Every city will eventually go away. Usually they'll be abandoned or paved over to build a professional sports stadium for the bigger neighboring city. And then there are the cities that die hard. One morning they're there and the next, nothing. What happens in between is often so spectacular and fast you wouldn't believe it if you saw it happen in a disaster movie. Here are cities nature sacrificed so that we may appreciate the fact that as of right now, she has not yet murdered us.
Deep in the recesses of Islamic legend, there was once a region so corrupt that God smote it, not with fire and brimstone, but with sand. And as anyone who's ever lost a set of keys at the beach knows, finding a city smote with sand is as hard as finding a needle smote with haystack. While some thought the place was a fairy tale, no one could ignore the fact that its name, "Ubar," kept popping up in the Koran, in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, in the writings of Ptolemy and in Lawrence of Arabia's wet-mares.
"Anything but sand. Just endless bloody sand."
It wasn't until the 1980s that archaeologists, using NASA satellites and super-radars, located a network of camel roads leading to the remains of Ubar situated deep in the Rub' al Khali desert in the Arabian Peninsula. The records they discovered indicated the area had been a thriving hot spot. For about 5,000 years, people from Persia, Greece and Rome flocked there for one of the major commodities of yesteryear: heroin. Just kidding -- it was frankincense.
And then one day, all the hippies flocking their for their sweet frankincense fix returned saying the roads leading up to the city just sort of ... ended. The city had disappeared.
Sometime between 300 and 500 AD, the city collapsed into a sinkhole, which then collapsed into a cave.
"Well at least there's plenty of Fraggles to eat down here."
The reason why the region was such a popular hub in the first place was that they had the fantastic luck of having access to water in the middle of the desert. The Ubar water came from an oasis, which just happened to come from a limestone cavern. So, as people drew water, year after year, for 5,000 years, the cave beneath their feet was getting dryer and dryer. Without the water supporting the limestone, the cave roof got as brittle as your grandma's hip bones. Then one day, the cave collapsed and what was once a thriving oasis turned into a gaping, city-sized maw of death.
So, for thousands of years, these guys were the kings of the desert. They had water, wealth and kickass caravans showing up with faraway goodies. And then one day, without warning, the Earth opened up a chasm of horror, which dragged the city into what literally must have appeared to be hell.
Well, for the approximately 12 seconds they had to take stock of what was happening to them, anyway.
If the sinkhole itself didn't kill everybody -- and sinkholes love to do just that -- the Ubarians could have ended up in an elaborate underground cave system. Who knows how deep or extensive the system is, but there were likely zero escape routes. For all we know, they could still be there -- real world Morlocks colonizing the world beneath our feet, preparing to rise up and farm us like cattle. Yeah, we realize that sounds sort of far fetched, but then, so does the freaking Earth opening up and swallowing a thriving, 5,000-year-old city.
If you've ever ridden the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, congratulations -- you've seen what Port Royal, Jamaica once looked like.
A hive of greed, immorality and pretty water.
The Jamaican city was so licentious, visitors described it as "the Sodom of the new World ... its population consists of pirates, cut-throats, whores and some of the vilest people." If that sounds like Mardi Gras (or for our older readers, Margaritaville), that's probably what it was like -- if both of those places had waaaaay more murder. But don't go booking that one-way plane ticket yet, cowboy, because you can't get there without some scuba gear.
... because their margaritas are so massive?
Nature took a three-pronged approach to utterly obliterating Port Royal. First, there was an earthquake. Second, the city sank into the sea. And third, the half of the population that survived the first two calamities were mostly wiped out by disease.
It helps to know that Port Royal was a boom city, rapidly built on nothing more than wet sand and pirate booty. It went up so fast, in fact, that when residents ran out of land they just filled in wet spots and built on top of them. And because many of the new residents were English traders and merchants, they didn't just build low-laying Spanish style casas as previous residents had. No, they built heavy brick ones -- as high as four stories tall -- on wet sand.
"This looks like an excellent place for a whorehouse."
So when the earthquake and consequent tsunami hit at 11:43 a.m. (watches found in the rubble stopped at that time), on June 7, 1692, residents didn't stand a ghost of a chance. Their houses fell like dominoes. Within two minutes, nine-tenths of the city was underwater. Not just flooded -- but literally in the sea. Two minutes. The ocean swallowed entire streets in less time than it took to come up with a Jamaica joke that doesn't involve Bob Marley, weed or Cool Runnings.
