If there is one thing that history can teach us, it is that once-great cities, empires and entire civilizations have the tendency to rise and fall through the ages. Cities that were once thriving places to live and work can be suddenly and completely destroyed by war, disease, conquest and more. Of course, the collapses of great cities are not only caused by human intervention: Mother Nature can be a formidable foe to human populations. From ancient times to now, natural disasters have caused the destruction of many great cities. Some – in the case of San Francisco after its famous earthquake in the early 1900s – have been rebuilt and moved on, but others, such as the destruction of the once-bustling resort city of Pompeii, were buried and even forgotten for thousands of years.
10 Iram of the Pillars / Ubar, Arabian Desert – Sinkhole in ancient times
Once thought to be a mythical city and often referred to as Iram or Ubar, this location has been featured in works ranging from the Qu’ran, The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, and in the writings of Ptolemy. There is some ambiguity surrounding its existence: scholars have been uncertain whether Ubar or Iram was an area, the name of a tribe, or a reference to a city. According to legend, God drove the city, which was famous for its massive towers, into the sands and was never seen again. In 1992, NASA satellites noticed a network of roads leading to a place in the Arabian Peninsula in present-day Oman. This place was a well-known watering hole in the vast desert. Excavations of the area revealed an octagonal fort with towers. It appears that the city, which was for thousands of years located amongst several wealthy frankincense trade routes, had been drawing from the underground reserves of water in order to sustain the city and its inhabitants and visitors. After thousands of years of use, many believe that the underwater basins dried out enough to cause the ground on the surface to collapse into a sinkhole, wiping out the entire city (and any concrete memory of the city) with it. Although there is still some debate as to whether this was, in fact, the mythical Iram of the Pillars/Ubar, it is an interesting place nonetheless.
9 Sodom and Gomorrah, near the Dead Sea – Fire in ancient times
One of the most well-known narratives in the Old Testament tells of the two cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which were destroyed by “fire and brimstone.” Although archeologists still disagree about whether the cities even existed (and by extension whether its famous demise by fire really took place), some scientists believe that an asteroid could have caused the destruction of the two cities. This theory has been fueled by a clay tablet that was discovered and appears to have a record of an asteroid falling from the sky. Once the asteroid entered the atmosphere, it would have exploded, turning into a fireball and causing a number of fires on the ground. A cloud of smoke could have been visible for hundreds of miles and certainly would have been a compelling enough story to survive the ages. Other theories suggest an earthquake could have occurred. The earthquake might have liquefied the ground, essentially turning the ground into quicksand and resulting in the cities tumbling into the Dead Sea.
8 Thonis (Heracleion), Egypt - sank into the ocean in the 6th or 7th century BCE
A once-stunning city, Thonis, in ancient Egypt near Alexandria, dates back to the 12th century BCE. As Egypt’s main port and one of the most important port cities in the world, it flourished from the 6th to the 4th century BCE. Watery canals crisscrossed this important city and legend says Helen of Troy and Heracles both visited. However, at some point it ended up in the water, probably between the 6th or 7th century. Researchers aren’t quite sure how the entire city ended up underwater. Most believe the city sank as a result of a major earthquake or possibly floods. It was lost and forgotten for many centuries until a French archaeologist, Franck Goddio, discovered the ruins of the city and began to explore it in the year 2000.
7 Helike, Greece – Earthquake and tsunami in 373 BCE
Helike was an ancient Greek city that was lost to the sea after a massive earthquake and tsunami took place in 373 BCE. This Bronze Age city, which was also an important cultural and religious center, was even affluent enough to form its own colonies in what is modern-day Italy. However, in the winter of 373 BCE, strange things began to take place in the city: immense columns of flame appeared and animals and vermin suddenly and mysteriously ran away. As soon as the earthquake hit, the city sank underground and was absorbed by the sea. It is said that all of its inhabitants perished, the merciless sea even swallowing ships that had been anchored in the harbor. For thousands of years, the site where the city was lost attracted curious spectators who could still see some remnants of the city under water, including walls and massive statues. In the 19th and 20th centuries, scientists and archeologists were keen to explore the ruins with the assistance of new technology. In 1988, the site of the ancient city finally began to be excavated and excavations continue to be carried out in the area.
