Why are we so fascinated by abandoned places? Perhaps because they offer a humbling reminder that nothing can endure for eternity, that even the most powerful civilisations must eventually fall. In this way, ghost towns and lost cities can be seen to serve as archaeological mirrors, capable of reflecting our beliefs about the past as well as our fears for the future.
When Pompeii was unearthed in 1748, the site quickly became a popular destination for affluent aristocrats, writers and artists, many of whom viewed the city not only as an archaeological marvel but as a warning from antiquity. For individuals wrapped up in the innovations of modernity, Pompeii was an unnerving reminder that no amount of human ingenuity could live up to the might of the natural world.
Today, these anxieties endure. Consider our fixation with sites like Chernobyl or those abandoned theme parks in Berlin and Japan. These empty spaces, now laden with green vines, offer us a glimpse into what our hyper-modern world might look like once we are no longer part of it. With concerns surrounding human’s impact on the natural world at an all-time high, it’s easy to see why we’re beginning to treat abandoned places like oracles.
Here, we’ve put together a selection of the most astonishing sites lost to natural disasters. From Earthquakes to coastal erosion and volcanic eruptions, these five locations all boast rich and complex histories. Better still, they’re all available to visit.
Five ghost towns lost to natural disaster:
San Juan Parangaricutiro, Mexico
The slow destruction of San Juan Parangaricutiro was heralded by the resonant peel of church bells. When the residents of the small Mexican town awoke on the morning of February 20th, 1943, few were aware that the bells, ringing of their own accord, were a warning rather than a call to worship. As an ominous rumble began to shake the earth beneath the townspeople’s feet, they looked to a distant hill to see the Paricutin volcano spouting molten lava.
Fortunately for them, the lava was slow-moving and the volcano two miles distant. This allowed the people of San Juan Parangaricutiro time to pack up their belongings and flee their homes. However, when the lava finally arrived, it consumed absolutely everything in its path. Streets, farmland, graveyards: all of it was buried beneath a thick layer of volcanic ash and magma. Today only the local church remains and is now a site of pilgrimage and a monument to the lost community of San Juan.
To gaze upon the abandoned village of Craco is to recall thousands of years of survival. Strapped to a limestone cliff in the southern province of Basilicata, Craco was founded amid the tumult of the 8th century AD, at which time it became a hotspot for roaming barbarian tribes looking for somewhere to pillage.
Thankfully, the town’s lofty location made it easy to defend. Unfortunately, that same location made it vulnerable to earthquakes and landslides, to which it finally succumbed in 1991, at which point the locals were forced to pack up and leave. Life returns to Craco from May to October, when six religious festivals take place in the town and visitors flood back, often paying homage to the statue of the Virgin Mary discovered in a nearby pool.
North West of Craco, you will find arguably the most famous abandoned town of all time, the ancient city of Pompeii near the Bay of Naples. Originally founded by the Greeks, Pompeii became an opulent coastal resort in the hands of the Romans, who built shops, taverns, cafes, brothels, bathhouses, and stadiums here – all beneath the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. When the volcano erupted in 79 AD, it’s estimated that around 12,000 people were living in Pompeii.
The blast shot a plume of pumice, ash, and volcanic gases so high into the sky that people could see it for hundreds of miles in every direction. Pliny the Younger, mesmerised by the spectacle of the eruption, took a boat out into the Bay of Naples to get a closer look and later described the plume as a “cloud of unusual size and appearance” that “rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches.” As more and more ash fell, the inhabitants began to suffocate. Then, a pyroclastic flow composed of superheated poisonous gas consumed Pompeii and those still dwelling there.
Some of Dunwich still survives. Once a bustling port town and early medieval capital of East Anglia, the small village extends to a few shops, pubs, and a ruined monastery. But beneath the waves, there is said to lie an entire quarter of the town that was lost to the sea. In the Middle Ages, Dunwich was a port city around the size of London’s square mile. Built on the back of the fishing trade and religious patronage, the town’s Greyfriars Monastery was founded by Franciscan monks around 1250 on the ground nearer sea level.
In 1285, a huge storm hit the East coast and swept away much of the town, including its monestry. Two more storms hit Dunwich the following year, leaving the town utterly decimated. In the Victorian and Edwardian periods, it became something of a tourist destination, by which time the population had dwindled from 3000 to no more than 200. At that time, it wasn’t uncommon to see sections of the town’s churches tumbling to a watery grave, and in 1909, All Saints Church was eaten up by the North Sea. Today, cliff erosion continued to threaten the last remnants of Dunwich.
Nestled on the Turkish-Armenian border, the ancient city of Ani was once one of the most beautiful and mightiest cities in the Near Eastern world. Its golden age came in the late 10th and early 11th centuries when many of its most ornate churches were built under the patronage of Ashot III the Merciful.
Ani remained the crowning jewel of Armenia, surviving successive waves of slaughter and enslavement until the 13th century when the city suffered attacks by Mongol raiders attempting to recapture the city. Then, in 1319, a devastating earthquake struck Ani, sending the city into decline. The people of Ani remained in their home city until 1750 when it was finally abandoned.