5 Lost Cities That Were Discovered by Accident

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When it comes to searching for lost cities, most explorers perform painstaking research followed by sometimes years of planning before starting their hunt. Good examples of this can be seen in the search for ancient Troy in modern-day Turkey, and Tikal in Guatemala. But some of the most famous lost cities were not found after years of methodical searches, but were instead uncovered by accident, by people who sometimes didn’t even realize what they had found. Here are five notable lost cities that were rediscovered by someone who just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

5. Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu was discovered in 1911 by an explorer searching for a different city.

Photo credit: Pedro Szekely

Hidden among the mountains in the Cusco region of Peru, this amazing Incan site somehow managed to remain unknown to the outside world for almost half a millennium. Situated at a dizzying height of almost 8,000 feet, it was “discovered” in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, an American historian who was actually searching for the lost city of Vilcabamba. But after local villagers mentioned some ruins on a nearby mountain, he instead took a grueling two-hour hike and rediscovered the most famous Incan site in history. As Bingham later recalled, “It fairly took my breath away. What could this place be?” Although Bingham first speculated that it had been either a temple or a safe haven for “Virgins of the Sun,” Machu Picchu actually served as an estate for Pachacutec, an Incan emperor who ruled from 1438 to 1472. Surprisingly, this detailed complex was only used for a century until it was abandoned and slowly overcome by its natural surroundings.

As for Bingham, he parlayed his fame as an explorer into a career in politics, serving as first governor then later a U.S. Senator for the state of Connecticut. His 1948 book, Lost City of the Incas, renewed interest in the site, and in 1983, the United Nations designated Machu Picchu as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It now welcomes an average of more than 2,500 visitors a day who come via train or the switchbacking Hiram Bingham Highway. Despite the fact that it adds hundreds of millions of dollars each year to Peru’s economy, environmentalists warn that the site is under a serious threat of deterioration due to the overwhelming foot traffic. Long gone are the days when you could simply pay a local farmer to take you on a private tour of the site with no one else around.


4. Cahokia

Cahokia was an American Indian city that once rivaled London in size.

Monks Mound at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Illinois; Skubasteve

Regarded by many scholars as the greatest achievement of American Indian civilization, the city of Cahokia boasted as many as 20,000 inhabitants at its peak in the 13th century, a size that rivaled London at the time. Mississippian Indians inhabited the area near what is now St. Louis from A.D. 700 to approximately 1400 and built a spectacular city featuring 120 earthen mounds surrounded by rows of housing, an enormous grand plaza and farmland. Like many other ancient civilizations, however, Cahokia simply could not sustain itself after poor crop production and disease, and the city was abandoned around 1400. But in 1811, a lawyer and amateur historian named Henry Brackenridge stumbled upon the site and, unaware of Cahokia’s historical significance, wrote, “What a stupendous pile of earth!” Incredibly, his discovery of a long-lost Native American city was virtually ignored by the academic world and government officials — including his friend, former President Thomas Jefferson — and through the years local residents razed dozens of ancient mounds to develop farms, housing, businesses, and much later, an airfield.

It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that archeologists came to understand and appreciate the true scope of Cahokia. In 1982, the United Nations designated a 2,200-acre tract as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, although that was a fraction of Cahokia’s original six-square-mile area. Today, Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in western Illinois offers an interpretive center complete with a museum, exhibit galleries, and detailed information on every aspect of the site. The guided and self-guided tours go to Monks Mound, which features a base even larger than the Great Pyramid of Khufu in Egypt.


3. Pompeii

Buried under 20 feet of volcanic ash, Pompeii remained lost for hundreds of years.

