For the first 95% of our time on Earth, humans built no settlements. We were mostly nomadic and would follow the food and water. When we learnt to grow our own crops, we started to put down roots, literally, and suddenly settling made sense. So, across the globe, we’ve been clearing trees, carving out enormous quarries and building villages, towns and cities as fast as we could. But, not all have survived.
Some towns grew around a particular resource, like the gold mining town of Bodie in California. When the gold ran out, so did the people, leaving a perfectly preserved snapshot of the Wild West and a lot of brothels. In other cases, a disaster triggered the mass exodus of people, like in Centralia, Pennsylvania. The town decided to burn their landfill waste and accidentally set fire to a coal seam. The fires raged underground and created sinkholes that emitted deadly amounts of carbon monoxide. This was discovered when a 12-year-old boy fell into one, luckily, he was pulled to safety and the town evacuated. The underground fires are still burning over 60 years later. Other settlements weren’t abandoned but only ever managed to attract a small number of residents, leaving them eerily empty. The most famous examples are Ordos, the Ghost City of China, and Burj Al Babas, the Turkish town of over 500 identical Disney-like castles.
But, not including Ordos, these examples are all towns or villages, a relatively small investment to abandon. In rare cases, entire cities have been left deserted. Lost to war, natural hazards, or even submerged under the sea like Alexandria, a real-life Atlantis. However, relatively few are still standing for visitors to explore, with silent streets, buildings left frozen in time and, occasionally, a creepy doll left discarded in the dust.
Agdam in Azerbaijan is one such city. Founded in the 18th century and granted city status in 1828, Agdam was once home to 30,000 residents. It thrived during the Soviet period, producing butter, wine, silk and hardware. But, when the first Nagorno-Karabakh War broke out in 1988 between the Armenians of the region and the Republic of Azerbaijan, the city became a battleground. Initially, it was used by Azerbaijani forces as a base to attack Karabakh. They launched BM-21 Grad rockets and bombing raids from the city, killing both enemy troops and Armenian citizens.
Armenia retaliated by shelling the city indiscriminately, destroying many of the buildings and seizing control in July 1993. The civilian population was evacuated or forcibly relocated, and Agdam became part of a buffer zone, remaining uninhabited to this day. Remarkably, their professional football club, Karabakh Agdam continued in exile. Playing most of their matches in nearby Baku and becoming the most successful Azerbaijani team ever to compete in the European Championships. They even made it to the 4th round of the 2010 UEFA League, despite having no home ground.
To prevent Azerbaijan from ever returning and retaking the city, the troops continued to shell, bomb and do whatever they could to destroy what remained. This included the bread museum, taken out by an Armenian Grad missile in August 1992. While a bread museum might not sound like the greatest loss or the most thrilling day out, it did contain a few notable pieces, including a 150g piece of carbonised bread donated by a Russian survivor of the Leningrad Blockade. She’d saved it and somehow avoided eating it, even on the verge of starvation. Unfortunately, along with bread from the Russian cosmonaut camp and thousands of grain samples it was never recovered.
Any buildings left standing were dismantled and scavenged for construction materials to be used in Stepanakert, the capital city of Nagorno-Karabakh. This included the Agdam Mosque, which was stripped bare and left roofless. When Andrei Galafyev visited in 2007 to photograph the destruction, he found a herd of cattle had moved in and the floor was thick with manure. This, of course, sparked outrage, and cleaning and refurbishment began to preserve Muslim cultural heritage in the area.
Today, the city is a sprawling sea of the remaining carcasses of buildings, without windows, roofs or any valuable metals. It’s littered with mines and off-limits to visitors, apart from those brave enough to bribe taxi drivers and sneak in. However, it won’t remain like this for long. In 2020, a ceasefire was agreed and Agdam was returned to the control of Azerbaijan. Authorities say over $100bn worth of damage was done and removing the mines will take 15 years. Despite this, they’re hopeful that they can make the majority of the city habitable again within 3-5 years, enabling displaced citizens to return. They even plan to make the rebuilt Agdam better than before. In 2021, Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev visited the site to lay the foundation stones of a school, museum, residential building and park and presented an ambitious plan to merge 8 nearby villages with Agdam creating a smart, green city of 100,000 people.
Not all ghost cities were lost to war. In 1970, the city of Pripyat was built in Ukraine to house the workers, elite scientists and engineers of the Chernobyl nuclear power station. It was constructed just 3km away from the plant and was home to around 49,000 people, mostly young families. The average age was just 25 years old. Tragedy struck on the 26th of April, 1986 during a test to see how much power was needed to keep the No 4 reactor functioning during a blackout. Negligence and a lack of safety measures led to the reactor overheating, resulting in a steam explosion that caused huge quantities of radioactive material to be expelled into the air as the fire raged over the 9 days that followed. The disaster released 500 times the amount of radioactivity as the Hiroshima bomb and the city was declared unsuitable for human habitation for the next 24,000 years.
