The Magic of Lost Cities

By Scott Corrales

“When will we discover Wasukanni, capital of the Mitanni empire? When will we excavate Kussara, the erstwhile seat of Anittas, first king of the Hittites? Who is going to discover the city of Nessa, entombed in the soil of eastern Anatolia, or identify the location of Arzawa?”
— Ivar Lissner, “The Living Past” (1962)

The notion of lost cities is very appealing to the Western mind. It conjures up images of ancient ruins covered in lianas and jungle vegetation, concealing treasures forgotten by man or sometimes the opposite–fully functioning cultures of either warlike or benign people voluntarily or accidentally cut off from the flow of our civilization, representing a source of danger and opportunity to the adventurer or the explorer. Of course, lost cities in real life have more in common with archaeological finds like Angor Wat, Ebla, or forgotten Troy itself than with the ones that will occupy us here.

As distances shrank during the 19th century and intrepid explorers pushed back the frontiers of the unknown, the lost city and its treasures had to be moved farther still. Authors of fiction, such as Jules Verne, chose to keep his plots safe by relocating his lost cities beneath the Earth’s surface in his classic Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864). His British contemporary, H.Rider Haggard, sent his memorable protagonist Allan Quartermain into the heart of unexplored Africa to find King Solomon’s Mines (1885). Both of these novelistic endeavors were probably inspired to a certain extent by the writings of hollow-earth enthusiast John Cleves Symmes, whose Symzonia (1820) described a highly advanced technological society beneath the ice and snow of the Antarctic.

But while science fact and science fiction each endeavored to give us different kinds of lost city (the former less glamorous than the latter), the esoteric tradition and cryptoarchaeology held their own variety of forbidden kingdoms, accessible only to initiates or to those unlucky enough to come across them.

The Quest for Iarchas

Apollonius of Tyana was a philosopher and mathematician who lived in the year 17 of the Common Era. and a keen follower of the Pythagorean tradition. A contemporary of Jesus, the Cappadocian philosopher was also considered to have been divine and endowed with supernatural powers. Temples were built throughout the Roman Empire after his death or disappearance and even coins bearing Apollonius’ image were minted by some ancient cities of the Mediterranean.

This intriguing character is perhaps most famous for his wanderings throughout the Mediterranean countries, Ethiopia, Assyria and India. He returned to the Roman Empire after his travels and displayed some of his paranormal abilities, particularly after settling in Ephesus (in modern Turkey) to open his school. The city was being then being ravaged by the plague,and the Pythagorean philosopher commanded that a certain beggar be stoned to death, as it was really a devil in human guise. The beggar, tradition tells us, was literally covered by a mound of stones thrown by the angry Ephesians. When efforts were made to drag the beggar’s corpse from under the rocks, nothing at all was found, and the plague ended immediately.

But it was Apollonius of Tyana’s quest for the “City of the Gods” during his travels through the Himalayas that are of interest to us. In the company of his apprentice, Damis, he reached the mysterious city of Iarchas. Historians have tried to identify it with one of the many Greek cities founded in the Punjab by Alexander the Great, but without any avail. The philosopher himself has this to say about it: “I have seen men who are living on Earth but are not of this Earth, defended everywhere yet defenseless, and having nothing beyond what we ourselves possess.”

The story tells us that as Apollonius and Damis approached their destination, strange things occured. The road behind them appeared to vanish and the landscape around them became surreal. They were led to the ruler of the city (in certain versions also identified as Iarchas) and told that they had reached the realm “of men who knew everything” and were shown a variety of wonders, such as a working model of the solar system built under the sapphire dome of a temple, as well as impressive feats of levitation. Master and apprentice were invited to dine with Iarchas’ eponymous ruler, and were served by four automatons; night was made as bright as day through the use of “luminous stones” and Apollonius was surprised by what he described as “living wheels” which transported messages from the gods. Being a geometrist, it is understandable that this most remarkable personage was fascinated by the fact that Iarchas was “on Earth, yet at the same time, outside it.”

Chroniclers tell us that Apolonius acquired considerable powers after his sojourn in the “City of the Gods”, most notable among them the ability to “draw fire from the ether” and the gift of teleportation, which he used successfuly when brought before the Emperor Domitian under charges of sorcery. Present at the trial were witnesses to his “miracles” under the reign of Nero, and who were willing to testify to his powers. The philosopher reportedly looked at the emperor and said: “You may hold my body captive by not my spirit, and let me add, not even my body!” with which he disappeared in a brilliant flash of light, made all the brighter by the fact that the paranoid Domitian had ordered the walls of his palace polished to mirror brightness to foil any assasination attempts.

