Alexa Nan Madol: Ghost City on sea 

Nan Madol: Ghost City on sea 


Published: 18:08 9 September 2019  

The man made city of Nan Madol

The man made city of Nan Madol

With the passage of time history turns to mystery to us. Today we will talk about such a mysterious place—Nan Madol. The mysterious island is located 1600 miles away from Australia and 2500 miles from Los Angeles.

The abandoned megalithic capital of  Nan Madol is located in a lagoon adjacent to the eastern shoreline of the island of Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia in the Pacific Ocean. This archaeological site is sometimes called as ‘Venice of the Pacific’ because of capturing the imagination of visitors to Pohnpei for generations.

The complex of Nan Madol is constructed on a series of artificial islets in the shallow water next to the eastern shore of the Pohnpei island. The site encloses an area approximately 1.5 km long by 0.5 km wide and it contains 92 artificial islets.

The city was built between AD 900 and 1650 over earlier settlement remains along the southern coast of Temwen Island within the fringing reef. The site is noted for its distinctive use of columnar basalt and large boulders. The place is completely isolated from the mainland. But once 1000 people lived here where the city was established! It is still totally a mystery how people could construct such a well-decorated city in such a distance at that time without technology.

No one in Pohnpei knows exactly how Nan Madol was built or why the early inhabitants undertook such a mammoth task. Scientists say the basalt boulders,  some as heavy as 50 tons, were transported by rafts to Nan Madol from the other side of the island and levered into place with palm tree trunks.

According to local legend, the stones used in the construction of Nan Madol have been flown to the location by means of black magic. Archeologists have located several possible quarry sites on the main island, however, the exact method of transportation of construction material is still not determined.

The rock structures are about 16 meters on Pohnwi islet. Scientists assumed that about 1000 workers took hundreds of years to build Nan Madol.

One part of the city, built from basalt columns, was for priests and rulers; the other half was the administration center. It comprised temples, burial vaults, meeting houses, public baths and pools for turtles, fish, and eels. 

But most of the islets served as a residential area. However, some of them served special purposes, such as food preparation, coconut oil production or canoe construction. Madol Powe, the mortuary sector, contains 58 islets in the northeastern area of Nan Madol. The centerpiece of the whole complex is the royal mortuary at the islet of Nandauwas, with its 7.5m high walls surrounding the central tomb enclosure.

Nan Madol was a religious center and was inhabited by the kings of Pohnpei until it was abandoned. The rites performed within the towering walls remain a mystery. There is some evidence the temples produced the ceremonial drink sakau, still used by the people of Pohnpei to sanctify their rites.

Garden of Micronesia

Pohnpei is rich in natural resources and has been called “the garden of Micronesia”. It has fertile soil and heavy rainfall that promotes the growth of lush vegetation from its coastal mangrove swamps to the rainforests at the apex of its central hills, as well as lagoons. These natural resources would have provided the necessary food for the workers who built the extraordinary complex that is Nan Madol, as well as timber that may have been used to help shift the basalt rocks. It seems unlikely that any foods were cultivated within Nan Madol, and likely no source of freshwater existed within the complex—food and water were brought from the island’s interior.

The basalt columns used to build Nan Madol are almost as extraordinary as the megalithic structures they comprise. Columnar grey basalt is a volcanic rock that breaks naturally into flat-sided rods when it cools. Though it appears quite marvelously to have been shaped by chisels, its predominantly hexagonal or pentagonal columns are due to natural fractures that form while a thick lava flow cools.

Ghost City

Nan Madol had been abandoned by the time the first Europeans arrived, early in the 19th century, most likely declining at the time of the fall of the Saudeleur Dynasty in about 1450. Some have claimed that the ruins are the lost islands of Lemuria, although there is no scientific backing for this claim 

In 1985, Nan Madol was designated by the U.S. Interior Department as a National Historical Landmark, the only such site in the Federated States of Micronesia, which has an agreement with Washington for defense and financial support.

Today, the Micronesian island of Pohnpei is home to 36,000 people, and even among locals, the landmark is notorious. Legends of spirits haunting the area have earned it the nickname "Ghost City."

Sacred Histories

Some background stories are found from locals, though science doesn’t support those. Oral histories of Nan Madol describe great birds or giants moving the basalt rocks into place. Others recall the magic used by the twin sorcerers Olosohpa and Olosihpa to create a place to worship their gods.

Beyond these creation narratives, aspects of the oral history of Nan Madol passed down through many generations, correlate with archaeological evidence. For example, oral histories describe a series of canals cut to allow eels to enter the city from the sea. A well on the island of Idehd is said to have housed a sacred eel who embodied a sea deity, and to whom the innards of specially raised and cooked turtles were fed by priests. Traces of the canal system, as well as a large mound of turtle, remains on Idehd are among the archaeological evidence that supports these histories.

Madol Pah in the southwest was the administrative center of the complex and Madol Powe in the northeast was its religious and mortuary sector. This area comprises 58 islets, most of which were inhabited by priests. The most elaborate building is Nandauwas, the royal mortuary, which covers an area greater than a football field. Its walls are 25 feet high and just one of its cornerstones is estimated to weigh 50 tons. Elsewhere, log-cabin style walls of stone reached 50 feet in height and are 16 feet thick, and were topped with thatched roofs. All were protected from surging tides by large breakwaters and seawalls.

Not ready for mass tourism 

Nan Madol is not ready for mass tourism yet. But very few people who love to adventure visit the place by boat. Some others are pleased with satellite captured photos. But, if regarding authority can manage the proper facilities for visitors, it can be an attractive tourist spot.

In World Heritage Site list

In July 2016, Nan Madol was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The dedicated UNESCO webpage explains that “The huge scale of the edifices, their technical sophistication and the concentration of megalithic structures bear testimony to complex social and religious practices of the island societies of the period.” 

It also describes how siltation of the waterways that are an integral part of this site is allowing an overgrowth by mangroves. Both the mangroves and the siltation are threatening the structures themselves.

Since Nan Madol was built on a coral foundation, it is sometimes called “the Venice of the Pacific”. Like Venice, the islands of Nan Madol are connected by a network of tidal channels and waterways. These are referred to in the name Nan Madol, which means ‘in the space between things’ — here, as elsewhere in the Pacific, waterways are described as connectors of people and places rather than barriers. The waterways might be local, like the canals of Nan Madol, or expansive, like the great Pacific Ocean, the largest body of water on Earth.

To get a sense of the extent of this space between things, it is instructive to zoom in on Nan Madol using an online mapping system. ‘Pinpoint Sokehs Pah’ while you are at it, so you can also see the distance between this quarry and the ancient capital built from its rock supply. Then, frame by frame, zoom out. 

Marvel at the space that unfolds as you ponder what motivated the Sau Deleur dynasty to build such an expansive, impressive and intimidating structure, and just how they might have achieved this.