There is nothing more surreal and eerie than a once-thriving settlement lying abandoned for centuries. All over the world, there are well-preserved towns and ruined cities where life seems to have simply stopped in its tracks. Although spooky, such ghost towns are part of mankind’s legacy; they are testaments of the past and reminders of great eras that have gone by.
One would have never imagined that someday, some of these old and historic abandoned towns would turn into World Heritage Sites. From a former South American mining town to an archaeologically important Mughal settlement in India, learn the stories behind some mysterious, fascinating and eerie abandoned towns which are now classified as heritage sites.
Around 4000-odd, mostly roofless white-coloured homes sit on the slopes of the Taurus Mountains, 6 km west of the beach town of Ölüdeniz, Turkey. This is the war-torn town of Kayakoy, which was originally built as Karmylassos (other names Lebessos, Lebessus and Livissi) in the 18th century and is a former Greek colony inhabited by Greek Orthodox Christians until 1922. The resounding defeat of the Greeks in the Greco-Turkish War and the fallout of World War I resulted in much violence and reckoning. As a result, the residents of Karmylassos were forced to abandon their homes overnight and find their place in modern Greece.
As part of the refugee-exchange, Muslims fled from Greek Macedonia to settle in modern Turkey. However, being used to verdant fertile areas of their former homes, they found the region around Karmylassos rocky, hilly and unfit to live, and abandoned the area for greener pastures. The earthquake that shook the region in 1957, along with decades of neglect, has left Kayakoy (now called by its Turkish name) in its current state. The town was adopted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a ‘Friendship and Peace Village’. Today, it remains a timeless and crumbling monument to Greek-Turkish peace.
Although there have been talks of restoring Kayakoy, many people are against it. However, this modern ghost town has had it fair share of fame, having been the setting for Louis de Bernieres’ novel ‘Birds without wings’ and a filming location for Russell Crowe’s upcoming World War film ‘The Water Diviner’.
- Craco, Basilicata, Italy
On a 1,300 feet cliff amidst the intensively erosive Badlands of southern Italy, a striking, sand-coloured ghost town looms over the Cavone River Valley. This is the medieval town of Craco in Basilicata, Italy, which today looks more like the lair of vampire royalty than anything else.
Established as ‘Montedoro’ around 540 AD by the Greeks, the affluent town of Craco passed down from feudal lords and various rulers to an independent municipality in the early 1800s. While the town survived volcanic eruptions, centuries of wars and a long line of diseases, it took all but a landslide to bring it down. In the mid-20th century, the town began facing intense landslides, floods and earthquakes. Due to poor agricultural conditions, most of the locals left the place looking for greener pastures. By the 1980s, Craco had been abandoned completely.
Today, the cobbled streets and imposing homes of Craco are largely uninhabited, and what is left of the population resides in the safer part of the city down the hill. The town is literally under lock-and-key, and can be accessed only partially via a guided tour. In 2010, UNESCO and the World Monuments Watch declared the Craco as one of the World’s Treasured Monuments and Heritage Sites.
Today, Craco is a shell of its former glory, standing as a painful reminder of forced abandonment.
- Abu Mena (Abu Mina)
The existence of an early Christian holy city and pilgrimage centre in Ancient Egypt might come as a surprise to many. However, the ancient abandoned city of Abu Mina (45 km southwest of Alexandria) was the most important pilgrimage place to the Egyptian Christians a.k.a. Copts. The town is dedicated to the healing Saint and martyr Menas.
During the 5th and 6th centuries, the lavishly built opulent city featured public buildings, necropolis, churches and public baths made of semi-precious mosaic stones, basalt, granite and marble paving. By the start of the 6th century, Abu Mina saw pilgrims and sick people from far and wide. The town, however, had been attacked thrice by the end of the 6th century – by the Persians (619), by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (628), and by the Arabs (mid-7th century). Abu Mina was finally abandoned by the 10th and 11th centuries.
The changing topography of the region, which is attributed to the creation of numerous canals in the region, poses a serious threat to the ancient complex. Today, Abu Mina is but a shade of its former glorious self, shrouded in an eerie silence. In 1979, the ruins of this fabled historic city were deemed as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO.
- Hashima Island
If you’ve seen the 2012 James Bond movie ‘Skyfall’, then you’ll perhaps agree that the villain Raoul Silva’s creepy island-lair befitted his villainously eccentric character; so much so that you’d wish that the place isn’t real. Here’s the thing – not only is it real, but it is also a tourist attraction and has a very, very dark history.