For 36 hours after the explosion officials dithered, unsure whether or not to order an evacuation. All the while, radioactive particles rained down on the residents and their children. Some reported headaches, metallic tastes, coughing and vomiting but others were completely unaware and continued gardening, playing in the streets and even hosting a wedding. When the order was finally given on the 27th of April, the residents of Pripyat had just 50 minutes notice to gather their belongings and attempt to board one of the evacuation buses which had been drafted in from across the country. The queue of buses was 20km long, but the residents were calm and sensible and the evacuation was completed within a few hours. If only the buses had been called 36 hours earlier.
Debate still rages about the number of deaths that resulted from the disaster. 30 died in the initial explosion and radiation poisoning killed many more. The numbers became blurred when the USSR, fearing bad press, banned radiation from being given as a cause of death. The World Health Organisation estimates the civilian death toll to be around 4000, but this doesn’t include the members of the Soviet military who were drafted in to help with the clean-up so the true figure is likely to be much higher. The radioactive particles also travelled around the world and some studies estimate that the Chernobyl disaster has been responsible for almost 1 million premature cancer deaths.
Today the exclusion zone covers 1000 sq. miles but radiation levels are low enough for people to enter Pripyat for short periods, with a visit exposing them to less radiation than a transatlantic flight. Ex-residents travel there to pay their respects at the graves of their loved ones or to see what’s left of their old homes. Sadly, thieves stripped the city of anything of value, soon after the disaster. Tourists also venture into Pripyat and bring back photos of a city frozen in time with family portraits yellowing on the walls, toys left to decay on the floor and an eerie Ferris wheel rusting in the forest.
The only residents now are the wildlife that retook the city once the humans left. Despite the radiation, brown bears, wolves, lynx and moose have thrived. Initially, animals in the area were born with mutations and deformities but survival of the fittest means they died quickly and the creatures there today appear largely unaffected and thrilled to be living without humans.
Another example of a human-free city is the lost city of Petra in Jordan. Established by the Nabateans as a trading post it was ideally situated between Amman, Damascus and the Red Sea, making it an ideal hub for commerce in the area. Essentially in the middle of a harsh desert, the site should never have been able to support a city. But, the Nabateans were clever and created their own Oasis. They made the most of what little water there was, and installed a system of dams, underground cisterns and conduits that could harvest and store rainwater for the dry months and rock-cut channels and underground pipes were employed to harness any natural springs. They also embraced the mountainous terrain as an excellent defence against the Greeks and employed rock-cut architecture to carve impressive buildings directly into the cliff faces.
At its peak, the city housed over 20,000 residents who found wealth and security. Trade was booming and the Napoteans was even able to charge travellers a toll for crossing the territory. However, their success wouldn’t last. As the Roman Empire expanded into the Middle East they took over the city. Initially, they invested heavily, building new roads, lined with massive columns. But, trade began to drift north and ships took over from the difficult job of transportation through the desert. Petra’s importance as a trade centre was declining fast but the final blow came when the 363AD Galilee earthquake struck, destroying many of the buildings and crippling the water system.
The city was largely abandoned with just a few Bedouins remaining in the caves. They feared any more outsiders could finish off the destruction of the city so they endeavoured to keep its location a secret and the city became lost, but not abandoned, for hundreds of years. However, in 1812, Swiss traveller Johann Ludwig Burckhardt heard rumours about the dead city. He became obsessed with finding it and disguised himself as a Bedouin, procuring his own goat. His story was that he intended to sacrifice it at the Prophet Aarons tomb, said to be located in Petra. So, locals directed him to the city, exposing it, once again to the West.
From then on, numerous archaeologists arrived to work in the city and uncover its secrets. Even now we only have access to 15% of it, the rest remains hidden underground. In 1985 the Jordanian government decided to begin the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation process and forcibly removed the Bedouins, leaving the city abandoned. But that doesn’t mean it’s been left alone. In 2007, it was declared one of the 7 Wonders of the World and has been the backdrop for several films including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Transformers, Revenge of the Fallen and the Mummy Returns.
Unfortunately, unlike Pripyat, the animals haven’t thrived in Petra. Wildlife is stifled by tourism and Animal rights group PETA has had to intervene. The camels used to carry the visitors have been abused, they’re whipped and beaten and, in one case, working with open fly infested wounds. Over 1 million tourists visit each year and The Bedouins now live in houses constructed nearby, earning money by offering tours and selling Indiana Jones souvenirs. I imagine the city’s fate wasn’t quite what the Napoteans envisaged when painstakingly carving their Oasis.
Just as an earthquake finished off Petra, natural disasters are a common theme in city abandonment. Pompeii was an ancient Roman city near Naples in Italy. It was built on a lava plateau caused by a previous eruption of Mt Vesuvius and was home to around 20,000 people. Tragically in 79AD, it erupted again. 1,800 years after all memory of it being a volcano had been forgotten. The eruption began with 18 hours of pumice rain that gave most of the residents a chance to escape. Around 1,150 remained in the city. Whether they didn’t understand the threat of the volcano and chose to stay indefinitely or just thought they’d have more time to flee, we’ll never know. By early the next day their time ran out as the pyroclastic flows began. These are enormous clouds of burning ash that can travel up to 62mph. They can destroy structures and simultaneously suffocate and incinerate any living thing they engulf. Devastatingly for the people of Pompeii, the prevailing winds normally blowing from the southwest would’ve taken the flow away from them. But, on that day they were blowing from the northwest and directed the searing cloud straight at them and their city.
