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Until the 1920s, when R.D. Banerji, an officer of the Archaeological Survey of India, began excavating a site on the banks of the Indus river in what today is the northern Sindh province of Southern Pakistan, the world remained oblivious to the existence of an entire ancient civilization, quite possibly the equal of that of Egypt and neighbouring Mesopotamia. A century earlier a British explorer named Charles Masson had turned up some mysterious brick mounds in the area, fragments, as it subsequently emerged, of the lost city of Harappa, but failed to delve any further. Engineers laying the railway through the region in the 1850s viewed the arcane stone work they encountered as a nuisance impeding the progress of the line. Being of a practical and pragmatic mindset, that didn't stop them carrying the bricks off as souvenirs or repurposing them in other building work along the way. But following the example of Howard Carter, a pioneer of modern scientifically systematic archeological excavations, who was digging for Tutankhamun's tomb in the Valley of the Kings, Banerji and his colleagues' hunch that there might be something more to these curious stones than many first supposed was vindicated almost immediately.
What they found were the remnants of not one but two lost cities, Harappa and its larger sibling Mohenjo-Daro. The latter, whose name is taken to mean 'mound of the dead' was eventually revealed to extend for a circuit of 3 miles (5km) and is believed to have been the epicentre of an exceedingly advanced civilization that flourished beside the Indus in 2500–1700 BC. With a series of mounds and baked-brick buildings arranged along an orderly grid scheme, possessing a sophisticated drainage system and boasting a great public bath located on the largest mound, Mohenjo-Daro offers an astonishingly early example of hygienic urban planning – an all-mod-cons metropolis dating back at least 4,500 years.
The society that created and occupied this city evidently cared about cleanliness and health. Its people were clearly very wealthy, as evidenced by the richness of pottery, gold, lapis and ivory artefacts, and the shattered sections of delicately carved statuary recovered, as well as the scale of the buildings. But its citizens didn't go in for quite the same degree of out-and-out gaudy ostentation as some of their near peers in the ancient world, with regal palaces and temples conspicuous by their absence.
What manner of people they truly were continues to puzzle archaeologists and anthropologists. As, naturally, does exactly how and why this civilization fizzled out entirely, leaving its epic cities abandoned and lost for so long. Among the grimmer discoveries at Mohenjo-Daro are forty-four skeletons who appear to have perished in the city's streets during some single violent event. What killed them, however, will most likely never be known. The once popular theory that the city was the victim of a great flood has largely been discounted now. But others believe that a definite shift in the course of the Indus river might well have been the event that precipitated its decline.CHAPTER 2
A great people known as the Hittites are mentioned throughout the books of the Hebrew Tanakh (Old Testament) and usually in some context as worthy, if troublesome, adversaries of the Israelites and their God. And yet until the nineteenth century these few isolated Biblical references to the Hittites were all historians of the ancient world had to go on. They appeared to have evaded the attention of every other scribe going and there remained not so much as a broken piece of pottery from their apparently vast empire left in the lands of the Middle East or across the Mediterranean. Having seemingly disappeared without trace, doubts persisted about their very existence. After all, how could a people spoken of in the same breath as the mighty Assyrians and Babylonians just vanish off the face of the earth? Were they merely the result of a Canaanite misattribution, or the clumsy slip of a Talmudic clerk's pen or chisel?
The case for a Hittite Empire, however, was bolstered after the discovery in 1799 of the Rosetta Stone by Napoleonic troops in Egypt. This was the key to deciphering hieroglyphics, and it was found that ancient Egyptian texts were littered with accounts of their run-ins with the Hittites. Their records recounted one especially epic battle between the armies of King Ramses II of Egypt and the Hittite King Hattusilis III in around 1279BC on the borders of present-day Syria and Lebanon. However self-serving the Egyptian version of events possibly were, they left no doubt that the Hittites were an advanced and powerful people whose kingdom covered swathes of the middle and near east, which, frankly, in the face of the continuing absence of any mark of their time on earth, now only made their complete erasure even more baffling.
Fortunately, in 1834 the French architect and archaeologist Charles Texier was conducting an expedition in the Anatolian region of Turkey. Around 100 miles (160km) east of the modern Turkish capital Ankara, he unearthed the monumental ruins of what had quite obviously been a vast city at Boghaskoy (Bogazkale), along with some smaller remains of a temple or holy place a mile or so away at Yazilikaya. Texier died before the full significance of his discovery was known. But following decades of further physical and intellectual spadework, the German archeologist Hugo Winckler was finally and conclusively able to identify the ruins as Hattusa – the previously only speculated upon epicentre of the Hittite Empire.
