The Earth is a big place. While it’s certainly true that there are few places which can truly said to be ‘undiscovered’ in this day and age, there are still countless forests, caves, deserts and islands (as well as the entirety of the ocean floor) where man has yet to tread. Many civilisations have risen and fallen over the years, and the vast nature of our planet has helped inspire many tales about lost cities, strange far-off lands and fallen kingdoms. Sadly, as fascinating and intriguing as many of these places may seem, we now know that they were nothing more than myths and legends. Although we’ll never truly explore every square mile of the Earth, our modern age of exploration and technology has given us a pretty good idea of what’s out there and what’s been there in the past. Nevertheless, these myths are still intriguing artefacts of history and some of their fictional origins give us fascinating insight into the cultures and people who once believed in them.
10. The City of Caesars
photo: Annalisa Parisi / Wikicommons
Also known as the City of Patagonia or the Wandering City, the City of Caesars is a mythical place in South America which was supposedly once located inside the Andes somewhere near Patagonia. The origins of the city can be traced back to explorer Francisco Cesar who was on an expedition in Argentina in 1528 and returned with tales of ‘Ciudad de los Césares’ – an amazing place which enjoyed great wealth and had seemingly endless supplies of gold, silver and gemstones. Other stories concerning the city say that it was either founded by ghosts, conquistadors, survivors of a Spanish shipwreck off the Strait of Magellan, Incas or giants (the latter has some historical relevance – accounts from explorers during the 16th century describe encounters with the gigantic people of Patagonia. Although these inhabitants were thought to be very tall for the time period, it’s clear that the various accounts grossly exaggerated their heights). Interestingly, there was also legend of another city rich in gold and jewels near Peru and further to the east of the Andes called Paititi. Like the City of Caesars, no evidence of its existence was ever found but many sought it out in the hope of finding treasure and fortune.
9. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Of the Seven Wonders of the World, only the Hanging Gardens of Babylon remains a complete mystery. Although the Great Pyramid of Giza is the only ancient wonder still standing to this day, historians know where the others were located and what happened to them – except for the Hanging Gardens. The story goes that the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II had the gardens built at some point during his reign (605 BC – 562 BC) as a gift for his homesick wife Amyitis who missed the beautiful valleys and nature of her homeland in Persia. There are no Babylonian texts from this time period or archaeological evidence which supports the existence of the Hanging Gardens in the area that was once Babylon, but other texts written hundreds of years later talk about this sprawling, beautiful makeshift paradise. The Hanging Gardens were said to have trees and plants of every kind, a huge network of terraced gardens, huge statues and an aqueduct system which watered all the vegetation. Some historians argue that the Hanging Gardens were falsely confused with the gardens found in the Assyrian capital Nineveh while others think that its creation was a romanticised take on Eastern culture made up by Greek scholars or boastful soldiers who were exaggerating the incredible sights they saw in the thriving city of Babylon.
8. The Lost City of Z
The intriguingly named Lost City of Z offers a more contemporary example of a lost city myth. The city was first referenced in a manuscript written in 1753 detailing an expedition taken by Portuguese pioneers ten years earlier. The men discovered a huge uninhabited city somewhere deep in the Amazon jungles of Brazil. The explorers claim to have found stone houses, huge buildings, plaza arches and ornate sculptures in the city, but there was no trace of anyone having lived there and great parts of it lay in abandoned ruins. The description of this lost civilisation portrayed the structural engineering and layout of the city as being hugely advanced for an apparently abandoned place in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. The myth surrounding the city came to the attention of British surveyor Col. Percy Harrison Fawcett who, along with his son Jack and companion Raleigh Rimell, went searching for the city in 1925. Fawcett had become enamoured with the idea of being the first to find this great city and it was he who cryptically named it ‘Z’. Fawcett led the expedition to the Mato Grosso region, but after entering the jungle the men were never seen again. Many more followed in Fawcett’s footsteps over the years and it is estimated that up to a 100 explorers may have died trying to trace the expedition and find Z. It has been recently theorised that a site in the Xingu region may have formed or at the very least influenced the myth of this lost city. Archaeological findings have unearthed a city named Kuhikugu which is thought to have contained more than 20 settlements, each of which could have supported up to 5,000 people. Although its inhabitants used wood and not stone, they displayed remarkable engineering skills and there is evidence of moats, palisades, roads and even farming sites. The original manuscript completely neglected to specify a location for the lost city, so it can’t be said whether Kuhikugu is in fact Z or if it is just one of the many other civilisations which were once found deep in the Amazonian jungle.
