Imagine losing some of the world’s greatest historical sites because of Mother Nature or man’s worst impulses. It can seem improbable, but recent events like Notre Dame’s spires catching fire during repairs or the fire at Shuri Castle in Okinawa, Japan, remind us that at any moment, our national and international treasures can be taken from us. And in case you needed any more proof of this fact, we’ve compiled a list of past and present structures and locales that have been lost for all time.


Aerial view of boat and snorkelers off the coast of Greece in the Mediterranean
Credit: Sven Hansche/ Shutterstock

Depending on who you talk to, the fabled city of Atlantis is either 100 percent real or a mythical story and a feature-length cartoon. Most people think of the mythical land as an advanced society with technology and philosophies far beyond their contemporaries. The first official reference to the faux city can be found in the works of the Greek philosopher Plato in 360 BCE and served as an allegory for a perfect republic. Ironically, it was a footnote in Plato’s writings, but it’s left its mark on literature and treasure explorers.

To be clear, there’s no concrete evidence that Atlantis ever existed. But depending on which works you reference, there’s “evidence” that the island nation once existed either in the Atlantic, in the Mediterranean between Italy and Greece, or somewhere else in Europe. So how did we “lose” Atlantis? According to Plato, a failed invasion attempt on Athens led to its demise as the city sank into the ocean.


Ruins of Pompeii near Naples, Italy
Credit: Darryl Brooks/ Shutterstock

Let’s move on to real lost cities. If you’ve traveled to Naples in southern Italy, you were literally a stone’s throw away from the lost city of Pompeii. Naples sits very close to the active volcano Mt. Vesuvius. But while Naples is across the bay, Pompeii sat at the base of the mountain and existed during the Roman Empire. Oddly enough, the volcano erupted almost a decade before the deadly eruption that erased the town — yet no one thought to relocate the city.

Toward the end of the Roman Empire’s heyday in 79 CE, Mt. Vesuvius erupted and completely buried Pompeii in ash and rock. The eruption was catastrophic with a death toll that reached 2,000 people. Pompeii remained hidden until 1748 when it was discovered by explorers. The volcanic blast and aftermath were so sudden that when explorers probed buildings and forgotten structures, it was clear that the citizens were going about their daily lives and were caught by surprise. But thanks to the writer Pliny the Younger, we know exactly what happened during the 79 CE eruption. He was an eyewitness who saw the explosion from across the bay and recorded his experiences.

Hanging Gardens of Babylon

Partially restored Babylon ruins, Iraq
Credit: Dion Lefeldt Rezaei/ iStock

According to writings from ancient times, there was nothing more beautiful than the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It was something of an oasis in arid Babylon, designed under the instruction of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in the sixth century BCE. The gardens were considered an engineering feat because of their complex irrigation. But really the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were more of a loving gesture from the king to his wife. She was homesick for Medina — a place that was known for its lush vegetation.

Ironically, much of the original writings about the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are hearsay — things told to others from someone else. There aren’t any known written works that can describe the gardens from first-hand experiences. Coupled with the lack of artifacts, many people began to believe that the gardens were fiction. But some Oxford archeologists have hypothesized that the gardens really did exist, just not in Babylon. Today’s theories claim that the gardens were located in ancient Assyria (roughly present-day Iraq and Turkey).

Library of Alexandria

Aerial view of interior of modern Library of Alexandria seen in Alexandria, Egypt
Credit: EvrenKalinbacak / Shutterstock

If you have a thirst for knowledge, then you’ve probably heard of the Library of Alexandria. The library’s origins began in the fourth century BCE under Alexander the Great and served as a beacon of not just knowledge but artifacts from surrounding cultures. It was located in Egypt and existed for decades. Unfortunately, in 46 BCE, the Library of Alexandria met its match with Julius Caesar and his dreams of completely controlling North Africa.

As a bid to curtail Egyptian dissent, the Roman ruler sailed into Alexandria and opted to set his own fleet on fire. The fire spread throughout the city and reached the library. Some experts believe that 10 percent of the library burned within the first 24 hours. But regardless of how much burned in a day, the city falling to Rome marked the beginning of the end of the Library of Alexandria.

Syria’s UNESCO sites and artifacts

Ruins at Palmyra (Tadmor), Syria on the UNESCO World Heritage List
Credit: WitR/ Shutterstock

And now, sadly, to a more recent historical tragedy. Unless you’ve been completely hiding from the news from the last decade, you know that Syria has been in the midst of prolonged conflicts. Violent attacks have destroyed historical sites throughout Syria. Terrorist groups have reasoned that these places are essentially idolatry against Islam as many of their targets have been statues of historical figures. Unfortunately, many of those statues and structures were UNESCO sites and offered a look into the past. These structures weren’t just of national significance to Syria but were an important part of world history for all of us.