Cataclysm: 8 Cities That Were Nearly Wiped Off the Face of the Earth
Cataclysm: 8 Cities That Were Nearly Wiped Off the Face of the Earth

Cataclysm: 8 Cities That Were Nearly Wiped Off the Face of the Earth

Kurt Christopher - October 9, 2017

It is quite natural to think of cities as permanent features of the Earth’s landscape. Of course, the truth is that cities are mortal. They are made of brick and mortar, buildings and people, and just as a city can be built by placing one stone atop another it can be destroyed by toppling its structure and killing or dispersing its inhabitants. The destruction of cities through war and natural disasters has been a disturbingly common feature of human history. Some have been rebuilt, while others faded into ruins. What follows are the stories of ten cities that faced annihilation.


While it can be safely assumed that countless population centers that were destroyed or abandoned in the distant past, places where even the memory of the city has been eradicated, are completely lost to us. Some of these remain only as myth or stories in religious texts. Most people have heard the ancient Greek tale of the lost city of Atlantis, or are familiar with the biblical story of the incineration of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the West, the lost city of Ubar, which appears in the work of Ptolemy and the Quran, is not as well known.

Though references to Ubar, also called “Iram of the Pillars,” predate the development of Islam, Ubar holds a place in Islamic tradition analogous to Sodom and Gomorrah in the Judeo-Christian tradition (though Muslims also accept the story of Sodom and Gomorrah). The Quran says that God buried Ubar, a rich city dotted with majestic towers, in the sand as punishment for the corruption of its people. As with many myths, it is possible that this story was later developed to explain actual events that had happened long ago.

Cataclysm: 8 Cities That Were Nearly Wiped Off the Face of the Earth
An artists depiction of Ubar before and after its destruction.

Ubar remained little more than a myth until 1992 when NASA satellites discovered a network of long-abandoned caravan routes winding through the Rub’ al Khali desert. These trade routes, which would have once carried regional trade, particularly frankincense, converged on a spot in the wastes near Oman. A closer investigation discovered the ruins of a fort dating to the sixteenth century, but there were indications that this long-abandoned fort had itself been built atop something even more ancient.

Subsequent excavations at the spot uncovered the ruins of an octagonal city situated above a water reservoir, which had been buried under the sands for over millennia. The presence of water explains how Ubar maintained itself in the desert, but it was also the city’s undoing. Over thousands of years, the people of Ubar depleted the reservoir faster than it could refill, and once the support offered by the water was removed a massive sinkhole opened up in the middle of Ubar, swallowing the majority of the city whole.

Cataclysm: 8 Cities That Were Nearly Wiped Off the Face of the Earth
A statue amidst the ruins of Thonis, discovered by divers in 2000.


Thonis was established under the Egyptian Pharaohs in the twelfth century BC on a chain of islands at the mouth of the Nile River, predating its neighboring city Alexandria by some eight hundred years. The Greeks also believed that the demigod Heracles had once lived in the city, leading them to call the place Heracleion, and Greek historian Herodotus claimed that Paris and Helen of Troy had resided in Thonis for a time before the Trojan War.

Egyptian traders, though, knew of Thonis as a place where a clever merchant could make quite a bit of money. Between the sixth and fourth centuries BC it was one of the busiest ports on the Mediterranean. In fact, all ships entering Egypt from Greece were required to dock in Thonis. After passing through the customs houses, goods conveyed from Thonis’s harbor moved further inland through a network of canals that connected it to the Egyptian mainland and the Nile River.

Within the city, people moved about from island to island over bridges and pontoon that connected the markets, residences, and towers of Egypt’s predominant coastal city. A grand temple to the god Amun and his son Khonsou dominated the Thonis’s skyline demonstrating the opulence of the city during its heyday between the sixth and fourth centuries BC. Following Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt and the construction of Alexandria the importance of Thonis began to wane, but it remained a prominent destination all the same.