7. El Dorado
El Dorado is another mythical South American city which was eagerly sought out by explorers. This should come as no surprise as it was said that El Dorado was the “Lost City of Gold”. Interestingly, this legend was actually the result of a mistake made by Spanish explorers in the early 16th century who chronicled the rituals of the Muisca people of Colombia. When a leader died in the Muisca community, the successor would cover themselves in golden dust and enter a sacred lake in tribute to the legendary golden king ‘El Dorado’. Archaeological findings have verified this ritual and also revealed that the Muisca often used beautifully crafted objects made from gold, seemingly unaware of their true wealth. It’s easy to see why Spanish observers thought that the Muisca had some sort of huge, untapped resource of gold nearby. Many Spanish expeditions were launched throughout the 16th and 17th century in the search for the city of ‘El Dorado’ and even Sir Walter Raleigh set out in search of gold in 1595 and again in 1617. While it’s now known that El Dorado is nothing more than a legend, looters and archaeologists are still hunting for the gold left behind by the Muisca people who once lived in the area.
Shangri-La is an interesting lost city because its origin comes from a modern and very fictional work. James Hilton’s 1933 novel “Lost Horizon” tells of a mystical valley hidden in the Kunlun Mountains in Tibet which is completely untouched and unspoiled by modern ways. Shangri-La is described as a harmonious utopia and its inhabitants are said to be imparted with all of the wisdom of the human race and they enjoy near-immortality. It is believed that Hilton drew inspiration from other Asian traditions such as the concepts of hidden lands like the Beyuls and Shambhala, but there is also historical evidence from the 16th century which showed that people long ago sought hidden harmony in Tibet. A Western Jesuit priest heard tales from the court of Monghul emperor Akbar that there existed a place in Tibet which was the origin of all religions. The priest sketched a strange map which showed Tibet as a great white blank except for a place labelled ‘Manasarovar lacus’ (Lake Manasarovar). Next to this place was the annotation ‘Here it is said Christians live’. The priest’s young successor, a Portuguese Jesuit named Antonio Andrade, undertook a religious quest in pursuit of this mythical community but sadly found nothing near the region marked on the map.
Cockaigne is truly one of the most preposterous mythical places. This medieval myth was a utopia where food was in abundance, no one had to work, sex was plentiful and everyone could get drunk whenever they wanted to. One of the most popular depictions of Cockaigne is by Renaissance printer Pieter Bruegel the Elder who painted scenes of pigs and eggs running around with knives stuck in them as they willingly waited to be eaten. It was a place of pure fantasy, but it is believed that the concept of Cockaigne tapped into the ever-present threat of starvation for the rich and poor alike living in the Middle Ages. It’s unlikely that most people during this period truly believed in the existence of a utopia which was dedicated to gluttony and reckless abandon, but it sparked the imagination and offered relief and daydreaming fantasies to peasants who worked backbreaking labour and never had (or would have) the opportunity to gorge themselves on luxury feasts.