Curiously, all sources agree about one thing: on the 16th of September of the year 96 C.E., while Apollonius lectured in the gardens of Ephesus, he suddenly fell silent and his face became clouded with unspeakable anger, exclaiming: “Strike the tyrant! strike him!” Regaining his composure, he turned to the puzzled assembly and said, “Be of good cheer, people of Ephesus. The tyrant has been murdered this very day in Rome.”
The life of this remarkable character has been interpreted in various ways: to the Theosophists, particularly George R. Stow, who wrote a biography of Apollonius, he is an “ascended master” and one of the many guises of the ubiquitous Count of St. Germain; Jacques Bergier posited that Apollonius had been in contact with extraterrestrials; still others believe that this first century thaumaturge was an extraordinary human who visited a strange repository of hidden wisdom, possibly located in another dimension within our own world.

The Forgotten Capital of Hsiung-Nu

While mysterious Iarchas may indeed have existed “beyond the circles of the world” (to borrow that evocative phrase from J.R.R. Tolkien), one could venture the guess that many would-be adepts have lost their lives searching for it. Yet there are other lost cities in Central Asia which are endowed with an equally potent aura of mystery.
Central Asia, stretching from the Tarim Basin to the enigmatic Gobi Desert, is considered by many–notably historians Roy Chapman Andrews and Henry Fairfield Osborne–as the original birthplace of mankind. During his exploration of this region of mystery, Andrews found prehistoric remains of trees, foliage, and freshwater crustaceans, indicating that the area was once rich in water and vegetation. A six foot, six inch tall human skeleton was also unearthed and identified as “proto-Mongolian”.

Until not very long ago, schoolchildren studying early European history were told that Attila and his Huns, whose activities contributed greatly to destroying the Roman world, were known to the Chinese as the western, northern and southern Hsiung-Nu; the Avars, another eastern horde that spread terror throughout the Middle Ages, were likewise identified with the Juan-Juan. But it may have turned out that our instructors were wrong, after all.

Controversial author Peter Kolosimo, who can rightfully lay claim to being the “Italian Von Daniken”, caused a stir among cryptoarchaeology buffs and academics alike with his book Timeless Earth (1968). The Hsiung-Nu, this author tells us, were not only not the bow-legged, horse-riding Huns, but rather a sophisticated, star-worshipping culture whose capital city was nestled in the desolate reaches of the Tarim Basin (not far from the modern Chinese nuclear test range at Lop Nor). Of Middle Eastern rather than Asiatic origin, this mysterious civilization appeared to share some kinship with the Mitanni or other Mesopotamian cultures. Most history texts have few words to spare on this forgotten race. One of them succinctly states: “according to some researchers, the Huns were descended from the Hsiung-Nu, a Siberian peoples who had settled between Lake Balkhash and Mongolia in the 4th century B.C.E.” Maps show the extension of this realm as going as far as the Korean border, although the same map shows the “residence of the Hsiung-Nu chief” as being on the banks of the Ongin River in Mongolia. In 209 B.C.E., Mao-tun became Emperor of the Hsiung-Nu and forced China to pay tribute to his kingdom.

According to Kolosimo, Father Duparc, a French explorer, reached the ruins of the Hsiung-Nu “capital” in 1725, finding a succession of monoliths which had apparently been part of a place of worship. Other discoveries included a three-tiered pyramid and a royal palace “with thrones surmounted by images of the sun and moon”. Successive expeditions found jewels, weapons and accoutrements, but none of Duparc’s findings, as the ruins had apparently been covered by sandstorms. A Soviet team reached the area in 1952 and reportedly found the tip of a monolith resembling structures found in Africa’s mysterious Zimbabwe. The author goes on to say that Tibetan monks befriended the Soviet scientists and showed them documentation describing the past glory of the nameless Hsiung-Nu city. Kolosimo tells us that a “fiery cataclysm” was apparently to blame for the loss of this highly advanced civilization and the descent into barbarism of its survivors.

