By Patrick J. Kiger September 21, 2015

Famous Lost Cities

Many have sought, few have found. Explore six tales of lost-city hunters who have chased mysterious and mythical lands.

When we think of the search for lost cities, it is hard not to imagine Indiana Jones—but legions of real-life lost city hunters have chased after rumors of vanished grandeur. From Sir Walter Raleigh, who searched the jungles of Guiana in the early 1600’s in a fruitless quest for a mythical golden metropolis, to the modern-day explorers who use high-tech tools to probe for ruins, many have sought after mysterious and mythical lands. Many, like Raleigh, were disappointed in their quest. Others have succeeded, such as U.S. diplomat John Lloyd Stephens and artist Frederick Catherwood, who in the 1830’s located the Maya city of Copán, filled with elaborate architecture and intricate carvings that told the story of its inhabitants. The glitter of such discoveries has kept alive the romantic dream of discovering a lost city, sometimes to the point where it becomes an obsession. Here are the stories of a few of the quests.

The Seven Cities of Cibola

Early Spanish explorers in the Americas heard stories of the Seven Cities of Cibola and their supposedly fantastic wealth. Considering the riches that the Spaniards had looted from the Aztec and Inca peoples, the yarn was not too hard for them to believe. That is why Spanish officials in Mexico City took it seriously when a Franciscan priest, Marcos de Niza, who had been sent north to explore the territory, told them that he had ventured into what is now New Mexico and stood on the outskirts of “a very beautiful city” where buildings were made of gold. This sounded like just what they were looking for. Two years later, an expedition of 300 Spaniards led by famous conquistador Francisco Vazquez de Coronado rode off in search of Cibola. When they got to the location identified by the priest, though, they only found a humble Zuni pueblo, which led them to curse the priest bitterly. Unwilling to give up, they kept up the search for months, venturing as far north as Kansas, before finally giving up and returning to Mexico City, heavily in debt from their misadventure. Some never recovered financially, and Coronado was actually put on trial for his conduct as leader, though he was eventually acquitted.

El Dorado

As with Cibola, the Spanish could not resist pursuing another rumored treasure trove, the fabled city of El Dorado—“the gilded one”—which they believed lay somewhere in the interior of South America. In some of the stories, when a new chieftain rose to power, he was honored with a ceremony in which he was covered with gold dust, and gold and precious jewels were thrown into a lake to appease a god who lived there. The Spanish never found El Dorado, but when they drained Colombia’s Lake Guatavita, they found pieces of gold along the lake edge, which gave the legend at least a faint glimmer of credibility. But the treasure seeker who really found fool’s gold in the story was Englishman Sir Walter Raleigh, who decided that El Dorado was in Guiana and made two trips there in the late 1500s and early 1600s. His second trip, in 1617, turned into a catastrophe when Raleigh’s son, Watt, encountered some Spaniards and was killed in a fight with them. The elder Raleigh, who’d stayed behind in a base camp on Trinidad, returned to England, where King James I had him arrested, in part for provoking conflict with the Spanish, and he was beheaded.

Troy

When Heinrich Schliemann was a boy growing up in Germany in the 1820’s, his father gave him a book with a picture of the ancient city of Troy—the loser in the war depicted in Homer’s Iliad—going up in flames. That may have been the start of his fascination with finding the long-vanished city. After making a fortune in business and becoming an American citizen, Schliemann retired at age 36 and decided to devote his life to archaeology—in particular, locating the site of Troy. In 1868, he met Frank Calvert, a U.S. diplomat and fellow archaeology enthusiast, who convinced Schliemann that Troy lay in a field in Turkey beneath the ruins of Hissarlik, a Roman settlement. In 1871, he went there with a team of workmen and began excavating the mound in a field there. Two years later, after going through various levels that contained remnants of settlements at the site, he uncovered fortifications and a treasure of gold jewelry, which he believed had belonged to King Priam, the tragic leader of the city that the Greeks eventually defeated in the Iliad. As it turned out, though, Schliemann was mistaken—as later researchers determined, he’d actually dug deeper into history than he realized, and found an even earlier settlement.

