earthquakes. Petra was already starting to decline shortly after the Romans took over in 106 AD, shifting trade routes away from the city. Over the next few centuries, two major earthquakes damaged many buildings and the precious water system. The last few Nabatean holdouts left the city when other Arab tribes conquered the region in 663.

Getting to Petra

Petra sits on the outskirts of the town of Wadi Musa, where most visitors base themselves. Wadi Musa is about four hours by car or public minibus from Jordan’s capital of Amman. You’ll find more details on getting around the country in my post on planning a trip to Jordan.

3. Tikal, Guatemala (400 BC – 900 AD)

When I visited Tikal on a backpacking trip to Guatemala, it was my first time experiencing a Mayan site. I remember being awed by the sheer scale of the temples and the vast site they populated. Climbing the tallest structures provided wonderful views of the jungle canopy and other pyramids dotting the landscape. I was intrigued by the decorative carvings adorning the temples and the complex Mayan calendar system.

Mayan temples and jungle at Tikal

What happened?

Tikal’s collapse coincided with the decline of the entire Mayan empire, and the causes are still debated. One theory is a prolonged period of drought, potentially made worse by deforestation. Another possibility is a shift in trade patterns that favoured sea routes over land, devastating their economy.

Getting to Tikal

Flores is the nearest town to the ruins. From there, you can hop a ride on a private or public shuttle for the hour long journey to the park.

4. Angkor, Cambodia (10th – 15th centuries)

Cambodia is a country with a difficult past, but it has so much beauty as well. The ruins of Angkor are a supreme example of that beauty, with its mysterious jungle-entangled temples. There are numerous religions represented at Angkor, including indigenous cults, Hinduism and Buddhism. It’s a huge site comprising over 1,000 temples and a few different historical capitals. Even with three days of visits, I only saw a fraction of it.

Angkor temple overgrown with tree roots

What happened?

At the height of the Khmer kingdom’s success, Angkor was its power centre. It was filled with god-kings, princes and princesses, warriors, slaves and monks. As with Tikal, the reasons for its collapse aren’t known for certain. It could have been sustained periods of drought or monsoon flooding, too many run-ins with enemies of war, or some combination. The temples were gradually overtaken by jungle until European archaeologists took a new interest in the late 1800’s.

Getting to Angkor

Base yourself at the town of Siem Reap, a 20 minute drive from Angkor. There you’ll find plenty of transportation options, including guided tours, private cars with drivers, tuk tuks, motorcycle taxis and even bicycle rentals.

5. Machu Picchu – Peru (1450 to 1572)

Trekking to Machu Picchu is on many travellers’ bucket lists, and deservedly so. The stunning beauty of the ruins in their isolated Andean setting is a sight to behold. Seeing the ruins nestled among mountain peaks, clouds and lush green vegetation is a jaw-dropping experience. How the Incas managed the construction of the high altitude city is a testament to their engineering prowess.

Machu Pichu ruins with morning cloud

What happened?

Of the sites on this list, Machu Picchu had the shortest life span at barely more than a century. The Spanish Conquest ultimately decimated the Inca Empire. Since the Incas were already weakened by their own civil war, Spanish victory came that much easier. The Spaniards never entered Machu Picchu, but the site fell out of use as the Inca population declined.

Getting to Machu Picchu

Many visitors take the easy route. They travel by train right to the town of Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu, then catch a shuttle bus up to the ruins. It’s definitely the most comfortable and easiest option. But, trekking along the Inca Trail or one of the other multi-day routes through the Andes is a rewarding experience.  It’s physically challenging, but it offers opportunities to see beautiful views, diverse mountain ecosystems and many ‘minor’ Inca sites along the way.

Either way, the colonial city of Cusczo is the usual jumping off point. Hikers may spend a night in a town such as Ollantaytambo as a final staging area for their trek. For the Inca Trail, visitors must travel with a guide or group trek booked in advance.

May you lose yourself in wonder,

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