This phase was short-lived and by the end of the second day, the eruption was over. No one who’d chosen to stay behind survived as the pyroclastic flows had reached temperatures of at least 250oC. Anyone caught in it cooked instantly. Their bodies and what remained of their homes were then buried in ash, up to 6 m deep. Soon afterwards, survivors and thieves arrived to salvage what they could. Even taking the marble statues from the forum.
In the centuries that followed, more eruptions buried the city even more deeply and it was largely forgotten. In 1592, it was almost rediscovered when architect Domenico Fontana was digging an underground aquifer and ran into the surviving walls and foundations. However, he didn’t report his findings and Pompeii remained hidden for another century. Excavation work didn’t fully begin until 1748 but even then it was poorly planned, irresponsibly and often carried out by untrained diggers and progress was slow and often damaging.
In 1860 Italian archaeologist, Giuseppe Fiorelli finally took over and employed a much more careful approach. He also noted that many of the voids found in the ash contained human remains, concluding that the hollows were left after the bodies had decomposed. He developed a technique to cast the bodies by pouring cement into them and clearing the ash once set. This led to the incredible and often chilling recreation of the exact positions of the victims when they were hit with the pyroclastic flow. A dog contorted in agony, a mother attempting to shield her child and a small boy cowering, covering his nose with both hands, his mouth open, gasping for breath or screaming are just some of the victims whose last moments were rebuilt.
Much of the residents’ daily lives was preserved. Archeologists found food in their ovens, financial records on wax tablets and vast amounts of ancient graffiti. Including ‘Floronius, privileged soldier of the 7th legion, was here. The women did not know of his presence. Only six women came to know, too few for such a stallion.’ In the gladiator barracks. ‘Chie, I hope your haemorrhoids rub together so much that they hurt worse than when they ever have before!’ In the basilica. And ‘We two dear men, friends forever, were here. If you want to know our names, they are Gaius and Aulus.’ Much more eloquent than Simon woz ere.
Not all cases of city abandonment have been caused by events as dramatic as war, nuclear explosions or natural disasters. Sometimes the reason for desertion is simple economics. Hashima Island, also known as Battleship Island for its shape, was established as a coal mining facility in 1887 and bought a few years later, in 1890, by Mitsubishi. They constructed four main mine shafts and spent almost 100 years extracting 15.7million tonnes of coal, contributing massively to Japan’s industrialisation. In 1961 Mitsubishi built a miners apartment block on the island of reinforced concrete, to withstand potential typhoons. It made history as Japan’s first large reinforced concrete building. They continued construction on the island, aiming to provide everything the miners and their families would need. Including a school, kindergarten, hospital, cinema, shops and a bathhouse where the water would turn black as the miners washed. The facilities almost made up for the stifling conditions in the mines which reached up to 30oC and 95% humidity. But not quite.
At its peak the island was home to over 5000 people, making it the most densely populated place on Earth at the time. The buildings took over and eventually everything was concrete. It became known for its lack of vegetation and some nicknamed it ‘Midori Nashi Shima’ – The Island without green. Workers were claustrophobic, particularly ‘the moles’ who were the ones sent deep into the mine to dig and break up the coal.
Things turned darker in the 1930s when Mitsubishi began using conscripted Korean civilians and Chinese prisoners of war as forced labourers. 57,900 worked there at some point under horrific conditions. The work was back-breaking, they were fed little and beaten if they slacked. Those who tried to flee drowned during the 18km swim back to the mainland. The vile practise continued up until the end of the Second World War by which time over 1,300 of the workers had died from various underground accidents, exhaustion and malnutrition.
In the 1960s petroleum began replacing coal in Japan and the need for coal mines declined. Mitsubishi officially closed the shafts in January 1974 and the island was abandoned by April. Although the families planned their departure, the city still took on that eerie, deserted Pripyat feeling. Chalk writing remains on boards in the classrooms, kids’ shoes lie discarded in pathways and the hospital floor is littered with x-rays of the miners’ lungs.
The island is now officially part of Nagasaki city and opened for tourists in 2009 when it also applied to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Initially, the proposal was opposed by both South Korea and China due to the past use of forced labour on the island. However, Japan offered to ensure the facility both recognised and honoured those lost and held captive and each country withdrew their objections. It became a World Heritage site in 2015, and has also been appeared in several films notably James Bond – Skyfall. Since then, 500,000 tourists have travelled to the island to take in the 1970’s time capsule. Only one thing has really changed, nature has begun to reclaim Hashima and the island is no longer without green.
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