The legend of King Arthur has always been a fascinating, important part of English folklore. The existence of this king who was said to have fought back the Saxon forces in the early 6th century has been debated back and forth between historians for centuries. Some maintain that a leader called Arthur may have existed and fought in deciding battles during this period, but the most popular school of thought states that the historical evidence is too scarce to say with any certainty that he did exist (after all, the first mention of him is from manuscripts which are dated from the 9th century). Nevertheless, Arthurian legend survived over the years and tales written in the 12th and 13th centuries gave his legend a fanciful twist as they wrote about his magical sword, the wizard Merlin, dragons and the Knights of the Round Table. Arthur’s court was said to be at Camelot – a romantic, ideal depiction of English architecture and countryside. However, a precise location of Camelot was never actually given and places like Carlisle, Winchester, Somerset and Essex are just some of the many spots in England where it is thought that historical writers may have depicted Arthur’s fictional centre of power.
3. Lyonesse and Avalon
King Arthur’s legend also inspired several other mythical places. Astolat was the home of the tragic and heartbroken maid Elaine, Sarras was the island where Galahad, Percival, and Bors returned the Holy Grail and Logres was an undefined territory in Arthur’s kingdom. However, the two most prominent places associated with the King are Lyonesse and Avalon. Lyonesse was home to Tristan, one of Arthur’s gallant Knights of the Round Table, and it was said to have bordered Cornwall in the South of England. Sometime after Arthur’s reign Lyonesse was said to have been engulfed by water and it became a lost, sunken mythical city. However, Avalon plays a much more important part in Arthurian legend. His legendary sword Excalibur was said to have been forged on this harmonious island where food was always bountiful and everyone lived in good health. It was another mythical place which was depicted as heaven on earth, and Arthur was said to have been taken there after the Battle of Camlann so he could recover from his wounds. Arthur was never seen from again and the most popular retellings of his legend say that he was buried on the island.
2. Sodom and Gomorrah
The fate of Sodom and Gomorrah is probably one of the most extreme cautionary tales presented in the Old Testament. The cities were said to have been so sinful and immoral that God was forced to wipe them off the face of the Earth in a hail of fire and brimstone. The story is told in the Book of Genesis and states that Sodom and Gomorrah were part of the ‘cities of the plain’ and were therefore situated on the Jordan River plain, north of the Dead Sea. Archaeologists have never been able to agree on whether or not the two cities ever existed, although some digging sites have been suggested as possible candidates for Sodom and Gomorrah. There has also been theories about whether or not a natural disaster – most likely an earthquake which may have unleashed an eruption of steaming tar from the ground – could have suddenly wiped two cities off the map. However, lack of evidence from the period means that most archaeologists and geologists are hesitant to say with certainty that they may have found either city. Also, conducting excavations with a biblical perspective in mind (i.e. being conscious that the findings would have to match up with the ‘chronology’ of the holy text) makes it extremely difficult to make an argument for their discovery from a convincing, objective viewpoint .
Atlantis is probably the first thing that comes into most people’s minds when they think about lost cities. Atlantis was first referenced by Plato in his work Timaeus and Critias, written in 360 BC. Plato described Atlantis as being a great island situated beyond the Pillars of Hercules (which we now know as the Strait of Gibraltar) which sunk into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean more than 9,000 years before the time of his writings. The people of Atlantis were from the lineage of Poseidon himself and the Greek God was also said to be a patron of this thriving, harmonious civilisation. However, over time the ethics of this noble stock declined and the rulers of Atlantis were swayed by mortal sins and desires. The behaviour of the Atlanteans caused the utopian kingdom to fall out of favour of the Gods and the island was punished with fire and earthquakes which caused it to sink into the sea. Although it’s widely accepted that Plato invented Atlantis as an allegory which neatly illustrated some of his favourite themes and philosophical ideas, the myth of Atlantis has provoked passionate and frenzied speculation throughout the course of history. It seems likely that Plato was inspired by contemporary events when he created his mythical doomed island. Notably, there are obvious parallels between the sudden demise of Atlantis and the fate of the city Helike. In 373 BC, this prosperous Greek city was completely destroyed and submerged underwater by a devastating tsunami and it was not found by archaeologists until recently in 2001.