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Akrotiri (Ancient Thera)

Western civilisation has long been fascinated with the Ancient Greeks: a race who advanced art, science and mathematics at almost superhuman speed. But the Greeks weren’t the first highly-complex civilisation to arise in Europe. Just as modern Europe is in awe of people like Archimedes, Plato and Homer, so were the Greeks in awe of the Minoans.

Put simply, the Minoans were brilliant. Arising on Crete around 2,700 BC, they spread across the Aegean Sea, building towering palaces, three-storey buildings, cobbled roads and establishing Europe’s first drainage and water systems. While we were still living in huts, smashing each other across the head with flint axes, the Minoans had created a highly-sophisticated Empire that would span a thousand years…  before collapsing in under fifty, following the overnight destruction of Akrotiri.

A small, unimportant trading port, Akrotiri had the misfortune of being at ground zero when the Thera volcano exploded, detonating with the force of four Krakatoa’s. The town was instantly swamped with ash. The blast triggered tsunamis that smashed Crete to pieces. Crops were destroyed, the sun blotted out and the entire Minoan civilisation reduced to ashes. In a single lifetime, an Empire that had lasted sixty generations fell into ruin and disappeared, it’s incredible achievements all but lost to history.

The Continent of Mu (Pacific Ocean)

Unlike many others on this list, the Continent of Mu never really existed. It was a dream, a legend, a handy myth that arose from a mistranslated Mayan tablet and a lot of wishful thinking. But the idea of a pre-modern continent that sank into the Pacific some 25,000 years ago – leaving only faint traces and jumbled clues in places like India, Latin America and Easter Island – is almost too good to resist.

Like Atlantis, Mu was said to be almost-frighteningly sophisticated. The whole of humanity was concentrated in its dozens of glittering cities, ruled over by a God-like ‘white race’  – an unfortunate indication of the time the myth arose in. With outposts in India, Central America, China and Egypt, the people of Mu influenced the development of all great civilisations, until their continent vanished at the dawn of history, devoured in a single night of fire and flooding. Fast forward to our modern times and there is precisely zero evidence that Mu ever existed. However, that hasn’t stopped the wishful few from bringing it up every time some new underwater landmass is unexpectedly discovered.

Loulan (China)

Unlike mythical Mu, the Ancient Chinese city of Loulan was undoubtedly real: modern-day travel companies run tours there frequently. However, the nature of both the city and its sudden, unexpected destruction have metamorphosed over the years into something we could charitably describe as the ‘embellished truth’.

A pivotal stopping point along the old Silk Road, Loulan is frequently said to have been a rich and fertile kingdom: an oasis in the harsh surrounding desert and home to 14,000 people. The reality is less prosaic. Contemporary accounts record the city as being a typical desert stopping point, a desolate footnote in the large-ish Loulan kingdom. Likewise, the account of its destruction is alternately poetic and mundane, depending on where you get it from. In one version, the population explosion led to severe over-farming, resulting in devastating sandstorms that dried up the oasis and diverted the rivers in a matter of days – leaving the town a dry and suffocating husk. Other sources simply state that nomad raids over a period of a century led to the inhabitants migrating north to the city of Hami. Whatever the truth, by the 7th century Loulan was empty; left to rot in the heat of the burning desert.

Ys (Brittany, France)

The legend of Ys is what happens when you collide the myth of Atlantis with Sodom and Gomorrah. Situated alongside modern Brittany in France, Ys was said to be a spectacular city-state, protected from the roaring sea by a complex dam system that kept the population from drowning at high tide. Built sometime between 1500 BC and the 5th century, it was allegedly also a deeply immoral place – a French Sodom that was wiped out when King Gradlon (a semi-historical figure) opened the dam in a fit of wrath and drowned the entire population. Although possibly thought to be historical fact many years ago, Ys is now known to be nothing but fiction: an interesting tale that’s been told for generations, and believed by no-one.

Mohenjo Daro (Modern Pakistan)

There are some mysteries we, in all likelihood, will never know the answer to. The ancient city of Mohenjo Daro is one such mystery. Uncovered in modern-day Pakistan in 1911, it’s been dated from around 2,500 BC – 1,900 BC, and all evidence indicates it was stunningly advanced. There are no palaces, no temples or anything else suggesting an autocratic rule. The streets are well-planned and supported by a complex drainage system, and the entire city seems to have a bizarre focus on sanitation. Where you might expect a seat of government or a religious altar, instead there sits a gigantic communal bath. According to National Geographic, the city’s entire culture may have been constructed around concepts of cleanliness. But we can’t say for sure, any more than we can say why it was suddenly abandoned.