Archeological evidence points to a settlement at Hattusa as far back as the sixth millennium BC. Traces of carbon also show that the Hittites built their capital on the torched remnants of a previous city; one established in the early Bronze Age but which had been burnt to the ground in around 1700 BC. The same fate was long believed to have eventually befallen the Hittites own metropolis and at the hands of marauders known as the Sea People in about 1190 BC, after which date the Hittites cease to bother contemporary chroniclers. But more recent research suggests that the city had already been partly abandoned by that time and its demise was a less sudden and violent affair. We do know, however, that at various stages in its history Hittite Hattusa was assailed by hostile forces and came close to being destroyed by invading tribes around 1400 BC. After that the city was enlarged, doubling in size, and was rebuilt, with massive new fortifications that extended over 4 miles (8km) and a second protective curtain wall lined with towers was added for good measure. The entrances to the city were decorated with monumental relief sculptures. Such artistic flourishes today supply its partially reconstructed walls with their arresting namesakes, the Lion, Sphinx and Warrior God gates.
At its peak, covering an area of 407 acres (165 hectares), Hattusa was one of the largest capitals of the ancient world. It was comprised of an older 'Lower City', dominated by the royal acropolis, palaces and their most sacred temple to their Weather or Storm God, and a newer 'Upper City' extension that subsequent excavations have revealed was itself equipped with at least twenty-six additional temples.
If religiously observant, the Hittites were also a literate culture, as shown by the discovery at Hattusa, at the end of the nineteenth century, of thousands of clay tablets etched with a unique hieroglyphic script that, although similar to the cuneiform used by the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians, was entirely unknown until then. Once the script was deciphered, this store of documents supplied scholars with a detailed account of the life and times of the Hittite empire and its relations with arch-rivals such as the Egyptians. What they remain silent on, however, is just how and why Hattusa fell and what became of its formerly so mighty inhabitants.CHAPTER 3
The Phoenicians are famed as exceptional mariners, whose mighty ships, adorned with horses' heads in honour of their sea god Yamm, accomplished epic sea voyages thanks to their advanced knowledge of navigation. Their world was composed of a series of independent city-states lying on a strip of the Mediterranean coast mapped by modern Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel. They have been credited with inventing curved hulled boats, the alphabet, purple dye and possibly glassware, and introducing the domesticated cat into Europe – Phoenician sailors noticed that the felines were efficient rat catchers and duly took them aboard their vessels as pest controllers, carrying them to Italy and beyond. Examples of their wares have been found as far north as Great Britain, and one of the finest cities in the Roman Empire, Leptis Magna, began its life as a Phoenician trading post, Lpqy, in the seventh century BC.
Situated on the Mediterranean shores of north Africa, with Malta and Italy just a short distance across the sea, and lying at the mouth of the Wadi Lebda in present-day Libya, what appealed to the Phoenicians about the location of this particular outpost was the potential promise of access to the inland caravan routes. The settlement, which was centred around a harbour on the Wadi Lebda, seemingly grew into a substantial Phoenician colony and later fell within the dominions of the Carthaginian Empire. But whatever commercial or even architectural achievements it mustered then – and the latter were largely submerged without trace below layer upon layer of later developments – pales into insignificance when placed against its subsequent Roman incarnation.
From the reign of the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, Leptis lay within the Roman province of Africa Proconsularis and, if still a trading port, was by then becoming better known for its agriculture and especially the cultivation of olive oil, which from this period was to intensify dramatically. While much of the terrain is semidesert, the city was gifted with a hinterland of rich fertile soil that seemed almost peculiarly well suited to olive tree growth, and also a series of wadis that helped irrigate crops in the absence of rainfall. Leptis was to become astonishingly wealthy on the back of olive oil. This product lubricated the Roman world, supplying Emperor and slave alike with the staple source of fat in their diets, the means to clean themselves via olive-oil based soaps and the chance to illuminate the dark as a fuel for lighting. Gallons upon gallons were exported to every corner of the Empire from Leptis's harbour.
Leptis in turn developed into one of the most Romanized cities of north Africa as the wealthy elite competed with each other to erect public buildings – the requisite temples, a forum, theatre, an aqueduct and public baths, amphitheatre, a circus for chariot races, etc., – to give their home city all the comforts of the imperial capital.
The city's status rose considerably, though, after one of its sons, Lucius Septimius Severus seized the Imperial throne in AD 193, becoming, in the opinion of leading historians of the site, 'the first truly provincial Emperor'. Severus was not to forget his roots, granting his birthplace the prestige of counting itself as a full Roman city, an honour that came with considerable attendant tax breaks, and bankrolling a major building programme to transform it into a metropolis fit for an emperor.
