Lost Cities. [Wait, what ??]

Cities (and trains) get lost.

One of my favorite movie quotes comes from Darjeeling Limited (because #allthingswes. #amirite?):

Jack: What did he say?
Peter: He said the train is lost.
Jack: How can a train be lost? It's on rails.

In a similar vein, I find it equally curious when I hear about cities getting lost.  But get lost they do.

Machu Picchu.

Two weeks ago, I was reminded of this fact while interviewing an interesting person about his travel habits (coming soon!).  He described traveling to Machu Picchu, a city built by the Incas in 1450, but only used by them for one hundred years.  Nearly 500 years later, the city was "rediscovered" in 1911 c/o of U.S. Senator Hiram Bingham.  [Slow clap for Hiram.]

Khoja Mashad & Takhte Sangin.

Fast forward 100 years to Summer 2011 and a hot taxi ride with friends from Dushanbe down south to search for Khoja Mashad (a mosque and madrassa complex, reportedly built by birds in under 24 hours) located just outside of Shahrtuz.  We had set out to see Takhti Sangin, a site excavated by the Soviets from 1976 to 1991, located where the Vakhsh meets the Panj.

Where the Vakhsh meets the Panj.

We ended up lost down a dirt road getting directions from village elders, our map sprawled on the hood of the car shaded by grape vines.  With their farms so close by, I asked the men who had gathered whether they had ever been to Takthi Sangin.  I remember them looking at me quizzically, answering that while they were aware of its location, they hand not found reason to visit. They lobbed the question back to me, puzzled as to why we had traveled all this way to see it. "Curiosity, I guess." [Note. For future visits you need to request permissions well ahead of time from the Ministry of Culture, along with a proper 4wheel drive. End note.]

Qalatga Darband.

Another city was recently rediscovered in northern Iraq using U.S. military satellite photos from 1960s that were declassified in 1996.  Only last month were archaeologists (a collaboration between the British Museum and Iraqi archaeologists) able to safely visit Qalatga Darband, twenty-one years post-rediscovery.  It is assumed that Alexander the Great built the city, as he blazed on in hot pursuit of Darius III.

Space Archaeology.

And then of course, there is superstar Sarah Parcak, a space archaeologist who won $1 million TED prize in 2015 for her work using satellite imagery to find lost sites on Earth.

"When people initially think of the term 'space archaeologist' they think 'oh it's someone who uses satellites to look for alien settlements on Mars or in outer space' but the opposite is true -- we're actually looking for evidence of past human life on planet earth."   Sarah Parcak, Interview with CNN (2015)       

Motel of the Mysteries.

My fascination with these forgotten places comes in imagining the last meaningful human activities at these locations, and the last one "out the door", switching off the lights.  Which brings me to David Macaulay's book, Motel of the Mysteries. Macaulay is another big thinker, recipient of the McArthur Genius Grant in 2006, and a seriously curious person.  In his book, the USA is rediscovered in 4022 AD, two centuries after a catastrophic event destroys all life.  [One of the ruins looks like it was one of Louis Kahn's designs (1901-1974). Being a student of architecture at RISD, perhaps the building was in part inspired by LK?]

Illustration from "Motel of the Mysteries". If it weren't the top of an NYC skyscraper, I would say it was the work of Louis Kahn.

A friend in college introduced me to the book, bringing it down to my thesis carrel in
the Rock senior year.  We had gotten into a conversation on how the current generation is the only link between the past and the future.  Years later, I had forgotten the title of the book and couldn't remember Macaulay's name.  All I could remember was book's deep blue cover, the incredibly detailed illustrations, and the fact that it was one of my friend's favorite book growing up.  But then, on my birthday, I somehow remembered a significant detail (the toilet seat!) which allowed me to produce a google-able string ("toilet seat archaeology book set in future") that in turn, led me back to The Motel.

Filed under Archaeology

a curious person still searching for the poem that Nezami Ganjavi wrote about the prince who toured his kingdom only to find crumbling structures, causing him to reflect on the transience of life.

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