Even more tantalizing are the indications that this lost city may have been the source of the paranormal/psychic abilities that Tibetan monks are endowed with, such as thought-transmission and the ability to “communicate with other planets”.
But the association between the historic Hsiung-Nu and these more mysterious namesakes indicate that the denomination must be largely coincidental. The highly advanced inhabitants of the ruined city of the Tarim Basin probably had more in common with the mysterious mummified bodies of visibly caucasoid ancients discovered in 1997 and tentatively identified with the “Tocharians” of the ancient chronicles. Perhaps the intense search for oil presently underway in the Takla Makan desert may unearth some clues as to this truly forgotten civilization and its city: one potential opportunity lies in the use of space-based, remote sensing devices such as the SIR-CX-SAR deployed on the space shuttle Discover in 1994 to reveal manmade structures along the Silk Road in the Takla Makan desert. This amazing radar system can find objects buried up to under 3 meters in the sand. Similar advances were employed to find the lost city of Ubar in the Hadramaut (Yemen/Oman).

A Citadel for Prester John?

The same game of historical “maybe/maybe not” that affects the Hsiung-Nu city in the desert applies to Prester John.

Documented sources throughout the middle ages inform us of the repeated visits to the Pope and other European monarchs of envoys claiming to be from the “kingdom of Prester John”, bearing gifts and messages from this mighty ruler.

Around 1165 C.E., a letter was recieved at the court of the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel Comnenus, from a distant prince known only as Prester John, who claimed to recieve “the tribute of 72 kings” and was “a devout Christian and everywhere proect the Christians of Our empire.” In the war-torn Crusader era, with the christian kingdoms of the levant slowly being pushed into the sea by the Muslim tide, news of a powerful ally was welcome indeed. Attempts at placing the location of his kingdom were many: some placed Prester John beyond India; others in the Caucasus; the mapmakers who placed a figure of a scepter-wielding monarch in what is modern Ethiopia won out, and the “kingdom of Prester John” became a magical realm straight out of the chansons de geste of the period, high in the mountains at the birthplace of the Nile.

After the travels of Marco Polo proved beyond a doubt that the only powerful monarch beyond India was the Great Khan, efforts at finding Prester John in Africa began in earnest. In 1520, the Portuguese sent a delegation to Ethiopia in the hope of forming an allegiance with this immortal prince against Arab merchants who proved a hindrance to the Portuguese spice trade. Instead, they ran into the King of Ethiopia, who had never heard of Prester John.
However, while the “Prester John” craze may have been a medieval hoax, every hoax has a germ of truth to it. Could there have been a Coptic or Nestorian bishop named John who ruled a small kingdom, inflated beyond belief to frighten his enemies or merely to salve his insecurities?

This line of speculation might be reinforced somewhat by an article in World Explorer Magazine (Vol.1 No.4) entitled “The Mysterious Egyptian Castle-Fortress” and penned by J.J. Snyder. The author alleges that while flying a large cropduster plane to the Sudan from Aswan in Egypt he flew over a “black, fortress-like castle” which surmounted a small hill, and had “twin battlements facing southward” in the most desolate region of the Nubian Desert, on the Egyptian/Sudanese border. While none of his fellow crop-dusting pilots could confirm the sighting, Snyder felt the structure “was vacant…and could have been deserted for hundreds of years or longer.”

A trick of the landscape? Maybe. But what if Prester John had been less of a king and more a cult figure like the “Old Man of the Mountain” who ruled the Order of Assassins? Could the black castle seen by Snyder have been the “lost” citadel of this medieval ruler? Unlikely, but an enchanting possibility.

Lost Cities–Physical and Metaphysical

When we sever ties with history and even with folklore, we drift along the powerful currents of speculation that draw us closer to mysticism. This is best exemplified by the beliefs espoused by a number of South American (predominantly Argentinean) writers such as Guillermo Terrera, who have come up with an entire cosmology of lost cities and hidden human history.

Terrera makes clear distinctions between real lost cities and the purely metaphysical ones (subterranean and presumably metaphysical ones), yet making the latter no less “real” than the cities of the Mayas, Incas or Aztecs. The metaphysical cities would include Thule, Agarthi, and Shamballah. Central to this cosmology is the magical mountain of Uritorco, a place of new age pilgrimage. “The link between the knowledge of the Comechingones and their ancestral beliefs,” indicates Terrera, “was proven decades ago when the legendary Staff of Power or Stone of Wisdom was found in the vicinity of the Uritorco by Master Ofelio Ulises in 1934, shortly after returning from the Tibetan city of Shamballah (sic) where he studied for eight years. It was precisely in this city that he was shown the location of the basalt rod whose construction had been ordered by the chieftain Multán eight thousand years ago.”