Under these schemes, which were only completed after Severus's death and during the reign of his son and successor Caracalla, Leptis's harbour was made over with a marble colonnaded avenue for a slipway. The city gained a massive new forum and basilica, and a triumphal arch embellished with sculptural depictions of the Severus clan at the centre of its main crossroads. Predictably the pace of redevelopment slackened after the passing of the Severus dynasty, and what stood already was then subjected to a run of earthquakes in the AD 360s along with raids by nomadic peoples in the same period. The city rallied a little under East Roman or Byzantine command in the fifth century but was by then a shrunken husk of its former self with its harbour inconveniently on the verge of silting up. By the time the Arabs conquered the region in about AD643, the city appears already to have been abandoned. The same shifting sands that served as pathways for the caravans that had led the Phoenicians here in the first place, soon enough engulfed Leptis's ruins.
The city slumbered on until the Victorian era, its peace interrupted only by intermittent bouts of petty thieving, with the likes of Claude Lemaire, a French consul in Tripoli in the seventeenth century, shipping chunks of purloined Leptis marble back to Paris where it was most probably incorporated into the altar of the church of St Germain des Prés. But the full extent of its architectural treasures was only unearthed in the 1960s, when a series of digs were undertaken. After which time, Libya's political situation and the dictatorial regime of Muammar Gaddafi removed it from the view of the world at large. If perhaps now easier to reach since Gaddafi's death in 2011, at the time of writing most western governments advise against travel to Libya, citing the potential risk of terrorism following the Daesh attack on Tripoli in 2018.CHAPTER 4
Deriving from an old children's game, incidentally first called Russian Scandal, the phrase 'Chinese whispers' is normally used to describe the process where a story (or rumorous gossip) ends up becoming more and more distorted as it is passed from person to person. With each retelling the tale is subtly, or not so subtly, altered until it ends up bearing almost no resemblance to the original report. And in many respects the story of Xanadu, or what most of us think we know about this one-time capital of Mongol-ruled China, feels like an extended game of Chinese whispers, with unreliable accounts, and accounts of unreliable accounts, pilling up over the centuries since its creation.
If its name usually brings anything immediately to mind it is most probably Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous poem 'Kubla Khan' which begins:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea. So twice five miles of fertile ground With walls and towers were girdled round; And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills, Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree; And here were forests ancient as the hills, Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
If this poem is justly one of the most famous in the English language, the story of its composition in his native Devon, supplied in a preface by Coleridge himself, is almost as well known. The poem, or so he claimed, came to him in a dream during an 'anodyne' (i.e., laudanum-induced) stupor. Waking after about three hours of vision-filled dozing, the poet seized a pen and started furiously writing down the 300-odd lines of verse that had supposedly sprung miraculously fully formed in his head. Unfortunately, he only got as far as the first three stanza before a 'person on business from Porlock' interrupted him. Having been detained for an hour by this factotum, Coleridge returned to his desk eager to commit the rest of the poem to paper only to find he was unable to recall any more of it. Which in the end, might have been for the best, for, not only was he able to spin a memorable yarn about forgetting most of it, but the poem's brevity made it easier to commit to memory and probably didn't harm its long-term prospects in terms of becoming a popular and easy-to-recite classic of literature.
As it happens, prior to drifting off into drug-fuelled sleep, the opium-addicted Coleridge had been engrossed in a seventeenth-century travel book by Samuel Purchas. It was a volume filled with wild accounts of voyages to far-flung and exotic lands left by wide-eyed explorers of yore and scurvy-ridden mariners, of the mostly ancient and albatross-dodging variety. Among them was something taken from Marco Polo's reminisces of his spell in Xanadu, and that appears, somewhat conveniently for all concerned, to have caught Coleridge's eye shortly before he nodded off: 'In Xandu did Cublai Can build a stately Pallace', runs the opening part of this particular Polo passage....(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Atlas Of Vanishing Places"
Copyright © 2019 Travis Elborough.
Excerpted by permission of The Quarto Group.
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Table of Contents
LEPTIS MAGNA LIBYA,
CIUDAD PERDIDA COLOMBIA,
CHAN CHAN PERU,
ROANOKE NORTH CAROLINA, USA,
THE MOSQUE CITY OF BAGERHAT BANGLADESH,
RIVER FLEET LONDON, UK,
LION CITY CHINA,
OLD ADAMINABY AUSTRALIA,
PORT ROYAL JAMAICA,
THE LOST SEA CRAIGHEAD CAVERNS, TENNESSEE, USA,
BODIE CALIFORNIA, USA,
FLAGSTAFF MAINE, USA,
RIVER DANUBE EUROPE,
THE DEAD SEA JORDAN/ISRAEL,
SLIMS RIVER YUKON, CANADA,
SKIPSEA YORKSHIRE, UK,
THE EVERGLADES FLORIDA, USA,
GLACIER NATIONAL PARK MONTANA, USA,
CHIHUAHUAN DESERT MEXICO/USA,
SKARA BRAE ORKNEY,
YAMUNA RIVER INDIA,
THE CONGO BASIN RAINFOREST DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO,
THE GREAT BARRIER REEF AUSTRALIA,
THE GREAT WALL CHINA,
TUVALU SOUTH PACIFIC,