Machu Picchu

We have Hiram Bingham III, a larger-than-life Yale historian and adventurer, to thank for popularizing the expression “lost city,” with all the magical ambiance that it conveys. And indeed, he found one of the most famous and spectacular lost cities of them all. In 1911, Bingham went to Peru in search of the last capital of the Incas, from which their leaders had staged a failed rebellion against Spanish rule in the 1570’s. He went around asking about ruins. That search led him to an ancient footpath, which, as he described in a 1913 National Geographic article, “is sometimes cut out of the side of sheer precipices, and at others is obliged to run on frail brackets propped against the side of overhanging cliffs.” Eventually, he met a local resident who told him about some ruins higher up in the mountains and offered to take him there for fee of 50 cents. The destination turned out to be Machu Picchu, a majestic city located nearly 8,000 feet above sea level at the meeting point of the Peruvian Andes and the Amazon Basin. The city was built in the 1400’s and abandoned the following century after Spain conquered the Inca Empire. But the Spanish soldiers never learnt of the secret settlement’s existence. The following year, Bingham led an excavation sponsored by Yale University and the National Geographic Society. The site contains nearly 200 structures, and might have been the most amazing creation of Inca engineering, with its giant walls, terraces and ramps that seem to have been cut in continuous rock.

The City of Z

Col. Percy Fawcett was a legitimate early 20th Century explorer, who became famous for accomplishing difficult expeditions to map remote parts of Brazil and Bolivia. But his obsession with finding a lost city called Z, which he believed to be somewhere in the unexplored Brazilian region of Mato Grosso, proved to be his undoing. In 1925, Fawcett—accompanied by his oldest son, Jack, and a third man, Raleigh Rimmell—ventured into the wild area in search of Z. They disappeared without a trace, and to this day, their fate remains unknown. Various theories attribute their demise to an attack by hostile indigenous people or jaguars, starvation, or malaria. In addition to those theories, an even more bizarre possible explanation has emerged—that Fawcett and his expedition decided to stay in the jungle and start a secret religious community based on Fawcett’s belief in the then-trendy occult movement of theosophy. According to a 2004 article in the Guardian, more than a dozen expeditions over the years have searched for Fawcett in the Amazon forests, without success. In 1996, a Brazilian financier, James Lynch, launched a multi-million-dollar expedition to try to discover Fawcett’s fate—only to be kidnapped by tribesmen, who released Lynch and his companions after taking $30,000 worth of their gear. In recent years, archaeologists have used satellite imagery and ground-penetrating radar to probe the Amazon forests, and ironically, one has discovered a string of 20 pre-Colombian settlements in the area where Fawcett thought Z might be located.

La Ciudad Blanca

In 1940, an eccentric journalist-turned-adventurer named Theodore Morde returned from the jungles of Central America with a fantastic story.  He had traveled  hundreds of miles across a rugged wilderness, in which his expedition braved “dread malaria, deadly snakes, vicious insects and jungle beasts,” in search of the ruins of an ancient lost city that indigenous people had told him contained a temple to the monkey god. Morde claimed that he had reached the edge of the city, where he glimpsed once-great buildings shrouded in vegetation, but that the advent of the rainy season had prevented the expedition from venturing further. Morde also declined to disclose the City of the Monkey God’s precise location, saying that he feared its treasures would be stolen by looters. That has led to suspicions that he made the whole thing up.

72 years later, though, documentary filmmakers Steve Elkins and Bill Benenson decided to search for the lost city, using the latest modern tools. With the help of the Center for Airborne Laser Mapping at the University of Houston, they equipped a Cessna aircraft with a Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) scanner, which could use laser light to penetrate the dense rain forest and spot what lay beneath it. Analysis of the laser imagery led them to the site of an ancient city, a complex of plazas, earthworks, mounds, and an earthen pyramid. All had been part of a 1,000-year-old culture so mysterious that archaeologists do not yet have a name for it. Catch the whole story on Explorer: Legend of the Monkey God.

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