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Lose Yourself in this Atlas of the World’s Lost Cities

Cities that continue to stand long past their glory days are particularly poignant.

Mandu, an abandoned ancient city in northern India with a timeless love story at its core. (All photos: Courtesy of Black Dog & Leventhal, an imprint of Hachette Books)

According to French author Aude de Tocqueville, cities are like mortal beings. They are born, they rise up and they undergo various cycles before dying and being resurrected again. Lost cities that continue to stand long past their glory days are particularly poignant.

In Tocqueville’s new book, Atlas of Lost Cities: A Travel Guide to Abandoned and Forsaken Destinations, she explores several haunting abandoned cities across four continents. The Atlas features well-known lost cities like Pompeii and Angkor, but also explores lesser-known, but similarly majestic places. 

The book, which comes out on April 5, 2016, intends to immerse readers in the unique charms of every city it features. Each destination is accompanied by an account of its history and mythology, and a beautifully detailed illustration by Karin Doering-Froger. Below, discover how some of these lost cities withstood the tests of time. 

1. Tikal, Guatemala

Not even human sacrifices could prevent its populace from abandoning this cradle of Maya civilization.

Today, the city of Tikal is a cluster of ruins enswathed in dense vegetation, but in its heyday the citadel was home to an estimated 500,000 inhabitants and was the cradle of the Maya civilization (AD 250–900). Two of the most imposing pyramids of this extraordinary city are massive temples that face one another; some archaeologists claim priests communicated with each other from their pinnacles.

This would hardly be surprising, given that one of the translations of the word Tikal is “place of voices.” The flourishing civilization was abandoned in haste by the 10th century, possibly due to drought or some other climatic problem that depleted the local resources. Today, the “place of voices” stands silent as the grave.

2. Centralia, PA, USA

A fire has burned relentlessly beneath the ground of the town of Centralia, PA since 1962.

Deep in the heart of Pennsylvania, there burns a fire that has been continually ablaze for over 50 years. The near-ghost town of Centralia was once a well-populated coal mining town, until a day in 1962, when it was ravaged by a fire that has not been extinguished to this day.

In preparation for Memorial Day, a group of municipal workers set a pile of garbage alight next to one of the town’s cemeteries. The fire spread into the coal mines, which extended beneath the town. This was the act that sealed the town’s fate. The fire went unnoticed at first, but caused a number of disturbing events over the following months, including releasing jets of carbon monoxide through fissures in the ground. A few decades later, a boy was nearly swallowed up by the hellish blaze when the ground beneath his feet gave way.

These incidents were enough to prompt local and federal authorities to evacuate the town, and in 2002 Centralia’s zip code was withdrawn. As for the fire? It’s estimated that it will continue to burn for at least another 200 years–the time it will take to incinerate all of the coal stored in the underground mines.

3. Djémila, Algeria

The triumphal arch of Djémila continues to be one of the city’s most imposing silhouettes. 

Albert Camus once wrote of the Roman ruins of Djémila as a “great cry thrown out by the lugubrious and solemn stones at the mountains, the sky, and the silence.” He claimed the lost Algerian city’s only inhabitant was the wind, which “pounces fitfully on the remains of the houses, on the immense forum that extends from the triumphal arch to the temple.”

This abandoned city, which originally bore the Berber name of Cuicul, was founded in 96 AD and was in turns Roman, Christian, Vandal and Byzantine. It sits on a narrow plateau bordered by ravines, and offers a rare example of how Romans adapted their town planning to mountainous terrains. The factors that catalyzed its downfall remain a mystery; broken statues, evidence of a fire, and the absence of precious metals suggest that Cuicul was raided by pillagers.

Despite its demise, its impressive architecture prompted Muslims in the 7th century to name it Djamila–“the fair”–and to respectfully abstain from building upon it. Our generation has fewer scruples; Algerian historians are fighting a new kind of peril: a music festival that occurs each year among the ruins.

4. Prora, Germany

A 2.8 mile stretch of apartments was once intended to be a Nazi beach resort, but never saw a single vacationer.

A line of abandoned apartments stretches its way down the coast of Rügen, an island in Germany on the Baltic sea. This is all that remains of the “Colossus of Prora,” a Nazi beach resort dreamed up by Hitler’s officials. It was to be the largest resort in the world, with several million visitors a year. Instead, it never saw a single vacationer.

Its original plans included swimming pools, cinemas and restaurants, with loudspeakers in every room to spout propaganda to their occupants. Production was halted at the start of World War II, and the resort was turned into a military hospital in 1944. Today the giant relic cuts a sinister shape: concrete blocks with gaping holes for windows, surrounded by scrubby vegetation that has never been trimmed.

There has been talk of redeveloping the beach resort, which begs the question: will Prora be able to overcome its burdensome past, or will its Nazi origins weigh on its future?

5. Shi Cheng, China

Shi Cheng, the submerged ancient city in Qiandao Lake, has been called the Chinese Atlantis.

In 1959, Chinese authorities completed construction of a hydroelectric power station on the bank of the Xin’an River. To serve as its reservoir, they created an artificial lake called Qiandao (Thousand Island) Lake at the foot of Mount Wu Shi. This happened to be the site of two ancient cities: He Cheng and Shi Cheng, built under the Han and Tang dynasties. These magnificent ancient cities were submerged, along with several modern towns and villages, and a total of 300,000 people were displaced.

Nothing was heard of the two historic cities for 40 years following their submersion, but in 2001, a group of divers set out to explore the crystal clear waters. What they found must have been the equivalent of discovering Atlantis: a beautifully preserved pair of underwater cities. In particular, Shi Cheng was in exceptionally good condition, and presented the astounded divers with sculptures and walls carved with fantastical animals and flowers. It later become one of the world’s most popular dive sites.

Today the government is looking at how to preserve the submerged wonders. As a result, controls around diving have become tighter, and access has now been denied to unaccompanied divers–and the mysteries of Shi Cheng slumber on beneath the surface.

6. Mandu, India

Mandu is best known as the romantic setting of the legendary love story between a Muslim prince and a Hindu shepherdess. 

One of India’s largest ancient citadels sits perched on the edge of the Vindhya Mountains. It is too remote to attract many foreigners or tourists, but to Indians the ruins of Mandu are best known as the setting for the love story of Baz Bahadur, a Muslim prince, and Rupmati, a Hindu shepherdess. The two fell head over heels in love, and the prince built a lavish palace for his lover on a plateau overlooking the valley in which he was born.

Unfortunately, their happiness was not to last. The Mughal emperor Akbar the Great conquered the palace, causing the prince to flee and leave his harem behind. Rupmati poisoned herself to escape the invaders’ clutches. Today, the graceful pavilion where the two lovers of legend looked out onto the valley below continues to attract modern-day lovers.