Lost cities of wonder – and their stories

The Sphinx Gate, Hattusa (Photo by Bernard Gagnon, Wikimedia Commons)

Following on from Citadels of Mystery, we’re featuring a top-10 ancient sites from the 1950s.

Lost Cities is the simple but effective title of a book by British author and journalist Leonard Cottrell. It was published in 1957 and later re-published in the 1970s.

In introducing the book, Cottrell says:

“The only criterion I have used in selecting the examples is that of wonder, within the dictionary definition of the word as ‘something that arrests the attention or strikes the mind by its novelty, grandeur, or inexplicableness … something unusual, strange, great, extraordinary or not well understood'”

Cottrell admitted that whilst some of his ‘lost’ cities were physically lost, others were simply ruins of civilisations that were less known about in the wider world.

It is also difficult to work out – for the reader – which cities were in his top ten, as the chapter headings leave a lot of room for interpretation!

But here goes – Cottrell’s top ancient sites…

Babylon – Gate of the Gods (Iraq)

Hand-coloured engraving depicting the fabled Hanging Gardens, with the Tower of Babel in the background

Babylon was the ancient capital of the Babylonian Empire. Its name was derived from Bābilim, meaning “gate of the god(s)”. Cottrell refers to it as “a puzzle and a disappointment”, a huge site that had been plundered and hacked about over the years. The ancient Greek writer Herodotus was more complimentary about Babylon, stating: “In addition to its size it surpasses in splendour any city in the known world”. It is also said to have housed the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens of Queen Semiramis.

Nineveh – City of the winged bulls (Iraq)

Artist’s impression of Assyrian palaces from The Monuments of Nineveh by Sir Austen Henry Layard, 1853

Nineveh was the ancient capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. It was located on the banks of the River Tigris in Upper Mesopotamia. Cottrell focuses on the exploits of Sir Austen Henry Layard, the excavator of Nineveh. Layard uncovered a large number of Assyrian palace reliefs, and in 1851 the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal, which was named after the last great king of the Assyrian Empire. Most of Layard’s finds are now in the British Museum.

Ur of the Chaldees (Iraq)

The ruins of Ur in modern Iraq, the current scholarly consensus for the city of Ur Kaśdim (photo by M. Lubinski, Wikimedia Commons)

One of the tablets found at Nineveh was a Chaldean account of the deluge (the Epic of Gilgamesh). And Ur was the city of the Chaldeans, a Semitic people formerly known as the nomadic Kaldu people. Ur is also mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as the birthplace of Abraham, who was the common patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Hattusas and a forgotten empire (Turkey)

Hattusa ramparts (Photo by Rita1234, Wikimedia Commons)

Hattusas, or Hatusa, was the capital of the Hittite Empire of the late Bronze Age. Cottrell describes the mountainous interior of Turkey as terra incognita until the late nineteenth century, when a succession of European investigators brought back reports of “inscriptions, sculptures and even ruined cities”. Cottrell refers to the “immense size” of the Hittite stronghold, and the “formidable strength of its fortifications”. As he says, in 1500 BC, a high civilization existed in the mountain plateau of central Turkey.

Mohenjo-daro and Harappa in the Indus Valley (Pakistan)

Mohenjo-daro and one of its wells on the left (Photo by Usman, Wikimedia Commons)

Mohenjo-daro and Harappa were the two greatest cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation, which endured from 3300 BCE to 1300 BCE. Cottrell described how the Aryans had invaded from the north, and drove back the earlier Dravidian population (see Indo-Aryan migrations for more on this subject). Before then, the Indus Valley was occupied by a highly civilised culture, with elaborate systems of drainage and sanitation.

Anuradhapura and Polunnaruwa in ‘the land without sorrow’ (Sri Lanka)

Buddha figure, Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

What is now commonly known as Sri Lanka was known to Cottrell as Ceylon, and to the ancient Chinese it was ‘the land without sorrow’. Anuradhapura, now a major city, was an ancient capital of the Sinhala civilization. Polonnaruwa was the royal ancient city of the Kingdom of Polonnaruwa. Cottrell describes the magnificent temples, sanctuaries, shrines, monasteries and palaces for the kings, built in the glory of the Buddha. In the smaller Sinhalese towns, there was a more pastoral existence – with each house set in its own “plantation”, surrounded by a hedge and ditch to keep the cattle out.

Pompeii and the death of a city (Italy)

Pompeii, tourists, and Vesuvius in the background

Cottrell describes the destruction of the (once buried) cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the neighbouring port. Mount Vesuvius had erupted in AD79, spewing deadly clouds of gas and ejecting molten rock, pumice and ash. Many believed “that the last and eternal night had come”, and for large numbers of residents, it had. One of the people killed following the eruption was Pliny the Elder, whilst attempting to rescue a friend and his family. Pliny (the Younger) and his mother survived.

Chichen-Itza and its sacred well (Mexico)

The Sacred Cenote or Sacred Well, also called the Well of Sacrifice, at Chichen Itza (Photo by Salhedine, Wikimedia Commons)

Chichen Itza was an ancient city built by the Mayan people. Today the Temple of Kukulcán (pyramid) dominates the archaeological site. But it was the sacred well that Cottrell focused on (Chi = mouth, chen = well, in the Mayan language). A man called Edward Thompson originally came to Mexico as the American consul; he bought the ‘hacienda’ or estate on which Chichen Itza stands, and spent 30 years of his life excavating it. Thompson even donned a diving suit to explore the 70-foot ‘well’, a deep natural cavity holding a small lake. Amongst the scores of human skulls and bones that were found were balls of copal incense, Mayan throwing sticks and – at the very bottom – a fair amount of gold and jade.

Machu Picchu and the tragedy of the Incas (Peru)

Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes

Finally, to Machu Picchu, the Incan citadel located “in the most inaccessible corner of the most inaccessible part of the Andes”. It is dated to the fifteenth century AD, although also contains what Cottrell refers to as cyclopean blocks [from an earlier era?].

Cottrell nods to Hiram Bingham’s “gripping and romantic story of discovery” (The Lost City of the Incas book) – written by the man who made public the location of Machu Picchu in 1911. However, Bingham was actually searching for Vitcos and Vilcabamba – these being places that Manco Inca sought refuge in when he was fleeing from the Spanish conquistadors. Machu Picchu, which was abandoned around the time the Spanish arrived, was never found by the Europeans, and remained hidden for nearly 400 more years.

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