Via cheese on bread
I guess you could say they got a pretty rum deal? Yeah, it's harder than it sounds.
Scientists now believe that the earthquake was so strong and the sand so waterlogged that the ground pretty much liquefied within minutes. In other words, the sand turned to a watery quicksand river. Imagine that happening to the ground you're standing -- who are we kidding -- sitting on right now. You can't run out of the building and get away, because the ground itself is quicksand. You can't ride out the wave, because your final destination is the ocean. And that's assuming you even had the presence of mind to register what was happening to you.
So it's like that game you played as a kid, except you're only
delaying your own inevitable floor-based death.
Surprisingly, the earthquake, tsunami and quicksand river of terror only killed half of the city's residents. But you could hardly be excited for the survivors, when they had to figure out what to do with 3,000 corpses, no buildings, medicine or fresh water.
Then, for the next 200 years, every single time residents tried to rebuild the city back to its decadent glory, the universe squashed that dream like a cockroach. Fires, more hurricanes, cholera and earthquakes all conspired to make sure Port Royal never became the new Sodom again.
Speak of the devil ...
You know the legend of Sodom and Gomorrah, right? It's a tale told in the Old Testament, for one thing. And really, no other city in history or myth went down as the one place where residents tried to rape angels in the butt.
Other interpretations say the sin was inhospitality,
which is just how they said angel rape back then.
The story of the decadent city and its supposed destruction is used by country folk to condemn city life to this day. For an evangelical Christian, it's an example of what happens when we cross God. Specifically, Genesis 19:24-25 happens:
Then the LORD rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah -- from the LORD out of the heavens. Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, destroying all those living in the cities -- and also the vegetation in the land.
Also cows. Fuck cows. Verily.
[Abraham] looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, toward all the land of the plain, and he saw dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace.
But we have no evidence outside of the Bible that the story is true, right? All we can agree on is that thousands of years ago something triggered this account (or myth or legend -- whatever you prefer) of a town so bad that God himself threw down fireballs and sulfur to destroy it.
Scientists now think that "something" might have been a half-mile wide asteroid. Before it could land, it apparently morphed into a three-mile-wide fire ball before clipping a mountain range and exploding in a rain of fiery debris. But don't beat yourself up for not getting that from the Biblical account.
"And lo, Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of atomized particles from the intense
heat and maybe looked like salt to the uneducated observer."
About 150 years ago, two seemingly unrelated discoveries were made in different parts of the world. First, a Cuneiform tablet known as "The Planisphere," which was a copy of a sky chart from June 29, 3123 BC. Among the stars it seems to depict a moving object, one so large that it could be seen from the ground.
Meanwhile, over in Austria, geologists discovered evidence of what they think was an asteroid impact site. They found signs of explosions and rock-melting, typically caused when an asteroid breaks apart before impact, raining hell down on everything below.
You can see where this is going. But the impact was in Austria, right? What does this have to do with Sodom and Gomorrah?
Well, According to the scientists, the mushroom cloud of the explosion would have reentered the Earth's atmosphere over the Mediterranean Sea, and would have flashed across the Middle East, leaving a trail of debris and superheated air in its wake. To quote the article, the heat "would be enough to ignite any flammable material -- including human hair and clothes. It is probable more people died under the plume than in the Alps due to the impact blast."
So imagine you're a guy living in a city in the Middle East, thousands of years ago. Maybe you herd sheep. You know absolutely nothing of asteroids or meteors or comets. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, the air fills with smoke, ash and debris. And then the air gets hot -- not hot like a summer day, but hot like the oven you use to fire clay pots.
Then, all around you, screams. Everything that is flammable spontaneously combusts. You are now on fire.
"ARRGH I'M ON FIRE IN THE LITERAL SENSE RATHER THAN IN THE SENSE THAT I AM A SUCCESSFUL PERSON."
It would be to your eyes nothing less than the fiery, vengeful judgment of God. Believers will say that's just what it was. Nonbelievers will say the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah is just the handed-down account of whatever refugees were lucky enough to escape the now-forgotten burning city -- and from witnesses who stood, horrified, and watched it happen from afar (and "saw dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace").
You can be damned well sure that no ancient Middle Eastern nomad would forget the time they saw an entire city on the horizon spontaneously burst into flame. That's the kind of story that gets told and retold for a few thousand years.