Lost and abandoned places have a powerful influence on the imagination
The late afternoon sun cast long shadows on hundreds of stone faces carved into the Temple of Bayon as I rushed deeper into the 12th century shrine in the heart of the sprawling Angkor site in the Cambodia. The trippy portraits swelled towers and walls, each with full lips curved into a bewildering smile.
It was my first day in Angkor, and I knew little about the history of the city at the time. But wandering through temple after temple, I easily slipped into an imaginative reverie. In my mind, crowds of worshipers carried brilliant offerings. Scissors rang as craftsmen created exquisite masterpieces around me, as grand kings paraded through wide avenues lined with statues.
“For the very reason that a place no longer exists, it can be transformed into the ideal city, the city of one’s dreams,” writes Aude de Tocqueville in her 2014 book Atlas of Lost Cities: A Travel Guide to Abandoned and Forsaken Destinations. “The lost city is therefore poetry, the world of dreams and a setting for our passions and our meanders.”
Indeed, lost and abandoned places exert a strong influence on the imagination. They are catnip for avid travelers, inspiring a sense of adventure that has fueled great expeditions and great stories.
We see our lives reflected in the stones, imagine our intimate dramas against their romantic and ramshackle backdrops. And while a veil of disaster hangs over many lost cities, even that is softened by the passage of time.
“For probably thousands of years, people have been telling stories of adventures in dramatic lands beyond our borders – stories about ancient civilizations,” said Annalee Newitz, author of Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age. His book travels across continents and millennia, offering four ancient sites as lessons for objects in urban life: Angkor in Cambodia; the Amerindian cosmopolis of Cahokia; Roman Pompeii; and Neolithic Çatalhöyük in modern Turkey.
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While threads about the lost cities make compelling travel tales, Newitz argues that these tales too often obscure the real stories behind humanity’s most magnificent places.
It happened in Angkor, where I had spent sunny afternoons among the ruins. Newitz explains that the city was in fact inhabited when French explorer Henri Mouhot arrived there in 1860 – in fact, had never been completely abandoned – but the visitor could not imagine that Cambodian ancestors were capable of such greatness.
“At first glance, one is filled with a deep admiration, and one can only wonder what has become of this powerful race, so civilized, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works? Mouhot wrote on the sprawling jungle site. He speculated that Angkor was built by the ancient Greeks or Egyptians. In France, Newitz explains, his visit was hailed as a “discovery”.
“Stories of lost cities have become so popular in the modern era – from the 19th century or the 18th century – because they were really good ways of disguising colonialism,” Newitz said. “It allows you to justify all kinds of colonial incursions. Saying ‘this is not a civilization that does well on its own. And the proof we see of that is that they have drifted away from a great and mysterious lost past “.”
Finding lost cities and civilizations was an obsession for some European explorers and colonizers. Their frenzy was fueled, in part, by a quest for the most famous lost city in history: the island nation of Atlantis, which first appeared in the writings of Plato. His fictional Atlantis flourished before moral decline brought divine punishment. The philosopher’s contemporaries would have recognized the story as an allegory, said ancient historian Greg Woolf, author of The Life and Death of Ancient Cities: A Natural History.
“Telling a myth to illustrate greater truth was widely understood,” Woolf said. “I don’t think anyone seriously believed [Atlantis] existed, but it was a convenient myth. When Plato’s writings on Atlantis were distributed in modern translations, however, they found a more gullible audience.
“People were reading this at exactly the same time people were founding colonies in the New World,” classicist Edith Hall explained in a recent interview with the BBC’s History Extra podcast. Misunderstanding Plato’s work, many read the allegorical tale literally, Hall said. “It blew them away. Everyone said it had to be in America.”
When these European settlers encountered indigenous civilizations, writes Newitz, they struggled for ties to a mysterious past, often conveniently ignoring very real contemporary peoples.
This is what happened in Cahokia, an ancient metropolis near the modern American city of St Louis. Towering mounds of earth rival the Egyptian pyramids in height, and at the top of Cahokia in 1050 AD, the city was larger than Paris. New European arrivals would find it difficult to accept.
“Travelers and adventurers would tell each other all kinds of crazy tales, as if it had to be ancient Egyptians coming here to build them,” Newitz said. It was a myth that justified the theft of indigenous lands widely described as “empty,” she explained. Meanwhile, as in Angkor, the descendants of the builders of Cahokia were dismissed as incapable of such projects.
Stories from lost cities can also hide other truths, Newitz writes, such as how the ancients reinvented themselves when they left a place behind. Disaster and collapse are often presented as the end of the story, but in Pompeii and Çatalhöyük, Newitz finds the glimmer of a new beginning in a social upheaval.
After superheated volcanic gas turned Pompeii into a cemetery in AD 79, traumatized Pompeians immediately began to rebuild new lives in the vicinity of Naples and Cumae. Citing the work of classicist Steven Tuck, Newitz recounts that many refugees known to historians had names that marked them as liberti, freed slaves. While Roman naming conventions were often conservative, keeping the same names from generation to generation, Tuck observed an interesting pattern among refugee families from Pompeii. Shedding their old liberti names, some chose to name their children after the new places they had arrived, like the bustling port town of Puteoli. There, some newly arrived families named their sons Puteolanus.
It’s like moving to London from a refugee camp and calling your child “The Londoner,” Tuck explained to me via email. “The move gave them this opportunity and they took it.”
And in the cities in decline themselves, Newitz presents relatable people alive with agency, not elders held back by history. This is what she sees in the remains of Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic settlement that flourished 9,000 years ago on the Konya Plain in central Turkey.
The houses there are squeezed together like cells in a honeycomb, she wrote in her book, with paths twirling across the rooftops and entrances dropping through the ceilings. On warm evenings, residents gathered on their rooftops, preparing meals and crafts together. But despite all the creative effervescence of city life, it’s a compromise. Over time, it has become more difficult to stay in Çatalhöyük: the climate has become less favorable and social tensions have increased.
While many stories about the Lost Cities seem hazy and mythical, Newitz describes the abandonment of places like Çatalhöyük as the result of a well-reasoned process. Over time, the people of Çatalhöyük have simply chosen to return to more rural places, a process familiar to any modern-day city dweller who has nostalgically scrolled through real estate ads evoking country life.
We still have all these cultural memories of where we’ve been
“We’re going to look for a better place and try again, try a new experience, try to build differently, try to live differently,” Newitz said, referring to conversations that may have taken place around Neolithic homes. The families left one by one, until finally Çatalhöyük was empty.
But when the locals left, each took what mattered most to them. Art, ideas and material culture radiated across the Konya Plain as families rebuilt their lives away from the dense settlement.
Although Cahokia and many other cities can be abandoned, in an important sense they are not lost on us at all. “We still have all of these cultural memories of where we’ve been,” Newitz said. “It’s continuity until the end.”
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