6 Pompeii, Italy – Volcanic eruption in 79 BCE
The story of Pompeii is well-known today and has been retold and mythologized in numerous stories and movies in recent times. For centuries, however, Pompeii was actually a forgotten city. A once thriving Roman resort town, Pompeii was completely buried in ash after the eruption of nearby Mt. Vesuvius in 79 BCE. The inhabitants had some early warnings of the imminent disaster: the city had actually been partially destroyed by an earthquake a few years before the volcano erupted. Furthermore, the volcano began to send out smoke and small eruptions several days before the deadly eruption actually took place. However, the relatively sudden and complete destruction of the city still managed to capture some of the city’s remaining population off guard. When the city was finally re-discovered in modern times, archeologists uncovered a treasure trove of evidence for what life was like for everyday Romans in the city: graffiti, art, statues and even erotic frescoes and mosaics were perfectly preserved under layers of ash. After being carefully excavated, Pompeii has provided an unsurpassed glimpse into the everyday life and culture of the Roman empire and its inhabitants.
5 Egypt and Syria - Syrian Earthquake, 1202
A devastating and massive earthquake struck Egypt and Syria (with its epicenter in Syria) in 1202. It was said to have caused 1.1 million deaths, making it one of the largest disasters in recorded history. (Other estimates say that 30,000 deaths were directly caused by the earthquake) It caused the destruction of many homes and villages in the region and heavily damaged cities including Damascus, Tripoli, Tyre, Acre and Nablus.
4 Galveston, Texas - Hurricane and Flood in 1900
In 1900, thousands of people died and thousands more were left homeless when a hurricane struck Galveston, Texas. The city was rapidly growing and was an important, prosperous city in the region. However, this was the deadliest natural disaster in the United States, killing an estimated 6-8,000 people. Galveston was rebuilt, but is still not the populated city it had been on its way to becoming prior to the hurricane (many of its residents moved and settled in nearby Houston after the disaster.) Although Galveston has been rebuilt, its population is only about 50,000.
3 San Francisco, California – 1906 Earthquake and fires
In April of 1906, San Francisco was a rapidly growing, modern American city. It was an important West coast city, considered America’s gateway to the Pacific. But then for one terrifying minute in 1906, an earthquake rattled the city, causing serious damage. The exact magnitude is not known, but is estimated to have been around 7.7-8.2. If that wasn’t enough, terrible fires subsequently broke out in the city, mainly caused by ruptured gas mains. The fires lasted for days and caused the most destruction. By the time the fires burned out, 3,000 or more people had died and most of San Francisco (80%) had been destroyed. Needless to say, most of the city’s population was homeless following the disasters. The city was eventually rebuilt, although some of its trade and industry fled to Los Angeles.
2 Indonesia – 2004 Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake
One of the biggest disasters in recorded history, the Indian Ocean tsunami, which was caused by a massive undersea earthquake, occurred in December 2004 and caused widespread damage throughout the Indian Ocean region. Around a quarter of a million people died in the event. Although the tsunami did not wipe out one specific city, the country of Indonesia was the hardest hit and entire islands along with towns, villages and infrastructure were destroyed. The Island of Sumatra was completely destroyed, with many homes lost.
1 Valparaiso, Chile – 2014 fires
Once a picturesque place on the Chilean coast, in April of this year, thousands of homes were destroyed in this central Chilean city by raging wildfires that spread over thousands of acres. It took several days to extinguish the flames, which hit the relatively large city of Valparaiso, not far from Santiago, the hardest. This region of Chile was once known by its indigenous population as the “land destroyed by fire” because of its susceptibility to fire. The fire that broke out in the city this year was especially difficult to overcome because disorderly development in the city made it difficult or impossible for rescue crews and firefighters to get to poorly and illegally-built homes and shanties. The fire killed several dozen people, destroyed 2,000 homes and forced 12,000 or more to leave the city.