Panoramic shot of the Forum of Pompeii with Vesuvius in background; Heinz-Josef Lucking

In the first century, several cities on the Italian coast near modern Naples thrived as examples of Roman dominance and urban sophistication. But all that changed in A.D. 79 when Mount Vesuvius erupted in a violent explosion that covered much of the city of Pompeii in up to 20 feet of ash. The city was later abandoned, its location forgotten for hundreds of years until 1599, when workers digging an underground canal discovered ancient walls covered with carvings and inscriptions. Strangely enough, a well-known architect heading the project, Domenico Fontana, simply dismissed the finds (possibly due to the graphic sexual content of the artwork) and ordered everything to be re-buried. When excavations continued in 1748, new discoveries offered incredible insight into the daily life of Pompeii, as researchers uncovered planned streets, residences, public baths, and wall after wall of detailed frescoes. Even the unfortunate victims were preserved in ash, which included humans covering their faces as well as a dog still chained to a wall. Today, Pompeii has become one of the most popular attractions in Italy, with approximately 2.5 million visitors per year. Like many other such attractions, Pompeii has deteriorated at an alarming rate due to both natural and man-made forces ranging from erosion to vandalism. As recently as 2010, the 2,000-year-old Schola Armatorum (House of the Gladiators) collapsed due to unknown causes. But even with some areas closed off to the public, the site is still so expansive that it would take several days to fully explore.


2. Petra

Petra was discovered by Westerners in the 19th century.

Facade of Al Khazneh at Petra, Jordan; Bernard Gagnon

Situated in a basin on the slope of Mount Hor in southwestern Jordan, Petra once served as the powerful capital of an extensive trading empire. A former nomadic tribe known as the Nabateans founded Petra in the second century B.C. As the city thrived with a population of 30,000 and plenty of disposable wealth, workers carved buildings and incredible facades out of the soft stone cliffs in a crazy mixture of architectural styles, incorporating Greek, Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Indian influences. But by the fourth century, the growing sea trade to the south seriously affected business and the city fell into a slow decline, hastened by a devastating earthquake in 363. After it was abandoned in the seventh century, Petra remained unknown to the Western world until 1812, when Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt rediscovered the site. It was a dangerous mission, as Burckhardt had to visit the site disguised as a Persian pilgrim since it was too dangerous for a foreign Christian to travel so deep into the territory. Today, Petra is Jordan’s top tourist attraction with hundreds of thousands of visitors making the trek into the mountains each year. Several movie producers have used Petra’s ruins as a dramatic backdrop for films, ranging from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Not to disappoint, but unlike Indiana Jones, the Holy Grail was never actually found in one of Petra’s caves.


1. Angkor Wat

Portugese missionaries came across the abandoned remains of Angkor Wat in the 16th century.

Photo credit: Tyler Durden

Imagine a city in the 12th century with a population of as many as 750,000, spread out over an area the size of New York City. Now imagine the city being abandoned, and lying dormant for many years before missionaries accidentally stumble across the city center. Such was the fate of Angkor Wat in western Cambodia. Built in the early 12th century during the reign of King Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat served as a religious focal point for the Khmer kingdom, honoring the Hindu god Vishnu with its five rectangular walls and moats representing chains of mountains and the “cosmic ocean.” But when Portuguese missionaries found the site in the late 16th century, the complex had been abandoned, with not a single trace of why residents had vanished. To this day, scholars haven’t determined the reason, but theories range from destructive invaders and a change in religious devotion to a shift in trading patterns that doomed the once-prosperous city.

Following extensive restoration projects completed by a number of foreign government-sponsored organizations, Angkor Wat has become a major tourist destination with more than 1 million annual visitors. Fortunately, the site has been closely monitored and the use of scaffolding, ropes and wooden steps has supported the influx of tourists with relatively little damage.

Written by

James Nalley is a full-time freelance writer specializing in a wide array of historical, travel and cultural topics. He is a leading contributor to the Discover Maine history magazine and the Feature Latin-America and Caribbean Travel Writer to Suite101, an online magazine based in Vancouver. He also writes commercially for Demand Media Studios and also serves as an editor for the Enago Corp. in Japan. His work has been published in over 100 magazines and websites.