The place is mysterious and ominous-looking Hashima Island, also known as ‘Gunkanjima’ (meaning Battleship Island) due to its silhouette looking like a warship. The archipelago, which is located off Japan’s coast, is surrounded by huge sea walls and houses historical concrete buildings which lie abandoned by civilization since the 1970s.
Hashima was a former Mitsubishi coal mining facility during the late 1800s, also housing the workers’ families. During the 1930s, Chinese prisoners of war and Korean civilians were forcibly made to work as slave labourers in the mine’s harsh conditions. Horrible living and working conditions forced workers to commit suicides, while others died in the mines or from other perpetrated war crimes. It was only in the 1960s when coal ran out did people leave the concrete labyrinth for the mainland to find work. In 1974, the mine officially shut down. In July 2015 Japan publicly accepted that Hashima was a forced labour site and South Korea dropped its opposition to the matter, after which UNESCO granted the island the status of a World Heritage Site.
Today, Hashima is a ghost of its former self – and rightly so – with a lingering, unearthly aura.
- Chinguetti, Mauritania
An abandoned Saharan town is the last place one would expect to stumble upon rare books. In western Mauritania sits a nearly-deserted ghost town, Chinguetti, which was once a medieval Islamic holy city known as ‘City of Libraries’. Chinguetti is the end of civilization in western Mauritania, beyond which lie the endless, sun-roasted dunes of the Sahara, the Land of the Dead.
Chinguetti is shrouded in a palpably mystical aura. Dating back to 777 AD, this town was a prosperous oasis and a medieval trading centre (a.k.a. ksar). Chinguetti was also the historic capital of the Moorish civilization and of great religious importance for the Sunni Muslims due to the presence of a 16th century historic stone mosque and five old libraries housing ancient Islamic manuscripts. It was also a stopover for pilgrims and caravans making their way to the Arab Peninsula. However, the town was a victim of climate change due to the desert, seeing flash flooding, severe erosion and sandstorms, and eventual abandonment. Even after, the town continues to remain an important monument to Saharan ksour, Moorish and Islamic culture, and is home to more than 6,000 rare books.
Today, Chinguetti is being engulfed by the desert at an alarming rate of 30 miles/year, with only a few people residing on the edge of the town. It is hard to imagine that there once thrived a city in the middle of the Land of the Dead, which is one of the reasons why UNESCO classified Chinguetti as a World Heritage Site in 1996.
- Kolmanskop, Namib Desert
Deep in the heart of the Namib Desert, the treacherous desert sands are slowly devouring a former prosperous German diamond colony. The ghost town of Kolmanskop, which features unique European architecture, was abandoned within just 40 years of being founded.
It was railway worker Zacharias Lewala’s lucky day in 1908 when he found a diamond while shovelling sand away from the railway line near Kolmanskop. The news spread like wildfire and Kolmanskop soon developed into a full-fledged town, complete with homes and places of entertainment. Although crashing diamond prices during World War I affected the town, the exodus from the town happened after richer diamond deposits were found inland. By 1954, the town had been completely abandoned, having lived, flourished and died in just 4 decades.
In 1980, De Beers restored part of the town to turn it into a tourist attraction. The 1993 film ‘Dust Devil’ and the 2000 film ‘The King is Alive’ were shot in Kolmanskop. The town is also rumoured to be haunted, with the shifting sand making for a spooky setting. In fact, documentary and TV crews have been scared out by supposed poltergeists.
Due to the arid nature of the place, the town is extremely well-preserved by the desert, which is slowly engulfing it. As the desert sands move forward to reclaim what is theirs, Kolmanskop stands trapped in time.
- Fatehpur Sikri
If you thought abandoned cities are all ruins, then the magnificent historical fortified imperial complex of Fatehpur Sikri in Uttar Pradesh, India, defies that thought.
The Great Mughal Emperor Akbar is said to have personally directed the building of the Fatehpur Sikri complex between 1569 and 1585, dedicating it to Saint Salim Chishti who resided in Sikri. After the Saint correctly prophesized the birth of the Emperor’s son, an indebted Akbar decided to build the fortified city (and future capital of the Mughal Empire).