This is a genuine riddle in archaeology. There are no signs of flooding, no signs that a competing city invaded. There is some evidence that climate change disrupted a vital river, but that wouldn’t account for the swiftness with which it was abandoned. All we know is that, around 1900BC, Mohenjo Daro’s inhabitants left their city, never to return. Why that might be, we’ll probably never know.

Babel (Mesopotamia)

The Tower of Babel is an unusual myth: mainly because it portrays the Godly destruction of an entire city without the loss of a single life. We all know the story: a group of Noah’s descendants gather to construct a tower to the heavens. Displeased with their efforts, God mixes up their language and casts them to the four corners of the Earth; leaving Babel and its tower to decay. Like so much in Genesis, it’s now thought possible to trace the origins of this story: to a gigantic ziggurat (a form of temple) that stood in ancient Babylon.

Called Etemenanki, the ziggurat was seven stories high – far bigger than anything else your standard Babylonian was ever likely to see. It towered over the city in the days when the Hebrews were captive there, a formidable ruin later rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar before collapsing again. Perhaps the image of this great tower reaching up into the heavens imprinted itself onto the captives, along with the story of the first fall of Babylon. If that’s the case then this long-forgotten temple could be the source of one of our oldest myths – living on in legend even after its crumbled into dust.

The Great Bronze Age Cities

The transition from the Bronze to Iron Ages (around 1200BC) was marked by a period of almost total collapse across huge swathes of the ancient world. Prior to this wholesale destruction, the cities of Canaan, Egypt, Syria, Anatolia and Greece were magnificent, complex creations that operated vast trade routes and had social structures that were almost breathtakingly advanced. Within a century or so, nearly all of them lay in ruins. The great cities of Hattusa, Mycenae, Ugarit, Troy, Gaza and Pylos were all destroyed or deserted. Their people dispersed. Writing and art were lost and the magnificent armies and palaces of the Bronze Age remembered only in myths. It was akin to falling into a coma in 1970 and awaking in 2013 to find New York, London, Tokyo and Berlin have all been wiped out and the world is in ruins. In short, it was a succession of cataclysms that set Mediterranean civilisation back centuries… and we have no idea what caused it.

Was it a volcanic eruption? A series of unfortunately-timed earthquakes? A prolonged period of drought that triggered wars and famine? The possibilities are endless. All we know is that this is probably one of the greatest social collapses in all of history – and it happened in the blink of an eye.

Pompeii (Roman Empire)

This is it: the archetypal destroyed city. A holiday resort for ancient tourists, Pompeii was licentious, lewd and –  unfortunately for its inhabitants – within spitting distance of the magnificent Mt Vesuvius. The rest of the story has been forever imprinted on our cultural memory: one morning (possibly August 24th) in 79 AD, the citizens awoke to the volcano spewing ash and signs of an impending eruption. Roughly 24 hours later, Vesuvius exploded. White hot ash blew into town on 900 mph winds. Fire rained from the sky. Thousands of people died instantly, their bodies preserved at the moment of death by layers of ash. In under a minute, both Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum were wiped out of history. For nearly 1,700 years they remained lost, until Pompeii was finally excavated and its (mostly pornographic) treasures carted off to various museums. Aside from myths like Atlantis, there’s no other obliterated town in the whole of history that carries such cultural significance, with one possible exception…

Tripura (Ancient India)

We’ve mentioned before the theory that a meteor strike in Ancient Canaan could have been the historical basis for the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Although evidence for the existence of either city is lacking, the idea that a superheated meteor could have destroyed an ancient settlement in a rain of fire is compelling… and just might explain the same story popping up again and again in different contexts.

In Hindu tradition, the Tripura were three cities – one made of iron, one of silver and one of gold – that sat on Earth, in the sky and in heaven. Populated by corrupt and evil demi-Gods, they were eventually destroyed when Shiva set them alight in a fit of wrath, burning everyone inside. Now it’s likely that this is just another story, a myth that arose separately to the Genesis account of the Cities of the Plain. But isn’t it possible that they and other accounts – such as the ancient Akkadian Poem that describes cities being destroyed in a rain of fire – come from the same, half-forgotten memory: of the morning when a meteor burned high above Ancient Canaan? If it were true, that would make this long-forgotten town the inspiration for some of the world’s greatest and oldest legends. If it were true.

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