The 5 Most Extravagant Ways Cities Have Been Wiped Out
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.
Ubar -- The Atlantis of the Sands
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.
Pirate City of Port Royal
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.
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 ...
The Real Sodom and Gomorrah
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.
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.
Imagine if America's center of commerce, culture and finance wasn't New York City, but Newark, New Jersey. And that the reason for the switch was one swift kick in the crotch from the ocean. It's not that hard to do, once you take a look at Galveston, Texas.
By 1900, Galveston was a hugely important place. It was a major cotton market to the world, one of the South's busiest ports, a cultural hub and had the reputation as the Wall Street of the Southwest. Which is kind of ironic, if you know what's coming.
(It's a hurricane.)
On September 8, 1900, Galveston took the brunt of the nation's biggest disaster before or since -- the appropriately named Galveston Hurricane of 1900.
If you thought Katrina was bad, you were right, because Katrina was pretty bad. But no other North American event -- not 9/11, not the great San Francisco Earthquake -- did as much damage or killed as many people as this one hurricane. Which sucks extra hard, because 14 years before the storm hit, residents floated the idea of building a sea wall to protect themselves. The city's chief weatherman pooh-poohed the idea, promising, "It would be impossible for any cyclone to create a storm wave which could materially injure the city." Presumably because he had a heaping bowl of Hubris-O's the morning of that particular interview.
"Now with fortified Vitamin Hindsight!"
So why was this specific storm so devastating? For one thing, the hurricane itself was strong, a Category 4 storm at landfall, which meant winds were hitting 130 mph. For another, it brought with it a 15-foot storm surge that knocked buildings off their foundations, then dragged them across the island in a two-story-tall debris wall which leveled any other buildings left standing. It was like God was playing the game of "Why are you hitting yourself?" but instead of using our hands, he was using our own buildings. To understand fully, here's what the city looked like before the hurricane:
And here's what it looked like after:
Galveston was never Galveston again. The economic powerhouse that was Galveston simply shifted to Houston. Sure, they rebuilt admirably. But today, Houston is home to almost 2.1 million people. Galveston? About 57,000.
You can't say that the residents of the ancient Greek city of Helike couldn't have known shit was about to go down. For five days in 373 BC, they watched in bafflement as snakes and rats high-tailed out of Dodge in search of higher ground. And on the fifth day, there were reports of "immense columns of flame" in the sky. Those columns weren't just the classical era's version of U2 putting on a killer show, they were what we now call "earthquake lights," otherwise known as nature's death-shake alarm. By now, you've probably figured out an earthquake was coming. But you'd have to be the world's greatest precog to have predicted what happened next.
A Phil Collins show?
The city of Helike and all of its residents were first swallowed by the Earth, then covered by lagoon water, then, presumably because they had built their city on the ancient burial grounds of baby Olympian gods, double buried once more.
It all goes back to that process of liquefaction. Only in this case, the sand didn't form a watery river of death to the ocean, it just straight liquefied, dragging the entire city into a grave hole that was awkwardly just their size. So that sucked.
But the next part was worse. The collapse of the city was so powerful that it sent a wave across the sea, which ricocheted right back to them in the form of a tsunami. So, just so we're clear: The town was buried in the ground, and on top of the burial site a 32-foot-high wave came crashing down, eventually forming a lagoon that covered the city for good. And it was in that lagoon that ancient historians reported visiting and seeing Helike's ruins and generations of fishermen complained of getting their nets snagged on "Poseidon statues."
"This is nothing, I once caught an ancient God."
The only problem? There was no lagoon. At least not on the site it was supposed to be, and not in recent memory. It took a 12-year expedition to figure the mystery out. It turned out the lagoon that once covered the coffin of the city of Helike had been filled in by hundreds of years of river silt deposits, or the third burial of the gods' three-burial plan.
In other words, if you think Sodom and Gomorrah was the result of God's judgment, what the hell did these people do?
Probably nothing -- Greek gods were usually in it just for the shits and giggles.
If your interested in having your city destroyed by God, check out 20 Tacky Religious Products Guaranteed to Anger God. Or learn about some more X-rated scenes in the good book, in The 6 Raunchiest, Most Depraved Sex Acts (From the Bible).