Consequently, empty cities deliver an uncanny, yet attractive image of desolation. The remains of once-great cities tower over the surrounding area, but all of the human inhabitants have moved on — or been wiped out. So, how does a thriving metropolis turn into a desolate ghost city? Let's explore the answer while taking a look at some of the most famous and curious ghost cities from around the world.
At the height of the Khmer Empire, its capital city of Angkor was home to more than 750,000 people. Yet, by the 15th century, Angkor had become a ghost city. Though the city suffered from years of declining influence in the region, there’s still no consensus as to exactly what happened.
Today, Angkor is home to the famous temple of Angkor Wat — the largest religious construction in the world and a popular attraction for tourism and religious pilgrimage alike. Not only is the structure revered for its scope, but Angkor Wat also gives us proof of the Khmers' knowledge of astronomy. Centuries ago, before it became a ghost city, the central temple was used to observe and record the movements of celestial bodies.
Unlike some ghost cities whose residents seem to vanish without a trace, the history of Pompeii’s demise is well documented. The natural disaster that killed thousands of Pompeii’s inhabitants wasn’t the first to impact the city, either. Nearly twenty years before the infamous eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, Pompeii was heavily damaged by an earthquake.
As old as Ancient Rome, Pompeii had its roots in the Greek settlements in Italy. The city later became a Roman colony and adopted the Latin language two hundred years before meeting its demise. Despite the horrific end to the city, much of the infrastructure — and even the remains of some of its residents — are still intact to this day.
Just like Pompeii, Pripyat became a ghost city in the blink of an eye. However, Pripyat’s end occurred much more recently and much closer to the time that the city was founded. In fact, Pripyat was only sixteen years old when the Chernobyl nuclear plant experienced a devastating power surge.
Designed as a utopia of the modern Soviet Union, the home of the Chernobyl plant workers saw its end while still in its youth. Despite the evacuation of the city, Chernobyl's nuclear plant continued to operate up until 2000, even after one of its other reactors failed in 1991. Fukushima — a city that also experienced a nuclear meltdown — has been gradually reopening, but Pripyat has a long way to go before it will become habitable again.
For nearly a century, Hashima Island was the home to thousands of coal miners hired by the Mitsubishi Corporation. Still standing to this day, the miners' apartments were the first Japanese concrete buildings. By the 1950s, more than 5,000 people lived in the complex, making Hashima the most densely populated city at the time.
During World War II, Chinese and Korean war prisoners arrived at Hashima. Enslaved, they worked 1,000 meters below sea level amidst the dangers of methane gas. Hundreds of prisoners died underneath the city. Today, the island stands as a ghostly reminder of those lost as a result of the world’s deadliest war.
Building cities from scratch is a common Chinese practice and a fast way to urbanize the country’s large population. One of these freshly developed cities was Tianducheng. Designed to be a miniature copy of Paris, the town could house more than 10,000 residents. While Chinese media has assured its citizens that Tianducheng surpassed this number, Western researchers estimate that the population was around 2,000 as of 2017.
Tianducheng's Eiffel Tower replica and French architectuyral style make it seem like a more lively, vibrant city. However, the streets are lined with unoccupied buildings. The Chinese government continues to try to resolve the city’s stagnant growth. However, it remains unclear if the French-inspired city will ever meet its full potential.
Cities often spawn out of necessity, but they can disappear in the same way. Ghost cities are as disturbing as they are fascinating, which is why so many become popular tourist attractions. When a city fails to fulfill its purpose, it turns into something that can teach us about the past and about who we are as a species.