Understandably, Terrera’s statements are hard to digest, but he is hardly alone in his cavilations. French author René Guénón posited the belief that geography does not take into consideration the folds or “wrinkles” which can and do occur on the surface of the world. Dubbing these irregularities as dwipas (a word of Hindu origin), seven of which are accessible to the initiates. These are worlds much like our own, holding oceans and continents. At least one of these is inhabited and holds the city of the “King of the World”, a place where sacred traditions are upheld and where initiates go to be tested. Guénón states that secret societies on our world are sworn to protect the knowledge of how to reach this place–to the death, if necessary–from mere mortals.

There are still indications that South America may contain disturbingly “real” cities: A very curious event took place in the late 1960’s while Louis Pauwels was putting the finishing touches on his classic La revolte des Magiciens: his co-author, Jacques Bergier, had received a puzzling mineral sample from a Brazilian mining and metallurgy firm called Magnesita S.A., which looked for magnesium derivatives for use in diverse metallurgical processes. The company’s manager, Miguel Cahen, had sent Bergier a sample of a strange crystal found on the borders of the mysterious region of inner Brazil known as the “forbidden land”. Under analysis, the shard proved to be a fragment of magnesium carbonate of uncommon transparency and purity, “with very curious properties on the infrared spectrum, emitting polarized radiation,” Pawels adds. Since the crystal did not match anything in the mineralogy texts, Bergier turned to a French government agency which ruled the crystal’s origin as artificial. No further tests were possible since no other samples of the material could be located.

The “forbidden land” where this mineral oddity was found is none other than the region which lies between Brazil’s Amazon, Tapajós and Xingú rivers, the source of so many rumors and contradictions.

The City of the Caesars

With a name like la Ciudad de los Césares (city of the Caesars), this lost city should surely conjure up visions of ancient Rome. But it in fact refers to a lost city of Patagonia which has been the subject of numerous quests over the centuries. Tradition holds that this astonishing city was located at edge of an Andean lake and that its towers and spires reflected lights of gold and silver, if not the materials themselves. Contemporary folklore indicates that the city becomes visible only on Good Friday and then disappears — a South American Brigadoon.

But it wasn’t Brigadoon that the 16th-century conquistadores were looking for as they set out on horseback in search of this hidden kingdom. Stories of the El Dorado-like wealth of this mountain city were common among the rustic tribes of the area, and the belief soon spread that this magical city had such an abundance of precious metals that even the most common tools were made of gold and silver. It was variously referred to as “the enchanted city,” “Trapalanda,” and “Lin Lin” before finally being known as la Ciudad de los Césares. Spanish chroniclers believed that the city had been founded by nobles from the Inca’s court, fleeing from the depredations of Diego de Almagro, and defended by fierce Araucanian warriors.

The city acquired its curious name not from any ancient monarch but from the expedition of Francisco César in 1526, which hoped to conquer the tantalizing prize and return its wealth to Spain: setting out from a fort at Sancti Spriritus, his band of soldiers penetrated the Andean range and found tribes with great wealth in gold, silver and cattle, which the bold explorer brought back to his fort, only to find it destroyed.

In 1620, Captain Juan Fernández (whose name still survives as that of an archipelago off the Chilean coast) approached the supposed location of la Ciudad de los Césares from the island of Chiloé, crossing the tortuous glaciers of three-thousand-foot Mt. Tronador, until reaching lake Nahuel Huapi. Despite indications that this was the Andean lake on whose shores the fabulous city existed, nothing was found. Seven years later, Fernández led a 200-man expedition north of the location of modern-day Neuquén and but failed to find reach his goal.

Descriptions of Ciudad de los Césares were very detailed: “It had walls with moats, ravellins and a single entrance guarded by a drawbridge…its buildings were sumptuous, almost all of them of dressed stone and well-roofed, in the Spanish style..Nothing could equal the opulence of its temples, covered in solid silver. The same metal was employed in making pots, knives and even have an idea of their wealth, the residents sat on golden seats within their homes. They were fair, blond, blue-eyed and with dense beards; their language was incomprehensible to the Spaniards and the indians alike.