Disaster struck Thonis at the end of the second century BC. A massive earthquake on the Egyptian coast rocked the city, liquefying the sandy soil that Thonis rested upon. It was quite literally swallowed up by the sea. For millennia the ruins of Thonis languished on the seafloor until divers discovered a piece of a statue in 2000 and brought it to the surface. Further investigation revealed that this statue was not the only thing hidden beneath the waves. The entire city was still there: temples, priceless artifacts, and burial sites. Thonis was no longer a rumor, it had been rediscovered.

Cataclysm: 8 Cities That Were Nearly Wiped Off the Face of the Earth
Bodies unearthed at Pompeii.


Pompeii was constructed around the turn of the sixth century BC in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius in southern Italy. It connected the nearby cities of Cumae, Nola, and Stabiae, and maintained a port that was used by both the Greeks and the Phoenicians. In the fourth century BC, it became a vassal of the Roman Republic, and in 80 BC it was incorporated into the Roman Republic as a colony after it was defeated by Sulla in a failed attempt to throw off Roman control.

One firmly under Roman control Pompeii underwent something of a renaissance. Rich soils nearby already facilitated productive agriculture, including several wineries, and the region produced more food than it could consume. New Roman infrastructure would allow the city to become much richer and larger. The Romans installed an aqueduct to vitalize the city, facilitating the construction of baths and fountains and allowing the city’s population to expand to as many as 11,000 citizens. Recreation was provided by several amphitheaters and a gymnasium, as well as the Grand Hotel Murecine.

Though becoming richer, Pompeii was frequently beset by earthquakes. A quake in 62 AD caused moderate damage, sparking several fires around the city. Pompeii suffered a much worse disaster on August 24, 79 AD when Mount Vesuvius erupted. A pyroclastic flow rushed down Vesuvius’s slopes and into Pompeii, cooking most of the inhabitants in a matter of seconds, before a cloud of ash settled upon the city’s remains.

The quick burial of the city resulted in the city, its contents, and even its inhabitants being impeccably preserved. After its rediscovery in the eighteenth century, it became a valuable archaeological site.

Cataclysm: 8 Cities That Were Nearly Wiped Off the Face of the Earth
Persian paintings of the siege of Baghdad.


Conceived of as a planned city for administering the largest empire in the world, Baghdad was founded in 762 AD by the second Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur as his capital. Both the site of the city and its layout were to have symbolic significance. Located just north of the Sassanid Persian’s old capital of Ctesiphon, which had laid in ruins since its conquest by Muslim armies in the seventh century, Baghdad was designed by a Persian Muslim and a Jew – an indication of the Caliphs intent to reimagine his empire as the heir to Persia and a place for all religions.

In short order Baghdad became one of the largest cities in the world, housing a million inhabitants at a time when the population of Rome was a mere 30,000. For nearly five hundred years the “city of peace,” as it was sometimes called, served as a center for international scholarship. The works of the ancient Greek philosophers were preserved at a time when they were being destroyed in Europe, and significant advances in mathematics, astronomy, and medicine were achieved. Then, in the early thirteenth century rumors began to arrive of the emergence of a ferocious power in the East, the Mongols.

It would be decades before Baghdad fell under the gaze of the Mongols, but the day finally came in 1258 when Hulagu Kahn approached the Caliph’s city. Knowing that the Mongols had become experts at siege warfare the Baghdad garrison rode out to confront them, but Hulagu’s forces pulled down damns and dikes on the Tigris flooding the defenders camp before they could challenge him. Those who did not drown were ridden down. With the garrison subdued, the Mongols surrounded Baghdad, digging a trench and building a palisade so that no one could escape before storming the walls directly.

After taking the city Hulagu marching the Caliph out for execution. Thereafter the Mongols went on to ransack the city. The entire population was executed or enslaved, the coffers looted, and the buildings set afire. The Tigris ran black with the ink of the books cast into it, and the millennia-old irrigation canals were filled in. The stench of death was so overwhelming that Hulagu was forced to relocate his camp upwind from the razed city one the pillage was complete. Baghdad’s golden age was over, it would be rebuilt but never fully recover.