Fatehpur Sikri features stunning Indo-Islamic architecture in red sandstone. A 54 metre-tall entrance (Buland Darwaza), the highest in the world, the Jama masjid, a five-storied palace (Panch Mahal) and a delicate marble cenotaph (Saint Chishti’s tomb) – these are just some of Fatehpur Sikri’s highlights. This complex is also said to be the famed birthplace of Akbar’s famed courtiers or Navratna (Nine Jewels).
Why was it abandoned, then? Well, the truth is that it was never really inhabited.
Some saw Akbar’s move to build Fatehpur Sikri as egoistic, since the region around the city is completely dry. They proved to be prophetic. Shortly after its completion, the complex was abandoned due to paucity of water. The city’s proximity to the troubled Rajputana areas is said to have been another major reason for its abandonment. In the year 1986, UNESCO declared the complex as a World Heritage Site.
Today, Fatehpur Sikri swarms with curious tourists, who step into the 16th century complex to experience what royal living would have felt like.
When one talks about great ancient abandoned cities, Ayutthaya in Thailand is relatively unknown. However, the former royal city is has magnificent crumbling ruins, overgrown creepers, gnarled trees and a deadly stillness that send shivers down the spine even during the day – straight out of an Indiana Jones movie.
Ayutthaya was far from what it looks like today. Capital to the kingdom of Siam between 1350 and 1767, Ayutthaya was one of Southeast Asia’s most prosperous cities, sometimes even called ‘Venice of the East’. In its splendour, the city housed Buddhist temples, monasteries, and prangs (reliquary towers). However, Ayutthaya fell to the ground when Burmese invaders ransacked the city, plundering its treasures and destroying what they could. Since 1969, efforts have been taken to preserve the city’s historic remains in the Ayutthaya Historical Park. In 1991, UNESCO classified Ayutthaya and the remaining sites as a World Heritage Site.
Today, Ayutthaya’s many ruins offer a wonderful glimpse of what was once a glorious city at its zenith. Apart from the temples and monasteries, the site of a lone Buddha’s head between overgrown Banyan tree roots has become an iconic attraction. One walk within Ayutthaya’s remains will transport you back to the 16th century, when the great Southeast Asian kingdom prospered in all its glory.
- Island of Gorée, Senegal
The morning peace in a tranquil African farming village was cruelly shattered when men with whips and guns swarmed the area, driving men, women and children from the homes and the fields. Some of the prisoners were put on the ship and taken to an island off the coast of Dakar, where they were processed and sold as slaves in the west. This was the Island of Gorée during the horrifying transatlantic slave trade of the 1600s.
The Island of Gorée acted as a stopover for African slaves being sent to the west. The Island had a ‘House of Slaves’, also known as the ‘Door of No Return’, where hundreds of prisoners were clapped in irons in dark, dingy cells, awaiting their grim fate as slave labourers in the New World. Thus, even though Gorée didn’t process slaves in large numbers, it became a reminder of human exploitation.
After slave trade was abolished and Dakar (Senegal) developed, Gorée was gradually abandoned. It turned into a French and English colony, developing into a tourist spot and a sanctuary for reconciliation. Today, House of Slaves is a museum and stands as a memorial and testament to the Black Diaspora. In 1978, UNESCO declared the Island of Gorée as a World Heritage Site.
- Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works, Chile
50 km east of Iquique in Chile, right in the middle of the Atacama Desert, lie two dust-covered, sun-scorched industrial towns which were at the epicentre of the Chilean saltpeter industry. The saltpeter (a.k.a. nitrate) mining towns of La Palma (later Humberstone) and Santa Laura had workers from Bolivia, Peru and Chile, and housed more than 200 works. Large saltpeter caches and rising nitrate demand for fertilizer and explosives saw both industrial towns rise to greatness at the start of the 19th century. However, the towns were gradually abandoned by the 1950s due to economic failure during the 1929 Depression and World War I.
In July 2005, UNESCO classified Humberstone and Santa Laura as World Heritage Sites. What makes these now-abandoned towns extraordinary is that they are monuments of an era that transformed the lives of the Chilean people, bringing great wealth to the nation. This industry also supported the agricultural revolution of the 19th century, and some of the equipment lying there currently is the only surviving machinery to mine saltpeter today.
What is remarkable is that the townspeople carved out a 60-year thriving civilization with a unique progressive culture in the middle of one of Earth’s driest deserts. Today, the original La Palma mining towns sit abandoned, leaving memories of a great era in their wake.