The Avid Reader: The search for lost cities

For the Ledger-Transcript
Published: 4/29/2021 4:51:36 PM

Lately, I have been reading about the discovery of “lost” cities. Of course, this prompts the question: How do you lose a city? It turns out, the answer is not simple, and from all I have read, each lost city that has been found again, appears to have been lost for a unique reason. In one case, a city was consumed by a jungle, and in another case by a volcano. However, those are clearly not the only reasons.

This whole question about losing a city came about when a listener to my radio show emailed with a suggestion for a book that I should read about and discuss. He was intrigued by the idea of finding a lost city and thought others would be as well. it turns out he was correct.

“The Lost City of the Monkey God” by Douglas Preston was indeed a hit with my listeners. A tale of high adventure, the book reads like a novel – but every word is true. This lost city, in Honduras, has been the subject of rumors for over five hundred years. Legends told of a magnificent, white city (made of stone) in the middle of a valley surrounded by mountains and impossible to enter that was suddenly abandoned. Over time the city had been consumed by jungle and in those five hundred years no one ventured into that forbidding vegetation. It is also filled with Fer-de-Lance pit vipers, jaguars, and other nasty creatures, and any explorer who attempted exploration was either turned back by the enormity of the task or was killed.

Several modern explorers had tried, but none had succeeded until Bill Benenson, a filmmaker found financing for an expedition. Preston joined this adventure and chronicled the odyssey in fascinating detail. Yes, the explorers found the city and discovered that before being abandoned it had a population of over 25,000 people, elaborately laid out plazas and public squares, homes with gardens, large temples, and massive dwellings for rulers and priests. How do we now know so much? Lidar. Modern technology made all the difference.

Lidar, short for Light Detection and Ranging, developed by the US military for an undisclosed purpose, is a marriage of radar and laser technology. The device is put into a small plane, which flies over a specified area in a grid formation, sending pulses of laser light off the planet’s surface and capturing the photons as they bounce back up. The great thing is that the pulses are so fast that they can penetrate between the dense leaves of a jungle canopy and beam back a pattern to re-create ground elevations down to the centimeter. Computer technology builds a three-dimensional image of the terrain – including all man-made structures.

Once the exact location of the city was mapped, helicopters flew in the members of the expedition and Preston began to write. It was an adventure of a lifetime, although his end discussion not only details the rigors of the adventure, but the fate of those who were on the expedition. Sadly, the majority of the adventurers who entered the City of the Monkey God were bitten by sand flies. While a sand fly bite can be unpleasant the difficulty with these particular little critters is that they carried leishmaniasis.

I learned that the leishmaniasis parasite, transmitted from the sand fly to the victim, is also called White Leprosy, and that it kills around 1,000,000 people worldwide every year. A treatment rather than a cure is wildly expensive, not readily available, and cases are starting to show up in the southern regions of the United States. The explorers were treated, some fared better than others, and while this was a tough way to end the book, Preston is thorough and likes to tell a complete story.

Annalee Newitz in her book “Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age,” is another author who tells the full story. She has spent years researching and exploring four of the most spectacular examples of urban abandonment in human history.

Founded about 9,000 years ago, Catalhoyuk, a Neolithic city built in the Anatolian region of central Turkey, was, at its height, home to about 20,000 people. These inhabitants were nomads only one or two generations before, and why they suddenly became city dwellers is as much of an intriguing question as why they abandoned the city after hundreds of years.

Debates about this abandonment are currently quite heated. So, if you want to start a fight among anthropologists and archaeologists, just mention this city and then offer your own opinion as to why it was abandoned. Although Newitz does not offer a definitive answer, she has given us a remarkable view of daily life in that mysterious, newly found city.

From Catalhoyuk, Newitz moved on to Pompeii. Abandonment was clearly noted here as 482 degrees Centigrade of pyroclastic flows through the city, pretty much cleared out anything living. Yet, there is so much that has been recently discovered! It turns out Emperor Nero sent money, built new dwellings in other cities, provided work, entertainment, and medical help for the survivors. Loss of life, fear of further volcanic activity, comfortable relocation, and continuing heat from the lava flows, the decision to abandon the city was easily made.

Newitz, however, reveals some amazing new discoveries of the way people lived in Pompeii. She discusses the daily lives of many of the inhabitants, from occupations to meals, as well as the sophisticated lifestyles of the poor, middle class, and wealthy city dwellers.

Next on her list is Angkor in Cambodia. The abandonment of Angkor was basically due to incompetence on the part of the rulers. The silly kings relied on astrology rather than good engineering to determine the location of canals, moats, and even lakes. It turns out that those bad decisions made times of drought worse and in some years supported flooding, The people finally gave up and moved on.

Lidar helped here as well, by the way. This time the device was strapped to a helicopter and flown in the grid pattern, showing in remarkable detail the exact location of Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat, and many other magnificent temples.

Cahokia, right here in the US was Newitz’s last lost city. This appears to be a deliberate abandonment because when the inhabitants of the city were done with a structure, they sealed its fate with a ritual. The wooden walls were used as firewood, the empty postholes were filled with colorful clay, and everything including the household items were torched. Once the fire was extinguished the residents would seal what was left with clay and build anew. No, we don’t know why, but once again the daily lives of the inhabitants makes for a fascinating read.

I love Newtz’s through treatment of the subject of lost cities as well as her speculations on what will become of many of our coastal cities in the future. Rising oceans, urban decay, loss of jobs, all the myriad reasons for a city to be abandoned are reviewed and discussed. She definitely gives her readers a lot to think about.

I left the most mysterious city for last. “The Lost City of Ubar: The Mysterious Legend of the Ancient Arabian City Known as the Atlantis of the Sands” gives us an ancient description of the area, a review of Islamic sources, early searches for the city, recent searches, and many references. This is a very slim volume compiled by the Charles River Editors, and essentially a document that raises more questions than gives answers. Ubar has not, in the opinion of many, yet been found! The editors are sure it is in the desert, mostly convinced it was swallowed in a sinkhole, somewhat certain that Ubar was within a very wealthy kingdom, and happy to agree that satellite technology has given excellent information about some possible locations.

The bibliography, starting with Herodotus “The Histories” (I have my copy) is excellent, and that will give me months of interesting reading on this subject. The reasons cities have been lost are many, but each loss can be a valuable lesson for this and future generations. Read well – there is much to learn for our own survival!


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