Well into the 18th century, the Captaincy General of Chile ordered his chief auditor to compile nine volumes of information on the “lost city” based on a proposal by Capt. Manuel Josef de Orjuela in 1781 to launch an expedition aimed at subjugating Ciudad de los Césares. Don Pedro de Angelis published a condensed version of these findings in his Colección. In 1863, Martin de Moussy’s Atlas located the “fabulous ciudad de los Césares” as being in the general vicinity of lake Nahuel Huapi.

Historian Enrique de Gandía mentions in his Historia Crítica de la Conquista Americana (1929) other efforts at finding this mythical city as well as two other locations–the “Sierra de Plata” (Silver Mountains) and the reino del Rey Blanco (realm of the White King)–a sort of Patagonian “Prester John” whose allegiance was sought by the conquistadores. As late as the 1930’s, the City of the Caesars was being sought in earnest by Francisco P. Moreno, a student of Patagonian tribes.

Patagonia’s Enigmatic Citadel

But the ubiquitous Ciudad de los Césares is hardly the only anomalous location that Argentina can contribute to the lore of lost cities.

For a number of years, Grupo Delphos, spearheaded by Argentinean scientist/researcher Ing. Flugberto Ramos, has paid special attention to a curious geological feature on Argentina’s Atlantic Coast which could well prove to be the best documented discovery of a supposedly mythical lost city.

The location appears on the maps as cerro El Fuerte (Fort Hill) and dominates the approach to Golfo San Matías. Seen from a distance, the perfectly sided plateau looks like an island rather than a rocky outcropping. Some of the surface stones appear to have been worked by stonemasons many centuries ago, and a curious vitrified substance has been found covering curious drawings. Walls of superimposed stone held together by some kind of whitish mortar have also been discovered. Perhaps most important is the unexpected discovery of a totemic figure inscribed with unusual carvings and, in Grupo Delphos’ opinion, “completely different from any object made in the Americas.”
Historians scoff at these suggestions and geologists state that the only fort present is the plateau’s distinctly military aspect. Yet French maps of the area, dating as far back as 1779, label the feature ancien fort abandonné (ancient ruined fort), and a British map from 1849 does the same. Flugberto’s team has further discovered clearly artificial features such as pier and four docks.

In the light of these findings, scholars are willing to concede the possibility that pirates may have fortified the point in the past and used it as safe haven. But even the safety of these conjectures fell by the wayside when the group discovered a slab of dressed stone clearly marked with a Templar cross!

This discovery prompted Flugberto to offer the following working hypothesis: “In pre-Columbian times, some centuries before and after 1000 A.D., a series of enclaves may have existed in Patagonia which were established by some kind of Templar or proto-Templar order, made up of fair-skinned indoeuropeans. There would have been at least three cities–a fortified port on the Atlantic, and another on the Pacific, both at the same latitude. The third would have been in the Andean foothills, corresponding to the Ciudad de los Césares.”

The suggestion that the mountain city of silver and gold described earlier in this article may be connected to the mystery citadel spawns further speculation, much to the fury of academics. Could these cities have been supplied from Europe by an order not linked to the medieval Catholic church, but following its own precepts? The members of Grupo Delphos have tentatively proposed the boldest concept yet–the citadel, and indeed the elusive Ciudad de los Césares, were the enclaves of an order entrusted with the keeping of the Holy Grail [author’s italics], which would have been removed after the Spanish takeover of these distant lands.

Despite the outrageosness of this notion, the reader is urged not to throw his/her hands up in despair: an old French book about the Holy Grail, the Livre du Graal (edited by Victoria Cirlot, Rama XI Eds. Paris), makes mention of a castle in a “strange land overseas” whose dimensions, physical layout regarding the local environment, and characteristics of the bay in which it is located closely match those of the Patagonian citadel…


Archaeologists raise their voices in protest against those who would purvey stories of mysterious places while suggesting that their existence in any way, shape or form contravenes what has already been determined by academe. Any questionable ruin in the Central Asian desert becomes an abandoned Buddhist temple; any curious feature in the Americas becomes a geological anomaly; oral traditions regarding the existence of a given locale are chalked up to mistranslation and misinterpretation. Other cynics will say that dreamers are bound to fill in any empty space on the map with ruined cities of past glory and lost kingdoms simply because “something” must have thrived once in these barren areas.

Nevertheless, millenia are like seconds in the inexorable procession of history. Who can say what future generations will look back in time and think about mythical cities that may be languishing in oblivion…cities with names like London or New York. 

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