The Allure of Lost Cities

When we behold empty cities, we feel both the fascination and the fear of events that might be coming to neighborhoods near us.

Shanghai, deserted where many thousands would throng. Seoul’s night-life shut down. Sparse train stations in Mumbai. The empty squares of Paris with, perhaps, a solitary walker to mark the scale. Even cities with far too many tourists suddenly looked bereft. How odd to see St Mark’s Square in Venice, with the usual pigeons, but no people. The Rialto Bridge, empty and shuttered. Soon, photographs of empty cities included New York, Chicago, San Francisco, LA.

The images were stark. But they seemed somewhat familiar too. Films, television shows, video games, and novels show empty cities quite often, usually in nuclear or viral plots: older movies like On the Beach and  The World, the Flesh, and the Devil and newer ones like  I am Legend; video games like Tokyo Jungle; novels like Station Eleven. Even non-fiction like The World Without Us and TV’s Life After People display image after image, metric after metric about how nature or animals would reclaim empty cities. In fact, videos of animals in major cities went viral during the spring of 2020.

What drives our fascination with empty cities, a contradiction in terms? In part, they remind us how fragile our great cities and their cultures become after disasters. They whisper that, someday, we’ll be gone, with our buildings remaining behind as giant, glistering tombstones. Empty cities warn us that the incredible systems humans create won’t be permanent, especially if we do not learn to respect our limitations and nature’s power. Like Angor Wat in Cambodia, Petra in Jordan, and Knossos in the Aegean Sea, my favorite lost cities from the past tell us that too.

Pompeii is a living city near Naples, Italy whose fame depends on a dead one. Its ruins now form a theme park devoted to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. On a visit there, I passed pubs and pub-signs. Brothels and the amusingly vulgar lingams that mark them. Tilework and murals in red and black, depicting dancing and bacchanalia. Corpses mummified by lava. Pompeii’s landmarks suggest Sodom and Gomorrah, ripe for destruction. The name “Pompeii” instantly evokes lives snuffed out within minutes, amidst fleshly enjoyments. Its memento mori tells a cautionary tale about the awesome power of nature: just as these ancient citizens lost everything, all at once, the tale says, so might you. Before nature, humans remain puny and, sometimes, powerless.

In the American Southwest, at sites like Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly, stone structures like giant dollhouses survive, but the civilizations that built them do not.  Petroglyphs depict animals and hunts that remain partly legible mysteries. There were horses, hunts, and hunters. But who were the people in the images? And why did they leave the places we can see today, which seem protected from conquest? Was there a drought, a virus, or a pathogen like those documented for certain Mayan sites? We will, perhaps, never truly know, and that’s part of lost cities’ powerful allure. Lost cities harbor stories just waiting to be told, and yet tantalizingly out of reach. Mystery, on our pulses. They suggest the Burkean sublime: great beauty, with an undertow of danger. They remind us that we humans are small and probably temporary things on Earth.

A famous port when St. Paul wrote his Epistles and St. John referenced it in the Book of Revelation, Ephesus in Turkey now sits about fifty miles inland. Centuries of silt deposited by the Kaystros River have cut it off from the Aegean Sea. The city was also partially destroyed by an earthquake in 614 A.D. Five minutes into a visit to Ephesus, it’s possible to feel disappointed. After a long trip and a tedious bus transfer, guides take tourists to “Mary’s House,” a gift shop that prompts a certain skepticism. When we enter Ephesus itself, the structures are very nice but, or so it seems, just a block of well-preserved Roman houses. Then, turning a corner, a surprise, and a gasp.

Now, long avenues unfold, with many excavated and well-preserved buildings leading to a gigantic library with grand, impressive, majestic steps. Scrambling up the rows of a large amphitheater, it’s easy to imagine public forums, plays, or, perhaps, the grimmer fare of gladiators or martyrs. Ephesus embodies the history of Imperial Rome and of early Christianity. It allows tactile access to a vivid past—and that’s part of its allure.

But perhaps the most arresting fact about a city like Ephesus is how it died because of climate change. Once powerful and a crossroads of civilizations, its citizens deserted Ephesus after geography left it vulnerable to gradual, but inexorable, natural forces. Water and sand, erasing commerce, and culture. As climate change advances, Ephesus issues a prophetic warning to today’s great cities. Ephesus then; Venice soon; New York, New Orleans, Miami, San Francisco, Mumbai, Shanghai soon enough.

         The chill of natural disaster whether eruption, drought, disease, or flood; sudden death; mystery and the sublime; history and spirit: only the faint of heart or imagination don’t feel the thrill of history’s lost cities. When we behold empty cities, we feel both the fascination and the fear of events that might be coming to neighborhoods near us. And the hope that somehow—a wistful somehow— we can avoid similar fates.

Marianna Torgovnick is Professor of English at Duke University and Director of Duke in New York. She is editing a collection for Cambridge UP called The End: Crisis, Climate Change, and the Way We Live Now, and would love to hear from you! She is also revising a memoir in essay form called Crossing Back. Follow her on Twitter at Marianna_tor.