Discover the remarkable stories of 10 legendary lost cities that have been uncovered by archaeologists, from Atlantis to Vinland, and explore their fascinating histories.
There are many tales of lost cities and forgotten civilizations. Everyone knows the story of Atlantis – the advanced civilization that disappeared into the ocean. But not everyone is aware of the similar legends other cultures tell of their own lost cities – ones that were buried under the desert sand or overgrown by dense vegetation in the jungle. While many of these stories were considered fiction, an increasing number of archaeological discoveries have revealed these legends were more than mere myths – leaving us wondering how many more lost cities might just be awaiting discovery. We may never find the underwater grave of Atlantis, the golden streets of El Dorado, or the peaceful mountains of Shangri-La, but we have found the following 10 lost cities. Starting the countdown with number 10, here are the most spectacular lost cities archaeologists have uncovered.
Helike, Greece: The Real-Life Atlantis
Homer wrote about the legendary city of Helike, which existed in Achaea, present Greece. It was said to share two similarities to Atlantis – an advanced and rich culture, and sadly the same tragic fate. Due to its coastal location, Helike was an important economic, cultural, and political center, even joining leaders of 12 neighboring cities in a diplomatic government. One night, during the winter of 373 BC, the entire city of Helike was mysteriously obliterated. Some signs of the city’s impending doom were recorded, including the appearance of immense columns of flames and the mass migration of small animals from the coast to the mountains prior to the disaster. Likely a major earthquake followed by a large tsunami from the Gulf of Corinth wiped out the city of Helike from the face of the earth. The rescue party that came the following morning found no survivors. Helike was rediscovered in 1988 by two archaeologists who searched the coastal waters for more than a decade and finally realized it was buried under land right underneath their feet. The catastrophe that destroyed it wasn’t exactly an act of Poseidon, though no doubt it would have felt like that to ancient Greeks. The earthquake caused soil liquefaction, which created deep pockets in the earth and consequently a lagoon. Eventually, the area refilled with river sediment over time, explaining how it again reached above sea level.
Dwarka, India: The Home of Krishna
In Hinduism, the ancient city of Dwarka is described as the most sacred of all cities. It was the home of Krishna, who lived 5000 years ago and is still worshipped today as a divinity. Legend described Dwarka as the wealthiest of all ancient cities built by an architect for the gods, with over 9,000 palaces and using crystal, coral, gold, silver, sapphires, pearls, and emeralds. Legend says Krishna demanded that 16,000 palaces be built, one for each of his 16,000 queens. In the end, the city was destroyed in a battle, presumably with nature. Its buildings and walls succumbed to the force of the sea. Though its description sounds like a tall tale, in 1983, underwater ruins discovered a major ancient seaport, matching the topography of Dwarka’s description. Researchers found evidence to support a city of 9,000 years ago. The oldest parts of Dwarka might have been first built 32,000 years ago, making it one of the oldest known cities on earth. At its peak, it was one of the wealthiest seaports in the world. Then, sometime in the second millennium BC, it collapsed into the sea just like in the legend. Today much mystery surrounds Dwarka, as those living in the area seldom discuss the excavation.
Great Zimbabwe: The Medieval Castle of Africa
In the early 16th century, Portuguese explorers shared legends they’d heard about a castle in the jungles of Africa. The natives told them that a stone fortress towered over the trees in the land today known as Zimbabwe. The locals called it Zimbabwe, and even they didn’t know who had built it. It was in such an unlikely location, and one European explorer wrote: “it does not seem possible to be the work of man.” For centuries, Europeans thought Zimbabwe was just a fabricated story. Then, around 1876, German explorers discovered a massive castle of stone, with walls more than 11 meters tall, made in 900 AD by an African civilization that had been forgotten in time — a culture somehow incredibly connected with the outside world. Inside the fortress, the Germans found artifacts and relics from all around the world. They found Arab coins, Persian pottery, even relics from the Chinese Ming Dynasty. The significance of Great Zimbabwe is more than the castle itself. It’s proof that an African civilization that was historically forgotten traded with cultures as far away as China.