Cataclysm: 8 Cities That Were Nearly Wiped Off the Face of the Earth
Carl Abrahams’s painting “The Destruction of Port Royal”. National Gallery of Jamaica

Port Royal

The first European to set foot on what would become Port Royal in Jamaica was Christopher Columbus, who reached the island on his second voyage in 1494. Jamaica would become a Spanish colony shortly thereafter, and sugar cultivation carried out by African slave labor would soon follow. Still, the Port Royal area remained relatively unimportant to the Spanish. Then, in 1655 the British invaded Jamaica, taking the island along with Port Royal and touching off war between England and Spain.

Under the British, Port Royal became a primary outpost for an affiliation of pirates called the Brethren of the Coast, known in popular parlance as buccaneers. With the blessing of the British, these pirates conducted raids on Spanish shipping from their den at Port Royal, seriously impeding Spain’s ability to move goods through the Caribbean. The influx of stolen wealth led to a rapid expansion of the city, and when available land ran out they began filling in shallow areas of the sea and building atop that.

Due to the presence of the pirates, everyday life within the town was regularly punctuated by drunkenness, brawling, and outright murder. The British would eventually legitimize the pirates by granting them letters of marque, transforming them from oceangoing brigands into respectable privateers. Still, this veneer of legality did nothing to mitigate the realities of violently seizing foreign ships on the high seas, and if anything made the newly minted privateers all the more confident in their position within Port Royal and all the more willing to behave badly.

This modern Sodom and Gomorrah would meet a fate similar to the biblical original in June 1692. First, an earthquake rocked the city, knocking down buildings built on foundations of sand. Two minutes later a tsunami caused by the earthquake arrived, inundating ninety percent of it in moments and washing away soil liquefied by the earthquake. Half the population was killed outright in the first moments of the disaster, and much of the city was simply gone. The ordeal was not over for the survivors, however, as epidemics broke out in the aftermath of the calamity killing most of those who remained.

Cataclysm: 8 Cities That Were Nearly Wiped Off the Face of the Earth
American troops patrolling San Francisco’s Market Street following the 1906 earthquake. The Atlantic

San Francisco

The first European settlement of what would come to be called San Francisco Bay came in 1776 when the Spanish constructed a fort and a mission in an effort to establish a claim to the area. In 1821, following the Mexican War of Independence, control of the Bay Area passed to Mexico. It would not remain in Mexican hands for long, though. In the mid-1930s American settlers began to arrive on the coast and establish homesteads, and at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War in 1848 San Francisco fell into American hands.

When the United States assumed control of San Francisco it was still a sleepy port town with perhaps 1,000 residents. All that would change all that within the course of a year. The discovery of gold in Coloma, California, in early 1848 touched off a frantic wave of migration to the west coast. Thousands of prospectors, hoping to strike it rich, flooded into San Francisco in 1849 during this gold rush, increasing its population twenty-five times over. The next year California was formally granted statehood.

It seemed as if nothing could halt the rapid expansion of San Francisco. As the population grew the city built its iconic streetcar network, which would shuttle inhabitants up and down the steep grades of the city’s streets. The U.S. Navy established its preeminent west-coast base in the city, drawing further traffic to the city, and set up a military prison on Alcatraz Island. San Francisco also served as the terminus for the newly constructed Transcontinental Railroad. By the turn of the twentieth century, it was the eighth-largest city in the United States, with some 300,000 residents.

What the inhabitants of this sparkling new metropolis did not realize was that they had built their city on one of the most active fault lines in the world. They would learn the hard truth on April 18, 1906, when a monumental earthquake struck the city. The quake itself toppled modern structures across the city, but the greatest threat came after the ground became still. Broken gas lines across the city fed fires that cut through the city, while rubble from fallen building obstructed firefighters. By the time it was over three-quarters of the city was ash or ruin.

