Vanishing history: the most intriguing lost cities

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War, weather, cosmic intervention or simply a case of purpose served…nothing lasts forever. We go exploring some of the world's most intriguing lost cities.

1. Skara Brae, Scotland

More a village than a city, this prehistoric set of ruins in Orkney is of a small farming settlement over 5000 years old. It was discovered in 1850 after a wild storm revealed the stone remnants. Excavations (and more storms) showed the village had at least eight stone cottages, complete with beds, hearths and shelves. It seems erosion brought the village closer to the sea, until it was abandoned and left to the enshrouding sands for four millennia. Today, erosion continues to threaten the site, and visits in winter depend on weather conditions.

Orkney is connected to the British mainland by ferries and flights, some of which are seasonal.

2. Babylon, Iraq

Babylon, settled around 2500 BC, became a great centre of the Mesopotamian world 500 years later, when Hammurabi, the first king of the Babylonian empire, made it his capital. It was destroyed in the 6th century BC by the Assyrians, and then left to fall into ruin in the 2nd century BC, following the death of Alexander the Great. The ruins of Babylon conjure images of a biblical past: the great Tower of Babel; the beautiful hanging  gardens…and  there's that certain disco song that just won't leave your head…

Only the most hardened of travellers are currently visiting Babylon, 85km south of Baghdad. Babel Tours runs escorted itineraries.

3. Taxila, Pakistan

Founded by an ancient Indian king sometime around the 7th century BC, Taxila (or Takshashila) is a tale of three lost cities. The first was built on a hill, later known as Bhir Mound. In an Old Testament–style confusion of begats and political intrigue, the city was lost to a new Taxila, known as Sirkap, built by Greek invaders. It enjoyed a period of significance in the world of philosophy and the arts, which continued under the Kushans, who took over and refounded Taxila as Sirsukh. Eventually, the city was lost to the Huns in the 6th century, who destroyed it and left it  in ruins. Visit the site today, about 30km northwest of Islamabad. The Taxila Museum houses all manner of artefacts, which help you get a feel for the complex history of this once-great city.

Aim for a March or November visit, avoiding the winter cold and the heat and rain of the summer and autumn months.

4. Dunwich, England

Here was a town basking in glory, a major seaport and one of the largest cities in medieval Britain, said to have been the capital of East Anglia – but all built on sand. In the late 13th century a storm blew in, demolishing a good part of the town. Coastal erosion chipped in and before you could say ‘cursed city', only a few cottages remained (actually, a few hundred years passed as the town slipped into the ocean). Tales of haunted beaches abound, and at low tide you might well hear the muted tolling of church bells beneath the waves.

Dunwich Museum has a scale replica of the city in its heyday – without the coastal erosion.

5. Palenque, Mexico

At the foot of the Chiapas mountains in southwestern Mexico, Palenque is an archaeologist's treasure trove. The city appears to have existed at least since 100 years BC. Five hundred years later it became a major population centre of Classic Mayan civilisation, complete with myth and legend: child kings, invasions, decapitations, court intrigue and finally the abandonment of the city.

Palenque has a jungle climate, so prepare accordingly – take sunscreen, insect repellent and plenty of water.

6. Angkor, Cambodia

Crumbling stone temples in the python grip of jungle vines, a flash of turmeric-coloured robes disappearing into the alcoves of ancient temples. Angkor has its fair share of tourists, but its size means you'll easily find a place to get lost in the distant past. The greater city was enormous, new research suggesting it covered 3000 sq km. Built by a succession of Khmer god-kings from AD 900 to 1200, it had a population close to one million, and was the capital of the Khmer empire. It's been suggested that climate change (affecting water supply) caused the city to be abandoned some 500 years ago.

Angkor is 20 minutes north of Siem Reap. Guided tours abound, from helicopters to tuk-tuks and elephants.

7. Wittenoom, Australia

Way out west, in the desert-dominated state of Western Australia, you'll find a town if not fully lost, so close to being a ghost as makes no difference. Officially no longer a town, and not receiving government services, this place supported an asbestos-mining industry until the mid-1960s, when health concerns over the lung-clogging stuff spelt its demise. A handful of residents remain but it's tough going. Some may know of it in theory (it was made famous by Australian band Midnight Oil's hit 'Blue Sky Mine'); it's located a long (1100km!) drive north from the state's capital, Perth. A lonely drive to a very lonely place.

Karijini National Park, with red rock formations, deep gorges and enticing swimming holes, might just make this epic drive worthwhile.

8. Darwin, California, USA

Darwin, like many thousands of towns in late-19th-century USA, sprung up on the back of a lucky strike, in this case, of silver. But these are flash-in-the-pan places – the town became derelict just four years from its settlement in 1878, as prospectors leapt on to the next lucky strike. It was revived in the early 20th century as copper became a commodity. You might bump into a resident today, though chances are it'll be tumbleweed caught on a desert wind.

The edge of Death Valley seems an appropriate place to visit the remnants of a Wild West town, so grab a bottle of whisky for the picnic as you head out. There's only one lonely road to this ghost town, spurring from State Highway 190, 75km southwest of Stovepipe Wells.

9. Herculaneum, Italy

Like nearby Pompeii, Herculaneum was lost to a river of Vesuvian lava and ash in AD 79. An upper-class town, home to members of the imperial family, it was uncovered about 250 years ago and remains a treasure trove for archaeologists. The pyroclastic flow that enveloped the city carbonised organic matter, preserving structures and human bodies. Most enticing, though, are the hundreds of scrolls found in the Villa of the Papyri, texts from the only ancient library to have survived into modern times.

Take the 25-minute Circumvesuviana train from Naples. Allow a day to tour the site.

10. Carthage, Tunisia

It's never enough for a great city to be destroyed only once. After 900 years exerting power in North Africa and southern Europe, Carthage succumbed to the wrath of the Roman Empire (needled for so long by the elephant-led armies of Hannibal). Later rebuilt by the Romans and raised to new glory, it once again found itself at the nexus of conflict and was destroyed by Arab Muslims expanding their own sphere of control. Today, on the outskirts of Tunis, you can visit the crumbling remains of Roman baths, temples and villas being absorbed by the sprawl of the capital city.

Transport links to the capital, Tunis, are excellent. Carthage is just 15km north of Tunis; numerous day trips are on offer.

Further reading: Don't miss the hidden gems of London's Natural History Museum