Xanadu, China: The Palace of Kublai Khan
In 1278, the explorer Marco Polo came back from China and what is now Inner Mongolia, with some incredible descriptions of Kublai Khan’s massive empire. The most remarkable of all was Xanadu – the palace of the Great Khan. Marco Polo described Xanadu as a huge marble palace, surrounded by a massive park, that was filled with fountains, rivers, and wild animals. The Great Khan kept 10,000 pure white horses in this park, kept in a golden palace which was guarded by dragons. In short, Xanadu was a paradise on earth. In 1369, the palace was destroyed by the Ming army, long before other Europeans had the chance to see it. As centuries past, Xanadu became nothing but a myth, and only poets and storytellers talked about it. Then, in 1872, Kublai Khan’s Palace was found by a British diplomat, with the marble and tiles still intact, though they have since been stripped. Marco Polo wasn’t exaggerating – the Great Khan’s home was twice as big as the White House, surrounded by a massive park that appeared to have once held a wild menagerie of animals from around the world, as described in the legend. There really were ramps for horses in every part of it, and the dragons were statues on top of the pillars. Some of these were among the few things archeologists managed to successfully preserve.
Sigiriya, Sri Lanka: The 8th Wonder of The World
In Sri Lanka, during the 5th century AD, King Kasyapa I built his rock fortress, atop a large boulder that protruded 200 meters amidst the dense jungle. It’s still considered the most spectacular single construction project in the history of Sri Lanka. It included a royal citadel, extensive gardens, a stone theatre, fountains, and artistic frescoes. To enter, one had to walk through the mouth of a large lion, sculpted into the rock, leading to a long staircase. For a while, Sigiriya became an outpost, and later it became a Buddhist monastery. Somehow, the once exquisite palace became deserted for almost 500 years. Then, in 1890, European archeologists confirmed the legend, including the stone lion surrounding the staircase requiring that you walk through his mouth to ascend inside. Even after centuries, they marveled the architectural masterpiece they called the sky palace. In 2001, UNESCO declared Sigiriya the 8th wonder of the world, and today what remains of it is a popular tourist destination.
Leptis Magna: The Roman City Buried in Sand
Leptis Magna was once a beautifully structured coastal Roman city and a trading port in Libya, after it fell to the Vandals in 439 AD. It was later buried under sandstorms. Leptis Magna was the place where the Roman emperor Septimus Severus ruled. He expanded the city to become one of the most essential parts of the empire, but when Rome fell, Leptis Magna fell too. It was pillaged by Arab invaders, left in ruins, and completely forgotten as it became buried under the desert sands. Leptis Magna remained buried for 1,200 years until 19th-century archaeologists found it almost perfectly preserved to their delight. They didn’t just find traces of pottery and tools, they were able to unearth the entire city. Leptis Magna still has an amphitheater, baths, a basilica, and an area for a circus, so amazingly well preserved by the sand, that they look similar to how they would have appeared when the city was inhabited. Some have said that visiting Leptis Magna is like stepping into a time machine and going back thousands of years.
Vinland: The Viking Land of Plenty
Centuries ago, when Europe was emerging from the Dark Ages, Danish king and explorer – Sweyn II Estridsson told stories about a lush, abundant land far across the Atlantic that he called Vinland after the grapevines which he said grew of their own accord. In 1073, a German cleric named Adam of Bremen transcribed what the Danish king relaid. He added that the king’s men – the Danish Vikings, claimed they’d fought with Vinland natives they called the Skræling. The Skraeling, they said, dressed in white clothes and lived in caves and holes. When they attacked, they carried long poles and charged, screaming out loud cries of war. Due to confusion about its actual location, Vinland was disregarded as a myth for centuries. Not until the 1960s was the true story uncovered when archaeologists found remains of an 11th century Viking settlement – L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland Canada. This remarkable discovery proved not only that Adam of Bremen’s writings from a thousand years earlier were accurate, but it also that Europeans had visited North America way earlier than history claimed. The Vikings arrived on the North American continent 500 years before Columbus discovered it.