Cataclysm: 8 Cities That Were Nearly Wiped Off the Face of the Earth
A view of Dresden from the top of the city’s town hall following the February 1945 bombings. BBC


The Allied strategic bombing campaign against Germany during the Second World War started quite slowly. Due to the short rage of allied fighters early in the war, the strength of the German defenses, and the difficulties of navigating at night without radar guidance (which also did not have the range to reach much of the Reich) early air raids were confined largely to the northwestern region of Germany. But eventually the Royal Air Force, and also the American Eighth Air after the United State joined the war, Force would overcome these problems one by one.

In May 1942 the RAF demonstrated the scale of organization that was possible in carrying out the first thousand bomber raid on Cologne. The bombing intensified in 1943, and in July of that year, an attack on Hamburg would create a firestorm, in which many small fires from incendiary bombs merged into one. The intensity of the blaze drew in oxygen from the surrounding region to feed the fire, creating hurricane-force winds and literally sucking the air out of people’s lungs. After this attack, the objective of the British Bomber Command became the “Hamburgization” of other major German cities.

Replication of the Hamburg firestorm proved to be difficult. Cities that had already been hit by major air raids no longer contained enough timbered buildings to allow for a sufficient number of fires. By 1945 few such cities remained in Germany, but Dresden, situated in the southeast of the country and out of range of Allied bombers for much of the war, remained mostly intact. Built on the Elbe in the twelfth century, Dresden had been the capital of Saxony and the city center boasted a number of impressive baroque structures including a number of cathedrals and an opera house.

Prior to the war, Dresden had been the home to over 600,000 people, but by early 1945 German refugees fleeing from the Soviets advancing in the East had swollen the city’s population to twice its previous size. In February 1945 the Allies would finally target Dresden with a major bombing raid. Between February 13 and February 15, 1945, the RAF and the Eighth Air Force hammered Dresden with high explosive and incendiary bombs. The high explosives cratered the roads and destroyed water mains, making firefighting more difficult, while the incendiaries touched off a firestorm. The ensuing blaze obliterated the city center, killing as many as 25,000 inhabitants.

Cataclysm: 8 Cities That Were Nearly Wiped Off the Face of the Earth
The ruins of Nagasaki following after the atomic bomb.


When Portuguese explorers first landed at Nagasaki in the mid-sixteenth century it was little more than a village, home to a handful of fishermen making their living from the sea. After the Portuguese established a trade relationship with the feudal lords of the area, however, the Portuguese would look to establish a port under their control at Nagasaki. As a consequence of the establishment of the trading port, Nagasaki quickly grew into a full-fledged city, predominantly populated by Portuguese traders and missionaries, as well as Japanese converts to Catholicism.

After Japan unified under the Tokugawa shogunate at the beginning of the seventeenth century the shoguns came to see European encroachment into their society as a threat. In an effort to neutralize this threat they expelled most European traders and missionaries from the country. Japanese ports were also closed to European trade, with one exception. Dutch traders were granted permission to operate out of the port at Nagasaki, leaving a small window open to the West. Japan would only abandon this isolationist policy in the mid-nineteenth century in response to threats from the American Commodore Perry.

While this American intervention prompted Japan to once again open itself to trade with outsiders, it also precipitated a crisis that would end in the collapse of the shogunate during the Meiji Restoration. Thereafter Japan radically reoriented its approach to the rest of the world. Rather than simply accepting foreign influence passively, Japan looked to establish itself as an imperial power. In 1896 it would defeat China and secure control of Korea. In 1905 it solidified its sphere of influence thereby annihilating a Russian fleet at Tsushima. 1937 saw a Japanese invasion of China, and in 1941 Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would ultimately lead to the destruction of Nagasaki. By 1945 the United States had largely driven Japanese forces back to their home islands. In the interim, however, the Manhattan Project had succeeded in producing and testing an atomic bomb. Hoping to end the war without resorting to a costly invasion, President Truman elected to put the atomic bomb to use. On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later it dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, flattening the northern end of the city, killing 35,000, and prompting Japan to capitulate.