Heracleion: The Drowned Egyptian City
The city of Heracleion appears in almost every Greek myth. It was the city where Hercules took his first steps into Africa, in the place where Paris of Troy and his stolen bride Helen hid from Menelaus, before the Trojan War. Like most myths, we had no idea where, or if it really existed. As it turns out, there was a good reason. It was underwater about 2,200 years ago. Heracleion was likely hit by a massive earthquake or tsunami on the Egyptian coastline, and it appeared undisturbed for centuries in the ocean on the north coast of Egypt. In 2001, an archaeologist searching for French warships underwater stumbled across what seemed to be a sunken city. When divers resurfaced with a strange rock from the ruins, they realized they’d found the remains of an ancient Greek statue. Archaeologists dug through layers of sand to uncover the surprisingly well-preserved city, with many of its treasures still intact. The main temple, giant statues of pharaohs, hundreds of smaller statues of gods and goddesses, a sphinx, 64 ancient ships, no less than 700 anchors, stone blocks with both Greek and ancient Egyptian inscriptions, dozens of sarcophagi, gold coins, and other items made from bronze and stone. Divers even found large slabs with hieroglyphs warning visitors of the Egyptian tax laws. Heracleion was one of the most significant underwater discoveries of the century.
La Ciudad Perdida, Colombia: The Lost City
Around 13,000 years ago, an ancient tribe in South America called the Tairona, built wooden structures upon stone, that ascended into the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain. According to the legend, the city was built on the command of their God, who wanted them to live close to the stars. It was inhabited for several hundred years and wiped out when the Spanish conquistadors brought diseases that spread throughout the region. When the last of its inhabitants died, the city was left barren for hundreds of years. It wasn’t discovered until the 1970s when a group of bandits making their way through the jungle stumbled upon it. The ancient overgrown city was still full of gold, jewelry, and jade artifacts. Pocketing what they could find, they sold it on the black market where they came to the attention of archaeologists. Soon the government stepped in to protect what was left of the lost city after nearly five hundred years of being hidden in the jungle.
La Ciudad Blanca: The Lost City of The Monkey God
At the turn of the 15th century, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés unsuccessfully searched for lost villages of extreme wealth in the virgin rainforest Honduras. Centuries later, while flying over the area, Charles Lindbergh claimed to have seen white stone walls of what appeared to be a city in the jungle. Then, in 1939, an American adventure and spy named Theodore Morde returned with artifacts from the area and an elaborate story about a unique temple among the hidden ruins. He claimed guides told him a thousand-year-old legend about a monkey who had stolen three women, with whom it bred, resulting in half-monkey half-human children. Mord described in detail stone effigies of monkeys in a temple with a large stone dais bearing the image of The Monkey God himself. He never revealed the precise location of his find, claiming he feared it would be looted. Mord than died by apparent suicide before he could return to Honduras.
Meanwhile, someone who found his journals revealed that the real intention of his travels was to find gold, adding further confusion to his credibility in controversy as to the actual existence of this lost city. Though various surrounding areas were being excavated, the lost city of the monkey god remained a legend until very recently. In 2012, new aerial technology called LIDAR – light detection and ranging, revealed the shape of ruins over a square mile in a dense area of the jungle. Exploring it, expedition Douglas Preston found sculptures at the base of an earthen pyramid. He added:
“I first saw a carved jaguar head coming out of the ground. Gleaming with rain, it rose up snarling, as if struggling to escape the earth. It was an image that spoke directly to me across the centuries — forging an immediate, emotional connection to these vanished people. What had been theoretical for me became real: this spirited image had been created by people who were confident, accomplished, and formidable. Standing in the gloom among the ancient mounds, enveloped in the mist, I could almost feel the presence of the invisible dead.”
The discovery came at a high price, however. Dangerous drug cartels and deadly snakes aside, many of Preston’s team returned home to discover they’d contracted a lethal flesh-eating parasite. Archaeologists have since uncovered extensive plazas, mounds, pyramids, and dozens of finely carved artifacts from this still mysterious culture about whom we know very little.
So in conclusion, if these 10 fantastic discoveries are any indication of what’s possible, it might mean that there are no stories, myths, and legends too spectacular to be true.”